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CANI Film Night III: This Time Its in the Daytime w/ Jason and the Argonauts

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In 1963 the world was captivated by the delightful, dramatic stop-motion technique found in many movies of the decade. Don Chaffey’s 1963 version of Jason and the Argonauts was one that caught the attention of millions.


With its terrifying harpies and hydras, clashing rocks, the beautiful Medea and of course, the all important Golden Fleece, this tale is set to keep you interested throughout. Of course, no Hollywood blockbuster is complete without a few deviations from the original mythology. There are some chronological differences with Talos being defeated on the way to the Golden Fleece rather than on the long journey home. The god Triton (wonderfully depicted as a mermaid) makes a big feature as well, holding the Clashing Rocks back from crushing the terrified Argonauts to death – in the original myth it is the blinded King Phineas who tells Jason to release a dove before entering the Clashing Rocks to avoid its imminent dangers. I have always felt that, even with its deviations from Classical myth, it is still a story the Ancients would have been proud of with its colourful visuals, quick pace and constant action.


This is the movie that began to stoke the fire of my love for Classics. As a young girl my father put this movie on the television with the intent to show me one of his favourites – little did he know he started me on my journey through the Ancient World. I was in awe of the stop motion techniques of Ray Harryhausen that brought the harpies, Talos and skeletons to life; mythology really did seem like magic when portrayed on the screen.


With all of this in mind and following the success of our previous screenings of Gladiator and Monty Python’s Life of Brian, CANI were incredibly excited to host their third annual movie screening of Jason and the Argonauts in the Ulster Museum, who CANI would like to thank once more for its willingness to host our events. With a fascinating and insightful introduction by CANI’s own Katerina Kolotourou (and after some deliberation at how to move a large curtain away from blocking the screen), an enthralled audience sat back and for an hour and 44 minutes watched in admiration as Hera and the gods on Mount Olympus aided Jason and his companions in their quest.


Speaking to a few people after the performance, I received nothing but positive opinions for the screening. There appeared to be ample debate after the showing with some viewers telling me that seeing Jason and the Argonauts playing on a larger screen for the first time, really served to bring the movie and the Classical myth it derives from, even more alive. The setting of the Golden Fleece became even more mysterious and magical as its golden wool seemed to glitter that much brighter. The hydra was a big favourite as well; showing its fierce hissing and jabbing on the big screen only served to heighten the fear it produces.

Overall I can say with confidence that this was a wonderful event for all involved. It can be said that Classics (and the enthusiasm for Classics) is very much alive not just in the traditional sense, but even from the modern viewpoint where big budget productions bring these tales into the eyes and hearts of all who watch them. This was the third movie event for CANI and hopefully there will be many more to come.

Amber Taylor

Ulster Museum Lecture Theatre£5 entrance, brief introduction, drinks services available12th May 2018, 2pm

Posted by The Classical Association in Northern Ireland on Sunday, January 7, 2018

CAI Summer School 2018 ‘Entertaining the Masses’

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Classical Association of Ireland Summer School 2018

Entertaining the Masses

17th–19th August , 2018
Queen’s University Belfast

The Belfast Branch of the Classical Association in Northern Ireland welcomes you all to our Summer Conference 2018, to be held at Queen’s University Belfast.

All activities will take place in the Canada Room, Lanyon Building, Queen’s University, Belfast.

You will find a link to the brochure and registration form here. This document contains details on the ticket price as well as the booking form and pertinent information.

For further information please contact

Friday, 17th of August
17.30 Registration & Reception
19.00 CAI Annual General Meeting
19.50 Official Opening by Dr John Curran, School of History, Anthropology, Politics and Philioophy, Queen’s University Belfast.
20.00 Keynote Lecture: Natalie Haynes
‘Honour Among Thebes’
Saturday, 18th of August
9.00 CAI Central Council Meeting
10.00 “Classics and Modern Culture: in conversation with Natalie Haynes”
11.00 Coffee/Tea break
11.30 Lecture: Prof Helen Lovatt
‘Fun and Games in Ancient Epic’
12.30 Lunch
13.30 Lecture: Dr Cressida Ryan
‘Why is tragedy entertaining?
14.30 Lecture: Barry Trainor
(Queens University Belfast)
‘Dungeons and Hydra: Board gaming in Ancient Greece’
15.15 Coffee/Tea break
15.30 Lecture: Helen McVeigh
‘Who read the ancient novels?’
19.00 Reception
19.30 Annual Dinner of the Association
Canada Room, Lanyon Building, QUB
Sunday, 19th of August
10.00 Outing – Medieval and Monastic Ireland
(conducted by Irish Monastic Tours)

Please note that the bus will depart from the main gates of Queen’s University at 10.00am sharp. Participants will return to Queen’s University at 5pm.

Price includes lunch at Paddy’s Barn, Saul, Downpatrick (

We will visit:

  • Nendrum, the monastic settlement at Nendrum on Mahee Island in Strangford Lough was believed to have been established by St Mochaoi (better known as Coalán) in the 5th Century AD, with links to St Patrick. It is one of the bestpreserved monastic cashel structures in Ireland.
  • Inch Abbey, where the story of St Patrick and the snakes was recorded
  • Historic Downpatrick to uncover St Patrick’s legacy and see the High Cross in Down County Museum
  • Down Cathedral and the traditonal site of St Patrick’s Grave

Useful Information:


Stranmillis College,
Stranmillis Road, Belfast BT9 5DY
A limited number of single, ensuite rooms have been reserved for the summer school costing £38 per night B&B. Please contact Joanne Gribbin on tel: 028 9038 4377 or email:

Duke’s at Queen’s Hotel
65-67 University Street, Belfast BT7 1HL
Tel 028 9023 6666,

Ibis Belfast Queen’s Quarter
75 University Street, Belfast BT7 1HL
Tel 028 9033 3366,

Holiday Inn Express Belfast Queen’s Quarter
106a University Street, Belfast BT7 1HP
Tel 028 9031 1909,

If calling from the Republic of Ireland, replace 028 with 048.

Religious Services:

St Francis Church
Liberty Street, Cork
Sat. 6.30pm vigil; Sun. 7am, 9am, 10.30am, 12pm

St Brigid’s
40 Derryvolgie Avenue, BT9 6FP
Vigil Mass: 6pm Saturday
Sunday Masses: 9am, 10.30am and 12 noon

Fisherwick Presbyterian Church
4 Chlorine Gardens, BT9 5DJ

St Thomas’s Church of Ireland
1A Eglantine Avenue, BT9 6DW

Moravian Church
1a University Road, BT7 1RY
Sunday service, 11am

Paid to Behave: The Traprain Law Hoard

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Those of you who have been following CANI since the earliest days of its 2014 reincarnation, you will know that the hoard of Roman silver found at Ballinrees near Coleraine in Northern Ireland and the circumstances of its deposit there have been the subjects of several pieces involving CANI members: the inaugural talk, a guest lecture for the Coleraine Historical Society  and a published article for Classics Ireland.


Given the weight of focus on this Coleraine find in CANI pieces, you might be forgiven for viewing it as an isolated product of raiding, trading and/or political payments. However, the Coleraine Hoard is not the only silver find in Ireland – there is its ‘sister’ hoard at Balline, Co. Limerick from a similar period and at least two documented coin hoards of Quigg and McKinlay from the North Coast, nor is it part of a solely Irish phenomenon with Britain being the site of numerous late Roman hoards of various size, including the enormous Hoxne Hoard and the smaller, earlier but no less intriguing Falkirk Hoard.


Recent finds such as the Echt Hoard near Limburg in the Netherlands, on top of a whole lot of others, show that it is not even a specifically British or Irish phenomenon.


But it those finds from outside Roman territory on the British Isles and made up purely of silver like Coleraine and Balline that are the interest of this piece. Specifically it is the over 20kgs of silver of various sizes and shapes which make up what is known as the Traprain Law Hoard.

Unlike the Ballinrees find, the site of the hole in the ground in East Lothian from which this hoard of silver was plucked has a more straightforward explanation. The sheer fact that this Scottish hoard was found five years into an extensive nine-year excavation immediately suggests that archaeologists knew that there was something to be looked for on the hill called Traprain Law, about four miles east of Haddington in East Lothian, Scotland.

This 221m hill had a long history of human usage before it became the resting place of a large hoard of Roman silver. By the middle of the second millennium BC, it was a site of burial and by the first millennium BC, there is evidence of occupation and even defences.

This has seen Traprain Law classed as an Iron Age oppidum, and one of significant size for northern Britain, covering up to forty acres. This has helped fuel speculation about the exact nature of the ‘settlement’ on Traprain Law. Was it purely a religious burial site? Did it development into a permanent town? Was it a seasonal meeting place for the Votadini or was it a defensive hill fort, only retreated to in the face of Roman or Scotti invasion? It would later be used as a beacon site, to warn of English invasion. Perhaps it was all of these at various times.

Traprain Law’s archaeology suggests an occupation by the Votadini tribe, perhaps even as their principal settlement (called Curia by Ptolemy, Geo. II.3.7), between the 40s and the late second century, perhaps influenced by the arrival of the Romans in Britain and their subsequent withdrawal from the Antonine Wall. After a gap of a generation or two, the hill was again occupied from the 220s through the middle of the fifth century. The final abandoning of Traprain Law by the Votadini tribe and their proto-kingdom of Gododdin may coincide with the moving of their capital to Din Eidyn, the site of Edinburgh Castle.


Being a potential ‘capital’ for the Votadini or other Caledonian/Pictish tribes bordering the Roman Empire made Traprain Law a magnet for Roman material gathered through any number of means – raid, trade, religious devotion or diplomatic contact. Similar arguments over origins are made for the Balline and Coleraine Hoards, but with Traprain Law, its position on the Roman frontier and the existence of supposed diplomatic connections may see more decisive support for that collection of silver being a payment to a local chieftain to keep the peace or provide soldiers for the Roman army.


The archaeological dig which unearthed the Traprain Law Hoard began in 1914 under the leadership of Alexander Ormiston Curle. It was not until 1919 that pieces of silver plate started to emerge, along with drinking vessels, spoons, items marked with Christian symbols, remnants of a Roman officer’s uniform and various crushed and hacked up pieces of silver, some of which, despite their messy shape and size, were cut down to a specific weight, marking them as bullion. Some of the items were of high enough quality as to bring about suggestions of origins in some of the workshops in some of the major Roman cities of the Mediterranean.

For all the silver in the Traprain Law Hoard, there were only five Roman coins, in contrast to the 1,483 found in Ballinrees. The Traprain coins are also considerably clipped, but there is enough detail on them to aide their identification and therefore the dating of the hoard. The emperors depicted on the coins are Valens, Arcadius and Honorius, which puts the very earliest date in the last years of the fourth century but more likely the hoard comes from the first quarter of the fifth century.

1856, 1205.8

Coin of Julian from Coleraine Hoard in the British Museum collection (1856, 1205.8)

The Traprain Law Hoard underwent some restoration where appropriate and was sent to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, where it was CANI‘s good fortune to see it last month.

Nation Museum of Scotland

Posted by The Classical Association in Northern Ireland on Sunday, May 20, 2018

For more information and pictures on the Traprain Law hoard, go to

Dr Fraser Hunter, Principal Curator of Iron Age and Roman collections at National Museums Scotland, has also given talks and presentations on the Hoard.


Bland, R.F., Moorhead, T.S.N., and Walton, P., ‘Finds of late Roman silver coins from Britain: the contribution of the Portable Antiquities Scheme’ in F. Hunter, and K. Painter (eds.), Late Roman Silver: The Traprain treasure in context, (Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 2013), 117-166

Crawford, P.T. ‘The Coleraine Hoard and Romano-Irish Relations in Late Antiquity,’ Classics Ireland 21-22 (2017) 41-118

Curle, A.O., The Treasure of Traprain: A Scottish Hoard of Silver Plate, (Glasgow: Maclehose, Jackson and Co, 1923).

Hunter, F. and Painter, K. (eds.), Late Roman Silver: The Traprain treasure in context, (Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 2013)

Feachem, R.W. ‘The Fortifications on Traprain Law,’ Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 89 (1955-6), 284-289

Ridgeway, W., ‘Niall of the Nine Hostages in Connexion with the Treasures of Traprain Law and Ballinrees, and the destruction of Wroxeter, Chester, Caerleon and Caerwent’ JRS 14 (1924), 123-126

Sentius the Centurion and Trajan’s Conquest of Adiabene

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The otherwise unknown Sentius wrote his name into the annals of Roman history, specifically Cassius Dio LXVIII.22.3, on the backdrop of the Roman emperor Trajan’s invasion and conquest of much of the Parthian Kingdom in 115. The catalyst of this Trajanic eastern invasion was the decision of the Parthian king, Osroes I, to forcibly establish two of his nephews, first Axidares and then Parthamasiris as king of Armenia without Roman consultation. In the eyes of Trajan, who may have been looking for any excuse to follow the in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, this overturning of over fifty years of Romano-Parthian cooperation over Armenia was a declaration of war. In 114, Trajan had invaded Armenia, rejecting Parthamasiris’ offer to serve as a Roman client and instead annexing Armenia as a Roman province.


The emperor did not stop there. This was not a war with Armenia; this was a war with Parthia. Therefore, in 115, he led a large-scale invasion of Parthian territory. There are some issues with the source material, but this was not just one grand strike through enemy territory in a mad dash for the Parthian capital at Ctesiphon. Perhaps demonstrating his want for more permanent conquest, Trajan had already called together at Antioch many of the client kings of the region, both Roman and Parthian. With his annexation of Armenia and his general demeanour, several of these kings who appeared before Trajan at Antioch recognised that the emperor meant business.

Trajan himself led part of his invasion force through Mesopotamia, incorporating Osrhoëne as a protectorate under Abargus VII by his sheer presence and subduing Batnae and Nisibis, the major cities of the subkingdom of Anthemusia. Having given full demonstration to his aims of conquest, Trajan found that some of those clients who had failed to appear at Antioch were more willing to come to see him. One of those was Mannus, ruler of Scenite Arabs of Mesopotamia. On the surface, this does not seem all that strange, particularly when it seems that Mannus was looking for peace with Trajan because the Parthian king “Osroes was making a campaign against him” (Dio LXVIII.22.1); however, things are not completely straightforward.


Dio also records that Mannus “was ready to withdraw from the parts of Armenia and Mesopotamia that he had captured,” (Dio LXVIII.22.1) suggesting that this Arab leader had taken up arms against not only the Parthian king but also some of the local subkingdoms and even potentially Roman territory in Armenia. This in itself demonstrates that a dichotomy of ‘pro-Parthian’ and ‘pro-Roman’ amongst the smaller kingdoms of the Middle East is too simplistic, with the likes of Mannus being willing and even able to go into business for themselves. Another reason for Trajan to not trust Mannus came in the Arab’s actions in the theatre where Sentius was to make his name – the Assyrian kingdom of Adiabene.


Situated on the right bank of the Tigris and dominated by the Upper and Lower Zab rivers, Adiabene was one of the strongest Parthian client kingdoms; indeed, throughout much of the first century BCE and first century CE, Adiabene appears to have been largely independent from Ctesiphon, making its king, Mebarsapes one of “the most prominent rulers of northern Mesopotamia” (Marciak (2017), 264). Much like Mannus, Mebarsapes may also have been able to expand the territory under his control by 114, including a foothold on the western side of the Tigris (Marciak (2017), 265). Such a loss of direct control by the Parthians in the region may explain not just the opportunistic acquisitiveness of Mannus and Mebarsapes but also of Trajan. These imperial ambitions and the ill-defined status of the region caused by any slackening of Parthian power meant that Adiabene was in the firing line of the legions.

Therefore, while Trajan was subduing Osrhoëne and Anthemusia, a second Roman contingent under the prominent Romano-Berber commander Lusius Quietus had crossed the Tigris and invaded Adiabene. Rather than submit to this invasion, Mebarsapes called for reinforcements from his neighbours: he received a band of auxiliaries from Mannus, a significant reason for Trajan’s suspicion of the Arab ruler (Dio LXVIII.22.2). By the time Mannus had arrived before the emperor seeking peace and forgiveness, his Arab auxiliaries along with the forces of Mebarsapes had already been defeated by Quietus. Such was the extent of his victory that the Romano-Berber general had been able to capture Singara and other cities unopposed. It may even be that seeing the opportunity for a swift conquest of Adiabene provided by Quietus’ defeat of Mebarsapes, Trajan decided to join his general in completing the job in 116 (Dio LXVIII.22.2).

While Quietus was surely capable of finishing the job in Adiabene, having a keen sense of history and perhaps even destiny, Trajan may have felt that a personal injection in the territory where Alexander the Great had defeated the Achaemenid Persian king Darius III at Gaugamela in 331BC would augur well for his own Parthian campaigns. However, Trajan’s crossing into Adiabene seems to have proven trickier than he would have liked. A local force, called ‘barbarians’ by Dio, challenged the emperor’s attempted “bridging the stream opposite the Gordyaean mountains,” (Dio LXVIII.26.2) which does not read like the Tigris or the Zab. It was only when Trajan deployed his specially made “prefabricated pontoons” (Bennett (1997), 201) on wagons and had them assembled, launched and laden with soldiers that the nerve of the ‘barbarians’ broke, allowing for an orderly crossing. Trajan’s building and then deploying of machines may highlight that Quietus had been having some issues with the lack of available timber to bridge rivers and take settlements and ultimately complete the conquest of Adiabene (Dio LXVIII.26.1-3).


With two significant Roman forces now in his territory, Mebarsapes seems to have retreated to another of his more formidable or perhaps more accurately his last fortresses at Adenystrae. The location of this fortress is problematic, with the normal identification with Dunaysir now being rejected on geographical grounds – it cannot have been further west than Nisibis. It may instead be the Ad Herculem listed on the Peutinger Map near Hatra (Dillemann (1962), 285; Marciak (2017), 368). At least one of the Roman forces in Adiabene swept south capturing Nineveh, Arbela and Gaugamela, and given the historical importance of these settlements, it may be that it was Trajan’s column that was forging after the Adiabene king.

Keen to see to the final subjugation of the region as peacefully as possible, Trajan (or Quietus) sent one of his centurions, Sentius, as an envoy to Adenystrae to treat with Mebarsapes. Being chosen for such a task would suggest that Sentius was a well-renowned army officer, and that he either had significant experience in the east or was personally trusted by Trajan, perhaps having served in Dacia. Angered by his defeat by Quietus, Trajan’s invasion and possibly the demands of surrender Sentius now made of him, Mebarsapes broke one of the cardinal rules of international diplomacy: he imprisoned the centurion envoy. The treatment of his envoy will have enraged Trajan and it is no surprise to find the Roman army now descending upon Adenystrae, intent on taking the fortress by force regardless of how difficult a task it may have been.

The emperor need not have worried. Rather than sit on his hands in prison, Sentius had been devising his own plan to undo the defences of Adenystrae. He found help in the form of his fellow prisoners, although the lack of depth record by Dio about this episode makes any attempt to identify these prisoners fraught with speculation. Were they Assyrian political opponents of Mebarsapes? Local thieves or raiders? Or even fellow Romans of Sentius, either part of his embassy or men taken captive from the armies of Trajan or Quietus in the fighting or as they foraged in Adiabene? Whoever they were, they agreed to help Sentius escape.


However, once out of his cell, the centurion stopped short of fleeing the fortress, either because this would draw attention to him or because he had other plans. Perhaps demonstrating the military background of many of the Adenystrae prisoners or the merely his own abilities, Sentius fought or sneaked his way through the fort, killing the garrison commander, who may even have been Mebarsapes himself. He then made his way to the gates and opened them to the approaching Roman army.

bloody_centurion 2copy

It would be easy to view this through Hollywood-tinted glasses: the gates of Adenystrae flung open to reveal a blood-soaked Sentius carrying the head of the Adiabene king and presenting it and the fortress to Trajan. Instead, the likelihood is that Sentius and the prisoners stole through Adenystrae, killed the garrison commander (possibly in his sleep), took over the gatehouse and sent some kind of message to the Romans, before opening the gates to the advance units of Trajan’s army, who secured the fort for the emperor.

It is perhaps also worth noting that in his short record of the episode Dio does not confirm that Sentius survived the ordeal in Adenystrae. Again, it might seem a little too ‘Hollywood’, but it is possible that the brave centurion was mortally wounded attempting to keep control of the gates long enough for Trajanic forces to enter the fortress in sufficient numbers.

If he did survive, one can only imagine the rewards that Trajan bestowed upon him for facilitating the completion of the conquest of Adiabene, now incorporated as the Roman province of Assyria, and opening the road to Hatra and ultimately Ctesiphon.


Bennent, J. Trajan Optimus Princeps: A Life and Times. London (1997)

Dillemann, L. Haute Mesopotamie orientale et pays adjacents. Paris (1962)

Lepper, F.A. Trajan’s Parthian War. Chicago (1948)

Marciak, M. Sophene, Gordyene, and Adiabene: Three Regna Minora of Northern Mesopotamia Between East and West. Leiden (2017)



‘Teaching Classics via Comics’ Laura Jenkinson Review

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On 11 April, CANI were proud to host an educational talk by Laura Jenkinson of Greek Myth Comix and Churcher’s College, Hampshire.

We at CANI have already had the honour of working with Laura as she provided some of her wonderful artwork for our public reading of Homer’s Odyssey [] and even took part in the reading via video.

After a brief CANI update from Helen McVeigh, Erin Halliday introduced ‘Jenks’ to the audience, who (after a few technological gremlins were dealt with) launched enthusiastically into a colourful portrayal of her work, its development and her influences in using comics as a teaching tool.

The talk began with a fascinating look at how flickering light of a fire could make the horses, oxen and bison in the cave art of such places as Lascaux in southwestern France, seem to wag their tails, move their heads or run in a prehistoric, primitive form of animation.


Jenks also showed how even single pictures on vases, freezes and walls could be considered as versions of comics as many of the aspects contained within should be viewed sequentially, such as some of the strange (and unsurprisingly raunchy) wall paintings of Pompeii depicting Priapius, Daedalus presenting Pasiphae with her bull costume and the story of Ixion the first Family Murderer and progenitor of the marauding centaurs.


Daedalus and Pasiphae. Fresco from the picture gallery of House of the Vettii in Pompeii

These prehistoric, archaic and classical ‘animations’ continued their development into the second century AD, where we find what is perhaps the first graphic novel in the imperial telling of the Roman conquest of Dacia on Trajan’s Column.


Laura then showed how her interest in comics, drawing and the Classics came together in an infographic regarding the number, methods and perpetrators of death in the Iliad. The online response to this not just in terms of views but also the conversations it seemed to encourage conversation about the Iliad, various aspects associated with it and the Classics in general demonstrated that there was a thirst for the Classics in comic form and in general.


The global reaction to her Iliad infographic, together with the overwhelmingly positive reactions in the classroom, encouraged Laura to further expand her range of comics, leading to the @GreekMythComix tagline of “Explaining the Classics, one comic at a time.”

But do not think that this is just a bit of fun. There are valuable educational benefits to the use of sequential art and the type of comic strips that Greek Myth Comix specialises in. This was backed by academia and further anecdotal evidence which suggested that the integration of drawing and text in comic strips was more useful for revision and general teaching purposes, as it was seen as an ‘easy’ and fun homework and far less daunting than a block of text, as well as providing context and memorability.


Laura Jenkinson has enthusiasm to burn about the Classics and there clearly are not enough hours in the day for the amount of ideas she has, a list that was only further extended by some of the questions and suggestions put forward by the audience on the night, such as expansions into youtube videos, podcasts and A Level course material.

Laura is also exceedingly generous with not only her time, but the fruits of her much more than twelve labours, making them available through her website She is also willing to listen to virtually any ideas for commissions.

Old Staff Common Room, Queen's University Belfast11th April 2018Everyone Welcome!

Posted by The Classical Association in Northern Ireland on Sunday, January 7, 2018

For a little more on Laura Jenkinson’s work, you can read a previous CANI blog post by Dr Halliday [HERE – or contact Laura directly through twitter, facebook or her websites…


Monte Cassino and the Destruction of Historical Sites

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Is it ever permissible to destroy a site or building of historical value because of possible military applications? The damage done by insurgents, jihadis, rebels, governments and western forces in the Middle East over the previous two decades provides plenty of more recent examples, but instead I have chosen to look at a contentious episode from the Second World War – the Allied bombing of the ancient abbey of Monte Cassino.

By early 1944, the Allied invasion of Italy had lost momentum. Mountainous terrain combined with winter weather and the well-prepared defences of the German commander, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, had reduced the two-pronged Allied attack to a slow and at times murderous crawl. Pressure to break through Kesselring’s Gustav Line was increased by the Allied landings at Anzio in late January, over 60 miles behind the German defensive line and a mere 35 miles from Rome. The Germans had quickly encircled the Anzio beachhead and without proper reinforcement Major-General John Lucas’ US VI Corps faced being grounded out of existence by the larger German Fourteenth Army of General Mackensen.


Kesselring, Clark, Vietinghoff, Freyberg and Alexander

This brought the showdown between General Mark Clark’s US Fifth Army and General Vietinghoff’s German Tenth Army around the small town of Cassino into sharp focus. Of particular interest was the hill that overlooked the town, Monte Cassino, as its heights afford an excellent view of the valley below, so any Allied attempts to move on the town would have been under intense scrutiny from any German forces on the hill.

That in itself constituted enough of a military problem for the Allies as the German Gustav Line incorporated much of the surrounding area. However, what makes this whole affair so contentious is that on top of Monte Cassino stood a vast Benedictine monastery.


First settled in the fifth century BC, Cassino was a stronghold of the Volsci of central Italy. It was they who established the first lookout/citadel at the summit of Monte Cassino. The town became Casinum following the Roman defeat of the Volsci in 312BC and a temple of Apollo was erected at the former Volscian citadel. Archaeological digs have found evidence of the Roman presence on Monte Cassino, although no remains of the temple have yet to be discovered. This would not be all that surprising for despite being near the very centre of the Roman Empire, Monte Cassino had not been free from violence. The collapse of western Roman territorial integrity in the fifth century exposed central Italy to the degradations of Huns, Goths, Vandals and other Germanic tribesmen. This meant that by the 520s Cassino had been almost completely abandoned by the time St Benedict of Nursia arrived to found the monastery of Monte Cassino.


Despite having become a bishopric seat, Pope Gregory I claimed that the area including Cassino was still largely pagan by the early sixth century (Pope Gregory I, The Life of Saint Benedict VII.10-11), although it has been pointed out that it is common place for in such hagiographies for the saintly protagonist to have to deal with the presence of paganism and demonic interference (Christie (2006), 113), so it may be more a literary topos with Gregory following in the footsteps of Sulpicius Severus’ Life of St Martin and even the Biblical story of the Israelites entering the Holy Land (Exodus 34:12-14). It may well be instead that Benedict found the temple/citadel on Monte Cassino deserted but still with some surviving pagan artefacts, sculptures and buildings. His smashing of statues and altars was possibly more of a gentle conversion to chapels to St Martin and St John the Baptist.


At Monte Cassino, Benedict compiled the Benedictine Rule that became the founding principle for western monasticism, advocating that monks pray, work and care for the sick, with the monastery containing what is considered to be the first hospital in Europe to achieve the latter precept. The growth of the Monte Cassino hospital necessitated a constant search for new medical knowledge, so the monks obtained as many books as they could find, establishing what would become the world’s finest medical science library by the 10th century.


Such was the rapid growth in reputation for Monte Cassino that it not only drew physicians from around the Mediterranean, but also famous religionists and political leaders. In around 543, Totila, king of the Goths, came to visit Benedict; during the 8th century it was home to both Paul the Deacon, historian of the Lombards, and Carloman, the eldest son of Charles Martel, the Frankish victor at the Battle of Tours and therefore uncle of Charlemagne. Carloman was one of several prominent men to be laid to rest at the monastery along with St Benedict. Another was the man responsible for Monte Cassino achieving its peak fame in the 11th century, the abbot Desiderius, who later became Pope Victor III.


Unfortunately, the growth in spiritual and medical reputation of Monte Cassino and its Benedictine monks could not divest it of its prominent strategic location. A generation after St Benedict’s death, the Lombards sacked the abbey in 581/589, leading to its abandonment for over a century. Even the body of Benedict reputedly removed to Fleury Abbey, in modern Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire near Orleans, France. The seemingly benevolent donation of lands around Cassino to the monastery by Gisulf II in 744 may be more about taking advantage of the strategic position of Monte Cassino as a buffer between the Lombard principality of Benevento and remaining Roman lands in southern Italy. In 884, the area came under attack from Saracen raiders, who burned the monastery, and it would be sacked again in 1799 by the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte.


That near millennium gap between sacks may reflect the growing reputation and stature of Monte Cassino; however, it may also highlight the ups and downs of the monastery as an institution and an edifice. A major rebuild in the 11th century under Desiderius saw to it that the site was no longer just the twin chapels and hospital of Benedict’s day, but for all the Italian and Contantinopolitan splendour this rebuild brought, the incorporation of Monte Cassino as a cathedral by Pope John XXII in 1321 and an earthquake of 1349 marked a period of steady decline. With the dissolution of the Italian monasteries in 1866, Monte Cassino would be classed as a national monument. This chequered history does not mean that the monastery had fallen into complete disrepair; far from it. Indeed, it would be the continued strength of much of the masonry as well as its strategic position which was to play a significant role in that fateful decision of 15 February 1944.


Building the defensive lines against the Allied invasion of Italy, Field Marshal Kesselring had ordered German units not to include the monastery itself as part of the Gustav Line because of its historical significance and had informed the Allies thus. However, the Allied commander of the New Zealand II Corps that was to form the spearhead of the attempt to relieve Anzio, Lieutenant-General Sir Bernard Freyberg, along with Major-General F.S. Tuker, whose Indian 4th Division would lead any attempt on the hill, felt that the monastery posed a major threat to Allied interests should the Germans occupy it. One officer stated that “Wherever you went, there was the monastery, looking at you…”


Freyberg’s initial request for an aerial bombardment of the monastery was rejected by General Clark, who suggested that not only did such an act contravene an existing agreement with Kesselring but the monastery had become a refuge for many of the inhabitants of Cassino itself. The killing of innocents would hand the Germans a propaganda victory that Hitler’s master manipulator Joseph Goebbels would exploit to the fullest. However, Clark’s most important argument from a military standpoint was that turning the monastery into rubble would create even stronger fortifications for the Germans, who would undoubtedly occupy the monastery once the Allies had bombed it.

Reconnaissance aircraft were sent for a low-altitude pass and brought back contrasting reports. Lieutenant-Generals I.C. Eaker and J.L. Devers, backed by the British and American press, claimed to have seen “a radio mast […] German uniforms hanging on a clothesline in the abbey courtyard; [and] machine gun emplacements 50 yards (46 m) from the abbey walls.” (Hapgood and Richardson (2002), 161, 185). Conversely, Major-General Geoffrey Keyes of U.S. II Corps, who flew over Monte Cassino several times, reported that he had seen no evidence of a German presence. When informed of others’ claims of having seen enemy troops there, he stated: “They’ve been looking so long they’re seeing things.” (Hapgood and Richardson (2002), 169)

Major-General Kippenberger of the New Zealand Corps HQ opined that the Germans were probably using the hill itself to observe the Allies, even if there was no evidence for it. Cutting right to the source of the problem and ignoring any agreement over the status of the monastery and its historical significance, Kippenberger also stated that once the fighting broke out, it would be very likely that the Germans would in some way use Monte Cassino as a shelter or staging ground. It would be just too tempting not to…

“Undamaged it was a perfect shelter but with its narrow windows and level profiles an unsatisfactory fighting position. Smashed by bombing it was a jagged heap of broken masonry and debris open to effective fire from guns, mortars and strafing planes as well as being a death trap if bombed again. On the whole I thought it would be more useful to the Germans if we left it unbombed.” (Majdalany (1957), 121-122)


Tuker made his own more historiographical survey of the monastery. Lacking clear and detailed intelligence of the make up of the monastery, Tuker reputedly resorted to a book he found in a Naples bookshop dated to 1879 about the construction of Monte Cassino. In a subsequent memorandum to Freyberg, he concluded that should the monastery been targeted for destruction to prevent or oust German occupation, the sheer extent of the masonry would require more drastic action than field engineers and normal bombs. The 150 foot tall and 10 foot wide walls caused particular concern with Tuker claiming that the usual 1,000 pound bombs would be “next to useless” (Majdalany (1957), 114-115). It was Tuker’s opinion that any attack on the German placements within the monastery would only be successful if “the garrison was reduced to helpless lunacy by sheer unending pounding for days and nights by air and artillery,” (Holmes (2001), 113) which would only be achieved by the use of some of the most powerful ‘blockbuster’ bombs available to the Allied Air Force at the time.

Faced with this conundrum of potential German occupation of such a strategic sight, current or future, a gentleman’s agreement with Kesselring, and civilians taking refuge within the historic monastery, the Allied commander-in-chief for Italy, General Sir Harold Alexander, chose to err on the side of military caution. Not willing to take the chance that the Germans were already in the monastery, Alexander authorised Freyberg’s request and on 15th February 1944, two waves of bombers attacked Monte Cassino.


Despite the amount of ‘blockbusters’ dropped on the monastery, it appears certain that the only people killed in the monastery by the bombing were 230 Italian civilians seeking refuge in the abbey (Hapgood and Richardson (2002), 211). The Germans had not occupied Monte Cassino pre-15th February 1944, a fact later admitted by the official British history (Butler (1973), V.695).

Given the imprecision of the high altitude heavy bombers targeting the monastery, it is reputed that they came closer to killing General Clark 17 miles away at the Fifth Army HQ, with a bomb exploded only yards from his office, than they did any Germans near Monte Cassino (Hapgood and Richardson (2002), 203).


There were survivors of this ruin, most of whom fled Monte Cassino at first light on 16th February 1944. Only about 40 people remained: six monks, three tenant farmer families, children, the badly wounded and the dying. But for those who remained, the ordeal was not yet over. Having decided that monastery was a military target, the hill was shelled again the following night. Those civilians and monks able to leave did so on the morning of 17th February, following a mule path to the German lines.

In the wake of these survivors, the fears of General Clark and Major-General Kippenberger were realised as the German First Parachute Regiment occupied the ruins and turned it into a fortress. No amount of Allied attacks could dislodge the entrenched Germans over the next three months at the cost of up to 2,000 Allied lives. The monastery was only abandoned when the Gustav Line was breached elsewhere, leaving a regiment of the Polish Twelfth Podolian Uhlans cavalry to occupy what was left uncontested in the early hours of 18th May.


Thankfully, the far-sighted German Lieutenant-Colonel Julius Schlegel and Capt. Maximilian Becker had transferred the monastery’s library which included centuries-old manuscripts of Cicero, Horace, Virgil and Seneca as well as numerous masterpieces by Titian, Raphael, Tintoretto and Leonardo da Vinci to the Vatican, so the cultural price the bombing was not as high as it might have been. However, a building of immense historical significance had been obliterated for little or no strategic or tactical gain and caused the death of 230 civilians who had sought safety within its walls. As Luigi Maglione, Cardinal Secretary of State to Pope Pius XII bluntly stated to Harold Tittmann, American diplomat to the Vatican, the destruction of Monte Cassino had been “a colossal blunder… a piece of a gross stupidity” (Hapgood and Richardson (2002), 225).

Certain military circumstances may require the strategic and/or tactic need to destroy treasured sites but at Monte Cassino, caution, paranoia and propaganda seem to have overridden common sense. The overall commander, General Alexander, should be absolved of some blame even if he authorised the destruction for he was trusting the report of his man on the ground. As for Freyberg’s reasons for pressing for the bombing, he may well have been convinced that there were Germans already within the walls of the monastery; however, he must have known from reconnaissance and Tuker’s book that the destruction wrought by bombing would have only made the monastery an even better defensive position.

The arguments leading to the destruction of the monastery rest on its potential threat rather than its actual state of occupation. Perhaps anti-German propaganda in the western press as well as their own experiences over four years of war made Allied officers more willing to view their opponents as the dastardly and treacherous Hun. Monte Cassino was a potentially formidable impediment and Freyberg did not want to take the chance that Field Marshal Kesselring might be overruled by his untrustworthy superiors or by the spur of the moment desperation of his soldiers in the heat of battle.

The destruction of the monastery could easily have been avoided. In times of war hasty decisions can be made but perhaps on this occasion Freyberg and his officers had put too much faith in the maxim “Whoever masters the hills, masters the valleys” and neglected to fully countenance the consequences of their actions.


The Abbey was rebuilt after the war, reconsecrated by Pope Paul VI in 1964.


Bloch, H. Monte Cassino in the Middle Ages. Rome (1986)

Butler, J. (ed.) The Mediterranean and Middle East V: The Campaign in Sicily 1943 and The Campaign in Italy 3rd September 1943 to 31st March 1944. History of the Second World War. (1973) Uckfield

Christie, N. From Constantine to Charlemagne: An Archaeology of Italy AD 300-800. Aldershot (2006)

Hapgood, D. and Richardson, D. Monte Cassino: The Story of the Most Controversial Battle of World War II. Cambridge (2002)

Holmes, R. Battlefields of the Second World War. (2001) BBC Worldwide

Majdalany, F. Cassino: Portrait of a Battle. London (1957)