Latest Event Updates

CAI 2018 Summer School ‘Entertaining the Masses’ Review

Posted on


On the weekend of 17-19th August, the Classical Association of Northern Ireland was proud to host the Classical Association of Ireland‘s Summer School for 2018 in Queen’s University Belfast. With its range of subjects and speakers, the Summer School promised to live up to its overall topic of Entertaining the Masses.


After the CAI AGM, the 2018 Summer School was kicked off by its keynote lecture entitled ‘Honour among Thebes’ from none other than best-selling novelist Natalie Haynes. The eager audience were immediately enthralled by Natalie’s machine gun delivery and tremendous quick-wit as she covered every possible avenue of the topic that her hour long time slot permitted. Natalie took us back to her days before becoming a best-selling author and classicist, reminiscing about her less-successful stints as a comedian in the Mandela Hall and the Empire, both little more than a stone’s throw away.


That comedic background was in full view with a fast paced, whirlwind but highly entrancing lecture which involved a plethora of (somehow hugely relevant) tangents like The Rock, Fast and the Furious, punching a mega-shark, the Brian Coxes and so many more…

Natalie observed that female characters within Greek tragedy are not the focus of the works, even those named after them – paying particular attention to Antigone who has far less lines than her male counterpart and uncle, Creon. We learned of the interesting consistencies between modern soaps and ancient plays, with both paying heed to Aristotle’s theory of tragedy. For them to be tragic, all plots must contain things such as mythos (plot), unity of place (be it in front of the palace of Thebes or on Coronation Street) and unity of time (all things must follow a logical and chronological order).

Focus fell predominantly on Aristotle’s favourite, Oedipus Rex, and how the smartest person in the whole tragedy is Jocasta, Oedipus’ wife/mother. She, above all other main characters (including the male ones) is first to deduce just who has murdered the previous king, ultimately leading to her tragic suicide and all within her minimal 120 lines of dialogue.


Finishing off our fantastic keynote lecture, we are treated to a short reading of Natalie’s book The Children of Jocasta, which showcases the points of view of two of the female characters from the Oedipus stories, Jocasta and Ismene.


The Summer School reconvened the following morning with CANI’s own Helen McVeigh hosting ‘Classics and Modern Culture: in conversation with Natalie Haynes.’ Natalie highlighted that it should be the goal of Classics to make itself less elitist. The days of classical subjects being reserved for those who can afford the education and the appropriate institutions should be gone; those subjects should be made available to study for anyone who wishes to, be it a state school or private one.


“But what got you into Classics?” asks Helen, to which Natalie replies, “a brilliant teacher” – a simple response, but perhaps one that resonates with all of us. Our greatest loves, our greatest interests were perhaps ignited by an inspirational teacher earlier in our lives. We hear of Natalie’s series on BBC Radio 4, Natalie Haynes Stands up for the Classics, a 30 minute show featuring ‘showbiz’ guests, stand up and all centring on characters and people from the Ancient World.

A few more diversions here and there and we round off the conversation with a reading from Haynes’ next work, A Thousand Ships; a compelling story of the Trojan War, from the point of view of the women and the goddesses. Natalie also answers a few questions from the captivated Summer School members.


Dr Laura Pfuntner (QUB) introduced the second lecture of the day, ‘Fun and Games in Ancient Epic’, given by Professor Helen Lovatt of Nottingham University.  The audience was first asked to think about what the epic heroes actually do for fun. “Feasting and games”, according to Professor Lovatt. These were ritualistic, sometimes commemorative and vastly more serious than usually thought. Gladiatorial combat and chariot racing were important spectacles and enormous public events. A key to revealing this information is to look at the architecture of Ancient Rome, especially the Colosseum and the Circus Maximus. The sheer size of these carefully constructed places can only suggest that the Romans considered the idea of games and sport as being of the upmost importance, especially as these structures have been able to withstand the test of time.


Professor Lovatt explained that “storytelling is serious business”, with feasting and games playing a major part. Epics such as the Iliad and the Aeneid go into great depth at times to describe fun and games for us. The Iliad 23 gives us the great example of the funeral games held for Achilles’ dear friend, Patroklos. As Professor Lovatt highlights, these games are perhaps fun for the viewer (and reader) but can be very serious for the participants as they quite often argue over results such as when Menelaos in Iliad 23 complains that Antilochos only overcame him in the chariot race by cutting him off.

An interesting question was raised regarding the competitiveness of Ancient Greek society as a whole, with Professor Lovatt reminding us that sport, games and competition were seen throughout Greek life, be it through the work of poets, vase painters or of sculptors.


After a brief interlude, Helen McVeigh introduced Dr Cressida Ryan (Oxford) for her talk asking ‘Why is Tragedy Entertaining?’ Following the Bee Gees’ song ‘Tragedy’ (the Steps version), we follow Dr Ryan through the five things that make tragedy entertaining by using five different lyrics from the catchy song.

Plato lambasts the concept of poetry (especially tragedy) within his Republic, considering it self-indulgent, provoking the wrong emotions. It does not help the grieving move on, leaves us with the inability to reason and so strays us further and further away from his concept of the ‘good soul’. The views of Plato’s most famous student, Aristotle, differ drastically. He believes that one must be a genius not a madman to write good poetry. Aristotle suggests we can learn from poetry as it can be relevant within our own lives. Aristotle himself was not sure how to define tragedy, offering four separate definitions in the Poetics. What he does state are the rules which a tragedy must follow and for there to be rules there must be reason – something which Plato believes a tragedy lacks.


Dr Ryan then raised Hitchcock’s concept of suspense versus surprise. In one scenario there is a bomb under the table between two people but the audience has no idea until the bomb explodes. This is surprise. Suspense is where the bomb is under the table, the audience know it is going to go off soon, while the people at the table may not. In many ways, suspense is perhaps more effective as the audience then gets to participate in the action of the play. Classical tragedy offers similar journey – quite often the audience know what is around the corner: the audience know Oedipus has married his own mother; it’s just a matter of time until he finds out.

It should be said that during this lecture we almost had a tragedy of our own when the wind breezed through an open window causing a banner to fall right in front of some unsuspecting CAI Summer School attendees! Dr Ryan was on the case however, and swiftly moved the banner out of the way.


Dr John Curran then introduced QUB’s own Barry Trainor, who presented his paper on ‘All War and no Play: Entertainment at Sparta.’ Barry highlighted that what we generally think of when we think of the Spartans – militarism, social order, austerity – is a somewhat narrow idea of what they were really like as a people.

Their frequent festivals not only carried heavy religious connotations – famously causing Sparta to fail to arrive in time for the Battle of Marathon – but may also have been important ‘holidays’ from the usual day-to-day austerity of Spartan life.

Barry then focused on Spartan laughter, a concept that could be considered ‘unspartan’ but was actively encouraged. The legendary lawgiver Lykourgos believed that laughter was also a way for Spartans to escape from the austerity of their everyday life, to relax and unwind. Sosibius also mentions the prevalence of the divine personification of Laughter amongst the Spartans, who built sanctuaries to this emotive god. Barry also spoke of how the Spartans taught their youth what kind of laughter was acceptable and encouraged them to mock one another. The butts of these jokes quite often were the Helot slaves who would be systematically humiliated as a means of mental subjugation and thus demonstrating the superiority of the Spartans.


The final talk of the 2018 Summer School was introduced by Amber Taylor, as CANI’s Helen McVeigh asked ‘Who Read Ancient Novels?,’ with significant focus on the Callirhoe of Chariton. This tale features apparent death, long journeys, love at first sight (many times!) and reuniting all as prevalent themes throughout its length. But who read this fantasy story?

Ben Edwin Perry suggested that the novel was intended for the uneducated and women; perhaps he believed it was intended for a kind of ‘Mills and Boon’ readership. As Helen points out, this is not necessarily the case. At one point in the text, Chaireas, the narrative’s male protagonist, is compared to Achilles. It is well worth noting that if the readers of Chariton’s novel had not been taught Homer at school then this comparison within the middle of the text would have been for nothing. Therefore, Chariton would have been inaccessible to his supposed readers.


Helen asked us to think about the women who could have been reading this tale. Greek vases depict women reading and studying – clearly educated and literate, while Herodotus spoke of a mother teaching her child Greek language and grammar. Chariton’s Callirhoe was polite, intelligent and cultured. Could this in turn mean she was literate?

After the projector decided to switch itself off, Helen took a few questions from the enthralled Summer School delegates, speaking of (potentially rude) monks, the influence of Dickens and if Chariton’s text survives in full.


And with that the 2018 CAI Summer School lectures came to a close, allowing delegates and speakers to adjourn to nearby watering holes for further discussion and refreshment, before reconvening at QUB for a splendid dinner. This may have been the end of the weekend’s festivities, but not its opportunities for learning.

Patrician Journies


Early on Sunday morning, a group of Summer School attendees departed QUB with their tour guide Dr Therese Cullen, an expert in early monastic Ireland and Patrician studies.

The first stop was Nendrum monastery on the shore of Strangford Lough.  Founded by St Mochaoi in the fifth-century, Nendrum was a sizeable monastic settlement that held a significant influence over the local area. It is one of the best preserved cashel sites in Ireland and continues to use a tide-mill, which dates back to the early 7th-century; possibly one of the oldest in the world.

The group then travelled to Saul church, which tradition holds was the location were a local chieftain granted St Patrick a barn for shelter – Saul being the anglicised word for Sabhall, Irish for barn.


After a soup and sandwich lunch at Paddy’s Barn, the next stop was Downpatrick cathedral – the traditional resting place of St Patrick. Much to delight of all, Dr Cullen had liaised with archaeologists from QUB who agreed to show us the excavations that were taking place at the cathedral. There was some artefact handling and shown the actual dig sites.

Just outside Downpatrick, the final stop of the day was the well-preserved Inch Abbey. Dr Cullen rounded off a very pleasant and informative day by showing off the various areas within the Abbey, such as the cloister, the altar and even the oven!


There are many who need to be thanked for their contribution to what was a fantastic weekend.

– the Classical Association of Ireland for allowing CANI to host the Summer School at QUB once more

– the staff of QUB who looked after us so well over the weekend

– Dr Therese Cullen of Irish Monastic Tours for sharing her expertise on the guided tour

– all of the delegates who attended the Summer School, offering insightful questions and intriguing discussion

– the speakers for their insight and expertise on the classical world

And special thanks to Helen McVeigh and John Curran for all their efforts in helping bring together such a fantastic event.

Amber Taylor and Barry Trainor

Canada Room, Queen's University BelfastFriday 17th August 2018'Honour Among Thebes'Natalie HaynesSaturday 17th…

Posted by The Classical Association in Northern Ireland on Saturday, July 21, 2018

Belfast Summer School 2018 Review

Posted on


In July 2018, 35 students and seven staff gathered at Queen’s University Belfast for the third Belfast Summer School in Latin and Classical Greek.  Many students came from Belfast and the surrounding areas and some travelled from as far as Enniskillen, L/Derry, County Donegal, County Clare, Birmingham, Kent, and even Massachusetts, USA.


Nineteen students signed up for Latin at Beginners, Intermediate and Advanced level. The Intermediate class reviewed grammar, while the Advanced students read Ovid’s Metamorphoses in the original language.  Ten students studied Greek at Beginners level, with the remainder taking Lower Intermediate and Intermediate classes. Intermediate level provided a grammar review while the Lower Intermediate Greek class was intended for students who had completed the Beginners’ level course.


This year we also introduced translation workshops on the Saturday. The Classical Greek workshop was led by Dr Martine Cuypers (TCD), examining the beginning of Homer’s Odyssey. The Latin workshops were led by our tutors, in which students looked at a few unadapted extracts from texts including Catullus, Caesar, and the beginning lines of Virgil’s Aeneid. All of our students performed admirably with these difficult texts after only a week of study.

The range of students was as diverse as previous years. In the Beginners’ Greek class alone there were high school students, a postgraduate student about to embark on the study of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, and an English graduate entering his training for the ministry.  Among the Latin classes, there was a GCSE student who wanted to read a Latin text as preparation for A level, a solicitor returning to her Latin roots having rediscovered the Ecce Romani books from her schooldays, and a trainee primary school teacher who hopes to inject some Classics into her lessons.

Many others said they were taking the course for fun. Each of our students has their own story and it was a joy to meet them and chat with them during the course of the week. In particular, Anita, Amber and Ava have attended the summer school for three years’ running.  In 2016, Ava had just completed her GCSEs though her school did not offer any Classics subjects: she is self-taught in Latin and learned Greek from the summer school. We are extremely proud that she has been accepted to study Classics this autumn at the University of Cambridge.


The summer school prides itself on the language skills of its tutors.  Each year the number of classes has increased and this year’s new appointments to the staff were Dr Laura Pfuntner (QUB, Advanced Latin) and Dr Steph Holton (Newcastle University, Intermediate Greek).  Other tutors were Dr Kerry Phelan (Maynooth University/UCD, Beginners’ Greek), Helen McVeigh (Lower Intermediate Greek), Stephen McCarthy (Maynooth University, Beginners’ Latin) and Stephen Strickland (Intermediate Latin). Solomon Trimble, a student of Greek and Latin at Belfast Inst, was the summer school assistant.

Academic talks were presented by Intermediate Greek tutor Dr Steph Holton who spoke about the interpretation of dreams in ancient Greek medicine, and CANI’s Dr Peter Crawford who offered evidence in a mock trial of Gaius Julius Caesar. On both occasions, there was standing-room only for these fascinating talks, with many interesting questions offered from the floor.  Many thanks to both of our speakers.

20180719_135828 cropped

An informal dinner took place in Town Square on Botanic Avenue and was also attended by members of the CANI Board. After the concluding classes on Friday morning, certificates were presented to the students by Dr John Curran from CANI and QUB’s School of History, Anthropology, Politics and Philosophy.  Dr Curran congratulated the students on completing an intense week of study, and thanked all the staff for their hard work and enthusiasm.


Student feedback this year was overwhelmingly positive, in many cases expressing a desire for a longer course, more Greek and Latin!

Other comments included:

“I would like to thank CANI for this amazing opportunity.”

“I liked the instructor’s energy and enthusiasm and want to come back next year for another class.”

“(The course) was very absorbing, thoroughly planned and a real pleasure to attend.”

We could not have had such great success without our wonderful students.  We love teaching Latin and Classical Greek and clearly there is an audience for these languages.

Grateful thanks are due to Dr John Curran, Dr Peter Crawford, Dr Martine Cuypers, Queen’s University Belfast, Maynooth University and the Classical Association in Northern Ireland.

Plans are afoot for next year’s summer school so…


Latin and Classical Greek15-19th July 2018

Posted by The Classical Association in Northern Ireland on Thursday, July 27, 2017

GoTAH VIb: The Harbinger of Change – the Reception of Comets in Eastern Traditions

Posted on


The mixed reactions to the Red Comet recorded in A Clash of Kings and the concordant early episodes of the second season of Game of Thrones (see HERE) reflect similar ambiguous responses in history to such astronomical phenomena.

“All ancient cultures with historical records, western and eastern, looked at any new apparition in the sky, such as a comet, with apprehension. The average person in ancient times knew the heavens much better than we do today, and something changing day to day in the sky was alarming to them.”

(Schwarz (1997),

In ancient cultures, their sudden appearance was considered to a sign from the gods. And because they disturbed the harmony of the starry sky, they were soon deemed to be a bad omen (

The great work of ancient Babylonian mythological literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh, described the arrival of a comet in almost apocalyptic terms of fire, brimstone and flood, although there has been some other views on Gilgamesh and his relations with comets and astronomical ( The ancient Yakut legends from Mongolia spoke in similar terms, calling comets “the daughter of the devil,” who was to be accompanied by storms, freezing temperatures and general destruction.

Some Jewish sources, such as Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman, a Jew living in Spain, suggested that the Great Flood had been caused by two stars being thrown at the Earth by God (

CH1_CH2The Mawangdui silk cometary ‘textbook’, c.300BC

For all their record keeping, seen in the Mawangdui silk cometary ‘textbook’ from c.300BC above, many Chinese also regarded comets as “vile stars.”

As well might be imagined, looking at how ancient peoples received comets would require an extensive academic work. However, focusing on one specific period – that covered by the reign of Mithridates VI of Pontus (135-66BC) and the last century of the Roman Republic can cover much of the different beliefs surrounding comets in eastern and western culture (Mayor (2009), 27-33 provides much of the basis of this piece)


The career and propaganda of Mithridates Vl can demonstrate much of the Middle Eastern view of comets. Even his very name paid tribute to Mithras, the Iranian sun god, whose birth was accompanied by “a great fire or light from the heavens.” (Mayor (2009), 27)

While already a dynastic name, the reputed circumstances of his birth could point to why Mithridates’ parents chose that name for him. According to the Roman historian Justin, “in the year that Mithradates was begotten, and again when he first began to rule, comets blazed forth with such splendor that the whole sky seemed to be on fire” (Justin 37.2). A second such comet appeared in 119BC, which just so happened to be the year Mithridates ascended to the Pontic throne.


The type of comet to appear in 135BC and 119BC also played in the hands of the Pontic king. Their curved tail allowed for identification as a bladed weapon, much like how Gendry considered the Red Comet to be a ‘Red Sword.’ Furthermore, to the peoples of the east, the curved comets reminded them of a very specific blade: “the sickle-shaped harpe, the Persian scimitar, the signature weapon of Mithra himself” (Mayor (2009), 32).

Various Roman, Jewish and Biblical sources also record instances of such sword-like comets – Pliny, NH II.22.89 called them ‘daggers’; Josephus, BJ VI.5.3 recorded “a star, resembling a sword;” while 1 Chronicles 21.16 and Revelation 1.16 seemingly refer to comets.


There were further mythological connections to be made through the association of the harpe with Perseus. While best known as a hero of Greek mythology, the character of Perseus was much influenced by Iranian culture, including his use of the harpe, most famously used to behead the snake-haired Gorgon, Medusa. Mithridates made use of this by depicting Perseus and his harpe on Pontic coins (Højte (2009); McGing (1986), 35, 94).


The Perseus/Medusa myth had the added layer of the involvement of the winged horse Pegasus, who was foaled by the blood of the beheaded Gorgon. Much like Perseus, while most famous for being part of Greek mythology, the winged steed had its origins in the Middle East, where Mithras’ sacred animal was the horse, providing Mithridates with yet more divine providence for his comet-blessed birth and coronation as it has been suggested that the comets of 135BC and 119BC appeared in the constellation of Pegasus (Ramsey (1999), 218-228; Widengren (1959), 244; McGing (1986), 85, 94-95 on Pegasus also appearing on Pontic coins).


Mithridates could really not have asked for a better propaganda boon for his life and reign for “according to well-known prophecies, a bright new light in the sky would announce the coming of a savior-king, a messiah or great leader who would triumph over enemies.” (Mayor (2009), 27)

It may be the immediate supposition of the sceptic to think of these two comets as inventions of the court of Mithridates to increase his own prestige, particularly when they represented such positive Messianic heralds in eastern tradition. However, not only is the account of Justin ultimately derived from a potential eye-witness, through Pompeius Trogus, other sources also recount the presence of comets in the skies of 135BC and 119BC. For example, Seneca, Natural Questions 7.15 records that “there appeared a comet which was small at first [then] spread . . . its vast extent equalled the size of the Milky Way,”

Astronomers of Han China kept detailed records of astronomical events and for 135BC and 119BC, they list comets of what they call the ‘war banner’ type, giving descriptions very similar to that of Justin. That the Han soothsayers proclaimed that such ‘war banner’ comets predicted massacres, terrible wars, and the rise of a great conqueror also fit in with the propaganda and indeed the reality of the reign of Mithridates VI (Loewe (1980); Ramsey (1999), 198-199, 200 n.9, 206 n.30). European astronomers also seem to have recognized the reality of the two comets of 135BC and 119BC as early as 1783 (Fotheringham (1919), 166).

Mithridates was so proud of his connection to these comets that he had them depicted on his small denomination coins, so the common people of his empire could see how his birth had been so well-omened (Arslan (2007), 73-76). The Armenian king Tigranes II was also minting coins depicting a comet around the same time perhaps as a public declaration of his alliance with his father-in-law Mithridates.


It has been speculated that the comet on Tigranes’ coin was meant to be Halley’s Comet (Gurzadyan and Vardanyan (2004)); however, this appears unlikely. The comet on the Armenian coins has a curved tail, linking it to the ‘war banner’ comets of 135 and 119BC, rather than the always straight-tailed Halley’s Comet.

That said, if Mithridates needed any more politico-religious capital out of comets, the most famous comet of them did make an appearance in the skies of 87BC, mere months after Mithridates’ orchestration of a massacre of Romans in Asia Minor in 88BC. This serendipitous timing allowed the Pontic and Armenian kings to present this latest wandering star as proof of divine favour for their anti-Roman actions.


Such was the political climate and their desperation to escape the  ever-tightening grip of Rome, the Athenians seem to have been willing to accept, perhaps against their own negative predilections, the positive signs attributed to the appearance of Halley’s Comet given the successes of Mithridates in Asia Minor and Greece. With that, they elected the philosopher Aristion as their leader on a pro-Mithridates platform.

Such willingness to accept the positive spin on comets by the Athenians may represent another aspect to Mithridates’ propaganda. While his kingdom may have had significant eastern influences, Mithridates will have understood that many of his Hellenised people may have viewed comets in a negative way. The distribution of his coins may therefore have been part of winning hearts and minds by promoting the positive aspects of Middle Eastern views on comets.


The indigenous populations of Anatolia, Armenia, Media, Syria, Scythia, and other lands of the old Persian Empire interpreted comets as signs of hope, not grounds for despair. Even the more apocalyptic Zoroastrian scriptures of the third century BC such as the Bahman Yasht, envisioned an avenging saviour-prince who would be born under a shooting star: this prince would drive foreign tyrants out of Asia (Bahman Yasht III.13-15). Such prophecies were increasingly prominent around the time of Mithridates’ birth in Egyptian and Jewish literature.

For the Greeks who were increasingly rankling under their ‘liberation’ by the Romans, such promises must have seemed welcome and mind-altering when it came to comets. None of this seemed to bode well for Rome, although as will be seen in the final part of this blog, the Romans themselves were seemingly in the process of changing their view of comets.