Latest Event Updates

My Favourite Picture of Ancient History III

Posted on

5d81a7e9e789bbe7594760be1286becaRecently I saw this famous photograph of Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong serenading his wife described as one of the most romantic photographs ever taken. But there was more to this stop at the Egyptian pyramids than meets the eye, a story little told these days.

In the late 1950s the US State Department sponsored tours by notable jazz musicians to parts of the world where political relations were frosty and suspicions about American foreign policy were hot; the trips were also intended to combat widespread criticism of racism in the US by presenting alternative images of an egalitarian, modern America. ‘Dizzy’ Gillespie and his integrated band of musicians visited the Middle East in 1956; Benny Goodman and his mixed orchestra went to southeast Asia in 1957; and in 1958 the Dave Brubeck Quartet played the circle of nations around Russia, as well as Iran and Iraq – all Cold War hotspots.

At first Armstrong refused to take part, furiously denouncing President Eisenhower for his reluctance to enforce desegregation at an Arkansas school in 1957. It was three years before he agreed to an official role as an American cultural ambassador and a 27-city goodwill tour of Africa, part-sponsored by Pepsi-Cola. He was accompanied by a band of six (including singer Velma Middleton, who suffered a stroke and died during the trip), as well as his wife Lucille.

While he was greeted as royalty elsewhere, it was by no means certain that Armstrong would be welcome in Egypt, where newspapers had spread rumours that he was an Israeli spy and President Nasser had suggested that ‘scat-singing’ was Satchmo’s way of transmitting secrets. The visit was a triumph, however. Side-stepping questions about politics (‘Zionism? What’s that, Daddy?’), Armstrong posed for joyous photographs that were circulated worldwide, surrounded by cheering children at a medical centre, playing his trumpet while riding on a camel – and entertaining Lucille against the backdrop of the Sphinx and pyramids.

Satchmo was by no means the first or last ambassador to make use of the spectacle offered by Giza’s ancient monuments to promote a cultural message, though perhaps he was the most successful. When US First Lady Melania Trump went on safari and posed in front of the pyramids last October, her choice of attire – a pith helmet and Out of Africa-style outfit evoking the colonial past – garnered more attention than her stated aim of highlighting the role of women in society. We are fortunate, then, that our enduring image of Louis Armstrong’s sojourn in Egypt is one of romance and delight, which can be enjoyed no matter the politics that brought it about.

Selga Medenieks (TCD)

 Further reading:

Penny M. von Eschen, 2004. Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War. Harvard Uni Press: Cambridge, MA.

Crist, S.A. ‘Jazz as Democracy? Dave Brubeck and Cold War Politics,’  Journal of Musicology 26 (2009), pp. 133-174

2018 Year in Review

Posted on


CANI‘s 2018 kicked off with a day-long event with Advocating Classics Education in the Ulster Museum on 9 February.


Cross-border antiquities, in-door artillery fire (no one got hurt), creating Greek theatre masks, dramatic decisions over whether to sacrifice a daughter for the ‘greater good’, a Roman military parade down University Road, coin-stamping, an impromptu rendition of the massacre of Teutoburg Forest involving Botanic Gardens and some screaming (in a good way) primary schoolers, an overflowing lecture hall, trying to figure out what the Aeneid was really for, Natalie Haynes’ suggesting how the Ancients can inspire good modern living and numerous visits to the Ulster Museum’s many, many other attractions, including the giant Game of Thrones tapestry and the GCSE/A Level Art displays.

It goes without saying that this kind of event could well be taking pride of place in the CANI annual programme for the foreseeable future.


23 February saw the CANI4Schools initiative return to Dalriada School, Ballymoney to provide a series of curriculum-supporting talks for A Level Classical Civilisation students. Dr Peter Crawford, returning to his old school, initiated proceedings with the talk Defeating Goliath: The Persian Wars. This was followed by talks from Dr John Curran on the Aeneid and Augustan Rome.

CANI would like to thank Dalriada and Mr Bredin for inviting us to speak as it is this kind of event with so many enthusiastic pupils for which CANI was originally formed, demonstrating that interest in the Ancient World is alive and thriving.

Mr Bredin provided reassurance that the main brief of CANI4Schools was hit… “Many thanks indeed for coming to school… to deliver the lectures. The students have commented how useful they found them to their modules and several have been talking now about the possibility of studying some element of classics at University…”

As this was part of the CANI4Schools initiative, these talks are now part of our list of available resources should you, your school or group be interested in hosting a similar event.


In a late addition to the programme, on 5 March, CANI members were very fortunate to attend William Crawley’s interview of Professor Mary Beard at BBC Blackstaff as part of the eye-opening new series Civilisations. Over the course of 90 minutes, Prof. Beard spoke on a variety of subjects linked to the show, its making, its predecessor by Kenneth Clark.


On 7 March, CANI began its talks programme for the year with Dr Laura Pfuntner (QUB) speaking on ‘A Roman Holiday in Sicily.’ Dr Pfuntner presented the multifaceted approach Rome had towards Sicily. It could be an imperial training ground, a haven for pirates and slave revolts, an Italian workshop, granary and warehouse or a once cultured place in need of saving by the mighty Cicero in order to found a thriving tourist industry by the end of the Republic.


On 11 April, Laura Jenkinson of Greek Myth Comix presented on ‘Teaching Classics via Comics,’ tracing the history of sequential art ‘comics’ from cave paintings seeming to move in flickering light and Roman imperial victory columns. She also demonstrated how comics can not only bring more attention to the Classics but also how they can be superb learning and revision tools (as well as great fun!).


On 12 May, CANI Film Night III saw Don Chaffey’s 1963 epic version of Jason and the Argonauts screened in the Ulster Museum. Following an introduction by Katerina Kolotourou, the stop motion techniques of Ray Harryhausen brought the many obstacles in the search for the Golden Fleece to life – gods and goddesses, harpies and hydras, skeletons and statuesque automatons.


While not technically a CANI event, on 24 May, several of its members were involved in an Ancient History Workshop convened by Dr Laura Pfuntner at Queen’s University Belfast on the subject of ‘Warfare and Peacemaking in the Roman provinces in the first century BC.’ Drawing together scholars and students from several universities and subjects, a series of papers were presented on various aspects of war and peace surrounding the period of the decline and fall of the Roman Republic.


The CANI main 2017/18 programme was completed on 30 May when Dr Pamela Zinn (TTU) presented ‘Animals and Vegetarianism in Antiquity.’ Dr Zinn demonstrated how integral to the ancient life animals were not just as sources of food and burden, but in art, myth, religion, history and as pets. Lack of numbers, difficulty farming and need to use animals for other activities meant meat-eating was less widespread in the ancient world. But while there were some sympathetic philosophers, ancient vegetarianism seems to have been much less about aversion to meat-eating and more about the lack of available meat.

group 2 cropped

In July 2018, the Belfast Summer School in Greek and Latin returned for its third year as 35 students from far and wide gathered at Queen’s University Belfast for beginner, intermediate and advanced level classes, as well as a translation workshop. By weeks’ end, a variety of selections from Homer, Ovid, Catullus, Caesar and Virgil had been tackled by the enthusiastic students.

The classes were supplemented by academic talks on the interpretation of dreams in ancient Greek medicine by Dr Steph Holton and a mock trial of Gaius Julius Caesar on the charge of Gallic genocide by Dr Peter Crawford.

Such was the success of the school that plans are already in place for next year’s edition as well as for a refresher day early in the New Year.

save the date revised

This summer also saw CANI play host to the annual Classical Association of Ireland’s Summer School. On the weekend of 17-19 August, dozens gathered at Queen’s University Belfast to hear a series of talks on the subject of ‘Entertaining the Masses.’


Natalie Haynes provided a quick-witted, machine gun delivery of the keynote address on ‘Honour amongst Thebes’, and returned the next day for a conversation with CANI’s Helen McVeigh about the Classics and some questions from the audience.

Professor Helen Lovatt (Nottingham) investigated ‘Fun and Games in Ancient Epic’, highlighting the importance of both not only within the ancient stories but also in the social fabric of the ancient world.


 Dr Cressida Ryan (Oxford) asked ‘Why is Tragedy Entertaining?’ and answered it through the lyrics of the Bee Gee’s song ‘Tragedy’, while invoking Plato, Aristotle, Oedipus and Alfred Hitchcock.

Barry Trainor (QUB) then presented ‘All War and no Play: Entertainment at Sparta,’ highlighting that for all their militarism and austerity, the Spartans were capable of having fun, laughter and humour. Even their great law-giver, Lycurgus, felt that laughter was useful for Spartan society.

The final talk saw CANI‘s Helen McVeigh ask ‘Who Read Ancient Novels?’, using aspects of Chariton’s Callirhoe to suggest that the readers of such ancient fantasy were perhaps far less ill-educated than usually thought.


The CAI Summer School was closed out with a dinner and outing led by Dr Therese Cullen, an expert in early monastic Ireland and Patrician studies, taking in Nendrum monastery, Saul church, Downpatrick cathedral and Inch abbey.



After a postponement of our scheduled first talk of the 2018/19 programme, Dr Raoul McLaughlin stepped in at short notice on 21 November to present a talk regarding ‘Greek and Roman Voyages in the Black Sea.’ Following hot on the heels of the discovery of an intact ancient ship on the sea bed, Dr McLaughlin launched into the position of the Black Sea in the ancient world as a centre of east-west trade through the writings and travels of Arrian and others.


On 5 December 2018 Dr Maria Mili (Glasgow) presented a talk on ‘Objects in Boiotian cult’, focusing on a recently published dedicatory inscription found on a column in 2005 at the Sanctuary of Apollo Ismenios in Boiotia. Dr Mili investigated the importance of consecrated artefacts to Greek religion and the potential links of this inscription to a dedication recorded by Herodotus and to the famous Lydian king, Croesus.

Speakers collage

CANI‘s 2018 programme was completed the following day, 6 December, with our now annual public reading of an ancient text. In the McClay Library at Queen’s University Belfast, this year’s choice had fallen upon selections from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Over the course of 5 hours and 31 reading slots, those in attendance were treated to the poetic tales of the Creation, Pyramus and Thisbe, the Minotaur, Daedalus and Icarus, Orpheus and Euridice, King Midas and his golden touch, to name but a few.

Thanks to the generosity of all those who donated, both readers and those who were just passing through the coffee lounge, £170 was raised for the Simon Community NI.

2018-19 Programme

While the calendar year of 2018 has come to a close, the CANI programme for 2018/19 still has several events to run in the New Year.

2 February 2019 will see the Belfast Summer School offer its Ancient Languages Refresher Day in Queen’s University Belfast.

21 February will see the CANI4Schools initiative on the road again, returning once more to Dalriada School, Ballymoney to provide curriculum-supporting talks for A Level Classical Civilisation students.

On 7 March 2019, Dr Des O’Rawe (QUB) will look at Classics on early film with ‘Framing Antigone‘ in the Old Staff Common Room, Queen’s University, Belfast

On 14 March, CANI continues its close working relationship with the Ulster Museum, which will host our Schools’ Classics Conference, headlined by Prof. Michael Scott and providing curriculum-supporting talks on classical religion, archaeology, history and politics.

4 May will see the Ulster Museum host CANI Film Night IV with Disney’s Hercules being the film of choice this year.

On 22 May, Lynn Gordon (RBAI) with present a talk on the ‘Reception of Classics in Irish literature’ in the Canada Room, Queen’s University, Belfast

The 2018/19 programme will then be closed out with the return of the Belfast Summer School in Greek and Latin on the week of 22 July to 1 August.

Blog Collage 2018.jpg

The CANI blog has continued its eclectic and multi-faceted entries in 2018. It has looked into the monastery of Monte Cassino and its destruction in 1944, the ‘single-handed’ conquest of an Adiabene fort by Sentius the Centurion, the Roman silver find on Traprain Law in Scotland, the reception of comets in Ancient History and Game of Thrones, a CANI trip to Newgrange, a look at the ancient Isle of Mann, while Amber Taylor provided fascinating and extremely valuable accounts at the benefits of (as well as the enthusiasm for) using aspects of the Ancient World to teach sections of the National Curriculum to primary schoolers.

2017/18 also saw CANI launch two publications of its own. The first is a quarterly newsletter reviewing and previewing our events, talks and online activities, the January edition rounding up our events in the last months of 2018 will be sent out to the CANI mailing list early in the New Year.

We also have the CANI Annual, which rounds up all of the blog posts published throughout the calendar year and some new material including quizzes and crosswords. You can download the 2017 edition at the following link…

If you would like any information about any of our upcoming events or would be interested in organising an event with us in addition to the programme, do not hesitate to get in touch with us.

We are also always willing to take contributions from our readers for the CANI blog, so get in touch if you have an idea or even an already completed piece lying around without a home.

We here at the Classical Association in Northern Ireland would like to wish all of our friends and followers a Happy New Year! May Janus provide you with eyes on the past, future and present!

Peter Crawford, Amber Taylor, John Curran, Helen McVeigh, Barry Trainor and Katerina Kolotourou

2019 Belfast Summer School in Ancient Greek and Latin

Posted on


The 4th Annual Belfast Summer School will take place in July 2019 at Queen’s University Belfast, offering courses in Latin and Classical Greek at beginners, intermediate and advanced levels.

Due to the popularity, the Summer School will this year be offering extended courses Students can now enrol for either five days – Monday 22nd July to Friday 26th July – or for nine days – Monday 22nd July to Thursday 1st August.

Also, due to the success of its initial appearance on the schedule in 2018, the Summer School will again be offering translation workshops on Thursday 1st August.

There will also be guest lectures, the subjects of which will be confirmed at a later date.

For more information, you can download the Belfast Summer School Info Booklet by clicking HERE

If you have any questions not answered here or in the booklet, please do not hesitate to contact Helen McVeigh at

save the date revised

Public Reading of Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Posted on

Statuia_lui_OvidiuSpeakers collage

On Thursday 6th December 2018, members of the Classical Association in Northern Ireland gathered in the McClay Library at Queen’s University Belfast to read aloud selected sections of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The CANI public reading has become an annual event at which we read an ancient text and raise funds for a worthwhile cause: the Simon Community NI.

The Metamorphoses is a single poem covering some 11,995 lines. It was written by Publius Ovidius Naso and completed around AD 8. Ovid was the most distinguished poet of his time and his other works include Amores, a collection of short love poems; Heroides, verse-letters written by mythological heroines to their lovers; Ars Amatoria and its sequel Remedia Amoris, satirical handbooks on love. He was exiled by Augustus in AD 8 to the Black Sea. He never returned to Rome and died in exile in AD 17 or 18.20181206_095927

The poem takes the form of a collection of approximately 250 independent stories taken from myth and connected by the theme of transformation. These stories are taken from both Greek and Roman myth and the poem has had a profound cultural influence, inspiring Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Titian, to name only a few. A flyer containing the background to the poem and its author, the event and CANI was distributed in the coffee lounge.

Shortly after 10am, CANI Chair, Helen McVeigh, welcomed those listeners and readers who had braved the winter weather to hear the first words of the Metamorphoses. The poem begins with the words…

Changes of shape, new forms, are the theme which my spirit impels me

Now to recite. Inspire me, O gods (it is you who have even

transformed my art), and spin me a thread from the world’s beginning

down to my own lifetime, in one continuous poem.

Dr Laura Pfuntner, lecturer in Ancient History at QUB and CANI board member, selected sections of books 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10 and 11 for the reading. Beginning with the Creation, the Four Ages and the Flood, we continued with the timeless myths of Io, Pyramus and Thisbe, Arachne, Niobe, and Pelops. By lunchtime we had reached book 8 and the tale of the Minotaur and Ariadne. Then came the well-known stories of Daedalus and Icarus, Meleager and the Calydonian Boar, Orpheus and Euridice, and Atalanta and Hippomenes. At 3.10pm, another successful CANI public reading was brought to a close by Dr Pfuntner, concluding with the legendary King Midas.


31 reading slots were filled by 18 readers who came to Belfast from as far as L/Derry and Co Clare. We were delighted by the support from readers who took time off work to join in, the teachers who came to read in their lunch-hours, and all those who joined us, read, or donated. Thanks to the generosity of all those who donated, both readers and those who were just passing through the coffee lounge, £170 was raised for the Simon Community NI.

I would especially like to thank CANI board members Dr Laura Pfuntner, Dr Peter Crawford, Dr John Curran and Dr Raoul McLaughlin for their help in preparing for the reading and on the day.

Helen McVeigh

McClay Library, QUB 6 December 2018, 10am-3pm£2 per 10min slot; proceeds go to Simon Community NI

Posted by The Classical Association in Northern Ireland on Thursday, September 6, 2018

‘Objects in Boiotian Cult’ Mili Review

Posted on


On Wednesday 5th December 2018 Dr Maria Mili from the University of Glasgow (Dept. of Classics) gave a talk titled ‘Objects in Boiotian cult’. Maria Mili works on Greek religion and has a special interest in how belief and cult practice intertwine with larger political agendas and issues of social and ethnic identity. Her lecture at CANI focused on a recently published dedicatory inscription found in 2005 at the Sanctuary of Apollo Ismenios in Boiotia, the area stretching south of the famous oracular Sanctuary at Delphi.

With the inscription as her starting point, Mili explored the ways in which Boiotian communities perceived their local cult objects as consecrated artefacts with divine protective powers that could be called upon for divine support and safeguard in times of danger.  Consecrated arms, especially arms of defensive character such as shields, were a type of cult object that carried the fundamental notion of divine protection exceptionally well in Boiotia, and were often summoned by the local communities in precarious military circumstances.


The Sanctuary of Apollo Ismenios was one of the most important oracular sanctuaries of Boiotia. It was situated just outside the city gates of Thebes and it played an important role in the shaping of Theban civic identity. The dedicatory inscription had been inscribed in verse (epigram) on a column drum twice:  the earliest text in Boiotian script can be dated to the late-6th century BC and the Ionian script of the later text suggests a date of early/mid-4th century BC. The two versions, inscribed on opposite sides of the drum, are not identical but they overlap significantly.


The epigram commemorates the recovery of a lost shield that originally had been dedicated to the oracular Sanctuary of Amphiaraos by a certain Croesus. The shield was stolen but, through successful divination, it was now resituated at the Sanctuary of Apollo Ismenios. The column drum must have been the base for the shield, the latter being described as ‘gleaming’, a memorial of virtue [and suffering?], a miraculous ‘marvel to the Thebans’.

Croesus, King of Lydia

The epigram has been associated by the scholars who published it with Herodotus’ reference to the golden shield and spear that Croesus, the King of Lydia, dedicated to the Sanctuary of Amphiaraos, and which Herodotus claimed to have seen at the Theban Ismenion (Hd. 1.52). Mili questioned the certainty of such a straightforward connection of the material remains with the dedication of the Lydian king and argued for a more nuanced approach to the text of Herodotus as historical source.  She conceded that the inscription may reflect local traditions regarding King Croesus who is portrayed in extremely positive light in Boiotian sources, in contrast with Herodotus’ emphasis on his hubris and punishing death. Boiotian poets Pindar and Bacchylides, instead, both describe Croesus as being generous (Pythian I. 95-97), a blessed man whom Apollo protects and actually saves from the pyre (Ode 3.25-62).

The defeated Croesus before Cyrus the Great

The Boiotian tradition of Croesus as a recipient of divine charis who consequently becomes a hero casts doubts to the reconstructed reading of his ‘suffering’ on the inscription, and at the same time it justifies the Theban eagerness to appropriate his legendary weapon dedication as a heroic relic. Mili noted the widespread belief that heroic relics were endowed with supernatural powers and in numerous occasions their acquisition, stealing or repatriation was paramount in securing the community’s political/social stability or military success. In this respect, the (re)possessing of a heroic shield would procure and potentially ensure divine backing to the military affairs of the community. Indeed, several literary sources testify to the use of sacred weapons in battle, or to the miraculous intervention of consecrated arms at key moments of the battle, offering magical protection and granting victory. Such miraculous appearances/disappearances of sacred weapons are often linked to Boiotian/Theban military entanglements. Mili argued that the references in the inscription to the ‘gleaming’ shield that was ‘marvel to the Thebans’ reflect established Boiotian traditions and beliefs in the agency of sacred weapons.

The final question centred on the historical context of the epigram. Mili considered the circumstances that led to the composition of the two versions in the 6th and 4th centuries BC respectively, namely the potential association of the earliest text with Theban assertions to supremacy in Boiotia, and the connection of the later reiteration of the claim with the rebuilding of Thebes after its destruction by Alexander the Great. With her informative and thought-provoking analysis of a little known relic of Greek religion, Mili gave us a thoroughly enjoyable insight on the agency and versatility of cult objects in the ancient world.

Katerina Kolotourou

Dr Maria Mili (University of Glasgow)Canada Room, Queen's University, Belfast 5 December 2018, 6.45pm

Posted by The Classical Association in Northern Ireland on Thursday, September 6, 2018

‘Black Sea Voyages’ McLaughlin review

Posted on


On 21 November, room 02/011 of the Peter Froggatt Centre, Queen’s University Belfast was packed to capacity to hear one of CANI’s own, Dr Raoul McLaughlin present an illustrated talk on ‘Greek and Roman Voyages in the Black Sea’

After a brief welcome and update on future events from CANI convenor Helen McVeigh and an even briefer introduction which as per the speaker’s request amounted to “this is Raoul, he’ll take it from here”, Dr McLaughlin launched into a look at the position of the Black Sea in the ancient world.


It was no surprise that Dr McLaughlin began his talk with the recent discovery of the 75ft, 20-man ship on the bed of the Black Sea. Such well-preserved wrecks provide “a unique opportunity to study the ancient economy,” not just of the Black Sea itself but of the connections it provides between the Mediterranean through the mounted nomads of the Central Asian steppe to China.


But it is not only as a conduit for east-west trade that the Black Sea was important to the powers of the Mediterranean. The lands around the Black Sea provided their own commodities and as sea trade was much cheaper and quicker than over land, the shipping lanes of the Black Sea attracted many merchants and then colonists.

Many Greek colonies sprouted up around the Black Sea, with perhaps the most important being those of the Crimea which presided over the expansion of considerable grain fields, used. Combined with its fish stocks, it was suggested that the Black Sea could have fed up to 20 Mediterranean cities, including the Athenian Empire.


Indeed, Black Sea trade was long enough established to appear in many of the stories of Greek mythology, such as with Promotheus’ chaining to Mount Elburz and most famously in the journey of Jason and the Argonauts to Colchis, now modern Georgia but then considered to be the limits of the ‘known’ world. The suggestion of what the Golden Fleece was – a sheep’s fleece used to sieve gold from rivers – might highlight another important commodity that the Black Sea might have had.


The Roman historian Arrian extensively about the Black Sea and the lands surrounding it, and Dr McLaughlin used that Periplus of the Euxine Sea as a template to follow around the shores of the Black Sea. In the process, he demonstrated Arrian’s depiction of Roman control of coastal positions and the dangers of the Black Sea. Perhaps most intriguing was how far around the Black Sea coast Roman control reached during this period, with a significant Roman garrison at Asparos, now Gonio in Georgia, a lesser garrison at Phasis (Poti), and at Sebastopolis (Sukhumi). Dr McLaughin also recounted the story of how the straits of the Azov Sea were known to freeze so solidly in winter that it allowed a Pontic king to with a naval battle in the summer and a cavalry battle in the winter on the same spot.

Dr McLaughlin’s talk also took in the cities of the Crimea and the north-eastern coast of the Black Sea, before returning to Roman territory across the mouth of the Danube, via the Island of Achilles.


After such an engaging talk, Dr McLaughlin took several questions from the audience, including (but not limited to) the presence of piracy in the Black Sea, how the grain fleets and other commodities almost made the Black Sea a mini-Mediterranean, the importance of the position of Constantinople not only as a link between east and west but also north and south, and how the ship wrecks on the sea bed might be able to tell us something about the ebbing ad flowing of the importance of the Black Sea throughout Roman history.

CANI would like to thank all of those who came on relatively short notice and to Dr McLaughlin for offering his expertise to get the 2018/19 programme off to a belated but excellent start.

21st November 2018, 6:45pmPeter Froggatt Centre 02/011Queen's University Belfast

Posted by The Classical Association in Northern Ireland on Sunday, November 11, 2018

Pompeii and P6: Let’s Talk Volcanoes!

Posted on Updated on


Let’s set the scene, Pompeii. An almost 2000 year old city once buried under ash and lava and brought back to the modern day by archaeologists. An interesting subject for anyone, surely; with all the buildings, plaster casts, friezes and all set beneath the shadow of one of the most famous volcanoes of them all – Vesuvius, it’s hard to see why anyone wouldn’t want to learn about this place. For a small P6 class in Hollybank primary school in Newtownabbey, learning about Pompeii was an exciting new chapter in their World Around Us topic focusing on volcanoes.


First off, what do we already know about Pompeii? The P6s eagerly stick their hands in the air and tell me things like “it was buried when Vesuvius erupted”, “the people who lived there owned slaves” and “it was a Roman city”. From the children’s answers I was able to make a pretty detailed mind map and saw that they had a good interest in the subject already.

We first think about where Pompeii is, what it actually was and how it was found. The P6s very much enjoyed discussing what an archaeologist was and how they played a part in uncovering the ancient city. The lesson then moves to learning about some key places in Pompeii – the Amphitheatre being our first stop. Looking at a frieze from a Pompeian villa, the class hear of a riot between the Pompeians and Nucerians that arose during a gladiatorial show as told by the Roman historian Tacitus, causing games in the city to be banned for 10 whole years! The class were fascinated to learn that the Pompeian amphitheatre, at its ripe old age of 2088 years old held over twice the amount our own SSE Arena can – about 20,000 people! Moving on to the forum, the P6s get to compare the forum to what we have today (relevant in the Northern Irish National Curriculum!), we have law courts, government buildings and religious buildings even today and so did the Romans…but these were all nicely positioned in the one place.


The House of the Faun created buzz in the P6 classroom as they all eagerly noticed that the Faun statue in the impluvium looks a lot like Mr Tumnus from the Chronicles of Narnia. “He does a bit, doesn’t he?” I say to them. This gave me the opportunity to tell the class a bit about Satyrs (as the statue is of a Faun which the Romans linked to Satyrs from Greek Drama). I’ve always found that by comparing the Ancient world to things that children know from their own lives helps make the subject come more alive, and in turn helps them to understand a bit more about the civilisations of long ago.


The graffiti of Pompeii generated some very interesting discussion from the pupils. We do indeed still have graffiti today, but graffiti artists probably use spray cans not paint and the artistic styles vary greatly from the writings in Pompeii. Nevertheless, the class agreed that graffiti of any sort was not something that we should do (although they did enjoy hearing some Latin graffiti read aloud).

Looking at the plaster casts of the Pompeians received mixed reactions; empathy for the lives that were lost, but also great intrigue. Who were these people? Were they in pain when they died? How did the archaeologists know that by pouring plaster in these holes they would find what they did?

A lot of questions were raised at this point, proving to me that they were engaged with the topic and as well, that they wanted to learn so much more than I was able to tell them in the time frame. It is perhaps one of the more morbid sights in Pompeii, but nevertheless it made what happen in 79AD in Pompeii all the more real for the Hollybank pupils.


Then comes the really fun part: looking at the eruption itself. I decided to take two slants to this, to give them the broadest outlook of the incident itself – a human perspective and a geological one. We first look at the letters of Pliny the Younger and his recount of the eruption of Vesuvius to his friend and historian, Tacitus.


We hear of how his uncle, Pliny the Elder, takes his ship and heads across the bay of Naples to Pompeii whilst feeling the earth shaking and looking at a thick, black, ashen sky covering the horizon as the sea pulled back from the shore (perhaps suggesting a tsunami was caused). A bit of historical enquiry was launched by the pupils (again, in the curriculum!) because we wondered, is Pliny’s recount a reliable source or not? It’s the only source of its kind that we have detailing so many events of the eruption, it’s hard not to trust! Pliny’s in depth retelling of the kind of eruption that took place lets us have a clearer view of what happened that day, especially from a geological perspective. In fact, Pliny’s description was so good that we were able to name an eruption after him: a Plinian eruption. But, to what extent can we really believe it? Pliny is writing in hindsight of course, his memory may not have been perfect of the day, especially after about 25 years. As well, he tells Tacitus of things that only his uncle could have seen (as Pliny the Younger didn’t actually go on the ship to help himself) and his uncle sadly did not make it back across the bay alive. Can we really trust him?

What we can trust however is the geological side of things – what we know must have happened during the eruption; rocks and ash rushing into the air shaped like a mushroom and spreading off in branches (as a Plinian eruption does), two eruptions in the space of 48 hours and lava rushing down the sides of the mountain.


I left a bit of time at the end for a question and answer session. Letting children ask their own questions encourages freedom of thought and promotes natural curiosity. The P6 teacher, Mrs Hannah Campfield actually set the children homework to think of 5 questions to ask me after the lesson. This proved to be really effective for the children as I had to know my stuff and meant they could begin to think like ancient historians before the lesson had even begun. The P6s asked me questions such as…

How hot is lava?

How fast does lava travel?

Did the Romans have slaves and did they think it was okay to have slaves?

Did it make them bad people because they had slaves?

Was it ok for them to have gladiator fights?

I was so impressed by the thinking shown by the children’s questions and it proved how engaged they were with the topic and how they wanted to understand so much more about Pompeii and its people.


Teaching Primary school children is always a joy. Teaching Classics to this age group never ceases to show me how relevant (to 21st century life/ the Northern Irish National Curriculum!) and fun it can be when brought into the classroom. Children seem to have a natural curiosity for the Romans, their culture, their beliefs, history and language and I do hope I can continue to promote Classics in primary schools in the future. I and CANI would like to thank Hollybank Primary school, principal Ms Lynsey Brett and Mrs Hannah Campfield for allowing us into their school to teach their pupils all about Pompeii.

Amber Taylor