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Regular readers and attendees will know that the Roman Empire beyond its frontiers, particularly in (although by no means limited too) the lands surrounding Roman Britain, is a subject which members of CANI have delved into. We have already had talks, articles and blogs on Roman interaction with Ireland, Scotland, and Japan.
This time it is the turn of the Isle of Mann, which had a long history of habitation before appearing in the surviving written record.
An island from the end of the Ice Age in Britain, the earliest identified inhabitants were hunter-gatherers and fishermen of the Mesolithic period, who were capable of rudimentary flint and bone tool-making. The Neolithic period saw such development in tools, pottery and farming that the island saw its own megalithic builders, with Cashtal yn Ard, Meayll Circle, King Orry’s Grave and the Ballaharra Stones all providing examples. Even on such a small island, Mann even developed its own culture distinct from these builders with the Ronaldsway culture uncovered at the site of what is now the Isle of Mann Airport.
While difficult to prove, it is probably by the Iron Age that Mann was inhabited by Brythonic tribesmen from mainland Britain, who brought their own building techniques and tendencies – hill top and promontory forts and wooden framed roundhouses.
Mediterranean knowledge of Britain predates the Greek advances through the adventuring of Carthaginians such as Himilco (cf. Pliny the Elder, NH II.67; Avienus, Ora Maritima). However, it is unknown if that knowledge extended to the existence of the Isle of Mann. It does have some deposits of iron ore and lead, but these may have been in limited enough quantities to not attract the attention away from the tin mines of Cornwall, which were to such extent that by the mid-fifth century BC, Herodotus was referring to the British Isles as Cassiterides – the ‘islands of tin’ (Herodotus III.115.1-2; cf. Diodorus Siculus V.22), a name still being used by the first century BC (Strabo III.5.11).
At the very least, the Romans learned of the island through their initial military forays to Britain in 55-54BC as Julius Caesar wrote of how there was “an island which is called Mona” between Ireland, Gaul and Britain (Caesar, BG V.13).
However, despite nearly four centuries of Roman control of Britain, surprisingly little Roman material has been found on Mann so far. Indeed, even though there are records of the circumnavigation of Britain by Agricola’s fleet (Tacitus, Agr. 38), Roman naval patrols in British waters into the late fourth century (Vegetius, Mil. IV.37) and reports of Roman involvement with the even more remote Orkneys as early as the Claudian invasion (Pomponius Mela III.49-54; Eutropius VII.13.2-3; Jerome, Chronicle 2061; Orosius I.2.78), it is difficult to tell if the Romans ever made a formal annexation of or official landing on the island.
It had been speculated that there was a Roman fort or camp on the site of what is now Kirk Maughold Church, but there has never been any Roman finds within that area and it is now thought that the square enclosure at Maughold was originally a seventy century monastery. A Roman amphora was also discovered at South Barrule, the highest hill in the south of Mann, which was topped by a fort. This could be evidence of a Roman presence on the island, but as it is a find largely in isolation, it is more likely to be the result of trade.
Another potential Roman site on Mann is the small rock shelter found at Trae Coon on the south end of the island. Mid-20th century excavations found not only a significant congregation of shells, burnt wood and animal bones but also the remains of an adult male. The accompanying wood has been carbon dated to c.70, a generation after the initial Claudian invasion of Britain and during the period before and after the Boudican revolt which saw the legions driving into Wales and northern England. The proposed circumnavigation of Britain by the fleet of Agricola (Tacitus, Agr. 38) demonstrates that the Roman fleet was active in the Irish Sea, which could play into the possibility that these remains were those of a shipwrecked Roman sailor. However, there was plenty of other traffic in the Irish Sea which was not of specifically Roman origin and it goes beyond the available evidence to determine that the Trae Coon shelter was built by a Roman.
More easily transported Roman material evidence comes in the form of coins and given that Ireland was not beyond Rome’s numismatic reach, it would be unsurprising to find similar deposits in Mann too. However, while there have been Roman coins found on Mann, they are small in number – just seven in total – and appear in isolation.
|Emperor||Date||Type||Find Site||Find Date|
|Tiberius||14-37||bronze, Alexandria||Glen Auldyn quarry|
|Trajan||98-117||denarius||Scouts’ Glen, Onchan||1942|
|Antoninus Pius||138-161||Douglas beach|
|Constans||337-350||bronze||Noble’s Hospital, Douglas||1951|
While these seem like slim pickings, there are some points of interest. Not only were they from a wide time period between the reigns of Tiberius I (AD14-37) and Constans I (337-350), they were also spread quite widely around the north, east and south of the island. This suggests a prolonged and possibly extensive engagement between the Isle of Mann and Roman Britain due to its position on routes of trade through the Irish Sea.
The lack of any Roman building on Mann would suggest that the legions did not visit the island at any stage, while the hoards of coins or hacksilver may downplay the idea of Roman diplomatic contact with the inhabitants of Mann. Perhaps the inhabitants of the island were in no need of gentle persuasion, military or monetary, to behave within the Roman orbit. This does not preclude Romano-British mercantile shipping arriving in the ports of Mann, with the even such a limited amount of coins indicating at least some connection between the Isle of Mann and the traffic passing through the Irish Sea.
Irish Christian Mann
Even with the seemingly continued presence of Roman forces in Britain and its surrounding waters well into the late fourth century, there was a growing threat to Roman holdings in the British Isles from surrounding tribes. And the Irish Sea and Roman navy proved not to be enough of a deterrent. While the Scotti/Irish are infrequently named as the actual culprits, the primary sources hint at Irish raids from the late third through to the early fifth century. Constantius Chlorus, Constantine and Constans may have faced Irish raiders (Pan. Lat. 9(5); Eusebius VC 1.25.1, 2; Laterculus Veronensis 13.2.4; Ammianus XX.1.1), while Ammianus describes the “savage tribes of Scotti” (Ammianus XX.1.1) joining the Picts in attacking Britain in 360 and 367 (Ammianus XXVII.8; XXVIII.3; XXX.7.9-10). While local legend and court propaganda have infected the post-Ammian record, Magnus Maximus and Stilicho may have faced Irish raiders, who penetrated into Cumbria, Wales, Cornwall and along the south coast of Britain (Prosper Tiro, Chronicon Gratiani IV; Claudian, III cons. Hon. 52-58; IV cons. Hon. 24-33; In Eutrop. I.391-393; cons. Stil. 3.247-255; Ridgeway (1924) 123ff and Mattingly, Pearce and Kendrick (1937), 42 on Niall ‘of the Nine Hostages’).
These repeated raids may have had consequences for the Isle of Mann, including perhaps being the explanation for the presence of coins of Maximian and Constans on the island; however, it is what these raids developed into which had the greatest impact of them all. In Wales and Cornwall, late fourth/early fifth century Irish raids were giving way to more permanent settlements, bringing with them significant Irish influence on local archaeology, linguistics, etymology and literature: the Lleyn Peninsula in northern Wales takes its name from the Laigin of Leinster, while Dyfed is perhaps derived from the Munster Déisi (Byrne (1973) 134-136; Coplestone-Crow (1981-1982) 11-12 on Laigin/Lleyn Peninsula; Smyth (1982); Rance (2001) 252 n.58 on Irish settlement in Dyfed). Something similar was happening on the Isle of Mann too. In looking at “the island of Mevania… [and its] tolerably fertile soil,” (Orosius I.2.81-82) Orosius mentions that by the time of his writing in 417, it was inhabited by the Scotti. This suggests that such Irish raiders had landed on Mann in sufficient numbers to overthrow any Roman control or Roman-leaning leadership which had prevailed there.
The arrival of the Scotti initiated the ‘Gaelicisation’ of the Isle of Mann, with the most prominent result being the alteration of the island’s language. This is evidenced by ogham inscriptions (the presence of which alone hints at the influence of Irish tribes) being found on Mann containing Primitive Irish, such as the Ballaqueenee Stone in the Manx Museum, which has two DOVAIDONA MAQI DROATA – “Of Dovaido, son of Droata” and BIVAIDONAS MAQI MUCOI CUNAVA[LI] – “Of Bivaidonas, son of the tribe Cunava[li].”
This infiltration of Primitive Irish shifted the language of the Isle of Mann from the Brythonic branch of Insular Celtic, which eventually spawned Welsh, Cornish and Breton to the Goidelic/Gaelic branch. The later development of this Primitive Irish first into Old Irish and then Middle Irish, with varying influences from Latin, Norse and English produced the Manx language.
Irish involvement in the Late Roman era Isle of Mann may also be seen in the Christianisation of the island supposedly in the mid/late fifth century. This was largely attributed to two disciples of St Patrick, Romulus and Conindrus, and a former Irish prince/freebooter called Maughold. The latter had reputedly attempted to embarrass Patrick only to be either banished to the seas as a penance, washing up on the shore of Mann or intentionally taking himself to the island to avoid temptation after having accepted baptism from Patrick.
Maughold made a strong impression amongst the inhabitants of Mann for not only was he chosen to succeed Romulus and Conindrus as bishop of the island, he would become its patron saint, with several places on Mann named after him – Maughold parish, St. Maughold’s Well, St. Maughold’s Chair and Maughold Head. However, this Patrician inspired conversion may be much more reflective of tradition than of how and indeed when the Christianisation of Mann actually occurred. The building of many of the earliest small chapels on the island has been dated to the second half of the sixth century.
Such potential for the shifting of the Christianisation of Mann to the period 550-600 could connect it to two further potential waves of Scotti/Irish involvement with the island. In 577-578, the Annals of Ulster record Báetán mac Cairill, king of Ulster, leading a successful expedition to subdue Mann; however, when Báetán died in 581, the island is said to have fallen into the hands of his rival, the king of Dál Riata, Áedán mac Gabráin (there is some suggestion that Báetán instead attacked and subdued the south coast of the Firth of Forth, called Manau Gododdin, rather than the Isle of Mann).
The Venerable Bede (HE II.8-9) records Edwin, king of the Northumbrians (616-c.633), taking control of the Mevanian Islands, a collective terms which may include both Mann and Anglesey. In saying that that Edwin lifted the island from Britons, Bede may be recording that Mann had been lost by the Dál Riata before the 620s. Any Northumbrian rule may not have lasted long for they were seemingly ousted from Lancashire sometime in the mid-seventh century – perhaps after the defeat and death of Edwin at the Battle of Hatfield Chase in c.633, the defeat and death of his successor Oswald at the Battle of Maserfield in 641/642 or on the division of Northumbria between the sons of Oswiu in 670. That said, the destructive raid of Ecgfrið of Northumbria on the east coast of Ireland in 684, which brought much destruction from Dublin to Drogheda may have involved either using any retained Northumbrian influence on Mann or re-establishing it briefly on the way.
Mona or Mona: The Name of Mann (and Anglesey?)
The potential misidentifying of the ‘Manau’ target of Báetán’s 577-578 campaign highlights a problem with the Isle of Mann in the historical record – from the very earliest appearance of the island in Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars (V.13), Mann frequently shared similar and sometimes even the same name as Anglesey – Mona. Pliny the Elder (NH IV.30) appears to be refer to Anglesey as Mona and the Isle of Man as Monapia, while Tacitus (Agr. 14, 18) also refers to Anglesey as Mona. In his Geographia (II.1), Claudius Ptolemy records both a Monœda island and a Mona island off the eastern coast of Ireland. It is the former which appears to refer to Mann, while the latter refers to Anglesey.
The form used by Orosius I.2.81-82 – Mevania – was also used by Bede, HE II.8-9 as a collective descriptor for the islands of Mann and Anglesey when recording their occupation by the Northumbrians during the reign of Edwin (616-c.633). This shows that the linking together of Mann and Anglesey first recorded by Caesar may have remained in use for over six centuries.
The seventh century Ravenna Cosmography records Manavi, a slight change which could be the result of some knowledge of Mann, with its recognition as a ‘mountain in the sea’ being joined by the Latin word avis, due to the presence of many different birds on the Calf of Mann island (so many that it is now a bird sanctuary), although this may be complicating matters unnecessarily.
Caesar is unlikely to have simply made up names for Mann and Anglesey (islands which, of course, he himself got nowhere near on either of his forays to Britain) and was therefore relying on locals, who were either providing information directly to him or through various intermediaries. Mona could be Caesar’s attempt to transliterate the names given to him, using a Latin word familiar to him, suggesting that Mann and Anglesey were known by names which sounded like ‘mona‘ to the Roman ear or meant (or was described to him as) something similar like ‘hill’ or ‘mountain.’ The topography of Mann could be connected to such ‘mountainous’ depictions and naming as it essentially two large hills separated by a valley, so it could be described as a ‘mountain in the sea.’
Could the similarity in recorded names for Mann and Anglesey not only represent their relative similarity in size and geography but also some existing cultural and linguistic links? Along with Manau Gododdin in what is now Lothian in Scotland, they appear to have had Brythonic inhabitants, increasing the possibility of shared etymological origins.
That said, the Gaelic, Welsh, Pictish and Latin names for Mann – moncrdh, mynydd, monadh, and mons respectively (there is also the Norse Mön, but it is uncertain if this is cognate with ‘Mann’ as the Norse used the same root word for cairns) – all seem to have similar linguistic roots, suggesting that the basis of ‘Mann’ was perhaps from an older linguistic branch than Brythonic, such as Insular Celtic or more umbrella Celtic.
Thomas Wilson, Lord Bishop of Sodor and Man (1663-1755), suggested that Mann derived from the Saxon mang, meaning ‘among’ and reflecting on the position of the island in-between Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England; however, this would discount all of the names recorded for Mann that pre-date the Saxon invasions of England…
Such pre-existing links between the two Monas could have seen Mann become a haven for Druids after the sacks of Anglesey in 60 by Suetonius Paulinus and in 77 by Agricola (Tacitus, Ann. XIV.29-33; Agr. 18). However, the vehemence with which the Romans attacked the Druids suggests that if it was known that any had escaped to Mann, the legions would likely not have been far behind in the course of, if not Paulinus’ conquest of Anglesey which was interrupted by Boudica’s revolt, surely Agricola’s wide-ranging campaigning after his sack of Anglesey in 77.
There is also similarity with the Brythonic/Gaelic sea god, Manannán, who once ruled Mann, which seems to be an obvious connection, with both having links to the water; however, this does not prove if the island is named after him or he is named after the island. The suffix nán might suggest an endearing diminutive, with Manannán meaning something like ‘little man of Mann’ or ‘Mannling’, but this is not definitive.
Etymological connections for the name Mona/Mann may also exist in the west coast of Ireland, where according to Ptolemy’s Geographia (II.1) there lived a tribe called the Manapii (or a town called Manapia). This is very close in form to the Monapia or Monabia Pliny records for the name of the Isle of Mann (NH IV.30). Could the island have taken its name from the Manapii tribe, who inhabited a tract of land on the east coast of Ireland in Ptolemy’s time? This tribal name meant ‘hill-men,’ but whether they had any connection with Man it is impossible to say.
It is possible that truth of the matter lies somewhere in amongst much of this speculation. The watery connection to Manannán, Caesar using a word he was familiar with to record the ‘mountains in the sea’ described to him for both Mann and Anglesey and even Lord Bishop Wilson’s reasoning for positing a Saxon origin may not completely off the mark with the same core sound within the Insular Celtic languages being used in and around the Irish Sea. Perhaps ‘Mann’ encapsulates some notion of water being nearby.
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Claudian, Laus Serenae (Platnauer, M. translation, Loeb Classical Library, 1922)
Claudian, Panegyricus de Quarto Consulatu Honorii Augusti (Platnauer, M. translation, Loeb Classical Library, 1922)
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Belfast Summer School in Latin and Classical Greek
Ancient Languages Refresher Day
Queen’s University Belfast
Saturday 2nd February 2019, 10am – 3.30pm.
Classes will be available in Latin and Classical Greek at beginners’, intermediate and advanced levels. These classes are designed to review material covered in the summer school but it is not necessary to have attended the summer school: everyone is welcome.
Beginners classes will study basic grammar principles while classes for intermediate level Greek and Latin will revise grammar, leading to the reading of an adapted text. Advanced classes will read original Latin or Greek.
This revision day is open to all over 14 years of age. Please note that students aged 14 – 17 must be accompanied by a chaperone.
Fees for the day are £30. Interested students should register with the summer school co-ordinator by sending your completed registration form and sending it to email@example.com. Payment is required to secure your place at the refresher day and can be made:
- Online by card at the following link paypal.me/belfastsummerschool
- By cheque made payable to “The Classical Association in Northern Ireland” and sent to Belfast Summer School, c/o 39 Old Mill Grove, Belfast BT16 1WB.
You can download a registration form by clicking HERE
Please contact the co-ordinator, Helen McVeigh, with any queries you may have (email firstname.lastname@example.org).
While in the East, a great blaze of light in the sky could be a hopeful sign of the rise of a powerful leader, the Greco-Romans dreaded comets as portents of doom, war or the overthrow of a ruler.
When recording much of the previous ‘knowledge’ of comets in his Natural Questions, including the likes of Aristotle who believed they came from the Earth, Seneca highlights a lot of their historic negative receptions, even when he is attempting to be scientific, while Pliny the Elder records certain comets as “a very terrible portent” (Pliny, NH II.22; Seneca, Natural Questions VII). This was so prevalent that the English word ‘disaster’ comes from the Latin for ‘dire star’, referring to a comet.
During the late second/early first century BC, the Romans will have been forgiven for thinking that their predilection for fear of comets was completely justified. The comets of 135BC, 119BC and 87BC came at a time when the eastern Mediterranean was awash with prophecies of trouble for the Roman state (Sanford (1937), 437-439, 446; Holland (2003), 31-58; Buitenwerf (2003) on Sibylline Oracles), prophecies which seemed to be coming true – external problems abound with Spaniards, Numidians, Germans, pirates and the comet-swathed Mithridates, while internally political instability had brought about increasing bloodshed with the Gracchi, Saturninus, the Social War and the burgeoning war between Marians and Sullans. The Messianic figure to bring down the great tyrant of the age promised by such comets may have seemed just around the corner to many a Roman and Asian…
There were so many prophecies proclaiming seemingly anti-Roman aims and included comets in some way that it could almost be queried whether the Romans were scared of what they thought the comet meant in terms of portents or what it might mean to many of its provincials and hostile neighbours, particularly given the Messianic, tyrant-slaying empire-overthrowing claims amongst the peoples of Asia Minor and the Middle East. Greeks and possibly even some Italians choosing to see these comets in a more positive, revolutionary way could have dire consequences for Rome and her empire.
Into this mire came another celestial intervention during a confrontation at Ortyrae between the forces of Mithridates (under the command of a one-eyed Roman rebel Marcus Varius) and the army of Lucullus in 73BC. As the two armies were about to collide, a meteor struck the ground between them, causing both armies to retreat from the battlefield. While Mithridates already had over sixty years of positive comet propaganda behind him in appealing to divine protection, Lucullus will have been struggling largely against the flow of Roman reception of comets and meteorites to have the positive spin of being saved from a battle he did not want due to being thoroughly out-numbered through divine meteor intervention accepted at home; however, the circumstances of the Ortyrae meteorite may have helped him greatly (Mayor (2009), 267-270; Plutarch, Lucullus VIII.5-7; Stothers (2007); D’Orazio (2007); Keaveney (1992), 77 “Both sides, recognising an evil omen, withdrew”; Strabo XII.5.3 on Cybele’s meteorite; Mitchell (1995), II.20).
Meteors were associated with the Anatolian mother goddess Cybele, a goddess who had gained a significant following in Rome over the previous decades due to her intercession on Rome’s behalf during the Second Punic War. With the battle with Hannibal reaching its crescendo, the Sibylline Books warned that the great Carthaginian general would only be defeated if Cybele’s sacred black stone meteorite kept at Pessinus in central Anatolia was brought to Italy (similar meteorite veneration continues to this day in the guise of the Kaaba in Islam).
The Romans followed this advice and with great pomp and ceremony the black stone was brought to Rome in 204BC. Scipio Africanus’ subsequent decisive victory over Hannibal at Zama in 202BC saw Cybele worship became popular amongst the Romans, leading to a gradual overturning of the traditional Roman fear of meteors and comets. The Romans did not forget this intervention with the great general Marius making a pilgrimage to its site in 98BC, while Sulla had received encouragement from a visitation by Cybele in a dream.
While the likes of Seneca and Pliny would continue to list the poor portents of many comets, before the first century BC was out, Rome would embrace the potential positives of such wandering starts, although it may have taken a dictatorial/imperial hand to guide them.
According to Suetonius, as celebrations for the Ludi Victoriae Caesaris of 44BC were getting underway, “a comet shone for seven successive days, rising about the eleventh hour” (Suetonius, Divus Julius 88). This bright, day-light comet was initially thought to have appeared in September, this has recently been reused to July, which just so happens to be the month of Julius Caesar, who had just been assassinated on the Ides of March.
Due to the fortuitous timing and no doubt some ‘encouragement’ from the Caesarian party, this astronomical visitor became known as the Sidus Iulium (‘Julian Star’) or Caesaris astrum (‘Star of Caesar’) and became increasingly identified as “the soul of Caesar” (Suetonius, Divus Julius 88), ready to ascend to the heavens once his deification was acclaimed on 1 January 42BC.
Such seeming manipulation of names, dates and meaning of ‘Caesar’s Comet’ raises the suspicion as to whether the star/comet appeared at all or was the total invention of Augustan propaganda (Gurval (1997); Marsden in Ramsey and Licht (1997); Pandey (2013)). However, much like with scepticism over the comets of Mithridates, the records from Han China do suggest that there was a comet in the skies of the summer of 44BC, although perhaps in mid-May to mid-June rather than late July. Whether it existed or not, the Sidus Iulium became a potent propaganda tool over the two decades as Augustus established his power and then established his own links to Aeneas and Venus through Caesar.
It must also be noted that what became known as ‘Caesar’s Comet’ was not always considered to be such. It appeared on coins before 44BC was out but as a tailless ‘Star of Caesar’ rather than a comet. Perhaps as further evidence of the infiltration of eastern positivity towards comets, this Sidus Iulium gradually grew a tail to become a comet and also a depiction of Caesar’s divinity (Gurval (1997)).
While Virgil’s “never did fearsome comets so often blaze” seems to link comets to death rather than Caesar’s divinity (Virgil, Georgic I.487-488), this transformation appears to have been complete by the dedication of the Temple of Divus Iulius in 29BC for at the back of the temple a huge image of Caesar was erected with a flaming comet fixed to its forehead, leading the temple also being called the ‘Temple of the Comet Star’ (Pliny, NH II.93-94; Ovid, Meta. XV.840, cf. 745-842).
Again much like with Mithridates, Augustus must have been happy with the timing of the return of Halley’s Comet in 10BC, as it just happened to coincide with the massive funeral games the emperor staged that year in honour of his great friend and general, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, who had died in 12BC.
The seeming transformation of the ‘Julian Star/Star of Caesar’ into ‘Caesar’s Comet’ is similar to the development of the reception of perhaps the most famous comet in the ancient world… after the comets that signalled the coming of Mithridates and the heavenly ascent of Julius Caesar, there was the wandering star juxtaposed into the birth story of Jesus of Nazareth. Much like what is supposed for the Red Comet, this ‘Star of Bethlehem’ acted as the herald for a new King, a guide and a symbol of a Messianic arrival. This association of the celestial guide of the Wise Men with a comet has a long history, with C.R. Nicholl’s 2015 work The Great Christ Comet: Revealing the True Star of Bethlehem being just the latest (Rosenberg (1972) Brown (1975); (1993); Cullen (1979); Hughes (1979); Humphreys (1992); Paffenroth (1993); Jenkins (2004)).
Even more maligned emperors like Nero had numerous celestial visitors to use for their propaganda and political ends. The death of Claudius and Nero’s accession to the throne in 54 was greeted with bright tailed comet, while in 64, the emperor used the appearance of a comet to have numerous senators he disliked executed. However, in 66, when Nero’s regime was beginning to crumble, his popularity replaced with growing opposition, Halley’s Comet returned to the skies.
Perhaps the Jews took this appearance as a sign to overthrow the tyranny of the Romans, breaking out in revolt in the summer of 66, while many Romans may have welcomed the old prophecies of comets bringing about the downfall of tyrants…
Within a decade, during his fifth consulship of 76, the future emperor Titus, the man who had put down said Jewish revolt, wrote a poem about a javelin-type comet, which Pliny the Elder considered to be famous (Pliny, NH II.22).
Down to Modern Times
Even with the seeming embrace of comets by much of the world, these wandering stars continued to provoke a range of response throughout the medieval period. Halley’s Comet appears above Harold Godwinson in the Bayeux Tapestry, seemingly as a hint of subsequent events during the Norman Conquest (with the benefit of hindsight).
The record of the First Crusade is also littered with instances of cometary sightings in connection with significant events, for good and ill. Comets and meteors had been taken as God’s blessing for Pope Urban’s call of what became the Crusade at Clermont in 1095. A meteor shower visible at Constantinople was seen as a predictor of the arrival of the Frankish ‘locusts’. The Turkish camp of Kerbogha besieging the Crusaders in Antioch was seen to be hit by a meteor on 14 June 1098.
In various parts of Europe, it was blamed for earthquakes, illnesses, birth defects and even the Black Death, with Pope Callixtus III excommunicating the comet in 1456 as an “instrument of the devil.” Its 1835-1836 return was claimed to have caused a large fire in New York, a massacre of Boers by the Zulu in South Africa and the siege of the Alamo.
On comets in general, a 15th century poem claimed that they brought “fever, illness, pestilence and death, difficult times, shortages and times of great famine,” which would be an apt description of the consequences for the locals upon the appearance of the Conquistadores in Central and South America. Indeed, Inca and Aztec astrologers saw comets as signs of divine wrath, with one reputedly appearing in the days before the conquest of the former by Francisco Pizarro.
The 16th century French physician, Ambroise Pare, thought a comet of 1528 “was so horrible, so frightful, and it produced such great terror that some died of fear and others fell sick. It appeared to be of extreme length, and was the color of blood.”
It was not all negative. By the 17th century, European winemakers claimed that comets caused higher temperatures and therefore aided their grape production and taste, while Napoleon connected some of his early military victories to the appearance of comets.
As science progressed into the 20th century, the old adage of ‘a little knowledge being a dangerous thing’ came into play. In 1910, “comet pills” and “comet insurance” appeared on the market and some Americans felt the need to board up their houses due to the supposed threat of poisonous cyanide gas as Earth passed through the tail of Halley’s Comet.
One might think that as the 20th century progressed that fear of comets was to be confined to Hollywood story lines, but forms of ‘comet fever’ still survive into more modern times. When Comet Hale-Bopp appeared in the skies in 1997, it was taken to be a cover for the apocalyptic appearance of ‘Nibiru/Planet X’ or the pre-emptor of an alien space ship, which a group called Heaven’s Gate committed mass suicide in order to be beamed aboard.
Comets inspired dread, fear, and awe in many different ancient societies and even to this day, they continue to fascinate, astound and even frighten for the same core reason – they are something out of the ordinary in a sky which is almost always predictable.
Even the polar opposite receptions of comets have their own modern versions. While Greeks and Romans may have seen divine warning of an impending disaster, modern viewers of Halley or Hale-Bopp could be all too aware of that apocalyptic threat posed by such (not-so) Near Earth Objects.
And on the other hand, the eastern views of great positive, even Messianic change to come in the wake of a comet also have their modern theoretical backing in their bringing of the essential Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons to Earth in order for life to emerge.
Whether by luck or design, G.R.R. Martin and the creators of Game of Thrones captured this ambiguity perfectly in their words and scenes on paper and screen. The Red Comet is a “harbinger of change,” but what that change is depends on your perspective – victory for your enemies or yourself; the arrival of ice zombies or the dragons/Messiah seemingly sent to defeat them; new life or death.
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It was this writer’s great good fortune to enter the Neolithic passage tomb of Newgrange and some of its surrounding environs and accompanying museum.
Along with nearby Knowth, Dowth and other mounds, standing stones, henges and prehistoric enclosures, Newgrange makes up the Brú na Bóinne – ‘Palace of the Boyne’ – UNESCO World Heritage site in Co. Meath (one of only three on the entire island of Ireland).
Constructed in c.3200BC, the passage tomb of Newgrange is older than both Stonehenge and the Pyramids. There is no firm consensus about what the site was used for, but it appears more ritual or religious than anything else, particularly with the presence of three alcoves at the head of the passage.
Newgrange was not always the striking site it is now or was upon its completion. Perhaps by the Late Neolithic period – c. 2000BC, the site had fallen into decay with nature starting to cover over the site. That said, it must have retained some ritual significance as seen with deposits of various types through the Iron Age, including the Roman deposits discussed below, and even some deposits that can only have some from the medieval period, such as the remains of rabbits, which only arrived in Ireland in the 13th century.
Despite any such continuation of local reverence, it is possible that the passage tomb had been almost completely subsumed by the local landscape by the medieval period with cattle grazing on top of the mound. That same field was also subsumed by the lands of the Cistercian Abbey of Mellifont and later the lands of the earls of Drogheda.
The passage tomb was not revealed again until Charles Campbell, who held a 99 year lease on the land from the Countess of Drogheda, ordered workmen to dig into the mound to retrieve some stone. Recognising that he had found something more than just a pile of stones, Campbell allowed a parade of antiquarians to investigate the site, many of whom refused to believe that it had been built by local prehistoric peoples. This led to suggestions of Egyptian, Indian or Phoenician involvement in its construction.
Despite this recognition of the importance of the site, it was left largely open until the late 19th century, leading to vandalism and theft. Conservation efforts began in 1890, but the definitive (although not without some controversy over the restoration) archaeological survey by Professor Michael O’Kelly did not being until 1962.
Squeezing through the 19 metre narrow passage with 200,000 tonnes of graduated stone and kerbstones above and around, trying not to smash your head against the ceiling or rub too much against the sides, you do not get the impression of going up-hill. However, by the time you enter the main tomb with its three alcoves and striking layered ceiling, complete with a 40 tonne capstone, your feet are now level with the top of the entrance. While initially this just seems like a way to place the alcove tombs in a ceremonially higher position, it will be seen below that there was much more to this elevation.
Walking around the acre-sized mound (85 metres wide, 13.5 metres high), we were struck by not only the 97 enormous kerbstones ringing the mound and the satellite tomb, which turned out to be a ‘folly’ tomb made up of stone culled from Newgrange itself in a form of 19th century antiquarian vandalism, but also the large semi-circular bank surrounding half of the mound.
Perhaps showing a lack of archaeological knowledge, it was speculated in my group that it might have been part of an attempt to make the mound appear in the same spiral shape prevalent around Newgrange. We found that it was instead comprised of cairn materials which had slipped from the mound, essentially burying the kerbstones. During the restoration of the Newgrange site, it was decided to retain the cairn slip semi-circular mound, only uncovering the kerbstones which it had obscured from view.
The survival of such a seemingly rudimentary structure which used no form of cement (gaps between the major stones were filled in with other stone) is in itself astounding but even more so is that fact that the central passage tomb has remained completely water tight over the millennia since the capstone was put in place.
Not only are many of the stones used to construct Newgrange of a vast size and number, they are also not exactly from the nearby hills. The quartz and granite used at the site came from up to 70 miles away in Wicklow and Dundalk. And this was almost certainly at a time before the advent of the wheel in Ireland and domesticated beasts of burden (and most probably all of Europe too), so the likelihood is that the stones were floated along the Boyne, rolled on felled trees and muscled into position through ramps and good, old-fashioned manpower.
It is not only the architectural prowess which is so eye-opening, but also the artistic techniques of the Stone Age farmers who built this monument. Many of the stones in and around Newgrange are engraved with various Neolithic patterns. Indeed, the Boyne Valley as a whole contains a significant proportion of Europe’s Neolithic art.
One of the more prominent art techniques around Newgrange and most prominently displayed on the vast Entrance Stone are the triskele-like patterns. Whilst this type of triskele is seemingly unique to Newgrange, the triskele itself was widely used and has been looked at in a previous blog with regards to another Irish find – the Bann Disc.
There has been plenty of speculation as to what this preponderance of triskele spirals could mean beyond decoration – are they some for of map? The layout of the stars? A language or even drug-induced hallucinations?
Newgrange and the Winter Solstice
If the art and architecture were not awe-inspiring enough, Newgrange had one more astronomical secret for those charged with unearthing it. The onsite museum (as well as providing plenty of opportunity to buy plenty of Irish-theme merchandise and extremely appetising food) tells the story of how Professor Michael O’Kelly, principal excavating archaeologist from 1962-1975, came to uncover one of Newgrange’s hidden mysteries and quite possibly one of its main reasons for being where it is – its alignment with the sun of the winter solstice.
Professor O’Kelly and his team had heard of local traditions surrounding the solstice and even Newgrange’s use of it for ritual purposes, but it was not until the winter of 1967 that the professor saw what was in all likelihood the reason for the elevation of the alcove tombs to the level of the entrance…
“At 8:58 hours, the first pencil of direct sunlight shone through the roof-box and along the passage to reach across the tomb chamber floor as far as the front edge of the basin stone in the end recess.” Professor Michael J. O’Kelly, 21st December 1969
It turns out that the whole Newgrange mound was oriented with the winter solstice in mind so that the light of the sun on the shortest day – 21 December – would shine through the passage into the alcove at the head of the tomb. The exact reasoning for this is unknown – general sun worship, celebrating the turning of the season, allowing the cremated remains in the passage tomb to ‘see’ the sun or partake in solstice?
Getting to see this annual event has become the focus of a lottery in the Boyne Valley museum, with twenty people chosen to stand in the passage tomb at the appointed time to be greeted by the approaching beam of light (weather permitting) – over 32,000 attempted to win that privilege. While inside the passage tomb, non-solstice visitors are given a taster of what they beam of light might look like creeping through the otherwise perennial darkness.
Such an astronomical alignment encouraged similar investigations at Knowth and Dowth, with the latter having a similar winter solstice alignment as Newgrange and the former being aligned with the spring and autumn equinoxes.
Clearly, these Stone Age farmers who had no domesticated animals or the wheel were well-advanced in knowledge of the astronomical events of their world.
Roman Material at Newgrange
As this is a classical blog, it would be remiss of me to not mention the finds of Roman material at the site. A significant collection of rings, brooches, torcs and gold, silver and base coins were found near the entrance and at the larger of the stone circle surrounding Newgrange.
The coins depict emperors ranging from the late first century to the late fourth century. A catalogue of these coins was collated by R.A.G. Carson of the British Museum for the Royal Irish Academy in 1977, running to some 25 coins including two now lost from the 1842 finds recorded by Conyngham (1844).
Postumus (Gallic emperor, 260-269)
Maximian (286-305, 306-308, 310)
Constantine I (306-337)
Constantine II (337-340)
Valentinian I (364-375)
Theodosius I (379-395)
Of all the 20 coins from which a mint mark can be ascertained, the majority (11) come from the imperial mint at Trier, now in Germany. The three earliest coins of Domitian were all made in Rome, along with another of Probus. The remaining coins came from the mints at Cologne, Amiens, Milan and London.
In the very least this demonstrates some interaction between the Roman and Irish worlds and that Roman items were considered valuable enough to dedication to whatever rituals or gods were held sacred on the site of Newgrange during or after the fourth century.
Bateson, D. ‘Roman material from Ireland: a reconsideration’, in PIRA 73 (1973) 21-97
Carson, R.A.G. and O’Kelly, Claire ‘A Catalogue of the Roman Coins from Newgrange, Co. Meath and Notes on the Coins and Related Finds,’ PIRA 77 (1977) 35-55
Conyngham, A. ‘Description of some gold ornaments recently found in Ireland,’ Archalogia 30 (1844) 137
O’Kelly, M.J. Newgrange: Archaeology, Art and Legend. London (1982)
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.
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