Recently 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)
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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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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)
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), https://www2.jpl.nasa.gov/comet/news59.html)
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 (http://deepimpact.umd.edu/science/comets-cultures.html).
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 (http://www.jasoncolavito.com/blog/gilgamesh-and-enkidu-as-orion-and-a-meteor). 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 (http://discovermagazine.com/2007/nov/did-a-comet-cause-the-great-flood).
The 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.