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

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

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

(Schwarz (1997),

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


GoTAH VIa: Harbinger of Change – The Reception of the Red Comet

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As they streak across the sky, striking awe into onlookers, it is easy to forget that such comets could, with just a few degrees difference in angle, be harbingers of the ultimate doom to life on this planet. Such apocalyptic notions are not just the fodder for Hollywood movies like Deep Impact and Armageddon or Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, Hammer of the Gods.


We need only look up at the moon to see the damage which can be done by such celestial cannonballs. The surface of the Earth itself is spotted with craterous bullet-holes, some which are considered to have caused extinction level events.


But as much as such comets could be the bringers of apocalyptic doom and have been in the past, they could also be the harbingers of a new dawn. The PAH (Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) world hypothesis suggests that such comets may have brought some of the vital ingredients of the primordial soup  to Earth – Arthur C. Clarke’s essay ‘Toilets of the Gods’ is perhaps the most famous iteration of this theory.

This dual nature of bringers of extinction and of the building blocks of life is played out in the reception of the Red Comet in both the literary and televisual versions of Game of Thrones.


Red Comet, by Franz Miklis. © Fantasy Flight Games©

The sheer number of different names that this celestial interloper is recorded by – Red Comet, Red Messenger, Bleeding Star, Mormont’s Torch, King Joffrey’s comet, Red Sword, Sword that Slays the Season, Dragon’s Tail, burning brand, Father’s scourge and Harbinger – demonstrates the varied nature of its reception amongst the various characters and groups across Westeros and Essos. And even this list of names does not cover all of the ideas about the Red Comet.

Bright enough to be seen during the day, many considered the Red Comet to be some kind of sign or messenger, with those in the streets of King’s Landing and in the Riverlands specifically calling the comet the ‘Red Messenger,’ (ACOK, ch.3, Tyrion I; ch.7, Catelyn I; cf. ch.11, Theon I), although there was little agreement on not only what the comet was to be called but also what that message was.

To Old Nan (who was blind but claimed to be able to smell the comet), it signals the coming of dragons (ACOK, prol.), rather accurately as it turns out, given the events surrounding the funeral pyre of Khal Drogo in the grasslands of the Lhazareen. This thought is echoed in S02E01 “The North Remembers” of the TV show, where the words of Old Nan are put in the mouth of the wildling woman Osha.

Unsurprisingly, given her own experiences, Daenerys Targaryen muses that the comet was “Bloodred; fire red; the dragon’s tail,” (AGOT, ch.72, Daenerys X), clearly associating it not only with her dragons but the cause and even red-dragoned sigil of House Targaryen. In the streets of King’s Landing, perhaps reflecting that city’s memory of actual dragons, the people refer to it as the ‘Dragon’s Tail’, as do some of the servants encountered by Sansa Stark (ACOK, ch.2, Sansa I). Ser Arys Oakheart counters this by pointing out that it is Joffrey Baratheon who sits on the dragon’s throne (ACOK, ch.2, Sansa I). Meanwhile, at Dragonstone, the red priestess Melisandre tells Selyse Florent that the comet is dragonsbreath (ACOK, prol.)


Drogo’s Funeral Pyre Kim Pope©

Despite this connection to Daenerys, her dragons and her quest to claim the Iron Throne, it is another Dothraki, Jhogo, who is first recorded chronologically seeing the shierak qiya: ‘Bleeding Star’ in the Dothraki language (ACOK, ch.12, Daenerys I). Interestingly, he sees it before Khal Drogo’s funeral pyre. It is used as a symbol to light the pyre on fire, as it is believed the brighter the star, the fiercer a man burned in life, a reflection of the great Khal that the Dothraki and indeed Daenerys has lost in the demise of Drogo (and perhaps even of Rhaego, Drogo and Daenerys’ unborn son).

This link to the demise of a great man may also be seen in mentions of the comet in relation to the death of Eddard Stark. Maester Luwin of Winterfell studied the comet through his Myrish lens tube on the morning when a raven brings the news of Eddard’s execution (AGOT, ch.66, Bran VII), which is the first mention of the comet in A Game of Thrones, although the sighting by Jhogo takes place earlier in the timeline of events. The comet makes Arya Stark remember the blood on Ice, her father’s greatsword, which she had seen used to execute him (ACOK, ch.1, Arya I). Some, like Greatjon Umber look upon the comet as a red flag of vengeance for Ned (ACOK, ch.7, Catelyn I).


Khal Drogo’s funeral pyre also sees the comet cast in the role of a sign or guide. Daenerys uses its presence to light said pyre (AGOT, ch.72, Daenerys X) and given how positively that guidance went, she again takes it as a sign to venture into the waterless Red Waste, claiming that “the gods have sent it to show me the way” (ACOK, ch.12, Daenerys I). That she could command her small khalasar to follow her in such a dangerous journey, even against the mutterings of the old men who saw the comet as ill-omened, demonstrates the respect and awe now felt for Daenerys given her survival of the funeral pyre and status as ‘Mother of Dragons.’ It may also have been a recognition that there was little else they could do due to the presence of other marauding khalasars in the vicinity, highlighted in the TV show by the murder of Rakharo when on a scouting mission, or evidence of a genuine belief in the shierak qiya as a guide to better things, which it could be argued it did given the improving of Daenerys’ position through crossing the Red Waste to Qarth. This idea of the comet being a guide for Daenerys is reiterated by the Undying Ones of Qarth, who claimed to have sent the comet to bring Dani to them (ACOK, ch.48, Daenerys IV).

This guiding hand symbolism may also be present for the men of the Night’s Watch currently employed in the Great Ranging beyond the Wall calling the comet ‘Mormont’s Torch’ after their Lord Commander (ACOK, ch.6, Jon I; ch.23, Jon III), possibly an allusion to the need for light against the coming dark.


Melisandre and Marco_Caradonna’s Prince Who Was Promised

Through its fiery colour, heavenly position and sword-like look, the Red Comet was also closely associated with the prophecies surrounding the worship of the Lord of Light, R’hllor. Maester Aemon recalls how Prince Aegon was conceived under the light of a comet at King’s Landing, leading Rhaegar to believe that his son was the ‘prince that was promised.’ Aemon later began to think that Daenerys was the promised hero (AFFC, ch.35, Samwell IV), and she too claimed that the comet was the herald of her coming. (ACOK, ch.12, Daenerys I)

In Westeros, it is Melisandre who suggests that the comet was acting as a herald, specifically for Stannis Baratheon, who she saw as the ‘prince that was promised’ to stand in the name of R’hllor against the Great Other, something echoed by his wife Selyse (ASOS, ch.63, Davos VI; Chapter 78, Samwell V; ADWD, ch.54, Cersei I).

Beyond the prophecies of the Lord of Light, Theon records the men of Riverrun seeing “the Red Comet is a herald of a new age. A messenger from the gods” (ACOK, ch.11, Theon I). Varys reports how the people in the streets of King’s Landing “say it comes as a herald before a king” (ACOK, ch.3, Tyrion I), with the royal court sycophantically proclaiming it as “King Joffrey’s comet,” something echoed by Ser Arys Oakheart, who sees it as the herald of Joffrey’s ascent to the throne, which Sansa doubts as the comet is red, a Lannister colour while Joffrey is supposed to be a Baratheon… the audience, reader and a select few know why the comet is not gold…(ACOK, ch.2, Sansa I)

Ser Oakheart, perhaps demonstrating his own sycophancy or willingness to believe propaganda, also tells Sansa that the comet means that King Joffrey “will triumph over his enemies” (ACOK, ch.2, Sansa I). The comet being a harbinger of victory is a common enough idea in Westeros, although there is plenty of hand-wringing as to whether that victory will be for your or your enemies.

Even some non-regal but self-centred persons, like Theon Greyjoy, could think that the comet was a sign for them personally (ACOK, ch.11, Theon I), but this question of ‘whose victory?’ is seen most clearly in the musings of Catelyn Stark, who mentions how the men of Winterfell see the comet as an omen of the victory of Robb Stark, and that her brother Edmure Tully, viewing the comet as a fish with a long tail and the red being the mud red colour of the river, sees future triumph for his family and himself. Being more pessimistic in the wake of her husband’s execution and the seeming loss of her daughters, Catelyn sees the comet’s colour as reminiscent of Lannister red crimson.


Brynden Tully dismisses these musings, claiming that the Red Comet is neither Lannister crimson not Tully red, but that of blood: a sign of the horrors about to unfold. Not deterred from her pessimism, Catelyn wonders whose blood that might be (ACOK, ch.7, Catelyn I).

The Blackfish is not the only one to identify the Red Comet as a sign of war and bloodshed, with several speaking in almost Targaryen terms of ‘fire and blood.’ Aeron Greyjoy tells Theon that it is an invitation from the Drowned God for the Ironborn to go on the warpath once more (ACOK, ch.11, Theon I). Maester Cressen thought the comet was “the colour of blood and flame and sunsets” (ACOK, prol.), while Osha warns Bran that it means “blood and fire, boy, and nothing sweet” (ACOK, ch.4, Bran I). In King’s Landing, Varys refers to how the people in the streets say the comet warns of “fire and blood to follow” (ACOK, ch.3, Tyrion I), which could be laced with foreboding of his own Targaryen leanings as well as some of the lower classes in the capital.

There are also some references to the panoply of war in the shape of the comet. Gendry calls the comet the ‘Red Sword,’ through his own background as a blacksmith and how he sees it as a “blade still red-hot from the forge,” while this conversation reminds Arya remember the blood on Ice, Eddard Stark’s greatsword, after the execution of her father (ACOK, ch.1, Arya I). Aeron Greyjoy also sees the comet as the burning brand the Ironborn used to carry and as a call to go to war with “fire and sword” (ACOK, ch.11, Theon I), while amongst the Faith of the Seven, it is known as the “sword that slays the season” (ACOK, ch.4, Bran I), highlighting not only the weapon shape of the comet but also the recent arrival of a white raven signalling the end of summer.

dire_wolf_howl_by_lone_wolf_666-d36dwao lone-wolf-666

Similar supernatural links to the comet may be seen Maester Luwin’s recording of how the direwolves, Shaggydog and Summer, were howling at the comet. He thought that they were mistaking it for the moon (ACOK, ch.4, Bran I), although the ability of the direwolves to seemingly sense danger (see the Red Wedding) and their seeming connection to the more mysterious goings on in Westeros may connect their howling to the reawakening of magic, dragons and the Others which coincided with the passing of the Red Comet.

Varys recounts to Tyrion how “the comet has brought forth all manner of queer priests, preachers, and prophets… [to] foretell doom and destruction to anyone who stops to listen” (ACOK, ch.8, Tyrion II), something which Tyrion himself then experiences while returning to the Red Keep, pointedly after having met with the Guildhall of Alchemists regarding his proposed use of wildfire in the upcoming Battle of the Blackwater.


This particular prophet describes the Red Comet as a sign of an approaching cleansing sent by the Father:

“Corruption! There is the warning! Behold the Father’s scourge! We have become swollen, bloated, foul. Brother couples with sister in the bed of kings, and the fruit of their incest capers in his palace to the piping of a twisted little monkey demon. Highborn ladies fornicate with fools and give birth to monsters! Even the High Septon has forgotten the gods! He bathes in scented waters and grows fat on lark and lamprey while his people starve! Pride comes before prayer, maggots rule our castles, and gold is all … but no more! The Rotten Summer is at an end, and the Whoremonger King is brought low! When the boar did open him, a great stench rose to heaven and a thousand snakes slid forth from his belly, hissing and biting! There comes the Harbinger! Cleanse yourselves, the gods cry out, lest ye be cleansed! Bathe in the wine of righteousness, or you shall be bathed in fire! Fire!” (ACOK, ch.20, Tyrion V)

While his shouts of “Fire!” are shouted down with derision, as with many other opinions on the significance of the Red Comet, this prophet is hardly to be considered incorrect. The War of the Five Kings was about to arrive on the doorstep of King’s Landing in the form of Stannis Baratheon, famine and pestilence cannot be far behind and there are also the looming threats of the Ironborn raids, Daenerys’ dragons and Dothraki, the arrival of the Faith Militant, Cersei’s destructions of the Sept of Baelor in the TV show and whatever there is to come with the fulfilling of the Stark’s words – Winter is Coming.


It is also worth noting that in the midst of what might be considered a significant amount of superstition regarding the meaning behind the Red Comet, there is also something approaching the actual truth in the conversation between Maester Cressen and Shireen Baratheon. He informs her that “the thing in the sky is a comet, sweet child. A star with a tail, lost in the heavens. It will be gone soon enough, never to be seen again in our lifetimes” (ACOK, prol.).

In the next two blog entries, we will look at how these numerous reactions to the appearance of a comet in the fictional world of Game of Thrones reflects the similarly wide variety of receptions of such celestial interlopers in ancient history.

Classics in Primary Schools? It’s All Relevant!

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When I left high school a few years ago having studied Latin and Classical Civilisation to A level and progressed into University to study Primary Education, I made a promise to myself that I would teach Classics to children in whatever way I could. But more importantly, I would try to stoke the same passion and excitement for the subject in the children I would teach as my own teachers had in me. On my second block placement with Stranmillis University College in Whitehouse Primary School, Principal Frazer Bailie (whom I would like to thank immeasurably for allowing me into his school and having the chance to bring Classics with me) very kindly gave me permission to host a Classics club for Key Stage 2 children every Tuesday afternoon for five weeks. Suffice to say the Classicist in me was elated.


I should explain that I am a student primary school teacher and so the idea of running an entire club from start to finish is a bit intimidating, even with previous experience of working with children in extra-curricular activities. So as I sat down to plan my five week scheme of work I thought “how do I make this relevant?” Because that’s the key in teaching, isn’t it? Make it relevant, make it fun and the learning will follow. At the time I realised that chances are, the children I would be teaching would have never had any formal experience in learning Classics and so it was up to me to make sure they formed a love for it.

In my training at Stranmillis we are told to make topics as cross-curricular as possible, meaning you can teach Music through Literacy or Numeracy through World Around Us (History, Geography and Science and Technology) topics. I am of the opinion that Classics is the perfect cross-curricular topic and so that is how I set out in planning my club – not only was it going to be fun, it was going to be as enriching as possible.


Five weeks, five lessons and a whole lot of Classics to cram into my short timeslot but I was determined to make the most out of my time in Whitehouse. Week One started with a brief introduction to Classics. An exploration, if you will, of the topic as well as the beginnings of Latin. Over twenty Key Stage 2 children involved in the club seemed enthralled that their first taste of Latin was casting Harry Potter spells – certainly a deviation from the routine Numeracy and Literacy! This not only captured their attention straight off, it meant that even from the very start of their Classical education, they were expanding upon their vocabulary (a statutory requirement in the Northern Ireland National Curriculum). “Expecto Patronum!” shouted eagerly throughout the halls of Whitehouse Primary School quickly turned into a discussion of what a patron was and how the word ‘expect’ comes from the Latin verb expecto.


Moving on to the first few pages of the Cambridge Latin Course (Book I), the children got a taste of some of the first stages in learning Latin when they reach post-primary. With some background to Pompeii and an interesting family, the children once again were able to explore the Latin language. They especially enjoyed the flash card pop quiz at the end with the all important Haribo on offer should they get a new vocabulary word correct.

The Classics Club was off to a roaring start, with some new children joining the following week, having heard of the fun had already in the early stages. Week Two proved a challenge to plan. Do I follow the Cambridge Latin course for the next four weeks or do I vary what parts of Classics the children should experience? I decided for the time being, to move through some more of the Cambridge Latin course so that the children could begin to formulate simple sentences in Latin. And so we moved to Roman houses. Some background and context started us off, generating a comparison of Ancient Roman houses and houses today and so another way in which Classics can be used as a stimulus for the Northern Ireland National Curriculum. The young classicists then moved to learning the Latin names for Roman rooms using flash cards (and an exaggerated Italian accent!). Using an A1 poster of a cross-section of a Pompeian Villa and some laminated character and word cards, the children solidified their knowledge of Latin words and phrases. If I said “Caecilius est in horto” they would have to place Caecilius on the correct place on the board. A competition began, sweets were given out and the next generation of classicists began to see that Classics really was worth learning (hopefully because of more than just the promise of sweets!).

For Week Three, the Classics Club took a flight from Ancient Rome to Ancient Greece and rolled up their sleeves, ready for what I had in store. So far I had managed to link Classics to Literacy, Drama and World Around Us in the Northern Ireland Primary Curriculum but now it was time for some Music. And what better way to do this than to learn to rap the Ancient Greek alphabet? Through the above YouTube video, the children were soon able to rap the alphabet on their own, knew where our current alphabet came and even managed to write out all the Greek letters. This was, out of all the sessions we had together, the most fun for children and teacher alike. It allowed us to let go of our inhibitions and learn a song we could impress our friends with later. I’ll forever cherish the memory of walking twenty children out to the front gates to meet their parents while they sang the Ancient Greek alphabet.


Week Four continued in Ancient Greece with drama and theatre. Incorporating Art and Design and Drama into one lesson was no small task but the children delighted in the great variety Classics was providing them, decorating Greek tragedy masks and trying on togas and stolas. It was certainly quite difference from their normal school day activities!

Week Five finished up the Classics Club with a return to Ancient Rome, specifically its dinning table. If time and culinary skill were on my side I might have served a banquet of Dormice, Flamingo Tongues and Garum but alas, it was just a selection of peach juice and iced buns on offer. I sat down and discussed with them the dramatic food and parties hosted by Caligula (a P.C. version!) and took the opportunity to answer questions on Classics at post-primary level, with many students taking a keen interest in the possibility of continuing the subject. Perhaps this was an indication on the success of the Classics Club.


All in all, through my wonderful experience at Whitehouse Primary School, Classics can not only be brought into minds and hearts of primary school children in a meaningful way, it can also be linked to the Northern Ireland Primary Curriculum through a variety of class subjects; however, the most important thing is the joy that Classics brought the children I was able to teach. Their engagement and excitement at each new topic gave me hope that there is a future in Classical education in Northern Ireland and reminded me of just how important it is that this versatile subject is considered to be relevant to the children of today.

Amber Taylor

Paid to Behave: The Traprain Law Hoard

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

1856, 1205.8

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

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

Nation Museum of Scotland

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Sentius the Centurion and Trajan’s Conquest of Adiabene

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


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

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


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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

bloody_centurion 2copy

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

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

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


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

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

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

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



Monte Cassino and the Destruction of Historical Sites

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

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


Kesselring, Clark, Vietinghoff, Freyberg and Alexander

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Just the Spanish Armada – Some Uses of Fire Ships in the Ancient World

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At midnight on 28 July 1588, a squadron of eight warships were filled them with pitch, brimstone, tar and some gunpowder, and cast them downwind among the closely anchored vessels of the Spanish Armada. They failed to do their job in setting any Spanish ships on fire, but sowed enough confusion to break the Spanish formation and enable the English to complete the frustrating of the Armada’s plans at the subsequent Battle of Gravelines.

While this might be the first time that many a history student was introduced to the concept of fireships, it was by no means the first time that such a weapon had been used in naval warfare. It was not even the first time that the Spanish had been confronted with them in the 1580s. Just three years earlier, in 1585, Dutch rebels had used not just conventional fireships but also a series of larger ships packed with gunpowder, essentially floating bombs called ‘hellburners’, to destroy a bridge of ships at the Siege of Antwerp.


However, fireships long pre-date the invention of gunpowder, although they were a relatively rare occurrence. This was for rather logical and practical reasons – it was setting fire to your own ships and fire itself is not a particularly controllable phenomenon. Indeed, these two issues could combine very easily – your fireships making fired ships out of the rest of your fleet…

Possibly the oldest account of the military use of a fireship comes in Thucydides’ depiction of the prelude to the final climactic Battle of the Great Harbour in 413BC during the disastrous Athenian expedition to Sicily.


“The rest the enemy tried to burn by means of an old merchantman which they filled with faggots and pine-wood, set on fire, and let drift down the wind which blew full on the Athenians. The Athenians, however, alarmed for their ships, contrived means for stopping it and putting it out, and checking the flames and the nearer approach of the merchantman, thus escaped the danger.” (Thucydides VII.53.4)

Despite being successfully preventing the burning of the remainder of their fleet, the Athenians lost up to eighteen ships and their crews in the engagement and the prominent general Eurymedon. Their victory also encouraged the Syracusans to make the decisive decision to blockade the Great Harbour, sealing the fate of the entire Athenian expedition and quite possibly the Athenian Empire itself.

It was not just against other ships that fireships could be deployed in the ancient world. During the momentous, landscape-altering siege of the Phoenician island city of Tyre in 332BC by Alexander the Great, the Macedonians constructed a causeway to connect the city to the shore.


To counteract this, the Tyrians…”filled a vessel… with dry twigs and other combustible wood… as much chaff and as many torches as possible… pitch, brimstone, and whatever else was calculated to foment a great flame. They also stretched out a double yard-arm upon each mast; and from these they hung caldrons into which they had poured or cast materials likely to kindle flame which would extend to a great distance.” Arrian, Anabasis II.19

Through oars, sail and towing, the Tyrians sent their contraption crashing straight into the causeway and when set alight, it “began to spread flames far and wide, which, before they could be prevented, seized upon the towers and other works that had been placed at the head of the causeway” (Quintus Curtius, History of Alexander IV.3.3-4). With the causeway greatly weakened by the conflagration and attacks from the city, a storm arose and battered the causeway to pieces with wind and wave (Quintus Curtius, History of Alexander IV.3.6-7).

The Rhodians of Eudamus/Eudorus, alongside their Roman allies under Aemilius/Regillus, made good use of fire and perhaps fireships at the battle of Myonessus 190BC. The Seleucid fleet of Antiochus III under Polyxenidas looked to be about to outflank the Romano-Rhodian force, only for the Rhodian admiral to bring “his fire-ships against Polyxenidas first, scattering flames everywhere” (Appian, The Syrian Wars V.27). The Romans may also have used fire-laden ships to escape being surrounded at Panormus (cf. Livy XXXVII.30)

However, it must be said that in the accounts of Myonessus from Livy and Appian the exact meaning of ‘fire-ships’ can appear to be confused at times – it is not particularly clear whether each other is speaking of a ship set on fire to be directed an enemy position or fleet or a ship laden with men throwing or firing missiles which are on fire. My suspicion is that Livy is speaking of the latter and Appian is erroneously speaking of the former.

During the Third Punic War, in 149BC, the Carthaginians under Hasdrubal the Boeotarch and Himilco Phameas took advantage of the poor decision of the Roman consul Lucius Marcius Censorinus to anchor his fleet in a position which exposed it to the wind.

Subsequently they “attached ropes to some small boats and hauled them behind the walls, so that they should not be observed by the enemy, and filled them with dry twigs and tow. Then they pushed them back, and as they turned the corner and came in sight of the enemy, they poured brimstone and pitch over the contents, spread the sails, and, as the wind filled them, set fire to the boats. These, driven by the wind and the fury of the flames against the Roman ships, set fire to them and came a little short of destroying the whole fleet” (Appian, The Punic Wars 99)

Several years before he became the driving force behind the conspiracy which saw the assassination of Julius Caesar, Gaius Cassius Longinus had already proven a thorn in the side of the dictator in 48BC when he made significant use of fireships against Caesar’s navy.

“Cassius hurried with his ships to Messana before Pomponius could learn of his approach, and finding him in a state of disorganization, with no surveillance and no fixed order of battle, with the aid of a strong and favourable wind he sent against the fleet of Pomponius some merchant-ships loaded with pine, pitch, tow, and other combustibles and burnt all thirty-five ships, of which twenty were decked…Cassius departed thence to Vibo to the fleet of Sulpicius, and our ships having been moored to the shore in the same way as before, Cassius, with the advantage of a favourable wind, sent down some merchant-vessels prepared for burning, and the fleet having caught fire on each wing, five ships were consumed.” (Caesar, Civil War III.101)


It may also be that Agrippa and Octavian used some form of fireships to break the stalemate at Actium. They are certainly recorded using a variety of fire missiles and discharging pots full of combustibles against Antony’s ships (Cassius Dio L.34). With or without fireships, Octavian and Agrippa’s victory at Actium helped usher in a period of Roman domination of the Mediterranean which was to last for the next five centuries and saw the opportunities for the deployment of fireships decline greatly.


However, fireships were not the preserve of the Ancient Mediterranean. They were deployed during the Battle of Red Cliffs in the winter of 208/209, fought along the Yangtze River between the allied forces of Liu Bei and Sun Quan against the attempted reunification of Han China by the Han warlord, Cao Cao.

Seeing that Cao Cao had chained his ships from stem to stern, possibly aiming to reduce seasickness, an opposing captain, Huang Gai had a squadron of large ships filled with kindling, dry reeds, and fatty oil. He also contacted Cao Cao to inform him that he and his ships were will to defect. This probably explains why the Han warlord allowed the enemy ships to get so close – Huang Gai’s men, who were setting the fireships on course, repeatedly shouted “We surrender!” as they approached. Carried by a south-easterly wind, Huang Gai’s fireships wrought havoc in Cao Cao’s fleet and even spread to his landward camp.


The destruction and confusion caused by the fire allowed allied forces to win a major victory, which proved a decisive blow to the Han dynasty’s attempt to recover territory south of the Yangtze. Just over a decade after the fireships at Red Cliffs, the Han dynasty was abolished by Cao Cao’s son, Cao Pi, while the victorious leaders along the Yangtze, Sun Quan and Liu Bei had founded imperial dynasties of their own, ushering in the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history (220-280).


The Chinese continued to use fireships, or at least think that they were still of military use for centuries to come. They appeared in the military compendium called Wujing Zongyao (sometimes translated as Complete Essentials for the Military Classics) written in the early 1040s under the Northern Song dynasty. It must be said though that this compendium also includes recipes for gunpowder and various ways of using it as a fire-starter or explosive and instructions in how to build a Chinese version of the Greek Fire flamethrower (Needham (1987), 83).


Back in the western world, the collapse of Roman domination of the Mediterranean in the fifth century saw the opportunity for fireships to return, particular when one of the new players in naval warfare were faced by the still potent and potentially overwhelming extent of forces that Rome and Constantinople could bring together.


A significant case came in 468 during the expedition against Vandal Africa launched by the eastern Roman emperor Leo I and supported by his western counterpart Anthemius and the western magister militum Ricimer. Under the command of Leo’s brother-in-law, Basiliscus, a vast Roman fleet arrived off Mercurium, modern Cape Bon in Tunisia. The Vandal king Geiseric managed to extract a five day truce from Basiliscus (an action which saw significant ridicule and suspicion fall on the Roman general), although that was hardly enough to form an army and fleet capable of standing up to the expedition on land or prepare Carthage for a prolonged siege.

What Geiseric did do was prepare his fleet for when the wind changed, because Basiliscus had anchored his ships fleet in a position vulnerable to onshore winds. The Vandal king had a number of empty ships towed with his main fleet to Mercurium. When the onshore winds came, these empty ships were set alight, hinting that there were some combustible materials aboard, and directed into the huddled mass that was the Roman fleet now pinned to the coast.


With the Romans caught unprepared and anchored close together, the fire ships wrought havoc in their ranks, the flames jumping quickly from ship to ship. “And as the fire advanced in this way the Roman fleet was filled with tumult, as was natural, and with a great din that rivalled the noise caused by the wind and the roaring of the flames, as the soldiers together with the sailors shouted orders to one another and pushed off with their poles the fire-boats and their own ships as well, which were being destroyed by one another in complete disorder” (Procopius, BV I.6.20-21).

Many of those which survived the fire and the confusion found that the Vandal fleet was waiting to ram them. This saw significant numbers of ships either sunk or fixed in place for Vandal boarding parties to swarm all over them, taking the ships and their crews as booty. Geiseric’s fireships had successfully broached the gap in naval numerical strength between the Vandal kingdom and the Roman Empire, and in doing so quite possibly saved the former and played a role in dooming the western half of the latter.


The naval application of Greek Fire in the late seventh century increased the use of fire in naval battles, becoming a vital part of the Roman imperial navy. Ship-mounted flamethrowers played particularly prominent roles in saving Constantinople from a series of sieges – the two Arab sieges of 674–678 and 717–718, the rebellion of Thomas the Slav against Michael II the Amorian in 821-822 and the defence by Romanos I Lekapenos against the Rus’ forces of Igor of Kiev in 941.

The naval deployment of Greek Fire was certainly not the end of the use of more traditional fireships until the invention of gunpowder. During their siege of Frankish Paris in 885-886, the Vikings filled three warships with combustible material and pulled them upriver in a failed attempt to destroy the Franks’ fortified bridges across the Seine to the Île de la Cité.


Retold in De bellis Parisiacæ urbis by Abbo Cernuus, a Neustrian Benedictine monk and poet of the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, who witnessed the siege first hand, these Viking fireships fell prey to one of the potential flaws with setting wooden ships on fire – they sank before they could set the Frankish bridge alight. While the fireships did weaken the bridge, it was not enough to present the Vikings with an opportunity to capture the city. That said, the internal politics of Francia did see the Vikings allowed to bypass Paris and raid Burgundy, which was in rebellion against the Carolingian emperor, Charles III the Fat.(Logan (1991), 131; Davis (2001), 54; Bennet, Bradbury, DeVries, Dickie, and Jestice (2005), 222).

Know of any other examples of fireships being used in the ancient world?


Adams, Anthony; Rigg, A.G. (2004). “A Verse Translation of Abbo of St. Germain’s Bella Parisiacae urbis”. Journal of Medieval Latin. 14: 1–68

Bennet, Matthew; Bradbury, Jim; DeVries, Kelly; Dickie, Iain; Jestice, Phyllis G. (2005). Fighting Techniques of the Medieval World: AD 500-AD 1500. London

Davis, Paul K. (2001). Besieged: 100 Great Sieges from Jericho to Sarajevo. New York:

Logan, F. Donald (1991). The Vikings in History. London

Needham, Joseph (1987). Science and Civilisation in China: Military technology: The Gunpowder Epic, Volume 5, Part 7. New York