Previous Events

‘The Truth About Triremes: Ancient Naval Warfare Re-examined’ Dr Philip De Souza Review

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Lured away from the warmth of their fireplaces or pounding the streets in search of an early Christmas bargain on a cold November night, a fantastic crowd (we might have to start thinking about booking a bigger room in future!) packed the Old Staff Common Room to hear Dr Philip de Souza (UCD) speak on ‘The Truth About Triremes: Ancient Naval Warfare Re-examined’.

After a CANI update from convenor Helen McVeigh and an introduction from Dr John Curran, Dr de Souza launched into the warrior-raider culture of archaic Greece, using perhaps its most famous son – the wondering, crafty Odysseus. The cover story he told on his return to Ithaca as a Cretan raider reads very much like he is describing his own actions and merely substituting his origins. This almost certainly reflects the raiding nature of sea power at the time of the coming together of the Homeric story, also depicted on vases.


“I had nine times led warriors and swift-faring ships against foreign folk, and great spoil had ever fallen to my hands.” Homer, Odyssey XIV.230

The appearance of naumachia – sea battles – required the growth of states like Persia, Athens, Carthage and Rome to a size and influence required to project power across the sea and build/man ships of war (Van Wees (2004), 232-236; de Souza (1999), 25-36). Perhaps the only exceptions were city-states who were able to unite entire islands and then use its resources to equip and train a capable fleet like Rhodes or Samos, with the Polycrates of Samos “the first of the Greeks whom we know to aim at the mastery of the sea ” (Herodotus III.122.2)


The aspiration of Polycrates to master the waves was facilitated by the invention of the first specialised warship in c.550BC: the three-banks of oars of the trireme.

The main thrust of Dr de Souza’s talk was to expound the challenge that he and other academics such as Professor Han van Wees (UCL) have issued to conventional view of the trireme being primarily “a man-driven torpedo armed with a pointed cutwater for puncturing an enemy hull” (Casson (1995), 49) and oarsmen being too valuable or perhaps unreliable to be used for any other purpose other than rowing.


The  challenge is that the prevalent modern view of ancient sea power is anachronistically skewed by perceptions of early modern naval warfare with the ram essentially replacing guns and that while triremes and their rowers were extremely expensive, the accepted overspecialisation of such warships implies a significant waste of manpower.


If they were just ‘man-driven torpedoes’ and their oarsmen only rowed the ship, then each trireme would only be able to carry about thirty hoplites, as it needed a rowing crew of about 170 out of the 200 men it could carry. To consider that 170 oarsmen would be essentially non-combatants in any land engagement they deposited their soldiers for leads to the rather ridiculous notion that tens of thousands of Athenian rowers just sat and watched as their soldiers fought a battle while being perhaps significantly outnumbered (Hale (2009), 78-79 suggesting that 30,000 Athenian rowers just sat watching the Battle of Mycale).


Dr de Souza also highlighted that this modern view also underestimates the continued use of maritime raiding even in vast thalassocratic empires like that of Athens and Carthage. While capable of fighting at sea, the trireme remained primarily a way to transport soldiers; it just so happened that 170 out of the 200 soldiers on each ship also happened to row the ship to its destination before disembarking to take their place in the battle/raid. Each of these oarsmen likely had a knife and could arm himself with a sling or a stone to be classified as a light/missile troop. Essentially then, ancient rowers should be seen more like an amphibious strike force.

Even famous examples like the Persian invasions of Greece of Darius and Xerxes demonstrate this continued preference for amphibious strike forces or merely transporting men rather than naval engagements.

The Delian League/Athenian Empire was originally founded for the Greeks to compensate themselves “by ravaging the territory of the King of Persia” (Thucydides I.96), while the Athenian attack on Cythera in 424BC involved a “scattered crowd of light armed troops” (Thucydides IV.56.1-2). The piratical spirit of the warrior-raider culture which spawned Odysseus was still alive and well in the mid-fifth century BC.


Dr de Souza also expounded on why these soldier-sailors, while remembered in some quarters for the service they had rendered during the Persian Wars (Aristophanes, Wasps 1112-1121) might have received such a poor reputation. While the hoplites were regarded as the rich, upper class ‘heroes’ with their ability to kit themselves out as heavy infantry, there was an identifiable prejudice against the poor, low class, foreign or unfree sailors, with Isocrates, On the Peace 79 going as far to say that the nautikos ochlos – the naval mob – manning of Athenian triremes were “the worst scum of the Greeks.”

After some brief comments on Hellenistic ‘monster fleets’ and the Roman imperial navy, Dr de Souza fielded a dozen questions and comments from an audience suitably warmed up by the depth of the talk (and the available mulled wine).

20171130_201351We at CANI would like to thank all of those who took the time to attend, listen and contribute to what was a fantastic event.

A special thanks to Dr Philip de Souza for provided such a fascinating talk and fielding so many questions not just at the event but afterwards.

Further Reading

Casson, L. Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World. Princeton (1995)

de Souza, P. ‘War at Sea,’ in Campbell, B. and Trittle, L. (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Warfare in the Classical World. (2013) 369-394

de Souza, P., Arnaud, P. and Buchet, C. (eds.) The Sea in History. Vol I: The Ancient World. (2017)

Hale, J.R. Lords Of The Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy. New York (2009)

Van Wees, H. Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities. Bristol (2004), 232-236

You can see some more photos from Dr de Souza’s talk HERE in our Gallery.

“The Earliest Latin Lives of St Patrick: Hagiography and History” Dr Elizabeth Dawson Review

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The Classical Association in Northern Ireland’s 2017-2018 public programme was successfully launched, as an impressive crowd braved the miserable autumn weather to attend Dr Elizabeth Dawson’s lecture on “The Earliest Latin Lives of St Patrick: Hagiography and History”.

Having completed a PhD in early medieval history at UCD, Dr Dawson is currently a lecturer of history at Queen’s University Belfast, focusing on the cults and lives of early Christian saints, and the development of the Patrician cult from the fifth to twelfth century.

Dr Dawson began her talk by discussing the fifth century writings of St Patrick; the ‘real’ Patrick. The Confessio and Epistola ad Coroticum are the only surviving Latin works that can be attributed to Patricks own authorship. All information regarding the ‘real’ Patrick is gathered from these two highly significant sources. The Epistola is a letter of denunciation against a chieftain named Coroticus. Dr Dawson explained that with this source the historian gains an insight into Irish conversation in the 4th/5th century.


However, Patrick’s Confessio is more informative. Written as a defence against his ecclesiastical superiors in the British church, the Confessio provides crucial biographical information.  Patrick (born c.410) was of Romano-British origin and was brought to Ireland as a slave at a young age, escaping after six years. Patrick then became a priest and when encouraged by a vision he returned to Ireland as a missionary. There is currently a scholarly dispute on how well-educated Patrick was. Dr Dawson stated that she agrees with David Howlett who claims that Patrick must have been relatively well-educated to have written the Confessio and the Epistola ad Coroticum.

A major part of Dr Dawson’s talk was dedicated to two 7th century hagiographers, Tírechán and Muirchú. These two earliest Latin lives are not only essential to the establishing of the narrative of St Patrick but also to gain an understanding of Irish politics and society in the 7th century. However, both are accused of being Armagh propagandists (especially Muirchú) who were trying to use the authority of St Patrick as a way for Armagh to establish ecclesiastical dominance in Ireland.


There is very little biographical information on Tírechán as he does not feature in any annals or genealogies. All information we have on the hagiographer comes from the Book of Armagh which was written two centuries later. Dr Dawson labels Tírechán the ‘underdog’ of the two writers since he is often criticized by academics for his ‘crude writing’ and ‘low Latinity’. But there is merit to be found in Tírechán’s Collectanea, as he names numerous locations, cult sites, dynasties and early church characters.

Dr Dawson then proceeded to discuss the Vita that was constructed by Muirchú, whose hagiography has seen more academic treatment than that of Tírechán. Muirchú appears to have been of greater social importance than his fellow hagiographer, as he is a signatory on the Lex Innocentium; a treaty created to help protect innocents during times of war.  Furthermore, Muirchú claims to be the foster son of Cogitosus, the author of St Bridget’s Vita, which would suggest that he comes from a hagiographical tradition. Dr Dawson explained that miracles feature heavily in Muirchú’s Life of St Patrick, especially where Patrick was trying to convert local kings. In many of the conversion stories the Irish kings were faced with two choices; conversion or divine retribution culminating in the king’s death. Dr Dawson claimed that the purpose of these stories was to show that Christianity was superior to secular power. Muirchú was using the conversion stories as an analogy; ecclesiastical Armagh was St Patrick and the secular powers were the pagan kings.


Dr Dawson concluded her lecture by showing that although the two Latin lives were narratively different, when woven together they provide an interesting picture not only of St Patrick but also of politics, society and the Patrician cult in 7th century Ireland.  The Classical Association in Northern Ireland are extremely grateful to have had an expert on Patrician hagiography on our 2017-2018 event programme.

Barry Trainor

Check out our Gallery of photos from this event.

BBC @ Mount Stewart Conversations 2017

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The BBC’s Mount Stewart Conversations 2017, will see two talks hosted in the gardens of Mount Stewart over the weekend of 14-15 October.

Stories and People from the Ancient World – Classical Connections;  12.45pm – 2.00pm, Saturday 14 October

Professor Edith Hall and Geraldine McCaughrean will be in conversation about… stories and ideas from the ancient world and their enduring influence and appeal. Our guests will be discussing the ways in which Classical themes have resonated down the centuries, and how Greek and Roman myths have been re-imagined for new generations – including books for children. We’ll also spend some time chatting about Homer’s Odyssey (prompted by the fact that Lady Londonderry was also known as Circe and can been read about here – and how this epic tale of adventure and curiosity has inspired countless books, poems and BBC programmes.

(Professor Edith Hall is a celebrated author and broadcaster and one of the UK’s foremost classicists. Her most recent book, Introducing the Ancient Greeks, has been described as “masterly” and “terrifically good”. Geraldine McCaughrean is a popular and critically acclaimed children’s author. She is a prolific storyteller and is well-known for her adaptations of Classical stories.)

Brock, Edmond, 1882-1952; 'Circe and the Sirens': A Group Portrait of the Honourable Edith Chaplin (1878-1959), Marchioness of Londonderry, and Her Three Youngest Daughters, Lady Margaret Frances Anne Vane-Tempest-Stewart (1910-1966), Lady Helen Maglona Va

Standing Up for The Classics – Ancient History and Modern Life;  12.45pm – 2.00pm, Sunday 15 October

Natalie Haynes will be in conversation about… the ancient world and its enduring relevance and appeal. She will be discussing how the Classics have influenced many different aspects of everyday life, from how “screenwriters learn from Sophocles, politicians echo Cicero and doctors take the Hippocratic oath.” Our conversation will also explore Natalie’s career as a writer, broadcaster and former stand-up comedian and her popular BBC Radio 4 series, Natalie Haynes Stands Up For The Classics. And as Book Week comes to its close on BBC Northern Ireland, we will hear about Natalie’s re-imagining of the Oedipus and Antigone stories in her new book, The Children of Jocasta.


(Natalie Haynes is a writer and broadcaster. She has written several books, including The Ancient Guide to Modern Life. She was awarded the Classical Association Prize in 2015 for her work in bringing Classics to a wider audience.)

The event is not just limited to these two classical talks. Between 3-15 October, in the BBC Blackstaff Studios and Mount Stewart Gardens, the Mount Stewart Conversations 2017 will include talks by Dan Cruickshank, David Starkey, Alister McGrath, Jonathan Lynn, Fiona Stafford, John Lloyd, Cathy Rentzenbrin, Robert McCrum and Julian Baggini on a variety of subjects such as the Reformation, C.S. Lewis, fake news, political comedy, books and heartache, the stories surrounding some of our most common trees, and the historical and cultural lessons to be learned from architecture.

For more information, check out the official events page –

Belfast Summer School in Latin and Classical Greek 2017 Review

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The second Belfast Summer School took place from Monday 3rd until Friday 7th July, 2017, and offered classes in Beginners and Intermediate Latin and Classical Greek.  The expansion to Latin and the great increase in attendance this year speaks to both the success of last year’s Summer School, and to the desire for ancient language courses in Northern Ireland.  We extend our sincerest gratitude to the Open University in Northern Ireland for its generosity in allowing us to use its facilities for classes.


The four classes, two Latin and two Greek, ran concurrently with 12 lessons timetabled over the course of the week.  Invited speakers gave presentations on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.


On Tuesday, Stephen Strickland (Maynooth University) gave a talk on Food and Character in Suetonius, regarding the emperors Augustus, Claudius, and Caligula.  One of the ways in which Suetonius characterised his subjects was through descriptions of the foods that they ate.  For instance, the reserved and moderate Augustus was described as having simpler tastes in food than the likes of Claudius, or indeed Caligula who was so extravagant as to eat loaves of bread made from gold, and to drink pearls dissolved in wine.  Claudius was the main focus of the talk, an emperor somewhat in between the extremes of Augustus and Caligula, and the students’ discussion afterwards centred on his character and reign.

indexThe second presentation to the summer school took place after Thursday’s classes.  Giulio Di Basilio (UCD), provided an introduction to Plato’s Ethics, explaining the dialogue format and giving an overview of the development of Plato’s ethical thought. Giulio talked about humanity’s search for happiness and how, for many philosophers, this required a life of virtue.  He then focussed on Plato’s Republic to speak about justice and truth, demonstrating how ancient philosophy remains relevant to the modern world. There was an excellent turnout for both invited speakers, and healthy discussions followed each talk.


On the social side, a large number of summer school students joined members of CANI for drinks and dinner.  We had an enjoyable afternoon/evening in Granny Annie’s, Chichester Street.  At the close of the School on Friday, Dr John Curran, Convenor of the Classical Association in Northern Ireland, presented certificates of attendance to all participants.

BeFunky Collage

The students attended the Summer School for a wide variety of reasons and for different purposes.  There were a number of PhD students, two of whom were studying medieval history and wished to have some knowledge of Latin to further their research.  Others were undergraduates thinking about further study in Classics.  Yet others simply wanted to revisit their love of languages from school, and some were veterans of the 2016 Summer School who had returned for more!  During the course of the week, Open University staff were on hand to speak to students interested in humanities courses in general or classics modules in particular.


Informal feedback has shown that many students would return next year to continue their studies at more advanced levels of Classical Greek or Latin.  When planning this year’s expanded Summer School, we had hoped we would have the same success with Latin as we did last year with Classical Greek.  Attendance for both languages exceeded our expectations, and both the tutors and students found it a great success.


But what did the students themselves have to say?  The feedback was overwhelmingly positive with remarks such as

“I wasn’t expecting to learn so much Latin in a short space of time.”

“I loved the course!!”

“My confidence in Latin has gone way up.  I’ve loved this week.”

“The teacher created a friendly and informal atmosphere from the start.  His explanations were lucid and the classes were well-prepared and well-organised.”

“This course is wonderful.  What a great opportunity to have something like this running in Belfast.”

Thanks are due to the Open University in Northern Ireland for their hospitality, the Classical Association in Northern Ireland for its continuing support, Dr John Curran for always being there, the tutors for their hard work above and beyond the call of duty, and to the 2017 students for being so inspirational!


The summer school staff are already looking forward to the 2018 Summer School, scheduled to run from Monday 16th to Friday 20th July.  Given the extraordinary success of the summer school to date, we have bigger and better plans for 2018.  Watch this space!

Helen McVeigh and Stephen McCarthy

For more videos and photos of a great Classical day in Belfast, check out our Belfast Summer School 2017 Gallery and our Facebook album below.

3rd-7th July 2017Open University, Belfast

Posted by The Classical Association in Northern Ireland on Sunday, August 13, 2017


“An Unpleasant Man” – ‘Who was Constantius II? Dr Peter Crawford Review

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1856, 1205.2

The oldest dateable coin of the Coleraine Hoard (itself a topic of CANI events in the past – HERE and HERE, Constantius II, 353-355, Arelate RIC VIII.218, 207; BM 1856, 1205.2

On Thursday 8th June, Dr Peter Crawford delivered the final lecture in the Classical Association in Northern Ireland’s 2016/17 programme of events, entitled ‘Who was Constantius II?’

Dr Crawford’s biography of the fourth-century Roman emperor (2016) with its subtitle ‘Usurpers, Eunuchs and the Antichrist’ posed the same question, offering three frameworks through which we might view the son of Constantine the Great. Thursday night’s audience heard a more extensive range of possibilities, Dr Crawford stating that, when asked to summarise the character of Constantius II, he found it difficult to do so without perpetuating the same underestimating, sidelining and misrepresentation of the ‘philosopher king’ that had prompted him to write the biography in the first place. So he supplied each audience member with a checklist. Amongst other descriptions, this introduced us to Constantius II as: an imperial stop-gap; the ‘wrong kind’ of Christian; a paranoid monster and family annihilator; and – as his book suggests – the Antichrist.


Dr Crawford began by introducing those of us unfamiliar with this emperor, to the bare details of his reign: Flavius Julius Constantius was born in Sirmium in 317, first serving as Caesar (junior emperor) from 324 until 337, then as co-Augustus with his two brothers until 350, when, after their brutal deaths, he became sole Augustus until his own death in 361. It soon began to become clear that the initial assertion of Constantius’s enigmaticism was sound: analysis of Constantius II’s character and reign is frustrated by a basic lack of information. In fact, Dr Crawford’s talk was punctuated by a series of compelling questions that remain unanswered by historical sources; although he reigned for 24 years between Constantine I and Julian, general works on this period overlook Constantius II’s substantial reign in order to reach Julian the Apostate.


Constantine I, Constantine II, Constantius II, Constans and Julian (left to right)

More details of Constantius II’s background were explored: the ‘scandal-mongering’ that surrounded his rise and inheritance of the Empire, including discussion of his mother’s possible extra-marital honey-pot trap, as well as multiple executions and inter-familial murder plots. Combined with the psychological impact of his father’s murderous actions and manipulation of his sons, our eyes were opened to why this emperor might be characterised as the ‘paranoid monster’ on Dr Crawford’s checklist.


The Rivals – Dalmatius, Hannibalianus, Constantine II, Constans, Magnentius, Decentius, Vetranio, Nepotianus and Julian (left to right)

The body of the lecture dealt with not simply the paucity of the sources, which itself significantly undermines Constantius II’s reign, but also the dislike of Constantius II exhibited by those sources. The chief of these is Ammianus Marcellinus. Despite the importance of Ammianus’s work to historians of Constantius II, he refers to the emperor’s ‘dullness of mind’, claiming that he ‘accomplished nothing worthwhile’. This derision persists even in modern presentations of Constantius II; the famous historian of late antiquity A.H.M. Jones (1964) brands him a ‘vain and stupid man’ and ‘easy prey to flatterers’. Ammianus also decries Constantius II’s military record, unfairly, it would appear, since Dr Crawford was able to contradict many of the half-truths quoted from Ammianus; Constantius won many civil wars, and was a well-renowned battlefield commander, defeating revolts and barbarian tribes, as well as successfully invading Persian territory.

Dr Crawford then addressed the rather different problems posed by ecclesiastical histories, which denigrate Constantius II’s reputation due to his supposed Arianism. This is where ‘Constantius the Antichrist’ comes in. I gained a deeper understanding of the term ‘Arian’, as a follower of the doctrinal teachings of Arius of Alexandria, the main thrust of which was that a ‘created’ Jesus was separate from and thus inferior to God. As the Church moved to have Arianism suppressed, Constantius was faced with dire opposition for what were more likely progressive rather than Arian views. Even as Augustus, Constantius II’s attempts at reform and unification were seen as a disguise for being an Antichrist. Yet it was not only his confrontation with the church that damaged his reputation; another moniker on the checklist is ‘family annihilator’, justified in the light of confrontations with his extended family about succession after his father’s death, which led him to assassinate uncles and cousins, securing the accession of himself and his brothers.


Furthermore, Constantius II’s excessive emphasis on personal imperial dignity rendered him an aloof, domineering character. Instead of ‘first among equals’, we have a dominus, as Dr Crawford put it, ‘lording it over his underlings’. This aloofness went hand-in-hand with a paranoia bred by self-fulfilling usurpations, disloyalty, and revolt.

The conclusion of Dr Crawford’s lecture, then, asked us, how do we judge Constantius II, given the inadequacy, misinformation and bias that dominate the historical evidence of this emperor’s reign? It was clear that attempting to cut through the bias does not affect any significant shift in the perception of him. If not a paranoid monster, at best Constantius II was a ‘good, bad, and ugly’ enigma. Was Ammianus correct in his portrayal? Even accounting for some exaggeration still leaves a picture of, as Dr Crawford put it, ‘a potentially unpleasant, utterly ruthless and unscrupulous man.’ If not the psychologically damaged, uncreative, barbarian-using Antichrist, Constantius II certainly lacked a good publicist, as his military and political achievements are downplayed more than they should be.

Dr Erin Halliday


You can see a few more photos from the event in our ‘Who Was Constantius II?’ Gallery.


‘Greek Percussion’ Dr Katerina Kolotourou Review

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CANI_LOGOOn Thursday 6th April 2017, The Classical Association in Northern Ireland was proud to host its latest talk on ‘Greek Percussion’ by Dr Katerina Kolotourou in the Old Staff Common Room of Queen’s University Belfast.


To welcome an expert on ancient Greek culture, history and society to Belfast at any time is a great pleasure but to find a speaker with the distinction of Dr Kolotourou, now resident in the city, is doubly a boon to the Association. A historian, linguist, field-archaeologist and herself an accomplished pianist, Dr Kolotorou delivered a bravura lecture on Greek percussion to an audience, in which many will have known of poets, rhetors and drama, but may easily have overlooked (or underheard) the wide range of percussive instruments that accompanied many aspects of Greek culture.


Calling upon a literary sources and fragmentary sculptural evidence, Dr Kolotourou restored the sistrumtympanon and kithara to the prominent roles required of them by the classical Greek musical ear. From the pulsing energy of the ceremonies of Dionysius to the high spirits of street-musicians of the Piraeus, the Belfast audience had an audio-world powerfully evoked. Understanding the sounds, instruments and players recreated the uniqueness of percussion as a means of musical expression, then as now.


And striking parallels and differences between Greek instruments and those of ancient Egypt and the Near East opened up yet another avenue of enquiry into the relationship between ancient peoples of the eastern Mediterranean.


Not surprisingly, the lecture had attracted the attention of historians of music as well as musicians themselves, and Dr Kolotorou was able to offer food for thought to questioners on 14th century Sweden as well as early modern English song. We very much look forward to hearing from Dr Kolotourou again and wish her well for her ongoing research which is to culminate in what will certainly be a fascinating monograph.

You can see a few more photos from the event in our ‘Greek Percussion’ Gallery