Ancient Greek philosophers – the term conjures up the names of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, with the stories of hemlock, the Academy and teaching Alexander the Great not far behind. But how often would the name Heraclides Ponticus (c.390-310BC) bubble to the surface? Not very often, if ever.
And yet he seems to have been a prominent philosopher at the time of Plato and Aristotle, having moved to Athens from his birthplace of Heraclea Pontica (modern day Karadeniz Ereğli in Turkey) to study under Plato at the Academy.
He was enough of a star pupil to be left in charge when Plato travelled to Sicily in 361-360BC and only narrowly missed out on being elected head of the Academy in 339/338BC (Suda Η461; Guthrie (1986), 470).
Suda H461 also records that Heraclides “wrote a lot,” and a list of subjects seemingly addressed by him seems to bear that out – philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, music, grammar, physics, history and rhetoric.
Despite this high profile and extended bibliography, perhaps the thing Heraclides is most famous for is his Pythagorean proposal that the daily motion of the stars was due to the rotation of the Earth, contradicting the fixed Earth approach of Aristotle. A fifth century CE pagan philosopher, Simplicius of Cilicia, records that Heraclides proposed that the irregular movements of the planets can be explained if the Earth moves around a stationary Sun. This has helped see Heraclides portrayed as a proponent and even originator of heliocentrism (Simplicius, On Aristotle, Physics 2; Heath (1921) 312, 316-317). However, a detailed investigation of the sources has shown that “nowhere in the ancient literature mentioning Heraclides of Pontus is there a clear reference for his support for any kind of heliocentrical planetary position” (Eastwood (1992), 256).
Even if these attributions of heliocentrism are somewhat incorrect, Heraclides would seem to be worthy of the position accorded to him at the Academy and perhaps of a more prominent position in the general appreciation of Ancient Greek philosophers.
Instead though, we see him being dubbed Heraclides “Pompicus” from the Greek πομπεια meaning “buffoon”. Could this be due to the contrariness of his astronomical assertions in an Aristotelian world? Was it his own vanity and pomposity which made him the target of such punning ridicule? (Davidson (2007), 45)
Those issues may have helped, but there may have been another reason for the level of ridicule he received: it seems that Heraclides Ponticus was a prolific forger and plagiariser.
In his entry on ‘Pompicus’ in his Lives of the Philosophers, Diogenes Laertius records that “Aristoxenus the musician asserts that Heraclides also composed tragedies, inscribing upon them the name of Thespis [while] Chamaeleon complains that Heraclides’ treatise on the works of Homer and Hesiod was plagiarized from his own” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers V.92).
It is with this reputation for forgery and plagiarism that we turn to another lesser known Greek philosopher of the fourth century BCE – Dionysius of Heraclea (c.330-250BCE), known to history as Dionysius the Renegade.
In this context ‘renegade’ – μεταθέμενος – is used in its original meaning, similar to ‘deserter’ i.e. someone who reneges. This nickname stemmed from his abandoning of the austere Stoic philosophy of Zeno of Citium for the hedonism of the Cyrenaics after being struck with an eye complaint.
Such a nickname may not have arisen from a single instance of ‘desertion.’ Dionysius may have had a reputation for turning away from ideas, beliefs, philosophies and people. Indeed, he would seem to have turned away from another teacher early in his life: his fellow inhabitant of Heraclea Pontica – Heraclides.
Dionysius was himself a prolific writer, producing philosophical works on apathy, training, pleasure, riches, use of men, good fortune, kings, praise and barbarians (Diogenes Laertes, Lives of the Philosophers VII.167), but it is a work that he passed off as not being his own that became part of the dispute between he and Heraclides.
Intent on catching out Heraclides in his pomposity and outdoing him at his own game of forgery, Dionysius composed a play called Parthenopaeus and claimed that it was a lost work of the great fifth century BC tragedian Sophocles.
The forgery elicited praise from Heraclides as an authentic piece, who cited it in one of his own works as “Sophoclean evidence” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers V.92)
Having caught his former teacher in the trap, Dionysius revealed to ‘Pompicus’ that he had forged the attribution to Sophocles, ridiculing him for his inability to recognise an obvious fraud.
Unwilling to accept that he had been duped by his former disciple, Heraclides insisted that the play was authentic. It was then that Dionysius provided various proofs of his authorship of Parthenopaeus. He pointed to an acrostic – using the first letters of successive lines to spell out a word or message – present in the play which spelled out the name of ΠΑΝΚΑΛΑΣ (Pankalos), who just so happened to be the lover of Dionysius.
Still unwilling to believe that he had been made a fool of, Heraclides continued to dig a hole for himself – “Such a thing, he said, might very well happen by chance” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers V.93).
Unfortunately for Heraclides, the name of his lover was not the only hidden message Dionysius had placed in Parthenopaeus. Indeed, the Renegade seems to have known his target well for the messages he interwove in his forged fabric suggest that he did not expect Heraclides to accept his word or the initial reveal of the ΠΑΝΚΑΛΑΣ acrostic as proof of his authorship of this ‘Sophoclean’ play.
The second message read “An old monkey is not caught by a trap,” rhetorically setting up Heraclides for the next hidden line, which read “Oh yes, he’s caught at last, but it takes time.”
If it was not obvious enough by then that Heraclides had been thoroughly duped, the last message shrugged off any pretence and resorted to flat out mockery, pronouncing that “Heraclides is ignorant of letters and not ashamed of his ignorance” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers V.93)
There is not enough surviving information in the source record of Diogenes and the Suda to provide much more information in this confrontation, so it is difficult to gauge what impact it had on the relationship between Dionysius and Heraclides.
Was it more in jest than a cynical attempt to humiliate a forger? Could the denigration of Heraclides’ reputation through the revealing of such forgeries and plagiarism have affected his standing enough to undermine his chances at election as head of the Platonic Academy?
This incident of ridicule by Dionysius cannot have impacted Heraclides’ defeat by Xenocrates in 339/338BC, as Dionysius himself does not seem to have been born until c.330, but it may be a consequence of Heraclides’ diminishing stature in his later years.
Perhaps we have a barely out of his teens μεταθέμενος trying to make a name for himself by setting up a septuagenarian πομπεια or the latest round in a rivalry between two men from Heraclea Pontica being played out in the great cultural centre of Athens.
Diogenes Laërtius, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers (Hicks, R.D. translation, Loeb Classical Library, 1925)
Suda, Lexicon (Adler, A. translation, 1928-1938)
Davidson, M.P. The Stars And The Mind. (2007)
Eastwood, B. ‘Heraclides and Heliocentrism: Texts, Diagrams, and Interpretations,’ Journal for the History of Astronomy 23 (1992) 233-260
Ehrman, B.D. Lost Christianities: The Battle for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. Oxford (2003)
Grafton, A. Forgers and Critics: Creativity and Duplicity in Western Scholarship. Princeton (1990)
Guthrie, W.K.C. A History of Greek Philosophy: Volume 5 The Later Plato and the Academy (Later Plato & the Academy). Cambridge (1986)
Heath, T. L. A History of Greek Mathematics: From Thales to Euclid. Oxford (1921)
While in the East, a great blaze of light in the sky could be a hopeful sign of the rise of a powerful leader, the Greco-Romans dreaded comets as portents of doom, war or the overthrow of a ruler.
When recording much of the previous ‘knowledge’ of comets in his Natural Questions, including the likes of Aristotle who believed they came from the Earth, Seneca highlights a lot of their historic negative receptions, even when he is attempting to be scientific, while Pliny the Elder records certain comets as “a very terrible portent” (Pliny, NH II.22; Seneca, Natural Questions VII). This was so prevalent that the English word ‘disaster’ comes from the Latin for ‘dire star’, referring to a comet.
During the late second/early first century BC, the Romans will have been forgiven for thinking that their predilection for fear of comets was completely justified. The comets of 135BC, 119BC and 87BC came at a time when the eastern Mediterranean was awash with prophecies of trouble for the Roman state (Sanford (1937), 437-439, 446; Holland (2003), 31-58; Buitenwerf (2003) on Sibylline Oracles), prophecies which seemed to be coming true – external problems abound with Spaniards, Numidians, Germans, pirates and the comet-swathed Mithridates, while internally political instability had brought about increasing bloodshed with the Gracchi, Saturninus, the Social War and the burgeoning war between Marians and Sullans. The Messianic figure to bring down the great tyrant of the age promised by such comets may have seemed just around the corner to many a Roman and Asian…
There were so many prophecies proclaiming seemingly anti-Roman aims and included comets in some way that it could almost be queried whether the Romans were scared of what they thought the comet meant in terms of portents or what it might mean to many of its provincials and hostile neighbours, particularly given the Messianic, tyrant-slaying empire-overthrowing claims amongst the peoples of Asia Minor and the Middle East. Greeks and possibly even some Italians choosing to see these comets in a more positive, revolutionary way could have dire consequences for Rome and her empire.
Into this mire came another celestial intervention during a confrontation at Ortyrae between the forces of Mithridates (under the command of a one-eyed Roman rebel Marcus Varius) and the army of Lucullus in 73BC. As the two armies were about to collide, a meteor struck the ground between them, causing both armies to retreat from the battlefield. While Mithridates already had over sixty years of positive comet propaganda behind him in appealing to divine protection, Lucullus will have been struggling largely against the flow of Roman reception of comets and meteorites to have the positive spin of being saved from a battle he did not want due to being thoroughly out-numbered through divine meteor intervention accepted at home; however, the circumstances of the Ortyrae meteorite may have helped him greatly (Mayor (2009), 267-270; Plutarch, Lucullus VIII.5-7; Stothers (2007); D’Orazio (2007); Keaveney (1992), 77 “Both sides, recognising an evil omen, withdrew”; Strabo XII.5.3 on Cybele’s meteorite; Mitchell (1995), II.20).
Meteors were associated with the Anatolian mother goddess Cybele, a goddess who had gained a significant following in Rome over the previous decades due to her intercession on Rome’s behalf during the Second Punic War. With the battle with Hannibal reaching its crescendo, the Sibylline Books warned that the great Carthaginian general would only be defeated if Cybele’s sacred black stone meteorite kept at Pessinus in central Anatolia was brought to Italy (similar meteorite veneration continues to this day in the guise of the Kaaba in Islam).
The Romans followed this advice and with great pomp and ceremony the black stone was brought to Rome in 204BC. Scipio Africanus’ subsequent decisive victory over Hannibal at Zama in 202BC saw Cybele worship became popular amongst the Romans, leading to a gradual overturning of the traditional Roman fear of meteors and comets. The Romans did not forget this intervention with the great general Marius making a pilgrimage to its site in 98BC, while Sulla had received encouragement from a visitation by Cybele in a dream.
While the likes of Seneca and Pliny would continue to list the poor portents of many comets, before the first century BC was out, Rome would embrace the potential positives of such wandering starts, although it may have taken a dictatorial/imperial hand to guide them.
According to Suetonius, as celebrations for the Ludi Victoriae Caesaris of 44BC were getting underway, “a comet shone for seven successive days, rising about the eleventh hour” (Suetonius, Divus Julius 88). This bright, day-light comet was initially thought to have appeared in September, this has recently been reused to July, which just so happens to be the month of Julius Caesar, who had just been assassinated on the Ides of March.
Due to the fortuitous timing and no doubt some ‘encouragement’ from the Caesarian party, this astronomical visitor became known as the Sidus Iulium (‘Julian Star’) or Caesaris astrum (‘Star of Caesar’) and became increasingly identified as “the soul of Caesar” (Suetonius, Divus Julius 88), ready to ascend to the heavens once his deification was acclaimed on 1 January 42BC.
Such seeming manipulation of names, dates and meaning of ‘Caesar’s Comet’ raises the suspicion as to whether the star/comet appeared at all or was the total invention of Augustan propaganda (Gurval (1997); Marsden in Ramsey and Licht (1997); Pandey (2013)). However, much like with scepticism over the comets of Mithridates, the records from Han China do suggest that there was a comet in the skies of the summer of 44BC, although perhaps in mid-May to mid-June rather than late July. Whether it existed or not, the Sidus Iulium became a potent propaganda tool over the two decades as Augustus established his power and then established his own links to Aeneas and Venus through Caesar.
It must also be noted that what became known as ‘Caesar’s Comet’ was not always considered to be such. It appeared on coins before 44BC was out but as a tailless ‘Star of Caesar’ rather than a comet. Perhaps as further evidence of the infiltration of eastern positivity towards comets, this Sidus Iulium gradually grew a tail to become a comet and also a depiction of Caesar’s divinity (Gurval (1997)).
While Virgil’s “never did fearsome comets so often blaze” seems to link comets to death rather than Caesar’s divinity (Virgil, Georgic I.487-488), this transformation appears to have been complete by the dedication of the Temple of Divus Iulius in 29BC for at the back of the temple a huge image of Caesar was erected with a flaming comet fixed to its forehead, leading the temple also being called the ‘Temple of the Comet Star’ (Pliny, NH II.93-94; Ovid, Meta. XV.840, cf. 745-842).
Again much like with Mithridates, Augustus must have been happy with the timing of the return of Halley’s Comet in 10BC, as it just happened to coincide with the massive funeral games the emperor staged that year in honour of his great friend and general, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, who had died in 12BC.
The seeming transformation of the ‘Julian Star/Star of Caesar’ into ‘Caesar’s Comet’ is similar to the development of the reception of perhaps the most famous comet in the ancient world… after the comets that signalled the coming of Mithridates and the heavenly ascent of Julius Caesar, there was the wandering star juxtaposed into the birth story of Jesus of Nazareth. Much like what is supposed for the Red Comet, this ‘Star of Bethlehem’ acted as the herald for a new King, a guide and a symbol of a Messianic arrival. This association of the celestial guide of the Wise Men with a comet has a long history, with C.R. Nicholl’s 2015 work The Great Christ Comet: Revealing the True Star of Bethlehem being just the latest (Rosenberg (1972) Brown (1975); (1993); Cullen (1979); Hughes (1979); Humphreys (1992); Paffenroth (1993); Jenkins (2004)).
Even more maligned emperors like Nero had numerous celestial visitors to use for their propaganda and political ends. The death of Claudius and Nero’s accession to the throne in 54 was greeted with bright tailed comet, while in 64, the emperor used the appearance of a comet to have numerous senators he disliked executed. However, in 66, when Nero’s regime was beginning to crumble, his popularity replaced with growing opposition, Halley’s Comet returned to the skies.
Perhaps the Jews took this appearance as a sign to overthrow the tyranny of the Romans, breaking out in revolt in the summer of 66, while many Romans may have welcomed the old prophecies of comets bringing about the downfall of tyrants…
Within a decade, during his fifth consulship of 76, the future emperor Titus, the man who had put down said Jewish revolt, wrote a poem about a javelin-type comet, which Pliny the Elder considered to be famous (Pliny, NH II.22).
Down to Modern Times
Even with the seeming embrace of comets by much of the world, these wandering stars continued to provoke a range of response throughout the medieval period. Halley’s Comet appears above Harold Godwinson in the Bayeux Tapestry, seemingly as a hint of subsequent events during the Norman Conquest (with the benefit of hindsight).
The record of the First Crusade is also littered with instances of cometary sightings in connection with significant events, for good and ill. Comets and meteors had been taken as God’s blessing for Pope Urban’s call of what became the Crusade at Clermont in 1095. A meteor shower visible at Constantinople was seen as a predictor of the arrival of the Frankish ‘locusts’. The Turkish camp of Kerbogha besieging the Crusaders in Antioch was seen to be hit by a meteor on 14 June 1098.
In various parts of Europe, it was blamed for earthquakes, illnesses, birth defects and even the Black Death, with Pope Callixtus III excommunicating the comet in 1456 as an “instrument of the devil.” Its 1835-1836 return was claimed to have caused a large fire in New York, a massacre of Boers by the Zulu in South Africa and the siege of the Alamo.
On comets in general, a 15th century poem claimed that they brought “fever, illness, pestilence and death, difficult times, shortages and times of great famine,” which would be an apt description of the consequences for the locals upon the appearance of the Conquistadores in Central and South America. Indeed, Inca and Aztec astrologers saw comets as signs of divine wrath, with one reputedly appearing in the days before the conquest of the former by Francisco Pizarro.
The 16th century French physician, Ambroise Pare, thought a comet of 1528 “was so horrible, so frightful, and it produced such great terror that some died of fear and others fell sick. It appeared to be of extreme length, and was the color of blood.”
It was not all negative. By the 17th century, European winemakers claimed that comets caused higher temperatures and therefore aided their grape production and taste, while Napoleon connected some of his early military victories to the appearance of comets.
As science progressed into the 20th century, the old adage of ‘a little knowledge being a dangerous thing’ came into play. In 1910, “comet pills” and “comet insurance” appeared on the market and some Americans felt the need to board up their houses due to the supposed threat of poisonous cyanide gas as Earth passed through the tail of Halley’s Comet.
One might think that as the 20th century progressed that fear of comets was to be confined to Hollywood story lines, but forms of ‘comet fever’ still survive into more modern times. When Comet Hale-Bopp appeared in the skies in 1997, it was taken to be a cover for the apocalyptic appearance of ‘Nibiru/Planet X’ or the pre-emptor of an alien space ship, which a group called Heaven’s Gate committed mass suicide in order to be beamed aboard.
Comets inspired dread, fear, and awe in many different ancient societies and even to this day, they continue to fascinate, astound and even frighten for the same core reason – they are something out of the ordinary in a sky which is almost always predictable.
Even the polar opposite receptions of comets have their own modern versions. While Greeks and Romans may have seen divine warning of an impending disaster, modern viewers of Halley or Hale-Bopp could be all too aware of that apocalyptic threat posed by such (not-so) Near Earth Objects.
And on the other hand, the eastern views of great positive, even Messianic change to come in the wake of a comet also have their modern theoretical backing in their bringing of the essential Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons to Earth in order for life to emerge.
Whether by luck or design, G.R.R. Martin and the creators of Game of Thrones captured this ambiguity perfectly in their words and scenes on paper and screen. The Red Comet is a “harbinger of change,” but what that change is depends on your perspective – victory for your enemies or yourself; the arrival of ice zombies or the dragons/Messiah seemingly sent to defeat them; new life or death.
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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.
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.
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.
For more information and pictures on the Traprain Law hoard, go to https://www.nms.ac.uk/explore-our-collections/stories/scottish-history-and-archaeology/traprain-law-treasure/
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
We here at the Classical Association in Northern Ireland would like to wish all of our friends and followers a Happy New Year! May Janus provide you with eyes on the past, future and present!
While we already have a programme set for the first half of 2018, rest assured that we are working on further events not just for the public but also for schools across Northern Ireland, which is a pivotal part of our mission. Our blog also continues to present aspects of the Ancient World and the Classics.
So stay tuned for further updates and additions and do not hesitate to get in touch if you would like more information, help promoting or running your own event or any ideas you think we at CANI could help with!
Thanks and once again, Happy New Year!
In our latest blog, Dr John Curran outlines the activities of the Classical Association in Northern Ireland:
In 2015, a new partnership between the ancient historians at Queen’s and the broader public led to the formation of The Classical Association in Northern Ireland/Cumann na gClasaicí i dTuaisceart Éireann. The Association seeks to bring a number of different constituencies together to explore and celebrate the history and heritage of Classical antiquity.
Already, distinguished scholars from Northern Ireland, Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland have delighted audiences with lectures on a wide range of subjects from ancient Greek music to Rome’s trade with India. Poetry evenings have celebrated the unique interpretation of ancient Classical culture by Northern Ireland’s most distinguished poets Michael Longley and Seamus Heaney and provided a platform for the next generation of writers in Belfast and beyond. Film nights have featured Queen’s historians examining the…
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