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CANI Review of 2017

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CANI kicked off 2017 with two days devoted to its CANI4Schools initiative, starting off with a series of talks to the Classical Civilisation Upper and Lower Sixth classes of Dalriada School, Ballymoney on 23rd February.


After a brief introduction from Mr Stewart Bredin, Head of History at Dalriada, Dr Peter Crawford, returning to his old grammar school where he was first bitten by the Ancient History bug, went through the overall story of the Persian Wars, before Dr John Curran explained how Augustus attempted to ‘make Rome great again’ through various reform, building and propagandist means. Drs Crawford and Curran then combined to go through the chronological fall of the Roman Republic through the eyes of Cicero and then held a brief Q&A session saw pupils ask about the benefits of a History degree and subjects of interest within Ancient History.

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The following day, 24th February, Drs Curran and Crawford then headed to Derry/Londonderry on the invitation of Lumen Christi College’s Latin Club. Again working in tandem, they presented a talk on “20+ Things Every Latin Student Should Know About Ancient Rome” covering origin myths, neighbouring peoples, religion, the army, conquest, Roman enemies, the Roman family, trade, literature, slavery, and the modern day influences of Latin on science, law, politics and pop culture.

CANI would like to express our own thanks to the staff and students of both Dalriada and Lumen Christi College. These are the kind of events for which CANI was originally formed, and with so many enthusiastic pupils attending and asking questions, it is clear that interest in the Ancient World is alive and thriving in Northern Ireland.

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CANI then kicked off its 2017 public programme on 16 March with ‘Narrative Experience in Xenophon’s Anabasis‘ by Dr Rosie Harman of UCL. Dr Harman showed how Xenophon justified everything the Greeks did or proposed to do during the ‘March of the 10,000’ in them being superior to the alien inhabitants of the Persian Empire, all the while presenting the story in almost diametrically opposed terms – an ‘easy’ triumphal journey or a harrowing tale of survival against all odds.


On Thursday 6th April, CANI hosted a talk on ‘Greek Percussion’ by Dr Katerina Kolotourou. A historian, linguist, field-archaeologist and accomplished pianist, Dr Kolotorou called upon literary sources and fragmentary sculptural evidence to demonstrate the sistrumtympanon and kithara in the prominent roles required of them by the classical Greek musical ear.


CANI‘s 2016/17 talks programme was completed with Dr Peter Crawford asking the question ‘Who Was Constantius II?’ on 8th June at Queen’s University. The answer required a long checklist for all those in attendance, but can be summed up with saying that this ‘good, bad, and ugly’ enigma of a fourth century Roman emperor was ‘a potentially unpleasant, utterly ruthless and unscrupulous man’ who had his political and military achievements downgraded by negative sources.

Readers Collage

Following hot on the heels of our highly successful public reading of Homer’s Iliad at Queen’s University Belfast, Saturday 17t June saw the second Homeric epic, the Odyssey receive the same treatment, this time in the foyer of the Ulster Museum. Once again, the people of Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Scotland, England, Italy and Australia were extremely generous with their time and donations to MacMillan Cancer Research.

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Further colour was added to proceedings by the generosity of Laura Jenkinson, who provided a tremendous amount of material both for advertising the event and for children of all ages to partake in some colouring-in on the day through her @GreekMythComix initiative

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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 in facilities laid on by the Open University in Northern Ireland. Four classes, two Latin and two Greek, ran concurrently for 12 lessons and were supplemented by talks by Stephen Strickland (Maynooth) on ‘Food and Character in Suetonius’ and Giulio Di Basilio (UCD) on ‘Plato’s Ethics.’

Showing the range of interest in these classical languages, attendees included PhD students, undergraduates, those looking to revisit their love of languages, and veterans of the 2016 Summer School.


Such was the success this year that the 2018 edition has already been scheduled to run from Monday 16th to Friday 20th July and plans are afoot to include Advanced levels in both Greek and Latin. Watch this space!


CANI‘s 2017/18 programme began on 4th October with a talk by Dr Elizabeth Dawson (QUB) on ‘The Earliest Latin Lives of St Patrick: Hagiography and History.’ Those in attendance were treated to a look at Patrick’s own fifth century writings and then what the works of two seventh century hagiographers, Tírechán and Muirchú, might tell us about Patrick politics, society and the Patrician cult in seventh century Ireland when woven together.


6th November saw the pre-visit from our colleagues at Advocating Classics Education, Professor Edith Hall and Dr. Arlene Holmes-Henderson, which brought together a tremendous array of representatives from the full spectrum of education – primary, secondary, tertiary, research, public engagement, examination, governance – all interested in the future of Classics education on this island. But do not take my word for it… Here is what Professor Hall had to say…

“Our wonderful Belfast partners, led by super-efficient Dr John Curran won the prize for the largest number of committed stake-holders at our heart-warming meeting at Queen’s yesterday. Northern Ireland really cares about Classics for Everyone–and there was a delegate from Dublin too!”

ACE Event Flier

A day-long event hosted by CANI, ACE and the Ulster Museum will take place on 9th February 2018 and will feature the acting out of Greek plays in costume, along with talks from Natalie Haynes and Dr John Curran, handling sessions of ancient artefacts and an appearance by Legion Ireland, Roman re-enactors from Cork.

Stay tuned for more details…


The final CANI talk of 2017 came on 30 November attracted a fantastic crowd to hear Dr Philip de Souza (UCD) revealing ‘The Truth About Triremes: Ancient Naval Warfare Re-examined.’ Dr de Souza investigated how the perceptions of sources regarding sailors, sea battles and triremes as ‘man-driven torpedoes’ has potentially distorted the numbers, involvement and abilities of warships and their crews – “the worst scum of the Greeks” according to Isocrates, On the Peace 79, as well as their general use by naval powers such as Athens, Carthage and Rome.

Readers Collage

CANI‘s 2017 was closed out on 7th December with a public reading of the final part of the ‘Trojan War’ Trilogy – Virgil’s Aeneid. From 10am, the McClay Library of Queen’s University Belfast rung out with the rhythmic prose of former Poet Laureate Cecil Day Lewis. A brief diversion at about 1pm saw Seamus Heaney’s translation of Book VI become our guide (the great man even popped up on screen a few times to keep an eye on proceedings…).


By the time Turnus’ pleas for mercy had been ignored in a fit of Aenean rage shortly after 4pm, 23 different readers of all ages, geographical locations and academic backgrounds had taken part, with numerous participants and listeners donating to the Simon Community NI.

With the Trojan War epics thoroughly mined, what might CANI‘s next public reading be? Ovid? Aristophanes? Herodotus? Petronius?; a conglomeration of historians on Alexander the Great? Answers on a postcard…

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The CANI blog in 2017 continued its brief to cover as many diverse topics as it could, featuring entries on the Bann Disc, whether or not the Romans invented the concept of “BAE,” the question “is AHM Jones better than Gibbon?”, imperial long necks on coins, ancient coded messages, Helen of Troy and the Rhodian Colossus in Game of Thrones, a really short consulship, an Ulster-American Odyssey and fireships in the ancient world.

We are also always willing to take contributions from our readers so get in touch if you have an idea or even an already completed piece lying around without a home.

2018 will see CANI embark on the aforementioned day-long with Advocating Classics Education in the Ulster Museum on 9th February, aimed at increasing participation in Classics within schools. February will also see CANI heading back to Dalriada School, Ballymoney to provide a series of curriculum-supporting talks on the Persian Wars, the End of the Roman Republic, Cicero and Augustan Rome.


CANIs public talks programme begins again on 7th March with Dr Laura Pfuntner (QUB) describing ‘A Roman Holiday in Sicily.’ Laura Jenkinson of Greek Myth Comix will present on ‘Classics, Comics and Education’ on 11th April. CANI Film Night III will see the epic Jason and the Argonauts battle their way into the Ulster Museum on 12th May. Dr Pamela Zinn (Texas Tech University) will look at ‘Animals and Vegetarianism in Antiquity’ on 30th May, before the return of the Belfast Summer School in Classics between 16-20th July and finally CANI and QUB will play host to the Classical Association of Ireland’s annual Summer School of talks on 17-19th August.

It is clear from the attendance of our events that interest in the Classics and all aspects of the Ancient World is in rude health. We may even need to book a bigger room…

CANI will soon be looking to bring together our programme for 2018-2019 so if there are any schools, community groups or historical societies that would like to organise an event with us or just would like some input about their own activities, do not hesitate to get in touch with us.

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Happy New Year 2018!

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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!

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

#AeneidLiveBelfast Review

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On 7 December 2017, The Classical Association in Northern Ireland returned to the scene of its first public speaking event the previous year, the McClay Library of Queen’s University Belfast. The aim this time was to complete the ‘Trojan War’ Trilogy, this time looking at the fate of a band of Trojans escaping the Greek sack of their city: Virgil’s Aeneid.

A little after 10am, #AeneidLiveBelfast began with Dr John Curran (QUB) introducing the event and taking the first reading slot as Virgil ‘sung of arms and of a man,’ who with his band of followers sought for a new home against the wrath of Juno

That introduction initiated six hours of non-stop reading of Poet Laureate Cecil Day Lewis’ translation of Virgil’s poetic propaganda in hexameter.

However, there was one break from the rhythmic prose of Cecil Day Lewis at around 1pm when our schedule came to Book VI. It would have been remiss for an event hosted by the Classical Association in Northern Ireland in the surroundings of Queen’s University Belfast not to make use of the translation of Book VI by Seamus Heaney (and as you can see from some of our photos, the great man popped up on screen a few times to keep an eye on proceedings…).


1. John Curran I

For those passers-by who were not familiar with Virgil or the Aeneid, a short summary of CANI, the event and the story of Aeneas was provided.


 While the journey of Aeneas was recanted, with listeners enthralled, intrigued and bemused, CANI had a few new additions to its table of goodies this year – along with promotional programme cards, membership sign-ups and business cards, the new Annual and the return of the sweets, we have branched out into the world of merchandise. Notepads and pens, mugs and stickers emblazoned with the striking CANI logo were all available for purchase.


If you are interested in purchasing a mug, notepad and pen or some stickers do not hesitate to get in touch through the web address, facebook or twitter.

By the time CANI convenor Helen McVeigh brought proceedings to the close at 16:10 (almost right on time…), the Trojan Horse had done its damage; storms had been survived; the heart-broken Dido had breathed her last; Aeneas had journeyed to the Underworld; Anchises has informed us been informed about how great the Romans would be and Turnus’ pleas for mercy had been ignored in a fit of Aenean rage.

36. Helen McVeigh II

In total, there were 36 reading slots taken up by 23 different readers of all ages, geographical locations and academic backgrounds.

Time Reader Time Reader
10:05-10:10 John Curran (introduction) 13:10-13:20 Anita Greg
10:10-10:20 John Curran 13:20-13:30 Laura Pfuntner
10:20-10:30 Peter Crawford 13:30-13:40 John McGuckian
10:30-10:40 Patrick Bell 13:40-13:50 Helen McVeigh
10:40-10:50 Anita Greg 13:50-14:00 Leslie Gilmore
10:50-11:00 Raoul McLaughlin 14:00-14:10 Raoul McLaughlin
11:00-11:10 Katerina Kolotourou 14:10-14:20 Peter Crawford
11:10-11:20 John Curran 14:20-14:30 Joanne Brown
11:20-11:30 Peter Crawford 14:30-14:40 Janine Paterson
11:30-11:40 Antonia McAllister 14:40-14:50 Caroline Jones
11:40-11:50 Katerina Kolotourou 14:50-15:00 Stephen Strickland
11:50-12:00 Raoul McLaughlin 15:00-15:10 Kevin Forsyth
12:00-12:10 Margaret Marshall 15:10-15:20 Laura Pfuntner
12:10-12:20 Anita Greg 15:20-15:30 Ciara Campbell
12:20-12:30 Mary Preston 15:30-15:40 Philip Griffiths
12:30-12:40 Katerina Kolotourou 15:40-15:50 Joanne Brown
12:40-12:50 John Garry 15:50-16:00 Amber Taylor
12:50-13:00 John Curran 16:00-16:10 Helen McVeigh
13:00-13:10 Keith Currie    

The Classical Association in Northern Ireland would like to thank all of those who helped organise and promote the event, those who took part (first-timers or returnees), who donated to such a worthy cause in the Simon Community, or just took time to listen in as they passed by.

Particular thanks to the McClay Library, Hope Café and Queen’s University Belfast for allowing us to use their grounds and resources.

To the writers who made this possible, Cecil Day Lewis, Seamus Heaney and Publius Vergilius Maro (a special thanks to one Imperator Caesar Augustus who countermanded Virgil’s desire to have the unfinished Aeneid burned when he died).

And Helen McVeigh and John Curran for organising the whole event.

Thank you all.

The ideas for our next public reading were already pouring in before Aeneas had plunged his sword into Turnus: Ovid’s Metamorphoses; selections from Herodotus; the Satyricon of Petronius; a conglomeration of historians on Alexander the Great.

And if you cannot wait until this time next year for live performances of Ancient Classics, our joint event with Advocating Classics Education in the Ulster Museum on 9 February 2018 will feature the acting out of Greek plays in costume, along with talks from Natalie Haynes and Dr John Curran, handling sessions of ancient artefacts and an appearance by Legion Ireland, Roman re-enactors from Cork.

Stay tuned for more details…

ACE Event Flier

For videos and photos, check out our #AeneidLiveBelfast Gallery, with links to our Facebook albums and Youtube Channel, where you can see pictures and videos of not just our latest public reading but also our growing annual programme of events.

#AeneidLiveBelfast Gallery

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For the review of the event, click HERE.

If you would like to see more pictures you can check out our Facebook page below.

7th December 2017, 10am-4pm10min slots for hire at £2 per slot with all proceeds going to Simon Community NIInterested in taking part? Contact

Posted by The Classical Association in Northern Ireland on Monday, October 16, 2017

‘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 wandering, 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 the 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 had 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.