Latest Event Updates
As they streak across the sky, striking awe into onlookers, it is easy to forget that such comets could, with just a few degrees difference in angle, be harbingers of the ultimate doom to life on this planet. Such apocalyptic notions are not just the fodder for Hollywood movies like Deep Impact and Armageddon or Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, Hammer of the Gods.
We need only look up at the moon to see the damage which can be done by such celestial cannonballs. The surface of the Earth itself is spotted with craterous bullet-holes, some which are considered to have caused extinction level events.
But as much as such comets could be the bringers of apocalyptic doom and have been in the past, they could also be the harbingers of a new dawn. The PAH (Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) world hypothesis suggests that such comets may have brought some of the vital ingredients of the primordial soup to Earth – Arthur C. Clarke’s essay ‘Toilets of the Gods’ is perhaps the most famous iteration of this theory.
This dual nature of bringers of extinction and of the building blocks of life is played out in the reception of the Red Comet in both the literary and televisual versions of Game of Thrones.
Red Comet, by Franz Miklis. © Fantasy Flight Games©
The sheer number of different names that this celestial interloper is recorded by – Red Comet, Red Messenger, Bleeding Star, Mormont’s Torch, King Joffrey’s comet, Red Sword, Sword that Slays the Season, Dragon’s Tail, burning brand, Father’s scourge and Harbinger – demonstrates the varied nature of its reception amongst the various characters and groups across Westeros and Essos. And even this list of names does not cover all of the ideas about the Red Comet.
Bright enough to be seen during the day, many considered the Red Comet to be some kind of sign or messenger, with those in the streets of King’s Landing and in the Riverlands specifically calling the comet the ‘Red Messenger,’ (ACOK, ch.3, Tyrion I; ch.7, Catelyn I; cf. ch.11, Theon I), although there was little agreement on not only what the comet was to be called but also what that message was.
To Old Nan (who was blind but claimed to be able to smell the comet), it signals the coming of dragons (ACOK, prol.), rather accurately as it turns out, given the events surrounding the funeral pyre of Khal Drogo in the grasslands of the Lhazareen. This thought is echoed in S02E01 “The North Remembers” of the TV show, where the words of Old Nan are put in the mouth of the wildling woman Osha.
Unsurprisingly, given her own experiences, Daenerys Targaryen muses that the comet was “Bloodred; fire red; the dragon’s tail,” (AGOT, ch.72, Daenerys X), clearly associating it not only with her dragons but the cause and even red-dragoned sigil of House Targaryen. In the streets of King’s Landing, perhaps reflecting that city’s memory of actual dragons, the people refer to it as the ‘Dragon’s Tail’, as do some of the servants encountered by Sansa Stark (ACOK, ch.2, Sansa I). Ser Arys Oakheart counters this by pointing out that it is Joffrey Baratheon who sits on the dragon’s throne (ACOK, ch.2, Sansa I). Meanwhile, at Dragonstone, the red priestess Melisandre tells Selyse Florent that the comet is dragonsbreath (ACOK, prol.)
Drogo’s Funeral Pyre Kim Pope©
Despite this connection to Daenerys, her dragons and her quest to claim the Iron Throne, it is another Dothraki, Jhogo, who is first recorded chronologically seeing the shierak qiya: ‘Bleeding Star’ in the Dothraki language (ACOK, ch.12, Daenerys I). Interestingly, he sees it before Khal Drogo’s funeral pyre. It is used as a symbol to light the pyre on fire, as it is believed the brighter the star, the fiercer a man burned in life, a reflection of the great Khal that the Dothraki and indeed Daenerys has lost in the demise of Drogo (and perhaps even of Rhaego, Drogo and Daenerys’ unborn son).
This link to the demise of a great man may also be seen in mentions of the comet in relation to the death of Eddard Stark. Maester Luwin of Winterfell studied the comet through his Myrish lens tube on the morning when a raven brings the news of Eddard’s execution (AGOT, ch.66, Bran VII), which is the first mention of the comet in A Game of Thrones, although the sighting by Jhogo takes place earlier in the timeline of events. The comet makes Arya Stark remember the blood on Ice, her father’s greatsword, which she had seen used to execute him (ACOK, ch.1, Arya I). Some, like Greatjon Umber look upon the comet as a red flag of vengeance for Ned (ACOK, ch.7, Catelyn I).
Khal Drogo’s funeral pyre also sees the comet cast in the role of a sign or guide. Daenerys uses its presence to light said pyre (AGOT, ch.72, Daenerys X) and given how positively that guidance went, she again takes it as a sign to venture into the waterless Red Waste, claiming that “the gods have sent it to show me the way” (ACOK, ch.12, Daenerys I). That she could command her small khalasar to follow her in such a dangerous journey, even against the mutterings of the old men who saw the comet as ill-omened, demonstrates the respect and awe now felt for Daenerys given her survival of the funeral pyre and status as ‘Mother of Dragons.’ It may also have been a recognition that there was little else they could do due to the presence of other marauding khalasars in the vicinity, highlighted in the TV show by the murder of Rakharo when on a scouting mission, or evidence of a genuine belief in the shierak qiya as a guide to better things, which it could be argued it did given the improving of Daenerys’ position through crossing the Red Waste to Qarth. This idea of the comet being a guide for Daenerys is reiterated by the Undying Ones of Qarth, who claimed to have sent the comet to bring Dani to them (ACOK, ch.48, Daenerys IV).
This guiding hand symbolism may also be present for the men of the Night’s Watch currently employed in the Great Ranging beyond the Wall calling the comet ‘Mormont’s Torch’ after their Lord Commander (ACOK, ch.6, Jon I; ch.23, Jon III), possibly an allusion to the need for light against the coming dark.
Melisandre and Marco_Caradonna’s Prince Who Was Promised
Through its fiery colour, heavenly position and sword-like look, the Red Comet was also closely associated with the prophecies surrounding the worship of the Lord of Light, R’hllor. Maester Aemon recalls how Prince Aegon was conceived under the light of a comet at King’s Landing, leading Rhaegar to believe that his son was the ‘prince that was promised.’ Aemon later began to think that Daenerys was the promised hero (AFFC, ch.35, Samwell IV), and she too claimed that the comet was the herald of her coming. (ACOK, ch.12, Daenerys I)
In Westeros, it is Melisandre who suggests that the comet was acting as a herald, specifically for Stannis Baratheon, who she saw as the ‘prince that was promised’ to stand in the name of R’hllor against the Great Other, something echoed by his wife Selyse (ASOS, ch.63, Davos VI; Chapter 78, Samwell V; ADWD, ch.54, Cersei I).
Beyond the prophecies of the Lord of Light, Theon records the men of Riverrun seeing “the Red Comet is a herald of a new age. A messenger from the gods” (ACOK, ch.11, Theon I). Varys reports how the people in the streets of King’s Landing “say it comes as a herald before a king” (ACOK, ch.3, Tyrion I), with the royal court sycophantically proclaiming it as “King Joffrey’s comet,” something echoed by Ser Arys Oakheart, who sees it as the herald of Joffrey’s ascent to the throne, which Sansa doubts as the comet is red, a Lannister colour while Joffrey is supposed to be a Baratheon… the audience, reader and a select few know why the comet is not gold…(ACOK, ch.2, Sansa I)
Ser Oakheart, perhaps demonstrating his own sycophancy or willingness to believe propaganda, also tells Sansa that the comet means that King Joffrey “will triumph over his enemies” (ACOK, ch.2, Sansa I). The comet being a harbinger of victory is a common enough idea in Westeros, although there is plenty of hand-wringing as to whether that victory will be for your or your enemies.
Even some non-regal but self-centred persons, like Theon Greyjoy, could think that the comet was a sign for them personally (ACOK, ch.11, Theon I), but this question of ‘whose victory?’ is seen most clearly in the musings of Catelyn Stark, who mentions how the men of Winterfell see the comet as an omen of the victory of Robb Stark, and that her brother Edmure Tully, viewing the comet as a fish with a long tail and the red being the mud red colour of the river, sees future triumph for his family and himself. Being more pessimistic in the wake of her husband’s execution and the seeming loss of her daughters, Catelyn sees the comet’s colour as reminiscent of Lannister red crimson.
Brynden Tully dismisses these musings, claiming that the Red Comet is neither Lannister crimson not Tully red, but that of blood: a sign of the horrors about to unfold. Not deterred from her pessimism, Catelyn wonders whose blood that might be (ACOK, ch.7, Catelyn I).
The Blackfish is not the only one to identify the Red Comet as a sign of war and bloodshed, with several speaking in almost Targaryen terms of ‘fire and blood.’ Aeron Greyjoy tells Theon that it is an invitation from the Drowned God for the Ironborn to go on the warpath once more (ACOK, ch.11, Theon I). Maester Cressen thought the comet was “the colour of blood and flame and sunsets” (ACOK, prol.), while Osha warns Bran that it means “blood and fire, boy, and nothing sweet” (ACOK, ch.4, Bran I). In King’s Landing, Varys refers to how the people in the streets say the comet warns of “fire and blood to follow” (ACOK, ch.3, Tyrion I), which could be laced with foreboding of his own Targaryen leanings as well as some of the lower classes in the capital.
There are also some references to the panoply of war in the shape of the comet. Gendry calls the comet the ‘Red Sword,’ through his own background as a blacksmith and how he sees it as a “blade still red-hot from the forge,” while this conversation reminds Arya remember the blood on Ice, Eddard Stark’s greatsword, after the execution of her father (ACOK, ch.1, Arya I). Aeron Greyjoy also sees the comet as the burning brand the Ironborn used to carry and as a call to go to war with “fire and sword” (ACOK, ch.11, Theon I), while amongst the Faith of the Seven, it is known as the “sword that slays the season” (ACOK, ch.4, Bran I), highlighting not only the weapon shape of the comet but also the recent arrival of a white raven signalling the end of summer.
Similar supernatural links to the comet may be seen Maester Luwin’s recording of how the direwolves, Shaggydog and Summer, were howling at the comet. He thought that they were mistaking it for the moon (ACOK, ch.4, Bran I), although the ability of the direwolves to seemingly sense danger (see the Red Wedding) and their seeming connection to the more mysterious goings on in Westeros may connect their howling to the reawakening of magic, dragons and the Others which coincided with the passing of the Red Comet.
Varys recounts to Tyrion how “the comet has brought forth all manner of queer priests, preachers, and prophets… [to] foretell doom and destruction to anyone who stops to listen” (ACOK, ch.8, Tyrion II), something which Tyrion himself then experiences while returning to the Red Keep, pointedly after having met with the Guildhall of Alchemists regarding his proposed use of wildfire in the upcoming Battle of the Blackwater.
This particular prophet describes the Red Comet as a sign of an approaching cleansing sent by the Father:
“Corruption! There is the warning! Behold the Father’s scourge! We have become swollen, bloated, foul. Brother couples with sister in the bed of kings, and the fruit of their incest capers in his palace to the piping of a twisted little monkey demon. Highborn ladies fornicate with fools and give birth to monsters! Even the High Septon has forgotten the gods! He bathes in scented waters and grows fat on lark and lamprey while his people starve! Pride comes before prayer, maggots rule our castles, and gold is all … but no more! The Rotten Summer is at an end, and the Whoremonger King is brought low! When the boar did open him, a great stench rose to heaven and a thousand snakes slid forth from his belly, hissing and biting! There comes the Harbinger! Cleanse yourselves, the gods cry out, lest ye be cleansed! Bathe in the wine of righteousness, or you shall be bathed in fire! Fire!” (ACOK, ch.20, Tyrion V)
While his shouts of “Fire!” are shouted down with derision, as with many other opinions on the significance of the Red Comet, this prophet is hardly to be considered incorrect. The War of the Five Kings was about to arrive on the doorstep of King’s Landing in the form of Stannis Baratheon, famine and pestilence cannot be far behind and there are also the looming threats of the Ironborn raids, Daenerys’ dragons and Dothraki, the arrival of the Faith Militant, Cersei’s destructions of the Sept of Baelor in the TV show and whatever there is to come with the fulfilling of the Stark’s words – Winter is Coming.
It is also worth noting that in the midst of what might be considered a significant amount of superstition regarding the meaning behind the Red Comet, there is also something approaching the actual truth in the conversation between Maester Cressen and Shireen Baratheon. He informs her that “the thing in the sky is a comet, sweet child. A star with a tail, lost in the heavens. It will be gone soon enough, never to be seen again in our lifetimes” (ACOK, prol.).
In the next two blog entries, we will look at how these numerous reactions to the appearance of a comet in the fictional world of Game of Thrones reflects the similarly wide variety of receptions of such celestial interlopers in ancient history.
On Tuesday 26th June 2018, Lumen Christi College’s Latin Club graciously hosted Amber Taylor representing the Classical Association in Northern Ireland for a presentation entitled The Aeneid, Book VI, A Journey through the Underworld.
After an initial discussion of what the Aeneid was, who its author Virgil was and what happened in the story prior to Aeneas entering the Underworld engaged, an excited group of 20 post-primary school pupils listened intently to the tale of the epic hero Aeneas’ descent into the Underworld, alongside the Cumaean Sybil to seek out the ghost of his father Anchises and the advice that he would give to him.
Not only did the presentation of a particular book of Virgil’s Aeneid offer the chance to explore the dark and twisted geography of the Underworld as well as its terrifying monsters (e.g. harpies, gorgons and hydras) but it also gave the opportunity to explore themes and stories perhaps not explored in the epic itself. Death is of course the most prominent theme and Virgil explores this in various ways.
Through Book VI we see a κατάβασις (katabasis), a ‘going down’ to the Underworld and so the presentation was able to side track for a short time and explore those who have entered Dis aside from Aeneas, such as Hercules during his 12th labour and Orpheus to rescue Eurydice. Ways in which one can die were also explored with Dido, having committed suicide at the loss her lover Aeneas, now forever roaming the Fields of Mourning; those who have died before their time and those who are eternally damned to torture for their sins in Tartarus.
Of course, when Aeneas finally reaches his father he is told the truth of his future – he will come to begin the lineage that will be the founders of Rome, the greatest empire in the entire world (as Virgil likes to point out!). As Anchises points out the future rulers of Rome, Virgil’s voice sings loud throughout the passage, praising Rome for its glory and triumphs as well as the line of Caesars, especially Augustus himself, who was emperor around the time the Aeneid was written.
A question and answer session at the end prompted some really intriguing questions from the pupils of Lumen Christi, showing their enthusiasm and engagement for Classics such as “Why did Virgil base The Aeneid on both The Odyssey and The Iliad, rather than one?”. As well, a pop quiz ensured all went away with some sweets to kick off the start of Summer (and hopefully encourage their outlook on Classics!).
Lumen Christi’s Latin Club teacher, Miss Ava Wilson had this to say about the talk; “Lumen Christi College was delighted to welcome Miss Amber Taylor to speak to pupils about various translations of ‘The Aeneid, Book VI’ on Tuesday 26th June. The event was attended by around 20 pupils from both Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4. It is safe to say that all became thoroughly engaged with Miss Taylor’s lecture, expressing interest in all aspects of the material covered, including the riveting plot of the epic, the geography of the mythological Underworld, the dramatic value of the text – even the Latin of the original and the nuances of Seamus Heaney’s translation.
Miss Taylor really got the group engaged with the Latin of the original text, pointing out and explaining the significance of individual words. The pupils seemed to really enjoy this, and, for those who have studied some of the language, it gave them the opportunity to see the kind of level their efforts could lead to! The pupils seemed to really enjoy seeing how the material related to pop culture and other myths. I think the inclusion of such references helped make the material more accessible to them.
The success of the quiz at the end stands as testimony to both the level of interest shown by pupils and the effectiveness of Miss Taylor’s lecture – the prizes went rather quickly! This definitely generated an interest among pupils who were new to the subject. I would like to thank the Classical Association of Northern Ireland for this wonderful opportunity and, in particular, Miss Amber Taylor for her interesting and engaging presentation.” (Ava Wilson).
Once again, the Classical Association would like to thank Miss Ava Wilson for organising the event and for helping make it such an enjoyable day for all involved. As well, we at CANI would like to extend our thanks to Lumen Christi College for once again allowing us into their school and letting us explore the Classics with their pupils.
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.
CANI’s 2017/18 talks programme finished out with Dr Pamela Zinn (Texas Tech University) speaking on ‘Animals and Vegetarianism in Antiquity.’ While the heat outside (and inside) might have acted as a deterrent, such was the interest in the Classics and Dr Zinn’s subject that extra chairs needed to be brought in to the Old Staff Common Room, not to mention a bolstering of the summer drinks table!
Dr Zinn began by demonstrating how integral to the ancient life animals were and not just because the world of antiquity was an agrarian one, with there prominence in art, myths and even history: geese reputedly saved Rome from the Gauls by warning of the approach of an army.
Some animals were seen as divine or capable of revealing divine wishes through omens – cats in Egypt and the original auguries coming from the flight of birds. Dr Zinn then provided some more specific examples such as how because Romulus saw more birds than Remus, the city they built was called Roma not Remora and how Claudius Pulcher famously through the sacred chickens overboard prior to the Roman disaster at Drepanum because they would not give him favourable omens.
While an affront to modern sensibilities, animal sacrifice was not only an important aspect of the religion of ancient societies but also to its diet and community life.
Meat-eating was not as widespread in the ancient world, not due to any real aversion to it, but as many of the animals were less numerous, harder to farm and required for other activities, as beasts of burden, supply of resources, providers of entertainment and instruments of war.
Such community sacrifices were therefore the main source of meat for large sections of the population, with Dr Zinn referring to the prevalence of feasting in ancient epics as suggesting that “only heroes eat meat.”
The ancients were also prominent pet-keepers. They are written about in books and on inscriptions, commemorated on tombstones and depicted on icons and other art. Numerous examples were given including Pompeii’s archaeology famously preserving mosaics and volcanic casts of dogs; how the philosopher Porphyry had a talking partridge and how Tiberius granted a state funeral to a raven who always saluted him as he entered the forum.
With the closeness between the ancients and their animals and meat-eating somewhat uncommon, it might be expected that vegetarianism was more widespread than the evidence seems to suggest it was.
Some philosophers certainly showed sympathy of animals. Pythagoras thought that eating animals was tantamount to cannibalism due to reincarnation, while Lucretius felt that animals had free will and reason and that sacrifice was a violation of the public trust placed in animals. Virgil intimated that animals were key to civilisation.
Of course, these were very much in the minority with the likes of Cato, Aristotle and the Stoics viewing animals as having limited or lesser souls, therefore worthy of being only possessions and food.
To such men and much of the population, vegetarianism and its concomitant abhorrence of sacrifice was a rejection of the gods and/or the community which were so important to ancient societies. Dr Zinn provided the example of Seneca, who gave up vegetarianism for the sake of his political career as it was seen as foreign and anti-social.
After a thoroughly engrossing and colourful talk, Dr Zinn took numerous questions from the audience about various aspects of her work and the subjects covered, striking up further conversations over the summer drinks served throughout.
CANI would like to thank Dr Zinn for taking the time to return to these shores and for her presentation and willingness to interact with so many of the attendees afterwards.
And thank you to all who attended on the night and to all other talks in the 2017/18 programme.
Have a great summer and look for our new programme of events for 2018/19, which should be largely finalised in the coming weeks…
If you cannot wait until the autumn for our next public talks then perhaps you would be interested in our upcoming Latin and Greek Summer School or the Classical Association of Ireland’s annual conference being hosted by CANI at Queens University, Belfast this August.
And our blog will continue to delve into the weird, wonderful and not so well-known corners of the Classics and Ancient History.
The first (ever!) ancient history workshop to be held at Queen’s University Belfast was convened by Dr Laura Pfuntner on 24 May 2018 on the theme of warfare and peacemaking in the Roman provinces in the first century BC.
The workshop was a welcome opportunity to explore a familiar epoch in Roman history – the decline and fall of the Roman Republic – but from a perspective strikingly different from that of the Roman urban elite. In the face of the letters of Cicero and Plutarch’s biographies of the great men of the period, it is easy to forget that most of the victims of the civil wars are likely to have been living in the provinces governed by Rome.
A series of papers sought to bring attention to bear on the kinds of contexts in which the conflicts between upper class Romans manifested themselves. Alexander Thein (UCD) illuminated the local politics of Athens as Sulla intruded violently into the world of the Greeks, while examining the varied settlements of Sicily and Sextus Pompey’s task in locating himself there allowed Laura Pfuntner (QUB) to provide valuable insight into the perspective of the governed towns and villages of the island during the tumultuous years after Caesar’s death.
Carsten Hjort Lange (Aalborg) demonstrated that the very definition of ‘civil war’ was a highly contested concept that was itself an extension of the politics of the period and Peter Morton (Manchester) again questioned the notion of a ‘fixed narrative’ in looking at the way in which slave revolts were folded into the narrative of high politics, becoming themselves both cause and effect of the deterioration of social bonds.
With Manuel Fernández Götz (Edinburgh), discussions turned to archaeology and some startling insights into some contemporary work being conducted in central and northern France. The strangeness of the northern peoples as depicted by Caesar emerge from the archaeology as more settled, urbanised and sophisticated than hitherto appreciated – and made Caesar’s brutal subjugation even more destructive than many have suspected.
Hannah Cornwell (Birmingham) completed the day with an exploration of the imperial language of peace, a language that had to work in the provinces above all for Octavian/Augustus’ masterly navigation of the Roman commonwealth from the stormy waters of war to what would become Gibbon’s famous two centuries of greatest human happiness.
The day was a splendid success and Dr Pfuntner is to be congratulated not just on the conception of the workshop and its star line-up of scholars, but also on the highly successful format that welcomed speakers, students and even some history colleagues from Enlightenment Studies who were certainly enlightened on the rich sources for the late republic and also the vigour and stimulation of discussions between ancient historians.
We have not heard the last of the QUB ancient history workshop!
Dr John Curran
If you are thinking about signing up the Belfast Summer School 2018, but are just not sure if it is for you, here are a couple of videos featuring answers to the questions you might have given by those who attended last year.
If this has made your mind to snap up one of the few remaining places for 2018 (or to start planning for the inevitable 2019 school), check out the following link for more information and the official brochure.