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The Vestal Virgins are one of the most evocative establishments of Ancient Rome. They might not know exactly what they were or what they did, but the name of Vestal Virgin can spark something in many people. They might have heard of their guardianship of the Sacred Flame of Vesta; they may have heard of how they could be buried alive for breaking their vows of virginity; they may only know of them through the lyrics of Procul Harum’s 1967 hit ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale…’ but there is something enduring about the Vestal Virgins.
The founding of this ancient order of virgin priestesses has been attributed to the second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius (c.717-673BC), who reputedly led the first Vestal away from her parents by the hand and founded the Temple of Vesta (Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights I.12; Plutarch, Life of Numa Pompilius 9.5-10; Dionysius II.65).
However, this idea that Numa Pompilius created the Vestal priestesshood contravenes some other mythical traditions. Livy mentions that the Vestals had some kind of origin in the city of Alba Longa (Livy I.20; cf. Dionysius I.76), which would seemingly fit in with the record of Rhea Silvia, mother of Romulus and Remus, being a Vestal Virgin, which in turn suggests that the Vestals pre-dated the foundation of Rome itself. Perhaps Numa Pompilius transferred the pre-existent Vestals to Rome from Alba Longa or opened his own chapter of the priestesshood in Rome. Or that the story of Rhea Silvia was embellished in its (re-)telling to link her more clearly to well-known Roman institutions.
Whomever founded the Vestals in or transferred them to Rome, they came to reside in the Atrium Vestiae – the House of the Vestals, a three-storey building at the foot of the Palatine Hill, behind the Temple of Vesta.
Despite having such a residence and prominence, the Vestals remained an exclusive priestesshood. Procul Harum may sing about “16 vestal virgins”, but there were never that many at any one time. Numa appointed two priestesses at the outset, before increasing it to four – named as Gegania, Veneneia, Canuleia, and Tarpeia.
The daughter of Spurius Tarpeius, a general of Romulus, Tarpeia reputedly betrayed Rome to the Sabines, a betrayal which might provide some of the reasoning for the potentially harsh punishments meted out to Vestals who are thought to have broken their vows or otherwise transgressed (this incident also gave the Tarpeian Rock its name – a site of shameful execution in Rome, as Tarpeia was reputedly buried there.
Either Tarquinius Priscus, Rome’s fifth king (c.616-579BC) or Servius Tullius, Rome’s sixth king (c.575-535BC) may instead have been involved in the increase to four, before it was later increased to six (Plutarch, Life of Numa Pompilius 9.5-10; Dionysius III.67). The maximum recorded in antiquity was seven, a number alluded to by Ambrose of Milan (Ambrose, Ep. 18/31), although this has been doubted (Worsfold (1932) 22).
Once there were sufficient candidates coming forward, aged between 6 and 10 years old, new Vestals were chosen by lot from a list of twenty (Kroppenberg (2010), 426-427), although the replacing of a Vestal who had died before her 30-year period of sworn celibate service ended saw the Chief Vestal – Virgo Vestalis Maxima or Vestalium Maxima, “greatest of the Vestals” – select the most virtuous of the candidates, who did not need to be prepubescents or even virgins.
Their tasks included the maintenance of the Sacred Flame of Vesta, goddess of the hearth and home, which served as a symbolic and actual source of fire and heat for Roman households. The Vestals were also tasked with collecting water from a sacred spring, preparing food for use in rituals and caring for sacred objects in the Temple of Vesta. They were also charged with the safe-keeping of the wills of many important Romans, most famously of Julius Caesar and Marcus Antonius.
These important religious, symbolic, social, and legal tasks saw the Vestals held in awe in Roman society. Pliny the Elder highlights their perceived connection to the gods… “it is a general belief, that our Vestal Virgins have the power, by uttering a certain prayer, to arrest the flight of runaway slaves, and to rivet them to the spot, provided they have not gone beyond the precincts of the City.” (Pliny, NH XXVIII.3)
Even the most powerful individuals within the Roman state took note of their opinions, demonstrated by their successful intercession on behalf of Julius Caesar when he was about to become a victim of the proscriptions of dictator Sulla (Suetonius, Julius Caesar I.2).
This exalted position inevitably led to significant privileges for the Vestals. Their person was sacrosanct, meaning that anyone who injured them faced the death penalty. When giving evidence in a court, they were excused the customary oath, with their word trusted without question. They were accorded places of honour at public ceremonies, games and performances, while their very touch or presence could grant a condemned prisoner or slave their freedom (Dionysius I.19, 38).
However, more well-known than their duties and privileges were the punishments Vestals faced for breaking their vows or neglecting their responsibilities. Allowing the Sacred Flame of Vesta to go out was a serious offence, as it suggested that the divine protection of the city had been withdrawn. Vestals guilty of this dereliction of duty would be whipped or beaten.
However, the breaking of their vow of chastity was met with far more drastic punishments… The earliest Vestals at Alba Longa were whipped and “put to death” for breaking these vows, and any offspring were thrown into the river (Dionysius I.78), a form of punishment best presented in the story of Rhea Silvia, whose twins, Romulus and Remus, were put in the Tiber (Livy I.4).
In Rome, as their chastity, much like the Sacred Flame, was considered to be directly linked to the health of the Roman state and as a daughter of the Roman state, any sexual liaison with a citizen was an incestuous act of treason and injurious to Rome.
Numa’s initial punishment for breaking the oath of celibacy is recorded as being stoning to death, only for Tarquinius Priscus to take the punishment to a new, more sinister level (George Kedrenos, Hist. Comp. 148/259; Dionysius III.58).
Any Vestal found guilty of breaking their celibacy oath was to be buried alive in an underground chamber near the Colline Gate on the Campus Sceleratus (“Evil Field”). As it was forbidden for anyone to be buried within the city limits or to spill the blood of a Vestal, the victim was supplied with a few days of food and water (Dionysius IX.40 also records an instance of whipping with rods before live burial).
While this punishment was (in)famous, it must be remembered that cases of broken celibacy vows and subsequent vivisepulture were rare. Over the course of the 1,100 years of Vestal history, there are only ten recorded convictions. A few Vestals were acquitted, with some clearing their name through some kind of physical ordeal, such as carrying water in a sieve (Pliny, NH XXVIII.3). It must also be noted that the person found to have engaged in sexual congress with a Vestal Virgin would be publically whipped to death.
Such was the perceived importance of their chastity and duties to the Roman state, looking after the Vestal Virgins and helping to police their behaviour was an important part of the position of pontifex maximus (seemingly also created by Numa), the chief priest of the Roman state, a position which became part of the imperial title under Augustus and then later part of the papal title (where it remains to this day).
It was not only the pontifex maximus who oversaw the behaviour and works of the Vestals. The aforementioned Chief Vestal also played a significant role in overseeing the five priestesses with whom she shared the Atrium Vestiae.
And it is a woman who held this title in the fourth century AD who is the main subject of this piece: Coelia Concordia. She was well regarded for her “distinguished charity and celebrated holiness concerning the divine cult” (CIL VI.2145 = ILS 1261). Prevailing circumstances in Rome saw her also cast as something of a “religious innovator” (Cooper (1999), 100), which seems like a rather peculiar guise for the most senior priestess in a 1,100 year old institution.
The focus of this innovation was her proposal of a statue to Vettius Agorius Praetextatus (ca. 315-384), a wealthy pagan aristocrat who held various cult priesthoods and the position of praetorian prefect under Valentinian II in 384, the last year of his life.
During his brief tenure as praetorian prefect, Praetextatus influenced Valentinian II to issue a law offering some protection to pagan temples and giving powers of investigation of any attacks on these edifices over to the praefectus urbi of Rome (Symmachus, Rel. 21.3-5). Such an act, his previous priestly service and no doubt benefactions to pagan cults saw Praetextatus considered “a man in all ways exceptional and deserving of honour even by the Virgins and by priestesses of this [high] rank” (CIL VI.2145 = ILS 1261), and indeed worthy of a statue.
The college of pontifices approved of the statue, as did Coelia herself, but there was a high-ranking cadre of pagans, including many senators and Symmachus himself, who felt that this gesture went against tradition as it was not usual to bestow such an honour on men (cf. Symmachus, Ep. II.36; Lefkowitz and Fant (1992), 357 n.91). In the end though, Coelia and the pontifices triumphed and the statue was erected.
“This is a very interesting example of where a powerful woman, with a status and independence almost unparalleled in Late Antique Rome, prevailed over the views and wishes of some of the male establishment.” (Mitchell, 6)
Coelia’s own position, reputation and dedication of the statue to Praetextatus saw her in turn honoured with a statue on the order of Fabia Paulina, Praetextatus’ widow, with the inscription…
“In honour of Coelia Concordia, chief Vestal Virgin, Fabia Paulina arranged that a statue be made and set up first on account of her distinguished charity and celebrated holiness concerning the divine cult, and chiefly because [Coelia Concordia] first had set up a statue to [Paulina’s] husband Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, who was a man in all ways exceptional and deserving of honour even by Virgins and by priestesses of this [high] rank” (CIL VI.2145 = ILS 1261).
This dispute at the heart of paganism between traditionalists and perceived innovators highlights the pressure that paganism was under. Coelia’s time as Virgo Vestalis Maxima came at a point of major change in Roman society. Following the Christianising of the imperial family in the wake of the conversion of Constantine I, Christianity had become increasingly popular at the expense of the old religions.
By the last decade of the fourth century, pagan rites, rituals, traditions and edifices were coming under increasing pressure from the legislation of Theodosius I. Indeed, such was the pressure that was to come to bear on pagan institutions during the last years of Theodosius’ reign that the most famous thing about Coelia Concordia was that after over 1,100 years, she was to be the last Chief Vestal.
There had been repeated anti-pagan laws throughout the fourth century, with virtually every emperor enacting/re-enacting his own legislation against the ancient cults. Theodosius himself had already issued some anti-pagan laws, such as a ban on sacrifice in 381 and making haruspicy a capital crime in 384, but it was 391 that saw legislation directly affect the adherents of Vesta.
Two successive laws – CTh XVI.10.10-11 – from 24 February and 18 June saw the reiteration of a ban on blood sacrifice and targeted pagan temples and sanctuaries for closure. With regard to the Temple of Vesta, its virgin priestesses and Coelia Concordia, it was perhaps the second law which was to have a terminal effect. It should be noted that this law, which declared that all pagan temples (in the west?) were to be closed, was perhaps as much the work of Valentinian II and even Ambrose of Milan as it was Theodosius.
The potential closing of temples in Rome surely affected the priestesshood of the Vestal Virgins, as the Temple of Vesta is likely to have been one such closed temple, but it appears that despite this imperial intervention, pagan institutions continued to operate.
This may have led to Theodosius, after his victory over the usurper Eugenius, clamping down on paganism even further with laws which saw the withdrawal of all state funds for pagan institutions (Zosimus IV.59), the forbidding of visits to pagan temples, the abolition of remaining pagan holidays and stern punishments for taking of the auspices and witchcraft.
Most importantly, the year 394 is recorded as the date of the imperially ordered extinguishing of the Sacred Flame of Vesta and the disbandment of the Vestal Virgins. Without a priestesshood to preside over, Coelia Concordia stepped down from her post – or more accurately, she had that position abolished from under her.
Theodosius’ anti-pagan policies not only affected Coelia Concordia by removing her ‘livelihood’ through the closing of the Temple of Vesta and the extinguishing of the Sacred Flame; the growing confidence and indeed arrogance potentially bred by these policies amongst some Christian elites (Zosimus V.38) may have seen Coelia Concordia thrust into the role of ‘prophetess of doom’ for part of the imperial family.
On the backdrop of this ramping up of anti-paganism actions, Theodosius’ niece, Serena, entered the Temple of Cybele and took a necklace from a statue of Rhea Silvia and wore it around her own neck. For this impiety, she was reproached by “an old woman, the last of the Vestal Virgins” (Zosimus V.38) – quite possibly Coelia Concordia herself. Serena abused this woman and had her attendants drive her away. As the imperial niece left the temple, this last Vestal proclaimed that Serena, her husband and her son would suffer for her impiety.
Serena took no notice of this ‘curse’ and showed off her new piece of jewellery. However, she was soon struck by a series of dreams, visions and premonitions that predicted her approaching death. Others around her seem to have been afflicted with similar visions.
Even if Serena was struck by many visions, it appears that the ‘Curse of the Last Vestal’ took 14 years to claim its first victim. Indeed, it is surprising that Zosimus does not link this ‘curse’ to the death of Theodosius himself, which occurred on 17 January 395. But when the dam finally broke in 408, the curse exacted its full payment from this branch of the imperial family.
Despite having given his entire career over to the preservation of the Roman Empire and the Theodosian dynasty, Serena’s husband, Stilicho, was executed on spurious charges of treason on the order of emperor Honorius on 22 August 408. Their son, Eucherius, did not long survive his father’s downfall.
The ‘Curse of the Last Vestal’ was then complete before 408 was out. When Rome itself was under siege from Alaric the Goth for the first time, Serena was suspected by the Senate and Galla Placidia of bringing the barbarians down upon the city, presumably in an act of vengeance for the murders of her husband and son. They thought that Alaric would retreat if Serena was done away with as that would leave no one in the city willing to betray it. And so, Serena was executed by strangulation/hanging, “although this suspicion was in fact false, for Serena thought of no such thing, she was all the same justly punished for her impieties” (Zosimus V.38.2; cf. Olympiodorus fr. 6). Her death also did not bring an end to the First Gothic Siege of Rome – that required a payment of 5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 pounds of silver, 4,000 silken tunics, 3,000 hides dyed scarlet, and 3,000 pounds of pepper…
And this was not the only supernatural vengeance supposedly acting on Rome. Rumours abound that there was a catastrophic legacy stemming from the end of the Vestal Virgins and the extinguishing of the Sacred Flame – Rome and her empire no longer received divine protection.
Symmachus claimed that the removal of maintenances and privileges from the Vestals saw “a public famine… and a bad harvest disappointed the hopes of all the provinces … it was sacrilege which rendered the year barren, for it was necessary that all should lose that which they had denied to religion.” (Symmachus, Memorial 14)
A major part of St. Augustine’s inspiration to write his famous City of God was to refute claims that the rise of Christianity and its intolerance of the old gods, who had protected the city for over a millennium, had led to the disasters overtaking the empire, including the Sack of Rome by Alaric and his Goths in 410, a second sack by the Vandals in 455 and ultimately the fall of the western half of the Roman Empire by the end of the fifth century.
And as for Coelia Concordia, she represented the last holder of an office founded over 1,100 years before her stepping down in 394 when (or even before) Numa Pompilius led that first little girl by the hand away from her parents.
Coelia seems to have died 12 years after the abolition of the Vestals, which would mean she did not see the full humiliation of Rome by the Goths or the culmination of the ‘curse’ laid down upon Serena and her family (if she had been Zosimus’ last Vestal). However, its seems unlikely that she will have blamed those humiliations on the growing influence of Christianity for Coelia Concordia, the last Chief Vestal, with all its lineage back to the mother of Rome’s founder, is said to have converted to Christianity later in her life.
Beard, M. ‘The Sexual Status of Vestal Virgins,’ JRS 70 (1980) 12-27
Cooper, K. The Virgin and the Bride: Idealized Womanhood in Late Antiquity. Harvard (1999)
Dowling, M.D. ‘The Curse of the Last Vestal,’ Biblical Archaeology Society, Archaeology Odyssey 4:01 (2001)
Kroppenberg, I. ‘Law, Religion and Constitution of the Vestal Virgins,’ Law and Literature 22.3 (2010) 418-439
Lefkowitz, M.R. and Fant, M.B. Women’s Life in Greece and Rome: A Source Book in Translation. Baltimore (1992)
Mitchell, J.M. ‘Symmachus and the Vestal Virgins’ https://www.academia.edu/3046423/Symmachus_and_the_Vestal_Virgins
Parker, H.N. ‘Why Were the Vestals Virgins? Or the Chastity of Women and the Safety of the Roman State,’ AJPh 125 (2004) 563-601
Wagner, K.A. ‘The Power of Virginity: The Political Position and Symbolism of Ancient Rome’s Vestal Virgin,’ unpublished paper, Western Oregon University (2010)
Wildfang, R.L. Rome’s Vestal Virgins: A Study of Rome’s Vestal Priestesses in the Late Republic and Early Empire. Oxford (2006)
Worsfold, T. History of the Vestal Virgins of Rome. London (1932)
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)
On 14th March 2019, CANI returned to the Ulster Museum to host its second annual Schools Classics Conference.
Proceedings got underway by CANI Convenor, Helen McVeigh, who welcomed those in attendance and introduced our first speaker, Dr Greer Ramsay of the Ulster Museum, to present on ‘Hoards’.
Dr Ramsay described how a ‘hoard’ by definition was ‘two or more objects buried but then never recovered’ and noted that there is no suggestion of the type of material, something born out in the exhibition where there are various items – coins, horns, rings, buckles, tools – made of various materials – stone, precious and base metals.
Hoards a not only varied in their make up and materials; their period and context can be equally varied. They could be pre-Iron Age, Roman, Viking all the way up to modern. They could have been buried to keep them safe from invader or they could be a savings hoards like the ‘Roman piggybank’ of Muswell Hill. Could the massive coin hoards of Cunetio, Frome or Hoxne be attempts to escape rising debasement of coins as well as raiders? They could also be ritual deposits that were not meant to be recovered.
Hoards can also alter our perception of certain aspects of the Ancient World. Dr Ramsay gave the example of the Roman material found in Ireland – we ‘know’ that the Romans did not invade Ireland, but then how did there come to be Roman coins at Newgrange, Roman rings in Murlough Bay and the 1,500 coins and 6kg of silver in the Coleraine Hoard, each of which do not necessarily look like the proceeds of raiding? The presence of these hoards goes a long way to rewriting the history of Romano-Irish relations.
Dr Ramsay’s talk acted as a perfect introduction to the important subject of hoards and drew the attention of the audience to the fascinating ‘Hoards’ exhibition currently resident in the Ulster Museum.
After a brief break, Dr Katerina Kolotourou (CANI) presented ‘Strange Discoveries in Archaeology’, focusing on the grave of the ‘Griffin Warrior.’
This Bronze Age shaft tomb was found near the site of the Palace of Nestor at Pylos and has been dated to the mid-fifteenth century BC. Within the tomb, an adult male skeleton was discovered. Computerised facial reconstruction of the skeleton and skeletal analysis shows that the warrior was in his 30s and stood 1.7m tall.
Found inside were more than 3,000 objects including weapons, jewellery, armour, combs and various pieces of gold and silver. Many small, carved seals were found in the tomb, each one etched with images of combat, deities, lions, and men jumping bulls, demonstrating the Minoan influences of many of the artefacts.
The most important artefact and Dr Kolotourou’s ‘strange discovery’ was one these seals, known as the Pylos Combat Agate. The seal is 3.4cm in length and was found covered in limestone. It was restored and found to be engraved with a triangular image of one warrior attacking another, while a third lies on the ground.
The image involves minute detail and questions have been raised about how such an image might have been carved without the aid of a magnifying glass. One potential solution was that a drop of water was placed on the seal to aid the artist.
Dr Kolotourou was thanked for her fascinating and thought-provoking lecture, bringing attention to a discovery that Dr Jack Davis, one of the discoverers of the Griffin Warrior tomb, suggested was a thousand years ahead of its time.
After another brief break, the conference culminated with our keynote speaker, Prof. Michael Scott (Warwick), who presented on ‘Understanding the Oracle at Delphi.’
Prof. Scott started off by commenting that Delphi is in a rather strange place, hardly easily accessible to those who would consult an oracle (and pay for the privilege). Perhaps this inaccessibility was to ward off the uncommitted or to provide the site with an added layer of mystique?
A need to explain such a peculiar site may have encouraged the numerous origin myths recorded for the Oracle at Delphi, variously involving Apollo, Zeus, eagles, goats and dragons.
A factual basis for the site was long thought to involve the emergence of strange gases from the ground around where the temple was built, causing the strange visions and double speak of the (high) priestess.
Prof. Scott regaled the audience with the story of how, initially, when Delphi was subjected to a modern archaeological survey, no trace of vision-causing gases was found, leading to the summation that the whole Delphic Oracle visions was a hoax.
However, further study in the 1990s proved that the Temple of Apollo was built upon a fault between two plates, releasing gases including ethelene, which causes hallucinations. The Delphic priestesses were indeed getting high!
Prof. Scott then turned to some of the known ‘predictions’ of the Delphic Oracle, demonstrating how they seem to have been intentionally ambiguous – the famous advice to Croesus about a ‘great empire’ and the ‘wooden wall’ of Athens. This intentional ambiguity meant that Delphi could never be proven wrong, only the interpretation of the asker, leading Prof. Scott to refer to the Delphic Oracle as something of a ‘management consultant’, telling you something you already knew.
After a few questions, the talks schedule of Schools Conference 2019 came to a close, but they were not the only aspect of the day. In the Welcome Area of the UM, a handling session and the legionaries of Legion Ireland had set out their stalls.
Martin and his men from Legion Ireland, in their second trip to the Ulster Museum in concert with CANI, once again did sterling work in attracting the crowds and then keeping their attention with not only their vast array of Roman equipment, but also their extensive knowledge, enthusiasm and willingness to share that with everyone (and pose for innumerate photographs!).
A personal highlight of the day came when I walked into the ‘Hoards’ exhibition with Martin, him in his full Roman armour, only to find that Dr Ramsay was giving a talk to another group visiting the museum. Assured we were not interrupting, Martin proclaimed to the group that he was there “to take his money back!”
We send our thanks to Legion Ireland and look forward to having the men from Cork visit us again in the near future!
The equipment displays of Legion Ireland were augmented by an artefact handling table provided by the Ulster Museum and ably manned by two student archaeology interns, Christoph Doppelhofer and Christine Farnie.
With refreshments and sustenance partaken and all the legionary gear packed up, a great day was rounded off by CANI’s own Helen McVeigh and Dr Raoul McLaughlin joining Prof. Scott for his weekly Facebook Live Q&A. In surroundings generously donated by Dr John Curran, complete with plenty of product placement (no wallpaper background this time!), this triumvirate of classical knowledge addressed the questions submitted by viewers.
Instead of spoiling anything for you with a review of their answers and chat, here is a link for you to see it in full.
CANI would also like to express our deepest thanks to the Ulster Museum for their continued support in hosting our events. It is a fruitful partnership we hope will continue for a long time to come. Indeed, our next event is a showing of Disney’s Hercules in the Ulster Museum Lecture Theatre on 4 May.
Thanks to our speakers, Dr Ramsay, Dr Kolotourou and Prof. Scott for giving up their time and expertise to present three fantastic talks.
To Legion Ireland for their long trek north to share their enthusiasm once more.
To all those who attended, either by design or by being taken in by the presence of CANI banners or Roman legionaries.
As you can imagine, an event like this does not come together without much unseen effort. Between them, Helen McVeigh and Dr John Curran took on a lot of heavy lifting when it came to emailing, calling, promoting, cajoling, taxi-ing, liasing, booking and planning, in order to make sure that the Schools Conference was the success it was.
Helen herself would like to thank all the members of the CANI Board for taking time out of their schedules to help on the day.
Thanks to you all and see you again next year!
Peter Crawford and Helen McVeigh
CANI Chair Helen McVeigh and Treasurer Dr John Curran were honoured to be invited to Armagh Robinson Library on 12th March 2019 for the launch of an exhibition of texts containing the fables attributed to Aesop. The library was founded in 1771 by Archbishop Robinson to display his own collection of books and fine art for public use.
This temporary exhibition contains works and prints from the Library’s collection to show the legacy of Aesop’s fables. It is believed Aesop was a slave and storyteller who lived sometime around the late 7th and early 6th centuries BC. A fable is a short fictional story that teaches a moral lesson, and features animals, legendary creatures, plants, inanimate objects and forces of nature which are given human qualities such as the ability to speak.
While Aesop himself did not record his stories, both Babrius, a Greek who lived in the second century AD, and Phaedrus, a Roman who lived in the first century AD, compiled their own collections of the fables. Since then, Aesop’s fables have been translated into many languages, and re-written according to local culture. Thirza Mulder is the archivist who created the exhibition and she has gathered together a number of 17th and 18th century publications and illustrations, as well as other works inspired by or based on Aesop’s legacy.
We were treated to a tour of the library, and shown some of the 42,000 books it contains. The library’s oldest book is a religious text dating from the 15th century. Visitors are keen to view the first edition of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, with the author’s own pencil corrections to changes his publisher made without his knowledge.
The Aesop exhibition will run until the end of May 2019 and will be on view during the Library’s normal opening hours, Monday to Friday, 10am to 1pm and 2pm to 4pm. The Armagh Robinson Library can be found at 43 Abbey Street, Armagh, BT61 7DY.