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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

Barry Trainor

Check out our Gallery of photos from this event.

BBC @ Mount Stewart Conversations 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

For more information, check out the official events page –

Caesar, Cicero and ‘The Best and Most Vigilant Consulship’

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In 45BC, the consul Quintus Fabius Maximus died late in the year, leading to the appointment of a successor by Julius Caesar, by now at the height of his power and influence within the Roman state following his victories over the Pompeian and senatorial forces in the civil war predicated on his crossing of the Rubicon in January 49BC.

This appointment drew particular scorn and withering derision from the great orator Cicero, but why? A plebeian like Rebilus replacing a patrician in Fabius Maximus might have raised a few eyebrows given that Fabius’ colleague, Caius Trebonius, was of an equestrian family. Conservative optimates, of which Cicero was a supporter, looked less than kindly on novi homines – ‘new men’ – the first of their family to hold the consulship at the best of times, but for two to be holding that esteemed position at the same time must have really rankled.

But then Cicero himself had been a novus homo upon his election as consul in 63BC, although the virtual appointment of these ‘new men’ may have irked him somewhat as he had had to win a politically charged election to attain his position, not rely on a masquerading king doling out rewards to his lowly allies when he grew tired of being consul sine college or on the off chance that a consul died in office.

Gaius Caninius Rebilus had served in Gaul as a military tribune of Julius Caesar in 52BC, making enough of a mark that he was given command of the two legions on the exposed southern slope at the epic double siege of Alesia. With support from Titus Labienus, another of Caesar’s most trusted and talented subordinates, Rebilus and his men resisted the last concerted attack on the Roman lines on 2 October 52BC.


Continued successful service saw Rebilus entrusted with the task of chasing down the Cadurci leader, Lucterius, who had refused to surrender after Alesia. Rebilus caught up to the rebel at Uxellodunum, which Lucterius had hoped could be another focal point of Gallic resistance. Rebilus saw the opportunity to repeat the siege of Alesia for Uxellodunum was also a fortified hilltop oppidum. He initiated a blockade and then defeated a large Gallic foraging force, killing Lucterius’ lieutenant.


While on the surface, the arrival of Julius Caesar to take up overall command of the siege might reflect poorly on Rebilus, his strategy at Uxellodunum was not overturned by Caesar, who quickly agreed that taking the oppidum by force would be too costly.  Uxellodunum would only fall after a prolonged disruption of its water supply (Caesar, BG VIII.40).

Upon the outbreak of civil war, Rebilus joined Caesar in Italy and was entrusted with initiating negotiations with Pompey at Brundisium, before being sent to Africa as a legatus of Gaius Scribonius Curio. He intervened decisively at the Battle of Utica, pushing Curio to take advantage of a break in the enemy lines, although it is unknown what role, if any, he played at the subsequent defeat and death of Curio at Battle of the Bagradas River. Whatever the circumstances of his escape from Africa in the aftermath, it did not sour Caesar’s view of Rebilius as he seems to have appointed him praetor for 48BC.

Rebilus is next seen serving alongside Caesar in 46BC as a propraetor during the Thapsus campaign in Africa, where he took part in the siege of Thapsus itself and accepted the surrender of the African governor, Gaius Vergilius. The following year he accompanied Caesar to Spain as a legatus, taking part in the campaign culminating in the Battle of Munda and occupying the town of Hispalis.

Clearly, Gaius Caninius Rebilus was well thought of by Julius Caesar and, while these were unusual appointments in unusual times where the rule of law and tradition was increasingly under the control of one man, having had a successful military career and served as a praetor, Rebilus was not exactly a completely left field appointment as suffect consul following the demise of Fabius Maximus. Indeed, Rebilus’ promotion to the consulship, even if just for a few hours could also show Caesar in a meritocratic light (cf. Tacitus, Hist. III.37).


However, the real reason Cicero really felt the need to get his claws out about the appointment of Rebilus to the consulship was due to how late in the year it came. Fabius Maximus had not died suddenly in October or November or even early in December. No, Fabius Maximus had dropped dead on 31 December 45BC and by just after midday, Caesar had convened a meeting of the comitia centuriata which fulfilled his wishes by duly electing Gaius Caninius Rebilus as suffect consul.

So as the consuls-elect for 44BC, Julius Caesar himself and Marcus Antonius, were due to take up their office at midnight, the consulship of Gaius Caninius Rebilus, the first of his family to achieve the feat, was to be measured not in months, weeks or even days, but in hours; a little more than eleven to be exact.

This was rendered even more laughable by the fact that Fabius Maximus and his consular colleague, Gaius Trebonius, were themselves suffect consuls, having only assumed their positions after October 45BC, when Caesar had resigned his unconstitutional (although not unprecedented) position of consul sine collega.


Cicero recorded his sarcastic summations of this appointment in a letter to his friend Manius Curius at Patrae, where in typically melodramatic style, he urged Curius to stay away from Rome and claimed that he too was thinking of leaving.

So short was Rebilus’ consulship that Cicero pointed out that “no one breakfasted” during it and heaped false praise on Rebilus for being “so astonishingly vigilant that throughout his consulship he never closed his eyes” – i.e. presuming that Rebilius was awake for the accession of his consular successors at midnight, he would have never slept whilst being consul (Cicero, Ad Fam. VII.30).

Cicero’s scathing references to the hours of Rebilus’ consulship are not just recorded in Cicero’s own works. The second book of the fifth century Saturnalia of Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius contains a collection of witty retorts, many of which come from Cicero. As well as repeating his sarcastic jibe on the vigilance of Rebilus for having never closed his eyes while consul, Macrobius also has Cicero referring to Rebilus as “a notional consul… [who] …mounted the rostrum to assume office and at the same time to relinquish it.” He even goes as far to say that Rebilus had to ask “in whose consulship he was consul” (Macrobius, Sat. II.3.6).


Macrobius also mentions Cicero’s reaction to another case of Caesar appointing consuls for an exceedingly short period of time. Due to the prolonged nature of Caesar’s dictatorship of 48/47BC and his campaigning throughout the east, there had been no magistrates elected for 47BC. Despite the year drawing to a close, Caesar decided to rectify this by having Quintus Fufius Calenus and Publius Vatinius elected as consuls for 47BC as a reward for their service to him (cf. Caesar, BC I.87, III.26,100), seemingly as late in the year as September or even December.

In the same vein as his castigating of Rebilus, Cicero proclaimed that “Vatinius’ term of office has presented a remarkable portent, for in his consulship there has not been winter, spring, summer, or autumn.” (Macrobius, Sat. II.3.5) Vatinius later complained that Cicero, who had been a friend who had defended him in court, had not come to visit him while he was ill, to which the great orator retorted that “it was my intention to come while you were consul, but night overtook me” (Macrobius, Sat. II.3.5).

Why would Caesar open himself to such ridicule by appointing consuls for mere weeks, days and even just hours? He may have hoped that his appointing of consuls, even for such short periods of time, would be portrayed as an attempt by Caesar to retain/re-establish some kind of political normalcy – on the death of a consul, a suffect was supposed to be appointed to see out his term.

However, Caesar cannot have failed to recognise that his holding of repeated consulships and extraordinary dictatorships, his choosing of allies as consuls and the short terms of office, even if he had the interests of what was left of the res publica at heart, was going to attract ridicule.

The sensible thing probably would have been to do without a replacement and leave Trebonius to carry out any duties required for the remaining half day of 45BC or for Caesar himself to fill that short gap, perhaps by having Trebonius step down and appoint an interrex. But then Caesar himself had already been consul sine collega for much of the year before the appointment of Fabius Maximus and Trebonius in October.

Serving as consul twice in the same year was perhaps something that he was unwilling to do for unlike the rest of his irregular positions, there would appear to have been no precedent for that. It would not have helped the situation that Caesar was already slated to be consul prior for 44BC.

But then with 45BC having already seen a consul sine collega, leaving Trebonius without a colleague would also have set another unwanted precedent, as well as allowing someone else to join the very short list of consuls sine collega. On top of that, the whole rigmarole of having Trebonius step down and appoint an interrex for the remaining eleven hours of 45BC would also have attracted ridicule as constitutional overkill.


In a way then, Caesar was caught in a no-win situation constitutionally when Fabius Maximus died in the dying embers of 45BC – if he did not appoint someone, leaving Trebonius as sole consul, stepping up himself or appointing an interrex, he would be accused of forsaking the constitution once again or being overly fastidious in its application for the sake of appearances; and when he did have Rebilus appointed, Caesar was made to look a little ridiculous and cynical in using the consulship to blatantly reward a loyal supporter who may not otherwise have attained a consulship (Suetonius, Divus Iulius 76.2 claims that Caesar “gave the vacant office for a few hours to a man who asked for it”).

Perhaps because of such a political no-win situation, Caesar was happy enough to just promote one of his supporters. In the midst of the ongoing military and political crises, giving one of his military supporters a high office for eleven hours, which could be dressed up as meritocratic, rewarding loyalty and following the constitution, was worth the political barbs of the likes of Cicero.

GoTAH IV: “The Face That Launched 1,000 Ships” and A Game of Thrones: Lyanna Stark as Helen of Troy

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**There will be spoilers here for all seasons of Game of Thrones. If you have not seen up to the end of season 7, some major plot points will be spoiled for you!**


“How many tens of thousands had to die because Rhaegar Targaryen chose your aunt?”  Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish asks Sansa in front of the tomb of Lyanna Stark in S5E4 of Game of Thrones.

Viewers of the television series knew by the end of Season 6 that the rumours were true… R+L does indeed = J. The newly enthroned King in the North, Jon Snow was not the bastard son of Eddard Stark but of Rhaegar Targaryen, eldest child of Aerys II, the Mad King, killed in battle before Games of Thrones begins. And rather than a wet nurse, fisherman’s daughter or Dornish beauty, it was Lyanna Stark, Lord Eddard’s own sister, who was Jon’s mother.

As you can see in the video above, in the Winterfell crypt Sansa replies bitterly to Littlefinger that Rhaegar “… chose her, abducted her and raped her”; the version of the story she had heard throughout childhood. The silence and wry smile from Littlefinger says everything; he does not seem quite so sure.


Before being abducted, or eloping, Lyanna was promised to Robert Baratheon. The match was to secure the alliance between his house in the Stormlands and House Stark in the North. However, this was not just a shrewd political move; Robert admitted that Lyanna was the only woman he ever loved. Losing her was the catalyst for Robert’s Rebellion, his killing of Rhaegar Targaryen at the Battle of the Trident, his taking of the Iron Throne and exiling of the remaining Targaryens to Essos. The instability this caused and the establishing of the Baratheon-Lannister alliance at King’s Landing in turn led to the War of the Five Kings and everything that is ‘the game of thrones’.

s1e1 robert baratheon and ned game of thrones

In classical literature there is a similar well told story in which a beautiful woman is discussed as the cause of a war that killed thousands, tested loyalties and spread turmoil among the great families of the age. Like Lyanna, Helen of Troy’s part in starting a war is taken for granted by some and questioned by others.

Helen, then of Sparta, was promised to Paris, son of Priam of Troy, by Aphrodite as a reward for judging her the most beautiful goddess by presenting her with the golden apple. However, at the time Helen was married to Menelaus, brother of Agamemnon from the prestigious, but unfortunate, House of Atreus. Helen was so sought-after that Menelaus had had to compete against all the eligible heroes of the age in order to secure her as his bride. The competition had been so fierce that the other suitors swore an oath to defend the union in an effort to keep the peace. When Paris turned up later on a supposed diplomatic visit and decided to undiplomatically leave with Helen, it was not only the Acheans who recognised that there was not going to be a happy ending; Paris’ own family were dismayed, fearful of the outcome. And who exactly was to blame? The irresponsible young man who preferred playing the lyre to fighting, or the foreign woman who had tempted him?


Prince Rhaegar first met Lyanna Stark at the famous tourney at Harrenhal, presenting her with the bouquet of blue roses which crowned her his queen of love and beauty, preferring her over his own wife, Elia Martell. In the first book A Game of Thrones (Ch. 58), Ned Stark remembers the events whilst chained up in his cell waiting for execution, while viewers hear all about it from Littlefinger in the Winterfell crypt in the video above.

Like Paris, Rhaegar was an accomplished musician. Barristan Selmy tells Daenerys stories about the prince busking in the streets of Kings’ Landing in S5 E4. Indeed, Rhaegar played so beautifully at the tourney that Lyanna cried, suggesting it is believable that this young woman fell in love with the handsome, silver-haired warrior-musician. By the end of S7 it is confirmed that not only did Rhaegar not kidnap Lyanna, the two had been legally married, leaving Jon Snow not only not a bastard but the legitimate heir to the Iron Throne ahead of his aunt Danaerys.

In the world of Game of Thrones, as in the classical one, a marriage does not necessarily mean a love match of course. But Prince Rhaegar left his best swordsmen to guard the Tower of Joy as he went off to fight and die at the hands of Robert and his warhammer; was he protecting the family he loved or an heir he thought was ‘The Prince that was Promised’? Or both?

However, all the current claimants for the throne are still (for now) woefully unaware of the marriage and its implications, having never questioned what they had been told. The Three Eyed Raven, in S06E10, shows Bran Stark how events really unfolded under the Tower of Joy in a flashback, as his father comes to rescue Lyanna. It is at this point that Bran learns hard lessons about how the history you hear can be very different from the history that happened, as he watches the man he thought his father bravely defeated in battle get ignobly stabbed in the back and later discovers the true heritage (and name) of Jon Snow.


It seems that everyone around at the time remembers Lyanna and Rhaegar differently to those who have had their stories handed down to them. Rather than an abductor and rapist, Barristan Selmy describes Rheagar (S3E3) as the most noble man he knew and even Ned is never heard saying a bad word about him, although so blinded by rage and sorrow was he, Robert Baratheon had little good to say about the dead prince.


There is no consensus in classical literature on Helen’s character and motives. She can be portrayed as a victim of the gods and of mortal politics or as a vain, selfish schemer depending on the moral theme of the literature. In the Iliad, Homer’s Helen is full of misery and regret (III.173-175; Groten (1968)); Sappho (fr.16) decided Helen was assertive and pursued love; in the Troades (914-966), Euripides’ Helen blames love – either Aphrodite directly or the fact she is so desirable Paris is literally disarmed, and politics – the Achaeans are using her as an excuse for their military manoeuvring. In the history of art, Helen also has an ambiguous character, seen leaving Greece determinedly with her head held high, or crying as she is dragged away.


Lyanna’s story echoes Helen’s in the questions it raises about how the agency of women is perceived, of whether love is more noble than patriotism, what we are willing to believe to support our views, but maybe most importantly, to what extent history tells us more about the beliefs and values of the narrator and their society than what actually happened.

Dawn ‘Pickle’ Love