Irish Iliadic Inspiration?

From the University of Cambridge … I’m willing to bet this isn’t the only example of Classical Tradition being taken to ‘the next level':

As Ireland marks the millennium of the Battle of Clontarf – portrayed as a heroic encounter between Irish and Vikings which defined the nation’s identity – new research argues that our main source for what happened may be more literary history than historical fact.

The standard account of the Battle of Clontarf – a defining moment in Irish history which happened 1,000 years ago this week – was partly a “pseudo-history” borrowed from the tale of Troy, new research suggests.

The findings, which are to be published in a forthcoming book about the intellectual culture of medieval Ireland, coincide with extensive celebrations in Dublin marking the millennium of Clontarf, which was fought on Good Friday, April 23, 1014.

In popular history, the battle has been characterised as an epic and violent clash between the army of the Christian Irish High King, Brian Boru, and a combined force led by the rebel king of the territory of Leinster, Máel Mórda, and Sitric, leader of the Dublin-based Vikings. The disputed outcome saw the Vikings beaten off, but at huge cost. Brian himself was killed, and became an iconic figure and Irish martyr.

According to the new study, however, much of what we know about Clontarf may be rooted not in historical fact, but a brilliant work of historical literature which modelled sections of its text on an earlier account of the siege of Troy.

Rather than a trustworthy description of the battle itself, this account – Cogadh Gáedhel re Gallaibh (“The War Of The Irish Against The Foreigners”) – was really a rhetorical masterpiece designed to place Ireland’s legendary past in the context of a grand, classical tradition, stretching back to the works of Homer and classical philosophy.

The study argues that this in itself should be seen as evidence that the cultural achievements of Brian Boru’s successors in medieval Ireland were complex, highly sophisticated, and the equal of anywhere else in Europe.

It also means, however, that despite the widespread portrayal of Clontarf as a heroic, quasi-national conflict in which the lives of Brian and others were sacrificed in the Irish cause, the historical truth is unknown. While the advent of the battle itself and its significance is beyond question, the details of what happened are likely to remain a mystery.

The research was carried out by Dr Máire Ní Mhaonaigh, a Reader in medieval literature and history at St John’s College, University of Cambridge. It will appear in a new book called Classical Literature and Learning in Medieval Irish Narrative, published in Boydell and Brewer’s ‘Studies in Celtic History’ series and edited by Ralph O’Connor.

“The casting of Clontarf as a national struggle in which the aged, holy Brian was martyred still defines what most people know about the battle, and it has probably endured because that was what numerous generations of Irish men and women wanted to read,” Dr Ní Mhaonaigh said.

“Academics have long accepted that Cogadh couldn’t be taken as reliable evidence but that hasn’t stopped some of them from continuing to draw on it to portray the encounter. What this research shows is that its account of the battle was crafted, at least in part, to create a version of events that was the equivalent of Troy. This was more than a literary flourish, it was a work of a superb, sophisticated and learned author.”

Another reason that the story may have endured is a lack of physical evidence for the battle. No archaeological remains have been found, and the precise location, presumed to be somewhere around the modern Dublin suburb of Clontarf, is disputed.

Compared with the very basic information in contemporary chronicles, Cogadh provides by far the most comprehensive account of what happened. It was, however, written about a century later, probably at the behest of Brian’s great-grandson. Historians have rightly treated it as partial, but also as the written version of oral accounts that had been passed on from those who witnessed the battle itself.

The new research suggests that this pivotal source was even more of a cultivated fabrication than previously thought. Through a close study of the text, Dr Ní Mhaonaigh found that the imagery, terminology and ideas draw inspiration from a range of earlier sources – in particular Togail Troí (The Destruction of Troy), an eleventh-century translation of a fifth-century account of the battle for Troy.

In particular, the unknown author explicitly cast Brian’s son, who it is believed led a large part of his father’s army at Clontarf, as an Irish Hector, whom he describes as “the last man who had true valour in Ireland”. Tellingly, Togail Troí is also found in the same manuscript as Cogadh – suggesting that the author had this to hand when describing the battle.

Rather than pouring cold water on the millennial celebrations by showing the main account of Clontarf to have been an elaborate piece of story-telling, however, the study points out that the work bears witness to the cultural achievements of Brian’s successors.

The parallel between Murchad and Hector in particular was in fact part of a complex and deeply scholarly analogy which drew on the recurring classical motif of the “Six Ages of the World” and “Six Ages of Man”. It shows that whoever wrote it was not simply describing a battle, but crafting a brilliant work of art.

“Whoever wrote this was operating as part of larger, learned European tradition,” Dr Ní Mhaonaigh added. “People should not see the fact that it is a fabricated narrative as somehow a slur against Brian, because what it really shows is that his descendants were operating at a cultural level of the highest complexity and order.”

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iLatin and eGreek – Ancient Languages and New Technology Talks Online

Another one from this past February … the very interesting talks from the Open University’s  iLatin and eGreek – Ancient Languages and New Technology Conference are available online in one convenient place:

Star Wars Day in Rome

As some folks are no doubt aware, last week was Star Wars Day (May the Fourth Be With You!) and it was celebrated around the world, including Rome. In the latter case, there was much going on in front of the Colosseum, and assorted Siths seem to have been very much at home in that environment. Here are some links with photos, many of which you will probably right click …

… and I have to include my fave photo, included in a number of the collections (click for a larger version):


Wax Tablet from Yenikapi

Some excerpts from an item in Hurriyet … a bit out of our time period of interest but I’m sure folks will like this:

Yenikapı excavations that started nearly 10 years ago has brought back Istanbul’s historical heritage to 8,500 years. A wooden notebook, which was found in a sunken ship, the replica of which will sail, is considered the Byzantine’s invention akin to the likes of the modern-day tablet computer.


Calling the objects the “miracle of Yenikapı,” Kocabaş said, “In one of the ships, we found something like today’s notebook. It is made of wood and can be opened like a notebook. It has a few pages and you can take notes using wax. Also, when you draw its sliding part, there are small weights used as an assay balance. Yenikapı is a phenomenon with its 37 sunken ships and organic products. I think these organic products are the most important feature of the Yenikapı excavations.”



I can’t resist posting the included photo:

via Hurriyet

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a wax tablet with this many ‘pages’ before …

Roman Hoard from near Kalingrad

From the Voice of Russia:

Archeologists from the Sambian expedition of the Russian Institute of Archeology have found a unique collection of Roman coins dating back to the 1st and 2nd centuries AD in the Kaliningrad region, Interfax reports.

The Kaliningrad Regional Historical and Arts Museum told Interfax that the discovered treasure has already been handed over to the museum.

The find consists of over 100 Roman bronze sestertii bearing the portraits of emperors from the Nerva-Antonine dynasty: from Trajan, famous for his vast conquests, to the eccentric Commodus whose accession to the throne in 180 AD marked the end of the era of “the five kind emperors.”

The majority of coins were minted during the reign of Marcus Aurelius often referred to as “the philosopher on the throne.” His rule is considered the golden period in the ancient historical tradition.

According to historians, this unique numismatic collection narrates the most interesting period in the history of the Roman Empire.


Historians claim that the treasure buried in the ground is quite valuable and worth approximately one-third of the annual pay of a Roman legionnaire.

Archaeologists say that the origin of the Roman coin collection found in the Zelenogradsky district remains a mystery.

It might have been hidden by a merchant in the late 2nd – early 3rd centuries. At the time Roman sestertii were used as a medium of exchange for Baltic amber.

According to another theoy, they were offerings to local gods.

The Kaliningrad museum is planning to exhibit the collection in the very near future.

via Rare ancient Roman coins found near Kaliningrad. (Voice of Russia)

Hagia Sofia to be Museum AND Mosque


Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government plans to turn Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia Basilica into a mosque in the afternoon and evening and a museum in the morning. The historical monument, which draws millions of tourists every year, will have the Byzantine frescoes covering its walls cast into shadow by ‘dark light’ so as to avoid offending Islam.The government would thus like to turn what is today seen as a symbol of Christianity back into a place of worship for Muslims, as it was after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Confirmation of the plan came on Thursday from the Turkish pro-government daily Yeni Safak, after press leaks last week in Radikal reported the prime minister’s intention to pray in the Byzantine basilica prior to the August presidential elections, possibly as early as May 29. The date is a highly symbolic one, as it marks the 561st anniversary of the fall of Constantinople into the hands of the Ottomans. A few days later the basilica became a mosque on the orders of Mehmet II the Conqueror ad remained so until 1934, when on the decision of the father of the modern Turkish ‘secular Republic Mustafa Kemal Ataturk it was made into a museum. A campaign to turn the Hagia Sofia back into a mosque has been brewing for quite some time in the country, raising alarm among Christian communities in the east. Over the past few months appeals have been made by Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc and the imam of the Sultanhamet mosque, Mustafa Akgul.The threat to reopen Hagia Sofia to Muslim worship has already led to heated criticism from Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I and the Greek government. The head of the Eastern Orthodox Church warned that ”we and all other Christians will oppose it”. Athens has called it an ”insult to the religious sensibilities of millions of Christians”. Radikal reports that the risk of a strong reaction from the West is what has prevented the Turkish prime minister from going ahead with the plan thus far, as his image at the international level has already suffered quite a few blows.Nevertheless, an Islamic-leaning MP recently submitted a formal motion in the parliament to make Hagia Sofia into a mosque.

… I’m sure folks will forgive me for raising a skeptical eyebrow at the “cast into shadow by ‘dark light'” thing, but we’ll see if this turns out to be a workable compromise.