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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Classics Confidential | Daniel Orrells on Illustrating Winckelmann

Here’s the blurb:

This week Classics Confidential was in Berlin talking to Dr Daniel Orrells about his Humboldt research project on Johann Joachim Winckelmann – the eighteenth-century German art historian who is perceived by many to be one of the founding fathers of the discipline of Classics. Dan tells us why Winckelmann’s work was so revolutionary for the field of Art History, how his masterwork Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums (“The History of Art in Antiquity”, published in 1764) tied into broader intellectual currents, and how Winckelmann’s grand narrative of classical art was problematised and appropriated in later periods. In the second half of the interview we move on to discuss some of Dan’s past work on the history of sexuality, focussing on his 2011 book Classical Culture and Modern Masculinity.

Qatar and Greek Nudity Redux (With a Bit of ESPN too)

Back in April we mentioned an item wherein and exhibition in Qatar was having problems with a couple of nude Greek statues on display (Pass the Fig Leaf) … Dimitris Plantzos has written an opeddish thing for the OUP blog on the subject which has an interesting take on Greek nudity … here’s the concluding bit:

Religion is only the easy answer to this question and as such it cannot help us fathom the problem. Undoubtedly, a certain amount of hypocrisy seems to be at play here, as many of the 600 artefacts included in the Doha exhibition – supposed to work as a “bridge of friendship” between the two nations – showed bare-breasted women, yet the Qataris were happy to expose their schools and families to them. Still, it’s their museum, their rules. What I do find strange, however, is that Greece and the West at large insist on treating classical statuary as a true expression of their modern self. For classical nude had very little to do with aesthetics – it’s all social politics and I’m not quite sure we would be willing to subscribe to that in our societies. Greek nudity was invented in order to enforce specific social hierarchies — who, when and how is allowed or even able to do certain things – and, more to the point, to deploy strict gender asymmetries: only men were thought by Aristotle to possess the right body heat; women were thought of as mentally and bodily imbalanced creatures, therefore inferior to men. Male nudity, as a result, is the expression of an idealized, immortal self; female nudity, on the other hand, is a sign of weakness, vulnerability, and immorality (think of all those shy Aphrodites or debauched hetaerae lurking by the thousands in our museums). A slave could never become immortalized as a kouros, and heavy peploi and chitons made sure female bodies were kept in their proper place in art as in life. In a sense, what made Greece classical is what, in fact, ought to make us think twice before accepting the nude as an ideal form of human expression. Or is it that our needs and standards remain so much attached to those of ancient Greece that we can’t quite grasp the difference?

In this context, but before I had read this piece, I am often struck by the ‘Greekness’ of ESPN’s Body Issue, which includes nude-but-strategically-posed photos of assorted famous athletes. Some are kind of silly, but several do put one in mind of Greek statuary (e.g. the cover photo of Colin Kaepernick in the latest issue). Check out some the online versions here … there’s a link to back issues too. In the context of the above oped, it’s interesting to note the reaction in Poland to tennis star Agnieszka Radwanska’s participation in the issue (see, e.g. the Telegraph’s Agnieszka Radwanska defends her naked photo shoot). I guess this is why folks still have to compare Kenneth Clark (The Naked and the Nude) and David Freedberg (“The Power of Images: Response and Repression”) in Art History courses …

Classics Confidential | Phiroze Vasunia on the Classical Tradition in India

Here’s the official description:

In the sixth interview recorded during this year’s Classical Association meeting, CC’s Anastasia Bakogianni talks to Professor Phiroze Vasunia about his recently published book The Classics and Colonial India (OUP, May 2013).

He tells us about the impact of the Graeco-Roman classics in the age of empire (1750s-1945) and about the collision of cultures in India during this period. The very concept of the ‘classical’ was problematic in a culture with its own long-standing local traditions which included Sanskrit, Persian and Arab threads. These competed with the imported Graeco-Roman classics privileged by the British educational system (which encouraged the colonisers to view themselves as ancient Romans). Neoclassical architecture, now largely destroyed, also radically transformed the landscape of the country. Indians such as the writer Henry Louis Vivian Derozio (1809-31) and Mahatma Gandhi, however, opened up their own dialogue with ancient Greek culture and its literature. Inspired by British Romantic Philhellenism, Derozio’s poetry forged a passionate connection with both ancient and modern Greece, while Gandi’s admiration of Socrates informed his own political thinking. This is not, therefore, a simple story of empire, but one of a dialogue of traditions.
Phiroze also tells us about his work as the general editor of the Ancients and Moderns series which is published in the UK by I.B. Tauris and in the USA by OUP. The series explores how classical antiquity continues to inform modern thinking, and examines the encounter between ancients and moderns on topics such as gender, slavery and politics. Seven books have appeared to date, and more are forthcoming.

… and the interview:

Classics Confidential | Lisa Maurice on Romans and Jews in Popular Culture

The official description:

In the second interview recorded in April at the Classical Association conference in Reading Dr Lisa Maurice of Bar Ilan University talks with CC’s Anastasia Bakogianni about her twin passions: children’s literature and the portrayal of Jews in films about antiquity.

In this vodcast she talks about the popularity of the classical world in children’s literature and its impact on how ancient Rome is perceived in the modern world. At this year’s CA there were two panels devoted to the subject, testifying to the vibrancy of research in this area. Lisa discusses how the portrayal of Romans in fiction for children and young adults has changed over time. In the 1950s the Romans were seen as the great civilizers, but more recently they have become the villains. In the second half of the interview Lisa talks about her work exploring what it means to be Jewish in ancient Rome with particular reference to two televisions series: Masada (1981) and Rome (2005-7). The shifting portrayal of Jewish and Roman identity on the small screen allows us to reflect on our own understanding of both ancient and modern and the on-going dialogue between the two.

Recreating Roman Pantomime

Just a week or so ago we mentioned the Practicing Pantomime Project  … the folks involved should maybe talk to this guy, or he should talk to them … from Pressconnects:

For his final project as a Binghamton University undergraduate, local theater wunderkind Santino DeAngelo has decided to re-create an art form that’s been lost for 2,000 years.

No examples of ancient Roman pantomime — a popular entertainment that incorporated music, dance and storytelling – have survived in written form to the modern day. Scholars debate the reasons for that: Some think it’s because the pantomimes were considered “low” entertainment, while others speculate that many aspects of the performances were constructed through on-the-spot directions to actors and singers that were not preserved.

“It was basically the equivalent of television,” DeAngelo said in a recent interview. “Plays were known by their writers, but these pantomimes were famous for the artists — people would go to see the performer.

“We know that several famous Roman playwrights wrote pantomimes but didn’t attach their names to them because it was considered ‘low art.’ People would go every night to see them, though.”

DeAngelo’s re-creation, “Narcissus,” pulls directly from his undergraduate studies, which include classical civilizations, mythology and performance. He believes this is the first attempt at ancient Roman pantomime in the United States (with the only other effort in England during the 1970s).

Along with a full choral score (which will be performed by community members and BU students), DeAngelo also composed solo parts for local singers Judy Giblin, Jana Kucera and Charlie Hyland. DeAngelo himself will perform all the roles using a variety of masks.

Austin Tooley, a graduate student in BU’s theater department, will direct the production, and it will be recorded at the BTV studios on campus with the hope of broadcast at a later date. (A limited number of audience seats are available.)

DeAngelo said he hopes to capture the flavor of what ancient Roman pantomime would have been to an audience of that era.

“The great thing about reconstructing it is you’re putting yourself in the position of the writer, so I find myself thinking, ‘OK, if this has to be done quickly’ — they didn’t have a lot of time to put these together — ‘then how do I cut corners?’ If I can tell my chorus to do this and this, I don’t have to write it down,” he said. “There are many questions that come up.”