Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Happy (lol) Gildas' Day

So, it seems this is the Feast of Saint Gildas. That's apt, I suppose, considering our tutorial reading for this week is from the Ruin of Britain, and also because I've been feeling miserable and grumpy all day.

Side-note: I wonder how you're supposed to honour ol' Gildas. Lambast your neighbours' lifestyles over the fence and call them names? Reminisce on how things were bad in the good old days, but worse even now?

Anyway, I'm choked with the cold. There seems to be a swathe of lurgies going around right now and, true to form, I've caught one. My nose can't decide if it's blocked or runny (one nostril's doing one thing and the other's doing another), and I'm ploughing my way through the tissues. Got a sore head, and my brain has turned to mush. It didn't help, then, that for Latin I had to translate some of Augustus' Res Gestae (basically, telling the world how successful and marvellous he was). Combine formal Latin, a beginner's slippery grasp of the perfect tense, and a brain made of mush, and you can imagine that was no easy task. Plus I'm pretty sure Powell has made a spelling mistake somewhere in the book.

And I ended up falling asleep when I got home in the evening, so I'll probably be up all night now. grumble, grumble And I have to get up at six again to be at uni for nine. Hardly seems worth it, since the only thing I have on a Wednesday is my Latin tutorial, so it's in then straight back out again. I'll see if I can manage to haul myself out bed when the time comes. grumble, grumble...

On a more positive note, I got my Archaeology essay back. I got 19 out of 22, which, now I've checked the handbook, is in the A category. :D

Exam results aren't out yet, though. I'll wait with bated breath for them.

Sorry about such a moaning non-post. I've managed to slip more or less back into my routine, however, so I should be back to blogging in the next couple of days.

Monday, January 21, 2008

"Lands hitherto unknown": the Novantae

Or, "Do I have a touch of Asperger's?"

Warning: boring rubbish; trying to sort out some thoughts; probably incomprehensible.

Agricola started his fifth campaign by crossing the first water and in a series of successful actions subdued lands hitherto unknown. The side of Britain that faces Ireland was lined with his forces. (Tacitus, Agricola, ch. 24)

Anyone who's read the Agricola knows that one of the problems with that little book is Tacitus' vagueness on certain points. Like, for instance, what this "first water" is. Historians argue over it - some think it's the River Annan, others the Clyde, and so forth (pun unintended). Similarly, whereabouts was he when he was facing Ireland?

I'm working towards this part in my NiP right now, so Agricola-muse and I have been poring over maps of Roman Scotland, trying to work out a route for Marcus and co. to take this year.

In southern Scotland, there are two places close to Ireland. The Mull of Kintyre (Epidium Promontorium) is something like twelve miles from its north-east coast, hence Dál Riata in Antrim and Argyll. The problem with Kintyre is, so far there's no evidence for a Roman presence, and I have a problem imagine Agricola's army squashed together at the tip of that promontory.

The Rhinns of Galloway (Novantarum Peninsula) are the other possibility, and the one I've decided to favour. They lay within lands of the Novantae tribe, who seem to have inhabited roughly the Dumfries and Galloway area. In my own take on the original narrative I have Agricola, having already built his Forth-Clyde frontier, now embarking on a mission of consolidation, which brings him to the Novantae. He's already thinking about invading Ireland one day, so the handy Novantarum Pensinsula is an added incentive. ;)

The good news, there's traces of Roman activity in Dumfries and Galloway. Not a lot of it, but some intriguing bits and pieces. So I'm trying to map out a possible route for the invading Roman army, and a seat of power for the Novantae themselves. Hey, they need to defend something.

So, with my handy Ordnance Survey Roman Britain and Ancient Britain maps to hand, I start looking. This is where anyone without a map of Galloway to hand is liable to get lost, so I'll describe it as carefull as possible.

A known Roman road makes its way northwest/southeast through Nithsdale, but in the Dumfries area there are a couple of marching camps to the southwest of this road at Fourmerkland. Continuing further SW from Fourmerkland, there are another pair (the map has two) at Shawhead. It definitely seems there was some sort of incursion this way.

Even further SW, at Glenlochar in the Castle Douglas area, is an interesting little collection of fortifications: a good-sized (8.3 acre) Flavian-dated fort, along with six marching camps (the largest measured is around 33 acres, so it's a good size). The fort was also occupied in the Antonine period, so maybe a couple of camps are contemporary with that, but I'm willing to bet there are some Flavian camps in that collection, continuing this apparent march SW. (It's so difficult to date these things precisely, especially the Flavian installations in Scotland). The placement of a fort here, I think, deserves some attention.

Going even further SW, we reach a trace of Roman road and the fortlet of Gatehouse on Fleet, which has good views up the valley of the Water of Fleet. Whether by accident or design, this fortlet isn't far from the rather interesting hillfort of Trusty's Hill. The hillfort shows signs of vitrification, and is also one of the few sites in southern Scotland to show Pictish-style carvings (probably later than this period, but interesting nevertheless).

It's this little bit of road that's interesting, as there are few traces of Roman road this far west, and roads were pretty much built by the army for the army. Was it built as my hypothetical expedition made their way SW, and the rest of the traces lost? Well, we'll see. What traces there are seem to be pointing west...

Now, the next point on the OS map is the marching camp at Glenluce, almost directly west of Gatehouse of Fleet. Glenluce is practically on the point of Luce Bay, which opens onto the Solway firth. And from Glenluce, there are more traces of a Roman road - arcing its way NW, seemingly from Glenluce towards the modern town of Strangaer, at the head of Loch Ryan.

And that's it. That's the points of Roman presence in Galloway. What's interesting is the Roman road - a definitive indication of a Roman presence if ever there was one. So the next question I asked myself was, why does it head where it does?

Well, the Rerigonius Sinus of Ptolemy's map of Britain is generally equated with Loch Ryan, a sea-loch. Ptolemy also mentions a place called Rerigonium as one of the "towns" of the Novantae, and the name seems to mean something along the lines of "royal place". Take that together, and it suggests a "royal place" situated around Loch Ryan. Incidentally, the name "Ryan" does actually come from the Gaelic or righ for "king".

Now, looking at the map, Loch Ryan faces north, a natural harbour with easy access to the Firth of Clyde, Kintyre, and Ireland, and I believe there is a ferry service between Stranraer and Ireland. Stranraer is a harbour town, naturally enough, and I imagine there would be good trading opportunities for the Novantae via Loch Ryan. And if you controlled that lucrative little trading node... well, I imagine you'd be an authority within the tribe. There is a further hint to this in that, on the Ancient Britain map, the most significant hillforts of the Novantae are to be found directly on the coast.

So, if Rerigonium can be equated roughly with a settlement at Stranraer, or thereabouts, supervising a nice little trading point, then there's no wonder there's a Roman road heading straight for it. Loch Ryan and Luce Bay also serve to form the Rhinns of Galloway, so if Agricola managed to take over "Rerigonium", then his access to the Novantarum Peninsula would be unhindered, leaving him free to line up his armies facing Ireland. From there I can bring in the Irish prince (Tuathal Teachtmar for the purposes of this book), and give him an easy route to Argyll from Loch Ryan.

(There are also a couple of stray marching camps further north, near the coast at Girvan. Hmm... a "special detachment", maybe? The plotbunnies, they multiply...)

Well, that's how I spent my Sunday! Sad, innit? On the other hand, I've got a decent idea where I, and my characters, are going now!

You can all wake up now. XD

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

I'm back!

Well, my exams are over! There were only two after all - the first Archaeology module won't be tested till the end of this semester - but the build-up was excruciating. I'm sure some of my other uni-related posts have conveyed very clearly that when it comes to all things academic, I'm a nervous wreck. I was on the verge of tears on Sunday night, before my Celtic exam, convinced I was going to fail. It wasn't as bad as all that, after all, though I did managed to forget most of the quotes I'd made a point of revising on Sunday. Isn't that always the way? >:(

Finished off with Latin this afternoon. Went to pieces over that, of course. You should've seen me sitting in a café in Buchanan Galleries at lunchtime, freaking out because I'd not properly revised third declension adjectives.

Needless to say, not a sodding one turned up in the exam.

It was actually quite a good exam, I actually managed to keep my head during it, and I hope I've managed to rack up some marks. I finished with a good half-hour to go, so I also got plenty of time to check over my answers. I wasn't the only one, either.

It was good to meet up with my friends again, now that they're back up from England.

Oh, and my books for this semester are coming in now. For Celtic Civ. I have to read History of Wales, Early Medieval Ireland, Picts, Gaels and Scots (which I've read anyway), The Mabinogion, and Early Irish Myths and Sagas. Best reading list ever, lol!

Friday, January 11, 2008

Book review: Farewell Britannia: A Family Saga of Roman Britain, by Simon Young



Spoiler: The Saxons totally take over at the end. ;)

Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 55 BC, but no invasion was successful until the Emperor Claudius' in AD 43. Roman rule lasted until 410, when the Emperor Honorius, faced with the chaos in the eroding Western Roman Empire, withdrew the British legions and told the people to look to their own defences. In Farewell Britannia, historian Simon Young fills in the centuries in between with a fictionalised study of Roman Britain, as witnessed by the members of an illustrious family, the Atrebates, descended from the royal house of the tribe of the same name.

The first story concerns Commius, the Gaulish chieftain who travelled to Britain to communicate to the British Celts on Caesar's behalf and who founded the British Atrebates. Other chapters deal with events such as the Claudian invasion, Boudicca's uprising in c. 61 AD, the Great Barbarian Conspiracy in 367, etc. These major events, however, are kept to the periphery of the narrative as Young delves into the most obscure - and more fascinating - details of Romano-British life. Every story, even if it is fictional, has a real name, inscription, or artefact at its heart, and while the Atrebates' family tree is a mish-mash of the historical and fictional, every member's name can be found attested somewhere in Roman Britain. There are "big names" to be found, such as Togidubnus, Gratian, and Lucius Artorius Castus, but equally the reader comes across lesser-known names such as Claudia Severa and Silvius Bonus. The chapters that deal with a disgraced official's suicide, or the infanticide of slave children, while fictional in themselves, still have that grain of truth at their heart. Young builds stories around tiny scraps of evidence, such as the probable theft of the Vyne Ring, Claudia Severa's birthday invitation to Sulpicia Lepidina, whilst filling out each tale with a wealth of historical detail.

Young vividly evokes the atmosphere of Roman Britain, and his erudition on the subject lends that atmosphere an added feel of authenticity. His author's notes in themselves, headed with what he terms "curiosities", are fascinating to read. Some figures, such as Julius Agricola and Magnus Maximus do not appear, but their absence is explained and understandable.

Of course, I've got some quibbles (don't I always?). Although the Atrebates are the reader's guides into Roman Britain, none of them are particularly endearing or engaging, so it was hard to feel any affinity for them. This is more than made up for in detail and atmosphere, but if you're picking up Farewell Britannia expecting to read it as an historical novel, watch your step. While no doubt true to their time and place, the characters of Farewell Britannia don't have the same warmth and memorability as, say, Rosemary Sutcliff's. This is, all things considered, a history book, albeit fictionalised, so the best bet is to read it for the history and approach the fictional aspect as you would approach a well-done docu-drama.

And I could have done without having to read "[York]" or "[Colchester]" in square brackets like that whenever Eboracum or Camulodunum was mentioned. It jarred what was otherwise a very smooth, atmospheric narrative, and was also unnecessary, considering the book contains a map with all relevant place names, ancient and modern.

And, for the love of Nodens, Mr. Young, it's Rosemary Sutcliff, not Sutcliffe. Grrrgnashsnarl...

Despite those minor points, this is one of the best evocations of Britannia I've read to date. Highly recommended, especially for people who have even a passing interest in Roman Britain.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Zomg! I got tagged!

Thanks to Gabriele for tagging me with this meme.

1. Link to the person that tagged you and post the rules on your blog.
2. Share 7 random and/or weird things about yourself.
My variant is that rather than say 7 random/weird things about yourself, say them about a historical figure of your choice. (Let’s be generous, semi-historical, for all those interested in more or less mythical figures).
3. Tag 7 random people at the end of your post and include links to their blogs.
4. Let each person know that they have been tagged by leaving a comment on their blog.


All right, and I choose... (drum roll)... Saint Columba. Ha! I flummoxed you all! Thought I was going to choose a Roman, dincha? Sorry, I've been reading the Bridei Chronicles.

I love Columba. I think he was the least saintly, most Machiavellian chancer ever to get a sainthood, but that's what makes him so interesting. I've got a couple of vague ideas for books set in the Early Historic period; maybe he'll show up in one.

Anyway, I'm not really sure how many of these can be considered proper facts, but at least they're entertaining! :)

1. Columba (or Columcille - "Dove of the church") was an Irish prince of the Uí Néill dynasty, a descendant of Niall of the Nine Hostages, born at Gartan, Donegal, on 7 December 521. Apparently, his mother Eithne was visited during her pregnancy by an angel, who told her she would bear a son of beautiful character who was destined to lead many souls to Heaven, blah blah. Believe that if you will. Considering Columcille was supposed to have been a foul-mouthed old sod, I can't help but wonder if the angel was given the wrong address! :D

2. Columba was the most distinguished student of Saint Finnian, but was accused, pretty much, of copyright infringement. The psalter in question is traditionally associated with the Cathach of Saint Columba. Things got a teensy weensy bit out of hand, culminating in the Battle of Cúl Dreimhe. For his part in it, Columba was banished, at the age of forty-two, and charged to convert as many souls to Christianity as had died in the battle. So off he went.

3. Columba and his followers landed first on Mull of Kintyre, but since Ireland was still in sight, they went further north until they landed on Iona. The local Druids protested - since, y'know, they were already there - but Columba and co. succeeded in chucking them off and setting up their famous monastery.

4. Columba's missionary regimen was... vigorous. He plunged into Pictland, converting people left, right, and centre. He visited King Brude, son of Maelchon, and did some miracle-making there. In a dramatic showdown, he trounced the king's Druid and foster-father, Broichan, more than once duels of magic and wills. On the more realistic side, it's very possible he converted Brude to Christianity while he was at the Pictish court.

5. One of the "miracles" attributed to Columba by Adomnán is how he cured one of his followers, Lugne Mocumin, of a nosebleed by - get this - pinching his nostrils shut.

6. Columba also helped to invent Scotland's tourist trade by meeting the Loch Ness Monster (if you believe this kind of thing). One day, while he and his followers were kicking about Pictland, they met some Picts burying a man who, they said, had been killed by a monster in the River Ness. Columba scoffed and, just to show how fearless he was, he sent Lugne - the nosebleed guy - to swim across the river to fetch the boat. Halfway across, Lugne was attacked by Nessie, who had been lying at the river bed and who'd obviously decided she could manage one more. Columba made the sign of the cross and told it to back off. So it did. Needless to say, the Picts watching the proceedings were immediately converted. I suppose the monster came back once she was sure Columba was gone. ;)

7. Columba died on 9 June 597. Unlike most saints, he didn't die a horrible, messy death at a young age, but quite comfortably at the age of seventy-five (good on him, I say). Before his death, he blessed the island of Iona and did some prophesying. He was praying in the church at midnight when he died. And - since this story wouldn't be complete without a miracle - his friend Diarmaid saw the church fill with light.

Anyway, hope they were interesting, at least. I'm tagging Jack and Crystal next. Have fun!