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'Representations of the Irish as barbarians in Graeco-Roman sources'

'Representations of the Irish as barbarians in Graeco-Roman sources'

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Luke Butterly. Originally submitted for BA (Joint Honours) History & Politics at University College Cork, with lecturer Dr Diarmuid Scully in the category of Historical Studies & Archaeology
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Luke Butterly. Originally submitted for BA (Joint Honours) History & Politics at University College Cork, with lecturer Dr Diarmuid Scully in the category of Historical Studies & Archaeology

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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10/27/2013

 
1
 
Representations of the Irish as barbarians in Graeco
-
Roman sources
 
 Abstract: It is clearly important to understand the almost universal unanimity of opinion insources from Antiquity, both Greek and Roman, which portrayed the Irish as uncivilized, incestu-ous, barbarian cannibals. The authors of Antiquity used a mixture of geography, ethnography and ethnocentric methods to find where on the scale of civilised to barbarian the different inhabitants of the known earth should be placed. Various Graeco-Roman sources from Antiquity, in addition tomodern historiography, will be examined to understand and situate these representations in thelarger context. Equally important, the larger implications of such a political world view will beexamined.
 
It is clearly important to understand the almost universal unanimity of opinion in sources, both Greek and Roman, which portrayed the Irish as uncivilized, incestuous, barbarian cannibals.The authors of Antiquity used a mixture of geography, ethnography and ethnocentric methods tofind where on the scale of civilised to barbarian the different inhabitants of the known earth should be placed. It is equally important to understand the larger implications of such a world view.
 
To understand the representations of Irish „barbarism‟ in Greek and Roman texts, we mustfirst show where their notions of the barbarian originated. The Greek writers of antiquity, whosewritings greatly influenced their Roman counterparts, were influenced by both geographical andethnographical understandings of the world. These approaches gave birth to the view that theclimate of any geographical location affected its human inhabitants. The Greek philosopher Aristotle claimed, in his treatise
 Politics,
that the harsh climates of the north created strong,courageous men who were lacking in brain power, while the warmer climates of Asia created smartand cunning races, but ones who had no backbone. It was the Mediterranean which had a “measureof both” and created a climate (and, consequently, race of people) that was akin to Goldilocks‟ porridge – not too cold, not too hot, but just right. This mix of courage, will
-
and brain
-
power madethe Greeks, in Aristotle‟s opinion, the most “capable of ruling all others”
1
. Ethnocentrism also played a key role in how the Greeks and Romans saw their place in the world. This theory “denotes
1
Aristotle,
 Politics
, 7.7, Class Handout
 
 
2
 
a construct of space which sees the centre of the world as the best or most advanced location, andtherefore denotes distant peoples to the status of unworthy savages”
2
. As the Irish (and other  barbarian peoples such as the Scythians) were at the „edges of the earth‟, it follows that they arefurthest away from the Greeks & Romans – both physically, and 'furthest' in the sense of being themost different from them in terms of being civilized.
 
We can examine the ways in which Graeco
-
Roman sources represented the Irish as barbarians. Greeks & Romans viewed barbarianism as the antonym of civilization
3
. In Greco
-
Roman writers‟ descriptions of Irish barbarians, they were portraying them as the very opposite of they themselves. The savage nature of the Irish was emphasized, making them appear akin toanimals rather than civilized man. Solinus remarks in his
Collection of Memorable Things
thatIreland is “inhuman it its savage customs...and the people are inhospitable and warlike”
4
. Focusingon the warlike nature of the Irish, Gildas remarks some three centuries after the Solinus, on the Irish“greed for bloodshed”
5
.
 
In order to paint the Irish as barbarians in the Greco
-
Roman sources, „characteristics‟ of theIrish were often compared with those of other peoples deemed barbarian, mainly the Scythians.When the Greek geographer Strabo made claims of Irish cannibalism
6
, he acknowledged that he hadno concrete evidence of this, but simply the fact that cannibalism was a custom of other barbariantribes was enough proof to suggest plausibly that the Irish also partook in this practise. On aninteresting side note, he states that the Celti and the Iberians were also known to have been forcedto eat their own in times of siege. However, he fails to mention that even Greeks ate human flesh in
2
J.S. Romm,
The Edges of the Earth in Ancient Thought 
(Princeton, 1992), p. 46
 
3
W.R. Jones, „The Image of the Barbarian in Medieval Europe‟,
Comparative Studies in Society and History
, Vol. 12, No.4 (Oct., 1971), p. 377
 
4
Solinus,
Collection of Memorable Things
, 22:1, Class Handout
 
5
Gildas,
 De Excidio Britanniae
, Class Handout
 
6
Strabo,
Geography
, 4:5,4, Class Handout
 
 
3
 
“extreme situations” such as times of siege, as recorded in Thucydides‟
 Peloponnesian War 
.Jerome, later St. Jerome, the Roman Christian historian and theologian, claims to have seenthe Irish “eating human flesh” when he was a young boy
8
. Strabo claims that they were “man
-
eaters” as well as gluttons
9
. Several authors also make claim that the Irish partake inendocannibalism – the practise of eating one‟s parents or ancestors for ritualistic purposes. Strabo,Diodorus, Siculus, and other Greek historians make claims to this effect in their works. J.F. Killeenclaims that “[i]t is not at all the sort of thing likely simply to have been made up, and it has found believers in modern times”
10
.
 
The portrayal of the incestuous nature of the Irish was another way in which their 'barbarian'nature was revealed in Greco
-
Roman texts. Strabo states the Irish “have intercourse not only withother women, but with their mothers and sisters as well‟
11
 Furthermore, the Irish were not civilised – in so far as they did not meet the requirements of what civilisation meant to the Greeks and Romans
-
laws, governments, constitutions, etc. Nashnotes that “In early Ireland centralized political institutions were weak or virtually absent”
12
, and itwas commonly accepted that barbarians rejected these staples of Greek and Roman society. TheIrish also were found wanting in morals, something that was of particular importance for Romans.Of the Irish, Solinus claims that “[f]or them, right and wrong are the same”
13
, while PomponiusMela claims that they were “more ignorant of all virtues than any other people, and in every waylacking in
 pietas
14
(pietas = sense of duty).
 
7
Thucydides,
 Peloponnesian War 
, 2.70, in Phillip Freeman, Ireland and the Classical World (Austin, 2001), p. 120
 
8
Jerome,
 Against Jovinianus
, 2:7, Class Handout
 
9
Strabo,
Geography
, 4:5,4
 
10
J.F. Killeen, „Ireland in the Greek and Roman writers‟,
 Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy
76C (1976), p. 211
 
11
Strabo,
Geography
, 4:5,4
 
12
D. Nash, „Reconstructing Posidonius‟ Celtic Ethnography: some considerations”,
 Britannia
7 (1976), p. 122
 
13
Solinus,
Collection of Memorable Things
, 22:1
 
14
Pomponius Mela, Chorography 1:53, Class Handout
 

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