BMCR 2002.06.31

Ireland and the Classical World

, Ireland and the classical world. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001. 1 online resource (xvi, 148 pages) : illustrations, maps. ISBN 029279827X $35.00.

The dust jacket to this intriguing if highly specialized volume promises that “[e]veryone interested in ancient Irish history or Classics, whether scholar or enthusiast, will learn much from this pioneering book.” This promise is, I suspect, fulfilled: it certainly was as far as I was concerned. It is unlikely that there are many scholars who could match Freeman in coupling considerable knowledge of Irish geography and early history with scholarly expertise in Classical philology, linguistics, archeology and numismatics. This is, of course, both the good news and the bad news: good because of the author’s obvious credentials, bad because the level of specialization reduces the audience for the book and especially limits the number of potential readers who can really follow all of the arguments. Rather than appealing to those interested in any of the relevant areas of scholarly inquiry, this book may truly engage only those interested in all of them.

It takes very little time at all to realize that this is not a companion-piece to such pop-scholarship works as How the Irish Saved Civilization. Rather, this volume explores the evidence regarding Greek and (mostly) Roman knowledge of Ireland during the classical period and, to a lesser extent, the degree of actual interaction between the inhabitants of Ireland and Classical civilizations until the date traditionally ascribed to the arrival of St. Patrick in Ireland, A.D. 432.

Freeman opens by examining the possibilities for direct interaction between Ireland and Rome, dating from the first century A.D.: mostly Roman coins and other indications of trade and perhaps temporary Roman settlements. In this first chapter, “The Archeology of Roman Material in Ireland,” Freeman also implicitly lays out the argumentative strategy he employs throughout the book: scrupulously pointing out the dangers of interpolating too much from the available evidence, and allowing the quantity of source material to make his circumstantial case. In other words, even if each of a half dozen independent pieces of evidence has only an even chance of leading to a particular conclusion, the chances that none of those argumentative links is valid drops to below 2%. Freeman doesn’t use those specific numbers, but his arguments here and elsewhere are clearly founded on the quantity as much as the quality of evidence.

The next chapter, “Language: The Influence of Latin in Pre-Patrician Ireland.” examines linguistic similarities between Latin and Irish: especially loan-words dated by “linguistic chronology, semantics, and educated conjecture” (15) and the “generally conceded” origins of the Ogam alphabet in Latin grammar — the details of which process present “a scholarly puzzle with numerous unsolved and perhaps unsolvable elements” (20). Particularly interesting here is the chart showing the sites where Ogam inscriptions have been found. Most, as might be expected, are in the south, generally speaking nearest to Britain, but the heaviest concentration is in Kerry in the southwest rather than Wexford and Waterford in the southeast, and sites occur throughout the island except in the west-central around Clare and Galway. One might have hoped for a bit more discussion of this phenomenon.

Clearly the center-piece of the book, comprising about 80% of the text, is the presentation and explication of Greek and (mostly) Roman textual references to Ireland. Freeman provides complete citations — both in their original language and in English translation — of all Classical material which might reasonably be interpreted to refer to Ireland and/or its inhabitants. He begins conjecturally: with the relatively late (4th century A.D.) Ora maritima of Rufus Festus Avienus. Starting here is an interesting rhetorical choice, given that Avienus may or may not have been drawing on documents which pre-date the earliest verifiable Classical references to Ireland, and that the Ora maritima may or may not refer specifically to Ireland. Both here and in the ensuing discussion of Hellenistic geographers, Freeman is careful to caution against placing too much faith in necessarily speculative and tentative conclusions. The nearly constant string of caveats is simultaneously refreshing to those of us who read far too much hypothesis posing as fact and frustrating in that the series of modifiers and back-trackings occasionally borders on the diffident.

The next section, beginning with the “first certain and datable reference to Ireland in classical literature” (37) by Julius Caesar, is to me — and I suspect to most readers — both the center of Freeman’s work and its most interesting discussion. The longest sections are devoted to Strabo, Pliny the Elder, Tacitus and Ptolemy, although over thirty works in all — ranging from passing references in unattributed sources to considerably lengthier and more detailed discussions — are considered. Freeman’s breadth is encyclopedic, and it is certainly a particular strength of the book that the reader is certain that all bases have been covered. There are also a number of intriguing impressions — accurate and inaccurate — of Irish geography, climate, and national character. Of course, the juiciest items are those which are the most hyperbolic, e.g. Strabo’s description of the Irish as “more savage than the Britons, being cannibals as well as gluttons. Furthermore, they consider it honorable to eat their dead fathers and to openly have intercourse, not only with unrelated women, but with their mothers and sisters as well” (46). Strabo blithely admits a lack of witnesses to these purported atrocities, and Freeman adeptly points out the implications of such a stance. He also provides a cogent analysis of the extent to which later writers simply echoed earlier assessments. I personally would have liked to see a more extended examination of the relationship between Classical stereotypes of Ireland and the anti-Hibernianism of the modern age, but that is no doubt a different project for a different time.

One puzzling element is the rather off-hand acceptance of the term “Scotti” as referring to Ireland. Freeman does, rather hastily, adduce some evidence for this claim (92), but much of this material is less than compelling. It is not my intention here to challenge the assertion that “[t]he identity of the Scotti as Irish is secure” (92), but rather to suggest that since the book is intended at least in part for a non-specialist readership, it would have been useful to address directly the uncertainty spawned both by apparent errors in other Classical and post-Classical commentary (not the least of which was the placement of Ireland to the north of Britain) and by the obvious linguistic link to “Scotland” and “Scotia” (Freeman himself conflates “Scotti” and “Scots”, p. 96). Given the caution evidenced throughout the rest of the book, this lack of rhetorical linkage between evidence, argument and conclusion is particularly curious.

This reservation aside, Freeman’s book stakes out an appropriate middle ground between accessibility and specialized scholarship. Providing both the original Classical texts and English translations is particularly useful in this regard. The challenges inherent in working with so specific a topic are generally met, and this volume has the distinction of being no longer than it needs to be. It is a “must read” for only a handful of scholars and a “must have” for only the most expansive or specialized of libraries, but it is a solid piece of work which provides both data and analysis unavailable elsewhere.