Philip Freeman, Ireland and the Classical World. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001. Pp. xvi + 148, tables, maps, b&w plates. ISBN 0-292-72518-3 (Hb)
Review by Anthony Harvey
Royal Irish Academy
It is a truism that Ireland was never part of the Roman Empire. One result is that anyone interested in what was going on in the island during imperial times is confronted with problems. First, there is much less contemporary documentation referring even indirectly to Ireland than would be the case if there had been a conquest (since we inevitably view western Europe in those times through the lens of surviving Classical writings produced in the Empire and dealing with matters of interest thereto). Second, those documents we do have view Ireland from outside, as an alien and strange place, and in doing so display every kind of geographical and cultural prejudice (the land was permanently frozen, the inhabitants were cannibals, and so on).
Where does this leave us? Classicists (even Irish ones) have tended to take the line that if ignorance of ancient Ireland was good enough for the Romans then it is good enough for them. (This has been doubly unfortunate as it has meant that the enduring and significant contribution made to European culture by hundreds of years of post-imperial Hiberno-Latinity has also been deemed unworthy of notice.)
Celticists, whose trade obliges them to investigate Ireland, have tended to assume that statements made by Romans about the customs of Celts within the imperial frontiers, particularly the Gauls, can be applied without too much modification to their external counterparts in Ireland; but of course, as so often, ?it ain?t necessarily so?.
Dr Philip Freeman is both a Classicist and a Celticist by (Harvard) training, and has turned to advantage the paucity of our primary information about Ireland in Classical times by writing a well-produced book that manages to present all of it. The bulk of this, forming a single long Chapter Three which constitutes two-thirds of the volume, is a complete series of all the passages from ?Ancient Authors? that mention Ireland, whether in Latin or Greek. Arranged chronologically from the fifth century BCE onwards, each of the passages (something under forty in number) is quoted in full in the original and then translated into English, often with a useful accompanying map giving possible locations of places mentioned, and with key points briefly discussed. This is really very well done, marred only by some problems with the Greek font. (It seems a pity, though, that Appendix Two, listing summarily these ?Classical References to Ireland?, does not identify editions in which the larger works containing the passages in question may be consulted.)
If the contents of the various passages prove in practice to tell us more about the world-view of the authors than about Ireland, that is no fault of Freeman's; but such was the preference for leaning on existing doctrines, however wrong (such as that Ireland stretched most of the way from Britain down to Spain), that one finds their constant repetition from one authority to another makes for turgid enough reading. On the other hand, stimulation for the reader is not the point of the chapter, whose undeniable and great value (because of its inclusiveness) is as a reference work.
Having said that, it should be noted that the most data-prolific author had already been analysed just before Freeman?s book appeared, and to somewhat greater effect, by Gregory Toner and others in Ptolemy: Towards a Linguistic Atlas of the Earliest Celtic Place-Names of Europe, edited by David N. Parsons and Patrick Sims-Williams (Aberystwyth 2000). The reason their treatment is more effective is that they take seriously the linguistic evidence Ptolemy provides, comparing his name-forms with ones known from Irish-language sources much later on. While accepting in principle that this may be done, Freeman fights shy of attempting it himself. Indeed, in his first two chapters as well (?The Archaeology of Roman Material in Ireland? and ?The Influence of Latin in Pre-Patrician Ireland? [that is, Ireland before St Patrick]), he consistently plays down the value of linguistic evidence, never presenting it as more than ?suggesting? something, in contrast to archaeological data, which he tends to see as definitive. (In fact, of course, linguistic evidence is just as objective and empirical, and sound arguments based on it just as scientific and rational, as the discovery of any physical artefact or the conclusions that may be drawn therefrom.) But never mind: one would not acquire this book for Freeman?s analyses or conclusions, but for its sheer usefulness in bringing all the primary evidence together. If subtitled A Dossier of the Sources it would not even risk disappointing. As it is, Irish Classicists, at least, should no longer consider their island as lying entirely below the Roman horizon.