Ireland’s Ancient East: Empires of the Mind in Medieval Irish Literature

According to the mythical history that was read in medieval Europe, the first emperor or ‘king of the world’ was Ninus son of Belus, the legendary founder of the Assyrian Empire. Ninus was said to have married a woman named Semiramis, who was herself credited with building the walls of the city of Babylon. When Ninus died, Semiramis married her own son, Ninyus, the second Assyrian emperor. The Assyrian empire, which flourished until the seventh century BCE, spanned most of what today comprises Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Its mythical origins were of interest to medieval Europeans because they formed the beginnings of the process known as translatio imperii, ‘transfer of power’, which underpinned the fundamental conception of political theory in the early Middle Ages, viewing history in terms of a movement of imperial power from the Assyrians to the Medes and Persians, Macedonians, Greeks and, lastly, Romans.

Very few people in medieval Ireland would have travelled as far as the Holy Land, let alone further east. Thus, the Middle East existed in the mind of the medieval Irish reader as a predominantly textual landscape, its contours shaped by the accounts of earlier Biblical, Classical and Late Antique authors. When medieval Irish authors looked to the east, they were often looking to the past, to the great fallen empires of which the Assyrian was the first. And Irish authors, like their Continental counterparts, were also seeking to understand what they believed to be a linear succession of political power over time from east to west. The anonymous author of the eleventh-century Irish Sex Aetates Mundi (‘Six Ages of the World’) thought that there was ‘a dawning and setting of every age’, that is, a period of decline marking the end of one historical ‘age’ followed by a period of recovery marking the beginning of another.[i] He wanted to the reader to ask cateat airig cech aíssi 7 cadeat a saégla na n-airech sin?, ‘who are the princes of every age and what are the reigns of those princes?’. For him, the decline of Assyrian power in the Middle East marked the end of the ‘fourth age’ of the world, and the rise of the Achaemenid Empire (also known as the ‘First Persian Empire’) marked the beginning of the fifth.

We are accustomed to thinking of Ireland’s recent history in postcolonial terms, so it can be a surprise – and not a welcome one – to encounter a time when Irish writers revered and promoted the concept of empire. Poets in early medieval Ireland were not the countercultural figures that they are today, but were supporters and upholders of profoundly inegalitarian political hierarchies. Medieval Ireland was a society built on slavery and inequality, and great power and wealth was the preserve of a few kings and churchmen who exploited that inequality in order to maximise their own political standing. By the early eleventh century, provincial kings wanted to be ‘emperors’ over the Gaelic and Scandinavian populations of Ireland. And their poets, historians and scholars provided the intellectual scaffolding for thinking about empire in medieval Ireland, while the ancient Middle East gave them one possible template with which to try to articulate their imperial ambitions.


Assyria and Ireland

 Babylon was one of the central cities of the Assyrian Empire. It also possessed an immense significance for early Christian writers on account of its Biblical depiction as a kind of anti-Jerusalem, the site of the Jewish Captivity in the Old Testament, the ‘whore’ of the Apocalypse of John. It is associated by Christians with worldly corruption as opposed to spiritual purity. And yet its ancient political significance was undeniable and this aspect of it became increasingly interesting to eleventh- and twelfth-century Irish poets who wanted to magnify Babylon’s imperial past. For example, in a twelfth-century poem comprising 52 quatrains in the Book of Uí Mhaine, an anonymous poet imagines the palace of Ninus son of Belus, in the centre of Babylon:

There was not ever made before,

There will not be built afterwards,

There was never constructed under the bright sun,

A house like it on earth.


Of gold and of silver that was not tarnished,

Of enamel and carbuncle,

Of crystal, of precious coloured cloth,

Of down, of drink, of vessels.


Of blue crystal, of white horn,

Of satin and of tapestry,

Of pure precious stone without flaw,

And of wooden planks of elm.


The house of Ninus in its main entrance there,

A bright-ornamented wide-mouthed structure,

The wrights and craftsmen of the northern world,

Adorning it and putting it together.[ii]

The poet creates an image of opulence to be admired and imitated by Irish kings rather than condemned for its worldliness. Indeed, the first line of the poem – Babilón Baile Búadach ‘Babylon, Victorious City’ – commemorates Babylon’s past imperial greatness rather than drawing attention to its exegetical status as the antitype of the holy cities of Jerusalem or Rome.

Opening of ‘Babylon, Victorious City’, in the Book of Uí Mhaine (Royal Irish Academy, image from Irish Script on Screen)

And yet, the poet was certainly operating within a Christian worldview, albeit one which prized translatio imperii over humble piety. And he was not alone. Another anonymous poet of the twelfth century composed a 24-quatrain poem preserved in the Book of Ballymote, which sought to juxtapose the mythical history of the Assyrian Empire with the equally mythical history of prehistoric Ireland. This Irish mythical history, invented and developed by historians from the seventh century onwards, saw Irish prehistory as a successive series of invasions by various ‘peoples’, both supernatural and human, and finds its fullest expression in the eleventh-century Lebor Gabála Érenn, or ‘Book of the Taking of Ireland’. The poet whose work is preserved in the Book of Ballymote placed Assyrian history side by side with this Irish prehistory and he began, of course, with Ninus son of Belus. The poem begins:

Ninus son of Belus, best of the kings,

illustrious his fame and his lasting power,

whose branching splendour will be famous,

the first king of the world legitimately.


Twenty-one years of famous valour

for Ninus at the birth of Abraham –

we remember it without deceptive fame,

the books fully verifying it.


Sixty splendid years

of the age of noble Abraham,

at the coming of Partholón of the bright landing-place

the strength of his deadly great host was famous.


One exact year in feasting

before Partholón landed;

he got pleasure and a precise share with fame,

at the southern meeting of the ships he was strong.[iii]

The life and career of Ninus son of Belus – the first emperor – is given a chronological anchoring in Biblical history by being linked to the time of the birth of Abraham – the first Jewish Patriarch – which in turn is linked to the arrival of Partholón (the name is an Irish rendering of ‘Bartholomew’) – Ireland’s supposed first settler. Thus Ireland is implicitly incorporated here into the ‘universal’ historical scheme as conceived in medieval Europe. The poem goes on to describe the subsequent ‘invasions’ of Ireland – Nemed, the Fir Bolg, the Túatha Dé Danaan, and finally the sons of Míl, the Gaelic people – each linked to the reign of a particular Assyrian emperor – Manchaleus, Armamithres, Belocus, and Mithreus respectively.

The opening of the ‘Ninus son of Belus’ poem, Book of Ballymote (Royal Irish Academy, image from Irish Script on Screen)

Poems such as these – and there are many such poems from eleventh- and twelfth-century Ireland which deal with similar themes from ‘universal history’, including the histories of the other great empires, such as the Persians – are the creative result of a difficult and oft-maligned medieval scholarly practice known as ‘synchronism’. Synchronism involves placing the historical (or mythical) events of one culture side by side with those of other cultures in order to construct a comparative chronological framework. The most influential proponent of this method was Eusebius of Caesarea (d.339), and it was the Eusebian comparative chronology which formed the basis for Irish engagement with historical synchronism. Synchronistic texts are often derided because they are admittedly quite dry (one might even say boring). For example, here is an extract from one eleventh-century synchronistic tract:

The Assyrians had thirty-five kings: 1240 years was their rule. From the end of the sovereignty of the Assyrians until the first Olympic Games by the Greeks: forty-three years. From the first Olympiad to the captivity of the Ten Tribes: 156 years. From the captivity of the Ten Tribes until the burning of the Temple: thirty-six years. 442 years the Temple was, after being built until it was burnt. From the burning of the Temple until the end of the sovereignty of the Medes: thirty years. Eight kings ruled from the Medes: 159 years for them. From the end of the sovereignty of the Medes until the release from the Babylonian Captivity and the renewing of the Temple: forty years. From the renewing of the Temple until the end of the sovereignty of the Persians: three hundred [years]: that is, twelve kings ruled from the Persians. 231 years was their sovereignty.[iv]

Central events and in particular royal reigns are counted, measured, and placed alongside those of different cultures. It is this sort of careful numerical scholarship which our twelfth-century Irish poet is referring to when he speaks of ‘books fully verifying’ his assertions about the juxtaposition of the birth of Abraham and the reign of Ninus son of Belus.

Ninus’s wife, Semiramis, who was thought to have subsequently married her own son, was of interest to the authors of Irish synchronistic texts. For example, one eleventh-century text inserts into an otherwise spare enumeration of Assyrian rulers the details that Ninus was the first emperor, that his wife was responsible for some of the construction of Babylon, and that she married Ninyus after the death of Ninus:

Shem: Asshur was a son of his; Belus was a son of his; Ninus was a son of the latter. The last was the first king of the world. In the eleventh year after the birth of Ninus son of Belus was the death of Cham and Iafeth. In the year after them, Ninus son of Belus assuming kingship; that is, in the twenty-first year of the kingship of Ninus, the birth of Abraham. 948 years from Adam to the birth of Abraham. – Semiramis, wife of Ninus: forty-two years. By her the wall of Babylon was made. And she took her own son to her as a husband, that is, Ninyus, and she died after that.[v]

Semiramis was one of a number of intriguing female characters in medieval Irish conceptions of Assyrian history, another being the fabricated ‘Babylon daughter of Arabia’, who seems to have been invented by the author of Babilón Baile Búadach ‘Babylon, Victorious City’, discussed above, in order to explain the origins of the name of the city of Babylon. In this instance, the medieval Irish methods of dindshenchas (placename history) are applied to historical verse about ancient Assyria.


History in the Last Age

The written and material remains of the Assyrian Empire are sophisticated, impressive and wide-ranging, but medieval Irish authors knew nothing of cuneiform tablets or the archaeological remains of Nineveh; rather, they encountered Assyrian history through the distorting and mythologising lens of early Christian writers, such as Eusebius of Caesarea, mentioned above, Paulus Orosius (d. 420) and Augustine of Hippo (d. 430). Those authors – Orosius in particular – were responsible for the development of the concept of translatio imperii, seeing dominant global power beginning in Assyria and moving westwards to Rome. Since Christian authors believed that they were living in the last ‘age’ of the world, Rome’s authority stemmed from its position as this final world empire. In spite of what some modern popular conceptions of the ‘fall of Rome’ might tell us, medieval Irish authors, like those elsewhere in Western Europe at the time, believed that they were still living in the age of Rome.

At the outset of his History Against the Pagans, Orosius wrote that he ‘had often thought that the disasters of our present times seemed to rage beyond what could have been expected’.[vi] The violence, greed, bloodshed and injustices of his own time were surely worse than anything which had gone before him. But, like every historian who has come after him, Orosius soon discovered that the world was ever thus. ‘I found’, he continued, ‘that the days gone by were as fraught as the present’. He goes on to observe that ‘Anyone who looks at himself, and through himself at mankind, will perceive that from mankind’s beginnings this world rightly has been subjected to good and bad times.’ The study of the past, not simply as an inward-looking nationalist project, but as an outward-looking endeavour aimed at understanding all of humanity – its good times and bad – was a practice that was fully appreciated and ambitiously undertaken by the historians in medieval Ireland who were writing histories of the empires of the ancient Middle East. But we should not romanticise this as some sort of pure, scholarly and humanistic exercise: their findings were being deployed with the purpose of promoting and upholding the dominant political order, and, across eleventh- and twelfth-century Europe, political élites were increasingly seeking to exercise power not only over their own peoples but over others. From the 1170s onwards, the imperial ambitions of Irish kings would be crushed by a far larger and stronger empire, that of the Normans.[vii]


[i] Text and translations from The Irish Sex Aetates Mundi, ed. and trans. Dáibhí Ó Cróinín (Dublin, 1983).

[ii] This is my own translation, based on my transcription from the manuscript. I am currently preparing a full edition and translation.

[iii] This is my own translation, based on my forthcoming edition in Elizabeth Boyle, ‘Biblical History in the Book of Ballymote’, in Codices Hibernenses Eximii II: the Book of Ballymote, ed. Ruairí Ó hUiginn (Dublin, forthcoming 2018).

[iv] My own translation based on my transcription from the Book of Ballymote, which I compared against the edition published by Bartholomew MacCarthy, in The Codex Palatino-Vaticanus, No. 830 (Texts, Translations and Indices) (Dublin, 1892).

[v] My own translation based on my transcription from the Book of Ballymote, compared against MacCarthy, Codex Palatino-Vaticanus, No. 830.

[vi] Translations from Orosius, Seven Books of History Against the Pagans, trans. A. T. Fear (Liverpool, 2010).

[vii] This essay has gone through a few drafts and arises from a ‘Creative Nonfiction’ writing class I undertook at the Dublin Writers’ Centre in the autumn of 2017. I’m very grateful to the brilliant tutor, Caelainn Hogan, and everyone else who took the class, for their comments and feedback on my ideas. I’m also very grateful to Dr Levi Roach (University of Exeter) and Professor Mia Münster-Swendsen (Roskilde University) for their thoughts and comments on translatio imperii: although I haven’t used any of that material here, their contributions helped to shape some of my thinking and were greatly appreciated.

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