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Sunday 18 December 2011

Trojans in Taunton and Totnes

The impressive mosaic shown on the left is on display in the newly refurbished Museum of Somerset in Taunton. The mosaic, which is 4.3 metres (about 14 feet) square, is one of a number unearthed in Somerset over the last hundred years. This one dates from around 340 AD, at which time it graced a Roman-style villa at Low Ham near Somerton. It consists of five panels illustrating an episode from the life of the Trojan hero Aeneas, as related in Virgil's epic poem The Aeneid. This particular episode concerns the encounter between Aeneas and Dido, Queen of Carthage (the story starts with the right hand panel, then continues anticlockwise via the top panel and left-hand panel to the bottom panel, and then ends with the central panel).

Although the mosaic is in the Roman style, and the legend it depicts was taken from a Roman epic, the people who lived in the Somerset villa would have been native Britons. Ancient Troy was a long way from Britain, so why did they pick this particular legend? It turns out that the British liked to trace their ancestry back to the Trojans, just as the Romans did. In the same way that Aeneas was the mythical founder of Rome, his grandson Brutus was the mythical founder of Britain (the very name "Britain" is supposed to be derived from "Brutus").

The oldest surviving reference to the Brutus legend can be found in Historia Brittonum, written by Nennius in the ninth century AD. A greatly embellished version was included by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his twelfth century History of the Kings of Britain. According to the latter account, Brutus arrived in what is now the county of Devon: he sailed up the River Dart and came ashore in Totnes, at a spot which is marked to this day by a "Brutus Stone" (if you believe the local Tourist Industry).

Over the last twenty years or so, Totnes has become a major New Age centre -- with more than its fair share of shamans, fortune tellers and alternative therapists. This may be a coincidence, or it may be that the New Agers find themselves attracted to such a critical site in Britain's legendary history, in much the same way that Glastonbury hippies are attracted to the spot where Joseph of Arimathea is said to have brought the Holy Grail.

Like all legends, the story of Brutus is likely to be made up largely of guesswork and wishful thinking. But is there any truth to it at all? Legends sometimes encode real history, with individual characters symbolizing whole groups of people. Maybe the Brutus legend was meant to symbolize the theory that the Celtic people of the British Isles originally came here from the Eastern Mediterranean -- a theory that at least some members of the New Age movement still subscribe to today!

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