BUTRINT AND BRUTUS: THE BRITISH CONNECTION
Many British tourists come to the islands of Corfu, Lefkada and their surroundings, and some come to visit Butrint, but very few are aware of the important role that this area plays in the mythological history of Britain.
Before modern science, our ancestors viewed the world in terms of Classical mythology, believing that races and countries were descended from eponymous ancestors. The Greeks or Hellenes were descended from Hellenos, son of Deucalion; the Romans believed their founder was Romulus, son of Mars; and the Molossians of Epirus thought they came from Molossos, son of Neoptolemos, son of the great hero Achilles, who had fought at Troy, whose deeds are told in Homer’s Iliad.
Pyrrhus of Epirus (319-272 BC), who invaded southern Italy and came into conflict with Rome, believed firmly that he was a descendant of Achilles. He declared that the Romans were descended from Achilles’ old Trojan foes, who had been led from the burning ruins of Troy by Aeneas. When the Romans finally drove Pyrrhus away, they embraced the idea of being Trojans, and decided that Romulus’s mother must have been a descendant of Aeneas. In the 1st century BC, Emperor Augustus, who claimed direct descent from Aeneas, commissioned Virgil to write the epic poem the Aeneid. This tells of Aeneas’s long journey from Troy to Italy, including a sojourn in Buthrotum, which is now Butrint, Albania. Here, Aeneas discovered a colony of Trojans. They had been taken to Epirus as slaves by Neoptolemos, who freed them when he was dying, and were now living happily in Butrint, the city they had built to remind themselves of Troy. It is likely that Virgil included this information because the people of Butrint claimed Trojan ancestry, probably to demonstrate their loyalty to Rome.
Augustus’s grandson Claudius made Britain part of the Roman Empire in 43 AD. The Britons were given an eponymous ancestor, a goddess, Britannia, but by the 500s AD Christian monks, following Greek principles, had come up with a better idea – a male founding ancestor, called Britto, or Brutus. By the 800s AD, this Brutus had been made into a great grandson of Aeneas, thus proving that the Britons were descended from the same illustrious stock as the Romans. Between then and 1135, when it was written down by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain, a story had been developed for Brutus, as follows.
Brutus grew up in Italy, where it was prophesied that he would found a great nation, and also that he would kill his father: this he did, by accident, whilst out hunting in the woods. He was exiled, and made his way to Butrint. The happy ‘new Troy’ he had heard about in his family stories was no more: a Greek king, Pandrasus, had captured Butrint and enslaved the Trojans again. Brutus now came into his own, changing from a gauche boy into a true leader, and rousing the Trojans into rebellion. He found an ally in Assaracus, whose mother had been the Trojan slave of Greek prince. Assaracus was lord of what Geoffrey calls ‘three castles’, including one, Sparatinum, above the gorge of the River Acheron. Though not writing a true story, Geoffrey had accurate geographical information here, for with the help of Dr Harry Gouvas of the Museum of Arts and Sciences of Epirus, I discovered that there is a ruined castle, right above the steep gorge of the Acheron, and it is called Trikastro, which could be understood to mean ‘three castles’. It is in Greek Epirus, about 45 miles south-south-east of Butrint. Here, Brutus defeated the Greeks, sending many of them plunging to their deaths in the Acheron.
Pandrasus gave in, allowed Brutus to marry his daughter Ignoge, and gave him enough ships and supplies to leave. Thus, Brutus took the Trojan population of Butrint, and sailed away. Just to the south, on Lefkada, he found a sanctuary of Artemis (the Roman Diana) and prayed to her to tell him where to go. In a dream, she gave him the answer:
Brutus, beyond the setting of the sun,
Beyond the realms of Gaul, an island lies,
Cradled by Ocean’s waves.
Away he sailed and, after many adventures, Brutus came to Britain, and settled it with the Trojans from Butrint. The story was believed by everyone in Britain until at least the 1500s AD, and many clung to the story until much later. For the vast majority of the British, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s fabulous old story of Brutus and the Trojans of Butrint has been almost completely forgotten – and what a shame that is. To rectify this, I have written Brutus of Troy, and the Quest for the Ancestry of the British (Pen and Sword, 2015), to encourage people to enjoy the story of Britain’s mythological founder and the connections this creates for British people with such wonderful and fascinating places as Butrint.
Visiting Butrint is easy – a short flight to Corfu, a short ferry ride to Sarande in Albania and then a short taxi journey (which can be paid for in Euros) south. Apparently, it is possible to visit it as a day-trip from Corfu, but we stayed a few nights in Sarande, which is a lovely seaside town, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Butrint’s website is www.butrintfoundation.co.uk/.
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