When you think of ‘the 300’ you probably think of the recent movie on the famous Spartan-Persian battle of antiquity. Considered by historians all around as a pivotal battle in antiquity, the number 300 either spawned a legend that spread all the way to the British Isles or was such a common symbolic number that the Greek numbers are pure legend as well. If you look at the old Welsh legends and literature nearly every famed retinue, accounting of war dead, or size of an army is listed as 300 (or 303). When you look at it in a source like the Welsh Triads it is obvious that it’s a legendary motif (or meme?). If I recall correctly, the famed collection of elegies, Y Gododdin, refers to either an army of 300 or 300 dead (or both).
This all came to mind this afternoon as I continue to read Fraser’s From Caledonia to Pictland (2009) where he writes on the battle of Miathi that
“Here it is said that 303 men were slain in Aidan’s service, which must represent a substantial proportion of his fighting strength. The point of the hagiographical story about this battle was probably to emphasize c. 640 the (former) efficacy of Columba’s patronage and protection of the family of Domnall Brecc, Aidan’s grandson. None the less, that a precise number of casualties was remembered suggests that the battle was famous and widely known to be very bloody. Columba’s hagiographer probably chose it from a list of Aedan’s several battles because a narrow victory illustrated his point best.” (p. 137)
Setting aside the importance of the battle of Miathi and Adomnan’s choice of it for the moment, we can have no confidence in the 303 tally. Whether Adomnan got the account of this battle from the Cummine Find’s collection of Columba’s miracles or directly from oral legends of Aedan, the earliest is could have been written was 30 years later and perhaps nearly a hundred years. What the 303 deaths tell me is that the hagiographical writer, Adomnan or Cummine, got it from oral history. Yes, it must have had the reputation as an important and/or bloody battle. However, probably what made the battle important is that two of Aidan’s sons fell in the victory, and it was a costly victory. Reports of an army of 300 or 300 (303) casualties are worthless. The number 303 does come up elsewhere so this exact number does not give any more confidence than 300. The importance of these numbers goes back to ancient symbolic use of the number 3. I don’t study the meaning given to numbers enough to be able to explain why multiples of 3 are found so often in folklore and mythology but they are.
Getting back to the battle of the Maithi in Fraser’s quote above: When Adomnan was writing in c. 700, the Scots had long lost control of Manu/Miathi territory to the Picts and Bernicians, so it was a reminder of territory now lost. Domnall Brecc, whose behavior is credited with loosing St Columba’s protection, fell near Miathi territory and his death may have been the final Dalriadan effort to control the area. Adomnan may also be saying that St Columba provided Aedan with a victory over the Maithi but Domnall Brecc lost Columba’s protection and his life in territory possibly controlled by the Miathi. I suspect it was the region of Manu/Miathi territory that made this battle Adomnan’s choice rather than because it was a narrow victory. In the Life of Columba, Adomnan narrates Columba’s prediction that Domnall Brecc’s father Eochiad will succeed King Aedan, and that Eochiad’s two elders brothers will die before Aedan in the battle against the Maithi. In a later chapter he shows Columba prophecizing that Aedan is about to loose the battle against the Maithi unless they all pray for him, which they do and a costly victory is won.
So Adomnan’s scheme is:
- Columba’s prayerful intervention gives Aedan victory over the Maithi perhaps consolidating some of his furthest won territory (that gives them a border with both the Picts and Bernicians),
- Columba prophecizes that two of Aedan’s sons will die before him and they do in this battle
- prophecizes that Eochaid will succeed, making Domnall’s eventual succession possible.
- says that Columba’s protection of Aedan (and Eochaid’s) line will last as long as they do not cross Columba’s family in Ireland
We know from Cummine’s information inserted into the Life of Columba that Aedan’s grandson Domnall did make an alliance and fight againt Columba’s kin in Ireland and that since that time Dalriada had been dominated by outsiders. We know from the annals that Domnall died in battle at Strathcarron, which is very near Miathi territory. Indeed, Fraser places Strathcarron within an enlarged Maithi region. It is possibly within the area that his grandfather Aedan had won control over after his battle against the Miathi. Adomnan ties up Domnall Brecc’s betrayal to the familia of St Columba (monastic and blood family) and its consequences in a nice little package that would have been obvious to anyone who read it at the time. The insertion of Cummine Find’s text into a later copy of the Life of Columba (preserving an otherwise lost text for us) is proof that Adomnan’s contemporaries understood exactly what he was saying and added these notes proof from Cummine’s text.
The gap between the battle of Thermopylae and Herodotus’s account (the main source) would also be around 50 years. Any reason why his number of 300 should be accepted and Adomnan’s not?
No, I would be suspecious of the Greek numbers as well. I don’t know much about that time period so I don’t know if there are multiple 300/303 reports around. However, Greek and Roman legend had a bigger effect on British mythmaking than you might think so one famous battle deep in antiquity could be the start of the idea that the ideal retinue consisted of 300 men.
The figure of 303 casualties in the Miathi battle is purely symbolic, as Michelle points out. The number appears in similar contexts in the Old Testament (e.g. Gideon’s army of 300 fighting the Midianites). The extra 3 in 303 gives added strength to the symbolism (i.e. three and three hundred) as does the figure of 363 warriors in some variants of the Gododdin poem (i.e. three and three score and three hundred). In Christian terms these numbers represent the Greek figure tau which was represented by a cross. Aedan’s 303 slain warriors were therefore blessed by Christ’s Cross, as were the Gododdin heroes. Real units of 300 men, such as the Byzantine bandon, were presumably organized in this way to benefit from the protection of the Cross.