Britannia Barbarica

Great events not only make history, they make historians. When the Persian Empire overran the Greek towns of what is now Turkey’s Aegean coastlands, it looked certain that the swarming armies of Darius and Xerxes would overwhelm Athens, Thebes, Corinth and Sparta. And yet, at the beginning of the fifth century BC, these small states combined to turn back the mighty tide of Persia. At Marathon in 490 BC the infantry of Athens and Plataea astonished the Great King – and themselves – when they stopped the eastern juggernaut in its tracks. Ten years later the heroic delay won by the Spartans at Thermopylae allowed the Greek navy, led by the Athenian admiral, Themistocles, to obliterate the Persian triremes in the narrow waters of the Bay of Salamis. And finally at Plataea a huge Greek army, perhaps 60,000 heavily armoured warriors, annihilated the invaders in 479 BC.

A turning point in world history, the outcome of the Persian Wars was remarkable. Apparently insurmountable odds were overcome by the determination of Greek infantry and sailors drawn from an alliance of small towns and by the brilliance of their generals and admirals. It was a story full of heroes and heroics – and it needed telling and explaining.

The original meaning of the Greek word histor was something like ‘eye-witness’, and historie were ‘enquiries’. When Herodotus of Halicarnassus (now the city of Bodrum on the Turkish coast) began to write down his Histories, his Enquiries, he was moved to do it by the enormity of the world-changing events which swirled around the Aegean in his own lifetime. Taking testimony from many eye-witnesses and ranging widely over the eastern Mediterranean, he compiled the first coherent, and highly idiosyncratic, narrative of real events: what came to be recognised as the first history book.

In the eighth century BC Homer had composed his immense epic poems on the war between the Greeks and the Trojans. Both the Iliad and the Odyssey are founded on myth-history. Gods, heroes and mere mortals constantly interact, and events are often governed by the supernatural. Although it turned out that Homer’s blood-soaked epics were at least sparked by real events, they were not historical. There are no datable events, there is very little sense of the passage of time (when Odysseus returns to Ithaca after a twenty-year absence, it appears that neither he nor his wife, Penelope, are a day older than when they parted) and cause and effect almost always have a divine hand somewhere in the process. But Homer’s epics do have much to say about the atmosphere of the Aegean in the eighth century BC. As battle rumbles below the topmost towers of Troy, human relationships are well and sometimes convincingly realised. Homer tells his listeners what the society of the day admired and what it despised. Courage and manly honour were the virtues of a heroic age. Ingenuity and resourcefulness were also pre-miated, and the power of these ancient narratives is so enduring that the Iliad and the Odyssey are still regularly converted into films and novels. Not historical documents – but the stuff of history nevertheless.


Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus kept busy. In addition to writing a defining history, The Caesars, he was also a civil servant. Under the Emperor Trajan he held the first of three important posts, Secretary in charge of literary matters. Then he took over responsibility for libraries and, under Hadrian, he was Secretary for correspondence. Usually known as The Twelve Caesars, his history of the early Empire was by turns informative, critical and partial. He praised Augustus, and damned Nero and Domitian. The book is dedicated to his friend, the Commander of the Praetorian Guard, Gaius Septicius Clarus. When Hadrian dismissed them both, they were almost certainly close friends and perhaps allies. Suetonius also knew other historians, Pliny the Younger and Tacitus. Rome may have ruled the Mediterranean and western Europe, but its governing caste was small and, as often, everyone of substance knew everyone else. The difference was the power of the pen, or stylus, and despite being sacked or sent into disfavour, Suetonius had, literally, the last word.

The Iliad runs to 15,000 lines and the Odyssey to 12,000 but, despite this, the poems were almost certainly recited entirely from memory. Professional reciters, known as rhapsodes, performed them with music and probably some dramatic accompaniment. With the steady beat of its metre, the use of alliteration, repetition and rhyme, poetry is designed to be remembered, each line suggesting and retrieving the next. Choruses were a device to involve the listeners but also to allow time for the rhapsodes to summon up the next verse or passage.

The art of memory is mostly lost now. We admire people who are able to speak in public without notes or a prepared text. We are astonished when someone can recall details of a story such as numbers, dates and quantities without reference to any written data. The ancients would have thought nothing of that. In the long past, very little was written down and almost everything of importance (genealogy, possessions, the cycle of the agricultural year) was held securely in memory. And that is what made Herodotus exceptional. He wrote down his enquiries, what his eye-witnesses could remember. The Histories were almost certainly performed at public readings. It is thought that no more than 20 per cent of Greeks were literate. In fact, some time around 443 BC Herodotus himself arrived in Athens, and it seems that he was paid handsomely in silver for giving readings of his work. But, because they were not structured like poetry, not meant to be committed to memory, the Histories had a written form from the very beginning. This made for a different sort of transmission. Many texts of Herodotus were copied onto papyrus rolls. The story of the extraordinary victory of the Greeks over the tyrannical Persians must have been very popular – and very lucrative for the author. As the texts multiplied so did their chances of survival. By contrast, memory changes, dilutes and is adapted to changing circumstance, but Herodotus’ writings were fixed in time, more or less at the moment when he dipped a stylus in a pot of ink. And so what has come down to us now, whispering across twenty-five centuries, is a largely authentic voice, a collector of historie, of enquiries.

Across the rest of Europe in the fifth century BC important events also unfolded. Decisive battles were fought by mighty armies, and against the odds unexpected victories were gained. Strategists as astute as Themistocles succeeded in out-thinking adversaries and warriors as heroic as the Spartans who fought similarly selfless rearguard actions at Thermopylae. But we know little or nothing of them. No Herodotus wrote of their mighty deeds. No one did. But because no epic tales of great generals and their armies survive from fifth-century Spain, France, Germany and Britain, that does not mean that western European societies were somehow backward, or less sophisticated – only that they were different. And that their history was held in memory, not written down, and that it did not survive.

The Persian Wars had another determinant consequence for the history of western Europe. In the summer of 490 BC the great Athenian dramatist Aeschylus put on his body armour, took up his weapons and marched to fight at Marathon, and probably at Salamis and Plataea ten years later. Not surprisingly these battles influenced his plays profoundly. In The Persians Aeschylus makes a new and sharp distinction. On one side stand the brave, freedom-loving and civilised Greeks. Opposing them are the seething masses of cruel, cringing, slant-eyed, alien Persians. Forced to fight, whipped into battle by their captains, they were ultimately shown to be cowardly, lesser beings. These were people not even in possession of a proper language, muttering an incomprehensible bar-bar-bar. These were barbarians.

Before the Persian Wars, Marathon and Aeschylus’ play, the Greeks had seen foreigners as exotic, even supernatural outsiders, like the Titans or the Amazons. Homer composed verses about the Trojans without denigrating them. But after the first battles of the 490s a chasm cracked open and quickly began to widen between the Greeks and the rest, the barbarians. It was a set of attitudes eagerly adopted by the Romans in their turn. And when the Emperor Hadrian came north to Britain and decided to build a wall, its stated purpose sprang straight out of that way of thinking. The Wall ran across the middle of Britain qui barbaros Romanosque divideret, to separate the barbarians from the Romans.

The ability to write down history, or at least a version of it, and the invention of the idea of barbarians have been enormously influential. Because written records survive, historians have naturally concentrated on the role of the Roman invaders in British history between 55 BC and AD 410. Less easy to understand is the readiness of many to adopt quasi-Roman attitudes to the natives, the barbarians, our ancestors, their own ancestors. Characterised as primitive, war-painted, wild and hollering, even gormless, governed in tribes by bickering chieftains, the British are often cast as little more than background. Taking centre-stage, the red-cloaked legionaries in disciplined ranks march north with their glittering eagles held high, sweeping all before them. Road-building, town-dwelling, they bring Mediterranean civilisation to a drab, rain-sodden straggle of shepherds cowering in muddy hovels. Perhaps an exaggeration, but not a wild one.

The historical reality must be different. The truth is that the Romans found Britain impossible to conquer entirely. What they did hold was held with some considerable initial difficulty, and when Hadrian’s Wall was built its primary military meaning must have been as a huge reaction to real and persistent problems in northern Britannia. For most of the 350-year life of the province, a tenth of the whole Roman imperial army was stationed in that part of the island they were able to control. First-rate generals were usually appointed as governors. Such close policing by very large numbers of expensive legionaries and their commanders would not have been required for ‘gormless’ drabs. Determined, independent-minded, well organised and consistently courageous are much more apt adjectives. The difficulty is, however, glaringly obvious. Only Roman reactions to British actions survive in the historical record. The British barbarians have left little or no sense of what life was like under Roman rule, or of their successful resistance to it in the north. The impact of Hadrian’s Wall can only be surmised. Memory turns out to be much more fragile even than flaking, crumbling papyrus.

Occasionally Roman sources do offer some inklings – but before these are considered, there exists one prime echo of what British society was like in the first century BC, a vivid sense of its atmosphere. At the same time as Julius Caesar was campaigning in Gaul, the four kingdoms of Iron Age Ireland were also at war. Ulster was defended against the armies of Connaught by one man, a champion, the boy-hero, Cuchulainn. Here he is inciting himself to battle:

The rage-fit was upon him. He shook like a bullrush in the stream. His sinews stretched and bunched, and every huge, immeasurable, vast ball of them was as big as the head of a month-old child. His face as a red bowl, fearsomely distorted, one eye sucked in so far that the beak of a wild crane could scarcely reach it, the other eye bulged out of his cheek. Teeth and jawbone strained through peeled-back lips. Lungs and liver pulsed in his throat. Flecks of fire streamed from his mouth. The booming of his heart was like the deep baying of bloodhounds, or the growl of lions attacking bears.

In virulent clouds, sparks blazed, lit by the torches of the war-goddess Badb. The sky was slashed as a mark of his fury. His hair stood about his head like the twisted branches of red hawthorn. A stream of dark blood, as tall as the mast of a ship, rose out of the top of his head, then dispersed into dark mist, like the smoke of winter fires.

This passage comes from an epic poem know as the Tain Bo Cuailnge, the Great Cattle Raid of Cooley. Composed in Irish Gaelic, it sings of a pre-Christian society, of heroes and blood-spattered wars, of kings and scheming queens, of covetousness and the wealth in teeming herds of cattle, of gods, greed and revenge: themes equally vividly drawn by Homer in the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Tain Bo is a splash of brilliant colour which scatters the grey mists of early Irish history and which describes a thoroughly Celtic culture. And across the North Channel a similar culture bloomed, perhaps even mediated in the same language along the Argyll and Galloway coasts. The rest of the peoples of Britain certainly spoke a cousin-language and they shared much with the warriors of theTain Bo and the other poems in what is known as the Ulster Cycle. Cuchulainn and his comrades spoke Q-Celtic, what became Manx, Irish and Scots Gaelic, while the British described their islands in dialects of P-Celtic, the ancestors of Pictish, Old Cumbrian, Welsh and Cornish. Much of the evidence for the existence and use of these languages is, paradoxically, supplied by the Greeks and Romans.

Herodotus had heard whispers of a remote island called Britain. The Kassiterides, the Tin Islands, lay somewhere amidst the storms and monsters of the Northern Ocean, but, said the cautious and scrupulous historian, I cannot speak with any certainty. Herodotus’ work must have been well known in the Greek colony of Marseilles, then called Massalia. Tin was much prized and much needed in the manufacture of bronze. Cornwall was a prime source. Greek merchants trading out of Massalia needed more precision than the hesitant Herodotus could supply (and they probably also wanted to cut out as many middle-men as possible), and around 320 BC one of their citizens, Pytheas, made the first recorded journey to Britain.

Pytheas was intrepid. Arriving on the southern coast of the English Channel, he met sailors who had been to Britain, and he asked them what the inhabitants were called. Pretannikai is how he wrote down the reply. And the whole island? That was known as Pretannike. The Celtic-language version is Pretani and it means something very intriguing. The Pretannikai were the ‘People of the Tattoos’. It is the derivation of the Roman name Britannia, and it changed only a little into Britain.


Pytheas’ main aim appears to have been the creation of a periplus, a route-guide for those wishing to travel to the Kassiterides and beyond. His original manuscript is now lost and known only in fragments quoted by later authors. In addition to visiting Belerion (Cornwall) and circumnavigating Britain, he also went on to Thule (Iceland or Norway), reported finding precious amber on the coasts of Holland and Germany, and on an island which may have been Heligoland. Some classical historians cast severe doubt on the reliability of Pytheas’ discoveries, but the citizens of modern Marseilles had no such difficulty. On the facade of the city’s stock exchange, there stands an impressive statue of the great explorer.

It may not have been a name the British themselves recognised, at least until the time of the Roman invasions. They knew the largest island by a very different name. Here is the Roman historian Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century AD:

Across from this location Britannia Island, famed in Greek and in our own records, lies off to the north west, separated from Germany, Gaul, Spain and the greatest portion of Europe by a large interval. Albion was its own name when all were called the Britannias.

Alba is the Gaelic name for Scotland, and Yr Alban is the Welsh version. But its wider application as the native name for the whole island has persisted here and there. When Sir Francis Drake attempted to colonise California in 1579, he planned to name it New Albion, and in 1809 Napoleon’s propaganda was directed at Perfidious Albion. Modern football fans still chant the name Albion at West Bromwich, Brighton and Hove, Stirling and at Albion Rovers’ ground in Coatbridge. The name probably means ‘White Land’ and may be a reference to the rampart of chalky cliffs visible on much of the coastline between South Foreland in Kent to the Isle of Wight. This is the first sight of Britain for travellers crossing the Channel at its narrower points.

When Julius Caesar and his commanders sat down to plan the invasion of 55 BC, they talked of Britannia, but their enemies waiting on the white cliffs probably called it Alba and themselves Albans (perhaps in conjunction with their own tribal names). This is not a petty or perverse point to labour, but an attempt to resist accepting a purely Roman perspective and assert that there was a native point of view – even if it is very difficult to reconstruct.

Nevertheless, the Greek and Roman habit of making a sufficient quantity of written records so that many have survived is useful. It has given us the names of British kingdoms, kings and place-names. Taken together with archaeology and helpful analogy from elsewhere, it makes possible some broad statements about Britain and the British, or Alba and the Albans, on the eve of the Roman invasion.

As Caesar’s conquest of Gaul swept northwards, his military intelligence about Britain naturally multiplied. There were clearly connections. Diviciacus was not only a king in northern Gaul, but he also ruled part of Britain. The native merchants of Brittany traded in volume with the southern coast of Britain (Cornish tin being a key commodity) and, when that part of Gaul rebelled against Caesar in 56 BC, help came south across the Channel. A generation before, there had been a substantial migration to the area around the Solent from Belgic Gaul and contacts remained close. The southern British had much in common with the northern Gauls. Language may have been one of the most enduring links. Modern Breton is now thought to be a descendant of Gaulish and it has many points of similarity with Cornish, still stubbornly spoken by a thousand or so people.

In an island as large as Britain, split into several highland and lowland zones and having many clearly distinct geographical regions within those, there will have been local variations of all sorts, most especially linguistic. The names of the small kingdoms which patterned first century In an island as large as Britain, split into several highland and lowland zones and having many clearly distinct geographical regions within those, there will have been local variations of all sorts, most especially linguistic. The names of the small kingdoms which patterned first century BC Britain hint at that. Probably first gleaned by passages of diplomacy and reconnaissance, many of these were plotted on a map made in the secnd century AD by the Greek cartographer Ptolemy. At first glance it looks wildly distorted. North of the line of the Tay, Ptolemy has bent Scotland through 90 degrees so that Caithness appears to extend east into the North Sea. In fact it was no mad mistake but the solution to a problem. In common with other Greek geographers (who lived far away on the shores of the Mediterranean, and had never travelled to northern Europe), Ptolemy did not believe that human beings could survive in the extreme weather conditions to be found in latitudes beyond 63 degrees. So, instead of extending Britain northwards to a clearly impossible 66 degrees, he bent it east to fall below the limits of survival.


Much of northern and western Europe spoke dialects of Celtic languages in the latter half of the first millennium BC. In Spain and Portugal, Celtiberian was heard for many centuries, and until recent times a remnant clung on in the north-west. Galician has the root ‘Gael’ as its first syllable. Lepontic was spoken both north and south of the Alps, and across France and Belgium, dialects of Gaulish were used. Only Breton survives, again in the north-west. Modern Celtic languages are almost all found in the west of Britain and Ireland and they divide into two groups. Irish, Scots and Manx Gaelic are all Q-Celtic, while Welsh, Cornish and Breton are P-Celtic. The three languages in each group are just about mutually intelligible but P-Celts cannot understand Q-Celts.

South of this extravagant convulsion the map shows the names of several kingdoms in the area around what was to become Hadrian’s Wall. A few of them have a literal meaning and they offer some sense of how the native peoples saw themselves.

The Wall cut through the wide territories of the Brigantes. Probably a federation of smaller clans, the kingdom straddled the Pennines, perhaps reaching down to both the North Sea and Irish Sea coasts. The Roman historian Tacitus reckoned the Brigantes territory to be the largest British kingdom, perhaps in area, certainly in population. In the years following the invasion of AD 43, their queen, Cartimandua, was a Roman ally, betraying the British rebel leader Caratacus. Cartimandua’s name means ‘Sleek Pony’. Perhaps Caratacus called her something else. The name of her kingdom is harder to parse. The Brig element may mean ‘Honoured’, possibly giving the meaning of ‘the Homage-Takers’.

A clan owing homage to the Brigantian kings and queens was the Carvetii. Occupying the Eden Valley, the area around Carlisle, the hill country to the east and probably the Lake District, they carried a name with a much simpler derivation. It means ‘the Deer People’. Some other British kingdoms also had descriptive names. The Catuvellauni were ‘Good in Battle’, the Atrebates were simply ‘the Inhabitants’ and the Ordovices of Wales were ‘the Hammer-Fighters’. Like the Carvetii many of the northern kingdoms of early Britain adopted animals as their talismans. The Lugi, the People of the Ravens, lived in Sutherland and Easter Ross, the Epidii, the Horse People, in Argyll and the Venicones, the Kindred Hounds, in Fife and Stirlingshire. If the habit of tattooing first identified by Pytheas had survived in the north (as the later name ‘the Picts’ suggests), then perhaps the warriors of the Carvetii wore stylised representations of antlers on their manly chests. A Celtic legacy lingered around the high fells of the Lake District and the Pennines for a long time. As late as the nineteenth century, Cumbrian shepherds still counted their flocks in a version of Old Welsh, and the name of Cumbria is itself is cognate to Cymru, the Welsh name for Wales.

Further east, towards the Hexham Gap and the Tyne Valley, lay the lands of the Tectoverdi and the Lopocares. Their names appear to be impenetrable, but beyond them, nearer the mouth of the Tyne were the Corionototae. The first part of the name lives on in Corbridge, known as Coria in the Roman period. It means ‘a hosting-place’, a muster-point where armies gathered. Corionototae may be an elaborated version – the warband, even the Great Army. There are several Corias in the north, and hosting-places were always chosen by geography: accessible from several directions, near a good water supply and often at a fording place on a routeway. They remained traditional meeting places for centuries, often into the Middle Ages.

North of the Corionototae, perhaps beyond the valley of the Aln, stretched the fertile territories of the Votadini. Probably taking in all of the Tweed basin and north Northumberland, the Lothians and part of Stirlingshire, it was a country of farms and corn production, much as it is today. Across the Firth of Forth, the Kindred Hounds, the Venicones, were almost certainly allied, and on the well-drained soils of Fife also reaped good harvests. When the Romans marched north, it appeared that the kings of the Votadini had struck a bargain. Across their lands there are few signs of intrusive military activity. Now called the Devil’s Causeway, a road ran from the fort at Corbridge northwards to Tweedmouth, and between there and Kelso are the faint outlines of five temporary marching camps. And that is all. Compared with the density of Roman military remains over Brigantian lands, it seems no more than the legacy of a reconnaissance.

Votadinian kings controlled something that Roman quartermasters needed. If the north of Britannia was to be conquered, the army had to have a secure supply of corn available. Retreating enemies would scorch the earth in front of an advance. Probably in return for client status and the right prices, the Votadini seem to have come to an accommodation.

Their kings ruled from at least four centres of power, perhaps the places where they received Roman envoys. The Votadini held the Castle Rock at Edinburgh, Traprain Law (where a huge hoard of Roman silver was found) in East Lothian, Eildon Hill North on the banks of the middle Tweed and Yeavering Bell near Wooler in north Northumberland. On the summits of these impressive hills stood forts. Constructed by work-gangs using mattocks, shovels and baskets to shift the huge volumes of earth and stones, the outlines of their ditches and ramparts can still be seen – except at Edinburgh where a mighty castle has obliterated almost all ancient archaeology. On Eildon Hill North and Yeavering Bell the circuit of the ramparts is long, too long to be effectively defended. Inside, the footprints of hut platforms have been found – and yet there are no sources of water. On Eildon Hill North 300 platforms imply a population of around 2,500. If these really were strongpoints, forts, then their military rationale looks ill thought out. Other, smaller forts – and there are hundreds in Votadinian territory – look even less defensible. Despite elaborate rings of ditches and ramparts, some are overlooked from higher ground, places where determined attackers could rain down missiles. And at other sites the total area of the defences is significantly larger than the area defended.

It is much more likely that hillforts were indeed power centres but were not built with a military purpose in mind, at least not in the sense that we would understand it. They were intended to impress, to make a show of power. Kings and their warbands may have lived in these high places all year round. Logistics did not matter if you had slaves and warriors. But the mass of farmers from the valleys probably climbed up to the summits only at the time of festivals.

An agricultural, stock-rearing society, the Celtic kingdoms of northern Britain and Ireland arranged their year around four turning-points. At Imbolc in late February ewes began to lactate in anticipation of lambing, providing much-needed sustenance at the end of a long winter. Up on the hillforts, great bonfires were lit, kings spoke to their people, and rituals and prayers were offered up to the gods. Beltane in May was the signal to drive flocks and herds up to the high summer pastures, while Lughnasa in August celebrated the first fruits of the year’s harvest. At Samhuinn in October the animals were led from what were called the summertowns back down to the wintertowns in the valleys.

These festivals still flicker on, sometimes in heavy disguise. For example, Halloween is the modern name for Samhuinn, and some of its ancient paganism still peeps out of hollowed turnips and pumpkins. With a candle inside to give the appearance of life, they represent the skulls of the dead who used to walk the Earth on Samhuinn Eve.

The festivals no doubt served a practical purpose for the native kings. On and around their hillforts they received their rents, mostly food renders, from their people or their local lords. Some of this would have been sold to Roman quartermasters, but much of the remainder was consumed. Julius Caesar and other writers remarked on how the Celts loved to feast, to eat and drink huge quantities at certain times of the year. The Tain Bo sings of such occasions, and there is a description of a Gaulish king setting up a vast feasting-place, more than a mile square, so that his people could come to enjoy his bounty. They were expected to drink and feast for several days. In a Gaelic phrase, the king wished to be seen as a river to his people.

Not until the fourth century AD do the shadowy names of Votadinian kings appear on any sort of historical record, but there is no doubt that they had power long before. Some time around 250 BC large numbers of people from the Tweed basin and north Northumberland were moved into the foothills of the Cheviots. Probably as a result of overpopulation, and no doubt unwillingly, farmers were resettled in the upland valleys of the eastern ranges. And it seems that they all trekked into the hills at the same time. The remains of terracing and the results of soil erosion can still be seen.

The location of the frontiers of British kingdoms are often little more than informed guesswork by historians, but in the case of the western neighbours of the Votadini, Roman generals supplied some welcome help. The Selgovae occupied the hill country between the lines of the modern north–south roads, the A68 in the east and the A74 in the west. These ancient routes were taken in AD 79 when the Governor of Britannia, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, led the legions north in an invasion of Scotland. A pincer movement around the Selgovae was consolidated by a legionary fort at Trimontium, at the foot of the Eildon Hills near Melrose, and by a string of forts at the mouths of the valleys on the western side.


When he began to consolidate his invasion of Gaul, Julius Caesar realised that he would have to bring the provincial aristocracy into the centre of Roman political life. The Senate still exercised real power, but when Caesar promoted Gauls to its ranks, they were derided as ‘trousered senators’, wearing their distinctive Celtic leggings under their senatorial togas. It was more than a cliché. Celts lived in an equestrian culture and adapted their clothes to the needs of horse-riding. Togas are useless in the saddle. The movement of a pony will chafe the tender insides of even the most manly thigh if it is not protected by leggings or trousers. Neatly fitted clothing, not a flapping toga, is what is needed when a pony canters or gallops. The heat of a Roman summer is, however, another matter and perhaps the Gaulish senators sweltered – if the whole jibe was not a metaphor. Behind it lies the divide between Roman and provincial, town and country. The great general who led the legions into the north of Britannia in AD 79 came from Frejus (Forum Julii) in southern Gaul, the region called Provence, from ‘Provincia’, and he was called Agricola, ‘the Farmer’.

The name Votadini is difficult, likely to mean something like ‘the People of Fothad’, perhaps a divine ancestor. Selgovae is much less opaque. It is derived from the Celtic-language root seilg and it means ‘the Hunters’. Perhaps that is how the Romans felt at Crawford, now on the line of the A74. Hemmed in by unfamiliar hills, they were the hunted. The name may point to a long tradition. Much of the territory of the Selgovae was later known as the Ettrick Forest, a huge royal hunting reserve in the Middle Ages. Little trace of the kings and their kingdom can be found on the ground, but at Lyne, near Peebles, there was a large Roman fort. Its characteristic playing-card shape is particularly well defined. Lyne was probably a coria, a hosting-place for the Selgovae, and the fort was positioned like a huge police station, keeping an eye out for trouble.

In the same area, hut platforms from the first century BC have been found. Their shape too is characteristic and very different from the rectilinear Roman camp. Roundhouses could be large: with a diameter of more than 30 feet in some cases, they were sometimes home to large, extended families. The circular walls were built from stone or turf and the heavy timbers to support the conical roof were keyed together to form a rigid tipi shape. Thatch or turf could certainly keep out the worst of the weather, but the fact that there were no windows, only a door, meant that, although they were snug enough, roundhouses were also very dark. A central hearth supplied some light, heat and a means of cooking. But if there was no wind to create an updraught, the interior could be very smoky. In a medium-sized roundhouse, modern experiment has shown that the smoke hovers at about 1.5 metres, making sitting pleasant enough – although standing up could be eye-watering until the door was reached. Modern anxieties about sparks from the fire catching in the thatch have proved unfounded. The smoke creates a cone of carbon monoxide at the apex of the roof, and all rising sparks are immediately extinguished before they can reach the thatch. The reality was that, like nineteenth-century Highland crofters still living in their ancient blackhouses, the Celtic peoples of northern Britain lived and worked in the open air whenever they could and went indoors only to sleep or when it grew dark or very cold.

The Selgovan kings were dangerous. With an intimate knowledge of a difficult landscape, and the ability to melt away into its wastes and bogland, they were a hard enemy to pin down. Roman commanders much preferred to fight in the open where the disciplined ranks of the professional legionaries were unmatched in Europe. But the Selgovan warbands are unlikely to have obliged. In any case they were almost certainly horse-warriors.

Direct confirmation of this comes from the Roman fort at Vindolanda, 15 miles west of Corbridge and just south of the line of Hadrian’s Wall. The site is an archaeological treasure-house – but not because quantities of conventionally precious objects have been found. In the early 1970s Vindolanda’s director, Robin Birley, began to discover letters written by Romans, most of them dating towards the end of the first century AD. Wafer-thin leaves of wood, about the size of postcards, were preserved in the peaty soil around the fort and, after close examination, faint traces of writing were found on them. These letters are unique and invaluable, absolutely authentic voices from 2,000 years ago. Informal, everyday, sometimes mundane, sometimes exotic, they also offer some insight into the lives of the native peoples who lived around Hadrian’s Wall. The Vindolanda letters and lists will be much more fully dealt with in later chapters.


As the king of birds, the eagle is a powerful, almost majestic symbol. But there is another reason why eagels are revered. Eagles live a very long time: some hen-birds in European aviaries are recorded to have reached age AD 100 or more. As the standards of Roman legions, eagles were adopted by the Republican General, Gaius Marius, when he campaigned in the east. The Persians venerated the great birds, and the Romans imitated them. The heirs of imperial pretensions carried on the tradition. Napoleon’s regiments were led by eagle standards, and the Kaisers and Tsars borrowed the bird for their coats of arms – along with Caesar’s name.

On one of the letters, Haterius Nepos, a cavalry officer, stationed in the north some time around 100, left a record of a census he undertook. It mentions a previously little-known people, the Anavionenses. They lived to the west of the Selgovae, in the valley of the River Annan – clearly the names are cognate. Another officer made a report on the military capabilities of native warriors:

. . . the Britons are unprotected by armour. There are very many cavalry. The cavalry do not use swords nor do the wretched Britons mount in order to throw javelins.

The word Brittunculi is used; it means ‘the wretched Britons’ or, more colloquially, ‘the nasty little Brits’. And another document found in the peaty soil of the fort turns out to be a petition intended for presentation to the Emperor Hadrian. He was expected to visit Vindolanda in 122. It sheds more light on how the Roman colonists treated the nasty little Brits. The petitioner complained that he had been beaten even though he was a transmarinus, someone from overseas. The clear implication is that it was acceptable to beat a Brit, and that some mistake had been made in his case.

None of this should be surprising. Barbarians/natives in virtually every empire have been similarly dealt with. More informative is the emphasis on cavalry. Archaeology has discovered the remains (usually the metal parts of bridles) of a good deal of native horse-gear, some of it high quality.

Since the outset of the first millennium BC, and probably much earlier, horses had been domesticated in Britain. But perhaps they should really be thought of as ponies. Skeletal remains show riding horses as very small by modern standards, sometimes standing no more than thirteen hands high. Even though first millennium BC people were also small and light (and, according to the Vindolanda reports, not in the habit of wearing heavy kit on horseback), they would still have looked big on their mounts, legs dangling well below the horses’ bellies. This mattered less than it might now, because of different riding styles and tack. Stirrups had not yet been introduced in the west, and horsemen were consequently in the habit of using their legs to grip the flanks of their little ponies.

Sophisticated bitted bridles were developed in Gaul in the fourth century BC and these allowed warriors precise and rapid control over their ponies. Nimble, very fast over short distances and hardy, these shaggy little beasts belied their appearance. They could turn on a sixpence and halt in a moment. This sort of athleticism, and the bond of heightened sensitivity which often developed between rider and horse (sometimes a wish can be anticipated and, before any signal is actually given, a pony will move as its rider wants), could be a matter of life or death in close-quarter cavalry warfare. By fiddling their feet, ponies could get a warrior out of trouble and, by turning quickly, allow him to deliver a telling back-handed blow. These were fighting techniques honed over centuries and 1,500 years later could still be seen when the descendants of the Selgovae, the Brigantes and their neighbours – the Border Reivers – saddled up their ponies and sallied out to raid and fight.

The Vindolanda record of very many cavalry is puzzling. It claims that the nasty little Brits had no swords and did not throw javelins while mounted. Like the Huns who invaded Europe in the fourth and fifth centuries, perhaps they were expert mounted archers. But it is unlikely. The Huns rode with stirrups and, able to manoeuvre their ponies using only their legs, they could use both hands to fire deadly volleys at packed ranks of infantry and then ride off quickly. It may be that the Celtic cavalry of Britain used their ponies as transport, to ride to the battlefield like modern dragoons and then dismount and fight. Or it may be that the Vindolanda reports are wrong. Not every written Roman source is to be implicitly trusted.

The discovery of native horse-gear, with its expensive emphasis on precise control, argues against the notion of dragoons. They would not need it. More archaeology supports the view that the warbands of the north fought on horseback. Their shields appear to have been small. Not the large, slightly curved, rectangular infantry shields carried by Roman legionaries, but small ones used for parrying blows, able to be handled on horseback while gathering reins in the same fist. There is even some Roman corroboration for this alternative view. When describing Agricola’s great campaign in the north and the battle at Mons Graupius in AD 83, Tacitus remarked:

. . . whereas it was awkward for the enemy with their small shields and enormous swords – for the swords of the Britons, having no points, were unsuited for a cut-and-thrust struggle and close quarters battle.

This is because they were cavalry sabres. Known as spathas, these slashing swords had fearsomely sharp edges, at least at the beginning of a battle, but sometimes no point. They were designed for use by a mounted warrior and were best against infantry where a height advantage, even on a small pony, could be decisive. Archaeologists have found examples specially weighted towards the tip of the blade, and they could be devastating in a downward cut. It is at least interesting to note that the most famous Celtic sword in history was known as Hard Dunter or, more brutally, Basher. These are good, if free, translations of the Old Welsh ‘Excalibur’.

The puzzlement over weaponry from the observer at Vindolanda may be less significant than the simple observation that there are very many cavalry. The native warbands were almost certainly feared by Roman commanders, and did not deserve the sneer behind the report.

Like their reiving descendants, the natives both reared and raided cattle. Herds were a key indicator of wealth in Celtic society. The Tain Bo and other Irish sources talk of raiding as though it were almost an institution. The warrior-cult of the Fianna was widespread. Literally meaning ‘the Soldiers’, these were bands of young aristocrats who spent a period, a rite of passage, roaming the countryside on horseback, living in the open. Sustaining themselves by plunder and rustling, they were easily recognised by terrified farmers because they wore their hair in a traditional style – the ceudgelt – which was the Druidic tonsure. Cut across the crown of the head, from ear to ear, it showed a high, shaved forehead with flowing locks allowed to grow long behind. Celtic priests cut their hair in the same way.

Once again, it is Roman writers who supply most of the sources for even a sketchy understanding of the Druids and Celtic religion. In fact writing was expressly forbidden. All Druidic lore was painstakingly committed to memory. Prodigious passages were learned and had to be available for immediate recall. When the Druids perished, so did much of native history.


Edward Williams was a dreamer. In 1792 he took a group of his Welsh friends to Primrose Hill in London and created a stone circle. In fact he laid some pebbles on the grass. It was the setting for a revival. The first Gorsedd was inaugurated, and the ancient order of Bards existed once more. In 1819, in the back garden of the Ivy Bush Hotel in Carmarthen, the Druids reappeared – at the National Eisteddfod. Wearing strange costumes, they performed ceremonies invented by Williams and presided over by the Archdruid. At the Gorsedd of 2000 at Llanelli, the Recorder, James Nicholas, was stranded after the ceremonies had ended, his car having been removed. Wearing long white robes, white leather boots, a head-dress of oak leaves and carrying a staff, he was forced to catch a bus. His fellow passengers laughed and then heartily applauded the old man. Daft though the kit and the ponderous Victorian ceremonial might be, the Gorsedd had been central to the rescue of the Welsh language and a real sense of Welshness. And the bus passengers in Llanelli knew that.

There were many gods; one count has 400 in the Celtic pantheon. But most are mentioned only once and the inference must be that there were many local cults, many gods of a particular place, the genii loci. Along the line of Hadrian’s Wall, shrines and dedications to the native deities, Belatucadros and Cocidius, have been found. Their nature is uncertain but both appear to have been war-gods. Cocidius may have been widely revered, and the site of the Roman outpost fort at Bewcastle was also known asFanum Cocidii, Cocidius’ shrine or sanctuary.

The Celts’ contract with their gods differed from the Romans’. The altars raised at Newcastle in 120 were in thanks for a safe sea voyage. Generally for the Romans the gift of the gods came first and the thanks second. With the Celts this sequence worked in reverse. Often seen as malign, difficult trouble-makers, their gods needed gifts or a sacrifice before any important enterprise was undertaken. What was called propitiation can be seen at a shrine on Hadrian’s Wall. At Coventina’s Well, near Chesters Fort, thousands of coins and other metal objects were thrown in over a very long period. Even in the first century AD it was already a very old practice. Many caches of prehistoric metal have been retrieved from lakes, wells, bogs and other watery places. Often these were weapons, and the most famous deposit was Sir Bedivere’s hurling of Excalibur into the lake – where it was of course caught by an arm clothed in white samite. The habit of propitiation remains longstanding, and in Western Europe coins are still thrown into fountains and wells – for luck.

The role of the Druids in Celtic society appears to have been central, so important that the Romans determined to destroy them. They seem not merely to have been priests. Citing all sorts of flimsy pretexts (a revulsion at the human sacrifice supposedly common in Britain sits ill from a culture which routinely slaughtered thousands for public amusement in the Colosseum and other arenas), Roman historians described a sustained campaign against the Druids. In AD 60 Suetonius Paullinus led an assault on the island of Anglesey, known to the Celts and the Welsh as Mona. Probably a shrine and almost certainly a redoubt of Druidic power, it lay within the territory of the Ordovices. When the XX Legion formed up on the mainland side of the Menai Strait, even seasoned veterans paused at the sight which greeted them. On the opposite shore, the warriors of the Ordovices waited, but not quietly. Their warhorns blasted, men jeered, but more terrifying, wild, black-haired women, their bodies streaked with ash, carrying torches, leapt into the water and capered around the beach, screaming curses at the Romans. Behind the ranks of warriors, a circle of Druids stood, their arms aloft, imploring the sky-gods to descend and destroy their hated enemies.

At Suetonius Paullinus’ command, the legionaries and auxiliaries splashed into the Strait, attacked the Ordovices and defeated them utterly. In the days after the battle, the killing went on; Paullinus ordered his men to cut down the sacred groves of oak trees on Mona, and as far as possible extirpate the cult of the Druids. This was done not because of revulsion at the blood-soaked religion of a bunch of barbarians, but because the Druids were powerful, able to stiffen native resistance to the Roman invasion.

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