Posts from the ‘Ancient Britons’ Category

Forests of Ancient Britain

I have spent the day working at the Herbert Art Gallery which has an excellent exhibition at the moment of the work of Michala Gyetvai.  Michala is a local artist who works in thread, fabric and paint to represent nature trees and landscape and it is very good.  Using this medium she had produced haunting, powerful images of trees.  I must admit, being a man, it took me a bit to understand what seemed at first to be sewing but when it hit me it was like being hit with a slice of lemon wrapped around a gold brick.

I have had a few days off over winter and it has taken me a bit to find a topic to write a post about and it occurred to me, in conversation with Rob, in fact it was Robs idea that we do not think about the forests of ancient Britain enough.  In fact it is rather difficult if not impossible for us to really get to grips with how dominated these islands were by these oak forests.

The farmlands of Britain, the patchwork quilt of fields seen from a plane, are an incredibly recent phenomena.  An unforested Britain, familiar to us, and people all over the world, from Victorian pictures is unusual.  Throughout our history we have been dominated by the deep dark woods.

The deep dark woods were not the exception, they were the rule.  It was an isolated farmstead, a Celtic hill fort or emerging Roman city that was the exception, surrounded at all times by a sea of green foliage and if that foliage were gifted the power of the movement it could easily have shaken man from the island, into sea and reserved the island for themselves.

For the Romans this must have been… disconcerting.  In the early years the famous Roman roads had not been completed and even where they had a cohort might march out of Colchester and vanish almost immediately into the forest.

Forests were not the friends of the Romans and since the terrible loss of three legions in the Teutoburg forests generals into the darkness.  Varians humiliation cast a deep shadow over the minds of later generals who would prefer to use auxiliaries in the Britain rather than their heavy infantry.  The invincible heavy infantry were disadvantaged in the woodland in contrast to the auxilaries who, recruited from Germany and Gaul were in their element.

To march out of the fort was to march into hostile territory where the Romans were usually at a disadvantage.  The forests inhibited communication, speed of movement and combat efficiency.  And after the Boadicea revolt with those forests haunted by dispossessed Celts it is no wonder that the “pacification” of the midlands took over a decade.

Spot the Barbarian…A fundamental law “B” is for Barbarian

After doing a series of complex and quite, in Robs words “ethereal”, posts about the nature of history, Constantine and philosophy I thought I would do a light hearted look at Barbarians and Romans.

We have been looking at pictures of Trajans Column for a few weeks now and I feel the need to share with you a simple rule that might help you distinguish civilized Romans from everyone else.

So the first rule is that the Barbarians have not bothered to shave before the big battle whilst the Romans have got up nice and early, had a shower, shave and breakfast before making a decent effort on the battlefield.

Gallic cavalry take trophies from the battlefield

Compare and contrast their faces

So the important thing to note is that “B” is for Beards and “B” is for Barbarian.  So this is a general rule that should help you if you need to work out if the person in front of you is a barbarian or a proper person.

Next have a look at this battle field.

Got your hands full? Don't want to lose your trophy? Use your mouth...

In this picture are Barbarians fighting auxiliary   Auxiliary are barbarians who are recruited into the army and will gained citizenship on successful completion of service.  One of them has a Dacian head in his mouth.  So here we can see that all the barbarians are wearing trousers so that gives us a hint of another rule to help us.  Quickly compare this with the image below and you note that the Emperor is wearing a tunica.  In the picture below you can see a group of Roman legionaries, bona fide Roman Citizens and they too are wearing tunicas.  Now the latin word for trousers is braccae and here we see it again.  “B” is for barbarian “B” is for braccae.  Its a fundamental law.

Soldiers building a road

Imperialism, soft power and the sausage…

I love Horrible Histories.  I have read the books and seen the series.  I can not get enough and when I saw this clip I nearly wet myself.

But it is not as silly as it looks.  Ever since the Robinson and Gallagher wrote about the Imperialism of Free Trade  imperial historians have looked to the myriad alternative explanations of the spread of empire to that of brute force.  Informal empire spread beyond the boarders of the official empire meaning that countries dependent on Britain for banking and industry, such as Chili and Argentina were more under the control of Westminster than formal colonies like Canada.

Culture, art, civilisation and food are all essential tools of the imperialist and their use can be demonstrated as effectively in the British Empire as in the Roman Empire.  The British encouraged their subjects formal and informal to drink tea at four in the afternoon, to wear dinner suits and listen to Elgar.  The same was true of ancient Rome.  In the prelude to invasion Roman goods, lifestyle and culture was being exported to Britain to bring that nation under the empire without the legions having to leave their forts.

But Rome did not have it all their own way and the sausage was a very dangerous manifestation of germanic soft power.  Just like the curry, roast beef or the beef burger the german sausage was an in road into the roman world centuries before the German armies even considered leaving their forests.

The Romans were confident enough to extend citizenship to conquered people, giving them a significant strategic advantage over the Carthaginians in the Punic wars.  But manumission only worked one way, barbarians were transformed into citizens by service in the army or as a reward for loyalty.  The patricians never imagined their citizens abandoning civilization to become sausage scoffers.

The Emperors reaction to the sausage says it all.  It was banned because they recognised its danger and it shows that the empire, after the civil wars, was culturally weak, looking for something new.  But the problem is that if you allow people to eat like barbarians, dress like barbarians and think like barbarians you end up with the kinds of people who watch and enjoy X Factor.

Poll to settle discussion point – without having to resort to a knife fight!!!

Listen to the arguements and then you decide.  The Lunt staff are intelligentsia in their own lunch breaks and often pretend to have ideas of their own!  No seriously we all are keen historians who love debating and discussing history.

Rob and I disagreed about the importance Britain to the Romans and need your help!  Please vote to tell us what you think.

First Robs muttering

I don’t think the Romans needed Britain at all. I think that in the long-term The Empire probably made a net loss from Britain in financial terms. It was a perennial drain on the resources of the Army. Two or three legions had to be permanently stationed here, massive defensive works had to be built and maintained, an expensive Fleet had to patrol the Channel…… the list goes on. Its true that Britain held useful mineral resources – lead, silver, copper, iron, even a little gold – but these needed huge investment in the necessary mining infrastructure. In agriculture the Romans laboured mightily to improve output to a level where, for brief periods, Britain was an exporter of grain – mainly used to help feed the Legions on the Rhine. Transport costs were always high, however efficiently agriculture was organised.
I think the reason they came – and the reason they stayed – was a matter of prestige. Pure and simple. Rob

Now my insightful observations

Well I disagree. Britain was important to the Romans and afforded significant advantages. It may have made a net loss financially but strategically it was worth all the money they wasted on it. This is demonstrated by their investment, their military commitment and even the war they fought to regain the province at the end of the British Empire period. In contrast Dacia was abandoned after the death of Constantine the Great showing that the Romans were quite happy to abandon unprofitable provinces, and that Britain wasn’t one of them.The strategic importance of Britain was in the control of Northern Europe. The fleet based in Britain was essential for policing the North Sea. Without this base Angle pirates would have not been tackled at their source but would have been able to pirate about the Atlantic at will.
Next the military commitment in the country was a reminder to continental powers that if they were looking at migrating across the boarder they soon would be fighting a war on too fronts. They took on the role of a fleet in being .
Finally if Britain was important for ensuring that it was not a haven for terrorists and insurgents who would cause problems for the Romans on the continent as the Belgians did during Julius’ campaign. The resources of Britain needed to be in hands of the Empire so that they did not fall into the hands of their enemies.


What historical event would you attend if you were able to time travel? Paulinus Victory

My last post about spending the night before the last battle between Boadicas forces and the Romans has attracted a lot of positive attention and  I have considered another moment in history I would have liked to witness.

In 60AD Paulinus was the Governor of Britain and it was going really well for him.  The Celts were subjugated, their chiefs falling under Romes spell and influence and he was on the verge of eliminating the Druids.  The Druids were a very important pillar of Celtic resistance, they kept the culture alive, held influence and engaged the Celtic soul, they needed to go if Roman authority was to thrive.

Paulinus took his forces to Anglesy leaving only a token force to protect the rest of Britain he went to secure Britain from the metaphysical threat posed by Druids.  He was successful, we don’t have Druids anymore.  Genecide, frowned upon in the modern world, was in the ancient world the kind of thing you give medals for.  He was probably feeling quite good about his prospects as he wandered through the burning, body filled groves until the messenger found him.

The messenger had, bad news.  The Celts had risen up in revolt and were very very angry.  This was not just a little local upset this was potentially the end of Roman Britain and with that the loss the grain supply that enabled the Romans to hold the Rhine, the raw materials to build the weapons and armour for the Dacian war and the slaves that would enable the Romans to live a life of ease.  He quickly returned to the Colchester to put down the revolt only to discover that  the vetrans colony was not there anymore, the temple was burnt down with the citizens inside and the population was mascaraed.

Masacrared populations were not unwelcome to the Romans, but when it was their population that was a different matter.  Paulinus was furious.  Burning the Temple was an insult to the Imperial Cult, killing of veterans was an insult to the army and his inability to protect both civilians and veterans was a clear invitation for other peoples to revolt.  He moved on to London and had a shock.

It was at London that the scope of the problem became clear.  The enemy numbered in excess of 120, 000 and were moving to eliminate the Roman state.  They killed tax collectors, administrators and, on the negative side, citizens, veterans and British collaborators.  His position was not good.  He had about fifteen thousand soldiers with him.  So he called for reinforcements.  One legion was ambushed and totally destroyed, to the last man.  Taticus describes this as a period where the Romans were were fighting not for victory but for their lives.  Force marched into the fens and just vanished into the mist and the legion at Exceter did not move out of the city.  For the Governor this was not a good day at the office.  Not only was his province falling apart he would have to explain himself to the Emperor and Nero was not the most forgiving of managers.

Evacuation was the only option.  He told the citizens that he was leaving and urged them to follow.  About half of them did and the other half stayed and died when the Celts descended on the city.  After a few days he was joined by more Roman forces swelling his force by about ten thousand and about this time Jupiter smile on him.

He found a battlefield, now lost in the mist of time, that he could work with and waited for the Celts who were hot on his trail fresh from destroying St Albans.  Night fell and the battle was set for the morning.  The Romans prepared and listened as the Celts drank, sang and laughed long into the night.

Did Paulinus sleep that night?  Could he have?  Imagine the stake, the province of Britain could be lost if his twenty five thousand could not stand against the Celtic one hundred and twenty thousand.  Was he right to try? to risk his hand or should he evacuate the Romans and commit himself to suicide?  The next day his pitiful force faced the Celts.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight it seems obvious that with all their advantages the Romans would win.  Heavy infantry against light infantry usually ends one way.  But on that day it seemed that the Romans would be swept into the sea but as the sun set Paulinus was still standing.  Eighty thousand Celts lay dead, among them Boadicea at a cost of four hundred Roman fatalities and the  Governors world had turned from disaster to gold.  Paulinus had, through discipline, self belief and skill snatched victory from the belly of defeat.

What historical event would you attend if you were able to time travel?

I would go to the Celtic camp the night before the last battle between Boadicea and Paulinus.  I know it is morbid but at that impossible moment it seemed that the golden age of heroes had returned.

A generation after the invasion and subjection of the country by the Romans things were looking poor for the celts.  They were being taxed, they were paying for a temple in honour of Claudius who had conquered them and their land was being confiscated by the Romans for a veteran colony.  Then the Romans broke their word to Boadicea, took her land, raped her daughters and whipped her.  They sowed the whirlwind and it broke on them.

The Celts rose up, united for the first time in generations to avenge the honour of a wronged queen.  They had put tax collectors, administrators and other grey people to the sword then given the collaborators and quislings a robust talking to.  Then they fell on the veterans destroying them and the towns of London and Colchester.   Paulinus returned from Anglesey to discover his province on the verge of disaster.  He decided to advance towards the rear with the celts on his tail.

Days later the two sides faced each other on a lost battlefield ready to fight in the morning.  The night before the celts celebrated.  They drank, they boasted, they sang and dreamed that their world would change.  They imagined that with the destruction of this last Roman Army they would usher in new golden age, of heroes, of honour and pride and manliness and all the things that the Romans had taken from them.

Little did they imagine that their leaders were already squabbling amongst themselves, that the Romans had chosen this battlefield to end forever the freedoms of the Celts and that after the battle the Romans would engage in retributions that would put an end to celtic dreaming forever.

The battle began between a 120,000 strong celtic force and 25,ooo Romans who in the course of the battle destroyed the celts leaving 80,000 dead on the field compared to 400 Roman fatalites.

But that is the morning now anything could happen till the morning I would like to share those impossible dreams, that passion for honour and freedom.  Till the break of dawn I would share the dreams of a vanquished people.

This post is mirrored in a later post where I imagine seeing the moment when Romans won the battle against the Celts in the face of impossible odds.

What do you think is the most destructive force to mankind?

At the Lunt I often run tours for the public based on the tours that I run for children but pitched at a more adult level.  Now by this I do not mean we have young ladies of negotiable affection running about I mean I can talk about the more, aggressive tenancies of Roman peacekeeping efforts.  The fort was constructed just after the Boadicea revolt and is seen as a horse training facility.  This is the family friendly interpretation… there are others.

The Romans inflicted terrible vengeance on the Celts after the revolt.  They put an end to the Celtic way of life forever, killing both people, religion and culture.  They did this terrible thing because they knew what the most destructive force was in the first century.  The most destructive force in their world was revolt.  The Romans needed the resources of Britain, the iron, gold, tin, copper, grain and slaves because Rome was a monster that had to be fed.  Without provinces to feed that monster the whole imperial system fell apart.

The British Empire may have been influenced by the Roman but on the skin is where the similarities end.  Rome was a city state with provinces which fed the plebs so they would not revolt.  The British were an expansionist, trade and cultural empire that wanted to change the world.  A revolt in India was a was an irritation, a revolt in a Roman province such as Judea or Britain was a catastrophic disaster with imperial implications.

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