Ancients Writing on Britain

The Romans have left us with records of the tribes and behaviours of the people of Britain, but they were often filtered through a general view that all non Romans were uncivilised, so were often described as brutes, fond of fighting, living in tents, eating milk and meat, or canibals even. As if the Romans didn’t fight a few battles…

But some writers gave what seem to be more reasoned insights of what the invaders discovered 2,000 years ago.

Diodrus described a major triangular island, Prettanike, set within an archipelaago of many islands in the ocean. The closest point to Europe was Cantium, the Bolernian Promontory (Lands End) was where tin was mined and traded with the Gauls, and the Orkas Promontary (Caithness) was to the far north. He describe d the natives as simple in habits, old fashioned in their ways, free of wealth and luxury, mostly living at peace with each other though there were occasional barbarities such as cannibalism.

Other Greek writers described tin trading, and mentioned the mysterious Isle of Thule to the North, though it was not clear if this was part of Britain. Tacitus claimed Thule was Shetland.

Strabo described significant details, the result of increasing contact under the rule of Augustus. Ships trading for lead left Gaul on the ebb tide reached landfall on the 8th hour of the following day. There were 4 main channel routes: Rhine, Seine, Loire and Garonne but destinations were not named.

Pliny the Elder c77AD, after 70 years of exploration by the Romans, beyond the Caledonian forest. He lists 87 islands of Britain, including the mainland, Ireland, 40 Orcades (Orkenys), 7 Acimodae (Shetland), 30 Hebudes (Western Isles), Mona (Anglesea), Monapia (Isl eof Man), Vectis (Isle of wight) silumanis (Scillies)

The earliest name for Britain was Albion but Greeks caled it Prettanike, then Brettania and Brittania. Ireland was often included in this name, but it also was called Insula sacra (Sacred island), Ierne, Iris, Ivernia, Hibernia, Iuvernia.  Albion is often assumed to be derived from the Latin alba, for white, as in the cliffs, but it is more likely to be British for land, as Irish writing names it in reference to Scotland or the whole mainland.

Caesar described 2 main groups – coastal Gallic/Belgic immigrants, a large population with homesteads, growing cereal, cattle, with bronze and gold coins, Iron currency bars, similar to the people of northern Gaul, and the most civilised of all were in what is now Kent. Interior people were less civilised, less agriculture, living on meat and milk. All wore woad in battle to terrify their opponents. Groups of 10-12 men shared wives, and whoever first slept with a woman was granted paternity

Strabo  said they were taller than Celts of Gaul and not so blonde. Those he saw in Rome were 1/2 head taller than the tallest in the capital. Loosely bui lt,bow legged, lacking in grace. Simpler and more barbaric than the Celts, they ate milk but not cheese. They lived in fortified camps in the forests.

Tacitus drew distinctions between several tribes, and between original inhabitants and immigrants. The Caledonians were like the Germans, with red hair and large limbs. The Silures, in the Midlands and south wales were swarthy faced, with curly hair, like the Spanish, and the south Britons were like those of North Gual. He claimed they were warlike, but lacked cohesion, so easily defeated by the Romans.

Dio writing in the 3rd century described 2 tribes of Scots, the Maetae north of the Forth-Clyde isthmus and the Caledonii north of them. Their homelands were wild waterless mountains and desolate marshes with not wowns or farms. They were naked, lived in tents and shared their women. In battle they beat their shields to terrify opponents. They could run fast, had incredible endurance and could live for days up to their necks in marshes, or in forests survive on only bark and roots.

But for some real nonsense, here is an account by the 6th century Byzantine historian Procopius:

“On this island of Brittia, the men of old built a long wall, cutting off a large part of it, and the air and soil and everything else is different on the two sides of it.  For to the east of the wall there is healthy air, .. many men dwell there.. crops flourish.. But on the other side… there are innumerable snakes and all kinds of wild beasts occupy the place as their own… natives say that if a man crosses the wall and goes to the other side he forthwith dies, unable to bear the pestilential nature of the air. “

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