All roads lead to Britain: Chapter III (Part I)




 The salt of the earth
         The Celts did not stay alone for a long time. Theirs was a country within spitting distance, with much charm and appeal. And though Madame Tussaud’s Museum or Hampton Court Palace had not still opened their doors to the public, Britain was very attractive for the tourists from the Continent; visitors who, instead of bringing a camera in their suitcases, brought swords and spears with them, that’s true, but tourists, after all.
         This time it was the Romans who set their sights on the islands. They ruled over most of the then-known world; having been bitten by the conquering bug, they soon took a fancy to practising this apparently enjoyable activity and there came the moment when they could not quit doing it (this is like a drug, you know, once you start, you can’t stop).
         The Romans just wanted to take control of all the territories around them. The problem with this is what you mean by being around you: one metre away from where you are?...; one mile away?...; two thousand miles?...; perhaps ten thousand miles is an appropriate distance?... The Romans used a huge compass, the biggest one ever seen, to mark the boundaries of their empire. A big compass, but much compassion...? They were powerful, had the best armies, knew that they stood head and shoulders above anyone else in many senses, and thought (and it was a well-grounded assumption) that they were the cat’s whiskers, so everyone and everything should revolve round them. They had started their conquests in what we now call Spain, France, Germany, Belgium...and it was now Britain’s turn. Therefore, Britain was something more than a country close at hand, with much charm and appeal... It was an “unconquered” country.
         Once they had taken the reins of  Gaul (=France), the Romans turned their gaze upon Britain; just a few miles from the Continent as the crow flies, the island could even be seen on clear days from Boulogne, that is, five days in the summer. Britain was a delicious cream cake and the Romans had a sweet tooth (that’s all; it was just a matter of hunger and having the table laid right before your eyes). No one could have resisted the temptation, or, at least, no one who could be called ambitious.

         N.B. As old habits should always be maintained, there is a charming custom which is still practised. Something similar to what happened a couple of millenniums ago takes place in the south of England every year in the summer. If you want to experience what the Celts had to go through when the Romans invaded the island, you just have to go to a place like Oxford and walk along the High Street. The language summer courses attract students from all over the world, but  real droves of them come from Italy. This would be a great opportunity to turn the clocks back , to feel what these ancient people felt and... to learn Italian (if you are an Oxonian and spend the summer in your hometown, you can understand this perfectly well).


Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s (or rather, render unto Caesar what Caesar thinks is his)

         Whatever would have become of the Roman Empire without the presence of the eminent, all-mighty, inimitable and unparalleled Julius Caesar, Lord of the World and nearly Master of the Universe (if it had not been because the numerous deities which dwelt in the Roman temples stopped him from reaching that post)?
         What would the history of ancient times be like without the figure of this short man with a large aquiline nose and often dressed in a white toga?
         Who, except him, could have led the Roman troops to sublime victories not caring a fig if those victories meant slaying and massacring thousands of people just for the sake of ambition?
         If not him, who would deserve to wear that laurel wreath on his head, symbol of power and supremacy? (laurels on which, by the way, he never rested).
         Why is he the best-known of all Roman emperors if, after all, people like Caligula, Nero, Octavius, Augustus, Septimius Severus, Diocletian or Constantine did more or less the same as him? Why have all of them always played second fiddle to the “great” Julius?
         Many questions have been raised but whatever the answers may be, Caius Julius Caesar plays a major role in worldwide history. And what’s more, he is one of the few people in whose “honour” a saying has been created: render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. In fact, many things were rendered unto him, but many others were taken by storm by himself. Britain belongs to the second group.

Prevention is better than cure  (A bad excuse is better than none)

         Thus, from force of habit, the Romans kept on conquering.
         For some historians the reason that moved Julius Caesar to invade Britain was that having an unconquered territory so near the coasts of Gaul could be a menace for his empire; these islands could become a focus of revolts which could subsequently spread across the continent. So Caesar decided to subdue the British Celts before they could put the Roman Empire in the slightest danger. The famous Latin saying that goes if you want peace, prepare for war (si vis pacem, para bellum) sums up this idea extraordinarily well. That is called “prevention”.
         Other historians have a different version of the facts and refute the previous  theory. The funny thing about this refutation is that they do it just with one word, which is repeated twice, sometimes even three times, and uttered as if those who say it were really overjoyed. That single word is ‘Ha’. And that is called “splitting your sides with laughter”.
         The Romans knew that the land they had set their heart on was rich and fertile. The weather was fairly good and mild (at least in the south; what a surprise when they discovered the weather in the north!) and would surely allow the growing of a great variety of crops. That could mean a well-stocked larder for the Roman troops. The Celts were strong as horses so they could be used as slaves to work in the fields or in the mines. That could mean cheap labour. And there were rumours that there was abundance of gold and pearls. That could mean lining their pockets easily.
         Now, who shall we believe? Those who state that Caesar invaded Britain because he “wanted peace”? Or those who say that the more one has, the more one desires? We can rest assured that the second opinion is more likely to be true.

A sitting duck

         Britain was seen as a good target and the Romans were birds of prey longing to be in the driving seat, as usual.
         It was the summer of 55 BC when Julius Caesar was camped with his troops in Boulogne. The countdown was under way. Everything was ready, so the Romans hit the road. ‘Bound for Albion!’, as they called Britain (Albion comes from albus, “”white” in Latin; they called it like that because of the white cliffs of Dover, within sight from Boulogne). The warships put to sea and soon reached the Kentish coast. The Roman legions disembarked somewhere between Deal and Walmer. The Britons, who had the feeling that sooner or later this was to happen, were waiting for the invaders beside their chariots and horses. It was a matter of time that the disembarkation took place and when it occurred, there was a fierce battle, both sides setting up a terrific racket, and finally the Britons submitted (there is no need to make a detailed account of what happened during the battle; just like any other battle, once you have seen one, you have seen the lot).
         Julius Caesar used to write about his conquests. He kept a sort of diary in which he narrated his deeds. With “a few” variations he might have written something like this: ‘Dear diary: Today I have conquered a new land. We call it Albion but it seems that the natives call themselves Pretani, or something of the kind, since I cannot understand their language at all. So from now on we’ll call it Pretanic Islands. Someone will change its name in the future, as well, I’m sure. These Pretani, by the way, have not received me with open arms so I have had to do what I usually do... You know what I mean...)’. Caesar’s books are among those which offer the most exact record of history of the early ages. In his British “diary”, he wrote something like this: Of all the people on the island, much the most civilized are those who live in Kent. If he made this judgement just for the welcome he received on Kentish lands, what would the rest of Britons be like...? Just wait and see...

Locking the stable door after the horse has bolted

         Caesar’s raid could not be seen as a definitive invasion. It had been but a short contact with the fierce, savage and (for the moment) untamed Britons. However, his military action in foreign lands was considered as a great success in his own country, where he came back with flags flying. There, he devoted some months to preparing a new fleet of even more powerful warships and selecting the best men of his army to fight against the Britons. The following year, 54 BC, Caesar set foot in Britain again, but this time he found to his surprise that some of the Britons had joined forces in order to suppress a possible second invasion. Union is strength, everyone knows that, and they had united under Cassivellaunus, the king of the Catuvellauni (one of the many tribes which dwelt in the country), who had established their capital at Verulamium (the city which nowadays is known as St Albans, Hertfordshire).

         (Note: Relax... Take a deep breath... Probably you have made a big effort to read the last sentence; names like Cassivellaunus or Catuvellauni are more likely to be found in a tongue-twister than in a history book, you may be thinking. But take into account that Angles and Saxons with their monosyllabic words had not arrived yet, so names like “Bob” and “John” did not exist in those times. Anyway, don’t even think that these will be the only long names you will have to read. The worst is still to come).

         In spite of being, to a certain extent, united and giving great trouble to the Roman legions, these precautions should have been taken some years before, when the Romans were starting to have their eyes on Britain. Now it was too late; the Romans would persist doggedly until they got what they wanted. Although Caesar had to leave Britain in order to crush a revolt which had broken out in Gaul and never came back, this did not mean that the Roman Empire had come to a full stop in the British campaigns. Almost a century passed until Emperor Claudius renewed military action in Britain (43 AD), but Caesar had opened the door to subsequent emperors.

The state of affairs

         Cassivellaunus had agreed to pay an annual tribute to Rome and had promised the emperor that he would refrain from attempting to expand his territories. Consequently, under his rule the Britons had started to be brought down a peg or two.
         When Caesar left Britain, there were around twenty tribes on the island. The Catuvellauni, whose kingdom lay in what is now Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire, have already been mentioned, but there were more. The most important were these:
-         the Atrebates, in Hampshire and Berkshire mainly,
-         the Iceni, whose territory embraced present-day Norfolk and Suffolk,
-         the Parisii, in Yorkshire,
-         the Brigantes, who probably got the lion’s share, occupying a territory that stretched from the Midlands to Scotland,
-         the Corieltavi, in the Midlands,
-         the Ordovices, in the northwest of Wales,
-         the Silures, in the southwest of Wales,
-         the Dobuni, whose territory covered what we call nowadays Gloucestershire and Somerset,
-         the Durotriges, in Dorset,
-         the Dumnonii, in present-day Cornwall and part of Devon,
-         the Belgae, who occupied Wiltshire, Avon and some areas in Hampshire,
-         the Regni, whose territory covered parts of present-day Hampshire, West Sussex and Surrey,
-         and the Trinovantes, in Essex and the south of Suffolk.

That was the situation in England and Wales, but what about Scotland? During the first years of the occupation, the Romans did not approach what is nowadays  Scotland. They would try later, and they would regret it. For there lived a tribe of unparalleled strength and courage: the Picts. Subjugating them and their neighbours, the Scots from Ireland, meant a hard nut to crack for the Roman Empire. Savage and more ferocious than anyone could imagine, they defended their territory tooth and nail against the invaders. Their name, Picts, derives from the Latin Pictos (=painted) since they used to paint their faces in blue before a battle to look more terrifying. To tell the truth, painting their faces was not essential in order to terrify anyone (their natural qualities were enough) but anyway these people thought that it had a successful effect on their adversaries. Could this custom be the origin of the expression “to be blue in the face”? Surely it is not, but the Picts were probably the first people in history to be literally that colour in that part of the body.

         N.B. If you have noticed, there is a funny fact about the names of the ancient inhabitants of present-day Ireland and Scotland. Those who lived in Ireland were called Scots, whereas people from Scotland were called Picts. In fact, Scotland should be called Pictland, if it had not been because in the 9th century the territory was overrun by the Scots under Kenneth I MacAlpin thus giving their name to this land. The current name Ireland derives from the Celtic Iar-en-land (= “land in the west”).
         Therefore, if things had not changed, the map of the British Isles would have been as follows: In the west there would be an island called Scotland, whose capital would be Dublin, and the Scottish Guinness beer would be famous all over the world; a small part of this island would belong to another country, the U.K. The United Kingdom would consist of four parts: Northern Scotland, England, Wales and Pictland...and we all would buy Pictish whisky.
         The process initiated by Cassivellaunus was continued by Cunobelinus (the original of William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline), who held sway in southeastern Britain from 10 AD to 42 AD, one year before the definitive invasion by emperor Claudius. During his “reign” (he called himself Rex Britorum) he followed in his predecessor’s footsteps. He promoted the trading contact with Rome and kept on paying the annual tribute imposed by the Roman emperor in return for peace and protection. At this stage the Britons had already been caught in the Roman net.
         In Shakespeare’s play, the historical facts are slightly modified. The plot is quite “simple”: Cymbeline himself had routed the troops commanded by General Lucius, had taken many prisoners, amongst them the general himself, and had spared his life at the request of Imogen, the king’s daughter (whose two brothers had been stolen out of their nursery when the sovereign married a widow after he had become a widower himself), who secretly had married Posthumus in spite of the fact that he was not a subject of royal birth, thus bringing about the exile of her husband to Rome, where he would get in touch with Iachimo, who would try to win Imogen’s love and convince her to render unto him a bracelet that the faithful wife had promised to wear for ever as a token of love so that he could win the diamond ring that the wife in turn had given to her husband, both objects being at the end of the play the key instruments for letting the cat out of the bag and revealing the real personalities of Posthumus, who, seeking death in despair after having received the news that his beloved wife had died, had joined the Roman forces to fight the Britons, and of Imogen, who had been posing as a man in order to look for her husband and had been living in a cave with her long-lost brothers and Bellarius, the man who had stolen them in the past  in vengeance for having been expelled from the court by King Cymbeline.
         In Shakespeare’s play, the fact of sparing the general’s life led up to a time of peace between the Britons and the Romans. Though the historical veracity of this soap opera is clearly uncertain, the period from 10 AD to 42 AD was one of steady calm and cooperation between both nations. At least, the Britons were at peace with the Romans for some years. The Romans let the grass grow under their feet for a considerably long period of time, but in 43 AD, one year after Cunobelinus had died, Emperor Claudius went back to square one and carried out a new invasion, this time, a real and effective one.

Another bite at the cherry  (Asleep at the switch)

         Four legions under the command of Aulus Plautius, a big shot of the Roman army, were ready for the disembarkation. But they had to overcome one difficulty first: the fear to cross the ocean, since it was thought that it was the boundary of the world and there was nothing beyond; and if there was something, it was a deep abyss where huge hungry monsters were awaiting the absent-minded sailors lost on their way to fall into their open mouths. (It is unnecessary to comment that the Romans were NOT the first to circumnavigate the globe).
         So with enthusiasm for the conquest and fear for the crossing mingled in their minds, the Roman expeditionary force set off bound for the land which one century before had been visited by their ancestors, who either were a bit braver than them or just had not worried about the shape of the earth yet. As the land was heaving in sight, countless sighs of relief were heaved. However deep and loud these sighs were, they did not awaken the Britons, who did not expect visitors and were caught off guard. ‘The coast is clear!’, the Romans might have exclaimed. They soon took advantage of the situation. Once they had disembarked in what now is Richborough (Kent), they immediately made their way inland. The funny thing about all this was that the Romans did not encounter any opposition until they reached the mouth of the river Medway, by present-day Rochester (also in Kent, east of London), fifty miles (give or take one) from the place they had landed in. And that is too long a distance (and a long time to cover it) to go unnoticed. What happened really? Why did the Britons confront the Romans only when these had already marched as far as fifty miles? In other words, how were the Romans able to advance such a distance in enemy territory like a hot knife through butter?

-         Did the Britons know about the Romans’ advance and wait for them at the Medway...? All historians claim that the attack took them off their guard, so the answer would probably be “no”.
-         Was the Medway the right place to fight the invaders...? Any place in Kent is flat and appropriate for a battle, so the answer would probably be “no”. (In fact, any place in the world is “appropriate” for a battle, you may be thinking, but if it is a steep place, besides having the possibility to be killed as well, one can get more easily exhausted than in a flat land. That is why clever strategists normally select a flat land for a battle to take place, although they strongly prefer a flat land with a small hill from whose summit they can watch the event from a certain distance so that blood does not stain their smart clothes).
-         Were the Romans renowned experts on the art of camouflage...? If we take into account that four legions took part in the invasion, that each legion consisted approximately of five thousand soldiers, and that Roman legions had both infantry and cavalry, no one could convince us that twenty thousand people and a few thousand horses could have passed along a distance of fifty miles unnoticed, even if the Britons had all been short-sighted, one-eyed or blind. The answer, once more, would probably be “no”.
-         Supposing the Britons had sight problems, were they also hard of hearing...? Such an amount of soldiers and horses marching nose to tail must make a lot of noise when stepping on the ground. What’s more, they must make it quake. And we must suppose that they were not blowing their trumpets and beating their drums as they used to do on parade. If that had been the case, even a post would have heard them. So the answer, again, would probably be “no”.
-         Should we rather think that the joy of getting to a new land after having crossed a sea which was thought to be the end of the world exhilarated them and enabled them to march majestically through a foreign country as if they owned the place...? The answer now would probably be “yes”.

Better be the head of a mouse than the tail of a lion   (A face-saving struggle)

                  lautius had advanced and had met with no resistance until he reached the river Medway. There a fierce battle was fought between the Roman legions and Togodumnus and Caractacus, who jointly ruled the kingdom of the Catuvellauni after the death of their father, Cunobelinus. The Battle of the Medway lasted uninterruptedly for two days (there was not even a break for a cup of tea or for going to the toilets), and as a result of the struggle Togodumnus died, but his brother survived and would become a national hero who would lead the resistance against the invaders for some years.
         Plautius continued his advance in British lands, but he halted at the Thames to await the arrival of Emperor Claudius. And there he came, as large as life, to lead his troops to Camulodunum (Colchester), the most important city in Britain in those days. And, of course, he captured it and subdued all the tribes he found on his way (what did you expect?). Claudius went back to Rome, where he was praised by the Senate on account of his deeds.
         The only hope for the Britons was Caractacus. He had had to flee to Wales with his tail between his legs, but there he was not sitting back and doing nothing. Considered as a forerunner of peddlers, hawkers and other street vendors, Caractacus went from door to door trying to “sell” his hatred towards the Romans. He convinced the Welsh tribes (Ordovices and Silures) to rise against the conquerors, but his plan backfired on him. Ostorius Scapula, who succeeded Plautius as commanding officer in Britain, was the one in charge of crushing this rebellion. Again this was a success for the Romans and again Caractacus had to escape, this time, to the north, to the territory occupied by the Brigantes. There he sought to raise them but their queen betrayed him and handed him over to the enemy. His tour around the island had come to an end thanks to this lovely lady. Taken to Rome as a prisoner, together with his family and subjects, in order to be paraded in chains through the streets of the city to the greater glory of Scapula, Caractacus managed to save his skin and that of his fellows. Considered as a forerunner of skilful politicians and other charlatans with the gift of gab, he persuaded the emperor to release him by telling him something like this: ‘If I were punished, soon everyone would forget me. But if you, in your infinite power, had the mercy to forgive me, everyone would remember your clemency and I would become a living memorial of that’. The emperor gave way; Caractacus was freed and Claudius did his good deed for the day.
         This happened around AD 50. Four years later, Claudius died and was succeeded by his stepson Nero (you know, the emperor  who fiddled while Rome was burning). For a decade, no more rebellions broke out; the Britons had learnt their lesson, and the emperor was too busy watching Christians being eaten by lions in the City of the Seven Hills. But if Caractacus’s rebellion had been somehow menacing, it could not be compared with the revolt that was brewing in the East of England and that would break out in AD 61. This time it was the turn of an incredible and untamed woman who was about to bring the Roman presence in Britain to an end. Her name was Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni, and she kept the Roman Empire under her thumb for a time.

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