Prequel Roman Invasion Britain

Celtic Spiritual Warrior

In the end, Caligula drew up his army in battle array on the shore of the ocean…and gave the order: “Gather seashells!”

–Suetonius

Prequel to Roman Invasion of Britain 43 AD

Introduction

Claudius declared Britain was a country ‘where a real triumph could most readily be earned’. Several of the events leading up to the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 AD were bizarre based on accounts by Roman historians.

Britain's White Cliffs

White Cliffs Near Dover

Unlike the stiff British resistance in Caesar’s expeditions to Britain in 55-54 BC, there was no initial battle when the Romans landed in 43 AD. Though Claudius claimed glorious victory, he only took charge at the end of the campaign. His role in the invasion appeared staged like a Hollywood production. He was in Britain for only sixteen days and took command of the following activities:

  • Ceremonial arrival
  • Treaty discussions with local chieftains
  • Battle for capture of Camulodunum (modern day Colchester)
  • Victory celebrations
Linnea at Roman Wall at Colchester

Linnea in front of Roman wall at Colchester

This article provides an overview of key events and players leading up to the invasion based on the historical accounts from Dio Cassius and Seutonius. Some archaeological experts propose the Claudian invasion was the last in a line of interventions, both and planned, that spanned the period between 55 BC and AD 43. Some have suggested that there was already a Roman military force in Britain prior to 43 AD. The invasion was nothing more than a peace-keeping expedition. This theory will be discussed in a future post.

Colchester Sphinx Dated About 43 AD

Colchester Sphinx dated about 43 AD from Colchester

Aftermath of Augustus  

One of the greatest British kings, Cunobelin, was an astute politician who came into power about 9 AD. At this time Emperor Augustus faced one of Rome’s most calamitous periods when the German Prince Arminius destroyed three Roman legions in Germany. Cunobelin maintained a balance of power with Rome by welcoming their traders into his capital, Camulodunum (modern day Colchester). Cunobelin reigned over the Trinovantes and the Catuvellauni.  A great statesman, he skillfully balanced between the bitterly opposing pro-and anti-Roman factions.

Caesar Augustus Marble Head

Emperor Caesar Augustus Marble Head

Augustus died in 14 AD and was succeeded by Tiberius. He accepted Augustus’ injunction to allow things to stay as they were and to concentrate on sound administration. There was renewal of diplomatic activity with Verica (King of the Atrebates).

Tiberius Caesar Augustus

Emperor Tiberius Caesar Augustus

The final years of Cunobelin was marred by a family upset around 40 AD, when Caligula was Emperor.  The elderly king appointed his pro-Roman son, Adminius, as ruler of the northeast tip of Kent. This included the land-locked harbor along the southeast coast and the Wansum Channel into the Thames Estuary. It appears it was Roman policy to ensure that the main landing points remain in friendly hands.

640px-Horned_helmet

Celtic Horned Helmet

The precise date of Cunobelin’s death is not certain, but it is within 1 year before or after 40 AD. His eldest son, Togodumnus, inherited the kingdom while his brother, Caratacus, struck out on his own conquering other territories. Their brother, Adminius, was ousted from Britain about 40 AD. His flight may have been connected with these events.

Caligula’s Staged Invasion

When Caligula visited the Germanian legions and auxiliaries in 40 AD, Adminius and his followers sought the Emperor’s aid to restore the status quo ante. The Roman historian Suetonius said Adminius surrendered to the Emperor after he had been banished by his father, Cunobelin. Caligula then dispatched a message claiming all of Britain had surrendered to him. He ordered his couriers to drive their chariots all the way to the Forum and the Senate house to deliver his letter.

Status of Caligula on Horseback

Statue of Caligula on Horseback

Caligula then ordered all troops and siege engines to be positioned on the ocean shoreline for battle. It was as if he was going to conduct a campaign in Britain. He embarked on a trireme (ship with multiple banks of rowers), sailed a short distance from shore, and then returned. He took his seat on a lofty platform and gave the soldiers the signal to charge with trumpeters urging them on.

Replica Ancient Roman Ship

Replica Ancient Roman Ship

No one understood what Caligula had in mind when he suddenly gave the order to gather seashells as plunder owed to Rome. He ordered the soldiers to fill their helmets and folds of their cloths with the ocean loot. Having secured these spoils, he became elated as if he had enslaved the ocean. He commemorated the victory by erecting a tall lighthouse where fires would guide ships at night.

Roman Soldiers in Formation

Roman Soldiers in Formation

Caligula gave his soldiers many presents and took their shells back to Rome to exhibit the bounty from Britain. He also selected a few German prisoners to parade in an extravagant triumph that he told his agents to prepare in Rome.

Although Caligula’s real plan is obscured by these wanton acts, he clearly intended to invade Britain. It may have been at Adminius’ urging. But this invasion was deferred, most likely as a result of mutinous soldiers refusing to cross the monster-infested British Channel.

In early 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated in Rome for his crazed behavior.

Rise of Anti-Roman Factions

The political strife in Britain did not come all at once, but by stages, starting with the removal of Adminius. Cunobelin felt he could entrust his son with the strategically important area of Kent to rule. After the death of Cunobelin, Togodumnus and Caratacus pursued an expansionist policy even more vigorously than their father. And they did this with less respect for what seemed an indecisive and ineffectual Roman authority across the Channel.

Dynasties of Southeast Britain

Date Rome Southern Dynasty Northern Dynasty
50 BC Civil War, Murder of Caesar;
40 BC Commius
30 BC Octavian and Mark Antony Civil War Addedomaros
20 BC Augustus Tasciovanus
10 BC Tincommius Dubnovellaunos
1 AD
AD 10 Epatticus Cunobelin
Vodenos
AD 20 Tiberius Eppillus
AD 30 Verica Adminius
AD40 Caligula Caratacus
AD50 Claudius

There was ongoing, bitter rivalry between the ruling houses of the Atrebates and the Catuvellauni. The control of lands in Kent teetered back and forth between these dynasties. The Atrebates laid claim to east Kent through Eppillus, who reigned there from 5 to 20 AD until Cunobelin took control.

Verica succeeded his elder brother Eppillus as king of the Atrebates about 15 AD. He established his capital at Calleva (modern-day Silchester). Verica’s territory was pressed from the east by Cunobelin’s brother, Epatticus, who conquered Calleva (modern day Silchester) about 25 AD.

When Epatticus died in 35 AD, Verica regained his original territory. Cunobelin chose not to challenge Verica. He instead honored Verica’s treaty agreement with Rome.

Map Ancient Britain 1st Center

Map Ancient Britain 1st Century

With the death of Cunobelin, the political balance tipped when Caratacus first took control of Kent from his brother Adminius. Not content with this, he invaded south of the Thames. He succeeded where his uncle Epatticus had failed: gain control of territories in southern Britain and forge them into his kingdom. Sometime after 40 AD, he conquered the entire Atrebates territory.

This time, the British King taking flight and seeking protection was Verica. Appearing as a suppliant before Claudius, Verica claimed he had been driven out of Britain by an uprising. He called upon Claudius to fulfill his obligation under their treaty.

Clearly, critical land areas on the southeast coasts of Britain were now under hostile control and the political balance so skillfully developed and maintained by Augustus was in shambles. Evidence of further expansion of the Catuvellaunian power was provided by Dio Cassius in his Roman History. Soon after the Roman landing, Commander Aulus Plautius received the surrender of some Dobunni, who, he adds, were subjects of the Catuvellauni.

This gave the newly empowered Claudius a cast-iron justification for an invasion. Victory would elevate him to the same glory as Julius Caesar and divert Rome’s attention away from his relationship with the Senate that was charged with suspicion and hostility.

Imperial portrait of Roman emperor Claudius

Imperial portrait of Roman Emperor Claudius

To be continued:

The next post will highlight the Roman pre-launch activities that almost ended in disaster and the relative ease of the Legions to occupy Britain initially.

References:

John Manley, AD 43 The Roman Invasion of Britain: A reassessment; Tempus Publishing, Inc., Charleston, SC, 2002.

David Miles, The Tribes of Britain; Phoenix, Imprint of Orion Books, Ltd., London, UK, 2006.

Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, The Twelve Caesars, Translated by Robert Graves; Reprinted 2007 by Penguin Books, New York.

Graham Webster, Roman Invasion of Britain, Reprinted 1999 by Routledge, London.

Graham Webster, Rome Against Caratacus: The Roman Campaigns in Britain AD 48-58; Reprinted 2002 by Routledge, London.

Graham Webster, Boudica: The British Revolt Against Rome AD 60; Reprinted 2004 by Routledge, London.

Cassius Dio, Roman History, published in Vol. VII of the Loeb Classical Library, Edition 1924; Book LX   http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cassius_Dio/60*.html

 

Cunobelin Celtic British King

One thing that comes out in myths is that at the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation. The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light—Joseph Campbell


Cunobeline Celtic British King

Cunobelin was considered the greatest of all the Celtic British kings. The Romans referred to him as Britannorum Rex, the King of the Britons. He is also known as Cunobeline and Cunobelinus. He is the radiant character in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the King of Britain written in 1136 AD. It is not clear where Cunobelin came from, but his rise to power was rapid and dramatic. He gained his throne in the early years of 1st century AD as a young man in his twenties or early thirties.

Dying Gladiator

Statue of Celtic Warrior

Cunobelin Rise to Power

Cunobelin claimed he was the son of Tasciovanus, the Catuvellauni ruler whose center of power was at Verulamium (present-day St. Albans). Upon his father’s death, Cunobelin gained power over the Catuvellauni. He then moved against the Trinovantes and extended his kingdom to the east. His father may have had an alliance between the two powerful tribes, possibly by dynastic marriage. It is also possible that he seized the throne in a palace revolt. He expanded his territory to the west and southward into Kent.

Marble Head of Augustus Caesar

Marble Head of Augustus Caesar

His rise to power occurred at the same time that Emperor Augustus had significant resistance in Germania that took higher precedence. In 9 AD, three Roman legions led General by Publius Quinctilius Varus were crushed by the German prince, Arminius—a disaster of unparallel magnitude. Augustus and his advisers were too preoccupied with the events to pay much attention to political upheavals in Britain. Cunobelin must have known he could act without any serious threat of Roman reprisals. An astute statesman, he gave assurance to Rome that the balance of power was not seriously affected. Roman traders were still welcome in Camulodunum and elsewhere north of the Thames.

Roman Soldiers in Formation

Roman Soldiers in Formation

Balancing Pro and Anti-Roman Factions

Geoffrey of Monmouth writes Cymbeline (i.e. Cunobelin) was a warlike man and insisted on the full rigor of the law. He was reared in the household of Emperor Augustus Caesar. The King was so friendly with the Romans that he might well have kept back their tribute-money but he paid it of his own free will.

Celtic Child in Roma Ara Pacis Procession Nord Particolare

Celtic child in frieze of Ara Pacis Augustae

Cunobelin had to maintain a balance between two bitterly opposing factions for, and those against, Rome. In view of the expulsion of the pro-Roman rulers Tincommius and Dubnovellaunos around 8 AD, Cunobelin had to be careful throughout most of his rein not to show undue bias towards Rome. There were strong anti-Roman elements by Druids in the royal household. During his lifetime, Cunobelin successfully satisfied his own people, as well as persuade Rome of his loyalty and keep the power of the Druids in check.

Bronze Coins of Cunobelin

Bronze Coins of Cunobelin

Camulodunum Oldest Recorded City

Cunobelin moved his capital to Camulodunum. It was considered the oldest recorded town in Britain, as it was mentioned by Pliny the Elder who died in 79 AD. The Celtic settlement was huge compared to hill forts to the west or north. Cunobelin minted his coins at this town to exploit trading with the Continent. The grave goods found in this area illustrate the impact of Rome on Camulodunum’s nobles in early 1st Century. Items found included chain-mail armor, Roman bronze vessels, furniture, Italian wine amphorae and a medallion encasing a silver coin of Augustus, minted about 17 BC.

Greek Amphorae to Store Wine

Greek Amphorae to Store Wine

The nobles sustained their power and their lifestyles on the back of hard-working peasantry. Power was maintained by warriors whose loyalty had to be constantly rewarded. To maintain luxurious lifestyles, the Celtic rulers raided inland Britain for slaves. Neck chains used to restrain slaves have been found around Colchester and are on display at the museum in Colchester. Strabo notes that some British leaders procured the friendship of Augustus by sending embassies and paying court to him.

Roman Wall Colchester

Roman Wall at Colchester

Cunobolin’s Expansion into Kent

Cunobelin expanded his influence into Kent, which became a fiefdom ruled under his son, Adminius. Durovernum (modern day Canterbury). Like Verulaminum and Camulodunum, the town functioned as a center for the elite, a gateway for Roman luxury goods and a base for traders from the empire.

Durovernum Mosaic_Roman_Museum_146

Durovernum Roman Mosaic at British Museum

Players Triggering Roman Invasion

Cunobelin had several sons of whom three, Togodumnus, Caractacus, and Adminius, played significant roles that triggered the Roman invasion in 43 AD. In Cunobelin’s final years, he had trouble over the succession. His sons shared administrative duties for various parts of his king. In Cunobelin’s declining years, it is likely Rome became uneasy with the political uncertainties. It became increasing clear that the valuable commercial asset in Britain needed to be secured either by renewing treaties with the new rulers or by military force.

Celtic Horned Helmet

Celtic Horned Helmet Found at River Thames

Coinage minted by Adminius suggests that he ruled the Northeast part of Kent on behalf of his father a short time before his death. Adminius held pro-Roman sympathies whereas his brothers were anti-Roman. Emperor Caligula may have secretly collaborated with Adminius to set up a major seaborne operation to invade Britain. This could have been the reason that Cunobelin expelled Adminius from Britain in 40 AD. Suetonius records the banished prince with a group of his followers fled to a Roman encampment where Caligula was reviewing the troops in Germania. Caligula retained the Britons as hostages and dispatched a message to Rome proclaiming he had conquered the whole of Britain.

Young Roman on Horseback

Statue of Caligula on Horseback

Subsequently, Roman troops appeared ready to invade Britain, but it is not clear what stopped the expedition. Possibly the troops rebelled and refused to embark the warships. Infamous for bizarre behavior, Caligula paraded the troops in battle array on the shore and commanded them to collect sea shells. Though the Roman invasion was abandoned, Caligula erected a great lighthouse at Boulogne. It stood as a memoir of this event until it was torn down in 1544 AD.

Ancient Roman Ship Frieze

Roman Ship Image on Frieze

The precise date of the death of Cunobelin is not certain, but it must be within a year of 40 AD. This is when Caractacus conquered territories south of the Thames while Togodumnus inherited the kingdom. The flight of Adminius may be connected with these events.

Caractacus overthrew Verica, King of the Atrebates who also sought protection from the Romans. Verica appeared before Emperor Claudius claiming he had been driven out of Britain by an uprising. He called upon the Emperor to fulfill his obligation to reinstate him as ruler under their treaty.

South_Britain_WEB_SIZED_COL[1]
Caractacus demanded that Claudius release Adminius and Verica to him, which was the final trigger that incited Claudius to invade Britain in 43 AD.

Richborough Roman Fort Ruin

Richborough Roman Fort Wall Site of Invasion

Overview of Celtic Kings in Southeast Britain

Below is an overview of Roman events and Celtic kings in Southeast Britain between Julius Caesar’s invasions in 54-55 BC and Claudius’ invasion in 43 AD.

Date Roman Events Southern Dynasty Northern Dynasty
50 BC Caesar’s Invasion Mandubracius, Cassivellaunus
40 BC Murder of Caesar Commius
30 BC Octavian & Mark Antony Civil War
20 BC Augustus Stabilization Tincomarus Addedomaros, Tasciovanus
10 BC Eppillus Cunobelin, Dubnovellaunos
1 AD
AD 10 Tiberius comes to power Vodenos
AD 20 Epatticus
AD 30 Caligula comes to power Verica Adminius
AD40 Claudius comes to power Caractacus, Togodumnus

To be Continued:

The next posts will focus on the southern dynasties as reflected in the above table.

References:

Geoffrey of Monmouth, “The History of the Kings of Britain.” Translated with an Introduction by Lewis Thorpe; First Published in 1966; Republished by Penguin Books, London England

David Miles, “The Tribes of Britain”, published in 2006 by Phoenix, an imprint of Orion Books, LTD, London.

Graham Webster, “Boudica: The British Revolt Against Rome AD 60, Reprinted 2004 by Routledge, London.

Graham Webster, “The Roman Invasion of Britain.” Reprinted in 1999 by Routledge, New York.

Joseph Campbell, “The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers.” Anchor Books, a Division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, New York, 1988.

Celtic Spirit Warrior

British Tribal Dynasties


Once having transversed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials.
–Joseph Campbell

 

Julius Caesar’s Impact British Tribal Dynasties

The most important impact of Caesar on the British scene was to divide the southeastern British tribal dynasties into pro- and anti-Roman factions. After Caesar’s expeditions in Britain, lucrative Roman trade was extended to Celtic British kings who were Roman allies. The kings of Kent without exception had been hostile and only made peace overtures after they were thoroughly beaten. The tribes on the north bank of the Thames and in Kent were forced to pay an annual tribute which sustained their festering hatred of Rome.

Julius Caesar Statue

Statue of Julius Caesar

 

Those that benefited, primarily the Trinovantes and the people of Verulamion and Braughing areas and their allies, were rewarded with political alliances and access to trade with Rome. As far as Rome was concerned, southeast Britain was conquered. The next stage was to allow the effects of trade and cultural contacts to prepare the way for full Roman occupation with all of the apparatus of government and law.

But any immediate plans were put aside by the serious rising of almost all tribes in Gaul (modern day France) united under one commander, Vercingetorix (whose name means ‘victor in 100 battles’). The whole of Gaul had to be conquered a second time. Of the six million people living in Gaul before Caesar arrived in 58 BC, one million were killed and one million were sold as slaves when he left in 50 BC. Caesar himself wrote in his Commentaries on the War in Gaul that peace had been brought to the whole of Gaul. This was the peace of a graveyard.

Statue of Vercingetorix

Statue of Vercingetorix

During the subsequent civil wars in the empire, Britain was forgotten except by Roman merchants using trading posts. As soon as Julius Caesar’s nephew, Augustus, established himself as the princeps in 27 BC, he realized there was unfinished business that needed attention. There was an indication that he was thinking about invading Britain in the autumn of that year, when he was in southern Gaul reorganizing the province. But any serious plans for an expedition the following year were swept aside by trouble in Spain. He was by nature cautious, preferring compromise as a solution.

Augustus of Prima Porta

Statue of Emperor Augustus Caesar

Trying to balance the needs of a large sprawling empire, he decided not to launch a campaign against Britain when there were other more pressing military operations elsewhere. Thus, he maintained Roman influence over the British rulers by diplomatic means. As long as Rome had strong allies along coastline Britain who controlled the main points of entry from Gaul, he did not feel there was a need for further action. Nonetheless, he kept a wary eye on Britain since changes in British tribal dynasties could upset the balance of power. He did not want coastal areas, important for trade and potential landing points, to fall into hostile hands. Augustus was reluctant to interfere with British politics, but there were times when this became necessary.

Ara Pacis: Processional frieze showing members of the Imperial household

Ara Pacis: Processional frieze showing members of the Imperial household

 

Polarization of the British tribal dynasties remained and a fascinating pattern of shifting inter-tribal relationships can be dimly perceived through the study of coinage that was minted by the Britons themselves. Coin evidence is no substitute for political detailed political accounts. Nevertheless, it provides us with the earliest names of the players in the 1st century British power struggle. They provide a crude indicator of tribal territories, alliances and the political geography of southeast Britain in the decades before the Roman invasion of AD 43. The following is a discussion of the political struggles of British tribal dynasties north of the Thames and Kent.

Map Ancient Britain 1st Center

Map Ancient Southeast Britain

Addedomaros

The first identifiable king to mint coins was Addedomaros. He became the ruler of the Trinovantes in approximately 25 BC and was probably the successor to Mandubracius—an ally of Caesar on his second expedition. At the time of his death, Mandubracius may not have had any heirs. Possibly Addedomaros succeeded to the throne after a brief struggle between the remaining Trinovantian noble houses. Addedomaros  moved his center of government from the eastern headwaters of the river Lea to a new site on the east coast which he named ‘the fort of the war god Camulos,’ known as Camulodunum (Colchester).  The reason for this move is that he may have felt increasingly under pressure from the growing strength of the Catuvellauni whose tribal base was situated only a few miles from the river Lea. Establishing a new capital offered the benefit of shortening the lines of communication with the continent.

Trinovantes Coin Minted at Camulodunon

Trinovantes Coin Minted at Camulodunon

Addedomaros either warred with or was a client to the Catuvellaunian ruler, Tasciovanus. For a brief period from 15-10 BC, Tasciovanus issued coins from Camulodunum (minted mark CAMV[lodunum]. The circumstances of his brief reign over the Trinovantes and his sudden move back to his old tribal capital is not clear. His power over the Trinovantes may have been due to conquest or dynastic marriage.

Gold coin of_Addedomarus 35BCE_1BCE

Gold coin of Addedomarus 35BCE – 1BCE

Tasciovanus

Several small tribes came under the rule of Tasciovanus, whose center of power was at Verulamium (St. Albans). He ruled under the title of ricomus, the Celtic equivalent of the Latin rex, interpreted as ‘king. Several coin issued by Tasciovanus indicate he had a long reign. At the peak of his career, his coins spread south of the Thames to the Northwest. This young and energetic Catuvellaunian ruler could have overran the Trinovantes and surrounding tribes in his lust for power.

Celtic Gold Stater Minted by Tasciovanus, Catuvellauni

Celtic Gold Stater Minted by Tasciovanus, Catuvellauni

Another possibility is that he created an alliance with the Trinovantes by the means of a dynastic marriage. His mother may have been the daughter of Mandubracius and he went to war or formed an alliance with the Trinovantes on that pretext. Whatever the circumstances, he was able to bring together two powerful kingdoms for a short time and pass it on to Cunobeline, who claimed to be his son.

Remains Verulamium Wall

Remains Ancient Verulamium Wall

Dubnovellaunus

On the death of Tasciovanus, or towards the end of his reign, the throne of the Trinovantes was taken over by Dubnovellaunus. His coins were found in two quite separate areas, that of the Trinovantes and Northeast Kent, with very little overlap. The coins from Camulodunum closely follow the style of Addedomaros, which suggests Dubnovellaunus was his direct successor. The series of coins based in Canterbury, however, appears similar to Tasciovanus.

Based on limited Roman records, Dubnovellaunus was probably acting under Roman advice and economic pressure. Augustus, a skilled statesman, built up alliances with political forces in Britain which had pro-Roman leanings. Of these, the Trinovantes and their allies were the most important, as the control of East Kent by a Roman ally was paramount. By 15 BC certain British rulers made offerings in Rome, implying formal treaties were ratified with the empire. An inscription in Ankara, Turkey known as Monumentum Ancyranum said two British Kings, Dubnovellaunus and Tincommius, appeared as supplicants in Rome presumably after they had fled the kingdoms. The accepted date of this monument is AD 7, which means that their flight from Britain must be dated before this.

Monumentum Ancyranum; Temple of Augustus in Ankara, Turkey

Monumentum Ancyranum; Temple of Augustus in Ankara, Turkey

In conclusion, the records suggest a flurry of diplomatic activity by Augustus in 17 BC which can be linked with the sudden rise of Dubnovellaunus and the spread of Roman control over the Thames Estuary. This was reversed in  AD 1 when Cunobeline seized power and the Catuvellauni took control of the region.

To be continued

The next posts will provide an overview of the rise of Cunobeline and the political struggles in Southern Britain.

References:

David Miles, The Tribes of Britain Phoenix, Imprint of Orion Books, Ltd., London, UK, 2006.

Graham Webster, Boudica: The British Revolt Against Rome AD 60, Reprinted 2004 by Routledge, London.

Graham Webster, The Roman Invasion of Britain, Graham Webster, Reprinted 1999 by Routledge, New York, NY.

John Peddie, Conquest: The Roman Invasion of Britain, St. Martin’s Press, New York, NY 10010.

Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Bollingen Series XVII, 3rd Edition; New World Library, Novato, CA 

Celtic Rituals, Sacred Sites, and Offerings

 

Once having traversed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials…The hero is covertly aided by the advice, amulets, and secret agents of the supernatural helper whom he meets before his entrance into the region
—Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces


Celtic Rituals, Sacred Sites and Votive Offerings

Introduction

Summoning the rituals from the Celtic past requires a wand to piece it together. Accounts of rituals were recorded through the biased eyes of classical Greek and Roman writers. Although Irish Christian monks wrote about Celtic legends, their manuscripts were subject to redaction and filtration. Monastic scribes rejected any notion that the supernatural beings in these tales were worthy of worship, so they represented these gods as heroes whose magical powers were an echo of their one-time divinity. Thus, the Irish sources, while offering a wealth of myth, provides no direct evidence to the Celtic religion.

As the Celts were unwilling to write their rites and beliefs in writing, the historical accounts and Irish myths must be filled in with archaeology, which can provide evidence of cult centers, sacred images, and ritual offerings. What it cannot provide is the meaning a worshiper attached to a sacred image or the intention of a votive offering.

Panel on Gundstrup Cauldron

Inside Panel of Gundestrup Cauldron

Sites of Rituals

It was believed a ritual, properly conducted, led to the result which was sought—a successful harvest or outcome in battle, for example. Ceremonies were held before rather than after the desired event. Ritual was woven into all aspects of life, for there was an everyday need to appease the deities.

Teutates Celtic God of War on Gundstrup Cauldron

Teutates on Gundestrup Cauldron Sacrificial Ritual

Although there were ritual centers, every mountain, spring, marsh, tree and outcrop was endowed with divinity and thus ritual enactments could be performed any place. Lakes, rivers, and springs had special appeal as seen from the votive deposits in Lake Neuchâtel and Lake Geneva in Switzerland, Llyn Cerrig Bach in Wales and the rivers Thames and Witham in England.

Groves were held in high regard. The Roman historian, Tacitus (56-117 AD), wrote of the groves at Anglesey where Briton Druids performed their sacrificial rituals. The Roman poet, Lucan (39–65 AD), described sacred woods near Massalia (Marseille, France) which was destroyed by Caesar’s soldiers.

Cork Oak Tree at Arundel Castle and Gardens

Cork Oak Tree; Druid derived from ‘dru-wid’ — “Oak Knowledge”

Rivers, lakes, springs or wells were focal points for Celtic rituals. Coins, metalwork and animal remains were among the votive offerings frequently found at these sites. Within the context of a pastoral, cattle-based culture that typified much of the pagan Celtic world, it makes sense that these water sites would acquire nurturing and maternal connotations.

Significantly, rivers were often personified as female divinities in the Celtic world. In one myth, a noble Dagda had a well where nine hazel trees overhung and dropped their crimson nuts in the water, causing bubbles of mystic inspiration. Only the Dagda or his three cup-bearers were allowed to draw water from the well. But a young woman, Boann, disobeyed the taboo and the waters rose up, pursued and drowned her. The well’s water formed a river named after her—the Boann or Boyne.

Soane River Hillside

Soane River Lyon France (Roman Lugdunum Gaul)

Wells or springs were also closely associated with goddesses in the Celtic world and were often symbolic totems of desire. In the Welsh tale, Mabinogion, a warrior at Arthur’s court, Owain, sets out to revenge Cymon who has been slain by the Black Warrior. During his quest, Owain comes to a magical well that is connected to thunder, rain and fertility of the surrounding land. A mysterious Druidess helps Owain to overcome and slay the Black Warrior who is a defender of this well. Owain claims the warrior’s widow, ‘The Lady of the Fountain,’ as his wife. In a later Arthurian saga, there is another tale of ‘The Lady of the Lake’ that suggests another indwelling water spirit.

Bath Roman Bath

Bath Roman Bath; Originally Sacred Site of the Celtic Goddess Sulis

Rituals

Publius Terentius Varro, a Narbonese Gaul (82-36 B.C), writes that with the aid of certain ointments the Druids put on their feet, the Celts would walk over a bed of burning coals at some of their festivals. John Toland said in The Critical History of the Celtic Religion and Learning that it was customary for a noble of distinction to walk barefoot over hot coals trice while carrying a sacrificial animal’s entrails in his hands. Then he would take this offering to the Druid who waited in a white skin at the altar. If the nobleman escaped unharmed, it was reckoned a good omen, but if he was hurt, it was deemed unlucky for both the community and himself.

Celtic Cauldon Gundstrup

Gundestrup Cauldron

Giraldus Cambrensis (1146-1220 AD) in Expurgatio Hibernica, gives an account of the ritual slaughter of a mare. The king-elect eats its flesh, and drinks and bathes in a broth made from the carcass. This was considered a ritual union through which the king seeks fertility for himself and his kingdom.

Dagda Gundestrup cauldron

Dagda Gundestrup Cauldron; Depiction of Taranis, Celtic God of Thunder with Wheel

The most famous Druidic ritual, thanks to the writings of Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79) is the cutting of mistletoe from a sacred oak with a sickle on the sixth day of the moon followed by the sacrifice of two white bulls. He reports, “They believe that the mistletoe, taken in drink, imparts fertility to barren animals and that it is an antidote for all poisons.”

One divination ritual was connected with the election of the High King of Ireland. A Druid would eat the flesh of a slain bull and drink its blood. He was then put to sleep by four other Druids, and the person of whom he dreamt would be the future High King. If he lied about his dream then the gods would destroy him.

Votive Offerings

Votive offerings included torcs, coins, jewelry, and weapons from defeated enemy. For the Celts, the reverence held for objects was an extension of their belief in the sacredness of places. Le Tene art was infused with a sense of the divine. The possessions of a dead person were sacred to the departed, which explains why grave goods were often broken.

Celtic Brooch

Celtic Brooch

The design of a torc gave magical powers to its wearer and the motifs on swords and shields gave potency to their users. Music must have played a role in ritual, and the extraordinary craftsmanship employed in the construction of musical instruments suggests they were sacred.

Celtic Battersea Shield

Celtic Battersea Shield

Among the most highly venerated objects were cauldrons, symbols not only of abundance but also of regeneration and rebirth. According to Greek Historian, Strabo (64/63 BC–c. AD 24), cauldrons held sacrificial blood of victims from Celtic raids. In Irish mythology, the Dagda’s cauldron provided sustenance for the tribe and enabled warriors to return from the dead. The cauldron’s ability to restore life is also featured in Welsh literature. Stories and poem associated with Taliesin describes a tale where Caridwen boiled a cauldron of magic potion for almost one year so her grotesque son would acquire knowledge of the future world by tasting three drops.

Panel on Gundstrup Cauldron

Inside Panel of Gundestrup Cauldron;Depiction of Cernunnos, The Horned God of Nature and Fertility


Annual Ceremonies

In addition to the above rituals, annual ceremonies were held throughout the year.

  • Imbolc (February) was the feast of Brigit that celebrated the lactation of ewes. The lighting of candles and fires represented the return of warmth and the increasing power of the Sun over the coming months.
  • Beltane (May 1) marked the beginning of summer when stock was driven to higher pastures and ceremonies related to fire were held. Special bond fires were believed to have protective powers. The Celts and their cattle would walk around the bonfire and sometimes leap over flames or embers. Houses and livestock would be decorated with yellow May flowers, perhaps because they evoked the image of fire.
  • Lughnasa (August) was a festival named after the god Lugh that was celebrated to ensure a good harvest. It included religious ceremonies, ritual athletic contests, feasting, matchmaking and trading.
  • Samain (November 1) was associated with the early winter cull of stock. In Irish myths, this is when the Dagda, the protector of the tribe, mated with the goddess, usually identified as Morrigan—the intercourse ensuring the well-being of the tribe. The date represented the break between the old year and the new, when the world was overrun by the forces of magic. This provided an opportunity for spirits of the dead to mingle with the living, a tradition which survives in Halloween.
Celtic Spiritual Warrior in Battle

Celtic Spirit Warrior Ritualistically Prepares for Battle in Forest

Conclusions

No Celt left a record of his faith and practice, and the unwritten poems of the Druids died with them. Yet the Celtic culture dominated Europe for over 500 years and there is no doubt this culture had a profound, long-lasting impact through its mythology and lore.

The evidence for Celtic rituals provide both horrific and constructive images. On one hand, there is a spiritual kinship to nature and love for the Mother Goddess based on the Celtic predilection for sacred lake, rivers, springs, and wells. Yet there is also historical and archaeological evidence of human sacrifice (discussed previously) and Celtic warriors cutting off their enemies’ heads to retain them as trophies of wars.

To Be Continued

The Celtic belief in the immortal soul and the cult of the head will be discussed in the next article.

References:

  1. John Davies, The Celts: Prehistory to Present Day; 2005; Sterling Publishing Co., New York.
  2. Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc.
  3. Peter Berresford Ellis, The Druids, 1995; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI.
  4. Delaney, Frank, The Celts (London, 1986)
  5. John Toland, A Critical History of the Celtic Religion and Learning; 2013; AlbaCraft Publishing, Scotland.
  6. Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 2008; Bollingen Series IVII, Third Edition; New World Library, Novato, CA

Celtic Heroines: Last Stand of Boudica


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I thank thee, Andraste, and call upon thee as woman speaking to woman. I pray thee for victory, preservation of life, and liberty against men insolent, unjust, insatiable, and impious.”– Boudica’s prayer for victory to the goddess of war

Introduction

In 60-61 AD, one of the greatest Celtic heroines, Boudica, reportedly led between 130,000 to 230,000 men and women warriors in the last major revolt against the Romans in Britain. Her ability to unite her people in this rebellion was remarkable considering the destabilizing Celtic penchant for individual glory that was evidenced in the fall of Celtic Europe to Roman expansion.

Previous posts describe Boudica’s initial victories in which the cities of Camulodunum (Colchester), Londonium (London), and Verulamium (St. Albans) were razed to the ground on her orders. Boudica’s outrages were precipitated by the Romans’ brutal treatment of native Britons and the destruction of the druidic stronghold at Mona (now Anglesey) in present-day Wales under the command of Governor Caius Seutonius Paulinus.

Celtic Sword

Celtic Sword and Scabbard

Destruction of Druidic Priesthood

The ultimate ambition of the newly appointed governor, Paulinus, was to be elevated in the eyes of Emperor Nero for subduing the mutinous Britons. He resolved to destroy the druidic priesthood who exerted their power from Mona over the tribes occupying Wales. The druids may have been the most important political factor for unifying the Britons, for they held the secrets of the gods and the power of magic.

In order to approach Mona’s shore, Governor Paulinus ordered a number of flat-bottomed boats to carry his infantry while his mounted cavalry waded over the shallows. The practice of bearing arms was common among British women and they were present in the final battle against Paulinus. These women and fanatic druids used psychological tactics such as screeching, dancing wildly, and pulling at their faces, frightening the Romans enough to hold them off for a time. Nonetheless, the Romans eventually slaughtered the Britons and leveled their religious groves and shrines to the ground.

As Paulinus arranged for the security the island, he received intelligence that Britain had revolted.

Suetonius Paulinus Statue

Suetonius Paulinus Statue

Boudica’s Last Stand

When Paulinus reached Londonium, he determined it would be hopeless to defend the inhabitants and thus abandoned the city. The Roman historian Tacitus said: “All those left behind were butchered. The Britons took no prisoners, nor did they consider the money they could get for selling slaves; it was the sword, gibbet, fire and cross (caedes, patibula, ignes, cruces).”

Boudica then sacked Verulamium, a town occupied by Catuvellauni who were loyal to Rome. A black ash layer at St. Albans which was discovered by archaeologists confirms the Roman written record.

Verulamium City Wall Remains

Verulamium Excavations Ancient Roman City Wall

According to Cassius Dio, a 2nd Century Roman historian, Boudica subjected captives “to atrocities which were done to the accompaniment of sacrifices, banquets, and wanton behavior, not only in all their other sacred places, but particularly in the grove of Andante. This was their name for Victory, and they regarded her with most exceptional reverence.”

With less than 10,000 men, Paulinus only had time to find a suitable place to fight the final battle on his terms. For this purpose, he chose a location encircled with woods, narrow at the entrance, and sheltered in the rear by a thick forest. Boudica’s massive army had to approach the Romans at the front of an open plain. The location is conjectured to be the present-day Mancetter about 100 miles northwest of London.

In the account by Tacitus, Boudica, in a chariot with her daughters, drove among the ranks to embolden her people with the following words: “This is not the first time the Britons have been led to battle by a woman. On this spot we must either conquer, or die with glory. There is no alternative. Though a woman, my resolution is fixed: the men, if they please, may survive with infamy, or live in bondage.”

Boudica Statue

Statue of Boudica

When the battle began, the Roman’s narrow line stood fast as the Britons rushed toward them, hurling their weapons. The legionnaires then moved together as one unit and hurled 6,000 – 7,000 javelins, followed by a second round. When Boudica’s front line fell, her remaining warriors had to climb over dead bodies or carry the stricken forward for the final assault. The Romans formed a wedge and pushed their shields forward, crushing Celtic warriors together so they could not use their long swords. The cavalry cut down any Briton who broke and ran.

After suffering heavy casualties in the long engagement, the remaining Britons took flight, but wagons which carried their families obstructed the escape. What followed was a horrible slaughter. No Briton was spared regardless of age or sex. Tacitus reported that 80,000 Britons were put to the sword while the Romans lost about 400 men—a number most likely exaggerated.

After her defeat, Boudica either died of illness or poisoned herself.

Dying Gladiator

Statue Dying Celt

Aftermath of Revolt

Reinforcements from northern Europe had to be sent to bolster Paulinus in Britain, which gives some indication that the Roman losses were substantial. The wrath and fury of Paulinus against the Britons were said to be sanctified by Mars Ultor, the Roman god of vengeance. Romans troops seized and destroyed storehouses and standing crops belonging to various tribes, leading to widespread famine.

Celtic Storehouse for Grains

Celtic Storehouse for Grains

Government officials in Britain became disgruntled with Paulinus for his handling of the crisis that created so much havoc. There had rarely been such a revolt of such magnitude and ferocity recorded in the Roman annals. Thus, the Roman government reversed its policy towards Britain and replaced Paulinus with another governor. Military action was replaced with tact and diplomacy to calm the Celtic rulers.

One of the greatest ironies of this revolt is the Brigantes Celtic queen, Cartimandua, flourished with more wealth and power as rewards for her loyalty to Rome. If she had joined forces with Boudica, it is unlikely Paulinus would have survived the war on two fronts.

In future posts, the Celtic druidic priesthood and the Celtic religious beliefs will be further discussed.

References:

Graham Webster, Boudica: The British Revolt Against Rome AD AD 60; Reprinted 2004 by Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, London and New York.

Cassius Dio: The Neronian Revolt of the Iceni under Suetonius Paullinus; Book LXII, Chapters 1-12 (AD 61)

Description by Tacitus of the Rebellion of Boudica (AD 60-61) [from the Annual by Tacitus (AD110-120, Box XIV]; Athena Review Vol. 1, No. 1.

Celtic Heroines: Boudica Revolt Against Romans


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“Behold the proud display of warlike spirits, and consider the motives for which we draw the avenging sword. On this spot we must either conquer, or die with glory. There is no alternative. Though a woman, my resolution is fixed; the men, if they please, may survive with infamy, and live in bondage.”–Boudica’s speech to her army; recorded by Tacitus

Introduction

In 60-61 AD, the Romans faced their most fierce vengeance in a revolt led by Boudica, the best known Celtic warrior queen in Britain. A formidable woman of high intelligence, Boudica assembled some 120,000 men and women warriors for her rebellion. Her initial battles with the Romans almost succeeded in driving them out of Britain. The best-known accounts of this revolt were documented by the Roman historians Tacitus in 1st century and Cassius Dio in the 2nd century.

Dio Cassius described the Iceni queen as “very tall in stature, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of an eye most fierce. Around her neck was a large golden torc. She wore a tunic of diverse colors which a thick mantle was fastened with a brooch. She grasped a spear to terrify all beholders.”

Boudica Statue

Statue of Boudica

Events Leading to Revolt

Boudica’s husband, Prasutugus, had during his long reign amassed considerable wealth as the king of the Iceni. Like the Brigantes who were ruled by another warrior queen, Cartimandua, the Iceni had formed an alliance with the Romans that allowed them prosperity and a good measure of independence. Before his death in 60 AD, King Prasutugus bequeathed half of his estate to Rome hoping the gesture would prove his fealty and appease Emperor Nero. The other half was willed to Boudica and their daughters.

Celtic Roundhouse of Chieftain (Interior)

Ancient Celtic Roundhouse of Chieftain (Interior)

However, Nero would not settle for just half when he could have it all—especially if such riches belonged to a mere woman. His subordinates seized the king’s estate and annexed the Iceni territory, reducing its inhabitants to slavery. When Boudica vehemently protested the injustice, Roman soldiers flogged her and raped her two daughters. These proud royal women were deprived of their positions which had been transmitted to them by their ancestors.

Enraged, Boudica took command of her Iceni warriors and joined forces with the Trinovantes, a neighboring state that refused crouching to Roman bondage. In secret councils, the Celtic leaders vowed to stand against the Roman Empire in the cause of liberty. Tacitus quoted Boudica as saying, “I am not fighting for my kingdom and wealth. I am fighting as an ordinary person for my lost freedom, bruised body, and my outraged daughters.”

Celtic Shield British Museum

Celtic Shield La Tène Style

What ignited the Trinovantes to ally with Boudica was the vile conduct of Roman veterans who had no compunction for driving the natives from their homes and treating them with cruelty and oppression. At Camulodunum (Colchester) a temple was built to honor Claudius—a symbol of eternal slavery to the Britons.

In an account by Cassius Dio, Boudica told her followers to accept some of the blame for allowing themselves to be manipulated by the Romans prior to their invasion in 43 AD. “But to speak the plain truth, it is we who have made ourselves responsible for all these evils, in that we allowed them to set foot on the island in the first place instead of expelling them an once as we did their famous Julius Caesar, – yes, and in that we did not deal with them while they were still far away under Augustus and with Gaius Caligula.”

Claudius Bronze Head

Claudius Bonze Head

Destruction of Camulodunum

Tacitus wrote of several omens that foretold the destruction of the Roman capital of Camulodunum. One omen was the statue of the goddess of Victory in the city fell off its base and landed face-down. After this event, women in ecstasy rushed among the people and screamed the Romans would soon meet their doom. Another omen was the image of the colony in ruins seen in the transparent water near the mouth of the Thames. These omens set the stage for inciting the Britons to revolt.

Further, the Roman provincial governor, Seutonius Paulinus, was preoccupied with destroying the druidic power at Mona (Anglesey).

Suetonius Paulinus Statue

Suetonius Paulinus Statue

Fearing the crisis at Camulodunum could erupt into a rebellion, Roman veterans requested reinforcements from Catus Decianus, the procurator of the province, to defend their city. The procurator only spared two hundred men to quash the uprising. The Romans had hoped to make their stand at the fortified temple of Claudius. However, Boudica’s army demolished the unguarded city, besieging the last defenders in the temple for two days before it fell. Archaeologists have shown that the city was methodically laid to waste with fire and sword.

The ninth Roman legion was sent to relieve the city. Before battling these military forces, Boudica offered a hare to the war goddess, Andastre. Then the Britons rushed into battle and annihilated the Roman army.

Counterattack by Seutonius

Suetonius marched back through Britain as far as Londonium (London), the center for trade and commerce. He had counted on Boudica attacking this settlement, but she instead moved twenty miles north to Verulamium (St. Albans) which her army sacked.

Verulamium City Wall Remains

Verulamium Excavations Ancient Roman City Wall

Meanwhile, Seutonius fortified his forces with the fourteenth legion and auxiliaries from adjacent stations, and drafted men of fighting age. He left Londonium undefended despite the inhabitants’ pleas to stay so he could confront Boudica. However, she attacked the defenseless Londonium, determined to exact her revenge on the Romanized citizens.

Tacitus wrote, “They [Boudica and her warriors] wasted no time in getting down to the bloody business of hanging, burning, and crucifying.”

To be Continued

The warrior queen then turned her attention to Seutonius, tracking him down north of London. The next post will detail the final battle between Boudica and Seutonius.

References:

Jeannine Davis-Kimball, Ph.D., Warrior Women: An Archaeologist’s Search for History Hidden Heroines; 2002; Warner Books, Inc., New York.

Cassius Dio: The Neronian Revolt of the Iceni under Suetonius Paullinus; Book LXII, Chapters 1-12 (AD 61)

Description by Tacitus of the Rebellion of Boudica (AD 60-61) [from the Annual by Tacitus (AD 110-120), Book XIV]; Athena Review Vol. 1, No. 1.

Celtic Heroines: Backdrop for Boudica’s Revolt


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“You have learned by actual experience how different freedom is from slavery…how much better is poverty with no master than wealth with slavery.”–Boudica’s Speech to Followers, as recorded by Cassius Dio


Introduction

Although the highest political authority for the Celtic Society was often vested in males, women occasionally became ruling queens and military leaders. The practice of bearing arms was relatively common among women. Tacticus, the first-century Roman historian, wrote the Britons, “are used to women commanders in war.”

Boudica was the best known warrior queen in Britain. A Briton of royal family and high intelligence, she assembled some 120,000 men and women warriors for her revolt. She was one of the most formidable opponents the Romans faced in their history. Dio Cassius, more than a century later, described the Iceni queen as “very tall in stature, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of an eye most fierce, harsh in voice…and with a mass of bright red hair falling to her hips.”

Boudica Statue

Statue of Boudica

To better understand the reasons for the ferocity of her vengeance, below is a backdrop of Roman atrocities that set the stage for Boudica’s revolt, beginning in Gaul and spilling into Britain.

Caesar’s Decimation of Gaul

In first-century BC, the heartland of the great Celtic culture was Gaul (modern day France). The Roman conquest and downfall of Gaul is detailed in accounts of Julius Caesar. By any standards, the campaign in Gaul was an appalling holocaust of the Celtic people. In 60 BC, Gaul probably had some six million inhabitants. Ten years later, 1 million had been killed and another 1 million sold into slavery, a scale of oppression comparable to Hitler in the Second World War.

Julius Caesar Statue

Statue of Julius Caesar

The primary motivation for Caesar’s attacking Gaul was to enhance his own position in the Roman Republic and to amass slaves whom he could sell to clear his heavy debts. One tactic he often used was to ally with the Celtic kings under the guise of helping them defend their homelands from invading Germanians or other Celtic tribes. Needless to say, his ultimate goal was to steal their lands so he could embellish his reputation and enrich himself in advance of taking ultimate power in Rome.

Caesar took pleasure in chronicling the ferocity of his conquest, including:

  • Hundreds of thousands of deaths among the Helvetii
  • Massacre of all elders of the Veniti
  • Virtual destruction of the Nervii
  • Sale of 53,000 Atuatuci as slaves in a single auction
Dying Gladiator

Statue Dying Gaul

Many of these Gallic people escaped to southeast Britain, but the remainder were eventually acculturated and assimilated into the Roman Empire. It is likely Latin supplanted Gaulish as the dominant language in the core areas of Gaul within a century of the conquest.

However, the Britons would not go down as easily.

Ancient Roman Ship Frieze

Roman Ship Image on Frieze


Roman Conquest of Britain

The initial Roman invasion of Britain in 43 AD under Emperor Claudius met little resistance, in part, due to alliances Rome had made with powerful Celtic rulers. The situation quickly changed in 48-54 AD when the Romans fought Caratacus, a leader who used guerrilla tactics in the western frontier.

Richborough Roman Fort Ruins in Britain

Richborough Fort, Site of Roman Landing in Invasion of Britain in 43 AD

For the Britons, the initial conquest was traumatic. Those who had initially resisted the first invasion were dead, enslaved, or silently seething in anguish. Many of those who had first welcomed Rome now faced the realities of brutal power and corrupt monetary system. The few British nobles who had initially benefited lost their wealth to avaricious traders and touts who swarmed into the country.

In essence, the Britons were not going to accept the Roman way of life.They bitterly resented the Roman bureaucrats who collected taxes in onerous ways. Lands were given to former Roman soldiers who had been brutalized by the harsh army discipline.They treated the natives with total contempt, particularly at Camulodunum (modern day Colchester). Everything in Britain was there for Roman pickings.

Ancient Roman Light House Dover Cliffs

Roman Light House Dover Cliffs

The courage of the rebellious Caratacus encouraged the downtrodden from the various tribes to unite with a new sense of purpose. The powerful druids, Celtic priests, now began to exert their powers to ferment and organize a resistance movement over the whole of Britain.

Advance into Wales

Emperor Claudius and his advisers probably had second thoughts about staying in Britain, as the ease of the initial phase of the conquest dramatically reversed by a wave of savage reaction in the western frontier, with heavy Roman loses. Claudius became woefully indecisive on whether to stay in Britain toward the end of his reign.

Celtic Shield British Museum

Celtic Shield La Tène Style

The Roman indecision about what to do with Britain changed when Nero, at the age of seventeen, became the emperor in 54 AD. In 57 AD, he and his advisers decided to conquer and hold the western frontier of Britain now known as Wales. This decision may have been due to the discovery of gold in central Wales, silver in northern Wales, and copper on the Island of Anglesey.

Ancient Celtic Roundhouse

Ancient Celtic Roundhouse for Popular Assembly in Wales

In 59 AD, Gaius Suetonius Paullinus, a hard uncompromising general, totally lacking the skills needed for a diplomat, was assigned as governor of Britain. His mission was to destroy the druidic power at Anglesey and to conquer Wales. The decision ignited a firestorm that brought ruin upon the Romans. The fact that the leader of the revolt was a woman caused the Romans the greatest shame, as they almost lost the isle of Britain.

To be Continued

The next series posts will detail major events leading up to and during the Boudica’s revolt.

References:

Jeannine Davis-Kimball, Ph.D., Warrior Women: An Archaeologist’s Search for History Hidden Heroines; 2002; Warner Books, Inc., New York.

Cassius Dio: The Neronian Revolt of the Iceni under Suetonius Paullinus; Book LXII, Chapters 1-12 (AD 61)

John Davies, The Celts: Prehistory to Present Day; 2005; United States: Sterling Publishing Co., New York.

Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc.

Golden Age of Celts: Status Built by Battle or Feast


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The whole race [Celts] is made for war. High-spirited and quick to battle.
— Strabo, Greek Historian

GOLDEN AGE OF CELTS

Status-Building in Battle

During the Golden Age of the Celts (Le Tène Period), cattle thievery, slave raiding, and vendettas between clans and tribes formed the basis of low-intensity warfare that permeated the Celtic society. Such conflicts were a starting point for a young warrior to demonstrate his bravery and skills at weapon-handling. But in a society that took personal courage for granted, something more was required to establish a reputation.

One way was to serve as a mercenary in many of the armies during the classical period. Renowned Celtic mercenaries served Hannibal during his invasion of Italy during the Second Punic War that helped establish Rome’s image of Celts as fierce warriors. They also fought in the armies of Syracuse and the successor kingdoms that followed the break-up of Alexander’s empire in Egypt.

Dying Gladiator

Statue Dying Gaul

A distinct group of Celtic mercenaries called the Gaesatae joined the Cisalpine Gauls in the battle of Telemon against the Romans. These mercenaries were outside the normal social structure of the clan and tribes. The Celtic word geissi—bonds, taboos, or sacred rule of conduct—suggests these warriors had a strong spiritual aspect to their life, which will be further examined in later posts. It was the custom of Gaesatae to fight naked in battle which could be interpreted as a ritual action.

Talamone

Location of Battle of Telemon (Wikipedia)

Clearly, many Celts looked for fame and future in the lucrative Mediterranean world with the hope of returning home with their reputations established. Mercenary service also removed young warriors from the tribe at a time when their drive to achieve high status was at their most intense. Control of imported goods, especially gold coins and Italian wine, also guaranteed a large following.

Replica Celtic Helmet Britain

British Celtic Helmet

Potlach

Previous posts highlighted that trade with the Mediterranean had significant impact on the Celtic society. Nobles rewarded warriors and other clients with foreign luxuries, the value of which was measured by the influence it could command by giving it away. This method of redistributing prestigious items to increase status is called potlatch.

The 1st Century BC Greek historian, Poseidonius, gave an account of Lovernius, a Celtic noble who attempted to win popular support by driving his chariot across his territory and distributing gold and silver to those who followed him. Moreover, he set-up separate enclosures one and one-half miles on each side within which he filled vats with expensive liquor and prepared food for all who wished to feast—an important social gathering not unlike today’s celebrations. The feasts were usually wild and drunken, sometimes even deadly. Nonetheless, strict ritual rules were adhered.

Celtic Roundhouse of Chieftain (Interior)

Ancient Celtic Roundhouse of Chieftain (Interior)

Wild Celtic Feasts

Strict ceremonial rules were observed for seating participants according to rank and prowess. Poseidonius describes the arrangement as follows:

“…they sit in a circle with the most influential man in the center, whether he is the greatest in warlike skill, nobility of family or wealth. Beside him sat the host and on either side of them were others in order of distinction. Their shield bearers stood behind them while the spearmen were seated on the opposite end. All feasted in common with their lords.”

Celtic Hearth in Roundhouse Used for Popular Assembly

Hearth in Celtic Roundhouse Used for Popular Assembly

Also in attendance were bards who sang praises of their patrons’ lineage, bravery, and wealth. Their songs could praise and satirize their patron, thus encouraging nobles and warriors to be even more generous during the feast. Strangers could also share the meal before they were asked their name and business.

Celtic Sword

Celtic Sword and Scabbard

Everyone had a piece of meat according to the status. Traditionally, the greatest warrior had the choicest cut, consisting of the thigh. When the hindquarters were served, another warrior could claim it and fight in a single combat to the death against the champion to elevate his status. Others sought to reinforce their status through mock battle engagement that might escalate into more serious violence, possibly death. Poseidonius writes:

“The Celts engage in single combat at dinner. Assembling in arms, they engage in mock battle drill and mutual thrust and parry. Sometimes wounds were inflicted, and the irritation caused by this may even lead to the killing of the opponent, unless they were held back by their friends.”

Celtic Shield British Museum

Celtic Shield La Tène Style

Conclusions

According to Caesar, the bravery of the Celts sprang from their lack of fear of death, the result of their belief that the soul does not die. The classical authors, Caesar, Lucan, and Diodorus Siculus, in particular, emphasized the Celtic belief in metempsychosis—that after death the soul passes from one body to another, or reincarnation after death. This may, in part, explain the Celts’ belief in the importance of establishing their status in preparation for the journey to the Otherworld.

Not only did Celtic men fight bravely in battle, but historical accounts and mythology provide evidence that women held equal standing to men and often fought in battles and served as military and spiritual leaders. This will be discussed in the next post.

References:

John Davies, The Celts: Prehistory to Present Day;  2005. United States: Sterling Publishing Co., New York.
Stephen Allen, Celtic Warrior: 300 BC — AD 100; 2001. Osprey Publishing LTD., Westminster, MD, USA.
Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc.

Celtic Warrior Nobility—Hierarchical Society


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We have only to follow the thread of the hero path, and where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god. Where we had thought to travel outward, we will come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we will be with all the world—Joseph Campbell

CELTIC WARRIOR NOBILITY

The previous post in APOLLO’S RAVEN discussed how Romans viewed Celts as fierce warriors, due to their long conflict between 390-285 BC. This image had a long-lasting impact, evidenced by stereotypical comments made by Julius Caesar and Cicero in mid-1st Century BC:

  • Many Celts fought naked in battle
  • Celts had a ritual concept of warfare
  • Issues could be resolved through single combat
  • Triumphant noise and bragger were as important as the fight itself
  • For a warrior to maintain honor after a defeat in battle, he had to commit suicide
  • Attacks involved initial ferocious onslaughts, but quickly gave way to wild despair if initial charge was left unchecked
  • Celts were barbarians lacking methodological discipline, hallmark of their civilization.

However, Celts were also described as heroic, their society dominated by a warrior nobility whose lives were spent in perpetual conflict. Rich grave goods, including weapons and armor, together with later myths and legends, reinforced this image. Julius Caesar indicated that there were only two privileged classes in Celtic society: the druids [spiritual adviser] and warrior nobles. The common people were treated almost as slaves.

Dying Gladiator

Statue Dying Gaul

Warfare and conflict played an essential part of the maintenance of the very fabric of the Celtic society, itself.  Their hierarchical society perpetuated conflict with young warriors seeking their fortunes and prestige through plundering and reputations in warfare.

Hierarchical Society

Celtic society was made up of extended families and clans grouped together to form territorial-based tribes, which were ruled by a king or high chieftain, often in pairs. By mid-1st Century BC, some tribes elected magistrates to rule in Gaul (modern day France), in many ways similar to Roman consuls. Nonetheless, magistrates had limited power. Most decisions were made or endorsed by a popular assembly of all free men in the tribe. Real power was held by a smaller council of leading nobles, among whom kings and chieftains were chosen.

Celtic Roundhouse Used for Assembly

Ancient Celtic Roundhouse Used for Public Assembly

Although we know very little about the common people, they were not slaves in the classical sense. Yet slave raiding was a principal motive for Celtic warfare. Captives were traded for luxury goods from Greece and Rome.

Greek Amphorae

Greek Wine Amphorae

The role of the Celtic warrior nobility was to wage war and in doing so, increase their personal reputation in the eyes of his peers. Caesar wrote: “Whenever war broke out and the services of a king’s subjects were required…they all took field, surrounded by their retainers and dependents of whom each noble has a greater or smaller number according to his birth or fortune. The only possession of such a following was the only criterion of influence and power they recognize.”

Celtic Roundhouse of Chieftain (Interior)

Ancient Celtic Roundhouse of Chieftain (Interior)

Having a large number of attendants was a reflection of a Celtic noble’s standing in society.  The Greek historian, Polybius, wrote that comradeship was treated with the greatest importance. Those among them who were most feared and most powerful had the largest number of attendants and associates.

Clientage was an agreement of mutual obligation where the lower ranking would pledge their fealty to the king or chieftain in return for security, patronage, and employment. Hence, common people labored for free men of the tribe who were entitled to attend the popular assembly and make decisions. Free men would in turn support the king in peace and above all war. It was an agreement that was closely bound to personal honor. For those who did not meet their obligations, dire consequences could befall them. Clients also extended to other tribes and even between tribes themselves. However, the continual competition for wealth, power, and influence gave rise to a hierarchy that was inherently unstable, as freemen could aspire to a noble status.

Celtic Village of Roundhouses

Ancient Celtic Village of Roundhouses

Hostage-Taking

Clientage was often reinforced by the exchange of hostages or the foster of children in the household of a patron. A previous post in APOLLO’S RAVEN also discussed how Rome used this strategy to acculturate the people they conquered or politically influenced.

The legend of King Arthur tells how the young prince was raised secretly in the household of Sir Ector with his foster brother Cai—a relationship that oftentimes had stronger ties than blood in Celtic society. Given the significance of the number seven in Celtic myth, childhood was probably the first seven years of life. Boys reached manhood at the age of fourteen. According to their social rank, they were allowed the right to bear arms. Girls were considered eligible for marriage at the same age.

Celtic Wooden Shield

Ancient Celtic Shield

For young nobles and sons of freemen who had been fostered, reaching fourteen meant it was time to become the client of a famous lord or attempt to attract a following of their own. In Wales, such warrior retinues were called cantrefs. Junior warriors would follow experienced warriors whose success would bring them a greater chance for wealth and glory.

The next series of posts will continue to explore the Celtic warrior culture and the importance of a chieftain to display his status and power through feasting and sharing his wealth.

References:

John Davies, The Celts: Prehistory to Present Day;  2005. United States: Sterling Publishing Co., New York.
Stephen Allen, Celtic Warrior: 300 BC — AD 100; 2001. Osprey Publishing LTD., Westminster, MD, USA.
Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc.
Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth; 1988; Anchor Books Doubleday, New York.

 

 

Celtic Cultural Identity: Art, Language, Hierarchy–Apollo’s Raven


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The animal envoys of the Unseen Power no longer serve, as in primeval times, to teach and to guide mankind. Bears, lions, elephants, ibexes, and gazelles are in cages in our zoos—Joseph Campbell

Introduction

Celtic symbolic lore conjures images of magic, warriors, hill fort castles, and animal spirits. Each Celtic locality throughout Europe had differences, but there were common cultural characteristics that spurred the 5th Century BC Greek writer Ephoros to describe them as one of the four great barbarian peoples, together with the Scythians, the Persians, and the Libyans, who lived beyond the confines of the ‘Classical Mediterranean world’. Common threads of art, language, and hierarchical structure weaved these tribal communities into a distinct Celtic cultural identity.

Celtic Cultural Identity

Craftsmanship

During the La Tène period beginning in 450 BC, the Celts were on the move and seeking riches and glory by plundering. Also the Celtic warrior society was developing a unique craftsmanship that was distinctive from the classical art of peoples they invaded along the Mediterranean. The Celtic craftsmanship was more abstract—elusive, dream-like, shape-shifting, fantastical, and zoomorphic. The Irish novelist and broadcaster, Frank Delaney, described the art as ‘a tendril of a plant teased into itself, then spun outwards until it becomes a pattern, a whorl, a whole inner world, leaping, coiling, dancing.”

Celtic Gold Clasp

Two-headed Celtic Gold Clasp

This eloquent craftsmanship reflects the rich mythology of a Celtic-speaking people who at one time spread from Britain across continental Europe to Russia and Turkey. These patterns symbolized their belief that worlds of the living and the dead connect with each other; souls reincarnate into other living beings. Why should a warrior fear dying in battle when life and death hold hands in a continuum? Brass cauldrons were crafted with images of zoomorphic gods featuring both human and animal forms. The antlered god, Cernunnos, was possibly the patron of the chase and lord of the forest. Warriors called upon animal spirits for their strength, swiftness, and cunning. Another favorite was the goddess Epona, who the Romans adopted as their own for protecting their horses.

There are different theories as to whether the widespread discovery of La Tène artifacts was the result of Celtic acculturation or invasion. Surely, the southward and south-eastward expansion was the result of raiding on rich cities and sanctuaries replete with prestige objects. And of course, the lands of wine they craved. Although these tribal communities displayed a degree of unity in their craftsmanship, there were distinct differences in the local communities. For example, the La Tène art was rare in Spain and Ireland.

Celtic Round House Blacksmith

Celtic Round House MetalsWorker

Most mainland Celts built square houses, while those of the islands and parts of Iberia built round ones. Wheel-made pottery appeared in the mainland La Tène core but was not used in Britain until first century BC.

Celtic Hill Fort

Celtic Village Round Houses

Celtic Language

Although a common Celtic language was spoken over very extensive regions, its characteristics were complicated by the likelihood that its speakers were in close contact with speakers of a variety of other languages. It has been difficult to reconstruct the ancestral language as most written accounts were derived from Greek and Roman historians. We can’t assume that there was monolingual uniformity in any inhabited area in ancient times.

The classical authors disrespected the Celts because of their reluctance to commit to writing. Rather, Celtic priests memorized their rituals. Minstrel bards sung of a ruler’s bravery—or ridiculed them—depending on the noble’s generosity. Nonetheless, Celtic words and inscriptions have been found on ceramics, weapons, coins, and metal and stone monuments at various locations throughout Europe. The scripts employed were mostly borrowed from neighboring people: Etruscan, Phoenicians, Iberians, Greeks, and Romans. Though the linguistic evidence is fractured and incomplete, it provides evidence that Celtic was indeed spoken from Spain to Turkey, from Ireland to Pannonia, and from Belgium to Italy.

Other Common Markers of Celtic Identity

Other markers for Celtic identity were religion, warfare, and hierarchical structure. But even these attributes varied from region to region. For example, the war chariot was an integral part of warfare in 1st century BC Britain, but had been abandoned in Gaul (modern day France) at least a century earlier. Previous posts on Apollo’s Raven described how Briton charioteers reeked havoc on Roman legionnaires in Caesar’s invasion in 55 BC.

Replica Celtic Helmet Britain

British Celtic Helmet

In general, the La Tène society appeared to be highly hierarchical in their communities, though inlet Britain probably had a simpler, more egalitarian structure. Celtic rulers were originally considered semi-divine figures, but by the 1st century power was in the hands of an aristocracy with one or more chief magistrates in Gaul. In his accounts, Julius Caesar regarded only two classes of any status in the Celtic society—the druids (spiritual leaders) and the knights (noble warriors)—which were evidenced in Irish and Welsh culture.

Celtic Chieftain's Round House

Celtic Round House of Chieftain

 Conclusions

The Celts had profound local and strong diversities, but they also had common craftsmanship, language, and hierarchical structure that gave them a distinct Celtic cultural identity. The next series of posts will delve into the warrior and spiritual culture (spirit warriors) that inspired the rich Celtic mythology.

References:

John Davies, The Celts: Prehistory to Present Day;  2005; United States: Sterling Publishing Co., New York.
Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc.
Delaney, Frank, The Celts (London, 1986)
Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers; An Anchor Book published by Doubleday, New York, 1988