Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Dispelling Some Myths: Ancient Britons

In AD 60/61, after appalling treatment by the Romans, Queen Boudica of the Iceni tribe declared war on the oppressors. The Britons sacked Camulodunum (Colchester), destroyed several Cohorts of Legio IX Hispana[1], laid waste to Londinuim (London) and Verulamium (now St Albans) before meeting the Roman force hurrying to stop them. The final confrontation, known today as the Battle of Watling Street, took place somewhere in the Midlands along the route of the Roman road after which it now named.[2] There are a number of theories on where this battle actually took place but as yet no direct archaeological evidence has been unearthed confirming its location. What we know of the battle is derived from a handful of paragraphs written by the Roman author Tacitus[3].

He tells us that the Roman governor of Britannia, Suetonius Paulinus, "had already the 14th legion, with a detachment of the 20th and auxiliaries from the nearest stations, altogether some ten thousand armed men."[4] The size of Boudica's army, however, is unclear. Tacitus simply says there were "unprecedented numbers" of Britons, while a later author, Cassius Dio, claims Boudica had "an army of about 230,000 men"[5].

Regardless of the numbers quoted, a much smaller force of heavily armed, and armoured, Romans formed their battle lines ready to face thousands of proud, naked, Woad-painted Celts. At least that is what many populist historians or commentators will tell you in documentaries or in print. However, those three highlighted words, used so frequently to describe the ancient Britons, are a bit of a problem. What evidence we have simply does not support the scandalous nature of such salacious claims.

Just over one hundred years earlier, Gaius Julius Caesar mounted what is best described as a "reconnaissance in force" on two occasions, first in 55 BC and a year later in 54 BC. While not really an invasion, or indeed particularly successful, Caesar gives us our first written description of the Britons he encountered, and their tactics, in his "Commentaries on the Gallic War" (Commentāriī dē Bellō Gallicō)":

"Their manner of fighting from chariots is as follows. First of all they drive in all directions and hurl missiles, and so by the mere terror that the teams inspire and by the noise of the wheels they generally throw ranks into confusion. When they have worked their way in between the troops of cavalry, they leap down from the chariots and fight on foot. Meanwhile the charioteers retire gradually from the combat, and dispose the chariots in such fashion that, if the warriors are hard pressed by the host of the enemy, they may have a ready means of retirement to their own side. Thus they show in action the mobility of cavalry and the stability of infantry; and by daily use and practice they become so accomplished that they are ready to gallop their teams down the steepest of slopes without loss of control, to check and turn them in a moment, to run along the pole, stand on the yoke, and then, quick as lightning, to dart back into the chariot."[6]

By Boudica's time, the use of chariots other than a form of transport was largely outdated as a battlefield tactic. Cassius Dio mentions the Briton's use of chariots in the battle but other than having Boudica standing in one to address her warriors, Tacitus does not.[7]

Naked Warriors Notice that at no point does Caesar (nor indeed do Tacitus or Dio) mention warriors going into battle "naked". Caesar does, however, describe the typical Briton as having long hair, and shaving every part of the body save the head and the upper lip[8]. Might this be the root of the popular belief in naked warriors?

Before Caesar, the Greek historian Polybius described, in his "Histories", the events of 225 BC when the Gauls of northern Italy marched on Rome. Despite initial success and the defeat of a Roman army at Faesulae, the Gauls were later trapped by two Roman armies and defeated in turn at the Battle of Telamon. Polybius' description is significant because it includes one of the earliest references to warriors fighting naked[9][10]:

"The Insubres and Boii wore their trousers and light cloaks, but the Gaesatae[11] had discarded these garments owing to their proud confidence in themselves, and stood naked, with nothing but their arms, in front of the whole army".

Despite being "very terrifying", the Gaesetae quickly discovered that their nakedness was no defence against Roman javelins. As Polybius writes: "the Gaulish shield does not cover the whole body; so that their nakedness was a disadvantage, and the bigger they were, the better chance had the missiles of going home." Like many ancient authors, Polybius often includes examples such as the Gaesetae because they deviate from the norm and thereby he is drawing the readers attention to something unfamiliar. The Gaesetae, therefore, were unusual, and it is probably reasonable to conclude that Iron Age warriors did not go in to battle naked, Britons included.

Manuscripts, like those of Polybius, were frequently written in ancient Greek and this can create some interesting problems with translation. The Greek word γυμνός (gumnós), for example, can be translated as "naked" but it can also mean "without armour" or "defenceless" (see right). So, when an author such as Polybius uses γυμνός to describe someone going into battle, does he mean actually "naked" or merely without armour or some other form of protection? If we accept Polybius' example of the Gaesetae represent the exception, then the latter translation seems more likely. Moreover, at a time when wearing the best armour you can afford was symbolic of your wealth and status, why would anyone choose to dispense with it. Going in to battle is neither a healthy or safe thing to do, so wearing any form of armour offers both a physical and psychological protection. Naked - I think not.

Woad So, if Boudica's warriors are unlikely to be fighting au naturel, what about the belief that all Briton were covered in swirling patterns of Woad? The evidence often quoted for Britons painting (tattooing?) their bodies with Woad also has its origin in Caesar's "Commentaries "[8]:

"...All the Britons, indeed, dye themselves with Woad, which produces a blue colour, and makes their appearance in battle more terrible."

The argument for this being yet another fallacy can be found here. Suffice to say, in his "Commentaries", Caesar penned the phrase: "Omnes vero se Britanni vitro inficiunt, quod caeruleum efficit colorem". Unfortunately, this makes little sense since it roughly translates as: "All the British dye themselves with glass, which produces a blue colour."  The word "vitro" is derived from the Latin word "vitrum" meaning a type of blue-green glass favoured by the Romans.  Perhaps Caesar was making the analogy between the Briton's body decoration and the blue-green colour of a familiar type of glass. We cannot be certain, but it is only much later that scholars began to equate "vitrum" with Woad (Isatis tinctoria), an indigenous plant that produces an indigo/blue dye from its leaves.  Sadly, many modern lexicons now assert this as a fact so that now "vitrum" is given a subsidiary meaning relating to Woad that is both incorrect and misleading. Once again, like fighting "naked", the idea of Woad-painted Britons is unlikely[12].

Britons not Celts Ancient Britons are often referred to as "Celts" but even this is not entirely true. The ancient Greeks have given us the terms Κελτοί (Keltoi) or "Celtae" for a group of people spread across Europe and the Iberian Peninsula from the Black Sea to the Atlantic Ocean and from the North Sea and Denmark down to the Mediterranean. Unlike today, the Greeks did not mean Keltoi to be used as definitive and collective term knowing full well that the different tribes across Europe maintained their own distinct identities. More significantly, classical writers did not apply the term Keltoi to the inhabitants of Britain or Ireland. This has led a number of scholars to question the use of the term "Celt" to describe the Iron Age inhabitants of these islands.[13]

The first historical account of the islands of Britain and Ireland was by
Pytheas, a Greek geographer and explorer from the city of Massalia, who around 310-306 BC, sailed around what he called the "Pretannikai nesoi", which can be translated as the "Pretannic Isles".[14] In general, classical writers referred to the inhabitants of Britain as Pretannoi or Britanni.[15] Strabo, writing in the Roman era, clearly distinguished between the Iron Age tribes of mainland Europe - the so-called "Celts" - and Britons.[16]

Trying to maintain this distinction is problematic, however. From about 300 BC onwards, the ancient Briton's are noted as having similar art and cultural practices to the peoples nearest them on the continent. In the past this was explained by a migration, in the Iron Age, of "Celts" from continental Europe who brought with them their languages, culture and genes. More recently, in the 20th-century, the idea of cultural exchange began to replace this traditional view. The La Tène style, which is taken to define what is called "Celtic" art in the Iron Age, no longer needed an "invasion" to explain its arrival in Britain; simply trade and a wider exchange of ideas. Any observable differences in artistic styles might support the idea of Britons being distinct from their continental "cousins", and yet the cultural similarities are so apparent that confusing British with "Celtic" or assuming the Britons were "Celts" is completely understandable.

So, what can we conclude? Firstly, despite its hold on popular imagination, the practice of entering combat "naked" is rare and appears only in a handful of classical sources. Even then the authors are probably guilty of sensationalism to titillate their readers, much as still happens today. It is more likely that the art of ancient Greece, which established an artistic convention of "heroic nudity" (e.g. "The Dying Gaul"[17] shown right), still colours our perception.

Talking of colour, Caesar seems to be our original source for the myth about Woad (and for druids, but that is a separate topic covered here). Woad is certainly a great source of dye for cloth but it is pretty poor as a body decoration. There are also the problems of translation: Caesar's use of the word "vitrum" has now been conflated misleadingly with Woad, and do ancient authors actually mean naked or simply without armour?

And finally, our classical authors recognised there was a distinction between Britons and "Celts", but too many modern commentators seemingly cannot. Perhaps it is our appetite for simple explanations, for assigning neat labels to complex issues, that has actually created the confusion and in doing so has diminished the Britons and the Iron Age tribes to a homogenised, pan-European collective. All of which fuels a desire to see the tired, stereotypical trope describing ancient Britons as "Celts" who go into battle "naked" after painting their bodies with Woad finally consigned to history.


1. According to Tacitus: "Caesar...sent over from Germany two thousand legionaries, eight cohorts of auxiliaries, and a thousand cavalry. Their advent allowed the gaps in the 9th legion to be filled with regular troops; the allied foot and horse were stationed in new winter quarters; and the tribes which had shown themselves dubious or disaffected were harried with fire and sword." Of note 2,000 legionary replacements, even being sceptical of Tacitus’ numbers, does not lend much substance to the 9th Legion being exterminated as many authors and TV historians habitually report. This is also the same Legion that did not “mysteriously disappear” in Caledonia (modern Scotland). Thanks to Rosemary Sutcliffe’s novel “The Eagle of the Ninth”, however, that’s another story.
2. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica entry, Watling Street ran from Dover west-northwest to London and thence northwest via St. Albans (Verulamium) to Wroxeter (Viroconium). It was one of Britain’s greatest arterial roads of the Roman and post-Roman periods. The name came from a group of Anglo-Saxon settlers who called Verulamium by the name of Wætlingaceaster. This local name passed to the whole of the Roman road (Wæclinga stræt) by the 9th-century. The tendency to give the name to other main roads is post-medieval and is often mere antiquarianism.
3. Tacitus, "Annals", Book XIV, Chapters 34-37, Loeb Classical Library (1937), retrieved on July 18th, 2020 from LacusCurtius.
4. Op. cit., Chapter 34.
5. Cassius Dio, "Roman History", Epitome of Book LXII, Chapter 8, Loeb Classical Library (1925), retrieved on July 24th, 2020 from LacusCurtius. Earlier, in Chapter 2, Dio states Boudica "assembled her army, to the number of some 120,000". The strength of armies given by ancient authors are notoriously unreliable.
6. Caesar, G.J, Commentāriī dē Bellō Gallicō (Commentaries on the Gallic War), Book IV, Chapter 33, Loeb Classical Library (1917), retrieved on July 18th, 2020 from LacusCurtius.
7. Neither is wholly reliable but the author favours Tacitus over Dio. The latter was probably drawing on Tacitus when writing his "Roman History" which, if correct, means one does not corroborate the other. Moreover, Dio is by far the more "tabloid" author and it is from him that the more salacious stories are often quoted.
8. Op. cit., Book V, Chapter 14, Loeb Classical Library (1917), retrieved on July 24th, 2020 from LacusCurtius.
9. Polybius, The Histories, Book II, Chapter 28, Loeb Classical Library (1922-27), retrieved on July 18th, 2020 from LacusCurtius.
10. Born at the beginning of the 2nd-century BC, Polybius probably gleaned his information from official sources and may even have spoken to eyewitnesses to the events of 225 BC.
11. In 225 BC, the Boii and Insubres paid large sums of money to the Gaesatae, mercenaries from Transalpine Celtic territories, to fight with them against Rome. Although we are told they discarded their clothes, many of the warriors would have retained their shields.
12. That is not the same as claiming there was not a tradition of tattooing the skin just that Woad was not the medium used.
13. Pryor, F. (2004), Britain BC, Harper Perennial.
14. Collis, J. (2003), The Celts: Origins, Myths and Inventions, Tempus Publishing, Stroud, p. 125.
15. Op. cit., p. 180.
16. Op. cit., p. 27.
17. "The Dying Gaul", also called The Dying Galatian or The Dying Gladiator, is an ancient Roman marble semi-recumbent statue now in the Capitoline Museums in Rome. It is a copy of a now lost sculpture from the Hellenistic period (323-31 BC) thought to have been made in bronze.

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