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Roman Perceptions of Britain

"We are the last people on earth, and the last to be free: our very remoteness in a land known only to rumour has protected us up till this day. Today the furthest bounds of Britain lie open—and everything unknown is given an inflated worth. But now there is no people beyond us, nothing but tides and rocks and, more deadly than these, the Romans."

Tacitus, Agricola (XXX)

One attraction that Britain held for those who sought to conquer that distant land was the very difficulty in doing so. Surrounded by Ocean, the conquest of such a place only could enhance the prestige of one bold enough to make the attempt. Before the Battle of Mons Graupius, Agricola encouraged his men by reminding them that dying for their country was magnified by the very remoteness of the site. "And, if we must perish, it would be no mean glory to fall where land and nature end" (XXXIII).

The words above of Calgacus that rumor has protected the Caledonians would have been cold comfort to the Roman commanderas all things are "exaggerated, as the unknown usually is, by rumour" (Agricola, XXV). This relationship between the unknown faraway and the fear of it can be seen as well in Strabo's comments on Ireland. Lying beyond Britain, the men there were rumored to be even more debased, who slay and eat their fathers, and sleep with their mothers and sisters (IV.5.4; also Diodorus Siculus, V.32.3). It is "the home of men who are complete savages and lead a miserable existence because of the cold; and therefore, in my opinion, the northern limit of our inhabited world is to be placed there" (II.5.8). The farther away from the civilizing influence of Rome, in other words, and the more mysterious and unknown the land, the more fearsome and barbaric its inhabitants.

In this sense, Britain is less a geographical entity than an ideological counterpoint, its barbarity a foil to Roman civilization. Almost immediately, certain literary convention or topos begin to emphasize the difference between Rome and this other place. Writing in August 54 BC, Cicero implores his brother, who is with Caesar, "Just give me Britain, so that I may paint it with your colours, but with my own brush" (Letters to Quintus, II.13.2). There is distant Britain, the "furthest people of the world" (Horace, Odes, I.35.29, IV.14.47), set in an unknown sea (Seneca, Apocolocyntosis, XII), where even the signs of the zodiac are not recognizable (Probus on Virgil's Georgics, I.229). It is sundered from the whole world (Virgil, Eclogues, I.66) and so distant that Nemesianus can speak of its swift dogs being sent for hunts "in our world" (Cynegetica, 225). The nights are short (Caesar, Gallic Wars, V.13; Agricola, XII) and the weather miserable, with frequent rain and mists. "I don't want to be Caesar, stroll about among the Britons" Florus writes to Hadrian, "and endure the Scythian winters" (Historia Augusta: Hadrian, XVI.3). It is a savage place (ferox; Agricola, VIII) as are the fierce, inhospitable Britons who live there (Horace, Odes, III.4.33). Those near the coast in Kent may be more civilized, but in the interior they do not cultivate the land but share their wives with family members, live on milk and meat, and wear the skins of animals—behaviors so foreign to the Romans.

Even more indicative of their otherness is that the Britons "dye their bodies with woad, which produces a blue colour" (Caesar, Gallic War, V.14; also Pomponius Mela, III.6.51). Together with the use of chariots, it is a characterizing topos of the natives. Pliny remarks that the wives and daughters-in-law of the Britons "stain all the body" with woad (Natural History, XXII. 2) and Propertius warns his mistress, in painting her own face blue, not to imitate the British (Elegies, II.18c.23). For Ovid, they are "the green painted Britons" (Amores, II.16.39; woad dye can produce a green color). Martial, too, speaks of "woad-stained Britons" (Epigrams, XI.53.1) and "painted Britons," whose rush baskets (bascauda), coincidentally, were exported to Rome (XIV.99). Indeed, they were among the most prized possessions, including purple cloth and chased silver, that Juvenal's friend was obliged to jettison during a storm at sea (Satires, XII.46).

Claudian personifies Britain as "clothed in the skin of some Caledonian beast, her cheeks tattooed, and an azure cloak" (On the Consulship of Stilicho, II.247ff), and Solinus speaks of the Britons decorating their bodies with animal motifs, possibly to endow themselves with their power (Miracles of the World, XXII.12; also Herodian below). But for the Romans such decoration was degrading and used to stigmatize runaway slaves and criminals. Dyed and tattooed, the inhabitants of a remote and barbaric land, who fought and lived in such an alien fashion, the Britons must have fascinated the Romans.

And, to be sure, after the successful expeditions of Caesar, there was talk that Augustus would conquer the island but, with one distraction after another (Dio, XLIX.38.2; LIII.22.5, 25.2), a campaign never was realizedwhich allowed Strabo to make the excuse that, since Britain was "virtually Roman property" (IV.5.3), its conquest was hardly worth the bother,

"particularly if the people live in islands which are of such a nature that they can neither injure nor benefit us in any way because of their isolation. For although they could have held even Britain, the Romans scorned to do so, because they saw that there was nothing at all to fear from the Britons (for they are not strong enough to cross over and attack us), and that no corresponding advantage was to be gained by taking and holding their country" (II.5.8).

The attempt to subdue Germany had ended in disaster at Teutoburg (AD 9) and a chastened Augustus advised at his death "the restriction of the empire within its present frontiers" (Tacitus, Annals, I.11), an admonishment that his successor Tiberius was inclined to follow. Caligula did plan an invasion of Britain in AD 40 but, after all his forces had been assembled, countermanded the order and contented himself with having legionaries gather seashells by the shore (Suetonius, XLVI). It is not surprising, then, that Claudius himself, in need of a personal triumph and confronting an increasingly rebellious island, resolved to invade "a land that had been attempted by no one since the Deified Julius" (Suetonius, XVII.1). Such rhetoric is a cautionary note that the Roman image of Britain often was an invention to promote imperial power and prestige. Indeed, Claudian propaganda makes much of the fact that he was the first to subjugate the Britons, as declared by the fragmentary inscription on the attic of the Arch of Claudius.

If Britain itself was "totally cut off from the whole world" (Virgil, Eclogues, I.66), the northern part of the island was even more forbidding, almost a world unto itself.

"But when you go farther North you find a huge and shapeless tract of country, jutting out towards the land's end and finally tapering into a kind of wedge.... Nowhere does the sea hold wider sway; it carries to and fro in its motion a mass of currents, and, in its ebb and flow, is not held by the coast, but passes deep inland and winds about, pushing in among the highlands and mountains, as if in its own domain" (Agricola, X).

The inhabitants are equally mysterious. Cassius Dio speaks of Severus' campaign in northern Britain and the tribes of that strange land. They are a formidable adversary.

"There are two principal races of the Britons, the Caledonians and the Maeatae, and the names of the others have been merged in these two. The Maeatae live next to the cross-wall which cuts the island in half, and the Caledonians are beyond them. Both tribes inhabit wild and waterless mountains and desolate and swampy plains, and possess neither walls, cities, nor tilled fields, but live on their flocks, wild game, and certain fruits...They dwell in tents, naked and unshod, possess their women in common, and in common rear all the offspring. Their form of rule is democratic for the most part, and they are very fond of plundering; consequently they choose their boldest men as rulers....They can endure hunger and cold and any kind of hardship; for they plunge into the swamps and exist there for many days with only their heads above water, and in the forests they support themselves upon bark and roots, and for all emergencies they prepare a certain kind of food, the eating of a small portion of which, the size of a bean, prevents them from feeling either hunger or thirst" (Roman History, LXXVII.12.1-4).

Herodian writes, as well, of Severus in Britain.

"Most of Britain is marshland because it is flooded by the continual ocean tides. The barbarians usually swim in these swamps or run along in them, submerged up to the waist. Of course, they are practically naked and do not mind the mud because they are unfamiliar with the use of clothing, and they adorn their waists and necks with iron, valuing this metal as an ornament and a token of wealth in the way that other barbarians value gold. They also tattoo their bodies with various patterns and pictures of all sorts of animals. Hence the reason why they do not wear clothes, so as not to cover the pictures on their bodies. They are very fierce and dangerous fighters, protected only by a narrow shield and a spear, with a sword slung from their naked bodies. They are not familiar with the use of breast-plates and helmets, considering them to be an impediment to crossing the marshes. Because of the thick mist which rises from the marshes, the atmosphere in this region is always gloomy" (III.14.6-8).

Even as late as the sixth century AD, Procopius wrote of the country beyond Hadrian's Wall as being so hostile to human habitation that no-one can survive there. (Curiously, he does not seem to know that it had been constructed by the Romans.)

"Now in this island of Brittia the men of ancient times built a long wall, cutting off a large part of it; and the climate and the soil and everything else is not alike on the two sides of it. For to the south of the wall there is a salubrious air, changing with the seasons, being moderately warm in summer and cool in winter. But on the north side everything is the reverse of this, so that it is actually impossible for a man to survive there even a half-hour, but countless snakes and serpents and every other kind of wild creature occupy this area as their own. And, strangest of all, the inhabitants say that if any man crosses the wall and goes to the other side, he dies straightway, being quite unable to support the pestilential air of that region, and wild animals, likewise, which go there are instantly met and taken by death" (History of the Wars, VIII.20.42-48).

How glorious, then, the victory of Agricola.


One of the wilder areas of Britain is the rocky spur (top) overlooking the River Esk at Hard Knott Pass in Cumbria. It was here that a Roman fort (Mediobogdum) was built at the beginning of Hadrian's reign. Hadrian's Wall is pictured above, with the Roman fort at Housesteads in the distance.


References: Procopius: History of the Wars [The Gothic War] (1924) translated by H. B. Dewing (Loeb Classical Library); Dio's Roman History (1927) translated by Earnest Cary (Loeb Classical Library); Herodian (1969) translated by C. R. Whittaker (Loeb Classical Library); Tacitus on Britain and Germany (1948) translated by H. Mattingly (Penguin Classics); Caesar: The Conquest of Gaul (1982) translated by S. A. Handford (Penguin Classics); Strabo: Geography (1923) translated by Horace L. Jones; The Ancient Explorers (1963) by M. Cary and E. H. Warmington; Tacitus: Agricola and Germany (1999) translated by Anthony R. Birley (Oxford World's Classics); Tacitus: On Britain and Germany (1948) translated by H. Mattingly (Penguin Classics); Pomponius Mela's Description of the World (1998) translated by Frank E. Romer; "Inventing Britain: The Roman Creation and Adaptation of an Image" (1995) by P. C. N. Stewart, Britannia, 26, 1-10; "Woad, Tattooing and Identity in Later Iron Age and Early Roman Britain" (2005) by Gillian Carr, Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 24(3), 273-292; "Stigma: Tattooing and Branding in Graeco-Roman Antiquity" (1987) by C. P. Jones, The Journal of Roman Studies, 77, 139-155.

See also Brittunculi, The British War-Chariot, Mons Graupius, The Arch of Claudius, and Pytheas and Thule.

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