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‘The whole race... is madly fond of war, high-spirited and quick to battle... and on whatever pretext you stir them up, you will have them ready to face danger, even if they have nothing on their side but their own strength and courage.’Strabo

For most of the Classical Era, Britain was home to a wide number of Celtic tribes who farmed, smithed, and fought each other with a bitterly spirited resilience that did not endear them to Roman conquerors. Unlike the common view of the British tribes as base savages, the Celts of Britain were known for their skill in metalworking, and also maintained extensive trade routes between Ireland and Gaul.

Despite this, the Britons were never politically united, and soon fell foul to the divide and conquer tactics of the Romans, who successfully managed to occupy the southern half of Britain for well over three centuries. However, it is from the Romans that we know much of what the Celts were like. In fact, the name by which these Celts and they would be known to this day comes from their Roman name, the Britanni (or Briton) and Britannia for the Island they inhabited. Some of these Britons were also assimilated into the Roman empire and their descendents formed a foundation for the development of Britain for the next millenium.

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The Early AgesEdit

The British Isles had known hunter-gatherer communities since the Ice Age, but the earliest evidence of farming seemed to have arrived from continental Europe between 5000BCE to 4000BCE The early farmers left a lot of evidence of their existence throughout England in the form of so-called "causewayed camps", burial sites, megalithic artwork such as "hill figures" as well as stone circles, and henges (a bank and ditch enclosure).

The Bronze Age began in England around 2500BCE with the arrival of the "Beaker people" so-called because of the beaker type pottery that were found in their burial sites. The "Beaker people" were skilled at archery and were a warlike patriarchal society, and quickly supplanted the earlier inhabitants as a sort of aristocracy. However, these people seemed to have adopted the religious practices of the earlier inhabitants. They even continued the tradition of henge building for the next thousand years, in fact much of the henges were built during this period. Stonehenge in Wiltshire is perhaps the most famous of these landmarks. They seem to have also mingled with another group of Europeans that spoke an Indo-European languages we call the "Battle-axe people" who are believed to be a proto-Celtic people, who had domesticated the horse, mastered the use of the wheel and worked with copper. Trade in metals and finished goods flourished between the different groups within the British Isles as well as with continental Europe. These two groups would eventually meld into what became known as the Wessex Culture.

The Celts in BritainEdit

By around 1500BCE clear evidence of a Celtic influx began to emerge in the British Isles. The Celts were extremely warlike, and if they weren't fighting with others they were fighting amongst themselves. So there was never really a Celtic Invasion of the British Isles. However, during the period of "Celtic conversion" much of the previous indigenous practices of building henges and stone circles seemed to have ceased. Instead, the appearance of Hill forts began to dominate the landscape, and in fact often built on top of ancient "causewayed camp" sites.

The Celtic immigrants arrived in several waves over a thousand years, bringing not only Iron working (and the Iron Age in 600BCE) but two major language families into the British Isles. These were Goidelic which separated into the three Gaelic languages spoken in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man; the other being Brythonic which separated into Welsh, Cornish and Breton. Many of the Celts who arrived in the last century BCE were driven to the British Isle as a result of Roman and Germanic expansion into Gaul. These Celts known as the Belgae introduced coinage to Britain and traded in corn, livestock, metals and slaves with their Gaulic cousins on the continent, and even with the Romans. The various Celtic tribes would become the major cultural groups found in the British Isles during the Roman invasion of Britain that would follow. Among these were the Picts, which arrived in what is now Scotland around 1000BCE, whom the Romans would never vanquish due in part to their fierce and barbaric disposition at least by Roman standards. There is also strong evidence that the Picts were a branch of Scythians since it should be noted that the Greeks and Romans from which we derive most of our historical anecdotal evidence from called any "barbaric" tribes, Celts.

Celtic society was divided into clans, a sort of extended family (the term clan itself meant "family" in may Celtic languages), which were loosely affiliated with other clans to form a larger tribe, each of which held their own customs. Celtic wisdom and traditions were held by a Druid caste. They formed a class of elites acting as priests, political advisors, teachers, healers, or arbitrators within their society. In fact, they even acted as a sort of cheerleader for the Celtic Warriors during battles by pronouncing praise for their own warriors while heaping curses at their enemies. They seemed to have held more authority and esteem in Celtic society then the Celtic Kings themselves, whose status and power were ultimately dependent on support from their people - or their ability to solicit it.

Warfare was endemic to the Celtic social system, and this was not limited to Britain alone. Wars were fought between tribes as a means of establishing social hierarchy and to reinforce the power of local chieftains, who preferred to rule as the head of a confederacy as opposed to a single unitary empire as it happened in the Middle East. Thus, wars were fought not to conquer new lands and people, but to assert one's superiority. Trade was also conducted by the noble classes with this end in mind, with prisoners of war sent eastwards in exchange for gold and wine which in turn was used to buy social status and power. Celtic warfare thus revolved around the accumulation of glory and honour through violence, and some warriors often came into battle completely naked except covered from head to toe with a blue-dye called Woad. Going into battle naked served two purposes - the first was that if wounded, naked warriors could be assured that no fragments of dirty armour or clothes would infect their wounds, while the second was that it served to intimidate the foe - anyone willing to fight naked must be very mad, or very good at what he does - or possibly even both! If that wasn't enough they would charge their enemies screaming in a terrifying rage and took particular pride in collecting the severed heads of their enemies, from which they believed they gained the power of their vanquished foes.

The Coming of Caesar: Roman BritainEdit

The Romans' first incursion into the British Isles began with Julius Caesar during 55BCE at what would be now be known as Kent. The first expedition consisted of two legions resulted in the Celts seeking a truce with the Romans after a series of pitched battles. However, after a storm damaged the Roman ships, the Celts began harassment attacks on the Roman coastal encampments. It was during this expedition that the Romans learned of the wealth of agricultural resources available on the Island of Britannia, and the disunity that was part of Celtic politics. This gave birth to the second much larger expedition the next year consisting of five legions and two thousand cavalry. Upon seeing the huge Roman force, the so-called Britons withdrew into their Hill fort. Despite a valiant effort the fort was taken by the ingenuity of the Roman forces. However, the Britons were again saved when another storm wrecked the Roman fleet, forcing them to withdraw to the coast once again to regroup and establish a defensive posture. The British also regrouped, and were briefly united under Cassivellaunus, a leader of the Catuvellauni tribe and conducted harassment attacks on the Roman camp, but was defeated at every engagement. Cassivellaunus was eventually forced to offer terms of surrender to the Romans. However the terms were extremely lenient as Julius Caesar was anxious to return to Gaul to deal with problems that were brewing on the mainland. The Romans would not return however for another 97 years when Emperor Claudius invaded in 43CE.

Using the excuse of aiding a Celtic tribe that had an alliance with Rome, the Romans sent a force of 40,000 men to invade Britain. The Romans made quick work of all that opposed them, and within a few months established a zone of control that stretched from Lincoln to Exeter. By 60CE they would take control of almost all of what would be known as Wales and England. However in 61CE a revolt of Celtic tribes lead by Boudicea, of the Iceni tribe almost dislodged the Romans. Boudicea was the widow of the previous Iceni King, but when he died and left her half his realm, with the other half going to the Romans. The Roman overlords would not accept a woman in that position, and subjected her to a humiliating flogging in front of her people, ravished her daughters and annexed all Iceni lands. So it was no surprise in her fury, she ended up destroying three major Roman towns: Londinium (London), Verulamium (St. Albans) and Camulodunum (Colchester). The Roman garrisons had been ill prepared and lacking in numbers to defend them and abandoned them to the rebelling Celts. However, when the Romans finally gathered their forces for a counter attack, superior Roman discipline coupled with a curious habit of the Celts to bring along their entire family young and old to the battle, ended up with a great slaughter and an end to the Celtic revolt.

Although Boudicca had finally been destroyed, it did not mean the end of the Celts in general, because many other tribes still remained loyal to the Roman cause. Those who submitted to Roman hegemony had citizenship extended to them, and also enjoyed the benefits of Roman rule — improved infrastructure and, while the Empire remained a force to be reckoned with, access to trade in the other parts of the Empire. The Romans for their part left the people to their own devices as long as they could pay their taxes and pay their respects to the Imperial cult.

AftermathEdit

By the onset of the Late Classical period, the inhabitants of the British Isles (or at least present-day England and Wales) were fairly assimilated into the Empire. Although the Romans continued to maintain a presence in the lands of the Britons, the British were increasingly becoming Romanised and had developed a aeclectic mix of cultures — Roman and Celtic. When Roman rule faded away, however, the many Celtic tribes of the land soon found themselves at war with one another — as well as a new enemy from across the seas: the Germanic tribes. These tribes, the Angles, Jutes, Danes and Saxons exploited the rifts between the locals and by the onset of the Middle Ages, most of the native British had been forced away from south-eastern Britain and were either confined to the west and the distant north, or were forced to migrate southwards into Gaul. Contrary to popular belief, these peoples did not die out, but still live on today as the modern Welsh in present day Britain, as well as the Bretons in north-western France.

ReferencesEdit

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