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homunculus
12-11-2017, 06:25 PM
I'm not an Briton myself but expansion of the Roman Empire to "savage territory" greatly intrigues me. I couldn't find a thread here about ancient Britons as Romans of the time described them, so I decided put up a thread to collect some of the descriptions we have of the pre-christian Britons and Isles Celts.

From: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/britannia/miscellanea/geography.html
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.

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).

This reminds me more than a bit of the book series Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin.

Strabo describes the Britons:
The men of Britain are taller than the Celti, and not so yellow-haired, although their bodies are of looser build. The following is an indication of their size: I myself, in Rome, saw mere lads towering as much as half a foot above the tallest people in the city, although they were bandy-legged and presented no fair lines anywhere else in their figure. Their habits are in part like those of the Celti, but in part more simple and barbaricó so much so that, on account of their inexperience, some of them, although well supplied with milk, make no cheese; and they have no experience in gardening or other agricultural pursuits. And they have powerful chieftains in their country.

Jordanes describes two of the British tribes, the Caledonians and the Silures in a very similar fashion as Tacitus did in Agricola:
The Silures have swarthy features and are usually born with curly black hair, but the inhabitants of Caledonia have reddish hair and large but flaccid bodies. They are like the Gauls or the Spaniards, according as they are opposite either nation.

Caesar's description doesn't go into detail about their physical anthropology however:
By far the most civilized are those who dwell in Kent. Their entire country borders on the sea, and they do not differ much from the Gauls in customs. Very many who dwell farther inland do not sow grain but live on milk and flesh, clothing themselves in skins. All the Britons paint themselves with woad, which produces a dark blue color; and for this reason they are much more frightful in appearance in battle. They permit their hair to grow long, shaving all parts of the body except the head and the upper lip. Ten and twelve have wives 16 common among them, especially brothers with brothers and parents with children; if any children are born they are considered as belonging to those men to whom the maiden was first married. . . .

If I got some of the quotes wrong please correct me. Are there any other descriptions of anthropological nature on the ancient Britons before the anglo-saxon period?

Wolds Wanderer
12-19-2017, 01:45 PM
I understand that the climate was milder in Britain at the time of the Roman occupation but even so, unless it was drastically different, I canít imagine that anyone would or could live naked in the area around Hadrianís wall and the land north from there. If nothing else they would have died of exposure.

Hadrianís wall is approximately 70 miles to the north of where I live and throughout the year there are very few nights you could comfortably spend the night outdoors with nothing on, let alone try and survive through the winter.

Were the descriptions and reports meant to be taken literally, or were they propaganda to reinforce the idea of savage barbarian Britons?

homunculus
12-19-2017, 06:02 PM
@wolds wanderer
Few of the historians even claim that ancient Britons could spend days submerged in swamps. So I would take their tales with a big grain of salt.

Then again people like Wim Hof have proven that humans can endure severe cold even with scarce clothing. While I believe the claims of Romans are based on reality they definitely are grave exaggerations. For example, I doubt that every single Caledonian was red-haired. Even if rufousity was the majority trait among ancient Scots that would be quite an exception compared to any modern population.

FIREYWOTAN
03-28-2018, 06:25 PM
Thank you for expanding the theme and sharing the discovery. There's always so many questions about Britons especially when there a reason to declare war. Your sight selection helped to build on earlier sources.

A Norfolk L-M20
03-29-2018, 12:22 AM
A thread specifically about the local Late Iron Age tribe here in Norfolk, the Iceni:

https://anthrogenica.com/showthread.php?11847-The-Iceni-Thread

Barghest
05-01-2018, 01:10 AM
I understand that the climate was milder in Britain at the time of the Roman occupation but even so, unless it was drastically different, I canít imagine that anyone would or could live naked in the area around Hadrianís wall and the land north from there. If nothing else they would have died of exposure.

Hadrianís wall is approximately 70 miles to the north of where I live and throughout the year there are very few nights you could comfortably spend the night outdoors with nothing on, let alone try and survive through the winter.

Were the descriptions and reports meant to be taken literally, or were they propaganda to reinforce the idea of savage barbarian Britons?

Likely literal. Says practically naked. That they dwelled in tents. Sound very similar to the aboriginals colonists encountered. And the swamp-swimming is easily imagined. Animals do the same & so did some of the real redneck "hicks" in the Bayou during the 1800s from claims.

Besides these were a tougher & hardier people compared to nowadays. Today's living would be considered luxury fit for a king & thus made some societies "soft". Sort of like comparing someone who grew up tending farm animals, etc., even hunting, to a city folk whose only dinnertime hardship is stale bread at the grocer.


Btw, I lived in Berwick upon Tweed for ten years & the average temperature is above freezing, even in winter, by the Wall. Maybe a bit uncomfortable but I rather doubt you'd freeze to death even if naked. Less so if you have shelter in the form of a tent.