The Roman conquest of Britain was begun by Julius Caesar (55BC), followed up by Claudius around a hundred years later and pursued by most succeeding Emperors; the occupation did not end until around around 410 AD. During most of that time, as her custom was throughout the Empire, Rome placed governors in charge of the island; it was their task to rule the country on Rome`s behalf. Information about the Roman occupation is tantalizingly thin, as is information about the inhabitants found there by the Romans. There is one particular governor however of whom we are lucky enough to have a complete biography; his name was Julius Agricola.
Agricola was governor of Britain for some seven years, from AD 78 - 84. It might seem a strange coincidence that his daughter should have have married the famous writer Tacitus; but Tacitus was himself a distinguished politician, and was to become no less than proconsul of the province of Asia, one of the most responsible positions in the Empire. A marriage therefore between the two families would have been quite natural; and what more natural than that Tacitus should have in due course, probably around 88AD, written a biography of his father-in-law, as a tribute to another distinguished public servant?
From his biography it is clear that Tacitus must have spent a good deal of time talking to Agricola about his time in Britain, for much of the information about the country and its people comes across with a real ring of first-hand experience.
The passage I have translated comes from sections 10 -13 of the book, the sections in which Tacitus breaks off from his biographical narrative to give an `ethnography` of Britain. This was standard practice among ancient writers, who always enjoyed telling a good yarn about remote parts of the world; Herodotus, the most entertaining of them all, hit the headlines with mentions in the film `The English Patient`. And it is important to remember that Britain was the furthest outpost of the Empire - literally on the edge of the world, (which as everyone knew was of course flat!). Tacitus however, as he says himself, does his best to be accurate in his account.
I have added notes and comments in brackets to a fairly free translation.
"Plenty of others have described Britain`s geographical position, and the sort of people who inhabit it. (Including Livy and Fabius Rusticus, whom he mentions shortly.) Far be it from me to try to compete with them in industry and quality of writing. However, at this time (that of Agricola) Britain had only just been conquered, so that much of the information given by earlier writers - with great eloquence! - could not have been based on reality. In my account I shall stick to the facts.
Britain is the largest island yet discovered by Rome. As for its geographical position, the East side lies opposite the German coast, the West opposite Spain (Well, sort of......). To the South the coast of Gaul is actually visible. The North has no land facing it, and is exposed to a vast expanse of sea.
Livy, a while back, and Fabius Rusticus more recently, (fine writers, both of them) have compared the shape of the island to an extended rhombus, or an axehead. South of Scotland, it is indeed so shaped, and the assumption used to be that it continued on like this.If you cross the border, however, you will find a irregular expanse of country stretching on yet further in front of you even after you reach the far shore, and this eventually tapers off into the shape of a wedge.
Never before had a Roman fleet sailed round the coastline in this most remote sea, and so established that Britain is indeed an island. At the same time they found and conquered the Islands known as the Orcades (Orkneys), at that time quite undiscovered ( or at least they landed on them- it would have been impossible to sustain a military presence there). They even looked closely at Thule, ( Thule - `Ultima Thule` was considered to be the very furthest land in the world; likely to have been the Shetlands, though just conceivably Iceland) - but no more than that, as they had no orders to go any further, and winter was approaching.
Up there the sea too was thick and heavy-going for the oarsmen. (Bear in mind that the water at the Poles/Edge of the world is solid, or it would fall off; therefore the sea must become more and more solid as it approaches them - a sort of sludge. Obvious, really.) Even the wind, they said, had difficulty stirring it up, presumably because in those parts land-masses and mountains (which aggravate wind) are few and far between, and the sheer volume and depth of the sea makes it less prone to movement. (The oarsmen would certainly have had trouble with the North Atlantic Drift Current near the Shetlands.) It is not my business here to discuss the nature of Ocean and its tides - ( many others have dealt with that) - apart from one thing: nowhere in the world does the sea hold wider sway. It surges to and fro with a mass of currents, and does not stop its ebbing and flowing at the coast, but carries on deep inland round passes and mountains, as though on its own territory. (A fair description of the western lochs.)
As it to be expected when dealing with Barbarians ( all non-Latin-speakers were barbarians - their speech sounded like `bar-bar-bar` instead of `proper`, ie Latin....), there is no way of saying with certainty what people originally inhabited Britain, and whether they were indigenous or immigrants. However, their physical types vary considerably, and from them one can draw certain conclusions. In Scotland the reddish hair and big build of the natives indicate Germanic origin. ( In fact very much a mixed population: immigrant Celts and the older indigenous stock.) The Silures however have swarthy features and generally curly hair. (The Silures lived round the borders of England and Wales - Monmouthshire and Glamorgan; they were still fiercely independent at that time.) This and the fact that Spain lies across from them ( the same slight long-standing geographical confusion recurs here again!) would lead one to think that the Iberians formerly must have crossed and taken up residence here; (there is at least some evidence of trade between the two countries). There is also a similarity between the Gauls and their nearest tribe; this could be either because of the lingering effects of their common origin, or because, with the territories lying opposite one another, the common climate has given them the same physical appearance. Presumably the Gauls simply infiltrated the island nearest to them; the same religious practices and beliefs are found there, (see Julius Caesar`s account for what these actually were - Druidism was certainly widespread in both countries; archaeology confirms this), and their language is much the same - as is their boldness in asking for trouble and their timidity in avoiding it when it arrives! (The language would have been at least similar enough, in view of Gaulish immigration, to allow communication between the two. There were British-speakers also in Northern Britain, though in Scotland people probably spoke a form of Celtic.)
The Britons however show more ferocity; they have not yet been enfeebled by a long period without war. The Gauls, true, are traditionally very courageous in battle, but they have quickly become unfit for fighting throughout inactivity. Their courage has evaporated along with their freedom. The same thing has happened to the Britons who were conquered some time back, but the rest are now as the Gauls once used to be. (The moral being that peace is obviously a bad thing!)
Their military strength is in their footsoldiers. Some tribes also go into battle with chariots; in this case the nobleman is the charioteer, and the clansman does the fighting for him. (The Gallic method was similar). They used to be ruled by kings; (in Caesar`s day there were four kings in Cantium alone; some kings became vassals of Rome and continued as `puppets`) - now their allegiance is divided between different local chieftains. There is, though, nothing more useful to us in our dealings with the enemy than their failure to co-operate ! It is rare for even two or three tribes to act in unison in meeting a common threat; they fight as individuals, and consequently suffer defeat as a body. (Some could and did unite, though - the Brigantes in particular in the north-east did pretty well: Yorkshire against the rest of the world, obviously!)
The climate is pretty foul, with frequent rain and fog, but no extremes of cold. The days are longer than in our part of the world. The nights are light, and at the further end of Britian so short that you can hardly tell when one day ends and the next begins.Indeed, if no clouds get in the way, one can apparently see the glow from the sun all night; it does not rise and set, but simply moves across the horizon. Presumably the flat edge of the earth produces only a slight shadow there and not complete darkness; night must fall at too low a level to produce a starry sky.(Visualize the edge of a saucer shaped world with the sun just below the edge - clear??)
The land supports plenty of cattle, and the soil bears fruits, though not the olive and grape and others which grow in warmer climates. Fruit ripens rather slowly, despite growing quickly; both facts are caused by the same thing, the sheer wetness of the weather and the ground. (Then as now!)
Britain produces gold, silver and other metals too, making it well worth conquering. (The mining of metal may not have been a prime motive in the occupation, but certainly was an attractive possibility; ownership of mineral deposits went in the first instance to the state when a country was conquered. The country never was a great source of mineral wealth.) The Ocean produces pearls, though they are dingy-looking, a sort of slate grey. Maybe, as some suggest, those who harvest them are not very good at it: in the Indian Ocean they are pulled from the rocks while still very much alive, while in Britain they are collected as they are washed up by the sea. However, it seems more likely to me that the pearls are naturally inferior; I cannot believe that some of our race should miss a chance of making more money!
The Britons tolerate military service, paying tribute, and all the other duties the Empire requires of them (including labour for road-building and providing requisitioned corn) - as long as they are not seen as unfair; if this is the case, they refuse to put up with them. So far they have been tamed to be obedient, but not yet to be servile."
- © Frank James