Eboracum and Empire

Britain Before the Romans

What did the ancients know about Britain and what was it they saw here which attracted them?

In the beginning, the islands we know as Britain were populated by peoples involved in a series of migrations westwards across Europe in the early Stone Age when there was no Channel to impede them. In time, melting glaciers and sinking land marooned these itinerants when Britain was cut adrift, and they became islanders. They had brought with them the religious beliefs and skills to construct the megalithic stone burial chambers we see at Avebury and Stonehenge; they also introduced a facility for metallurgy which was to shape prehistoric life and our history, for it was bronze and iron which they fashioned into weaponry and agricultural tools, replacing the crude stone and flint of earlier civilisations. This not only ushered in armed conflict and agronomy, it also developed a trade in luxurious and desirable objects exchanged with visitors from or visits to tribes on the European mainland and further east. Inevitably, their more sophisticated weapons enabled subsequent waves of invaders and the more powerful indigenous tribes to muscle in on the weaker, less developed natives, and establish themselves on the productive, most fertile lands, relegating their previous occupants to the less forgiving moors, marshes and weather-beaten uplands, mainly in Wales and the north. It did not take long before an obvious division emerged between the more workable and productive regions of much of the south and east and the comparatively barren northern and western areas. By the time the Romans arrived, this geographical dichotomy naturally created an economic and social divide which was to manifest itself in relative affluence for one and discontent and relative poverty for the other. This latter population was more inclined to foment opposition against the Roman way and against Roman rule which was to bedevil the Romans for many years of their occupation. It was also to account for the establishment of a fortress at York.

Pytheas of Massalia

The earliest name of the archipelago which we now know as the British Isles was first used some 2,000 years ago when classical geographers described our island group, from about the fourth century to around 50 BC, using variations of the word ‘Prettanikē’.

Indeed, our first record comes from the fourth century BC Greek explorer and geographer Pytheas of Massalia (Marseilles), who vaguely referred to Prettanikē or Brettaniai as a group of islands off the coast of Northwestern Europe. This was an ancient Greek transliteration of the original Brittonic term in a non-extant work by Pytheas on his travels and discoveries. Other early records of the word are in the peripli by later authors, such as those in Strabo’s Geographica, Pliny’s Natural History and Diodorus Siculus’ Bibliotheca Historica. Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79) says of Britain: ‘Its former name was Albion; but at a later period, all the islands . . . were included under the name of “Britanniæ”.’ He mentions a multitude of things related to Britain including the long days, the tides recorded by Pytheas, local magic, the daubing with warlike woad, the wild geese, oysters, coracles, pearls, the cherry tree, amber, tin and lead.

A periplus is a manuscript document that lists the ports and coastal landmarks, in order and with approximate intervening distances, that the captain of a vessel could expect to find along a shore – in short, a type of coastal gazetteer or log.

In 325 BC, Pytheas journeyed from his home in the Greek colony of Massalia in southern Gaul to Britain. On this voyage, he circumnavigated and visited much of modern-day Great Britain and Ireland. He was the first known scientist to see and describe the Arctic, polar ice, Thule (Iceland or Orkney or Norway?) and the Celtic and Germanic tribes. He is also the first on record to describe the midnight sun. According to Strabo (63 BC–c. AD 24), the Greek geographer, philosopher, and historian, Pytheas referred to Britain as Bretannikē, which is treated as a feminine noun. Bretannikē may derive from a Celtic word meaning ‘the painted ones’ or ‘the tattooed people’ in a reference to local body art and the use of woad. He tells us that Pytheas ‘travelled over the whole of Britain that was accessible’ (Geographica 2, 4, 1). Ptolemy (c. AD 100–c. 170) the Greek-Egyptian mathematician, astronomer, geographer and astrologer later gives more information between AD 127 and 141 based on the work of Marinus of Tyre from around AD 100.

Marcian of Heraclea (fl. c. fourth century AD), in his Periplus Maris Exteri, described the island group as αἱ Πρεττανικαὶ νῆσοι (the Prettanic Isles). Marcian was a minor Greek geographer; his known works include A Periplus of the Outer Sea which mentions places from the Atlantic Ocean to China.

Diodorus Siculus (fl. first century BC)

In the first century BC, Diodorus Siculus in his Bibliotheca Historica of 36 BC mentioned Pretannia, a version of the indigenous name for the Pretani people whom the Greeks believed to inhabit the British Isles. This is his description:

Britain is triangular in shape, very much like Sicily, but its sides are not equal. This island stretches obliquely along the coast of Europe, and the point where it is least distant from the mainland, we are told, is the promontory which men call Cantium [Kent] and this is about one hundred stades [eleven miles] from the land, at the place where the sea has its outlet, whereas the second promontory, known as Belerium [Cornwall] is said to be a voyage of four days from the mainland, and the last, writers tell us, extends out into the open sea and is named Orca [Orkney] ... . And Britain, we are told, is inhabited by native tribes and preserve in their ways of living the ancient manner of life ... . Their way of living is modest, since they are far from the luxury which comes with wealth. The island is also heavily populated . . . . It is controlled by many kings and potentates, who for the most part live at peace among themselves.

(Bibliotheca Historica 21, 3-6)

Diodorus goes on to tell us about a cold and frosty place where the people live in thatched cottages, store their grain underground and bake bread. When they fight they do so from chariots, just like the Greeks did in the Trojan War. It was, however, a place shrouded in mystery and dread, with some writers (anticipating the Flat Earth Society and those who insist that the moon doesn’t exist) denying its existence completely, according to Plutarch (Life of Caesar 23, 2): ‘The island was incredibly big, and caused so much controversy amongst many a writer, some of whom swore that its name and story had been made up, since it had never existed and did not exist then.’ Or that it was just a fantasy according to Strabo, Geography 2,4, 1, written soon after Caesar; Polybius’ Histories 34.5 is less than convinced although his rubbishing of Pytheas may have been to amplify his own more modest Atlantic expedition.

The Romans referred to the Insulae Britannicae in the plural, a place consisting of Albion (Great Britain), Hibernia (Ireland), Thule and many smaller islands. However, when the Romans wanted to describe the place later they used the Latin name ‘Britannia’. Britannia is a Latinisation of the native Brittonic word for the island, Pretanī, which also gave that Greek form Prettanike or Brettaniai. Brittonic was an ancient Celtic language spoken in Britain.

The earliest reference we have for Great Britain, Albion (Ἀλβιών) or insula Albionum, is either from the Latin albus meaning ‘white’ – possibly a reference to the white cliffs of Dover, the first thing you see of us from the continent, or the ‘island of the Albiones’. Pseudo-Aristotle gives us our oldest mention of Great Britain:

... ἐν τούτῳ γε μὴν νῆσοι μέγιστοι τυγχάνουσιν οὖσαι δύο, Βρεττανικαὶ λεγόμεναι, Ἀλβίων καὶ Ἰέρνη, ...

There are two very large islands in it, called the British Isles, Albion and Ierne.

(Aristotle: On the Cosmos, 393)

Ptolemy referred to the larger island as great Britain (μεγάλη Βρεττανία) and to Ireland as little Britain (μικρὰ Βρεττανία) in his Almagest (AD 147–148). In his later work, Geography (c. AD 150), he gave the islands the names Alwion, Iwernia, and Mona (the Isle of Man), suggesting these may have been the names of the individual islands not known to him at the time of writing Almagest. The name Albion appears to have fallen out of use sometime after the Roman conquest of Britain, after which Britannia became the more usual name.

Tin Islands

Britain first attracted serious attention from outsiders when the Greeks, Phoenicians and Carthaginians – inveterate travellers and traders all – began commerce in Cornish tin. The Greeks called Britain (specifically Cornwall and the Scillies), amongst other north Atlantic places, the Cassiterides, or ‘tin islands’. A rather sceptical Herodotus in fifth century BC (Histories 3, 115) vaguely located these somewhere off the west coast of Europe. He declares no real evidence for this, though, but concedes that they must exist if only because the Greeks have to get their tin from somewhere, probably from ‘the ends of the earth’. He prefers this explanation to the story that tin comes from the Arimaspians who steal it from the griffins who guard it. The Arimaspians were a legendary tribe of one-eyed people of northern Scythia.

The Cassiterides were reputedly known first to the Phoenicians or Carthaginians from Gades (Cadiz). Pliny reports that a Greek named Midacritus (c. 600 BC) imported tin from Cassiteris island (Natural History 7, 197). The Carthaginians kept their tin routes secret; hence Herodotus’ doubts about the existence of the Cassiterides. Pytheas visited the miners of Belerium (Land’s End) and their tin depot at Ictis; but it was a Roman, probably Publius Licinius Crassus, governor in Spain around 95 BC, who revealed the tin routes: Strabo refers to a (non-extant) treatise on the Cassiterides written by Publius Crassus, grandson of the above. Several scholars of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including Mommsen and Rice Holmes, believed this to be based on an expedition during Publius’ occupation of Armorica (Brittany). More recently, scholars assign authorship to the elder Publius, during his proconsulship in Spain in the 90s BC, in which case the grandson’s Armorican foray may have been prompted in part by commercial interests to capitalise on the survey of resources established earlier.

Diodorus, (5, 38, 4) tells how ‘tin is brought in large quantities also from the island of Britain to Gaul opposite, where it is taken by merchants on horses through the interior of Celtica both to the Massalians and to the city of Narbo [Narbonne], as it is called.’


Himilco was a Carthaginian navigator and explorer of the late sixth or early fifth century BC, at a time when Carthage dominated the region. He is the first known explorer from the Mediterranean to reach the northwestern shores of Europe. The oldest reference to Himilco’s account of his voyage is a brief mention in Pliny’s Natural History (2, 169a); he was referenced three times by Rufus Festus Avienus, who wrote Ora Maritima (The Sea Shore), a poetical geographical account in the fourth century AD.

Himilco sailed along the Atlantic coast from the Iberian Peninsula to the British Isles. He traveled to northwestern France to trade for tin (to be used for making bronze) and other metals. Records of the voyages of Himilco also mention the islands of Albion and Ierne.

Himilco embroidered his journeys with tales of sea monsters and seaweed, no doubt a stunt to deter Greek rivals from crowding in on his trade routes.

Avienus also tells us that the Tartessians – native Iron Age Andalusians – visited the Oestrumnidan isles to trade with the inhabitants; later, Carthaginian tradesmen travelled along the same route. But where were the Oestrumnidan isles? Avienus says they were two days’ sailing distance from Ireland, and they ‘were rich in the mining of tin and lead. A vigorous tribe lives here, proud spirited, energetic and skilful. On all the ridges trade is carried on.’ All things considered it seems that Avienus meant ore-rich Brittany and the small islands off the coast rather than Cornwall or the Scilly Isles – the other two possibilities – although the Tartessians traded not just with the inhabitants of Brittany, but beyond to Cornwall, Wales and Ireland.

So, Britain was well known to the Greeks, Carthaginians and Phoenicians from at least the sixth century BC. Apart from its initial fascination as an uncharted, undiscovered and unconquered archipelago, it had long-term lucrative commercial possibilities well worth the perilous, monster-ridden journeys required to exploit them. Around the time of Julius Caesar and Claudius 100 years later, Britain would have been very much on the Romans’ radar, so to speak, with references in libraries from a number of extant and non-extant historians, geographers and encyclopedists. These sources would have been readily available for those with a mind to look.


By the first century BC, Britannia was synonymous with, and came to be used for, Great Britain specifically. After the Roman conquest in AD 43, Britannia was Roman Britain, a province covering the island south of Caledonia (roughly today’s mid to southern Scotland). Indigenous people living in Britannia were called Britanni, or Britons.

We know that Britannia was well enough known amongst the learned and literate classes in Rome before that, even during the turbulent years of the first century BC before Caesar’s invasions. The Epicurean poet Lucretius (99 BC–55 BC) uses the adjective Britannus as a metaphor and an example of a ‘region far from fatherland and home’ (De Rerum Natura 6, 1105). In a poem that can be confidently dated after Caesar’s first invasion and before the death of Caesar’s daughter Julia, the neoteric poet Catullus (c. 84 BC–c. 54 BC) refers to the place three times in Poem 29 where he rails against Mamurra in an invective against triumvirs Caesar and Pompey:

Quis hoc potest videre, quis potest pati,

nisi impudicus et vorax et aleo,

Mamurram habere quod comata Gallia

habebat ante et ultima Britannia?

Who can see this, who can stand it, save the shameless, the glutton, and gambler, that Mamurra Mentula should possess what long-haired Gaul had and remotest Britain had before?

Poem 29, 1-4

Eone nomine, imperator unice,

Fuisti in ultima occidentis insula

Is it for this reason, unique commander, you were on that

farthest island of the west?

Poem 29, 11-12

. . . where the unique commander is Julius Caesar and the farthest island of the west is Britannia.


paterna prima lancinata sunt bona;

secunda praeda Pontica; inde tertia

Hibera, quam scit amnis aurifer Tagus.

nunc Galliae timetur et Britanniae.

quid hunc malum fovetis? aut quid hic potest

nisi uncta devorare patrimonia?

First he wasted his patrimony; second the loot from Pontus; then third the booty from Spain, which even the gold bearing Tagus knows. Now he is feared by Gauls and Britain. Why do you indulge this scoundrel? What can he do but devour well-fattened inheritances?

Poem 29, 18-23

The remoteness and ‘edge of empireness’ of Britannia (ultima) is emphasised twice, while in all three instances the island is cited as an example of how the depredations of Mamurra, and of Caesar and Pompey by extension, extend so far as to include Britannia despite it being so far from Rome. In the love Poem 45 of Septimius and Acme, Britannia is used, with Syria, as a measure of Septimius’ devotion:

unam Septimius misellus Acmen

mavult quam Syrias Britanniasque:

Poor Septimius prefers Acme alone to whole Syrias and Britains.

Poem 45 (22-23)

In near contemporary Cicero’s (106 BC–43 BC) Epistulae ad Q. Fratrem, written between 60 or 59 to 54 BC, the orator writes to Quintus Tullius, his brother, who is legatus with Caesar’s army on the second of his two British invasions. His words describe for us the dangers, mystery and intriguing qualities of the place, based, no doubt, on detailed descriptions penned in earlier correspondence to Cicero from Quintus.

How glad I was to get your letter from Britain! I was afraid of the ocean, afraid of the coast of the island. The other parts of the expedition I do not underrate; but yet they inspire more hope than fear, and it is the suspense rather than any positive alarm that makes me uneasy. You, however, I can see, have a splendid subject to describe: topography, natural features of things and places, manners, races, battles, your commander himself – what themes for your pen!

In De Natura Deorum (2, 34, 88), Cicero cites Britannia (with Scythia) as another exemplum not just of distance and remoteness, but also of the extent of Roman rule. These countries are barbaric (barbaria) but their inhabitants nevertheless recognise the work of a rational human being when they see it. In the same treatise (3, 10, 24), he argues that the tides on the Spanish and British (Britannicus aestus) coasts ebb and flow without divine intervention.

Britain by the first half of the first century BC was very much on the lips of the educated and literate in and around Rome; it had a place in the vocabulary of philosophers, poets and their côteries, socialites, lawyers, politicians and rhetoricians. In short, it was part of the public narrative; Romans would have expected Britannia to fall to the relentless Roman war machine given that expansionism formed a prominent part of foreign policy at that time. From this perspective, the pressure was very much on Julius Caesar to invade.

Soon after the AD 43 invasion, Emperor Claudius was honoured with the agnomen ‘Britannicus’ as conqueror of the island. A frieze discovered at Aphrodisias in 1980 shows how dramatically the Romans viewed this: Claudius subjugating Britannia is a relief on the south portico of the Sebasteion, Aphrodisias on which Claudius is about to deliver a death blow to a cowering and beaten Britannia. He wears helmet, cloak, and sword belt with scabbard. Britannia wears a tunic with one breast bare, like the Amazons on which she is modelled.

Britannia later appeared on coins issued under Hadrian, as a somewhat more regal-looking female figure. She was soon personified as a goddess, looking not dissimilar to the goddess Minerva. Early portraits of the divinity depict Britannia as a fetching young woman, sporting a Corinthian helmet, and clothed in a white robe with her right breast exposed. She is usually shown seated on a rock, holding a trident, and with a spiked shield propped beside her. Sometimes she holds a standard and leans on the shield. On other coinage, she is seated on a globe above waves: Britain already depicted at the edge of empire, at the brink of the known world. Similar coin types were also minted under Antoninus Pius.

When Roman Britain was divided into four provinces in AD 197, two of them were called Britannia Superior and Britannia Inferior, the latter based at York. The name Britannia survived the end of Roman rule in Britain in the fifth century and provided the name for the island in most European and various other languages, including the English Britain and the modern Welsh Prydain.

In the ninth century, Bretwalda and Brytenwalda were adopted by some Anglo-Saxon kings to assert a wider hegemony in Britain while inscriptions on coins and titles in charters often included the equivalent title rex Britanniae.

Celtic Britain

What kind of Britain would the Romans find when they made their first tentative steps towards occupation in 55 BC? The whole of the island – up to the Forth-Clyde estuaries – was populated by numerous Britonnic tribes – a multi-tribal society in which independent clans ruled smaller autonomous tribes or communities, but with no centralised national government, and, more importantly, no military, political or social cohesion. Many of the tribes, especially the Belgae, appear to have come over in the first century BC from the continent, possibly because of the need for lebensraum or indeed because they had been squeezed out as the Romans occupied more and more of what is now France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. We will meet a number of these tribes when dealing with the Roman occupation. They include:

Cantii (Kent) – Belgae who arrived with other Belgae in the first century BC and were the Romans’ first experience of native Britons on British soil. These Celts obviously wasted no time in establishing themselves agriculturally because we know from Caesar that they presided over many farms and lots of cattle, while their lands provided the Romans with plentiful food when they were marooned by a destructive storm in the 55 BC expedition. To establish themselves the Cantii had to displace previous native incumbents, something which they appear to have managed with their superiority in arms, until finally checked in the Claudian invasion some ninety years later.

Belgae Wiltshire and Hampshire – also originally from the continent.

Atrebates – a Belgic tribe settled around today’s Berkshire. Related to or a branch of the Atrebates that lived in Gallia Belgica.

Catuvellauni (Hertfordshire) – Belgic tribe, neighbours of the Iceni, they joined in their rebellion. May have been related to the Catalauni who dwelt in the modern Champagne region of France.

Trinovantes/Trinobantes (Essex) – neighbours of the Iceni.

Regnenses/Regni – Belgic tribe, in today’s East Hampshire, Sussex and Surrey.

Parisi East Riding of Yorkshire around modern Hull and Bridlington.

Brigantes – a confederacy of tribes spread over most of northern England.

Corieltauvi/Coritani East Midlands including Leicester.

Cornovii Midlands.

Damnonii (Southwestern Scotland).

Iceni East Anglia – under Boudica they rebelled against Roman rule.

Ordovices Gwynedd, Wales.

Silures South Wales – resisted the Romans in present-day South Wales.

Between 700 and 400 BC the Celts, in what was to become Britannia, enjoyed increasing contact with continental Europe, although this internationalism coincided in part with a greater availability of iron, which facilitated land clearance, agriculture and the growth of populations in more and more settlements. The earliest ironsmiths made daggers of the Hallstatt type, but which were distinctly British. The settlements also displayed unmistakably British characteristics, with the traditional round house, the ‘Celtic’ system of farming with its small fields, and storage pits for grain.

After 600 BC large hill forts began to spring up, suggesting the emergence of powerful and disputatious chieftains and the spread of conflict as increasing populations exerted pressures on the best land. More belligerence was evidenced by 300 BC when swords were making a re-appearance replacing daggers. Finally, in the third century, a British form of La Tène Celtic art was developed to decorate warlike equipment such as scabbards, shields, and helmets, and eventually also bronze mirrors and domestic pottery. During the second century the export of Cornish tin continued as attested, for example, by the Paul (Penzance) hoard of north Italian silver coins.

Further coin finds suggest that south-east Britain was increasingly socially and economically close to Belgic Gaul, resulting in a distinctive culture in Kent and lands north of the Thames which represented a later phase of the continental Celtic La Tène culture. Caesar got it about right when he wrote in his record of the Gallic Wars:

The inland part of Britain is inhabited by tribes . . . indigenous to the island, the coastal part by tribes that migrated in earlier times from Belgium to procure booty by invasion. Nearly all of these are called after the names of the states from which they originated when they went to Britain; and after the invasion they settled there and began to till the fields. The population is huge; the farm-buildings are found very close together, being very like those of the Gauls; and there are many cattle. They use either bronze, or gold coins, or instead of coined money tallies of iron, of a certain weight. In the midland districts of Britain tin is produced, in the maritime iron, but not much; the bronze they use is imported. There is timber of every kind, as in Gaul, except beech and pine. To them it is wrong to eat hare, fowl, and goose; but they do keep them as pets or for pleasure. The climate is more temperate than in Gaul, the cold seasons more moderate.

The most civilised of all these nations live in Kent, which is entirely coastal, nor do they differ much from the Gallic customs. Most of the inland inhabitants do not sow corn, but live on milk and meat, and are clad with skins. All the Britons, indeed, dye themselves with woad, which gives off a bluish colour, and makes them look more terrible in combat. They wear their hair long, and shave every part of their body except their head and upper lip. They have ten and even twelve wives common to them, even brothers sharing with brothers, and parents with their children; but if there are any children by these wives, they are said to be the children of those who they married when still a virgin.

(Caesar, De Bello Gallico 5, 14, adapted from trans.

H. J. Edwards, Harvard University Press, 1917

It is difficult to know with any certainty the population of Britain in the first century BC; however, best estimates give four to five million spread over a wide area with concentrations in the oppida (key towns). There is similar uncertainty over the ratio of the sexes. As in any wars, men tend to suffer most in terms of casualties so the male number may have dipped in the conflicts between the Romans and the Welsh tribes and the Brigantes. The Boudican revolt quite possibly redressed the disparity when many women and girls were slaughtered at Camulodunum, Verulamium and London. Warfare leaves a terrible legacy of widows and unmarried girls – Britannia would have been no different in the first century AD; moreover, the occupation itself would have skewed the ratio as largely unmarried, or at least unaccompanied, male legionaries and support personnel flooded onto the island. The Romano-British Cemetery at Trentholme Drive in York supports this with four male skeletons to every one female – similar to Cirencester (5:2) but very different from Lamyatt Beacon near Glastonbury (1:11).

Britannia, then, was clearly very much in the national discourse of the Romans and a prominent feature of the political and military landscape. For Julius Caesar in nearby Gaul it was but a short step away geographically, politically and militarily.

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