1902 Encyclopedia > Britannia

Britannia




BRITANNIA. The history of Britain begins with the invasion of Julius Caesar, 55 B.C. Caesar is the first Roman writer who mentions Britain; before him we have only a few short notices in Greek writers, who appear to have known but little about the country. The earliest notice of Britain is in Herodotus (450 B.C.), who mentions the Tin Islands., only to confess his ignorance about them. By the Tin Islands are probably to be understood only the Scilly Isles and Cornwall, which are said to have been known to Phoenician traders some centuries before the Christian era.
More important is a passage in Aristotle, who, writing a century later than Herodotus, is the earliest writer who mentions the British Isles by name. The passage is in the De Mundo, c. 3,—" Beyond*the pillars of Hercules (Straits of Gibraltar) the ocean flows round the earth, and in it are two very large islands called British (BperaviKal Acyo/ievcu), Albion and Ierne, lying beyond the Keltoi." The application of the name Britannia, to denote the larger island, is first found in Caesar.
The etymology of the name Britannia is uncertain. Of the numerous derivations which have been proposed the most generally adopted is that which connects the word with a root brith (variegatus), in supposed allusion to the British practice of staining the body with woad; but this is not to be considered as perfectly satisfactory.
The earliest inhabitants of Britain concerning whom we have any certain knowledge are the Celts, who formed the vanguard in the great westward migration of the Indo-European or Aryan nations; but it seems certain, from the evidence of remains found in the country, that the Celts were preceded in their occupation of it by a non-Aryan race.
The Celtic family is divided into two branches—the Gaelic and the Cymric. To the former belong the Irish and the Highlanders of Scotland, to the latter the Welsh and the inhabitants of Britanny, and to these may be added the ancient Gauls, the remains of whose language seem to prove without doubt that they belonged to the Cymric and not to the Gaelic branch.
Of the Celtic inhabitants of Britain nothing is known be-fore the time of Cassar. whose account of them is the earliest which we possess. Somewhat abridged it is as follows:—
" The interior of Britain is inhabited by a race said to be aboriginal, the coast by invaders from Belgium, who having come over for the sake of spoil have settled in the country. For money they use either copper or pieces of iron of a certain weight. Tin is found in the interior of the country; iron on the coasts, but the quantity is small; copper is imported. The timber is of the same kinds as in Gaul, except the beech and the fir. The climate is more-temperate than in Gaul, the cold being less severe."
After a short geographical description of the island, Caesar proceeds to speak of the inhabitants—
" By far the most civilized are the inhabitants of Cantium (Kent); they do not differ much in their customs from the Gauls. The inhabitants of the interior do not for the most part sow corn, but live on milk and flesh, and clothe themselves with skins. All the Britons stain themselves with woad, which produces a blue colour, and gives them a more formidable appearance in battle. They wear their hair long, and shave every part of the body except the head and the upper lip. Ten or twelve have wives in common (Caes., B. G. v. 12-14).
Nothing is here said as to the religion of the Britons ; and we are obliged to turn for information on this head to Caesar's account of Druidism in Gaul. We are justified in so doing by Caesar's statement that the religious system of the Gauls was devised in Britain, and that it was still the custom for those who wished to become thoroughly versed in it to go thither for the sake of instruction, Having said that besides thexommon people, who are of no account and are little better than slaves, there are in Gaul two orders,— the Druids and the Knights,—Caesar goes on to give an account of the former—
" The Druids are engaged in matters of religion, and have the care of public and private sacrifices. They are the arbiters in almost all disputes, public and private, and assign rewards and punishments. Whoever refuses to abide by their decision is excluded from the sacrifices, and thereby put outside the pale of the law.
" The Druids are exempt from military service, and from the pay-ment of taxes. Their chief doctrine is that souls do not perish with their bodies, but are transferred after death to other bodies."— (_?. G., vi. 13-14.)
These are the leading points of Caesar's short account of the Druids, which is the earliest we possess, and is the main foundation on which has been raised the elaborate Druidic system of later writers.
Politically, Britain consisted of a number of independent tribes united in a federation of the loosest kind, in which the lead was taken by the tribe which happened at any time to be the most powerful.
The Britons appear to have kept up a tolerably close intercourse with the Continent. They are first mentioned by Caesar as sending aid to the Veneti (a Gaulish tribe whose name is preserved in that of the present town of Vannes), in their revolt against the Roman power. This was in 56 B.C. ; and in the following year Caesar resolved on an invasion of Britain, partly influenced, no doubt, by the desire of taking vengeance for the help afforded by the Britons to his enemies the Veneti. C. Volusenus having been previously sent to examine the British coast, Caesar himself set sail from Portus Itius (probably Wissant, between Boulogne and Calais) on the night of the 26th of August 55 B.C., taking with him two legions. The opposite coast was reached early on the morning of the following day, and after a sharp straggle a landing was effected apparently somewhere near Deal. Slight resistance was now offered by the Britons, to whom peace was granted on easy terms, and the Romans hastened back to Gaul.
Early in the following summer Caesar again started from Portus Itius, this time with a force of five legions and a corresponding body of 2000 cavalry, and landed on the coast of Britain at the same place as in the previous year. Leaving a small force to protect the ships he advanced twelve miles inland to the River Stour before meeting with the enemy. Cassivellaunus, chief of the country to the north of the Thames, had been chosen by the Britons as their general-in-chief, and under his command they for a time presented a fierce resistance to the invaders, but they were unable to withstand the steady onset of the Romans, and Caesar soon reached and took by storm Cassivellaunus's capital. The site of this city is now unknown, but it has been

conjectured with some probability to have been Verulamium (St Albans). Cassivellaunus now sued for peace, and after receiving hostages and fixing the amount of the tribute Caesar left the country before the end of the summer. No garrison was left behind to secure the Roman conquests, which were thus practically relinquished. For nearly a hundred years after this date the history of Britain is almost a blank. The Emperor Claudius, on his accession to the empire in 41 A.D., determined to carry out Augustus's intention of exacting the British tribute ; accord-ingly (43 A.D.) Aulus Plautius was sent to Britain with a force of four legions, and having landed without opposition, he advanced to the northern side of the Thames, and there awaited the emperor's arrival. Plautius was soon joined by Claudius, who at once led his army against the Britons, over whom he gained a complete victory, immediately after which he returned to Rome, leaving Plautius to secure his conquests.
The war was now carried on in the west between the Roman general Vespasian, who afterwards became emperor, and the Silurian chief Caractacus (Caradoc). After a struggle of nine years Caractacus at length, in 51 A.D., met with a decisive defeat at the hands of P. Ostorius Scapula. Having fled for refuge to Cartismandua, queen of the Brigantes (a tribe occupying the district between the Tyne and the Humber), he was betrayed by her to the Romans, by whom he was taken to be led in triumph through the streets of Rome.
Ten years after this Boadicea, queen of the Iceni, a tribe occupying the present counties of Norfolk and Suffolk, took advantage of the absence in Mona (Anglesey) of the Roman prefect, Suetonius Paullinus, to excite her people to revolt. The Roman colony of Camulodunum (Colchester) was taken and sacked, and the rebellion soon seemed seriously to threaten the Roman power. Suetonius, however, hastened up from the west, and in a single battle, fought near London, inflicted a decisive defeat on the Britons, following up his victory by a massacre in which 80,000 Britons are said to have perished. Boadicea poisoned herself to avoid falling into the hands of the Romans. The spirit of insurrection was now completely crushed; a milder policy was adopted by the successors of Suetonius, and Roman civilization began rapidly to spread over the country.
The next event of importance is the arrival of Agricola as governor of Britain in year 78. Agricola's first task was to complete the subjection of the Ordovices (North Wales), and this having been speedily accomplished, he adopted, with great success, a policy of conciliation. He encouraged education and building, and succeeded in introducing Roman dress and manners among the Britons. This, says Tacitus, they in their ignorance called civiliza-tion, though it was but a part of their slavery. In 79 Agricola attacked the Brigantes, and reduced the country betwen the Humber and the Tyne. During five years he continued to advance further north, and in 84 he defeated a Caledonian chieftain, named Galgacus, in a great battle, the site of which it is impossible to fix, but it was probably not far from the eastern coast of Scotland at some place north of the Tay. Agricola was now recalled to Rome, and no attempt was made to maintain the con-quests north of the line of forts which he had built between the Forth and the Clyde.
The remainder of the period of the Roman occupation is for the most part uneventful. In 120 the Emperor Hadrian visited the country, and built a rampart between the Tyne and the Solway Frith, in order to check the inroads of the northern tribes. In 139 a wall, called the wall of Antonine, in honour of the emperor Antoninus Pius, was built by the prefect Lollius TJrbicus along the line of Agricola's forts between the Forth and the Clyde. In 207 the Emperor Severus came to Britain in order to lead in person an expedition against the Caledonian tribes. He advanced far into Caledonia, driving the enemy before him but never meeting them in a pitched battle. No substantial advantage was gained in this desultory war, which cost the lives of 50,000 Roman soldiers. Severus built a new wall along the line of Hadrian's rampart, and died at York in 211.
The Roman empire was now in a state of decay, and its weakness offered great temptations to distant officials to seize the supreme power for themselves. About 287 the title of emperor was assumed by a man of low birth named Carausius, a native of Menapia (the district between the Scheldt and the Meuse), who had been appointed to the command of the fleet stationed in the English Channel for the purpose of protecting the coasts of Britain and Gaul from the Frisian pirates, and whose conduct in that position had been such as to draw from the emperor Maximian an order for his death. After a successful reign of seven years, in the course of which his independence was acknowledged by Maximian, Carausius was assassinated by his chief officer Allectus, who in his turn usurped the imperial title during three years, at the end of which Britain was regained for Rome by Constantius Chlorus (296). Constantius afterwards led an expedition into Caledonia, and died at York in 306.
Soon after this date the Picts and Scots begin to be heard of as invading the Roman province from the north. The Scots, who occupied the western part of Caledonia, belonged to the Gaelic branch of the Celtic family, and had crossed over from Ireland, bringing with them the name which was afterwards bestowed on their new home. The question as to the origin and the language of the Picts is one which has been long under discussion, and still seems far from a definitive settlement. The Picts are now, however, generally admitted to have been a Celtic race, and the evidence of language, as far as can be judged from the very few Pictish words, chiefly proper names, which have been preserved to us, seems to indicate the Cymric rather than the Gaelic as the branch to which they belonged. (For further information on this point see Garnett, Philological Essays, and Skene, The Four Ancient Books of Wales. Garnett holds the view that the Picts were a Cymric race Skene believes them to have belonged to the Gaelic branch of the Celtic family.)
In 367 the Picts and Scots overran the whole country as far south as London. Theodosius, father of the emperor of that name, was sent against them, and in two campaigns he succeeded in driving them back beyond the wall of Antonine. The district thus regained between the walls of Hadrian and of Antonine was named Valentia, in honour of the reigning emperor Valentinian. This, however, was only a momentary check, and the new province was soon lost.
In 383 the title of emperor was assumed by Maximus, a native of Spain, who had served under Theodosius in the Pictish wars. Maximus took a large army of Romans and Britons into Gaul and was recognized by Theodosius and Valentinian as sole emperor over Britain, Gaul, and Spain. Five years later he invaded Italy, but was taken and beheaded at Aquileia in 388. The army never returned to Britain, which was thus left weaker than ever. In 396 a single legion was sent by Stilicho, and the Picts were once more driven back. In 407 three successive emperors—Marcus, Gratian, and Constantine—were set up in Britain, the last of whom followed the example set by Maximus, and carried the army into Gaul, leaving Britain again helpless against the northern invaders. In 410 the Boman occupation of Britain was formally terminated by a letter addressed by the emperor Honorius to the cities

of Britain, in which he told them that they must henceforth be their own defenders.
Britain first became a Roman province in the reign of the emperor Claudius, 43 A.D. It was governed by a single prefect until the reign of Severus, who divided the province into two parts, called Britannia Superior and Britannia Inferior, each governed by a prefect. In the division of the empire into four prefectures in the reign of Diocletian, Britain formed part of the prefecture of Gaul, and was governed by an officer called the vicarius, residing at York. The country was subdivided into four provinces, each governed by a prefect:—_
1. Britannia Prima, the district south of the Thames.
2. Britannia Secuncla, the district south of the Dee and west of
the Severn.
3. Flavia Cossariensis, east of the Severn.
4. Maxima Cossariensis, the district between the Humber and the
Tyne.
To these was added as a fifth province the district of Valentia, conquered by Theodosius in 368, but it appears to have remained but a short time in the possession of the Romans.
Our knowledge of the events of the two centuries succeeding the close of the Roman occupation of Britain is rendered most uncertain by the absence of contemporary records. The accounts given by later writers, British and Saxon, cannot be relied upon for more than the barest outline, which may be accepted in so far as it is found to be consistent with the visible results of the events of this period.
The paternal character of the Roman rule had left the Britons at its withdrawal enervated and helpless, and utterly unable to cope with the Picts, who now began to press heavily on them. Having in vain appealed for help to the Romans, the Britons applied to the Teutonic rovers who had since the later years of the Roman period been in the habit of plundering the eastern coast. Accordingly, the three tribes of Angles, Jutes, and Saxons came over, and with their assistance the Picts were driven back into their own territories. The Saxons, however, still continued to arrive in large numbers, and soon finding the occasion of a quarrel, they combined with the Picts against the Britons, and proceeded to overrun the country, driving the Britons before them into the west. The first Teutonic kingdom in Britain was that of Kent, founded in 449; and at the end of two centuries we find the Saxons in firm possession of the greater part of the country, and the Celtic tribes occupying only the extreme west. Of Arthur, the hero of the Welsh account of this period, it is impossible to speak with any certainty Although he is unknown to the Saxon chronicle, it seems unnecessary to deny his existence, and it is certain that no part of the south-western district of England, which is generally supposed to have been the scene of his exploits, was conquered by the Saxons until after the time of his alleged victories. An attempt has lately been made (see ARTHUR) to show that the scene of Arthur's victories is to be laid in the south of Scotland, and not in the west of England. The question is one which hardly seems capable of a satisfactory settlement. For the subsequent history see ENGLAND.
See Monuinenta Historica Britannica, 1848 ; Camden's Bri-
tannia ; W. B. Jones, Vestiges of the Gael in Gwynedd ; Merivale,
History of the Romans under the Empire ; Burton, History of Scot-
land, vol. i. (A. W. K. 51.)








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