Tribes and tribulations of Roman Britain
If you come in the High Season, Roman Britain offers a rich diversity of peoples. The peoples have always been said to be simple and as such free of vice, rubbing along with one another quite well. True, it’s essentially a bag of Celtic peoples, but the differences between the tribes point to different seasons of migrations from the continent. Put someone from the east in the same room as someone from the west, and you can tell them apart. This is all the more so with the differences between the ‘free’ Britons, keeping up with their ancient traditions, and those living in the Roman Empire.
The Caledonians of the far north, our Roman observers noted, have red hair and large limbs, suggesting to them they may be of German origin.
The Silures, who live in the west and mid west, have curly hair and are darker skinned. For this reason, and the reason that Spain is opposite, have suggested an Iberian origin.
Those that are opposite Gaul are taken to be of Gallic origin. Of the three, this at least seems likely. Though Romans also suggest that perhaps the climate has made people the same on both sides of the channel.
Taken as a whole, the Britons are said to be taller than their Gallic neighbours, with darker hair and looser build, a good half foot taller than your tallest Roman. They are, however, widely held to be bow legged and uglier.
In Caesar’s time, it’s said that the most civilized of all these nations are they who live in the south east, a heavily maritime district. Cingetorix, Carvilius, Taximagulus and Segonax are four of their leading rulers, with Cassivellaunus as a High King in the making.
They have most of the same customs as you can find in Gaul, though cheese making has had to be imported. Most of the inland inhabitants do not sow corn, nor do they for that matter have gardens, but live on milk (lots of it) and meat and wear skins. Dye is very popular, with a blue that comes from wood, making them look more frightening in battle. They wear their hair long, and shave their whole body apart from their hair and moustache. Up to a dozen men are said to share common wives, even between brothers.
What has certainly been noted since then is the effect of conquest on people in Gaul and Britain. These latter have kept their independence longer, and it shows. While the languages differ slightly, there is the same level of derring-do when danger approaches, and the same fear when faced with it. However, the Britons show more spirit, as they have only lately been living under a peaceful regime, and have not yet lost that warlike edge when they “lost their courage along with their freedom”. Note, however, this level of aggression while it is increasingly sapped amongst the residents of Roman Britain, will very much remain beyond the frontiers for long years to come. So remember to show more respect when you travel outside of the provinces, as you may find fights break out much more easily, like home.
Britons you’ll note endure cheerfully the conscription, taxes and the rest imposed on them, providing there is no oppression. It is said of them in the first century that “they are reduced to subjection, not as yet to slavery,” and that they are impatient of such yolks. It’s a trend you might see retained, contrary to expectations. By the low season, the Britons have forgotten their old tribal differences, and even when you see break downs in power, it’s not to the old tribal structures locals will turn. But they will still keep something of their old independent spirit, plumping for leaders so they can do things their own way. It’s not for nothing the third century sees Britain called “a province fertile in tyrants”. They may be plumping for tough rulers, but they are their own rulers.
From The Discerning Barbarian's Guidebook to Roman Britain: People to Meet and Places to Plunder [Paperback] by Lee Rotherham