In the regions bordering the Atlantic coast, the transition from palaeolithic hunter-gatherers to neolithic villagers begins in about 4500 BC. These villagers later develop a striking tradition of prehistoric architecture.
In most of Europe neolithic communities live in villages of timber houses, often with a communal longhouse. But along the entire Atlantic coast, from Spain through France to the British Isles and Denmark, the central feature of each village is a great tomb, around which simple huts are clustered. The tomb chambers of these regions introduce the tradition of stonework which includes Passage graves and megaliths.
The massive neolithic architecture of western Europe begins, in the late 5th millennium BC, with passage graves. The name reflects the design. A stone passage leads into the centre of a great mound of turf, where a tomb chamber – first of wood but later of stone – contains the dead of the surrounding community.
Over the centuries increasingly large slabs of stone, or megaliths (from Greek megas huge and lithos stone), are used for the passage graves. And an astronomical theme is added. The graves begin to be aligned in relation to the annual cycle of the sun.
An outstanding example is the passage grave at Newgrange in Ireland, dating from about 2500 BC. Huge slabs of stone, carved in intricate spiral patterns, form the walls of the chamber. At sunrise on the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year, when the sun itself seems in danger of dying) the rays penetrate the length of the passage to illuminate the innermost recess.
In a later stage of this deeply mysterious Neolithic tradition the megaliths, previously hidden beneath the mounds of the tombs, emerge in their own right as great standing stones, often arranged in circles. The ritual purpose of such circles is not known. They too, in many cases, have a solar alignment, usually now relating to sunrise at the summer solstice.
The most striking of these circles is Stonehenge, in England. The site is in ritual use over a very long period, from about 3000 to 1100 BC. The largest stones, with their enormous lintels, are now thought to have been erected in about 2500 BC. By this time stone architecture is being used also at a domestic level in parts of the British Isles, as in the famous Stone Age village of Skara Brae.
Beaker people: 2000 BC
In spite of the obstacle of the Channel, Britain is much influenced by successive waves of immigrants or invaders from continental Europe. In about 2000 BC a newly dominant group has a custom of placing bell-shaped drinking vessels (or beakers) and bronze daggers in the tombs of warriors. Known variously as the Beaker or Bell-Beaker people, these newcomers introduce the Bronze Age to Britain together with horses and alcohol (hence the beakers).
The Iron Age in Britain begins some time after 500 BC and is mainly associated with another gradual infiltration from mainland Europe – that of the Celts.
Celtic tribes and Caesar: 55-54 BC
It is not known precisely when the Celts first enter Britain in their steady expansion outwards from central Europe. But Caesar states, in his own account of his campaigns, that they have been migrating across the Channel since at least the 2nd century BC.
Caesar makes his first tentative excursion to Britain in August of 55 BC. He lands on the coast of Kent, meeting considerable opposition from the cavalry and war chariots of the neighbouring Celtic chieftains. After staying long enough to demonstrate to the British the strength of a Roman legion, he returns in September to Gaul.
During the winter Caesar builds 600 new ships. He sails again, in July of 54 BC, with five legions and 2000 cavalry. They are sufficient to bring him north of the Thames into the territory of Cassivellaunus, the tribal chieftain chosen to lead the British forces. Caesar easily captures the Celtic leader’s primitive stronghold, and removes from it a large herd of cattle. But by the time he sails away again, in September, little has been achieved – except that Cassivellaunus has agreed to a treaty and has promised an annual tribute. It is unlikely that any tribute is paid.
The Celtic chieftains of Britain have almost exactly a century before they are again disturbed by the Romans.
Celtic Britain: 1st century BC – 1st century AD
The Celtic kings of southern Britain make good use of the years following Caesar’s incursions. His failure to do more than come and see, without conquering, convinces them that the Channel is a safe defence. The natural extremity of the Roman empire is the coast of Gaul.
Even Gaul is hard for the Romans to hold. After Caesar’s conquest of Gaul there are several uprisings by local chieftains. They are encouraged in this by the Celtic chieftains of Britain, their kinsmen and – against Rome at least – their natural allies. Yet increasing contact with Roman civilization is at the same time bringing wealth and sophistication to Britain.
The Celts of Britain benefit, through trade, from the proximity of Roman Gaul. It is a familiar pattern of international commerce that raw materials move inwards from the primitive extremities of a region, in return for manufactured goods sent back from the centre.
Across the Channel from Britain go gold, silver, iron, grain, wool, hides and cattle (a list to which a contemporary author, Strabo, adds hunting dogs and slaves). Back from Rome come glass, jewellery and other luxuries.
The rulers of the Celtic tribes of Britain become, during this period, more prosperous and more powerful – but, in most cases, no more friendly to Rome. The tendency is personified in a chieftain regarded by the Romans, during the reign of Augustus, as the king of Britain.
The Romans call him Cunobelinus; his Celtic name is Cunobelin; he is famous in English as Cymbeline. He may be either the grandson or great grandson of Cassivellaunus, who faced Caesar’s invasion. In a reign of about thirty-five years Cymbeline cunningly avoids provoking the Romans, while offering them no concessions. The man is clearly dangerous. The conquest of his large offshore island is increasingly seen in Rome as a necessary task.
The event which finally precipitates the invasion is the death of Cymbeline soon after AD 40. One of his sons, Amminius, known to be pro-Roman, has recently been exiled by the stronger anti-Roman faction at Cymbeline’s court. Amminius goes to Rome for help, during the reign of the emperor Caligula. When Cymbeline dies, two other sons – known to be anti-Roman – inherit his power. They are Caractacus and Togodumnus.
By the time the Romans are ready to invade, in AD 43, Claudius has recently been chosen as emperor. With a reputation for feebleness, he needs a striking success of some kind. He takes a personal interest in the campaign against Britain.
The Roman conquest of Britain: AD 43-51
Four Roman legions land in Kent in AD 43. The two sons of Cymbeline attempt to hold them at the Medway but are defeated (an engagement in which Togodumnus is killed, leaving Caractacus in sole command of the British forces). The Britons then retreat beyond the Thames, at which point the Romans call a halt in their pursuit. They are waiting for the public-relations part of the exercise.
A few weeks later the emperor Claudius reaches the southern bank of the Thames, in the region of what is now London, with fresh troops and even a few elephants. He is here to lead the advance on Caractacus’ capital at Camulodunum, or Colchester.
There is little further opposition, for the Celtic troops – without breastplates or helmets – are no match for the solid weight of a Roman legion, advancing like a human tank. The emperor enters Colchester in triumph, cheered by his army. Later a temple is erected here to Claudius as a god; its site is now Colchester Castle.
After the rapid defeat of Caractacus, chieftain of the Belgae in southeast Britain, other Celtic tribes quickly come to terms with the Romans. Some are accepting defeat. But others, such as the Iceni in East Anglia, already have friendly relations with the Romans – preferring them to the Belgae. Rome leaves such chieftains in power, as allies.
The result is that in the short space of four years the whole of southern Britain is safely under Roman control. In AD 47 Roman troops are able to build a raised road, with a ditch on either side, defining the northern edge of this safe territory. Known as the Fosse Way, it stretches from Lincoln to south Devon.
But beyond the Fosse Way there is trouble for the Romans in the shape, once again, of Caractacus. He has escaped alive from his defeats. Now he is organizing resistance among the Welsh tribes. Caractacus himself is captured in AD 51, but the Romans are unable to subdue the Welsh for another thirty years.
Like all barbarian kings captured by the Romans in war, Caractacus – accompanied by his wife and daughter – is taken back to Rome. The family is to be displayed before the Roman crowd in the triumphal celebration of the conquest of Britain.
Normally, as with Vercingetorix a century earlier, the captive king would then be executed. But the Noble bearing of Caractacus, and his powerful speech to the assembled crowd, so impress the emperor that Claudius spares his life and that of his family. He provides them with a villa in Rome, where they live a guarded but honourable existence.
Boudicca and the Iceni: AD 60-61
The only major threat to Roman dominance of southern Britain derives from their own heavy-handedness.
The Iceni, a tribe of Celts occupying what is now Norfolk, have been allies of the Romans. Their king, Prasutagus, has no male heir. In an attempt to ensure a good relationship between his family and the Romans, he leaves a will dividing his wealth between his two daughters and the emperor Nero. It does not have the desired effect. On his death, in AD 60, his kingdom is annexed by the Romans; his family is humiliated; and the lands of the tribe are plundered. But the Romans have not taken account of his widow. In Latin they spell her Boadicea. Her Celtic name is Boudicca.
Boudicca launches an uprising in which she is soon joined by other Celtic tribes. All have good cause for resentment at the behaviour of Roman soldiers and Roman settlers in their territories. Together they attack Colchester, destroying the Roman garrison which attempts to defend itself in the newly completed temple to Claudius. They plunder many other rich settlements before moving on to ravage Verulamium (now St Albans) and London. According to Tacitus, 70,000 are killed.
Eventually the Romans gather together an army of about 10,000 men to confront the tribes – now busy in another cause, the quest for loot.
Tacitus paints a touching picture of the Celtic tribesmen milling about in confusion as they face the solid Roman formation on the battlefield. Their families have arrived in carts to watch the encounter. Boudicca dashes among her people in a chariot, accompanied by her two daughters – whose rape by Roman soldiers, according to Tacitus, has sparked off the crisis. The harangue to the troops which Tacitus puts into the mouth of the queen begins: ‘We British are used to Woman commanders in war’.
But she cannot prevail. Tacitus claims that after a crushing defeat she takes poison. Hers is the last serious uprising in southern Britain. The attention of the Romans can be turned to Wales.