Warriors, farmers and craftsmen
The Celts of Britain and Europe in pre-Roman times would not have thought of themselves as a single group although they seem to have shared a fairly similar language and some similarities in the way they lived and the beliefs they held.
Who were the Celts?
In some areas of Europe the Celts had highly organised states, some of them quite powerful, whilst in other parts they were split into small, tribal chiefdoms. In Britain, there were at least 20 different tribes, each with their own chief or king, and there were even more in Ireland (which was never conquered by Rome).
The chiefs had some powers but the really important decisions were made by gatherings of all the free men of the tribe. However, there was also a grouping of 'warrior nobles' who chose the next chief or king. Craftsmen played an important part, not only in making tools and weapons, but also making the beautiful brooches and jewellery the Celts are famous for - Boudica's brooch is commented upon by the Romans.
Where did they Live?
The Celts were mostly rural, spending their lives on the land, raising herds, managing woodlands and growing crops. In Britain, they tended to live in small settlements of a few houses with maybe barns and workshops - in many cases these settlements would be extended families. The houses tended to be circular but workshops may well have been rectangular.
The Celts also built hillforts - these were tiers of earth and ditches which provided a stronghold. Huge amounts of earth and stones were moved, by hand, to create a system of banks, ditches and gateways which held people and stock, often only in times of difficulty or war. Some may have been used as manufacturing or religious centres, or just to show off the tribe's power.
How they Looked
The Celts seem to have had a reputation for being tall (Boudica was no exception) and strong. At about the time the Romans came to Britain, the tribesmen in southern England would probably be wearing long-sleeved tunics and long trousers, which the Romans regarded as barbaric. The women wore long tunics (dresses) and both sexes wore cloaks of wool, thick and heavy in winter and much lighter in summer. These colourful cloaks would be held together with ornamental brooches. Both men and women loved jewellery and wore necklaces, bracelets and anklets as decoration and to show off their wealth and status.
Celtic lords were famous for their displays of generosity, which was important in maintaining their standing in society. Their prestige was built by certain qualities and wealth. Eloquence (being good at public speaking) was important and bravery was essential, as was success in war (partly to get more goods and cattle and partly to show off their bravery).
Feasting was an important social gathering and the nobles would sit in particular places according to their status. Providing plenty of food, drink and entertainment (in the form of story tellers and praise singers), even to strangers, showed off their wealth and enhanced their status.
Like most peoples in the world at the time, the Celts believed in many gods. The gods were unreliable and sometimes cruel and needed to be pacified by special acts and sacrifices. Springs and places of water had important gods, as also did certain times of the year. The lines between the world of the living and that of the gods were not constant and at certain times of year, like Samhain (1st November, marking the end of summer and start of winter) it was possible to pass between the worlds - there were many tales of heroes doing just that related at feasts.
The Druids were regarded as priests, wise men, judges and a link between men and the gods, and were held in great esteem. They kept the tribes' traditions and administered the laws. There were often priestesses working alongside the Druids - in fact they stood with them on the shores of Mona (Anglesey) calling down the wrath of the gods on the Roman Army of Seutonius Paulinus when he came to crush them. The Druids passed their wisdom from one generation to the next in verse and song; they wrote nothing down. Training usually began in boyhood, usually from a noble family, and could continue for 20 years before the acolyte was a full Druid and could take his place conducting rites and sacrifices as well as other duties.
The Celts often buried their dead with personal things - clothes, jewellery and even chariots - which has told archaeologists much about their life and makes one think they believed in an afterlife. The graves could also tell a lot about the status of the people buried there. It appears that funeral ceremonies could include feasting, processions and rites at the burial ground. Some burials were done in mounds where a rectangular ditch was dug around the site, with the earth used to cover the body. Sometimes cremation was used.
The Celts had a reputation for being warlike and aggressive. Courage was important to Celtic nobles and it is thought that the bearing of arms outwardly marked the passage of a boy into manhood. The nobles would carry splendid weapons and shields with brilliant decorations - meant to dazzle the enemy with their wealth and pride. They mostly carried spears and in some cases slings, and the nobles would have had swords and iron helmets, but many fought with no armour at all.
It was a custom of the Celts for their children to attend special warrior schools - solely for the purpose of training young girls and boys how to ride horses and fight with swords, spears, and drive chariots - it is likely that Boudica would have had this training.
On the Battlefield
Chariots were important in Celtic warfare (Boudica is said to have led her troops to battle in a chariot). They were driven round the battlefield to hurl spears at the opposing Army before the hand-to-hand fighting started. The Celtic Armies were also often accompanied by lots of carts bringing supplies, families and even cattle to the battle (which generally lasted no more than a day). This of course was what hampered Boudica's troops from fleeing the field in her final battle with the Romans.
An independent people willing to fight to protect their rights
At the time of the Roman conquest in AD 43, Britain was split into tribes. There were at least 20 in England, one of which was the Iceni of East Anglia. Since the Iceni, along with the other Celtic tribes, did not write things down, we need to rely on archaeological evidence to find out about them.
Like most other Celts of the times, the Iceni were mainly farmers and they were deemed rich, living on the fertile lands of Norfolk and north Suffolk. Prasutagus was seen as a very rich king, and he wanted to safeguard some of that wealth for his daughters in his will.
This evidence shows that the Iceni had money (coins), usually of silver, which sometimes carried the name of the king and usually showed a horse. Like other Celts they were also master metalsmiths and made beautiful jewellery, brooches and shields.
Protecting their Lands
Like other tribes the Iceni built forts to protect their land and people. There are the remains of a big Celtic fort at Thetford, built to guard their tribal capital in about 400 BC. It appears to have been made for large gatherings either of the tribe or for religious reasons. Many brooches that fell from their cloaks have been found here. It is suggested that it is here where Boudica and the angry Iceni and Trinovantes came to plot the overthrow of the Roman invaders.
Horses were important to their way of life and battle, and more horses meant more wealth and prestige. In battle, they pulled the war chariots which the Celts drove in and out of the enemy at the beginning of a battle, making a lot of noise and throwing spears and causing havoc, before dismounting and fighting on foot. The chariots would withdraw to be ready for more attacks or to flee the battlefield quickly. These chariots were used during Boudica's battles.
Early Relationships with the Romans
When the Romans invaded in AD 43, the Iceni did not oppose them, preferring to keep their kingdom intact by living peacefully alongside them. But then in AD 47, the Roman governor, Scapula decided to disarm all the tribes in the south and east. Not to be able to bear arms would have been dishonourable for the Iceni, who rose up against Scapula.
Scapula defeated the Iceni and Prasutagus was installed as a client king by the Romans. The Romans built a fort not too far away at Saham Toney, from where they could keep a watchful eye on the Iceni. At the time of his marriage to Boudica, King Prasutagus was one of the wealthiest Celtic rulers in Britain.
Plundering the Iceni
While Prasutagus lived, the Romans had given the Iceni a certain amount of independence. The Iceni even continued making their own coins. Once Prasutagus died, however, the Romans set about bringing the tribe under their full control. The Romans did this with much greater brutality than normal. They were usually quite careful to maintain the good will of the local people. But with the Iceni, the Roman officials came in and stole what they could from the Iceni Royal household and took land and property from the tribal leaders.
Defeat and Devastation
This sparked the ultimately unsuccessful revolt of the Iceni and the death of as many as 80,000 men, women and children. The Romans laid waste their lands and enslaved their people. With the destruction of their livelihoods, the remaining Iceni faced starvation and it is believed that many moved away to the west and north.
What Happened to the Iceni Afterwards?
With the Iceni decimated, it took a long time for East Anglia's population to build up again. The remaining Iceni re-founded their tribal capital at Caistor St. Edmund, south of Norwich, but now as a Roman town. The Iceni remained at peace with the Romans until the end of Roman Britain.
Chariots and great numbers versus the organisation of the Roman Army
The Romans and the Celts fought in very different ways. For the Celts, war was a very personal affair - a time to show courage and win prestige and booty.
The Love of Fighting
The Celts loved fighting. They spent a lot of time warring with other tribes if no bigger war was at hand. This tribal warring, individualism and inability to unite, led to their downfall at the hands of the disciplined ranks of Roman soldiers.
High on Success
Boudica led the Britons to success on three occasions at Camulodunum (Colchester), where they destroyed the city and defeated the ninth legions and at Londinium (London) and Verulamium (St. Albans). Although the Roman's had withdrawn their troops from the last two cities around 2000 Roman soldiers were still killed along with many thousands of ordinary citizens. By the time they had destroyed Verulamium the Britons must have felt they were invincible. The final battle, however, was a very different affair.
The Iceni relied upon their chariots and huge numbers of fighting people. It is believed that when Boudica's Amy finally faced the might of the Roman Amy of Seutonius, somewhere north of St.Albans in the Midlands, Boudica's Amy may have swelled to as many as 230,000 which would make the Romans outnumbered 20:1. (That may have been the Roman historian's exaggeration, of course, to enhance their victory - but they were massively outnumbered by the Britons.)
Preparing to Attack
The chariots were drawn by two horses and held a driver and a warrior. At the beginning of the battle, the Celts would create a huge din of war-cries, battle songs, taunts and the dreadful sound of the carnyx (battle horn), working themselves into battle frenzy, ready to rush into the attack and get into hand-to-hand fighting.
Although war was also about prestige for Roman nobility, generally it was a serious business. The small garrison defending London at this time was ordered by Seutonius to leave for its own safety as trained soldiers were of greater value than civilians. This gave them time to regroup and select their own battle round.
Method and planning were important to the Romans - Seutonius chose his battlefield very carefully to make an advantage for his Army and put the Celts at a disadvantage. The Celtic Army was large but they were a ramshackle force with little organisation. Seutonius chose a slope with forest at the back. The field narrowed as it met the Romans, so the Celts could not overwhelm them with sheer numbers - only a few at a time could face the enemy.
The Romans relied on superior firepower and organisation. The Romans had javelins and scorpios - mechanised field artillery that could throw bolts (chunky arrows) long distances at a rate of three or four a minute. They were also defended by their body armour, which most Celts did not have or, in some cases, would not wear - a matter of pride.
As the two Armies clashed, the Romans moved into their famous wedge formation and were able to crush the Britons at the front rank. Their huge numbers, the carts of those following the battle and the sheer numbers meant their own Army crushed them from behind - there was nowhere to manoeuvre - they could not even run away. This resulted in the bloodiest massacre seen on British soil.
The Romans killed women, children and babies, just as Boudica had done in earlier battles in the towns, as well as the Iceni warriors. Tacitus reports that the Roman Army lost 400, whilst the Britons 80,000 in this one great tragedy. Although these figures may have been exaggerated it was still a major victory for the Romans.
Following the defeat of the rebel Army, the Romans built forts across England and Wales to keep the barbarians at bay, in a show of strength. They were not seriously challenged again.
Strong, fierce, proud and vengeful - the Celts that challenged Roman menMost of the written evidence about the lives of both Celtic and Roman women is from Roman men. There is also some archaeological evidence which tells us a bit more about the lives of Celtic women.
We know that Roman men did not give much weight to women in their society. Cicero says "Our ancestors, in their wisdom, considered that all women, because of their innate weakness, should be under the control of guardians." There are no documents to tell us what women thought about their roles and position in Roman society - none of their writings, if there were any, remain.
We know most about the more wealthy women in both Roman and Celtic society. The women who came from the more wealthy class of Roman society had much of their work done by slaves. In the morning, a slave would help wash her mistress, massage her with scented oils, and spend a long time setting her hair into the fashion of the day. The wealthy women would spend a lot of time socialising and planning parties and entertainments with their friends. They oversaw the jobs that needed doing in the household, but did not themselves do the work.
A Matter of Pride
A Celtic queen like Boudica would also have had women to support and assist her in her role. Indeed she may also have enjoyed some of the trappings of Roman Society during her marriage. From what we can gather from history, however, Celtic women were fiercely proud like their menfolk. Their sense of personal honour demanded vengeance for any insult or injury. Boudica was a good example of this pride and honour. Not only she but also her daughters were terribly dishonoured by the Romans. Through this the whole tribe would have felt insulted; for them and for Boudica herself, vengeance was necessary.
In both societies, wealthy women would receive some education, but in Rome they were not allowed to study the 'important' subjects like politics and philosophy, they were not generally considered clever enough and, anyway, women who tried to participate in public life were looked down upon in nearly all the writings of the time. Celtic girls, however, appear to have learnt about weaponry and strategy as well as the more 'womanly' skills. There are a number of documented cases (apart from Boudica!) of women fighting alongside their menfolk.
For the ordinary woman, in both societies, life would have been much harder. In Roman society, clothes washing was done in a large tub with a type of soap known as lye. The clothes would be laid on bushes or on the ground to dry in the wind and the sun. This work was probably very similar for Celtic women. In Roman households, fuel, fire and oil for lamps were the women's responsibility. The women would have shopped for food most days in the local market. Women were also in charge of spinning yarn and making clothing for the family.
Working Alongside the Men
In the Roman cities, women often ran the store selling the goods made by their craftsmen husbands. In the Roman countryside, men were in charge of working in the fields and bringing in the harvests. Amongst other homely tasks, the women made cheese and preserves and dealt with the wool. By contrast, Celts lived in small communities; there was not the urbanisation of the Roman towns and cities. Food had to be grown and harvested; shops and markets had not yet appeared. Women, as well as spinning and cooking, worked alongside their menfolk in the fields and in looking after the animals, which is probably one reason for the strength of women, remarked upon by the Roman writers.
Age of Marriage
Both Celtic and Roman women married young - this was necessary as many people only survived to their mid-twenties to thirties; many children died young and so girls needed to start bearing children as soon as they were able. Childbirth was dangerous for both the mother and child. If the women survived, they often died young anyway, weakened by bearing too many children too quickly. Life was hard and short for most Celtic women, as it was for most Roman women.
A Roman wife was expected to be a companion to her husband and to help him. They sat together at banquets (although the law forbade Roman women to drink wine), went to theatres and religious festivals together and shared authority over the household, including the children and slaves. The women were expected to teach their children Roman ways and culture and to support their sons in their careers as they grew up. Marriage for Celtic women and men seemed to have been a much more equal affair. Both men and women appeared to have more choice in marriage partners, although strategic marriages were quite common. According to Caesar the newly weds would pool equal amounts of money and share any gains.
In Roman society, a woman had few rights in marriage. She did not choose her husband, her father did that. Once married, a man could divorce his wife for not bearing a child, especially a son. If a man divorced his wife, any children stayed with him. A wife could not divorce her husband. If her husband died, a wife could not inherit his property or money. If a wife died, she could not leave her money to her children. Unlike in Roman law, the Celtic husband did not own the wife. She held her own wealth independently and could make legal transactions in her own right. Either partner inherited everything on the death of the other. If a woman left a bad husband, she could take with her everything she had brought to the marriage.
Women and Power
Some Roman writers seemed to admire the strength and beauty of the independent women of other lands but this did not seem to affect their attitude to their own women. Politics and trades were the domain of men. Roman men found it uncomfortable having to deal with powerful women in other cultures. For example, the Romans did not look favourably on Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, or Cartimandua. Politics and trades were the domain of men. There were obviously powerful women in Roman society but they wielded their power behind the scenes, through their menfolk - husbands and sons.
Celtic Women and Power
Celtic women were a lot more equal than Roman women. Celtic women, or at least noblewomen, could take part in politics and wield power. Both Cartimandua of the Brigantes and Boudica are examples of where the Celtic warriors were happy to follow women war leaders. There has been evidence in Celtic graves that testifies to the wealth and power of the female occupant. Celtic women sometimes acted as diplomats, judges and mediators, according to Cicero, in both local disputes and between tribes and the Romans. Although it does not seem to have been the norm, the fact that it was acceptable is important.
Conflict of Cultures
Because Celtic women owned and inherited land and wealth, unlike Roman women, Prasutagus' will went against Roman customs and law, in which only males could own and inherit land and wealth. This clash of culture may have been one issue that led to the Romans confiscating the lands and a chain of events that ultimately resulted in the loss of many lives.
Bringing 'civilisation' and subduing resistance
The Romans wanted to conquer Britain mainly for two reasons. Claudius, the emperor, felt he needed a triumph to consolidate his authority and Britain looked like an easy target. Just as important, across Britain, there were a lot of metal mines - lead, tin, copper, silver and they even discovered gold - these metals were very important to the Romans.
Britannia's Value to the Romans
Britains mines were of great value to the Romans. They used lead for their piping, aqueducts and in building, most of their coins were of silver, and iron was important in their war machinery. The Romans brought their superior technology and mined vast quantities of these important minerals.
Once they had started to conquer an area, the Romans found it easier to control the peoples if they got the leaders on their side. So they built up the idea of 'client kingdoms'. These were local tribes who chose to become allies of the Romans for their own preservation, and also as protection from other tribes. This pattern was used in Britain and the Iceni were one such tribe.
These client kingdoms kept the borders of the Roman areas of occupation relatively safe and calm. The Romans could then concentrate on getting rid of resistance within their borders. In the case of Britain, the Druids were a particular nuisance, since they were not only priests but also political leaders.
Civilisation and Goodwill
The Romans believed they were bringing civilisation and the Roman way of life to the peoples they conquered, for their own good. They brought their technology, their road building, their housing, their language, their organisation and administration. By sharing all this with the local people and allowing them some freedom and respect, the Romans built a level of goodwill which made it easier for them to administer a province and reap the benefits of the riches of the area.
A Taste for the Roman Lifestyle
In many cases they subsidised the chieftains who created alliances with them, with the expectation that the local nobility would develop a taste for the Roman lifestyle and the good things that could offer. This would make them more compliant and useful to the Romans. It is believed that at least some of Prasutagus' wealth was from money granted or lent by the emperor Claudius to this end.
Repaying the Loan
On Prasutagus' death, there was confusion in the local Roman administration as to whether money had been freely granted to him or whether it was merely a loan. Catus Decianus (who controlled the Roman treasury in Britain) decided that the money had been lent and therefore now needed to be recovered, with interest, for the new emperor, Nero. It is probable that he decided he would use the Iceni as an example to the other tribes to 'encourage' them to repay their loans.
By ignoring the usual pattern of behaviour and destroying the goodwill of the Iceni, Catus Decianus unleashed a tragic series of events which destroyed nearly 200,000 lives of Romans and Celts alike.
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