Britons: Tacitus (late first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Britons: Tacitus (late first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified December 29, 2022,

Ancient author: Tacitus, Agricola 10-12 (link).

Comments: The Roman senator Tacitus supplies us with the only surviving work entirely concerned with describing peoples (The Germania [link]) but he also offers us some ethnographic digressions, including his description of the Judeans in connection with Titus’ siege of Jerusalem (link) and this current description of Britons in connection with his uncle Agricola (written in 98 CE).  Agricola had been instrumental in the conquest of what the Romans called “Britannia” (modern England).

Tacitus gives a description of the land, climate, and people, emphasizing the connection between the environment and the character of the inhabitants. He also compares Gauls (Celts) with the closely related Britons. Clearly on his mind, however, is the Roman conquest of these peoples and their land which his uncle, Agricola, had helped to facilitate. Conquest and ethnographic description once again meet as is so often the case in modern colonial situations, as well.

Source of the translation: W. Peterson and M. Hutton, Dialogus, Agricola, Germania, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1914), public domain, adapted by Harland.


[Explanation of the ethnographic digression]

10 The geographical position of Britannia and the peoples (populi) which inhabit it have been recorded by many writers. If I record them it is not to challenge comparison in the matter of accuracy or talent, but because it was Agricola who first thoroughly subdued Britannia. Accordingly, where earlier writers embroidered with rhetoric a theme still legendary, there will be found only a faithful narration of facts here.

[Description of the land]

Britannia is the largest island known to Romans. With regard to the site and its characteristics, it faces Germania on the east and Spain on the west. In the south it is actually within sight of Gaul. Its northern shores alone have no lands facing them, but are beaten by the open sea. Livy and Fabius Rusticus, the most graphic of ancient and modern writers respectively, have likened the shape of Britannia as a whole to an oblong shield or to a double-axe. This is in fact its shape up to the borders of Caledonia, which is why this idea has been extended to the whole. But when you cross the border, the land stretches out at once in boundless and vast extent from the actual neck, and only afterwards tapers into the tapering end of a wedge. It was only under Agricola that the Roman fleet for the first time rounded this coast, the coast of the uttermost sea, and pronounced Britannia an island. By the same voyage it discovered the islands called Orcades [modern Orkney islands], up to that time unknown, and conquered them. The shores of Thule even were seen, their instructions taking them only so far, besides, winter was approaching. However, they brought the report that the sea was sluggish and heavy to the oar and comparatively torpid even to the wind. I presume this was because land and mountain, the cause and occasion of storms, are fewer and further between and because the deep mass of uninterrupted water is slower to be set in motion. It is beyond my purposes to investigate the character and tides of the ocean, and many have recorded them. I would add but a brief word that nowhere has the sea more potent influence. it gives to many of the rivers a tidal character. Nor merely do the incoming tides wash the shores and ebb again, but penetrate the land deeply and invest it, and even steal into the heart of hills and mountains as though into their native element.

[Original people and their physical characteristics in relation to the climate or environment]

Be this as it may, what humans inhabited Britannia originally, whether indigenous or later-comers, is a question which has never received attention, as one would expect for a barbarian people. The physical features of the people present many varieties, from which inferences can be drawn. The red hair and the large limbs of the inhabitants of Caledonia proclaim their Germanic origin. The swarthy faces of the Silurians, the generally curly quality of their hair, and the position of Spain opposite their shores attest the passage of Iberians in the old days and the occupation by these districts. Those peoples, again, who adjoin Gaul are also like Gauls [Roman equivalent for the Celts], whether because the influence of heredity persists or because when two lands converge till they face each other the climatic condition stamps a certain physical form on the human body.

[Characteristics of the Britons and their land]

But, taking a broad view of the case, we can readily believe that the Gauls took possession of the adjacent island. You will find celebrations of sacred rites and belief in superstitions of the Gauls there. The language is not very different. There is the same recklessness in courting danger and, when it comes, the same anxiety to escape it. But the Britons display greater courage, not having been softened by long years of peace. The Gauls also, according to history, once shone in war. Afterwards inactivity made its appearance hand in hand with peace, and courage and liberty have been lost together. This has happened to any of the Britons who were conquered long ago.

The rest of the Britons remain what the Gauls once were. Their strength lies in their infantry, but certain tribes also fight from chariots. The driver has the place of honour, and the combatants are mere retainers. Originally the people were subject to kings. now they are distracted with parties and party spirit through the influence of chieftains. Nor indeed have we any weapon against the stronger descent groups more effective than this, that they have no common purpose. rarely will two or three communities consult to repulse a common danger. Accordingly they fight individually and are collectively conquered.

The sky is overcast with continual rain and cloud, but the cold is not severe. The duration of daylight is beyond the measure of our zone. The nights are clear and, in the distant parts of Britannia, short, so that there is but a brief space separating the evening and the morning twilight. If there are no clouds, the sun’s brilliance, they maintain, is visible throughout the night. It neither sets nor rises, but simply passes over. That is to say, the flat extremities of earth with their low shadows do not permit the darkness to mount high, and nightfall never reaches the sky or the stars.

The soil, except for the olive and the vine and the other fruits usual in warmer lands, permits and is fertile for crops. they ripen slowly, but are quick to sprout, in both cases for the same reason, the abundant moisture of the soil and sky. Britannia produces gold and silver and other metals. Conquest is worth while. Their sea also produces pearls, but somewhat clouded with a leaden hue. Some people suppose that their pearl-fishers lack skill. In the Red Sea we are to imagine them torn alive and still breathing from the shell, while in Britannia they are gathered only when thrown up on shore. For myself I could more readily believe that quality was lacking in the pearls than greed in Romans.

[Roman activity in the area and conquest]

As for the people themselves, they discharge energetically the levies and tributes and imperial obligations imposed upon them, with the exception of wrongdoing. They are restless when they have been wronged. For their subjection, while complete enough to involve obedience, does not involve slavery. It was, in fact, under Julius Gaius that Romans first entered Britannia with an army. He overawed the natives by a successful battle and made himself master of the coast. It may be supposed that he rather discovered the island for his descendants than bequething it to them. Soon the civil war happened, and the arms of Rome’s chiefs were turned against the state, and Britannia was forgotten, even after peace came. God Augustus called this “policy.” Tiberius called it “precedent.”

That Gaius Caesar debated an invasion of Britannia is well known. But his sensitiveness led him to quickly change his mind. Besides, his vast designs against Germania had failed. God Claudius was responsible for renewing the task. Legions and auxiliary troops were dispatched across the channel, and Vespasian was taken into partnership, the first step of the fame soon to come to him. Descent groups were conquered, kings captured, and Vespasian was introduced to Destiny.

The first consular governor to be placed in command of Britain was Aulus Plautius. Soon after came Ostorius Scapula, both distinguished soldiers. The nearest portion of Britain was reduced little by little to the condition of a province. A colony of veterans was also planted. Certain communities were handed over to King Cogidumnus (he has remained continuously loyal down to our own times) according to the old and long-received principle of Roman policy, which employs kings among the instruments of servitude. . . [remainder omitted].

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