Britons and Iernians (Irish): Julius Caesar, Pytheas, and Strabo on customs and cannibalism (early first century CE)

Ancient authors: Julius Caesar, Pytheas of Massilia, and others as cited in Strabo, Geography 4.5.1-5 (link to Greek text and full English translation)

Comments: In this brief ethnographic passage about Britannia, Ireland, and Thule, Strabo draws on Julius Caesar (link), Pytheas of Massilia (whose work, ca. 320 BCE, only partially survives in citations such as this), and perhaps other authors to outline some features of these lands and their peoples. The people of Ireland are here characterized as the most savage, engaging in cannibalism.  The accusation of human sacrifice and/or cannibalism was a common allegation in Greek ethnographic writing against far off peoples who were in fact little (if at all) known (e.g. Scythians). While Strabo dismisses some aspects of Pytheas’ narrative as fantasy, Strabo nonetheless trusts some of Pytheas’ comments on agriculture on Thule, the northern-most island in the Greek imagination.

Source: H.L. Jones, Strabo, volume 2, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1923), public domain, adapted by Harland.

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Book 4

[General geographic description]

5 (1) The Britannic region [now England] is triangular in shape and its longest side​ stretches parallel to the Celtic region, neither exceeding nor falling short of the length of the Celtic region. For each of the two lengths is about four thousand three hundred (or four hundred) stadia. The Celtic length that extends from the outlets of the Rhenos [Rhine] river as far as those northern ends of the Pyrenees mountains that are near Aquitania [now in France], as also the length that extends from Cantium [Kent, England] (which is directly opposite the outlets of the Rhenos), the most easterly point of Britannia, as far as that westerly end of the island which lies opposite the Aquitanian Pyrenees. This, of course, is the shortest distance from the Pyrenees to the Rhenos, since, as I have already said, the greatest distance is as much as five thousand stadia. Yet it is reasonable to suppose that there is a convergence from the parallel position which the river and the mountains occupy with reference to each other, since at the ends where they approach the ocean there is a curve in both of them.

(2) There are only four passages which are habitually used in crossing from the mainland to the island, those which begin at the mouths of the rivers: the Rhenos [Rhine], the Sequana [Seine], the Liger [Loire], and the Garumna [Garonne]. However, the people who put to sea from the regions that are near the Rhenos make the voyage, not from the mouths themselves, but from the coast of those Morinians who have a common boundary with the Menapians. (On their coast, also, is Itium, which the deified Caesar [cf. Gallic War 4.23] used as a naval station when he set sail for the island. He put to sea by night and landed on the following day about the fourth hour, in this way having completed three hundred and twenty stadia in his voyage across. He found the grain still in the fields.) Most of the island is flat and overgrown with forests, although many of its districts are hilly. It bears grain, cattle, gold, silver, and iron. These things, accordingly, are exported from the island, as well as hides, slaves, and dogs that are by nature suited to the purposes of the chase. The Celts, however, use both these and the native dogs for the purposes of war too.

[General physical description of the peoples and their customs]

The men of Britannia are taller than the Celts, and not so yellow-haired, although their bodies are of looser build. The following is an indication of their size: I myself, in Rome, saw mere youths towering as much as half a foot above the tallest people in the city, although they were bandy-legged and presented no fair lines anywhere else in their figure. Their habits are in part like those of the Celts, but in part more simple and barbaric. This is so much the case that, on account of their inexperience, some of them make no cheese even though they have plenty of milk, and they have no experience in gardening or other agricultural pursuits. They have powerful chieftains in their country. For the purposes of war they use chariots for the most part, just as some of the Celts do.

[Environment and climate]

The forests are their cities, for they fence in a spacious circular enclosure with trees which they have felled, and in that enclosure make huts for themselves and also pen up their cattle. However, they do not do this with the purpose of staying a long time. Their weather is more rainy than snowy and on the days of clear sky fog prevails for so long that throughout a whole day the sun is to be seen for only three or four hours round about the middle of the day. This is the case also among the Morinians and the Menapians and all the neighbours of the latter.

[Roman control]

(3) The deified Caesar crossed over to the island twice [Gallic War 4.20-36 and 5.8-23]. But he came back quickly without accomplishing anything great or proceeding far into the island. This happened not only on account of the quarrels that took place in the land of the Celts among both the barbarians and his own soldiers, but also on account of the fact that many of his ships had been lost at the time of the full moon, since the ebb-tides and the flood-tides got their increase at that time. However, he won two or three victories over the Britannians, albeit he carried along only two legions of his army and he brought back hostages, slaves, and quantities of the rest of the booty.

At present [ca. 18 CE or earlier], however, some of the chieftains there, after procuring the friendship of Caesar Augustus by sending embassies and by paying court to him, have not only dedicated offerings in the Capitol, but have also managed to make the whole of the island virtually Roman property. Further, they submit so easily to heavy duties, both on the exports from there to the Celtic region and on the imports from the Celtic region (these latter are ivory chains and necklaces, and amber-gems and glass vessels and other petty wares of that sort), that there is no need of garrisoning the island. For one legion, at the least, and some cavalry would be required in order to carry off tribute from them, and the expense of the army would offset the tribute-money. In fact, the duties must necessarily be lessened if tribute is imposed, and, at the same time, dangers be encountered, if force is applied.

[Peoples of Ierne / Ireland and their customs, including their supposed cannibalism]

(4) Besides some small islands around the Britannic region, there is also a large island, Ierne [Ireland], which stretches parallel on the north, its breadth being greater than its length. Concerning this island I have nothing certain to tell, except that its inhabitants are more savage than the Britannians, since they are man-eaters as well as heavy eaters. Furthermore, since they count it an honourable thing to devour their own fathers when they die and to openly have sexual intercourse not only with the other women but also with their mothers and sisters. But I am saying this only with the understanding that I have no trustworthy witnesses for it. Yet, as for the matter of man-eating, that is said to be a custom of the Scythians also and, in cases of necessity forced by sieges, the Celts, the Iberians, and several other peoples are said to have practised it.

[Thoule / Thule and the customs of its peoples, according to Pytheas]

(5) Concerning Thoule our historical information is still more uncertain, on account of its outside position. For Thoule, of all the countries that are named, is set farthest north. However, the things which Pytheas has told about Thoule, as well as the other places in that part of the world, have indeed been fabricated by him. We have clear evidence of this fabrication from the districts that are known to us, for in most cases he has falsified them, as I have already said before. Hence he is obviously more false concerning the districts which have been placed outside the inhabited world.

Yet, if judged by knowledge of the celestial phenomena and by mathematical theory, he might possibly seem to have made adequate use of the facts as regards the people who live close to the frozen zone: He says that, of the animals and domesticated fruits, there is an utter dearth of some and a scarcity of the others, and that the people live on millet and other herbs and on fruits and roots. Where there are grain and honey, the people get their beverage from them as well. As for the grain, Pytheas says (since they have no pure sunshine), they pound it out in large storehouses, after first gathering in the ears there. For the threshing floors become useless because of this lack of sunshine and because of the rains.

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