Britons: Diodoros on a simple way of life (mid-first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Britons: Diodoros on a simple way of life (mid-first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified October 13, 2023,

Ancient authors: Diodoros of Sicily (mid-first century BCE), Library of History 5.21-22 (link).

Comments: As Diodoros of Sicily moves on to his account of what is now Britain, he is not derogatory about the people. Instead, he presents the people as having a simple way of life that nonetheless removes them from the vices found in seemingly more civilized places. This is a picture of the simple and hardy – yet noble – savage, so to speak. There are affinities between Diodoros’ account here and that of Julius Caesar, at least concerning the southernmost, more “civilized” Britons (link).

Source of the translation: C. H. Oldfather, Diodorus Sicilus: Library of History, volumes 1-6, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1935-1952), public domain (passed away in 1954), adapted by Victoria Muccilli and Harland.


[For Diodoros’ preceding discussion of peoples of an island in the Atlantic off the Libyan coast, go to this link]

Book 5

[Locating Britannia in the ocean] 

21  Now since we have presented the facts concerning the ocean lying off Libya and its islands, we will now turn our discussion to Europe. Opposite that part of Gaul which lies on the ocean and directly across from the Herkynian Forest,​ as it is called, which is the largest of any in Europe of which tradition tells us, there are many islands out in the ocean of which the largest is that known as Britannia. (2) In ancient times this island remained unvisited by foreign armies, for tradition tells us that neither Dionysos, nor Herakles, nor any other hero or leader made a campaign against the island. In our day, however, Gaius Caesar, who has been called a god because of his accomplishments, was the first man to have conquered the island (according to records). After subduing the Britons he compelled them to pay fixed tributes. But we will give a detailed account of the events of this conquest in connection with the appropriate period of time, and at present we will discuss the island and the tin which is found in it.

(3) Britannia is triangular in shape, very much like Sicily, but its sides are not equal. This island stretches obliquely along the coast of Europe. The point where it is least distant from the mainland, we are told, is the promontory which men call Cantium [i.e. the Forelands and Kent],​ and this is about one hundred stadium-lengths from the mainland,​ at the place where the sea has its outlet [i.e. where the North Sea empties into the ocean]. The second promontory, known as Belerium [Land’s End],​ is said to be a voyage of four days from the mainland, and the last, writers tell us, extends out into the open sea and is named Orca [Duncansbay Head with Dunnet Head, the northern tip of Scotland]. (4) Of the sides of Britain the shortest, which extends along Europe, is seven thousand five hundred stadium-lengths, the second, from the Strait to the (northern) tip, is fifteen thousand stadium-lengths, and the last is twenty thousand stadium-lengths, so that the entire circuit of the island amounts to forty-two thousand five hundred stadium-lengths.

[Peoples and customs]

(5) We are told that Britannia is inhabited by descent-groups which are indigenous (autochthonous) and preserve in their ways of living the ancient way of life. They use chariots, for instance, in their wars, even as tradition tells us the old Greek heroes did in the Trojan war. Their dwellings are humble, being built for the most part out of reeds or logs. The method they employ of harvesting their grain crops is to cut off no more than the heads and store them away in roofed granges, and then each day they pick out the ripened heads and grind them, getting in this way their food. (6) As for their habits, they are simple and far removed from the shrewdness and vice which characterize the men of our day. Their way of living is modest, since they are well clear of the luxury which is gained by wealth. The island is also thickly populated, and its climate is extremely cold, as one would expect, since it actually lies under the Great Bear [constellation]. The island is controlled by many kings and potentates, who for the most part live at peace among themselves.

[Customs related to tin mining]

22  We will give a detailed account of the customs of Britannia and of the other features which are peculiar to the island when we come to the campaign which Caesar undertook against it, and at this time we will discuss the tin which the island produces. The inhabitants who settled around the promontory known as Belerium​ are especially hospitable to foreigners and have adopted a civilized manner of life because of their interactions with merchants of other peoples. These are the people who work the tin, treating the bed which bears it in an ingenious manner. (2) This bed, being like rock, contains earthy seams and in them the workers quarry the ore,​ which they then melt down and cleanse of its impurities. Then they work the tin into pieces the size of knuckle-bones and convey it to an island which lies off Britain and is called Iktis [likely St. Michael’s Mount, Cornwall]. For, at the time of ebb-tide the space between this island and the mainland becomes dry and they can take the tin in large quantities over to the island on their wagons. (3) (And a peculiar thing happens in the case of the neighbouring islands which lie between Europe and Britannia, for at flood-tide the passages between them and the mainland run full and they have the appearance of islands, but at ebb-tide the sea recedes and leaves dry a large space, and at that time they look like peninsulas.) (4) On the island of Iktis, the merchants purchase the tin of the natives and carry it from there across the Strait to Galatia. Finally, they make their way on foot through Galatia [or: Gaul] for some thirty days, they bring their wares on horseback to the mouth of the river Rhodanos (Rhone). . . [omitted material].

[For Diodoros’ subsequent discussion of Celts, go to this link.]

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