c. 800 BC – AD 43


c. 800 BC – AD 43


Addenda to A New Age


It was not possible to get high enough furnace temperatures to release liquid iron from its ore. After smelting, an iron ‘bloom’ was left. This spongy mass was subjected to a protracted session of heating and hammering (by a ‘bloomsmith’), to force out as much of the remaining impurity (‘slag’) as possible, producing ‘wrought iron’. Since the temperatures enabling iron to be cast were not available, all iron artifacts were manufactured by reheating and hammering (by a ‘blacksmith’). Pure wrought iron is relatively soft, but it can be hardened by alloying it with another element. Some alloys form naturally because the ore contains suitable impurities.

There are numerous varieties of iron ore; the chief causes of which arise from differences in the soil and in the climate. Some earths produce a metal that is soft, and nearly akin to lead; others an iron that is brittle and coppery, the use of which must be particularly avoided in making wheels or nails, the former kind being better for these purposes. There is another kind, again, which is only esteemed when cut into short lengths, and is used for making hobnails; and another which is more particularly liable to rust.
Pliny the Elder (AD 23–AD 79) Natural History XXXIV, 41

Steel is produced by alloying iron with carbon. By a process called ‘carburisation’ – heating iron with carbon, i.e. charcoal, for a long period, allowing carbon to diffuse into the iron’s surface – it is possible to produce a steel coating to give a sword a harder cutting edge. The properties of the metal can be further modified by ‘quenching’ (the heated metal is rapidly cooled by plunging into a liquid), which increases hardness, but with the penalty of increasing brittleness too,[*] and ‘tempering’ (the heated metal is allowed to cool gradually), which reverses the action of quenching (the hotter the metal was to start with, the softer it is when cooled). By judiciously combining these operations, the hardness of the final product can be finely tuned. For most purposes, however, wrought iron was perfectly satisfactory.

Comparatively few artefacts show evidence for advanced techniques like the deliberate use of steel, or even quenching and tempering, but smiths gradually learned enough about the properties of different ores to choose those best suited for particular tasks …
Charles Haselgrove ‘The Iron Age’ (The Archaeology of Britain, 1999, Chapter 7)

Obviously, smiths of the period did not have a scientific understanding of the processes they were using, and the quality of the end product would appear to have been somewhat variable. In 367 BC, Marcus Furius Camillus, at almost eighty years of age, defeated an army of Gauls who were marching on Rome. Plutarch (c.AD 45–c.AD 120), in his biography of Camillus, writes:

Finally, when Camillus led his men-at-arms to the attack, the enemy raised their swords on high and rushed for close quarters. But the Romans thrust their javelins into their faces, received their strokes on the parts that were shielded by iron, and so turned the edge of their metal, which was soft and weakly tempered, so much so that their swords quickly bent up double, while their shields were pierced and weighed down by the javelins which stuck in them.
Parallel Lives Camillus 41

Polybius (c.200 BC–c.118 BC) records a victory achieved by the Romans over the Gauls in 223 BC:

The Romans are thought to have managed matters very skilfully in this battle, their tribunes having instructed them how they should fight, both as individuals and collectively. For they had observed from former battles that Gauls in general are most formidable and spirited in their first onslaught, while still fresh, and that, from the way their swords are made, as has been already explained, only the first cut takes effect; after this they at once assume the shape of a strigil, being so much bent both length-wise and side-wise that unless the men are given leisure to rest them on the ground and set them straight with the foot, the second blow is quite ineffectual. The tribunes therefore distributed among the front lines the spears of the triarii who were stationed behind them, ordering them to use their swords instead only after the spears were done with. They then drew up opposite the Celts in order of battle and engaged. Upon the Gauls slashing first at the spears and making their swords unserviceable the Romans came to close quarters, having rendered the enemy helpless by depriving them of the power of raising their hands and cutting, which is the peculiar and only stroke of the Gauls, as their swords have no points. The Romans, on the contrary, instead of slashing continued to thrust with their swords which did not bend, the points being very effective. Thus, striking one blow after another on the breast or face, they slew the greater part of their adversaries.
The Histories II, 33

Polybius The Histories by W.R. Paton
Plutarch Parallel Lives by Bernadotte Perrin
Pliny the Elder Natural History by John Bostock & H.T. Riley


Reconstructed section through the univallate defences (box rampart and ditch) of Ivinghoe Beacon hillfort, Buckinghamshire, which might date from the Late Bronze Age.[*]

A Hillfort’s rampart could be built from material dug from a ditch on its outward side, from a quarry within the enclosure, or, sometimes, brought in from the surrounding area. Types of rampart construction include:

Dump.   An unsupported earth or rubble bank.

Timber revetment.   The earth or rubble core of the rampart is retained, either on just its outwards facing side or on both sides, by closely spaced timber uprights. Where the core is supported on both sides, this is often referred to as a ‘box rampart’

Stone revetment.   In this case, instead of timber, stone blocks, or drystone courses of smaller stones, retain the core.

Timber lacing.   Stone revetment, on both faces of the core, is strengthened by large numbers of transverse timber ties. In Scotland there are over sixty hillforts where the stonework of the ramparts has been fused by intense heat, created by burning of the timber lacing. These are termed ‘vitrified forts’, and it is the subject of debate whether this effect was intentional, accidental, or the result of hostilities.

Glacis.   Wood is not only subject to rot, but it is also susceptible to being set on fire. So in areas where it was expedient to build timber revetments, maintenance would have been an ongoing, difficult and laborious operation. Possibly, it was in answer to this problem that glacis ramparts appeared in the 4th century BC. In other forms of construction, there is a narrow berm between the rampart and the ditch, but glacis ramparts are constructed from dumps of earth and rubble positioned so that the outer face of the bank forms a continuous slope with the inner face of the ditch, at an angle of 30–45 degrees. They would not have been the grassy mounds seen today. Any assailant would have faced a very large barrier (at Maiden Castle, Dorset, for example, it was 25 metres from ditch bottom to rampart top) of slippery scree, surmounted by a breastwork.


Despite its elaborate entrance earthworks, Danebury seems to have been overwhelmed.

Julius Caesar campaigned in Gaul during the years 58–51 BC. He, himself, says (The Gallic War II, 6) that the usual method of attacking a stronghold employed by the Gauls and the Belgae (two of the three peoples who Caesar identifies as the inhabitants of Gaul: see below) was to surround it with men, and bombard the ramparts with stones to clear them of defenders, so that the attackers could get at the gates – which they would approach in a testudo formation, i.e. locking their shields together to provide protection, all around and overhead, like a tortoise shell. Presumably it was the same in Britain – hence the development of hillfort defences designed to counter that tactic. The greater depth of multivallate defences would impair the efficacy of attacking slingers. Constricted and convoluted entrance passageways meant that a party of men approaching the gate would have longer exposure to a barrage of stones, rained from the flanking ramparts. At the eastern entrance of Maiden Castle, Dorset, archaeologists discovered a pit containing over 22,000 pebbles – handily placed to be hurled onto any attacker.[*]

At Danebury, Hampshire, thousands of pebbles have also been found in the vicinity of the entrance – the largest single cache being a pit containing some 11,000.[*] Nevertheless, c.100 BC, the gate was destroyed by fire. It was never rebuilt, and intensive occupation of the hillfort ceased. Further, the bodies of some twenty-five men, women and children had been unceremoniously thrown into two pits near to the entrance – the open graves being left to silt-up naturally. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to conclude that Danebury had fallen to an attack.

Despite its elaborate entrance earthworks, Danebury seems to have been overwhelmed.

Incidentally, since the great majority of hillforts contain no source of water, it would appear that prolonged sieges were not an expected military tactic.


Sir Mortimer Wheeler’s description of the fall of Maiden Castle:

And so we reach the Roman invasion of AD 43. That part of the army of conquest wherewith we are concerned in Dorset had as its nucleus the Second Augustan Legion, whose commander, at any rate in the earlier campaigns, was the future Emperor Vespasian. Precisely how soon the invaders reached Maiden Castle can only be guessed, but by AD 47 the Roman arms had reached the Severn, and Dorset must already have been overrun. Suetonius affirms that Vespasian reduced “two very formidable tribes and over twenty towns (oppida), together with the Isle of Wight”, and it cannot be doubted that, whether or no the Durotriges (as is likely enough) were one of the tribes in question, the conquest of the Wessex hill-fort system is implied in the general statement. Nor is it improbable that, with the hints provided by the mention of the Isle of Wight and by the archaeological evidence for the subsequent presence of the Second Legion near Seaton in eastern Devon, a main line of advance lay through Dorset roughly along the route subsequently followed by the Roman road to Exeter. From that road today the traveller regards the terraced ramparts of the western entrance of Maiden Castle; and it requires no great effort of the imagination to conjure up the ghost of Vespasian himself, here confronted with the greatest of his “twenty towns”.[*] Indeed, something less than imagination is now required to reconstruct the main sequence of events at the storming of Maiden Castle, for the excavation of the eastern entrance has yielded tangible evidence of it. With only a little amplification it may be reconstructed as follows.
Approaching from the direction of the Isle of Wight, Vespasian’s legion may be supposed to have crossed the River Frome at the only easy crossing hereabouts – where Roman and modern Dorchester were subsequently to come into being. Before the advancing troops, some 2 miles away, the sevenfold ramparts of the western gates of Dunium towered above the cornfields which probably swept, like their modern successors, up to the fringe of the defences. Whether any sort of assault was attempted upon these gates we do not at present know; their excessive strength makes it more likely that, leaving a guard upon them, Vespasian moved his main attack to the somewhat less formidable eastern end. What happened there is plain to read. First, the regiment of artillery, which normally accompanied a legion on campaign, was ordered into action, and put down a barrage of iron-shod ballista-arrows over the eastern part of the site.
Following this barrage, the infantry advanced up the slope, cutting its way from rampart to rampart, tower to tower. In the innermost bay of the entrance, close outside the actual gates, a number of huts had recently been built; these were now set alight, and under the rising clouds of smoke the gates were stormed and the position carried.
But resistance had been obstinate and the fury of the attackers was roused. For a space, confusion and massacre dominated the scene. Men and women, young and old, were savagely cut down, before the legionaries were called to heel and the work of systematic destruction began. That work included the uprooting of some at least of the timbers which revetted the fighting-platform on the summit of the main rampart; but above all it consisted of the demolition of the gates and the overthrow of the high stone walls which flanked the two portals. The walls were now reduced to the lowly and ruinous state in which they were discovered by the excavator nearly nineteen centuries later.
That night, when the fires of the legion shone out (we may imagine) in orderly lines across the valley, the survivors crept forth from their broken stronghold and, in the darkness, buried their dead as nearly as might be outside their tumbled gates, in that place where the ashes of their burned huts lay warm and thick upon the ground. The task was carried out anxiously and hastily and without order, but, even so, from few graves were omitted those tributes of food and drink which were the proper and traditional perquisites of the dead.
At daylight on the morrow, the legion moved westward to fresh conquest, doubtless taking with it the usual levy of hostages from the vanquished.
Thereafter, salving what they could of their crops and herds, the disarmed townsfolk made shift to put their house in order. Forbidden to refortify their gates, they built new roadways across the sprawling ruins, between gateless ramparts that were already fast assuming the blunted profiles that are theirs today. And so, for some two decades, a demilitarized Maiden Castle retained its inhabitants, or at least a nucleus of them. just so long did it take the Roman authorities to adjust the old order to the new, to prepare new towns for old. And then finally, on some day towards the close of the sixties of the century, the town was ceremonially abandoned, its remaining walls were formally ‘slighted’, and Maiden Castle lapsed into the landscape among the farm-lands of Roman Dorchester.
Maiden Castle, Dorset (1943) I, 16 (Published by the Society of Antiquaries of London and freely available online.)

Sir Mortimer’s interpretation is very compelling, but a more recent interpretation suggests that Maiden Castle’s abandonment followed a protracted decline rather than a sudden catastrophic assault. Niall Sharples (in a compendium, entitled The Celts, from 1991) writes:

During the second century BC Maiden Castle is at its most impressive. Work on the defences has been completed and the interior is fully occupied. Circular houses are arranged in rows to create streets and large areas are given over to grain storage in underground silos. In this form Maiden Castle is not only the largest but the most elaborately defended and most densely occupied hillfort in southern England. The construction and reconstruction of the ramparts would have involved large numbers of people and could not have been carried out solely by the inhabitants of the fort. Likewise the grain storage facilities are too substantial to be solely for the use of the inhabitants. It is not unreasonable, therefore, to suggest that this was the capital of a large territory, perhaps as large as the present county of Dorset.
In the succeeding centuries the significance of the hillfort seems to have diminished. There is evidence that the ramparts became neglected and much of the interior was abandoned. The bulk of the inhabitants appear to have moved back into small settlements scattered around the hillfort. These settlements were associated with their own fields and paddocks and it seems likely that there was a movement away from communal farming controlled from the hillfort to individual autonomous farms. The hillfort must have retained some preeminence in the community, however, as in the abandoned earthworks of the eastern entrance there is one of the largest and richest cemeteries known from southern England in this period. Several hundred burials are likely to be present and many individuals have elaborate grave goods indicating their status and role in the community. These offerings include pots, presumably containing food and drink, joints of animals, weapons and ornaments.
Amongst these burials are a group of individuals who show signs of violent death. Several have sword cuts across the skull and principal limbs, one has the clear impression of a spearhead which has pierced the skull and another has a spear actually embedded into his backbone. These burials testify to the violent nature of Celtic society in the late Iron Age of the British Isles and it is possible that they result from a vain attempt to impede the Roman occupation of southern England in AD 43. The hillfort was abandoned within fifty years of the invasion and other than a short period in the fourth and fifth centuries, when it was the site of a Romano-Celtic temple, it has remained unoccupied since then.

Hod Hill, another Dorset hillfort (at almost 22 hectares, Hod Hill has a greater enclosed area than Maiden Castle), was excavated in the 1950s by Sir Ian Richmond. Eleven iron ballista bolts were found clustered around, what was taken to be, a “chieftain’s hut” (a roundhouse set within a, rectangular, ditched enclosure), near the south-eastern corner of the interior. The interpretation was, once again, that this was evidence of a Roman assault on the hillfort, though there are no other signs of a fight. Anyway, the Roman military appropriated the hillfort, and built their own fort in the north-western corner – making use of the existing ramparts to provide its northern and western defences.[*] Dave Stewart and Miles Russell, in Current Archaeology (Issue 336, March 2018), write:

At Hod Hill, the ballista bolts found during Ian Richmond’s excavation could easily (and more plausibly) have come from the Roman fort, where catapult foundation platforms were discovered; it is quite probable that they could have been discharged during target practice rather than in some speculative attack. Crucially, archaeological evidence also suggests that both Maiden Castle and Hod Hill had been largely abandoned by 100 BC, a century and a half before the Romans arrived.[*]

Nevertheless, Suetonius does say that Vespasian fought thirty battles, and had to overcome more than twenty oppida – which can only be hillforts.[*] It does not seem unreasonable to suppose that groups of British warriors would choose to make their last-stands in these strategically sited, if rather run-down, fortifications.


It was Julius Caesar who first referred to major Gallic and British tribal settlements/strongholds as oppida (singular: oppidum). The term has been pressed into service by archaeologists.

By about 100 BC, whilst hillforts tended to be in a state of decline, in south-eastern Britain a new type of settlement, called ‘enclosed oppida’ by archaeologists, emerged. River valleys are the favoured location for enclosed oppida. They cover areas in excess of 10 hectares, and are bounded by earthworks – or partially bounded: natural landscape features are often employed to complete the boundary. For instance, at Dyke Hills, Oxfordshire, an area of about 45 hectares is enclosed on the west and south by a loop of the river Thames; on the east by the river Thame; and on the north by a linear earthwork comprising two banks with broad intervening ditch. The enclosed oppida appear to represent the last gasp of, what might be termed, the ‘hillfort concept’ in the south-east.

By the turn of the millennium the, so-called, ‘territorial oppida’ appear, where large areas of land are defined by discontinuous lengths of earthwork. At Camulodunum (Colchester, Essex), the defined territory covers about 30 square kilometres. After the Conquest, a Roman town was built within this area. The same thing happened in the territorial oppida of Calleva (Silchester, Sussex), Verulamium (St Albans, Hertfordshire) and Durovernum (Canterbury, Kent). Though these oppida had clearly been important tribal centres, it is only at Silchester that any evidence of what could be a pre-Roman town – two roads, at right angles, with plots at right angles to them, dated c.15 BC – has, as yet, been uncovered.


Entrances – the weak links – tend to have been subject to more remodelling than the rest of a hillfort’s defences. Castell Henllys is no exception. In 2002, archaeologist Harold Mytum wrote:

A long and complex sequence has been identified at the entrance, including some phases involving what were elaborate architectural features for their time. Excavation has been very extensive so that the whole of what survives for each period of construction can be considered at the same time. Numerous stone-by-stone plans have been produced which provide a unique record of what was found and form the basis for analysis and any reconstruction work. This has made the excavation slow and painstaking, but the quality of the results has fully confirmed that this has been the appropriate approach.
The entrance area was only just finished in 2002, and all the results have not been fully analysed. Therefore the sequence presented here is very much a provisional one, though for the more substantial stone phases greater confidence can be expressed in the interpretations given here.
The earliest entrance way has yet to be fully revealed, but seems to have included a line of deeply set posts, set close together, leading to a simple timber gateway. A small bank was thrown up behind this, but quickly this was not considered sufficient and a larger bank was constructed, with the existing timber line being partially buried within the bank which was largely built in front of the fence. A substantial ditch was dug outside the bank to both provide the necessary materials and to enhance the defences. At a later date, a line of quartz boulders was placed along the passageway on the western side. There was probably a cobbled stone roadway leading into the fort at this stage.
The first major stone phase consisted of a unique arrangement, consisting of two pairs of guard chambers flanking a roadway, with a large timber tower with wooden gates hung from the uprights. Slots in the gateway walls were constructed so that massive timber beams could be slid into position to keep the doors firmly closed. Beyond the gateway to the north, leading out of the fort, flanking walls funnelled people and animals towards the entrance. A cobbled stone surface was constructed leading up through the entrance and into the interior.
Massive stone walling was constructed on each side of the entrance, and some of this survived to a metre (over 3ft) in height, though all has now been removed as the earlier gate constructions buried beneath have been investigated. All this investment seems to have been carried out in about the 5th century BC.
After a while, the gateway fell into disuse, and some of it was destroyed by a very intense fire that led to some of the shale turning into light, bubbly slag-like material. This may have been during an attack on the fort, or may have been a deliberate act by the inhabitants, perhaps as part of a deliberate demolition of part of the gate, or as some ritual act. The gateway certainly decayed over some time, before a second elaborate gateway in stone was constructed.
The second major stone phase cut away much of the collapsed rubble and parts of the original walling to form flat, solid bases for the new walls. These formed a very different shape from the previous period, with a single pair of shallow guard chambers and convex walling outside which curved round the front of the massive bank on the west, and round the outer bank on the east. A four-post gate tower was constructed, and two massive post holes outside the gateway either represent an extension of the tower or are a bridge or walkway for defenders on the outer bank on the east to cross over to the massive stone structure on the west of the entrance way. A new surface was made through the gate, and once again Castell Henllys must have looked most impressive.
The gateway again subsequently decayed and fell down, and various timber gate towers were built on the rubble.
An outer, simple timber gateway has been located 30 metres north of the main entrance complex, where two of the bank and ditch outworks met. This shows the extent of the site and the degree of investment not just immediately around the fort itself, but over a substantial area around it.
‘Castell Henllys: Iron age fort and native settlement of the Roman period:
Summary Report’

Dr Mytum concludes:

The sequence at the entrance indicates periods of massive investment on the gateway, involving the use of specialist builders or architects in some cases. The scale of elaboration in the case of some of the stone phases shows links with other parts of Britain. It also highlights the desire to present a fashionable and sophisticated appearance to the fort, and the resources to produce a monumental construction comparable to that on much larger forts elsewhere. That such sophistication is not maintained continuously through the fort’s history may be an indication of periodic shifts of power within the region, or of problems in maintaining such a level of consumption on display features over the long term.
‘Castell Henllys: Iron age fort and native settlement of the Roman period:
Summary Report’


Inspired by discoveries in Switzerland, Arthur Bullied (son of the founder of Glastonbury Antiquarian Society) set out to find evidence of lake-dwellings in the wetlands of Somerset. After four years of looking, as he recalls in The Lake-Villages of Somerset (Fifth Edition, 1958):

On a Wednesday afternoon in March 1892, when driving from Glastonbury to Godney, a field was noticed to be covered with small mounds, an unusual feature in a neighbourhood where the conformation of the land is for miles at a dead level.
III. ‘The Discovery of the Somerset Lake-Villages’

Preliminary excavations demonstrated the site’s potential, but, because the trenches flooded, further investigation was postponed until summer:

Investigations were begun towards the end of July, 1892, and were continued each year from May to October until 1898, when there was an unavoidable interruption in the work for five years. Excavations were resumed again in the summer of 1904, when Mr H. ST GEORGE GRAY, F.S.A., happily joined the writer as a joint director and secretary of the work until its termination in 1907.
III. ‘The Discovery of the Somerset Lake-Villages’

After their work at the Glastonbury site, Bullied and Gray investigated a broadly contemporary site at nearby Meare. The settlements found at Glastonbury and Meare are often mentioned in the same breath, but they are quite different. While Glastonbury was constructed in a lake, Meare (which is actually two groups of houses, 60 metres apart) was built on a raised bog. At Meare there are clay floors and hearths, like Glastonbury, but unlike Glastonbury, there is very little superstructure remaining. This suggests that the houses were temporary affairs, like wigwams or tepees. Meare may have been a seasonal marketplace.

Addenda to First Contacts


Unlike the modern concept of ‘the British Isles’, Britanniae, translated along the lines of ‘the Britains’, ‘the Britannias’ or ‘the Britannic Islands’, refers to all islands off the north-western coast of mainland Europe. For instance, Pliny the Elder (AD 23–AD 79), discussing Britanniae, notes:

… scattered in the German Sea, are those known as the Glass Islands [Glaesariae], but which the Greeks have more recently called the Electrides, from the circumstance of their producing electrum or amber.
The most remote of all that we find mentioned is Thule, in which, as we have previously stated, there is no night at the summer solstice, when the sun is passing through the sign of Cancer, while on the other hand at the winter solstice there is no day. Some writers are of opinion that this state of things lasts for six whole months together.
Natural History IV, 16
Pytheas, of Massalia, informs us, that this is the case in the island of Thule, which is six days’ sail from the north of Britain.
Natural History II, 77
At one day’s sail from Thule is the frozen ocean, which by some is called the Cronian Sea.
Natural History IV, 16

Whilst Pliny is happy to accept Pytheas as a credible witness, Polybius (c.200 BC–c.118 BC) evidently thought Pytheas was a charlatan. The section of The Histories in which he criticises Pytheas is now lost, but Polybius’ incredulity has been preserved by Strabo (c.64 BC–c.AD 24):

Polybius, in his account of the geography of Europe, says he passes over the ancient geographers but examines the men who criticise them, namely, Dicaearchus, and Eratosthenes, who has written the most recent treatise on Geography; and Pytheas, by whom many have been misled; for after asserting that he travelled over the whole of Britain that was accessible Pytheas reported that the coast-line of the island was more than forty thousand stadia,[*] and added his story about Thule and about those regions in which there was no longer either land properly so-called, or sea, or air, but a kind of substance concreted from all these elements, resembling a sea-lung – a thing in which, he says, the earth, the sea, and all the elements are held in suspension; and this is a sort of bond to hold all together, which you can neither walk nor sail upon. Now, as for this thing that resembles the sea-lung, he says that he saw it himself, but that all the rest he tells from hearsay.… Now Polybius says that, in the first place, it is incredible that a private individual – and a poor man too – could have travelled such distances by sea and by land … Pytheas asserts that he explored in person the whole northern region of Europe as far as the ends of the world – an assertion which no man would believe, not even if Hermes made it.
Geography II, 4.1–2

Perhaps it was a combination of professional jealousy and snobbery that inspired Polybius’ snide remarks – after all he was a Greek aristocrat (from Megalopolis, Arcadia), whilst Pytheas was just “a poor man”. Strabo (a Greek from Amaseia – now Amasya, in Turkey), who, in all probability, had only come across Pytheas’ work in secondary sources, heartily agreed with Polybius’ assessment of Pytheas. It becomes clear, though, that this is because Pytheas’ reports clashed with Strabo’s preconceived geographical notions.

Strabo Geography by Horace Leonard Jones
Pliny the Elder Natural History by John Bostock & H.T. Riley


As previously mentioned, Strabo claimed Pytheas was a liar:

For not only has the man who tells about Thule, Pytheas, been found, upon scrutiny, to be an arch-falsifier, but the men who have seen Britain and Ierne [Ireland] do not mention Thule, though they speak of other islands, small ones, about Britain …
Geography I, 4.3

Strabo was writing, probably in Rome, some three centuries after Pytheas. (Allusions in the Geography suggest it was completed in, or just after, AD 23, though the timescale of its production is the subject of debate.) Whilst Strabo was a lad, Julius Caesar had brought all Gaul under Roman control, and made two expeditions to Britain (in 55 BC and 54 BC). Caesar, himself, wrote:

The island is triangular in its shape, one side being opposite Gaul. One corner of this side, by Kent – the landing-place for almost all ships from Gaul – has an easterly, and the lower one a southerly aspect. This extent of this side is about 500 [Roman] miles. The second tends westward towards Spain: off the coast here is Ireland, which is considered only half as large as Britain, though the passage is equal in length to that between Britain and Gaul. Halfway across is an island called Mona; and several smaller islands also are believed to be situated opposite this coast, in which, according to some writers, there is continuous night, about the winter solstice, for 30 days. Our inquiries could elicit no information on the subject, but by accurate measurements with a water-clock we could see that the nights were shorter than on the continent. The length of this side, according to the estimate of the natives, is 700 miles. The third side has a northerly aspect, and no land lies opposite it; its corner, however, looks, if anything, in the direction of Germany. This length of this side is estimated at 800 miles. Thus the whole island is two thousand miles in circumference.
The Gallic War V, 13

Caesar’s idea that the west coast of Britain faced towards Spain seems bizarre today [Map]. He appears to have come to this conclusion by imagining that the coast of Gaul ran in a virtually straight line from the Pyrenees to the Rhine:

… the whole of Gaul having a northerly trend …
The Gallic War IV, 20

Such a ‘flattening’ of Gaul would, in effect, rotate the British Isles towards Spain. It seems reasonable to assume that, by the time Strabo wrote his Geography, the coastlines of Gaul and southern Britain would have become familiar to the Romans. It would, therefore, seem reasonable to expect Strabo’s description to be an advance on Caesar’s. That, however, is not the case. Instead, Strabo (who never travelled west of Italy) developed his own, curious, notion of the area’s geography:

Next to Iberia towards the east lies Celtica [Gaul], which extends to the River Rhine. On its northern side it is washed by the whole British Channel (for the whole island of Britain lies over against and parallel to the whole of Celtica and stretches lengthwise about five thousand stadia) …
Geography, II, 5.28
Britain is triangular in shape; and its longest side stretches parallel to Celtica, neither exceeding nor falling short of the length of Celtica …
Geography IV, 5.1
… Britain itself stretches alongside of Celtica with a length about equal thereto, being not greater in length than five thousand stadia, and its limits are defined by the extremities of Celtica which lie opposite its own. For the eastern extremity of the one country lies opposite the eastern extremity of the other, and the western extremity of the one opposite the western of the other; and their eastern extremities, at all events, are near enough to each other for a person to see across from one to the other – I mean Kent and the mouths of the Rhine. But Pytheas declares that the length of Britain is more than twenty thousand stadia, and that Kent is several days’ sail from Celtica …
Geography I, 4.3
Europe, as described by Strabo.

As demonstrated by Diodorus’ record, Pytheas had described Britain as triangular in shape, but had correctly identified the side adjacent to Gaul as the shortest (giving it a length of 7,500 stadia). Pytheas did indeed say the longest side was 20,000 stadia, but this was the western coast. Strabo might appear to have a valid point when he queries a journey of “several days” from Gaul to Kent. However, in the real world, Pytheas had to round the Armorican peninsula (Brittany). A journey from there, diagonally across the Channel to Kent, would have taken days. Strabo was, clearly, totally convinced that his vision of Europe was correct, and that Pytheas was lying.

… any man who has told such great falsehoods about the known regions would hardly, I imagine, be able to tell the truth about places that are not known to anybody.
Geography I, 4.3

When Strabo talks of “places that are not known to anybody”, he is talking about Thule.

Now Pytheas of Massalia tells us that Thule, the most northerly of the Britannic Islands, is farthest north, and that there the circle of the summer tropic is the same as the arctic circle. But from the other writers I learn nothing on the subject – neither that there exists a certain island by the name of Thule, nor whether the northern regions are inhabitable up to the point where the summer tropic becomes the arctic circle. But in my opinion the northern limit of the inhabited world is much farther to the south than where the summer tropic becomes the arctic circle. For modern scientific writers are not able to speak of any country north of Ierne [Ireland], which lies to the north of Britain and near thereto, and is the home of men who are complete savages and lead a miserable existence because of the cold; and therefore, in my opinion, the northern limit of our inhabited world is to be placed there.
Geography II, 5.8

Strabo Geography by Horace Leonard Jones
Julius Caesar The Gallic War by T. Rice Holmes


The similarity between Diodorus’ note on harvesting and one in the following passage by Strabo, indicates that Diodorus’ information originated with Pytheas:

Concerning Thule our historical information is still more uncertain, on account of its outside position; for Thule, of all the countries that are named, is set farthest north. But that the things which Pytheas has told about Thule, as well as the other places in that part of the world, have indeed been fabricated by him, we have clear evidence from the districts that are known to us, for in most cases he has falsified them, as I have already said before, and hence he is obviously more false concerning the districts which have been placed outside the inhabited world. And yet, if judged by the science 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, when 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; and where there are grain and honey, the people get their beverage, also, from them. As for the grain, he says – since they have no pure sunshine – they pound it out in large storehouses, after first gathering in the ears thither; for the threshing floors become useless because of this lack of sunshine and because of the rains.
Geography IV, 5.5 (Translation by Horace Leonard Jones)


The most popular contender for the island of Ictis is St Michael’s Mount, off the coast of Penwith. This matches the geographical description perfectly, but, as yet, no evidence of the tin trade has been discovered. Another plausible candidate is Mount Batten, in Plymouth Sound. This has indisputable evidence of trading activity, but, at the present time anyway, is permanently attached to the mainland.

Pliny the Elder notes that:

Timaeus the historian says that an island called Mictis is within six days’ sail of Britain, in which white lead [i.e. tin] is found; and that the Britons sail over to it in boats of osier, covered with sewed hides.
Natural History IV, 16

It is not clear whether Pliny’s island of Mictis should be equated with Diodorus’ island of Ictis. Pliny’s statement is somewhat ambiguous (is it Britain, generally, or Mictis, in particular, where tin is found), and, clearly, Diodorus’ Ictis was not a six day sail from the immediate mainland. Possibly Mictis was a completely different island, or perhaps Pliny’s story is basically the same as Diodorus’, but presented in a garbled form.

By the time of Julius Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul (58–51 BC), the tribe inhabiting the southern coast of the Breton peninsula were called the Veneti. In The Gallic War, Caesar, himself, notes that the Veneti were:

… by far the most influential of all maritime peoples in that part of the country. They possess numerous ships, in which they regularly sail to Britain; they excel the other peoples in knowledge of navigation and in seamanship; and, the sea being very stormy and open, with only a few scattered harbours, which they keep under their control, they compel almost all who sail those waters to pay toll.
The Gallic War III, 8

Presumably, these same people (though perhaps differently named) were engaged in the cross-Channel tin trade at the time of Pytheas. Their ships, which are described by Caesar, probably hadn’t changed substantially, either, in the intervening years.

They were a good deal more flat-bottomed than ours, to adapt them to the conditions of shallow water and ebbing tides. Bows and sterns alike were very lofty, being thus enabled to resist heavy seas and severe gales. The hulls were built throughout of oak, in order to stand any amount of violence and rough usage. The cross-timbers, consisting of beams a foot thick, were riveted with iron bolts as thick as a man’s thumb. The anchors were secured with iron chains instead of ropes. Hides or leather dressed fine were used instead of sails, either because flax was scarce and the natives did not know how to manufacture it [i.e. linen], or, more probably, because they thought it difficult to make head against the violent storms and squalls of the Ocean, and to manage vessels of such burthen with ordinary sails.
The Gallic War III, 13

By the onset of winter in 57 BC, Caesar believed that Gaul had been subdued. The Veneti, however, initiated a rebellion. Caesar responded by ordering that a fleet of warships be built, on the River Loire. Caesar notes that the Veneti:

… sent for reinforcements to Britain, which faces that part of Gaul.
The Gallic War III, 9

In late-summer, 56 BC, the Veneti’s rebellion climaxed in a sea-battle.

To backtrack a little. Caesar says (The Gallic War II, 34) that it was one Publius Crassus, at the head of a legion, who secured the submission of the Veneti, and their neighbouring “maritime tribes”, in 57 BC. Strabo (Geography III, 5.11) says that one Publius Crassus voyaged to a group of tin-producing islands, the Cassiterides, and on his return “laid abundant information before all who wished to traffic over this sea”. The Cassiterides are best regarded as mythical.[*] Strabo gives quite a detailed description of them, and places them to the north of Iberia, but they have never been satisfactorily identified. Now, it doesn't seem like much of a leap to identify Strabo’s Publius Crassus with Caesar’s Publius Crassus. Perhaps, then, it was actually Cornwall that Crassus visited, on a Veneti ship in 57 BC. Strabo also mentions:

… the Veneti who fought the naval battle with Caesar; for they were already prepared to hinder his voyage to Britain, since they were using the emporium there.
Geography IV, 4.1

In which case, it would appear that the prospect of having their lucrative business ruined if Caesar crossed the Channel prompted the Veneti to instigate the rebellion.

It was probably in Quiberon Bay that Caesar’s fleet (its size is not mentioned) was met by an armada of “about 220” Veneti ships.

Brutus, who commanded the fleet, and the tribunes and centurions, each of whom had been entrusted with a single ship, did not quite know what to do, or what tactics to adopt. They had ascertained that it was impossible to injure the enemy’s ships by ramming. The turrets were run up; but even then they were overtopped by the foreigners’ lofty sterns, so that from the lower position, it was impossible to throw javelins with effect, while the missiles thrown by the Gauls fell with increased momentum. Our men, however, had a very effective contrivance ready – namely, hooks, sharpened at the ends and fixed to long poles, shaped somewhat like grappling-hooks [as used to pull down town walls]. By means of these the halyards were seized and pulled taut: the galley rowed hard; and the ropes snapped. When they were cut, the yards of course fell down; and as the efficiency of the Gallic ships depended altogether upon their sails and rigging, when they were gone the ships were no longer of any use. Thenceforward the struggle turned upon sheer courage, in which our soldiers easily had the advantage, especially as the fighting went on under the eyes of Caesar and the whole army,[*] so that no act of courage at all remarkable could escape notice; for all the cliffs and high ground which commanded a near view over the sea were occupied by the army.
The Gallic War III, 14

Seeing that things were going badly, the Veneti fleet tried to escape, but the weather intervened. The wind suddenly dropped, and the Romans were able to mop-up the becalmed enemy ships. The Veneti were left with no option other than surrender, but Caesar determined to make an example of them:

Accordingly he put to death the entire council, and sold the rest of the population into slavery.
The Gallic War III, Chapter 16

Strabo Geography by Horace Leonard Jones
Julius Caesar The Gallic War by T. Rice Holmes
Pliny the Elder Natural History by John Bostock & H.T. Riley


Caesar begins The Gallic War:

Gaul, taken as a whole, is divided into three parts, one of which is inhabited by the Belgae, another by the Aquitani, and a third by a people who call themselves Celts and whom we call Gauls. These peoples differ from one another in language, institutions, and laws. The Gauls are separated from the Aquitani by the river Garonne, from the Belgae by the Marne and the Seine. Of all these peoples the bravest are the Belgae; for they are furthest removed from the civilization and refinement of the Province, traders very rarely visit them with the wares which tend to produce moral enervation, and they are nearest to the Germans, who dwell on the further side of the Rhine, and are constantly at war with them.

“The Province” (hence modern ‘Provence’) had been a Roman possession since 121 BC.


… [the sun is] a body of great size and power, the ruler, not only of the seasons and of the different climates, but also of the stars themselves and of the heavens. When we consider his operations, we must regard him as the life, or rather the mind of the universe, the chief regulator and the God of nature. He supplies light to the universe, and dispels all darkness; He both conceals and reveals the other stars. It is He that regulates the seasons, and, in the course of nature, governs the year as it ever springs anew into birth; it is He that dispels the gloom of the heavens, and sheds his light upon the clouds of the human mind. He, too, lends his brightness to the other stars. He is most brilliant and most excellent, beholding all things and hearing all things …
I consider it, therefore, an indication of human weakness to inquire into the figure and form of God. For whatever God be, if there be any other God [besides the sun], and wherever he exists, he is all sense, all sight, all hearing, all life, all mind, and all within himself. To believe that there are a number of Gods, derived from the virtues and vices of man, as Chastity, Concord, Understanding, Hope, Honour, Clemency, and Fidelity; or, according to the opinion of Democritus, that there are only two, Punishment and Reward, indicates still greater folly. Human nature, weak and frail as it is, mindful of its own infirmity, has made these divisions, so that every one might have recourse to that which he supposed himself to stand more particularly in need of. Hence we find different names employed by different nations; the inferior deities are arranged in classes, and diseases and plagues are deified, in consequence of our anxious wish to propitiate them. It was from this cause that a temple was dedicated to Fever, at the public expense, on the Palatine Hill, and to Orbona, near the Temple of the Lares, and that an altar was erected to Evil Fortune on the Esquiline. Hence we may understand how it comes to pass that there is a greater population of the Celestials than of human beings, since each individual makes a separate God for himself, adopting his own Juno and his own Genius. And there are nations who make Gods of certain animals, and even certain obscene things, which are not to be spoken of, swearing by stinking meats and such like. To suppose that marriages are contracted between the Gods, and that, during so long a period, there should have been no issue from them, that some of them should be old and always grey-headed and others young and like children, some of a dark complexion, winged, lame, produced from eggs, living and dying on alternate days, is sufficiently puerile and foolish. But it is the height of impudence to imagine, that adultery takes place between them, that they have contests and quarrels, and that there are Gods of theft and of various crimes. To assist man is to be a God; this is the path to eternal glory. This is the path which the Roman nobles formerly pursued, and this is the path which is now pursued by the greatest ruler of our age, Vespasian Augustus, he who has come to the relief of an exhausted empire, as well as by his sons. This was the ancient mode of remunerating those who deserved it, to regard them as Gods. For the names of all the Gods, as well as of the stars that I have mentioned above, have been derived from their services to mankind. And with respect to Jupiter and Mercury, and the rest of the celestial nomenclature, who does not admit that they have reference to certain natural phenomena? But it is ridiculous to suppose, that the great head of all things, whatever it be, pays any regard to human affairs. Can we believe, or rather can there be any doubt, that it is not polluted by such a disagreeable and complicated office? It is not easy to determine which opinion would be most for the advantage of mankind, since we observe some who have no respect for the Gods, and others who carry it to a scandalous excess. They are slaves to foreign ceremonies; they carry on their fingers the Gods and the monsters whom they worship; they condemn and they lay great stress on certain kinds of food; they impose on themselves dreadful ordinances, not even sleeping quietly. They do not marry or adopt children, or indeed do anything else, without the sanction of their sacred rites. There are others, on the contrary, who will cheat in the very Capitol, and will forswear themselves even by Jupiter Tonans, and while these thrive in their crimes, the others torment themselves with their superstitions to no purpose.
Among these discordant opinions mankind have discovered for themselves a kind of intermediate deity, by which our conjectures concerning God become more vague still. For all over the world, in all places, and at all times, Fortune is the only god whom every one invokes; she alone is spoken of, she alone is accused and is supposed to be guilty; she alone is in our thoughts, is praised and blamed, and is loaded with reproaches; wavering as she is, conceived by the generality of mankind to be blind, wandering, inconstant, uncertain, variable, and often favouring the unworthy. To her are referred all our losses and all our gains, and in casting up the accounts of mortals she alone balances the two pages of our sheet. We are so much in the power of chance, that change itself is considered as a God, whereby the very existence of a God is shewn to be uncertain.
But there are others who reject this principle and assign events to the influence of the stars, and to the laws of our nativity; they suppose that God, once for all, issues his decrees and never afterwards interferes. This opinion begins to gain ground, and both the learned and the unlearned vulgar are falling into it. Hence we have the admonitions of thunder, the warnings of oracles, the predictions of soothsayers, and things too trifling to be mentioned, as sneezing and stumbling with the feet reckoned among omens. The late Emperor Augustus relates, that he put the left shoe on the wrong foot, the day when he was near being assaulted by his soldiers. And such things as these so embarrass improvident mortals, that among all of them this alone is certain, that there is nothing certain, and that there is nothing more proud or more wretched than man. For other animals have no care but to provide for their subsistence, for which the spontaneous kindness of nature is all-sufficient; and this one circumstance renders their lot more especially preferable, that they never think about glory, or money, or ambition, and, above all, that they never reflect on death.
The belief, however, that on these points the Gods superintend human affairs is useful to us, as well as that the punishment of crimes, although sometimes tardy, from the Deity being occupied with such a mass of business, is never entirely remitted, and that the human race was not made the next in rank to himself, in order that they might be degraded like brutes. And indeed this constitutes the great comfort in this imperfect state of man, that even the Deity cannot do everything. For he cannot procure death for himself, even if he wished it, which, so numerous are the evils of life, has been granted to man as our chief good. Nor can he make mortals immortal, or recall to life those who are dead; nor can he effect, that he who has once lived shall not have lived, or that he who has enjoyed honours shall not have enjoyed them; nor has he any influence over past events but to cause them to be forgotten. And, if we illustrate the nature of our connexion with God by a less serious argument, he cannot make twice ten not to be twenty, and many other things of this kind. By these considerations the power of Nature is clearly proved, and is shown to be what we call God. It is not foreign to the subject to have digressed into these matters, familiar as they are to every one, from the continual discussions that take place respecting God.
Natural History II, 4–5 (Translation by John Bostock & H.T. Riley)

Addenda to A Way of Death


Photograph courtesy of the British Museum.
How the Wetwang chariot might have looked on its final journey.

In March 2001 a chariot burial was discovered in the village of Wetwang. The BBC filmed the excavation, and sponsored a reconstruction of the chariot.

Only metal fittings remained, but the positions of these within the grave [Plan], and stains and impressions in the grave-fill, provided shapes and dimensions for some wooden components. Others were based on examples from elsewhere – the naves (hubs) and spokes, for instance, were based on finds from Glastonbury Lake Village. A suspension system, using bowed arches and rawhide straps – suggested by depictions on coins and an Etruscan funerary stone, known as the ‘Padua stele’ – was devised to attach the chariot’s box platform.

The burial’s occupant was a woman aged about 35–45. At 5 feet 9 inches, she was tall for an Iron Age woman. She seems to have had a facial disfiguration.[*] A number of years before her death she had dislocated her right shoulder. It had never been reset, so she would certainly not have been able to drive a chariot herself. At any rate, around 200 BC, she was taken, presumably in the chariot, to her grave. She was laid in a crouched position, head to the south, on a mat or blanket at the southern end of the grave pit. An iron mirror was rested against her legs, and joints of pork were placed on her upper body. The dismantled chariot was arranged around her – its box platform being put on top – the grave was filled, and a barrow raised from material dug from the square ditch surrounding it.

 Courtesy of the British Museum.
It is the custom to quench smaller iron forgings with oil, for fear that water might harden them and make them brittle.
Pliny the Elder Natural History XXXIV, 41
Previously, Polybius had noted:
The Roman shields, it should be added, were far more serviceable for defence and their swords for attack, the Gaulish sword being only good for a cut and not for a thrust.
The Histories II, 30
A strigil is a curved blade which was used, after an application of oil, to scrape dirt from the body following bathing or exercise. The, bronze, example pictured is from St Albans, Hertfordshire.
Finds from Ivinghoe Beacon indicate a Late Bronze Age date, but it is possible that the hillfort itself was a subsequent development. See: ‘Ivinghoe Beacon Survey Report’ (2001), freely available online.
Google Satellite View of Maiden Castle (opens in new window/tab).
Google Satellite View of Danebury (opens in new window/tab).
Ptolemy, the geographer, assigns only one town to the Durotriges tribe, and that is Dunium. The identity of Dunium is a matter of opinion. Sir Mortimer’s view that it is Maiden Castle is probably the current favourite, but the hillfort of Hod Hill and a cross-Channel trading centre at Hengistbury Head also have their advocates.
The Roman fort’s footprint is clearly visible in the Google Satellite View of Hod Hill (opens in new window/tab).
This article, ‘Iron Age interior design: Mapping the inside of Dorset’s hillfort enclosures’, is freely available online.
See Invasion.
As is usually the case, the phrase mare concretum has been interpreted as ‘frozen ocean’, implying that the sea was frozen solid. The same phrase, however, can be interpreted as ‘congealed ocean’, which would seem to be a pretty good description of slushy, drift-ice, conditions.
The Histories, by Polybius, was a forty book (the last being an index) account of Rome’s rise to supremacy. The first five and much of the sixth and twelfth have survived. Of the rest, there are just fragments.
Strabo’s Geography is in seventeen books. All but parts of the seventh have survived. In contrast, his historical writings (at least forty-seven books) are now, bar a few fragments, lost.
Dicaearchus (fl.c.320–300 BC) was a Greek polymath from Messene (Messina), Sicily. He was a pupil of Aristotle. His various writings now only exist as fragments.
Eratosthenes (c.276 BC–c.194 BC), a Greek scholar from Cyrene (in modern Libya), who became head of the famous library at Alexandria. His Geography, in three books, is lost, apart from the fragments preserved by other authors, mainly Strabo.
Normally, there are 8 stadia (or stades) to the Roman mile (which, being shorter than the modern mile, equates to about 1,620 yards or 1,480 metres), but there is also the, so called, ‘Attic stade’, of which there are 81/3 to the Roman mile. It is rarely clear which is meant. Strabo comments (Geography VII, 7.4) that, though “most people” reckoned on eight stadia to the mile, Polybius favoured 81/3. Of course, which is being used is of little consequence in this case.
Perhaps Pytheas was alluding to the sluggish movement of the ‘congealed ocean’ – but there is another possibility. Aristotle (On the Parts of Animals IV, 5) might indicate that a sea-lung is a jellyfish (the name being inspired by the creature’s method of propulsion). As the photo above shows, small chunks of floating ice (called ‘pancake ice’) could well have conjured up that image to Pytheas.
What Aristotle says is: “The ones called ‘holothurians’ and ‘lungs’, as well as other such sea-dwellers, differ slightly from sponges in being detatched; for none of them has perception, and they live as though they were detatched plants.” (Translation by James G. Lennox.)
Hermes is the Greek equivalent of, the Roman god, Mercury. He was messenger of the gods and, amongst other things, protector of travellers.
Mona could be, a wrongly located, Anglesey, but it is probable that the Isle of Man is meant.
Even in the fifth century BC there was doubt about the Cassiterides. Herodotus, ‘the father of history’ (c.484 BC–c.424 BC):
Of the extreme tracts of Europe towards the west I cannot speak with any certainty; for I do not allow that there is any river, to which the barbarians give the name Eridanos, emptying itself into the northern sea, whence (as the tale goes) amber is procured; nor do I know of any islands called the Cassiterides, whence the tin comes which we use. For in the first place the name Eridanus is manifestly not a barbarian word at all, but a Greek name invented by some poet or other; and secondly, though I have taken vast pains, I have never been able to get an assurance from an eye-witness that there is any sea on the further side of Europe. Nevertheless, tin and amber do certainly come to us from the ends of the earth.
The northern parts of Europe are very much richer in gold than any other region; but how it is procured I have no certain knowledge. The story runs, that the one-eyed Arimaspi purloin it from the griffins; but here too I am incredulous, and cannot persuade myself that there is a race of men born with one eye, who in all else resemble the rest of mankind. Nevertheless it seems to be true that the extreme regions of the earth, which surround and shut up within themselves all other countries, produce the things which are rarest, and which men reckon the most beautiful.
Histories III, 115–116 (Translation by George Rawlinson)
It is a feature of Caesar’s literary style that he refers to himself in the third person.
Dr Caroline Wilkinson of the University of Manchester made a facial reconstruction of the Wetwang lady. Dr Wilkinson found that one side of the lady’s skull had grown faster than the other, making her right eye higher than her left. It is not the only possibility, but she may have had a strawberry birthmark (haemangioma), as shown in the reconstruction, on the right-hand side of her face.