Book 1, Chapter 2, Pre 55 BC – The Early Britons – Continued
That the Britons were brave and war like is placed beyond all questions by the difficulty which the Romans found in subduing them. In battle, their chief strength was in their infantry. These were very fleet of foot, and expert in crossing streams and marshes. They were lightly clad, and sometimes divested themselves of all clothing, being protected only by a small shield. In close combat, their weapons were comparatively useless against the well tempered steel swords of the Romans, which, in disciplined hands, did fearful execution. All the youth were trained to arms, and constant exercise was afforded by the hostilities of neighbouring tribes. In order of battle, the infantry occupied the central position, being supported by the cavalry and war chariots. Roman writers testify to the ability shown by some of the British leaders, in the selection of ground and in the disposition of troops, but such ability on the part of the leaders, and individual bravery on the part of the soldiers, was wholly neutralised by the practice of each fighting only in company with his own tribe, and under his own chieftain, so that there was no one responsible head, and no combined plan of action.
The British horses, though of a small breed, were hardy, strong, and full of spirit, yet easily managed. The cavalry were provided with shields, swords, and lances, and were accustomed also to dismount and fight on foot. Chief reliance, however, was placed on the war chariots, which must have been constructed of great strength, to be driven over the rough fields at full speed. Each chariot was occupied by one or two fighting men, besides the driver, and the wheels were armed with formidable scythes, which not only did much damage, but spread dismay among those who were unaccustomed to such modes of warfare. Livy says, referring to a period nearly three hundred years before the descent upon Britain by the Romans, when they were engaged in a fierce contest with the Gauls and the Samnites. A number of the enemy, mounted on chariots and cars, made towards them with such a terrible noise, from the trampling of the horses and the rolling of the wheels, as affrighted the horses of the Romans, unaccustomed to such operations. By this means, the victorious cavalry were dispersed, and men and horses, in their headlong flight, were thrown in heaps to the ground. The same cause produced disorder even in the ranks of the legions, through the impetuosity of the horses, and the carriages they dragged through the ranks, many of the Roman soldiers in the van were trodden and bruised to death, and the Gauls, as soon as they saw the enemy in confusion, followed up the advantage, nor allowed them breathing time. These war chariots were such as were used in much earlier times by Eastern nations for the purposes of warfare, and the dexterity with which they were handled by the Britons is thus described by Caesar, They perform the part both of rapid cavalry and of steady infantry, and by constant exercise and use, they have arrived at such expertness, that they can stop their horses when at full speed, in the most steep and difficult places, turn them which way they please, run along the carriage pole, rest on the harness, and throw themselves back into their chariots with incredible dexterity.
From these scattered and fragmentary notices, gleaned from ancient writers, it may be concluded that the aboriginal inhabitants of Britain, immediately prior to the arrival of the Romans, consisted of, at least, two great and distinct races, were divided into many independent tribes, and varied considerably in their habits, dress, knowledge, and occupations. The phrase “barbarians,” applied to them by Caesar, must be interpreted, not according to its modern acceptation, but in the somewhat limited sense in which it was employed by Roman authors, to designate peoples who were not civilised according to their ideal. That the ancient Britons were not barbarous, in the sense of being wild savages (as is the case in modern times with the aborigines of South Africa, of the South Sea Islands, and of some portions of Central America) may be reasonably concluded. Much knowledge had to be acquired, a long and trying discipline had to be undergone, a mixture of and a leavening with other nations had to take place, and the introduction of a pure and true form of religious faith and worship was needed, before they could make any permanent advance towards a higher civilisation, but the chief elements of the future national character were there, needing only time, circumstances, and opportunity to be developed into maturity and perfection.
Chapter 2, The Early Britons
Categories: Book 1