Barbarian is an ugly term. At its most polite it could be said to mean foreigner or “different”, but what it really means is uncivilised, or savage. The Greeks and Romans had precise ideas about what made someone civilised, and indeed human. Not even the Persians, who by most standards were a very advanced race, were called Barbarians. If these people couldn’t escape the stigma, then what hope did the clannish celts of the North stand?
It’s interesting to note how little attitudes to tribal societies changed from antiquity, right down to the 19th century. And it is perhaps due to the classical legacy of Greece and Rome that urban societies are quick to point out nobility in spite of barbarity, but are just as quick to seek out the strange or uncouth to make themselves seem superior. This is especially true of leaders, indeed many of the Roman writers used famous “Barbarian” leaders to voice their own objections to issues that worried them. Imperialism, morality, and even to question Rome’s right to assume superiority over others who were perhaps closer to an much longed for ideal than were given credit. However in terms of civilisation they never failed to make sure their readers knew who was indeed superior, usually through some kind of example of savage, inhuman trait that proud citizens could ponder on as they passed crucified criminals nailed along the Appian Way. Here I’ve pieced together some of the more memorable speeches made by Celtic leaders, each tells its own story. Make no mistake they are often very Roman presentations of what a Celt should sound like, usually there is only the gist is original left, Caesar’s being the closest written after the event is probably the most reliable. But as well as being works of rhetoric and oratory, they also show how the Romans projected their own ideals to make the celts fit into their view of the “Noble Savage” while ignoring very much the reality of the people they were dealing with and subsequently an opportunity to gain an insight into an entire civilisation was lost. In this sense we can get more of an idea of how the Romans saw the Celt than anything else, but little more. Nevertheless even if only a few of their words are genuine, and if but the sentiment is real, then words, and their meaning carry. They carry through the centuries after the civilisations that wrote them have crumbled, and they are powerful.
The three Roman ambassadors were of the Fabian family, they were welcomed to address the council of the Gallic tribes besieging Clusium because the name of Rome had carried far over the Alps as a great city. With the resolution of a superior mindset amongst a multitude of others, the Romans asked indignantly what wrong the city of Clusium had done to merit the wrath of Gaul.
A chieftain named Brennus, dressed in his battle glory wearing a bronze eagle on his helmet, who seemed to hold thrall over the others present, tipped his head back and laughed.
“The people of Clusium wrong us by holding a large territory when they can only inhabit and cultivate a small one, while they will not give a share of it to us, who are numerous and poor. You Romans were wronged in just the same way in old times by the people of Alba and Finedae and Ardea and in the present time by the Veientines and Capenetes and by many of the Faliscans and Volscians. You make campaigns against these people who do not share their good things with you, you sell them for slaves and plunder their territory and destroy their cities; and in this you do nothing wrong but merely obey the most ancient of all laws, that the property of the weak belongs to the strong, a law that prevails among gods on one hand and even among wild beasts, amongst whom the stronger always encroach upon the weaker ones. So now cease to have pity for the besieged men of Clusium for fear that you should teach the Gauls to become good natured and pitiful towards the nations that have been wronged by the Romans”
It was later while the beaten Romans laboured to count out 1,000 weight in gold coins, amid the scorched ruins of their city, that the bitter taste of defeat was fully realised. Surrounded and outnumbered their army crushed and their city burned the Romans were now forced to eat humble pie. Smugly the Gauls watched as the Romans laboured to make up the difference on doctored scales, mockingly some then began to brazenly pull on the beam. Incensed the humiliated Romans began to make an uproar. They were silenced when Brennus stepped forwards. He ostentatiously drew his sword and chucked it onto the scales, then carelessly tossed his scabbard after it for good measure.
“What’s this?” The Tribune Sulpicius demanded.
“What should be” replied the Gaul flatly “but woe to the vanquished”
The experience was seared into the Roman DNA, and was subsequently passed down from one generation to next, right down to a short, prematurely balding man named Julius Caesar who would make his name in Gaul.
Caesar later wrote that his one of his greatest foes, Vercingetorix, son of Celtillus was a more than unusually gifted statesman and general. He also however spiced things up by painting him as a noble but brutally cunning savage. It wasn’t his fault, after all he was only a barbarian, he couldn’t help it. Having unified most of northern Gaul in an alliance against the Romans, he embarked on a war of attrition to drive the invaders out. The tribes held Vercingetorix in some suspicion however as his father had been executed for trying to become chief of all the Gauls. They worried that Vercingetorix might try to become Lord of Gaul by making a deal with Caesar, forcing him to confront them. After a lengthy prelude where he laid out the tactical and practical benefits of the move that occasioned their suspicion he continued:
‘That he desired no power from Caesar by treachery, since he could have it by victory, which was now assured to himself and to all the Gauls; nay, that he would even give them back the command, if they thought that they conferred honour on him, rather then received safety from him, “That you may be assured” said he “That I speak the truth; – listen to these Roman Soldiers!”‘ Caesar wrote that he then produced some camp followers, tortured by privation to say what they were told to say, who identified themselves as legionaries and confirmed that the Roman army was starving to death. “These benefits” says Vercingetorix “You receive from me, whom you accuse of treason – me, by whose exertions you see so powerful and victorious an army almost destroyed by famine, without shedding one drop of your blood; and I have taken precautions that no state shall admit within its territories this army in its ignominious flight from this place”
In the end after a titanic struggle that put Caesar’s later Roman rival Pompey to shame, Vercingetorix faced up to his defeat, having gambled and lost, he spoke to the assembled Chiefs in the fortress of Alesia.
“I did not undertake the war for private ends but in the cause of national Liberty, and since I must now accept my fate I place myself at your disposal. Make amends to the Romans by killing me or surrender me as you think best”
The heroic image of him riding out and laying his armour at the feet of Caesar is not included in Caesar’s account. Instead he is surrendered to the Romans, being the masterful propagandist that he was it is strange that Caesar would have left out this piece of theatre, he was prone to gild a tale with Celtic nobility in defeat if it suited him. Vercingetorix was imprisoned for 6 years and then paraded through the streets of Rome, naked and bound, to the Carcer Mamertinus where he was ritually strangled. The Gallic menace that had kept Romans awake nights for centuries was ended, Brennus’ pithy quote replaced by the ringing, yet equally matter of fact statement regarding his Pontic triumph, “I came, I saw, I conquered”.
In AD 17, Gaul was a prosperous province of the Roman Empire, but to the north Germany was unbowed. However Arminius, the genius behind the victory at Teutoburg was in anguish. Almost invincible in battle, the great war leader who had out thought and out fought the Romans now felt the sting of helplessness. His father in law, Segestes, a staunch supporter of Rome had found a simple and dastardly way of getting revenge on his daughter, Thusnelda, for marrying Arminius and on her husband for betraying and defying Rome, he had given over the pregnant Thusnelda to the Roman General Germanicus Caesar. In his grief and range Arminius was scathing.
“Noble the father,” he would say, “mighty the general, brave the army which, with such strength, has carried off one weak woman. Before me, three legions, three commanders have fallen. Not by treachery, not against pregnant women, but openly against armed men do I wage war. There are still to be seen in the groves of Germany the Roman standards which I hung up to our country’s gods. Let Segestes dwell on the conquered bank: let him restore to his son his priestly office; one thing there is which Germans will never thoroughly excuse, their having seen between the Elbe and the Rhinethe Roman rods, axes, and toga. Other nations in their ignorance of Roman rule, have no experience of punishments, know nothing of tributes, and, as we have shaken them off, as the great Augustus, ranked among deities, and his chosen heir Tiberius, departed from us, baffled, let us not quail before an inexperienced stripling, before a mutinous army. If you prefer your fatherland, your ancestors, your ancient life to tyrants and to new colonies, follow as your leader Arminius to glory and to freedom rather than Segestes to ignominious servitude.”
The Rhine frontier would be penetrated, but never pacified, the Eagles would be retrieved but would be rarely seen again in the forests of Germany. However he would never see his wife or son again, Thusnelda was displayed in a Roman triumph, though well treated until her death, but their son was trained as a Gladiator and died young in the arena.
The Celts were a physically impressive race and there is no reason to doubt that Caratacus of the Catuvelaunni was not able to intimidate the assembled stubby and overweight Roman senators and their more youthful colleagues returned from military campaign. The senate was hallowed ground, usually only visiting dignitaries and citizens were allowed to address the assembly. It was a mark of how Emperor Claudius wanted to promote his conquest of Britain that this long haired, moustachioed, trouser wearing barbarian, was allowed to address them. It was also a mark of Roman superiority, the senators wearily eyeing the yet proud and fierce Celt had no doubt he was about to plead for his life.
In the years between the Caesarian and Claudian invasions, many British hostages had been sent to Rome. Caratacus could have been one of them, there is even fragmentary evidence to suggest it. Caesar wrote that some of his officers during the conquest were able to speak Gallic and were accustomed to their manners. It is not impossible either, and indeed highly likely that the entire meeting, speech & all, was stage managed by Claudius and this could possibly be how the historian Tacitus came by the gist of the speech given below.
“If the degree of my nobility and fortune had been matched by moderate success, I would have come to this city as a friend rather than a captive, nor would you have disdained to have received a treaty of peace from one sprung from brilliant ancestors and commanding a great many nations. But for my lot, disfiguring as it is for me, is magnificent for you. I had horses, men, arms and wealth: what wonder if I was unwilling to lose them? If you wish to command everyone does it really follow that everyone should accept your slavery? If I were now being handed over as one who had surrendered immediately, neither my fortune nor your glory would have achieved brilliance. It is also true that in my case any reprisal will be followed by oblivion. On the other hand if you preserve me safe and sound, I shall be an eternal example of your clemency”
Whether he was always meant to be spared, or wether his words moved his audience and they spared his life in a moment of uncharacteristic gallantry is not known. He was however allowed to live in Rome, a city that he found so impressive that he was moved to ask: “And can you, then, who have got such possessions and so many of them, covet our poor tents?”
Women of a conquered nation had to put up with allot in ancient times. As Caesar put it the victor and a right to inflict whatever injuries he wished on the vanquished. The great Brennus himself had said it himself in much simpler terms when he threw his sword onto the pile of Roman gold. Generally there was nothing anyone could do about it. Perhaps then it was because the outrage committed on her and her daughters, by Roman tax collectors, had been the work of an ally that she swore such a bitter revenge. For these men who scarred her back and raped her daughters had come ostensibly to protect the people of her tribe from people of their own race. When the surrounding tribes heard of the ghastly insult offered to the Iceni, even old enemies wondered if peoples of the same ilk would not be better served wiping the stain clean with Roman blood. They came very close, from Camuldonum to Londinium and wherever a Roman could be found, the flames burned high and corpses littered the streets, non were spared. Governor General Suetonius raced back from his Druid hunting trip to Anglesey with all his available forces and met the Celtic horde somewhere along the great trunk road known as Wattling Street. Massively outnumbering the Romans Boudicca spoke to her men in terms they could not mistake.
“‘But now,’ she said, ‘it is not as a woman descended from noble ancestry, but as one of the people that I am avenging lost freedom, my scourged body, the outraged chastity of my daughters. Roman lust has gone so far that not our very persons, nor even age or virginity, are left unpolluted. But heaven is on the side of a righteous vengeance; a legion which dared to fight has perished; the rest are hiding themselves in their camp, or are thinking anxiously of flight. They will not sustain even the din and the shout of so many thousands, much less our charge and our blows. If you weigh well the strength of the armies, and the causes of the war, you will see that in this battle you must conquer or die. This is a woman’s resolve; as for men, they may live and be slaves.'”
Her resolve made slaves of many, still more camp followers suffered the abuse that she and her daughters had suffered when the Celtic charge was broken, still many more men, in their thousands were died at the hands of the advancing Roman legions and Auxiliaries. For a time became famous even in Rome, were fear of her bred curiosity, yet in the end she died an obscure death and passed into legend. Like all defeated commanders the failure rests on her shoulders. Perhaps it would have been better for her if she had just curled up in a corner and cried, but what she did was gamble, and in doing so she was no different to Vercingetorix, Caratacus or even the last legendary Celtic freedom fighter, Calgacus.
It is entirely possible that Calgacus, the last leader of British resistance against Rome, “the swordsman” who stood up to Agricola’s invasion of Scotland at Mons Graupius, never existed. The argument goes that Tacitus couldn’t find out who commanded the Pictish-Scottish forces and therefore made up someone and gave him a speech. Indeed this one passage of rhetoric, which even if true in spirit the words were invented, is his one and only appearance on the Historical stage and may indeed reflect Roman distaste for conquest rather than Celtic. Addressing his troops at Mons Graupius he spoke in no uncertain terms:
“Whenever I consider the origins of this war and the necessities of our position, I have sure confidence that this day, and this Union of yours, will be the beginning of freedom to the whole of Britain. To all of us slavery is a thing unknown; there are no lands beyond us, and even the sea is
not safe, menaced as we are by the Roman fleet. And thus in war and battle, in which the brave find glory, even the coward will find safety. Former contests, in which, with varying fortune the Romans were resisted, still left in us a last hope of succour, inasmuch as we being the most renowned nation of Britain, dwelling in the very heart of the country, and out of sight of the shores of the conquered, we could keep even our eyes unpolluted by the contagion of slavery. To us who dwell on the uttermost confines of the earth and of freedom, this remote sanctuary of Britain’s glory has up to this time been a defence. Now, however, the furthest limits of Britain are thrown open, and the unknown always passes for the marvellous. But there are no tribes beyond us, nothing indeed but waves and rocks, yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. Robbers of the world, who by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious, he be poor, they lust for dominion, neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a desert and call it peace”
In honesty it doesn’t sound like the words of a Celt, rather what a Roman would think a Celt would say, some think that it is more the railings of a disillusioned imperialist, sick at what his nation had become, yet in spirit, the feeling of being the last free men in Britain, the anger at Roman expansionism, the desire to remain independent all could have been found in the heart of an ancient Scot named Calgacus, who no sooner had spoken these ringing words than disappeared. He might have been killed in the disaster that followed, or he might have escaped to obscurity, he was not captured and he was never heard of by Rome again.
Thanks for reading,
See you again for another Adventure in Historyland,
Arthur & the Kings of Britain: Morris. A brief history of the private lives of the Roman Emperors: Anthony Bond.
Fifty key classical authors: Alison Sharrock, Rhiannon Ash.
In the name of Rome: Adrian Goldsworthy.
De bello Gallica: Julius Caesar.
History of Rome: Livy.
Agricola, Annals, Tacitus.
Mons Graupius AD 83: Duncan B Campbell.
Boudicca’s Rebellion AD 60-61: Nic Fields.