Political Development of the Celtic tribes of pre-Roman Britain

Salah

Forum Staff
Oct 2009
23,284
Maryland
#1
Archaeology and epigraphy tell us that the Celtic tribes of what is now England and Wales were minting coins (each unique to the chieftain and the tribe in question) and being governed by both 'kings' and 'senates' within the century before the Roman Conquest.

Caesar also tells us that Britain was the home of druidry, and young Gauls who aspired to become druids received their education in Britain. This would suggest both cultural unity and a measure of political cooperation between Gaulish and British peoples - a notion further reinforced by the fact that several tribes (notably the Atrebates) ruled territory on both sides of the Channel.

Normally stereotyped as naked, painted savages with an obsession with human sacrifice - just how sophisticated was the society of the Celtic peoples of what became the province of Britannia?
 
Mar 2011
5,047
Brazil
#2
It was sophisticated enough so that Britain exported metals to the Empire over 50 years before their annexation according to Strabo, who argued it made more sense to tax the trade than to pay the costs of conquest and annexation

That means that the Romans didn't consider Britain to have been sophisticated enough to warrant the expenditures of conquest. Until Claudius did.
 
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caldrail

Ad Honorem
Feb 2012
5,232
#3
The question of how sophisticated the iron age brits actually were is a little hard to gauge, because although they had gravitated toward kingdoms rather than the anarchy of individual defended settlements, they were still iron age tribesmen and still prone to ritual violence.

The sacrificial practices of the britons did not stop during the Roman occupation and one natural rock shaft has been identified as a place where victims were thrown down into at that time. Druidic influence begins around 400-500BC (which in itself was partly responsible for the accumulation of nationality - the success of some warriors was the other) and performed a religious and political faction. The number three was significant and it pops up everywhere in iron age british society.

There are some very sophisticated examples of sword-making featuring herring-bone forging and so forth. These were of course expensive (the average tribesman made do with lesser blades) fit for nobility, but even so, there is clearly a strong fascination with spirituality of objects, mostly weaponry, and the existence of Arthurs Caliburn (later latinised to Excalibur) points to the myths surrounding named weapons. Weapons were sometimes 'sacrificed' in watercourses, presumably for the favour of the gods, and we find that watercourses remained an important and religiously significant natural featue for fairly obvious reasons.

The gaulish tribes brought with them a love of the horse, previously a rare sight in Britain and usually restricted to chariots for the senior warrior. The chalk hill carvings of southern england feature symbolic horses which are usually interpreted as religious - but the hillsides we find them are reamrkably close to tribal boundaries. I have a personal suspicion the symbol was 'here be gauls' - a warning to visitors from the north.

Trade was in good health, particularly with Gaul, some remnant phoenician shipping, and rare Roman visits by adventurous traders. Note that information about britain was sparse in Caesars day - merchants were usually loathe to give away trading information or even geographical data - there's a story of a Carthaginian captain being rewarded for deliberately beaching his merchant vessel on the way to England for fear that the Roman ship following on would find their anchorage.

Coins were inspired by greek models via the continent and represent a clear pointer to the fashion for culture that was starting to interest iron age britain briefly before the Caesarian expeditions, but I also note that in southern england farming methods were being revised along continental lines prior to 54BC.
 
Feb 2010
629
Cambridgeshire, UK
#4
It's important not to think of the "kingdoms" being properly defined kingdoms similiar to later ones. Really, a king held an informal position and informal authority over an area which was entirely variable on his strength of arms (it's not even clear precisely whether he would have a maintained warband or operate within a pseduo-feudal system). This is illustrated very well by the overlap in coin distributions, they aren't solid indications of actual territories at all. What coins show much better is the degree of influence Rome was having on the Celtic and specifically British world - they aren't an indigenous development. In fact, many areas carried on using iron bars as a form of currency which very clearly show this isn't anything like a monetarised economy. I'd also be dubious of descriptions of "Senates". An assembly of men is nothing sophisticated and as said, given it is unknown (to my knowledge) whether the "king" would have a warband or use a feudal system it is also debatable exactly what form this assembly took, but I would have thought it would be very similar to a German thing.
 
Sep 2011
1,323
Jelgava, Latvia
#6
It was sophisticated enough so that Britain exported metals to the Empire over 50 years before their annexation according to Strabo, who argued it made more sense to tax the trade than to pay the costs of conquest and annexation

That means that the Romans didn't consider Britain to have been sophisticated enough to warrant the expenditures of conquest. Until Claudius did.
I don't think it's sophistication the Romans wanted to conquer something. Rather, they just didn't think there was much point to invade at first, no matter how sophisticated it was - and they were attacking the Germans at the same time.
 

caldrail

Ad Honorem
Feb 2012
5,232
#7
What is the source of this information ?
Partly from Greek/Roman sources, partly from knowledge of gaulish migrations, and also partly from an article in the Wiltshire Arcaeological Society Magazine from the 19th century - Yes, I know, they can be a bit less than accurate in that era, but some of those guys seriously were switched on if lacking modern methods and research. I wouldn't use that informationa alone but since it dovetails rather nicely with everything else I read, I'll use it until further notice.
 

caldrail

Ad Honorem
Feb 2012
5,232
#8
It's important not to think of the "kingdoms" being properly defined kingdoms similiar to later ones. Really, a king held an informal position and informal authority over an area which was entirely variable on his strength of arms (it's not even clear precisely whether he would have a maintained warband or operate within a pseduo-feudal system). This is illustrated very well by the overlap in coin distributions, they aren't solid indications of actual territories at all. What coins show much better is the degree of influence Rome was having on the Celtic and specifically British world - they aren't an indigenous development. In fact, many areas carried on using iron bars as a form of currency which very clearly show this isn't anything like a monetarised economy. I'd also be dubious of descriptions of "Senates". An assembly of men is nothing sophisticated and as said, given it is unknown (to my knowledge) whether the "king" would have a warband or use a feudal system it is also debatable exactly what form this assembly took, but I would have thought it would be very similar to a German thing.
I think it's important not to see 'kingdoms' or the monarchy that rules them as set in black and white. As with most things the details and strength of a regime are in shades of grey. British society in the Iron Age was a bit wild and woolly, thus we could reasonably expect their monarchies to be similarly loose, but nonetheless it represented a stage of societal development beyond a settlement headman.
 
Feb 2010
629
Cambridgeshire, UK
#9
I think it's important not to see 'kingdoms' or the monarchy that rules them as set in black and white. As with most things the details and strength of a regime are in shades of grey. British society in the Iron Age was a bit wild and woolly, thus we could reasonably expect their monarchies to be similarly loose, but nonetheless it represented a stage of societal development beyond a settlement headman.
True, I agree that it was a development but the word "kingdom" suggests a state, at least to my mind, when really they're aren't a very big step, if a step at all, from chiefdoms. Yes they were larger chiefdoms than before, but the idea of "king" suggests an established hereditary authority, which to my knowledge wasn't how these tribes operated, at least to my knowledge/understanding.
 

caldrail

Ad Honorem
Feb 2012
5,232
#10
That's a matter of interpretation and definition. however, I can accept that contemporary information comes from the Roman who probably weren't all that fussy about defining other cultures precisely and a big chief was as much a king when dealing with barbarians.

However - I do think that the tribal lands had pretty well sorted themselves and at the timne Caesar visited, the britons were establishing a political relationship with the other territories. Personally I have no problem with calling their leaders 'kings' in the Roman fashion, but then, the britons left no written record to account for themselves.