1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Britain/Pre-Roman

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Pre-Roman Britain

Geologists are not yet agreed when and by whom Britain was first peopled. Probably the island was invaded by a succession of races. The first, the Paleolithic men, may have died out or retired before successors arrived. During the Neolithic and Bronze Ages we can dimly trace further immigrations. Real knowledge begins with two Celtic invasions, that of the Goidels in the later part of the Bronze Age, and that of the Brythons and Belgae in the Iron Age. These invaders brought Celtic civilization and dialects. It is uncertain how far they were themselves Celtic in blood and how far they were numerous enough to absorb or obliterate the races which they found in Britain. But it is not unreasonable to think that they were no mere conquering caste, and that they were of the same race as the Celtic-speaking peoples of the western continent. By the age of Julius Caesar all the inhabitants of Britain, except perhaps some tribes of the far north, were Celts in speech and customs. Politically they were divided into separate and generally warring tribes, each under its own princes. They dwelt in hill forts with walls of earth or rude stone, or in villages of round huts sunk into the ground and resembling those found in parts of northern Gaul, or in subterranean chambered houses, or in hamlets of pile-dwellings constructed among the marshes. But, at least in the south, market centres had sprung up, town life was beginning, houses of a better type were perhaps coming into use, and the southern tribes employed a gold coinage and also a currency of iron bars or ingots, attested by Caesar and by surviving examples, which weigh roughly, some two-thirds of a pound, some 22/3 ℔, but mostly 11/3 ℔. In religion, the chief feature was the priesthood of Druids, who here, as in Gaul, practised magical arts and barbarous rites of human sacrifice, taught a secret lore, wielded great influence, but, at least as Druids, took ordinarily no part in politics. In art, these tribes possessed a native Late Celtic fashion, descended from far-off Mediterranean antecedents and more directly connected with the La-Tène culture of the continental Celts. Its characteristics were a flamboyant and fantastic treatment of plant and animal (though not of human) forms, a free use of the geometrical device called the “returning spiral,” and much skill in enamelling. Its finest products were in bronze, but the artistic impulse spread to humbler work in wood and pottery. The late Celtic age was one which genuinely delighted in beauty of form and detail. In this it resembled the middle ages rather than the Roman empire or the present day, and it resembled them all the more in that its love of beauty, like theirs, was mixed with a feeling for the fantastic and the grotesque. The Roman conquest of northern Gaul (57–50 B.C.) brought Britain into definite relation with the Mediterranean. It was already closely connected with Gaul, and when Roman civilization and its products invaded Gallia Belgica, they passed on easily to Britain. The British coinage now begins to bear Roman legends, and after Caesar’s two raids (55, 54 B.C.) the southern tribes were regarded at Rome, though they do not seem to have regarded themselves, as vassals. Actual conquest was, however, delayed. Augustus planned it. But both he and his successor Tiberius realized that the greater need was to consolidate the existing empire, and absorb the vast additions recently made to it by Pompey, Caesar and Augustus.