The Britons

The Britons

The Britons did not have a standing army, relying instead on a levee of tribesmen who might or might not turn up. As the majority of them were peasants or farmers, they could not stay in the field for long; as they would soon be needed to look after the crops and cattle. They lacked the heavy armour of their Roman adversaries, as much out of bravado as for any other reason, while their main weapons were the long Celtic sword and javelins.

Chariots and cavalry

One particular feature of the Britons that fascinated the Romans was their use of chariots, reminding them of the tales of Homer rather than modern warfare. Chariots had fallen out of use on the continent a long time before, but were to persist among the Britons for several more centuries. In fact they were still in use at the battle of Mons Grapius. The Britons were very adept at using them and itís been recorded how they could be driven down the steepest of slopes.

The chariots could be used as a mobile platform from which the warrior could throw javelins at the enemy, or as a battlefield taxi with the driver waiting for the warrior who would fight on foot a few yards away. The chariot was not designed to crash through enemy ranks.

Recent finds at Vindolanda has highlighted the use of cavalry by Britons. A report describes how they had large numbers of cavalry, but did not wear armour or carry swords; instead they were equipped with javelins. The British would have been well suited to harrying their enemies and for quick hit and run attacks, perhaps similar to the plains Indians of North America. They would not have been of much use, however in head to head charges against the Romans.

Most Roman literature did not make much reference to Britons cavalry, instead concentrating on their use of chariots. However this could go some way to explaining the number of cavalry and part cavalry units based along the Wall.


The Britons were well equipped to fight guerilla warfare against the Romans. Their chariots and light cavalry could be used very effectively to pick off Roman foragers and pickets, and then retreat before the Romans could respond. Indeed these tactics proved very effective against Julius Caesar, who initially lacked the cavalry needed to corner the Britons.

However the Britons were no match for the Romans in fixed battles, where the discipline superior armour and weaponry of the Romans came into play. The Britons also lacked the weapons to besiege and take Roman fortifications, while the artillery of the legions was perfectly capable of subduing the Britons hill forts.

The Britons were therefore capable of inflicting heavy losses on the Romans when they fought a guerrilla campaign, as they often did in Scotland or at the start of the Boudicca rebellion. However over confidence, bravado and their indiscipline usually meant that sooner or latter the Britons would tempt the Britons into set piece battles with the Romans. Even when heavily outnumbered the superior discipline and equipment of the Romans would almost invariably lead to a Roman victory with heavy British and light Roman casualties (such as at the end of the Boudiccan rebellion or at the battle of Mons Grappius).

When the Romans invaded Britain the Britons were divided into a number of feuding and warring kingdoms. Often the Britons preferred to ally themselves with the Romans so as to attack a neighbouring tribe. This incessant feuding was turned to good effect by the Romans, allowing them to adopt a divide and conquer policy. In view of the divisions, poor equipment and lack of discipline itís remarkable that the Britons managed to give the Romans as much trouble as they did.

Romanisation of the Britons.

Following the Boudiccan revolt and reconstruction, Britain was effectively divided into very different regions. In the South was a peaceful Romanized country, with towns and villas dotted throughout the countryside. The far North of England was much more heavily militarized, with numerous forts and a large army presence. On the other side of the border would be tribes who had come into contact with Rome and often had treaties with the Romans. However in the North of Scotland were the tribes who most hated the Romans, and whose main contacts with the Romans would have been the attempts of the Roman armies to destroy them.

The Picts

In the fourth century the Roman frontier would come under increasing pressure from these tribes. The Picts (which may have been a Roman nickname of 'painted ones') are first mentioned in 297 AD. The term Pict seems to have been a generic term for the people living north of the Forth Clyde isthmus. The Picts seem to be a combination of the earlier tribes (as many as twelve) and were the descendants of the people who had lived there for generations.

The Picts weren't the only ones who threatened Britain. In the middle of the fourth century Britain was under attack from the Picts, Saxons (across the North Sea), Scots (from Ireland) and Attacotti.

Little is known about the Attacotti, they may have come from the Western Isles or Ireland , but they were known for their cannibalism - St Jerome said about them:

"When I was a young man in Gaul, I may have seen the Attacotti, a British people who live upon human flesh; and when they find herds of pigs, droves of cattle, or flocks of sheep in the woods, they cut off the haunches of the men and the breasts of the women, and these they regard as great dainties;"

Warfare was a major component of Pictish society, with petty kings and their personal retinues fighting to obtain personal glory and wealth. They were often considered to be more barbaric (seemingly especially as they tattooed their bodies) than their neighbours. The Pacts were in fact typical of North West European tribal society. One thing that did distinguish them from their neighbours was their art - the Pictish symbols that they emblazoned on sculptured stones and their splendid jewellery.

While the Picts were definitely fierce and warlike opponents, it was the Romans who first invaded Northern Scotland rather than the Picts attacking the Romans. The Roman punitive invasion in 210 AD had orders to slaughter every native they found, only the death of the emperor Severus at York saved the North from even greater bloodshed. It therefore hardly surprising that the Picts were very hostile to the Roman and took advantage of any weakness on the Roman side.

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