TRIBES AND TYRANNY: The mystical world which the Ancient Britons inhabited introduced Michael Thomson’s talk, Hadrian’s Wall – Tribes and Tyranny, to members and visitors of Glendale Local History Society in March.
Britain was home to numerous ancient tribes, the Votadini, Selgovae and Novantae to name but the few who inhabited the north of what is now England. It was far from being an orderly nation but a complicated land where tribal boundaries were blurred and the concept of one unified country unknown.
A series of Roman commanders took a long time to conquer this challenging land, taking 20 years to advance only as far as north Wales and the Druid stronghold of Anglesey. Britain was a difficult invasion for the Romans because the native tribes were fierce fighters who adopted guerrilla tactics to harry the Roman forces and the weather was appalling to people who were used to a Mediterranean climate.
So why did the Romans put all this effort into invading Britain which produced little of value to them? Michael explained that the Romans considered Britain as a magical, awe-inspiring, sacred place. His own thesis was that this was due to the abundance of one of the four ancient classical elements – water. Water had a special mystical significance to the ancient peoples of Europe. The human body was mostly composed of water, without water there was no life. Any power which controlled water, controlled life.
Britain had a special connection with water. As an island, it was widely known to be the largest European land mass completely surrounded by water, and the weather saw to it that in many places the Earth (another classical element) became a water-saturated marshy terrain with many rivers and burns flowing over its surface. Conquering Britain would therefore be seen to give Romans power over water and therefore over life itself. Successive Roman rulers lusted after that power and were always ready to try their hand at winning it.
By 78-84AD, Roman roads had pushed their way north from London linking with Stanegate, the Roman road from Carlisle to Corbridge, where the northern route divided into Dere Street and the Devil’s Causeway and finally up to the Grampians and Perth.
Hadrian’s Wall, a frontier masterpiece, built between AD122 and 140 and running from the Tyne to the Solway, was said to be the sturdiest of all the Roman walls throughout their Empire. It dissected ancient tribal regions but trade continued via gates at milecastles, which were built at one-mile intervals between larger garrisons. Upon Hadrian’s death, Antonius became emperor and to boost his reputation built the Antonine Wall, between AD142 and 163, to the north of Hadrian’s Wall, from the Forth to the Clyde. Surely this was the ultimate one-upmanship!
Eventually the stability of Roman rule was threatened by troubles in Rome: Anarchy and financial constraints caused the withdrawal of Roman troops from the periphery of their Empire. Despite periodic resurgence to try to maintain a presence in Britain, the final sacking of Rome and successful invasions of Britain by Scots, Picts and Saxons saw the Romans abandoning Britain in AD410.
The next gathering of the society will be the AGM at the Cheviot Centre at 7.30pm on Wednesday, April 11. This will be followed by a visit to the farm museum at Chillingham Barns Farm, on Saturday, April 14, at 10.30am.
Simon Henderson will give a talk on The Culley Brothers and the History of Farming in Glendale on Saturday, April 21, at noon at the Fenton Centre, followed by a finger buffet (at a cost of £10) and a guided tour of West Fenton Farm.
Non-members are welcome at these two events but advance booking is necessary at firstname.lastname@example.org or 01668 283703.