The Celts: A Very Short Introduction

By Barry Cunliffe | Go to book overview

Chapter 10
Britons and Romans

It is a well-known, and often repeated, fact that no Classical writer whose work survives ever referred to the inhabitants of Britain or Ireland as Celts. It could, of course, be argued that this observation alone cannot be taken to mean that they were not Celtic in some way, but the fact remains that the Classical authors perceived the inhabitants of the islands to differ in significant ways from those of Celtica in Gaul.

The whole question is neatly dismissed by Tacitus writing in the late first century AD. ‘Who the first inhabitants of Britain were,’ he wrote, ‘whether natives or immigrants, remains obscure; one must remember we are dealing with barbarians’. Here, I suppose, we could leave the matter and pass on, but there are a few threads of evidence worth exploring further.

Julius Caesar, who had some first-hand knowledge of the south-east of Britain, offers a number of interesting insights. The population, he said, ‘was extremely large and there were many farms closely resembling those of the Gauls’; and again, ‘The most civilized of the Britons are those who live in Kent, which is entirely a maritime area; their way of life is very like that of the Gauls.’ Elsewhere, when writing of the Druids, he offers the intriguing aside that it was generally thought that the Druidic doctrine developed first in Britain and was later introduced into Gaul: ‘even today those who

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