Britannia: the real story

2 mins read

MHM Editor Neil Faulkner looks at the real historical context behind the screenplay Britannia (2017).

A vivid depiction of a Celtic charge on a Roman line by reconstruction artist Angus McBride.

The TV series Britannia (2017) is a historical fantasy along the lines of Game of Thrones. Though set at the time of the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43, it makes no great claim to historical authenticity. It should be viewed – or not – for its entertainment value, and that alone.

The series reflects enduring interest in the Celts, the druids, and, above all, Queen Boudicca of the Iceni, who has now had a place in British popular culture as an iconic nationalist warrior-woman for several centuries. She is endlessly re-represented in books, documentaries, and dramas, a continuing process of cultural construction, helped, no doubt, by the desperate paucity of hard evidence.

But what was warfare really like during the Roman conquest of Britain between AD 43 and 84? The era was defined by the clash of two opposing military systems: that of the Roman Imperial Army and the successive Celtic British armies that confronted it.

The Roman Army developed from a crude city-state militia in the 7th century BC (the traditional foundation-date of Rome, 753 BC, is mythological) through several centuries of Italian, Mediterranean, and eventually wider European and Near Eastern campaigns of conquest, to the point that it had become one of the most professional military machines in history.

The Celts came to prominence in the 6th century BC. A distinctive warrior aristocracy – members of what archaeologists now call the‘Hallstatt culture’ – they controlled a group of territories in Central Europe north of the Alps. The Hallstatt lords spoke Celtic, lived in hillforts, and were buried with funerary carts, bronze cauldrons, and drinking horns.

At first their numbers were few and the territories they controlled small and scattered, but, during the 5th century, Celtic influence spread. A new style – the ‘La Tène culture’ – was adopted by an increasingly numerous aristocracy.

Drinking sets and firedogs, gold and silver torcs, elaborate horse fittings, and weaponry, especially iron swords in decorated scabbards, became essential status-symbols in much of Central Europe.

The aristocracy was formed of chieftains and small retinues of warriors, who wore helmets and sometimes body-armour, fought on horseback or in chariots, and were expert in the use of long slashing swords.

Though the military ethos affected the whole of Celtic society, such that military service with spear and shield was an obligation for all free men, military achievement was a particular mark of noble status. The standing of a chief was measured by the size of the retinue of followers he attracted through success in war and raiding.

The British of the 1st century AD were essentially Celts. This does not mean that their ancestors had emigrated from the Continent, merely that a form of the dominant Celtic culture of north-west Europe had established itself among the British tribal elite.

When these British Celtic armies found themselves on the defensive against the Roman invasion, there was little doubt that the Roman military was extraordinarily superior. The result was a highly asymmetrical confrontation between a fully professional army of the highest quality and tribal armies of brave but individualistic and undisciplined barbarian warriors.


This is an extract from a 16-page special feature in issue 92 of Military History Monthly

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