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From Readings in English History Drawn From The Original Sources by Edward P. Cheyney, Ginn and Company; Boston; 1908; pp. 18-19.

Elf. Editor comments in brackets


YEAR c. 100 A. D.

Tacitus on the Origin and Character of the Britons1

Cornelius Tacitus, from whom the following extract is taken, as well as the description of Britain already given and some passages to follow later, was much interested in Britain from the fact that he had married the daughter of Agricola, the greatest of the Roman governors of that country. He wrote his Life of Agricola about A. D. 100.

13. Tacitus
on the origin
and charac-
ter of the
As is so often the case among barbarians, it is difficult to say whether the men who first dwelt in Britain are indigenous or whether they came thither. We may deduce arguments from the fact that their physical characteristics differ. For the reddish-yellow hair of the inhabitants of Caledonia, as well as their sturdy limbs, point to a German origin; the swarthy complexion and curly hair of the Silures, together with their position opposite Gaul, make us believe that the Iberians in ancient times crossed over and seized these territories. Those who are nearest to the Gauls resemble them, whether from the persistence of heredity, or whether, since the lands stretch out opposite each other, the climate has given the same character to the individuals. Forming a general judgment, however, it is credible that the Gauls seized the neighboring island. One sees here their sacred rites and their religious beliefs; even the speech does not differ much; there is the same boldness in seeking dangers, and the same shrinking from meeting them when they are present. The Britons show more savageness, as those not yet civilized by a long-continued peace. We have been given to understand that the Gauls, too, were formerly conspicuous for their fighting; sluggishness, however, entered with ease, and bravery was lost together with liberty. The same thing has happened to those of the Britons who were formerly conquered, while the rest remain as the Gauls were.


Their strength is in their infantry; certain tribes fight also with chariots. The charioteer is the man of rank; his dependents fight for him. Formerly they were ruled by kings, now they are separated under the leadership of chieftains in factional quarrels. Nor is there anything more advantageous for us against these most powerful tribes than the fact that they do not consult for the common weal. Rarely do two or three tribes join for averting a common danger; and so while they fight as individuals, they are overcome as a whole.


1.   From Agricola, cc. 11, 12 [translation by Cheyney].


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