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Fall of Civilizations Podcast - Roman Britain


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1 hour ago, coworotel said:

So the Britons didn't have beards?

There is the common cliché of seeing barbarians as dirty peoples with huge beards and giant moustaches. Actually the few iconographic details found by historians and archaeologists are suggesting a lot of shaved faces and some trimmed and contoured beard and mustache. Classical literature suggests Celtic warriors were kinda some fashionista with proper hygiene, which fits well in their logic of bravado and to show off to rise in the society. Even the early Germans that were far more materially poor than the Celts in the beginning of their iron age got different traditions related to their textiles, to their hair dress, to adornments. This is an issue stressed by archaeologists, probably that most of the traditions, of the cultural habits and of the esthetics among the "Barbarians" is definitively lost because it does not stand the effect of time in most conditions.

In the case of the description from classical literature you are reacting about, indeed it stresses the idea that the mustache was the norm. It comes from Caesar: The most civilized of all these nations are they who inhabit Kent, which is entirely a maritime district, nor do they differ much from the Gallic customs. Most of the inland inhabitants do not sow corn, but live on milk and flesh, and are clad with skins. All the Britons, indeed, dye themselves with wood, which occasions a bluish color, and thereby have a more terrible appearance in fight. They wear their hair long, and have every part of their body shaved except their head and upper lip. Ten and even twelve have wives common to them, and particularly brothers among brothers, and parents among their children; but if there be any issue by these wives, they are reputed to be the children of those by whom respectively each was first espoused when a virgin.

Although there is a huge issue with the description of Caesar since the Britons did sow corn (another British word for wheat). Archaeologically there is no doubt about it. It falls again in the Caesarian propaganda. He wanted to conquer the Gauls and to justify this, all his work is animalizing the other Barbarians at the frontiers to show than the Gauls are less barbaric and closer to the Romans now. Suffering of the same fear of barbarians invasions. The Gallic Wars books are one of the only time the Roman accounts started to be fair and genuinely interested to understand the Gallic society because of a motive behind. The discrepancy between the Gallic quite fair account from Caesar and the classical Roman xenophobia for the Germanic and British parts is just striking in his work.

Diodorus Siculus will copy the description without precising his sources and the differences between the Celts (are they Gauls or Britons? are they all the same?)

Spoiler

 

The Celts are tall, with rippling muscles, and white of skin, and their hair is blond, and not only naturally so, but they also make it their practice by artificial means to increase the distinguishing colour which nature has given it. For they are always washing their hair in lime-water, and they pull it back from the forehead to the top of the head and back to the nape of the neck, with the result that their appearance is like that of Satyrs and Pans, since the treatment of their hair makes it so heavy and coarse that it differs in no respect from the mane of horses. Some of them shave the beard, but others let it grow a little; and the nobles shave their cheeks, but they let the mustache grow until it covers the mouth. Consequently, when they are eating, their mustaches become entangled in the food, and when they are drinking, the beverage passes, as it were, through a kind of a strainer. When they dine they all sit, not upon chairs, but upon the ground, using for cushions the skins of wolves or of dogs. The service at the meals is performed by the youngest children, both male and female, who are of suitable age; and near at hand are their fireplaces heaped with coals, and on them are cauldrons and spits holding whole pieces of meat. They reward brave warriors with the choicest portions of the meat, in the same manner as the poet introduces Ajax as honoured by the chiefs after he returned victorious from his single combat with Hector [in Illiad 7.321]: “To Ajax then were given of the backbone / Slices, full-length, unto his honour.”

They invite strangers to their feasts, and do not inquire until after the meal who they are and of what things they stand in need. And it is their custom, even during the course of the meal, to seize upon any trivial matter as an occasion for intense arguments and then to challenge one another to single combat, without any regard for their lives; for the belief of Pythagoras prevails among them, that the souls of men are immortal and that after a prescribed number of years they commence upon a new life, the soul entering into another body. Consequently, we are told, at the funerals of their dead some cast letters upon the pyre which they have written to their deceased kinsmen, as if the dead would be able to read these letters.

 

 

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10 minutes ago, Genava55 said:

The most civilized of all these nations are they who inhabit Kent, which is entirely a maritime district, nor do they differ much from the Gallic customs. Most of the inland inhabitants do not sow corn, but live on milk and flesh, and are clad with skins. All the Britons, indeed, dye themselves with wood, which occasions a bluish color, and thereby have a more terrible appearance in fight. They wear their hair long, and have every part of their body shaved except their head and upper lip.

Yes, this is the text he reads in the podcast.

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