Calgacus and his famous speech.

Although Jules Caesar came to Britain, he didn't stay long. The real conquest took place much later on, during the reign of Claudius. The following passages concern the ultimate battle, for a time at least, when Agricola fought the battle of Mons Graupius in Caledonia and marked the end of full-scale British resistance. The Romans never went further North in mass, although their navy sailed round the whole island.

The story was written by Agricola's son in law, Tacitus, and published in the year 97. This and other of his works are available on the internet. The Annals and Histories are particularly recommended. This extract came from the Ancient History Sourcebook, to whom we should be grateful for their splendid work. The translation is by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb. For the complete text, click here.

Tacitus may have invented either the personage or the speech or both ; the practice of such as speech before a battle would seem more Roman, or Shakespearian, than barbarian, "Once more into the breech...". It illustrates his own misgivings about civilization, as well as a romanticism concerning the noble savage and freedom which seems distinctly modern.

As Britain faces Rome once more, with their faceless hordes of bureaucrats replacing the legions, but once again seeking to impose a turgid normalization throughout Europe, the text seems strangely relevant, even if parts are just a bit too flattering !

"We, the choice flower of Britain, were treasured  in her most secret places. Out of sight of subject shores, we kept even our eyes free from the defilement of tyranny. We, the last men on earth, the last of the free, have been shielded till today by the very remoteness and the seclusion for which we are famed."

Calgacus' speech before the battle of Mons Graupius.

Chapter 29. .... He (Ed. Agricola) sent his fleet ahead to plunder at various points and thus spread uncertainty and terror, and, with an army marching light, which he had reinforced with the bravest of the Britons and those whose loyalty had been proved during a long peace, reached the Graupian Mountain, which he found occupied by the enemy. The Britons were, in fact, undaunted by the loss of the previous battle, and welcomed the choice between revenge and enslavement. They had realized at last that common action was needed to meet the common danger, and had sent round embassies and drawn up treaties to rally the full force of all their states. Already more than 30,000 men made a gallant show, and still they came flocking to the colors--all the young men and those whose 'old age was fresh and green', famous warriors with their battle honors thick upon them. At that point one of the many leaders, named Calgacus, a man of outstanding valor and nobility, summoned the masses who were already thirsting for battle and addressed them, we are told, in words like these:

Chapter 30. 'Whenever I consider why we are fighting and how we have reached this crisis, I have a strong sense that this day of your splendid rally may mean the dawn of liberty for the whole of Britain. You have mustered to a man, and to a man you are free. There are no lands behind us, and even the sea is menaced by the Roman fleet. The clash of battle--the hero's glory-- has become the safest refuge for the coward. Battles against Rome have been lost and won before--but never without hope; we were always there in reserve. We, the choice flower of Britain, were treasured  in her most secret places. Out of sight of subject shores, we kept even our eyes free from the defilement of tyranny. We, the last men on earth, the last of the free, have been shielded till today by the very remoteness and the seclusion for which we are famed. We have enjoyed the impressiveness of the unknown. But today the boundary of Britain is exposed; beyond us lies no nation, nothing but waves and rocks and the Romans, more deadly still than they, for you find in them an arrogance which no reasonable submission can elude. Brigands of the world, they have exhausted the land by their indiscriminate plunder and now they ransack the sea. The wealth of an enemy excites their cupidity, his poverty their lust of power. East and West have failed to glut their maw. They are unique in being as violently tempted to attack the poor as the wealthy. Robbery, butchery, rapine, with false names they call Empire; and they make a wilderness and call it peace.

Chapter 31. 'We instinctively love our children and our kinsmen above all else. These are torn from us by conscription to slave in other lands. Our wives and sisters, even if they are not raped by Roman enemies, are seduced by them in the guise of guests and friends. Our goods and fortunes are ground down to pay tribute, our land and its harvest to supply corn, our bodies and hands to build roads through woods and swamps--all under blows and insults. Slaves, born into slavery, once sold, get their keep from their masters. But as for Britain, never a day passes but she pays and feeds her enslavers. In a private household it is the latest arrival who is always the butt of his fellow slaves; so, in this establishment, where all the world have long been slaves, it is we, the cheap new acquisitions, who are picked out for extirpation. You see, we have no fertile lands, no mines, no harbors, which we might be spared to work. Courage and martial spirit we have, but the master does not relish them in the subject. Even our remoteness and seclusion, while they protect, expose us to suspicion. Abandon, then, all hope of mercy and at last take courage, whether it is life or honor that you hold most dear. The Brigantes, with only a woman (Ed. Boadicea) to lead them, burned the colony, stormed the camp and, if success had not made them grossly careless, might have cast off the yoke. Let us, then, uncorrupted, unconquered as we are, ready to fight for freedom but never to repent failure, prove at the first clash of arms what heroes Caledonia has been holding in reserve.

Chapter 32. 'Can you really imagine that the Romans' bravery in  war comes up to their wantonness in peace? No! It is our quarrels and disunion that have given them fame. The reputation of the Roman army is built up on the faults of its enemies. Look at it, a motley agglomeration of nations, that will be shattered by defeat as surely as it is now held together by success! Or can you seriously think that those Gauls or Germans-and, to our bitter shame, many Britons too!-are bound to Rome by genuine loyalty or love? They may be lending their life-blood to foreign tyrants, but they were enemies of Rome much longer than they have been her slaves. Apprehension and terror are weak bonds of affection; once break them, and, where fear ends, hatred will begin. All that can goad men to victory is on our side. The enemy have no wives to fire their courage, no parents ready to taunt them if they run away. Most of them have no country, or, if they have one, it is not Rome. See them, a scanty band, scared and bewildered, staring blankly at the unfamiliar sky, sea and forests around! The gods have given them, spellbound prisoners, into our hands. Never fear the outward show that means nothing, the glitter of gold and silver that can neither avert nor inflict a wound. In the ranks of our very enemies we shall find hands to help us. The Britons will recognize our cause as their own, the Gauls will remember their lost liberty, the rest of the Germans will desert them as surely as the Usipi have just done. They have nothing in reserve that need alarm us-only forts without garrisons, colonies of grey-beards, towns sick and distracted between rebel subjects and tyrant masters. Here before us is their general, here his army; behind are the tribute, the mines and all the other whips to scourge slaves. Whether you are to endure these for ever or take summary vengeance, this field must decide. On, then, into action and, as you go, think of those that went before you and of those that shall come after.'

Chapter 33. This speech was received with enthusiasm, expressed, as barbarians express it, by shouting, singing and confused applause. (Ed. Something else that hasn't changed !)

For more, click here....

Fortunately, or not, the speech didn't do the trick and they were slaughtered. The Highlands were never conquered though and Calgacus' children continued to harry the Romans till they retreated behind Hadrian's famous wall. But that, is another story.

"They make a wilderness and call it peace !"

Updated 3/2/2001