What the Romans Found: The Belgae


The presence of the Belgae in southern Britain must have been small surprise to Julius Caesar. He had run up against them in his Gallic campaigns, finally subduing them about 57 B.C. Except for a small revolt four years later, the Belgae remained subdued. They also migrated.

Composed of numerous tribes, notably the Atrebates, Remi, Bellovaci, and Suessiones, the Belgae had been migrating for several years, but Caesar’s conquest probably speeded up this process considerably. Anyway, they had banded together in the lowlands and formed three kingdoms, centered at St. Albans, Silchester, and Colchester. The strongest of these kings was Cassivellaunus, who saw fit to give the Romans fits for years.

Cassivellaunus (whose people came to be calledthe Catuvellauni) had established a substantial presence in lowland Britain by the time Caesar arrived in 55. However, since Caesar didn’t stick around too much on this first “raid,” he didn’t have to fight too much. His return the following year brought the threat of Roman domination to Britannia for good.

Cassivellaunus didn’t take too kindly to this Roman’s laying claim to his lands and title, so he fought back. Using the chariot and the landscape to full advantage, Cassivellaunus managed to hold off the Romans for several campaigns, but he realized that the overwhelming numbers of the Romans would eventually take their toll. He agreed to hand over several hostages as a result of the “peace,” and he agreed to pay Rome an annual sum of money as a tribute. In return, Caesar promised not to annihilate the Catuvellauni.

Caesar returned to the Continent, Cassivellaunus forgot to keep up his end of the bargain, and things went on much as they had been, with one important exception: The Roman occupationof Britain had begun.

Among the contributions of the Belgae to Britain were the heavy plow, which mightily furthered the development of tillable land and, in turn, agriculture and cremation, a practice particularly Celt. Also popping up in this incarnation of religious folk were the Druids, who would rule in the hearts and minds of Britons for centuries.

Other tidbits:

– Canterbury was originally a Belgae settlement. The Romans conquered it, of course, and named it Durovernum Cantiacorum.
– The tribal chiefs had capitals that were well-organized urban settlements.
– Their talent for working with bronze was highly developed.
– They made coins, a British first.