Caesar, The Gallic War

LCL 72: 606-607

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Appendix B Britain Geography.

The description given by Caesar in v. 13 is based in part on personal observation, and in part is probably derived from the record of Pytheas of Massilia (Marseilles), a Greek traveller who circumnavigated Britain at the end of the 4th century b.c.—in the time of Alexander the Great.

Caesar was very nearly right in his account of the size and shape of Britain; like Pytheas he was also right in placing Ireland on the west, although he somewhat overestimated its area. He fell into the common error of his time in believing that the southern side of Britain faced the coast of Gaul, and that the western side bore towards Spain; but he was strangely accurate in his statement that the passage from Gaul to Britain was of the same length as that from Britain to Ireland, for as a matter of fact the distance between Boulogne and Folkestone (25 English miles) is almost the same as that from Stranraer to Larne. The Isle of Man is, as Caesar says, half-way between England and Ireland. On the other hand, it is somewhat difficult to account for the statement that in some of the smaller islands off Britain night in mid-winter lasts for 30 days. Possibly the mistake arose as follows: Pytheas reckoned “Thule” to be the most northerly point of the British Isles—and if this “Thule” may be identified with the Thule of Roman Imperial times, then the reference is to our Mainland, the largest of the Shetlands; but it is probable that Pytheas did not himself

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visit Thule, and that he described it from hearsay as being within the Arctic Circle, and so attributed to it the Arctic night. Caesar evidently borrowed this idea from some such source, and the error was repeated more than a century later by the mathematician Cleomedes.

Civilisation (v. 12).

The inter-tribal wars which were common in Britain before Caesar’s time point to a continual conflict between the indigenous inhabitants and a succession of invaders from the Continent. The invaders brought with them a higher standard of civilisation, which Caesar remarked in the districts south of the Thames.

It is probable that gold coins were struck in Britain as early as the 2nd century b.c., but that the use of coined money was confined to the southern and eastern districts, i.e., the parts of Britain most in touch with the higher civilisation of Gaul. On the other hand, the iron tallies of different weights, to judge from the hoards of them which have been unearthed, were not used in the eastern and south-eastern districts, where coins were current. Caesar’s statement that the bronze used in Britain was imported is difficult to explain, unless we suppose that he refers to an importation of manufactured articles. He is wrong in stating that tin was produced in the midland districts of Britain, for it was always peculiar to the south-west peninsula—Devon and Cornwall.

Caesar expressly says that there were no beech-trees (fagus) in Britain. Yet in the routes he followed on landing he must have passed through country abounding in beech-woods; moreover, there are submerged forests which prove the existence of the beech in Britain long before Caesar’s day. It has therefore been suggested that fagus as used by Caesar does not mean the beech-tree of Britain.

[For further details of British antiquities the work of Dr. T. Rice Holmes, Ancient Britain (1907), should be consulted.]

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