On the beach stood the adverse array, a serried sap report writer books of arms and men, with women flitting between the ranks. Druids, lifting their hands to heaven and showering imprecations, struck the troops with such an awe at the extraordinary spectacle that, as though their limbs were paralysed, they exposed their bodies to wounds without an attempt at movement.
The next step was to install a garrison among the conquered population, and to demolish the groves consecrated to their savage cults: for they considered it a pious duty to slake the altars with captive blood and to consult their deities by means of human entrails. While he was thus occupied, the sudden revolt of the province was announced to Suetonius. Notes to help interpret Tacitus’ account In this scene Tacitus describes the Druids as “lifting their hands to heaven” which is in keeping with some Celtic images that we have of their shamens in prayer. They are described as cursing and under the circumstances it seems reasonable to assume that they would have been requesting the Gods to avenge the Roman invaders. In his description of the subjugation of the island, Tacitus provides further justification for the attack on this religious order.
He paints the Druids in the worst terms for his Roman audience and without mention of the intellectual prowess accorded to them by many other classical writers. He is writing as a Roman and there is reason to suspect that his account is tinged with the propaganda of the conqueror. The Celtic place names ‘Nemeton’ and ‘Llanerch’ are associated with Celtic religious centres. These words can be translated as a clearing in the woods and this seems to support the idea that the clearings in the woods rather than the groves themselves were the central place of worship. Old trees like the yew and the oak were important to their religion and the title Druid or Derwyddon in Welsh actually means oak knowledge. Whist Tacitus’ account may be tainted with predjudice it also seems to contain more than a grain of truth.
Some modern schools of thought tend to argue that the Roman sources are wrong about the Druids performing human sacrifice but this is to ignore the historical and archaeological records. The evidence of human bodies ritually strangled and placed in bogs etc. The Gundestrup Cauldron shows that cauldrons were used to ritually drown their victims. It is unlikely that the Druids themselves would have regarded these sacrificial acts as ‘pious’ as Tacitus indicates but more likely as necessary to recruit the help of their Gods.
Offerings were made to the Gods in return for protection and good fortune and this is common to many religions. The ritual deposition of items in Llyn Cerig Bach in Anglesey include swords, spears, chariot fittings, horse bridles, cauldrons, a trumpet, currency bars, animal bones and two sets of slave chains. There is probably artistic licence in Tacitus’ description of the women who were amongst their adverseries on the shores of Anglsey but at the same time it is quite likely that there were women amongst the British who were encouraging their men who were about to do battle. The women in the description are likened to the ‘Furies’ of classical mythology who were the furious avengers of wrongful deeds. The causes of the revolt of the Iceni led by Boudica tend to be viewed in isolation from the events that occured in Anglesey even though the Roman forces were recalled from there to deal with the revolt. The Romans attack on the religious heart of Celtic Britain would surely have been viewed very gravely by all of the Celtic tribes.
Some have argued that Suetonius’ recall from Anglesey to deal with the revolt of the Iceni allowed elements of Druidism to survive. Others argue that it died there and then. Although we are told that Anglesey was the Druidic centre it does not follow that all Druids were in Anglesey at the time of the attack. The Roman writers tell us that during the Boudica Revolt which followed that the Iceni performed sacrifices to the Goddess of revenge, Andraste.
It is interesting to note that the Romans only ever banned two religions and they were the Druidic practices and Christianity. They were banned because they were considered to have a powerful influence. The Druids were probably more of a threat than the Celtic chiefs as it seems that they were trying to co-ordinate attacks on the Romans. Nora Chadwick, The Celts, Penguin books, 1991 p. History Books and Resources Our site is full of FREE historical information and interactive history resources for classroom use. You can also read reviews of history books and history websites.