The Rhine was the frontier between classic and primitive civilization. Gaul could not defend that frontier; Rome did; and that fact determined the history of Europe to this day.


About 1200 B.C. a branch of the Celts crossed over from Gaul and settled in England. They found there a mingled population of dark-haired people, possibly Iberian, and light-haired Scandinavians. They conquered these natives, married them, and spread through England and Wales. About 100 B.C. (for so the egocentric foreshortening of history telescopes eventful centuries, and erases vital generations from a crowded memory) another branch of Celts came from the Continent and dispossessed their kinsmen of southern and eastern Britain. When Caesar came he found the island peopled by several independent tribes, each with its expansive king. He gave to all the population the name Britanni, from a Gallic tribe, so called, just south of the Channel, in the belief that the same tribe inhabited both shores.

Celtic Britain was in customs, language, and religion essentially like Celtic Gaul, but its civilization was less advanced. It passed from bronze to iron some six centuries before Christ, three centuries after Gaul. Pytheas, the Massiliot explorer, sailing the Atlantic to England about 350 B.C., found the Cantii of Kent already prosperous with agriculture and trade.

The soil was fertile from abundant rain and contained rich ores of copper, iron, tin, and lead. By Caesar’s time domestic industry was able to supply an active commerce among the tribes and with the Continent, and coins were minted in bronze and gold. His invasions were reconnaissance raids; he brought back the double assurance that the tribes were incapable of united resistance and that the crops were adequate to feed an invading army coming at the proper time. A century later (A.D. 43) Claudius crossed the Channel with 40,000 men whose discipline, armament, and skill proved too much for the natives; Britain in her turn became a Roman province.

In 61 a British tribal queen, Boudicca or Boadicea, led a furious revolt, alleging that Roman officers had ravished both her daughters, plundered her realm, and sold many of its freemen into slavery. While the Roman governor Paulinus was busy conquering the Isle of Man, Boudicca’s army overcame the single legion that opposed it and marched upon Londinium- already, says Tacitus, “the chief residence of merchants, and a great mart of trade.” Every Roman found there or in Verulamium (St. Albans) was killed; 70,000 Romans and their allies were slain before Paulinus and his legions caught up with the rebel force. Boudicca, standing with her daughters in a chariot, fought heroically in defeat. She drank poison, and 80,000 Britons were put to the sword.

Tacitus tells how his father-in-law Agricola, as governor of Britain (A.D. 78-84), brought civilization to a “rude, scattered, and warlike people” by establishing schools, spreading the use of Latin, and encouraging cities and rich men to build temples, basilicas, and public baths. “By degrees,” says the caustic historian, “the charms of vice gained admission to British hearts; baths, porticoes, and elegant banquets grew into vogue; and the new manners, which in reality only served to sweeten slavery, were by the unsuspecting Britons called the arts of polished humanity.”