How deeply did Roman civilization, in its four centuries of domination, penetrate the life and soul of Britain? Latin became the language of politics, law, literature, and the educated minority, but in the countryside and among many workers in the towns the Celtic tongue survived; even now, in Wales and the Isle of Man, it holds its own. Roman schools in Britain spread literacy and determined the Roman form of the English alphabet; and a stream of Latin words poured into English speech. Temples were built to Roman gods, but the common man cherished his Celtic deities and feasts. Even in the cities Rome sank no lasting roots. The people submitted apathetically to a rule that brought them a fructifying peace and such prosperity as the island would not experience again until the Industrial Revolution.


The decisions of Augustus and Tiberius not to attempt the conquest of Germany were among the pivotal events of European history. Had Germany been conquered and Romanized like Gaul, nearly all Europe west of Russia would have had one organization, one government, one classic culture, perhaps one tongue; and central Europe might have served as a buffer against those eastern hordes whose pressure upon the Germans caused the Germanic invasions of Italy. We call them Germans, but they themselves have never used this name, and no one knows when it came.

They were in classic days a medley of independent tribes occupying Europe between the Rhine and the Vistula, between the Danube and the North and Baltic Seas. Gradually, in the two centuries from Augustus to Aurelius, they passed from migratory hunting and herding to agriculture and village life; but they were still so far nomadic that they rapidly exhausted the land they tilled and then moved on to conquer new acres by the sword. If we may believe Tacitus, war was the German’s meat and drink:

To cultivate the earth, and wait the regular produce of the seasons, is not the maxim of a German; you will more readily persuade him to attack the enemy and provoke honorable wounds on the field of battle. To earn by the sweat of your brow what you might gain at the price of your blood is in the opinion of a German a sluggish principle, unworthy of a soldier.

The Roman historian, lamenting the deterioration of his own people under luxury and peace, described with the exaggeration of a moralist the martial qualities of the Germans, and the ardor with which the women spurred them into battle, often fighting by their side. Flight from the enemy meant lifelong disgrace, in many cases suicide. Strabo described the Germans as “wilder and taller than the Gauls,” and Seneca, as if he had read Tacitus, drew ominous conclusions: “To those vigorous bodies, to those souls unwitting of pleasures, luxury, and wealth, add but a little more tactical skill and discipline- I say no more; you [Romans] will only be able to hold your own against them by returning to the virtues of your sires.”

In peace, Tacitus reports, these warriors were correspondingly indolent. The men spent their time (presumably after hunting or harvesting) in eating heavy meals of meat and drinking rivers of beer, while the women and children did the work of the home.