What Calgacus said

August 27, 2013 2 Comments
Calgacus's speech (steel engraving, 1859)

Calgacus’s speech (steel engraving, 1859)

Andrew Marr recently made the point that the future of Scotland is a subject almost totally ignored in the rest of the UK.  ‘Nobody is talking about what kind of a Scotland we want after independence’, he said, ‘people in England haven’t really come to terms with what it would mean.’  It would be fair to say that most British people have a better appreciation of the complexities of Egypt or Syria than they have of their own country.

As if to prove Marr’s point the Westminster journalist Steve Richards wrote last week in the Guardian about his sudden discovery on a trip to the Edinburgh Festival that Scotland was indeed a different country and that England should be paying more attention to the possible outcomes of the referendum on independence to be held in 2014.  It seems to have escaped his attention until now that Scotland has developed a very different polity from England’s: ‘In its political culture and its powers to define what form that culture takes, Scotland is already so incomparably different from England that a form of separation is taking place in front of our eyes … Without doubt, insular, parochial England should pay more attention to a referendum that is definitely taking place instead of obsessing about one on Europe that might never be held.’  Richards points out that the traditional differences between the two countries have been accentuated because whereas Scotland’s political culture has remained very stable, England’s has shifted substantially, in favour of the market, privatisation and the small state – not only under the coalition government, as Richards implies, but under the previous Blair-Brown governments.

In the Scottish media things are different.  A continuous debate is under way.  Though opinion polls so far suggest that a ‘yes’ vote is unlikely in 2014, discussion of the benefits and drawbacks of independence cannot be avoided.

The possibility of Scottish independence encourages thoughts about ‘pre-UK Scotland’: not just the period before the Act of Union in 1707, but much further back.  The first advocate of Scottish independence we know about was a man called Calgacus in the first century AD.  (‘Caledonian’ would be a more accurate word than ‘Scottish’ since the Scots had yet to arrive from Ireland.)  We know about him from just one source, the historian Cornelius Tacitus’s biography of his father in law, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, governor of the Roman province of Britannia from 78 to 84 AD.  Not only is Calgacus a proto-nationalist, he also delivers, according to Tacitus, one of the most potent anti-imperialist statements we have from the ancient world.

William Hole, Processional frieze, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

William Hole, Processional frieze, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

Agricola was an expansionist governor and pursued aggressive campaigns against ‘tribes’ in northern Britain, far beyond where his predecessors had ventured.  In 84 AD the Britons who inhabited what is now northern Scotland decided to make a stand against the invading Roman forces, at a place Tacitus calls ‘Mons Graupius’.  Scholars differ about where this might be: possibly it was at Bennachie in Aberdeenshire.

As ancient historians were accustomed to do Tacitus has the leaders of each side address the troops, and he ‘quotes’ their speeches.  (It’s unlikely he could have known exactly what was said, but speeches not only dramatise the narrative, they help supply commentary on the motivation and tactics of the players.)  The Caledonian army is addressed by their leader, Calgacus.  Tacitus says nothing about him except that he was ‘outstanding in bravery and of noble birth’: perhaps the only sure information he had about him was his name (the Celtic form Calgaich may mean ‘swordsman’).

This is what Calgacus says, in my own translation from the Latin (I’ve tried to reproduce as best I can the elliptical and epigrammatic style that makes Tacitus such a pleasure to read):

When I consider how this war began and the danger we find ourselves in I’m certain that our unity today will signal the beginning of freedom for the whole of Britain.  All of us here are united and unknown to slavery.  We’ve nowhere left to flee to by land, or indeed by sea, since the Roman navy threatens us there.  Armed warfare is the right course for brave men like us, but it would be the safest way even if we were cowards.  We’ve had mixed fortunes in our earlier battles with the Romans but we still have hope that we can find safety.  We Caledonians are the greatest of all the Britons.  In these remote unconquered regions we’ve kept ourselves uncontaminated by the slavery of oppressors.  Up to now distance and obscurity have kept us free and safe.  Today, though, the last coast of Britain lies bare to our enemies: to them it seems a great prize, the fools .  No other peoples stand beyond us, nothing but waves and rocks – and more dangerous than both, our Roman enemies.  Making concessions and being moderate isn’t going to save us from their tyranny.  They rape the whole world.   When they’ve finished devastating the land they turn their attentions to the sea.  If their enemies have wealth they want it; if they’re poor, it makes no difference, they still hunger for power.  Nowhere, east or west, is enough for them – they’re the only ones who lust after everything alike, rich or poor.  Abduction, massacre, plunder they misname ‘law and order’.  Where they make a desert they call it ‘peace’.

Our children and families, the people we love above all others, they’ve conscripted and carried away to serve overseas.  Our wives and sisters, though they’ve escaped the enemy’s clutches, are tainted by their claims of friendship and hospitality.  Our possessions and wealth are eroded by forced taxes, our fields and crops compelled to yield contributions.  Under threat of blow and insults we’re put to work clearing woods and ditches.  Most slaves are bought just once, and then maintained by their masters, but every day we Britons pay for our own slavery, every day we feed it.  And just as in a family the most recent slave becomes the butt of his fellow slaves, so in this old global slave household we’re the mocked newcomers, to be driven to death.  We don’t possess the farming and mineral wealth and the trade that would gives us value as forced labour.  And another point: our bravery and aggression just provoke them, our masters.  Our remoteness, a source of security to us, they find suspicious.  You can expect no mercy from them: so take heart, whether it’s saving your pride or saving your skin that matters most to you.  Remember: led by a woman [Boudicca] the Brigantes [an error: Tacitus means the Iceni] found the capacity to overrun one of their colonial outposts and destroy their forts, and if their good luck hadn’t drained their energy they’d have thrown off the Roman yoke.  We, though, are undivided and unconquered.  Our destiny is freedom, not regret.  From the start of this fight we’ll show what men Caledonia has in reserve.

In peace the Romans are decadent: do you think they’ll show a manly spirit in war?  They make a name for themselves only from our disunity.  They portray their enemy’s errors as a triumph for their army – a ragbag force, gathered from all the nations of the world, held together by success, but vulnerable to failure.  Unless you think that Gauls and Germans and (shame) even Britons  – despite spilling their blood for the supremacy of others, remember they’ve been enemies longer than they have slaves – will be held together by loyalty and devotion?  Fear and terror are feeble chains of attachment: when the chains are broken people cease to fear and start to hate.  All the incentives to win are ours.  The Romans have no wives to fire them, no parents to shame them if they run away.  Most of them have no country, or if they do it’s a faraway one.  They’re few in number, and terrified by their lack of knowledge.  Everything here – the forests, the coast, even the sky – looks alien to them.  The gods have delivered them into our hands caged and bound.  Don’t be scared by a meaningless show, by the flash of gold and silver: those things can’t protect or injure anyone.  It’s in the ranks of the enemy we’ll find our allies.  The Britons will recognise their own cause, the Gauls will remember that they were once free, the rest of the Germans will desert them just as the Usipi abandoned them recently.  The Romans have nothing in their rear to frighten us: their forts are empty, only old people are left in their settlements, their towns are weakened and divided between rebellious subjects and oppressive rulers.  On our side, a leader and an army; on theirs, taxes, mines, and the other penalties of being enslaved.  Today we choose whether we’ll suffer those penalties for ever or take immediate revenge.  Into battle, then, men: think of your ancestors, and your descendants!

This is a remarkable passage of empathetic writing.  Tacitus goes to some lengths to imagine the material and spiritual situation of the Caledonians, trapped at the extremity of their island (terminus Britanniae) between ‘rocks and waves’ and an invading alien army, and forced to defend to the death all they hold dear.   The words servitus (slavery) and libertas (freedom) recur throughout and form the foundation of Calgacus’s appeal to his army.  His first section culminates in a bitter denunciation of imperialism, and the famous words normally translated as ‘they make a desert and call it peace’.

Dying Gaul (Capitoline Museum, Rome)

Dying Gaul (Capitoline Museum, Rome)

There are good reasons why Tacitus should wish to magnify Calgacus and his speech.  The ‘noble savage’ was a well known trope in Greek and Latin literature and art, a good example being the Hellenistic statue of the ‘Dying Gaul’, much copied in Roman times and since.  Tacitus’s purpose in writing Agricola’s biography was to preserve his memory as a successful leader in peace and war, and worthy opponents served to heighten the stature of his martial achievements.  But there was another factor.  Tacitus held ambivalent views about the Roman empire and Roman society.  His conviction, shared by many other aristocrats, was that the empire represented a decline from the golden age of the Roman republic, and that the moral condition of the state and of the Roman people was perilous.  Other, more primitive societies therefore held an appeal as repositories of purer and less compromised values than imperial Rome.  This may explain why Tacitus’s style, never less than cutting, seems to take on a specially sharp edge in this passage.

Having denounced in the second section of his speech the rapacity and ruthlessness of the Romans Calgacus goes on in the third to contrast the unity, commitment and determination of his Caledonians with the dubious condition of the enemy’s soldiers, out of their depth in the alien Highlands, motivated by fear rather than loyalty, and, most interestingly, undermined by their multinational and multicultural composition of their army.  He finds it hard to believe that people from dozens of nations across and well beyond the Mediterranean could be united behind a single legionary eagle to form a coherent and victorious fighting force.

Tacitus gives Agricola a corresponding pre-battle speech to his troops.  Like an England cricket captain addressing his team as they contest the Ashes in Australia he points to the string of victories they’ve already clocked up and assures them that their military advantage will more than make up for playing away from home.  Far from being steadfast the Caledonians are proven runaways; they’re only preparing for battle because they have no choice, having been overtaken and trapped by the Roman army.

Agricola’s is a conventional and insipid speech; it’s hard to resist the feeling that Tacitus put less effort into writing it than in composing Calgacus’s magnificent and venomous tirade.  Interestingly, Agricola fails to counter Calgacus’s accusation about the multiethnic composition of the Roman army.  Today we might say that it was precisely the Romans’ willingness to admit men from all parts of their empire to the armed forces, and especially to allow them to become Roman citizens, that bound legionaries together in loyalty to the emperor and to Rome.

William Hole, Calgacus, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

William Hole, Calgacus

Next Tacitus tells us in some detail about the battle and its result: a catastrophic result for Calgacus and the Caledonians.  About 10,000 of them were killed, he says, with losses of only 360 men on the Roman side.  Afterwards Agricola sent his fleet on a circumnavigation of Britain, much as the US navy would be sent today as a stern warning to insurgents, and retired to his winter quarters without bothering to pursue the Caledonian survivors.  About the fate of Calgacus Tacitus is silent.

So ended the first concerted attempt by the inhabitants of Scotland to defeat an external colonial force on the explicit basis of self-determination and national freedom.

As far as I can see, Calgacus is yet to be revived by proponents of independence today as a model of Scottish leadership, except by one or two fringe nationalists.  The fact that he was so spectacularly unsuccessful does not help matters (and there are plenty of competitors in the course of history for the title of ‘most glorious Scottish loser’).  But there is also the fact that the tone of the debate in Scotland to date has avoided Calgacan rhetoric, that is, direct reference to overthrowing colonial domination and asserting national superiority.  As Steve Richards says, ‘The campaign for independence is currently seeking to convey an awkward message. In an attempt to reassure the many undecided voters, its current broad theme is that the referendum is a moment of epic significance, but do not worry, nothing much will change if they vote for independence. Any campaign with a contradictory message is in some difficulty.’  But tones can change, there are many months left before the referendum, and already there are voices calling for a tougher line of debate.  In any case, unlike Calgacus, advocates of independence are guaranteed a fallback position if they fail in the referendum: as Richards points out, all major parties in Scotland are committed to devolving additional powers from Westminster to Holyrood in future.

Comments (2)

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  1. Mike Haseler says:

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who has noticed the importance of the Calgacus speech when discussing Scottish identity and independence. I’ve tried to interest both sides in this speech with little success — perhaps because it is far too “honest” for either side.

    On the one hand, it is undoubtedly a speech of Scottish independence and one that was echoed in the declaration of Arbroath and then the American declaration of independence. So, one would think the SNP would have been force feeding us Calgacus.

    However, on the other hand Calgacus describes himself as a “Briton” and no where in Tacitus (or anywhere else) do we find support for the fictional idea of the “celts” in Britain.

    So, I do not understand why the No campaign has not highlighted the way Caledonians describe themselves (or are reported to describe themselves) as Britons.

    But then we have a sovereign tribe, fighting against the European Tyranny, so if there were any UKIP in Scotland with more brains than a pink Ostrich, I would expect them to highlight the anti-“Europe” rhetoric.

    Then we have the “Union” of calgacus, the “monarchy” of hereditary leaders and all in all, I think the speech is a goldmine of quotes and any politician in Scotland who has never read let alone quoted Calgacus is to my mind not a politician worth having.

    … which sums up my view of Scottish politicians … they are on the whole ignorant of real Scottish history!

  2. Dear Sirs,
    I write after the Scottish referendum and the Brexit result of Britain’s Euro referendum. I also write as a Briton whose father and mother are Scottish for the most part, visiting Aberdeen. Today my wife and I talked about going to Bennachie and I told her about this famous battle, Calgacus and his amazing speech. We decided to go to Stonehaven, a coastal town 13 miles to the South of the oil capital of the Uk. We visited my great grandfather’s grave at the 9th century church of Cowie. It was a true Viking style church like ones in Scandinavia or Greenland, right on the coast edge. We Scots, Welsh, Britons should draw no distinctions between each other because to try to sever our ties is not only cruel and hurtful but goes against common sense. Everybody knows that we are and interdependent union. Interdependency based on trust and the love between our peoples is going to be far stronger than isolationism which for Scotland would be a cripplingly expensive and unnecessary exercise. Calgacus, according at least to Tacitus, drew no distinctions and especially now the people have spoken for at least 100 years, neither should we. Yours sincerely, Mr Gallie

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