One of the principle difficulties with history is that, most of the time, nobody wrote down what was happening. Our knowledge of the ancient world is filled in with detail from highly infrequent sources, and much of time we have no idea what was going on.
It is said that history is written by the winners, but it is also written by those that endured. The successful empires, the Romans, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Egyptians: these are the people about whom we know much, because they were successful enough to write about themselves.
But what of their enemies? Here we are on a less certain footing. Take for example Carthage, great enemy of the Roman Republic. The view we have today of this African kingdom is one of power, military might, and possibly child sacrifice to demon gods.
The last would certainly seem to be a Roman addendum to demonize their foes. So it often seems with the Romans, and the shadow they cast as the last great empire of antiquity means that a lot of what comes after, colloquially known as the Dark Ages, is lost in the kerfuffle of their fall.
So it was with the British Isles, and so it was with the druids. Their practices, beliefs, and strange religion was lost to time when the Romans brought their civilizing influence to Britain. The closest glimpse we get to the druids as a living, breathing caste, comes at the moment of their destruction: the Roman invasion of Anglesey.
In truth the druids offered little in the way of organized resistance. Much of their defense relied on the landscape of Anglesey itself: a windswept island right on the northwest Welsh coast. Assaulting the island was difficult from land or sea, and the mysteries it held meant further dangers may be encountered inland.
There were actually two Roman attacks on the island. The first, led by the Britain’s Roman provincial governor in 60 AD, looked set to succeed until Boudica’s revolt to the south forced him to recall his legions.
The motivation for the attack seems to have been little more than the need to subjugate all the peoples of Celtic Britain, although the Romans may also have heard of the possible presence of copper on Anglesey. Information about the druids and the remaining population of Anglesey is also scarce, limited to a few notes as to their “powerful” reputation and as a place for those seeking refuge from Rome.
The second attack, 15 years later, offers tantalizing glimpses of the lives of those on Anglesey, and their mysterious druids, even as they are wiped out. Mentions are made of “sacred groves” of trees which are destroyed, ancient stone circles “stained with blood” which are broken down and demolished.
Agricola, the Roman commander who led the second, successful invasion, talks of Roman auxiliaries swimming the strait between the Welsh mainland and catching the defender unprepared with this commando assault. Tacticus, the Roman historian who recorded this, is in awe at the military genius he sees unfold.
However Tacticus has been criticized elsewhere for inflating the deeds of the Roman commanders on whom he wrote. Relying on him too readily for a description of Anglesey before the Romans would be unwise: he may have fictionalized aspects of their life to boost the seeming glory of their defeat. Or he may simply have not known.
Nevertheless, with the fall of Anglesey to the Romans a part of Welsh, and British, history was lost forever. We will never now know of the Celtic druids of the British Isles, wiped out by a more successful army who destroyed what they did not understand.
Top Image: The Great Temple and Grove of the Druids on Anglesey. Source: National Library of Wales / Public Domain.
By Joseph Green