Friday 8 August 2014

Roman Geezer

Maiden Castle: doesn't make any sense, does it?

I am interested in the news (link here) that the National Trust has acquired another hill-fort in Dorset - well, I'm not that interested in the news but rather in the BBC's explanation of what a hill-fort is which they say they got from the British Museum, who ought to know.

But they evidently don't know. We are told "some provided secure living space for large numbers of people, whereas others may have been empty refuges or used for religious ceremonies and celebrations". In other words they haven't a clue what our early Welsh ancestors were up to building these colossal monuments.

It is one of those things which we take for granted and we vaguely accept the glib explanations of historians. But actually why is there a hill-fort every few hundred yards as you walk around the Pembrokeshire coast, with sufficient space to hold many times the present population? And why the multiple concentric rings instead of one great big wall like everybody else builds a castle?

If you study the matter you find that the experts are all over the place, some even suggesting they were really for keeping animals rather than defensive which is clearly ludicrous.

Like many budding classicists I was brought up on the story of the siege of Maiden Castle by the Romans. But this turns out to be pure fiction dreamt up by the famous archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler.

I think the archaeologists are making too much of their own specialism and we are better served going to the literary sources. Julius Caesar did his fair share of attacking hill-forts and in his own account of the Gallic wars he always refers to them as oppida (townships). I buy that, and with it the necessary conclusion that the population of Celtic Europe was far larger, and far more sophisticated, than presently thought.

Pembrokeshire for example must have been intensively farmed by substantial communities larger than the present villages, very close to each other (typically they would have been able to see several other townships from the vantage of their own) and with the people going back into their townships at night.

This still doesn't explain the multiple walls but I'll have to think about that.


Caesar is especially reviled by schoolchildren studying Latin because he is invariably the first author you encounter - he wrote in a simple and uncomplicated style as you might expect of a soldier and suited to beginners.

We also hated him because he was so spectacularly self-centred, taking credit for everything that went right and blaming his lieutenants when they went wrong; and ridiculously he thought he could get away with this by writing about himself in the third person. But we got his number...

Julius Caesar
Roman Geezer
Squashed his face in a lemon squeezer