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We learn from the Scripture narrative that the islands of the Gentiles were originally divided among the sons of Japhet; and it is traditionally believed that Gomer, the eldest of these sons, was the common father of the Celtic people, a portion of whom, long before the Christian era, crossed the channel which separates Britain from the continent of Europe, and formed a settlement in the hitherto unpeopled isle.
At an early period, Phoenician and, subsequently, other traders visited the south-west coasts to obtain thence cargoes of tin, which they carried to the ports of the Mediterranean : but they have left no record of their observations; and it is to the graphic pen of Julius Cæsar, a Roman general of consummate skill, that we owe the first definite and authentic particulars relative to the physical conformation of the country, and the religion, manners, and customs of its inhabitants.
Cæsar had for three years been employed in subduing the various tribes which occupied Gaul (France), when he determined to make a military expedition into Britain. He sailed with two legions from the neighbourhood of the modern town of Boulogne, and landed at Deal after encountering a severe and stubborn resistance from the natives (B.C. 55). The lateness of the season, and the injury which his ships experienced from & storm, led him to return to Gaul before a month had elapsed; but he made ample preparations for another campaign; and in the following spring (B.C. 54), he re-invaded the country with five legions of infantry and two thousand cavalry. He gained several victories over the natives, compelled the submission of Cassivelaunus, the most heroic of their chieftains, and received the promise of an annual tribute ; but there is no reason to believe that the terms of the treaty were observed after Cæsar and his soldiers had retired from the island (Sept.)
At this time Britain was occupied by about forty tribes, the best known of which were the Cantii, who dwelt in Kent; the Trinobantes in Middlesex and Essex ; the Cenimagni in Norfolk, Suffolk, and Cambridge; the Ancalites and Bibroci in parts of Berkshire and Wiltshire ; "the Segontiaca in parts of Berkshire and Hampshire; and the Cassi in Hertfordshire. These tribes were governed by chiefs whose influence was not extensive except in time of war. The most powerful members of each community were the priests or Druids.
Like all other Gentile nations, the Britons were ignorant of the true God. They were the slaves of a form of idolatry known as Druidism-a term which some suppose to be derived from the Greek word, drus, an oak, inasmuch as that tree was regarded by the people with peculiar reverence. Cæsar tells us that the Druids did not commit their instructions to writing, and that the principal doctrine which they inculcated, was that souls do not perish, but after death pass into other bodies. At periods of danger human sacrifices were offered up ; and sometimes enormous images of wicker-work were constructed, and filled with living men, who were then destroyed by fire. The immense circle of rough stones at Stonehenge, near Salisbury, is thought by many antiquarians to have been one of the temples of the Druids. The priests, in addition to their sacerdotal functions, acted as judges and legislators ; and by them the medicinal art, so far as it was then understood, was exercised.
The people in the southern districts resided in houses built of timber and reeds, clothed themselves in simple garments of their own manufacture, and lived on a diet partly animal and partly vegetable. They understood the value of marl as a manure, and grew corn, which they preserved for subsequent use in the hollows of rocks. The inhabitants of the inland districts did not cultivate the soil, lived on milk and flesh, and clothed themselves in skins. All, however, punctured their bodies, and stained them with a dye obtained from woad, which gave them a blue tinge, and made them appear terrible in battle. Their chief weapons were daggers and large pointless spears; and they had war chariots, in the management of which they showed considerable skill. Scythes were fastened to the axletrees of the wheels; and as the charioteers could drive at full speed, however irregular the ground, great destruction was often inflicted on the foe.
Though an insular people, the Britons evinced no predilection for the sea ; and the only boats and vessels which they used were constructed of wicker-work covered with leather, or of a tree hollowed out like an Indian canoe.
For nearly a century after the invasion of Cæsar no further att was made to subjugate Britain. But two years after the accession of the Emperor Claudius, Aulus Plautius landed an army in the country and defeated Caractacus, the principal British commander (A.D. 43). Claudius himself came with additional forces, and captured the town of Camulodunum (Colchester), the royal seat of Cunobelin, the father of Caractacus. By virtue of this achievement the emperor took upon himself the surname of Britannicus. Plautius and his colleague, Vespasian, gradually reduced the southern portions of the country; and Ostorius Scapula, the next proprætor, vanquished Caractacus and afterwards made him his prisoner (51). The heroic warrior was sent to Rome and led in triumph ; but Claudius was so struck with the dignity of his demeanour that, contrary to the usual custom, he restored him to liberty. It is even conjectured that he entrusted to him the government of a part of the subjugated territory.
During the government of the Proprætor Suetonius Paulinus, many of the vanquished tribes, headed by Boadicea, the Queen of the Iceni, rose in insurrection: they put to the flames ; Camulodunum, Londinium (London), and Verulamium, (St. Albans), and slaughtered an immense number of the Roman colonists ; but at last the insurgents were overthrown in a great battle, and Boadicea, unwilling to survive the defeat, ended her life by poison (61).
To Julius Agricola, who landed in 78, the effectual conquest of Britain must be ascribed. He was both a skilful general and a discerning statesman. Having by judicious measures pacified South Britain, he advanced into Caledonia (Scotland), and built a line of forts between the firths of Forth and Clyde (81); three years later he defeated a famous chieftain named Galgacus, at the foot of the Grampians (84). Such was the moderation and wisdom of his government, that the natives became reconciled to the Roman sway, and to some extent adopted the language, manners, and customs, of their conquerors.
In the year 120, the Emperor Hadrian visited the island, and caused a wall to be built between the Solway. Frith and the mouth of the Tyne, to prevent the unsubdued tribes of the north from entering the Roman province; and in 139, Lollius Urbicus, having driven back the barbarians, constructed a rampart on the site of Agricola’s forts, which, in honour of the emperor, was called the wall of Antoninus.
The renewed inroads of the northern tribes (the Caledonians and the Mæatæ) induced the Emperor Severus to repair hither (208); and proceeding into the heart of their country, he compelled them to sue for peace, and afterwards employed his soldiery in building a wall near the fortifications of Hadrian (210). He died at Eboracum (York) in the following year.
For a considerable time after these events, nothing of importance occurred in Britain ; and even the names of many of the governors are not preserved. When Diocletian was emperor, Carausius, a Roman admiral who had the title of Count of the Saxon shore, usurped the government (286), and reigned till 294, when he was slain by his minister Allectus. The latter assumed the purple, but was overthrown and killed by Constantius Chlorus (296). Constantius subsequently became Emperor of Rome, and died at Eboracum (306). His son was Constantine the Great.
The gradual decay of the Roman power partially diverted the attention of the emperors from Britain, which was now exposed, not merely to the raids of the Picts and Scots (the former descendants of the Caledonians and Mæatæ; the latter, immigrants from Ireland), but also to the piratical inroads of the Saxons. To restore order and security, Theodosius, by the direction of the Emperor Valentinian, took the command in the island ; and he drove back the northern tribes as far as the wall of Antoninus (368). About forty years later the empire had become so weakened by the descent of the Goths, Alans, and other tribes upon the fair plains of Italy, that Honorius wrote letters to the British cities, exhorting them to provide for their own security ; and thus the island became practically independent (410).
The authentic history of Britain, for more than half a century after, is entirely wanting ; but it is said that the people in the south were divided into two leading factionsthe one headed by Aurelius Ambrosius, the other by Vortigern --and that intestine disturbances, and the ravages of the Picts and Scots, led the last-named chieftain to call to his aid some Saxon pirates who were cruising in the channel (449).
Before narrating the important result of this alliance, we