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  1000 BC

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1000 BC - 600 AD

It was not until the time of the Romans that written history began in and about Britain. For information on the earliest settlements, we have to look to our archaeologists. From them we learn that by 1000 BC, the Iron Age proper had arrived in what is now Wales where its people grouped themselves into large hill forts for protection; practiced mixed, settled farming, but also worked extensive copper mines. Many of these impressive hill forts remain in Wales, some of them, such as Tre'r Cewri atop Yr Eifl Mountain in Gwynedd, were still occupied during the Roman invasions in the first century AD. Advanced metalworking seems to have been introduced as a result of contact with the Halstatt culture of Austria, from an area near present-day Saltzburg. This culture itself had benefited from contact with others in the Mediterranean area, whose use of the symbols and patterns so characteristic of Celtic design, is named La Tene, after a village on the shores of Lake Neuchatel in Switzerland.

It was at this time that the Celtic languages arrived in Britain, probably introduced by small groups of migrants who became culturally dominant in their new homelands, and whose culture formed part of a great unified Celtic "empire" encompassing many different peoples all over Northern Europe. The Greeks called these people, with their organized culture and developed social structure Keltoi, the Romans called them Celtai.

In spite of the fact that they were perhaps the most powerful people in much of Europe in 300 BC, with lands stretching from Anatolia in the East to Ireland in the West, the Celts were unable to prevent intertribal warfare. Their total lack of political unity, despite their fierceness in battle, ultimately led to their defeat and subjugation by the much better disciplined armies of Rome. Even the Celtic languages on Continental Europe eventually gave way to those stemming from Latin. But in Britain, at least for a few hundred years after the Roman victories on mainland Europe, the Celts held on to much of their customs and especially to their distinctive language which has survived today as Welsh.

The language of most of Britain was derived from a branch of Celtic known as Brythonic: it later gave rise to Welsh, Cornish and Breton (these differ from the Celtic languages derived from Goidelic, namely Irish, Scots Gaelic and Manx). Along with the new languages, new religions entered Britain, particularly that of the Druids, the guardians of traditions and learning. The Druids glorified the pursuits of war, feasting and horsemanship. They controlled the calendar and the planting of crops, and they presided over the religious festivals and rituals that honored local deities. Thus they constituted the first target for the invading Roman legions.

The first invasion of the British Isles (Britannia) by the Romans took place in 55 BC under Julius Caesar, but it did not lead to any significant occupation. He had some interesting, if biased comments concerning the native inhabitants. "All the Britons," he wrote, "paint themselves with woad, which gives their skin a bluish color and makes them look very dreadful in battle" ("De Bello Gallico"). It was not until a hundred years later, following an expedition ordered by the Emperor Claudius, that a permanent settlement of the grain-rich eastern territories of Britain began in earnest. From their bases in what is now Kent, the Roman armies began a long, arduous and perilous series of battles with the native Celtic tribes, first victorious, next vanquished. But as on the Continent, superior military discipline and leadership, aided by a carefully organized system of forts connected by straight roads, led to the triumph of Roman arms.

It was not long before a great number of large, prosperous villas were established all over Britain, but especially in the Southeast and Southwest. The villas testified to the rapidity by which Britain became Romanized, for they functioned as centers of a settled, peaceful and urban life. They are mostly found in present-day England. Mountainous Wales and Scotland were not as easily settled; they remained "the frontier" -- lands where military garrisons were strategically placed to guard the Northern and Western extremities of the Empire. Smaller forts were constructed to protect the Roman copper, tin, lead and gold mines that most certainly utilized native labor.

In what is now Wales, the Romans were awestruck by their first sight of the druids. The historian Tacitus described them as being "ranged in order, with their hands uplifted, invoking the gods and pouring forth horrible imprecations" ("Annales"). The fierce resistance of the tribes in Wales meant that two out of the three Roman legions in Britain were stationed on the Welsh borders. Two impressive Roman fortifications remain to be seen: Isca Silurium (Caerleon) with its fine ampitheatre, in Monmouthshire and Segontium, (Caernarfon), in Gwynedd.

Though the Celtic tongue survived as the medium of everyday speech, Latin was being used mainly for administrative purposes. Many loan words entered the native vocabulary, and these are still found in modern-day Welsh. Today's visitors to the principality are surprised to find hundreds of place names containing Pont (bridge), while ffenest (window), pysgod (fish), milltir (mile), melys (sweet or honey), cyllell (knife), ceffyl (horse), perygl (danger), eglwys (church), and many others attest to Latin influence. Rome, of course, became Christianized with the conversion of Constantine in 337, and thanks to the missionary work of Martin of Tours in Gaul and the edict of 400 AD that made Christianity the only religion of the Empire, the people of Britain quickly adopted the new religion. The old Celtic gods had to slink off into the mountains and hills to hide, reappearing fitfully and almost apologetically only in the poetry and myths of later ages.

Magnus Maximus, the commander of the Roman armies in Britain took much of the British garrison with him to displace Gratian as Emperor. He appears in Welsh writing as Macsen Wledig in "Breuddwyd Macsen" (The Dream of Macsen), one of the two historical tales in "The Mabinogion". Macsen's brother Cynan and his army may have been the first Britons to settle in Armorica, later known as Brittany, where the Celtic language survives somewhat shakily today. Some historians consider 383 as the year that the concept of the Welsh nation began and see Macsen as the father of the Welsh nation.

When the city of Rome fell to the invading Goths under Alaric, Roman Britain, which had experienced centuries of comparative peace and prosperity, was left to its own defenses. One of the local Romano-British leaders may have been a tribal chieftain named Arthur, who put up some kind of organized resistance to the oncoming Saxon hordes. As early as 440, an anonymous writer penned the following:

Britain, abandoned by the Romans, passed into the power of the Saxons (Chronica Gallica).
One prominent British chieftain, Vortigern (Gwrtheyrn) is remembered as being responsible for inviting the first Germanic mercenaries to help defend Britain against the invading Picts. The arrival of Hengist and Horsa and their Jutes mark the beginning of Germanic settlements in Britain (ironically, the first modern Welsh language centre is located in a remote valley named Nant Gwrtheyrn (the stream of Vortigern) in the Llyn Peninsular, Gwynedd).

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