History Files
 

Celtic Kingdoms of the British Isles

Celts of Britain

 

Silures (Britons)

FeatureIt was the Romans who coined the name 'Gaul' to describe the Celtic tribes of what is now France and Belgium, quite possibly based on an original form of the word 'Celt' itself (see feature link). When it came to the Celts of Britain, the name of the islands itself was used: Prydein (Latinised as Prettania or Britannia). Its collective people were Britons, although not all of them were Celts, let alone the same 'type' of Celts. Successive waves of immigration had left a vague mix of Bell Beaker folk, Urnfield proto-Celts, Hallstatt and La Tène waves, and Belgae, the latest arrivals. By the first century BC these latter people dominated the south and east of the isles.

MapThe Silures were settled in the modern counties of Swansea (Abertawe), Neath Port Talbot (Castell-Nedd Port Talbot), Bridgend (Pen-y-bont ar Ogwr), the Vale of Glamorgan (Bro Morgannwg), Merthyr Tydfil (Merthyr Tudful), Cardiff (Caerdydd), Caerphilly (Caerffiu), Newport (Casnewydd), Torfaen (Tor-Faen), and Blaenau Gwent, and perhaps extended into southern Powys in what is now Wales, where tribal boundaries are more uncertain than in England. They were neighboured to the north by the Ordovices, to the east by the Dobunni, across the Bristol Channel to the south by the Dumnonii, and to the west by the Demetae (see the map of most of Europe's tribes around the first centuries BC and AD to view this tribe's location in relation to all other Celts).

Ptolemy mentions the Leuca Fluvius (River Loughor, Afon Llwchwr, the same name altered by language shifts) in connection with the tribe, which divides Llanelli from Swansea and which may have formed the tribe's western border. Their main tribal centre may have been Venta Silurum (later Gwent, modern Caerwent), in the east of their lands, perhaps hinting at initial tribal settlement there before later expansion to the west at the expense of earlier inhabitants.

Ptolemy added Burrium (or Bullaeum, modern Usk), which was called a polis, and which featured a large fortress. There were also plenty of hill forts in Silures territory, and these showed an affinity with those which were to be found in south-western England, in the land of the Dumnonii and Durotriges. The 'tribe' itself could have been a confederation which was formed of multiple clans, all of which probably had a shared cultural heritage with the Dumnonii.

The Silures name has been a problematical one to break down into its original meaning. Many suggested options have been unsatisfactory or have contained flaws. However, one route seems promising, from the Gallo-Brythonic word 'sil', meaning 'offspring, descendant, race'. To this can be added '-os' as a singular suffix (regarding one person), or '-on' as a plural suffix (for a group of people, or an entire clan or tribe).

In those branches of the language which descended from P-Celtic, 'sil' became 'hil' (Welsh, Cornish, Breton, and Cumbric - all west-of-Britain dialects), while in Q-Celtic it became 'sliocht, sluight, sìol' (the various branches of Gaelic). For all dialects, British and Gaelic, the initial 's' was pronounced as 'sh', and then this softened in Brythonic to a pure 'h' for 'hil'. At some point before this transition the Silures adopted the word as their name, 'sil', plus a '-ur' plural suffix to produce 'silur'. As to what the '-ur' suffix would mean, perhaps *ūrā- ? / *ugrā- (?), meaning 'earth' in proposed proto-Celtic.

To this the Romans added a plural suffix, '-es'. If the proposed meaning for '-ur' is correct, they were 'descendants of the earth'. Could 'earth' be a goddess equivalent to Nerthus? Alternatively, there's a small possibility that the proposed proto-Celtic *(su-)lurk-o- (?), meaning 'fierce', is the meaning, yielding 'fierce descendants'. Given how fierce the Silures were, their ancestors must have been truly formidable!

Tacitus described its people as swarthy-faced with curly hair, and he thought they may have migrated from Iberia such was their resemblance to the people there. Modern genetic studies have shown a genetic similarity between some Irish and Welsh and the Basques of what is now northern Spain. As the Basques are widely understood to be pre-Indo-Europeans, it is likely that the same pre-Indo-European stock inhabited Britain and Ireland prior to the arrival of the Celts and even the Urnfield proto-Celts and earlier West Indo-European Bell Beaker folk. As with all incomers, the number of Celts would have been low at first, so the natives probably saw their ruling class being replaced with a Celtic one while they continued with their everyday lives, slowly learning to become Celts themselves.

Rulers of the Silures emerge out of semi-mythical Celtic folklore, with the earliest of those named being claimed as a son of Bran Fendigaid in the late first century BC (a legendary high king of Britain). Unfortunately, Julius Caesar's expeditions were limited to the south-east, so he never encountered them and was therefore unable to record their existence. They only really emerged into history when Caratacus, deposed ruler of the Catuvellauni, provided leadership for the western tribes in opposing the imperial Roman conquest of the mid-first century AD. Perhaps they didn't really need the extra encouragement, as the Silures provided the invading Romans with one of their toughest fights in Britain.

Ancient Britons

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson and Rhys Saunders, from The Oxford History of England: Roman Britain, Peter Salway, from Roman Britain: A New History, Guy de la Bédoyère, from History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth, from A History of the English Church and People, The Venerable Bede (Leo Sherley-Price translation - revised by R E Latham), from Atlas of British History, G S P Freeman-Grenville (Rex Collins, London, 1979), from Geography, Ptolemy, and from External Links: Brythonic Word of the Day, and Liber Pontificalis (The Book of the Popes), available via the Internet Archive.)

c.800 BC

The site of Caerau near Cardiff, within what would later be Silures territory, is occupied by early users of Iron Age materials. It is unclear whether those users are part of the Celtic expansion which is sweeping outwards from the south-east by this time, or native pre-Indo-Europeans, or Bell Beaker West Indo-Europeans, or even proto-Celts of the Urnfield culture.

Caerau hill fort
The hill fort of Caerau (pronounced Caer-eye) now stands on the edge of a modern housing estate on Cardiff's outskirts and with a road cutting through part of the lower hill

It is quite possible that with most of southern Britain now dominated by Celts or held by a Celtic tribal elite, the natives of the west and north respond to the threat by building defences which contain the latest technological advances, which are typical of those seen at Caerau.

Whoever is responsible, they build roundhouses, create animal enclosures, and construct a series of high embankments to protect the hill, probably in the form of a communal centre rather than as a militarised post. The site remains occupied into the Roman imperial period before being abandoned, along with a large number of other hill forts across Britain.

c.30 BC

Although not an historical reference, the first mention of or link to the Silures as a specific tribe is through the semi-mythical high kingship of Britain. Caradoc, or Caratacus, is a son of High King Bran Fendigaid, and both his brothers are linked by later tradition to eastern parts of Silures territory. Ewyas is a Romano-British territory which is located on the modern Welsh border, incorporating parts of Herefordshire and Gloucestershire.

fl c.30 BC

Caradoc ap Bran / Caratacus

Son of High King Bran Fendigaid.

When Bran sails with his host to face Matholug, king of Ireland, it is Caradoc who is left in command of the chieftains of the land. These chieftains are Hefeydd 'the Tall', Unig Strong Shoulder, Iddig ab Anarawd, Ffodor ab Erfyll, Wlch Bone Lip, Llassar fab Llasar Llaes Gyngwyd, and Pendaran Dyfed.

Map of Britain AD 10
By the end of the first century BC and the start of the first century AD, British politics often came to the attention of Rome, and the borders of the tribal states of the south-east were pretty well known (click or tap on map to view full sized)

Once Bran leaves, Caradoc is attacked by his great-uncle, Caswallawn fab Beli. The chieftains are murdered by him while Caradoc dies of a heart broken by the needless slaughter. When Bran's brother, Manadan, returns from Ireland, he submits to Caswallawn.

fl c.AD 22

Alan ap Bran

Brother. Ruler of Ewyas.

fl c.24

Sadwr ap Bran

Brother. Ruler of Ewyas.

c.30 - 43

Given the traditional pedigree of the rulers of Ewyas and later Gwent, it is possible that Caratacus of the Catuvellauni plays some part in the rule of the tribe. Tradition does not link him directly to the earlier high kings of Britain, or even to the earlier kings of the Catuvellauni, but as Celtic rulers are often elected from amongst a select number of nobles, often interrelated, it is a possibility.

47/48

Following the campaign by Roman Governor Ostorius against the Deceangli, Caratacus, former ruler of the Catuvellauni and still apparently recognised as the battle leader of the Britons, re-emerges to lead the Silures against Rome. There is reason to believe that he has been sheltering with the anti-Roman part of the Dobunni, at the Bulwarks stronghold in modern Gloucestershire.

Sequential Maps of Roman Britain AD 43-425
The Roman invasion of Britain began late in the season, using three divisions which swiftly conquered the south-east before more slowly penetrating the west and north to bring all of England and Wales under their control, as shown in this series of sequential maps (click or tap on map to view full sized)

47 - 49

Caratacus

Former ruler of the Catuvellauni & Cantii. British battle leader.

49 - 52

The Romans face a difficult campaign against the Silures, but to secure their conquest they establish a legionary fortress in the territory in AD 49. Their presence appears to force Caratacus northwards, but he seems to have no trouble in switching his centre of operations to the territory of the Ordovices.

Once there, he draws elements from every tribe in the region which wants to fight the Romans. The site of the large-scale battle between the Britons and the Romans is unknown, other than that it lies somewhere on the Severn. Roman tactics and equipment produce overwhelming superiority against the Britons.

52

Following the final defeat of Caratacus, the Silures fight on against the Romans, continually harrying the invading forces. A trapped unit of legionaries suffers the loss of its prefect and eight centurions, a foraging party is put to flight, and the cavalry and auxiliary infantry units which are sent to restore order are dealt with in the same way.

Snettisham torcs c.100 BC
Celts in Britain and on continental Europe were well known for their ostentatious jewellery, with chieftains wearing thick gold torques like this example (front of picture)

Roman Governor, Ostorius, is forced to commit the legions in order to bring the situation under control, but even then two auxiliary cohorts are captured and spirited away to be distributed amongst other tribes, thereby binding them to the cause and building a new British confederacy. Ostorius, 'worn out with care' (Tacitus), dies. Further Roman losses, including the defeat of an entire legion, possibly XX Valeria Victrix, forces Rome to appoint Aulus Didius Gallus, who manages to bring the situation under control.

For the entire period of the Roman occupation of Britain, tradition dictates that high kings hold some form of power or influence in the country. There is the possibility that this idea is maintained for a while after the initial Roman conquest, apparently with the Silures having predominance over the other conquered British tribes (if Nennius et al are to be believed at all). Since the Silures continue to fight so hard against Rome, perhaps they have earned the right to proffer titular high kings in place of the Catuvellauni who had been so completely defeated, and so quickly too.

57/58

During his short term of office, Roman Governor Quintus Veranius conducts a few raids against the Silures, but nothing of significance according to Tacitus. His sudden death puts paid to any further plans in the short term.

Venta Silurum
This artist's reconstruction reveals in some detail the Roman tribal capital of Venta Silurum (Caerwent), which was founded around AD 74-75, shortly after a protracted battle by the Romans to conquer the region

61

During the Iceni-led revolt in the east, the Silures, Ordovices, Dobunni, and perhaps the Durotriges are probably pinned down by the Roman Second Legion and are unable to join Boudicca. The presence of the legion, under Poenius Postumus, is perhaps due more to fortune than planning.

When Roman Governor Suetonius marches back from western Britain to reassemble the scattered Roman forces at a location in the Midlands, Postumus refuses to move. Possibly he is influenced by memories of the death of the praefectus castrorum at the hands of the Silures during the governorship of Ostorius. When he hears of Suetonius' victory against Boudicca, Postumus kills himself and his legion joins the governor in the field.

c.66

The Kingsholm fortress in the territory of the Dobunni is prone to flooding so a new and larger fortress is built on the higher ground one kilometre to the south, at what becomes Gloucester Cross. It is around this fort that a civilian settlement grows up, forming the early city of Glevum.

Troops are based here in the build-up to the invasion of western Britain (modern Wales), with the first strike being planned against the Silures and Demetae. However, this is apparently delayed by the events of AD 69 , the 'Year of Four Emperors'.

Venta Silurum (Caerwent)
The new Roman governor in AD 74, Sextus Julius Frontinus, is thought to be responsible for relocating the Silures tribal capital from their fortress to this site at Caewent (Venta Silurum to the Romans)

70 - 74

FeatureAs a prelude to campaigns further north and east, the Romans stamp their authority on the Demetae with the building of roads and forts (see feature link). One of these is located on what is probably the eastern frontier, at Leuca Fluvius (the River Loughor), perhaps to protect both Romans and Demetae from attacks by the more aggressive Silures on the other side of the river.

74 - 75

A new Roman Governor, Sextus Julius Frontinus, uses the Second Augusta Legion to finally pacify the awkward Silures. A new legionary fortress is constructed at Isca (Caerleon) as part of the process of conquering the tribe, and a port is built nearby so that troops can be landed in the heart of Silures territory.

This port is only rediscovered by archaeologists in 2011, lying on the banks of the River Usk just north of the modern city of Newport. It includes a main quay, landing stages, and wharves at which ships can dock to load and unload cargo. It appears to be linked to the fortress by a previously unknown suburb containing a remarkable array of monumental buildings, probably including market places, administrative buildings, bath houses, and temples, much of which is probably built in the second century.

Caerleon's Roman legionary fortress of Isca
This uncredited artist's impression of the Roman legionary fortress of Isca (Caerleon on the River Usk) provides a clear idea of its layout and size, after it was established in AD 74-75 during the final campaigns to subdue the fierce Silures

Auxiliary forts also seem to be established at this time right into the territory of the Ordovices. The Twentieth Legion is transferred to Isca from Glevum (within the former Dobunni tribal territory). The movement of the tribal centre of the Silures from their fortress at Llanmelin Wood to a new Roman town at Caerwent (later capital of Ewyas) is also thought to take place under Frontinus' governorship. More military forts are constructed at Caerdydd (modern Cardiff) and Leucarum (modern Loughor on the river of the same name ) in AD 75.

74 - 125

Marius / Meric / Merius / Meurig

Son of Arviragus of the Brigantes. Claimed as High King. Legendary?

c.90

The legionary amphitheatre at Caerleon is built for the Second Augusta, located just outside the fort's ramparts. It is created by hollowing out the ground, and seating is built out of stone-revetted earthen banks.

2nd century

In the early part of the century, the Silures are finally granted civitas status and a capital at Venta Silurum (the post-Roman Ewyas, Welsh Gwent, and modern Caerwent).

It seems clear that whatever the position of the rulers of the Silures in regard to the Roman invasion and their own ultimate subjugation, they appear to enjoyed high status, at least according to later writers. Marius is claimed as a high king by Geoffrey of Monmouth, as are his immediate successors. Is this due to their resistance to the invasion, and their prominence as one of the first 'Welsh' tribes to fight it, or do they enjoy some kind of client status which persists long after the conquest and their integration into a Romanised way of life?

Caerleon Roman amphitheatre
This artist's illustration offers a reconstruction of the Roman amphitheatre at Caerleon, although it may not have been in quite this condition by the fifth century when many other amphitheatres had either become disused or had been repurposed

Unfortunately, a more down-to-earth answer may be that they are simply a string of names which are given legitimacy by calling them father and son. Geoffrey also claims Arviragus of the Brigantes as the father of Marius, despite their geographical differences (although those differences could be put down to a relocation to the north to take advantage of Roman weaknesses there).

125 - 154

Coilus / Coel

Son. 'High King'. Raised in Rome. Puppet king, as per Damnonii.

c.150s

The legionary fort at Leucarum which since around AD 75 has guarded the lines of communication between Viroconium (modern Wroxeter) and Moridunum (Carmarthen) is now abandoned. It remains that way until the late third century.

154? - c.180?

Lucius / Llewrug Mawr

Son. 'High King'. Based in Glevum. Uncertain.

178 - 180?

Lucius writes to Pope Eleutherius of the Roman Church requesting to become a Christian. The event is first noted in the sixth century Liber Pontificalis, and Bede repeats it, after which Lucius is widely acclaimed as being responsible for introducing Christianity into Britain.

Mary Magdalene at Marseille
Mary Magdalene preaching the Gospel to fishermen in the port of Messalina (Marseilles), possibly the intended head of Jesus' newly-established religion according to recent theory fuelled by the contents of the 'Lost Gospels'

FeatureHis story is expanded by later writers, when he is claimed as the son of former High King Coilus and is credited with founding the church of St Peter upon Cornhill in London (the church carries a plaque to the effect, dating the event to 179 - see feature link for more).

In fact, Lucius may be a misreading of Lucius Aelius Megas Abgar IX, Roman client king of Osroene. However, whether through the involvement of Lucius or not, a British Church does apparently begin to make its presence felt in the country during this century.

Geoffrey of Monmouth claims a date of death for Lucius of AD 156. His home has been in Glevum, suggesting perhaps that it falls within the edges of Silures territory or that there may be a dynastic link between the Silures and the Dobunni (entirely possible given the likelihood of tribal links prior to the Roman invasion). Lucius dies without an heir to succeed him, and the (possibly legendary) high kingship falls vacant.

Roman-era skull from the Walbrook
Even after the Roman occupation of Britain, a number of British customs seem to have survived, such as using human heads as ritual objects, with this skull being placed in the River Walbrook (which flows through the very centre of Londinium)

3rd century

The territory, or at least eastern parts of it, is known as Ewyas by the third century, but when this name is first used is unknown. Ewyas later evolves into Gwent. The Roman fort at Leucarum is reoccupied late in the century, remaining operational until the early fourth century, a span of perhaps forty or so years, before being permanently abandoned.

c.300 - 306

Around the very start of the fourth century, changes take place at Caerleon. A great deal of refortification is undertaken, not only here but also at Glevum (in former Dobunni tribal territory) and Caerwent (in the Ewyas district to the immediate east), as preparations to face a possible threat from the direction of the River Severn.

The threat is probably presented by a sudden increase in Scotti raids from Ireland, but whether the defences are ever put to the test or not is unknown. Perhaps linked to this threat, and others, in 305-306, Britain is sub-divided into four provinces under the Diocese of the Britains. The Silures territory falls within Britannia Prima.

383

According to tradition, a territory which encompasses mid-south Wales and the apparently already-extant region of Ewyas is created by 'High King' Magnus Maximus as part of his defensive restructuring of many of the country's regions to ensure its protection while he pursues his imperial ambitions overseas.

Venta Silurum (Caerwent)
The fourth century walls of Venta Silurum (Caerwent) once stood up to 5.2 metres high, and survived as part of the later medieval town

He places his son, Eugenius, in command of the new territory which seems to incorporate much of the former lands of the Silures. This quickly evolves into the kingdoms of Cernyw and Gwent in the fifth century. Towards the end of the same century, a ruling family emerges in Gwent which may be the continuation of one of the noble families of the Silures.