In the first century of the common era, Rome set out to conquer all the lands that didn’t already fall under the Empire’s far-reaching control. Among these was Britain, the cold and distant land where Caesar had met great opposition from the savage Celts a century before. With Britain fighting civil wars on several fronts, the Roman armies were able to move in and establish control, taking thousands of Brits as slaves in the process. This is the story of one such slave.
The conquest of Britain
In the year 43 CE, the Roman Empire’s conquest of foreign lands was in full swing. With Spain, the Mediterranean countries of North Africa, the Near East, western Asia, Turkey, Macedonia, Germania, and all of Western Europe under their control, the Romans set their sights on Britain. Though Britain had been the target of many assaults beginning with Julius Caesar’s invasion in 55 BCE, it wasn’t until 43 CE that Emperor Claudius sought to take control of Britain, installing Aulus Plautius as the first Roman governor.
Enslavement of the Britains
During this time, the political tenor within Britain was volatile. The Catuvellauni had displaced the Trinovantes as the most powerful kingdom in the south-east, taking over the former Trinovantian capital of Camulodunum, and were advancing against their neighbors the Atrebates, ruled by the descendants of Julius Caesar’s former ally Commius. As a result, long-standing alliances were broken and thousands of Brits were forced to flee their homelands. Many of those, including the Cruithin of the Hibernian Highlands, found themselves caught between the advancing Roman armies and wide-spread civil war. As a result, many were enslaved and taken back to Rome to serve Roman masters. This is the account of one such slave.
While numerous written accounts of the first century CE detail the role slaves played in day-to-day Roman life, few are from the slave’s perspective. And in that most cultures of Britain during this period relied solely on oral tradition, very few first-hand histories survive. Therefore the following account is a composite of both oral and written accounts, presented in narrative form to gain insight into the mind of a Celtic Brit who’d been taken from his country to live as a slave of Rome.
“I woke this morning with a taste most foul in my mouth. Funny how sweet on the lips the grape’s first kiss; how betraying then beneath the heat of the rising sun. But the success of the Prefect’s new building project has made him most generous of late and the wine flowed ‘til Apollo came calling. Any musician of The Empire surely envies the station I’ve achieved.
“Though Romana by status, I am Hiberni by birth. Inside this tired old chest beats the heart of a Celt–proud and ancient. My people, the Cruithin, dwelled in the Hibernian Highlands for a thousand years or more. But that all ended with the great Romana Invasion of Fromhoire in which my tribe was taken into servitude. I never again saw my mother, father, brothers, or sisters after that fateful day. I was a young man of 12.
Though craftsman by trade–an artisan most skilled in tooling fine leather–my father was, like his father before, our clan’s poet-musician. Countless nights around the village fire he would regale with tales of our people past, their conquests and defeats, all performed with a talent all said none could compare. His was a most important charge amongst my people, as our history was never written; only recited aloud. And I was to follow in his footsteps. I’d practiced long and hard these magical tales, all to the accompaniment of the pipes, the subtleties of which I’d strove to master. And it was this that the Romana general found to his liking that darkest of days. So unlike my fellow clansmen taken in shackles back to Roma, I slept in the officers’ tents at night while my kinsmen lie on the hard, cold ground. By the gods, for many years I felt myself a traitor.
“Upon arriving in the Imperial Capital, a visiting Prefect from Pompeii, Gaius Secundas, seemingly fascinated by my storytelling, ordered me brought to his palace. Most treacherous a man to those who displeased him–Romana and slave alike–he appeared to marvel at my clumsy attempts to entertain. He would summon me to Court both day and night to recite the magical tales that enlivened my now scattered clan–flavored first by the wooden pipes of Pan, later by the lyre. And through the years I grew in his favor; each year dedicating more of my repertoire to his many campaigns. And as a reward for my cleverness, he granted me my freedom at the age of 25. Though an aging man was I, it was then that I became a liberi of Roma. A free man of the Romana Empire. And though I could have much time easily stolen away, back to my beloved homeland, I had no home to which return. No land to plot or plow. And so it is 40 years since I was first taken from the rich, green land of my memories.
“Storyteller to Prefect Secundas and his successor, Lucius Aquila, has had many rewards. It has afforded me to marry above my status; I took Zenobia, a Macedonian of dark and radiant beauty, as my wife. (She was the fruit of Prefect Secundas and a favored palace slave girl.) Zenobia bore me two strong sons and three most comely daughters–yea, I have been blessed–who we raised in simple comfort in a Spartan three-room quarters on the perimeter of the palace grounds, near the Royal Stables. Though no fresco or mosaic pastoral scenes adorn our humble home, never did we suffer the cruelty or penury of the other 100,000 slaves within the city proper. As Prefects pay handsomely those musicians performing at formal fetes (a custom born out of fear of insulting the muses), I have always managed enough denarii to afford staples, as well as a Greek-born scribe to educate my children. And though I will never attain the rights of a true Romana citizen (my wife and children slaves by Romana law) I have had a long life well worth living. But having lost my wife to childbirth and outlived my children, my music, my memories, and the spirits of the ancient gods are all that sustain me now.
“As the sun arcs into the western heaven, I will eat a repast of bread and garum, dates and goat’s milk. (It appears Vulcan is most busy forging the fires of Vesuvius anon.) After a brief stop at the public toilet, I will present an offering at the temple then wend my way to the marketplace. If it strikes me, I will stop at the roadside brothel for perhaps the last time. (With the coming of age, I find the Roman women’s generous breasts most appealing; they weren’t always to my liking.) Traders and shopkeepers will treat me most respectfully as I amble along the stone-laden streets in search of comfortable sandals. Possessing the Prefect’s ear, they will offer such gifts as protective amulets ‘blessed by the gods themselves,’ fine silken vestments from the far provinces, and sweetest of honey-sesame treats–touched by the lips of Venus. Though these treats will tempt me, I will nod graciously but walk on empty-handed in search of footwear neither too unyielding nor shoddy. (To accept a bribe is, of course, punishable by castration or death.) And as daylight wanes, I will visit the baths then return to prepare for the Celebration d’ Saturnalia which begins three days hence. No holiday brings more fervor to the city than this dedication to Saturn–the god of fertility. And no holiday stirs more interest from the strange new Jewish cult, these followers of the man Jesus.
“One god. That’s what they believe. As if all beauty and wonder of the earth and heavens could be contained in the hands of one god alone! One god for all the creatures of the sea and sky; the rains and winds . . . the grains and flowers and fruit of the trees! Lo, I know of a single green forest where many powerful gods reside; indeed within every tree and raven and stone! I know not how they can reason to burden one deity with the onus of Flora, Tellumo, and Salacia! Yet these ‘apostles’ are frequently the subject of bathhouse palaver. Indeed, even last evening’s banquet was disrupted by word to the Prefect of their growing numbers. It was believed that crucifying their leader would quash their mounting zeal–but it seems to have only heartened their resolve. What a virtuous group, these Christians! (The Prefect deems them mere nuisances.)
“I stand alone in this place, in the shadows of two worlds. Each night in a peaceful dream I stroll the rolling hills and mossy glens where once I spied a gentle deer nibbling Spring’s first tender buds. I call in silent reprise my forefathers who now reside in verse–and verse alone. I whisper to my wife and children who wait there just beyond. Perhaps only I hold the measure of their spirits; their essence within the time and place where they were born and died; love and lived as one with all creation. Each day I take my resolve among those who tore me from the sacred, from sharing the gift of my father and his before. And tomorrow should I wake with the sour taste of wine again upon my lips, I will thank the gods for yet another day. But should I not, you will find me hurrying to meet my loved ones on the other side, where time and eternity meet. On this belief do I and these followers of Jesus find accord.”