Y siulures -the Silures
A HARDY band of Welshmen in red, who took on the might of the Italians 2,000 years ago
A leading historian has documented the exploits of the ancient Silures tribe, who fought a long campaign against the Romans two millennia ago.
Dr Ray Howell from the University of Wales, Newport, even says our penchant for wearing red may spring from the tribe's favourite battle colour.
Dr Howell, a reader at the university's School of Education, has published an examination of the South-East Wales tribe, who came close to thwarting the Roman domination of southern Britain.
He said, "What emerges is not only a warrior society, but also a sophisticated people who traded widely and made good use of horses and horse-drawn vehicles.
"They had war chariots with equestrian equipment decorated with red enamel. For the Silures the colour of war was emphatically red.
"I'm sure it would be impossible to prove, but it could be that the reason Wales is associated with red now, and why Welsh players will be wearing red when they take to the field in Italy, is to do with the culture of the Silures.
"Certainly one of the things which has struck me is how much they used red in pretty much anything to do with battle."
He believes the Silures tribe were more advanced than most people give them credit for, having waged a ferocious guerrilla campaign against the Romans which lasted far longer than even the famous Boudica-led revolt.
The Iron-Age tribe managed to defeat a whole Roman legion during their bloody campaign.
And even though their attacks from hill forts were eventually subdued after a quarter of a century, Dr Howell believes some of the culture of the tribe, which is likely to have spoken an extremely early form of Welsh, lived on after the Romans left Britain for good.
In his new book, Searching for the Silures, he shows how the tribe was able to rout the Romans for 25 years before the all-conquering legions were able to build their fortress at Isca, now Caerleon.
Dr Howell contends that the Welsh tribe was the cause of possibly the greatest headache for Rome as it tried to impose its ways on ancient Britain.
He said, "You can make a case for saying the Silures caused as much trouble for the Romans as any other British tribe, and that includes the Boudican revolt, which nearly forced the Romans out of Britain.
"The Silures took a lot longer to defeat - there was a 25-year guerrilla war including the defeat of a legion."
He believes the tribe was so successful because it was highly advanced.
"One of the things I hope comes across strongly in the book is that they were very sophisticated. They weren't savages.
"If you look at the hill forts and groups they were in, they were very well structured.
"They were using wheeled vehicles a lot - basically chariots, and we've found loads of horse trappings.
"If they were using wheeled vehicles to that extent there must have been roads as found in an excavation at Loge Hill Farm where a Syllwg Road was found under a Roman Road
He believes there is still plenty more for archaeologists to discover about the civilisation, with just five of some 40 hill forts in Gwent having been explored.
He also believes that, although military defeat did eventually come for the Silures, their culture lived on.
He said, "Despite a long period of Roman occupancy, a lot of their traditions went right through to the early medieval period. People weren't speaking Latin, they were speaking what we now know as Brythonic old Welsh.
"There's also art and a body of evidence that makes it seem as if the Silures tradition was pretty durable."
A quote by Tacitus, The Silure whild in attack, spear in hand eyes of hatred, thier woman the only thing worse.
The Celtic tribe of the 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 Wales, where tribal boundaries are more uncertain than in England. The 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 the tribe's location in relation to all other Celts.)
Neither severity nor clemency converted the Silures tribe, which continued the struggle and had to be repressed by the establishment of a legionary camp. ..." (Tacitus Annales xii.32)
Ptolemy mentions the Leuca Fluvius (River Loughor, Afon Llwchwr) in connection with the tribe, which divides Llanelli from Swansea and may have formed the tribe's western border. Their main tribal centre may have been Venta Silurum (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 the Silures territory, and they showed an affinity with those found in what is now south-western England, in the land of the Dumnonii and Durotriges. The 'tribe' itself could have been a confederation that was formed of multiple clans, all of which probably had a shared cultural heritage with the Silures
"On recieving news of the legate's¹ death, the Caesar,² not to leave the province without a governor, appointed Aulus Didius to the vacancy. In spite of a rapid crossing, he found matters deteriorated, as the legion³ under Manlius Valens had been defeated in the interval. ... In this case, again, the loss had been inflicted by the Silures, (Tacitus Annales xii.40)
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, but 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). they were 'descendants of the earth'. Could 'earth' be a goddess equivalent to Modron? 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 had been truly formidable!
Yr Hyddgen likes Chris Barbers explanation, Syllwg, because of where the power place was.
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 northern Spain. As the Basques are widely understood to be of pre-Indo-European stock, as the movement of the Celtic Identity .
"... Veranius, after harrying the Silures in a few raids of no great significance, was prevented by death from carrying his arms further. ..." (Tacitus Annales xiv.29)
Rulers of the Silures emerge out of the Celtic History, with the earliest of those named being claimed as a son of High King Bran Fendigaid of Cwm Bran, Valley of Bran, in the late first century BC. 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 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.
Llanmelin Caer (Hillfort) of the Syllwg/Silures
Llan Melin Main city of the Syllwg/Silures 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 and militarised post. The site remains occupied into the Roman period before being abandoned, along with a large number of other hill forts across Britain, but were reoccupied after the Roman retreat.
Although not an historical reference, the first mention of or link to the Silures as a specific tribe it is through the Mension of Llyr Lledieth and his first son Bran Fendigaid (The Blessed) has the high kingship of Britain. Caradoc, or Caratacus, is a son of High King Bran Fendigaid, and both his brothers are linked to eastern parts of Silures territory by later tradition. Ewyas is a Romano-British territory located on the modern Welsh border, incorporating parts of Herefordshire and Gloucestershire.
Caradoc ap Bran / Caratacus
Son of High King Bran Fendigaid Bran was the Son of Llyr Lledieth
Folk History tells as an oral tradional people about another Bran who sails with his host to face Matholug, king of Ireland who has imprisoned his Sister Branwen, (White Crow), 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. Once Bran leaves, Caradoc is attacked by his great-uncle, Caswallawn fab Beli. The chieftains are murdered by him and Caradoc dies of a heart broken by the needless slaughter. When Bran's brother, Manydan, returns from Ireland, he submits to Caswallawn.
Alan ap Bran
Brother. King of Ewyas.
Sadwr ap Bran
Brother. King of Ewyas.
c.30 - 43
Given the traditional pedigree of the kings of Gwent and Ewyas , 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.
Following the campaign by Roman Governor Ostorius against the Deceangli, Caratacus, former king of the Catuvellauni and still apparently recognised as High King, 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.
47 - 49
High King. Former king of the Catuvellauni & Cantii.
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 that 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 an overwhelming superiority against the Britons.
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 the prefect and eight centurions, a foraging party is put to flight, and the cavalry and auxiliary infantry units that are sent to restore order are dealt with in the same way. Roman Governor, Ostorius, is forced to commit the legions 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.
"... Julius Frontinus was, so far as a subject of the emperor could be, a great man, and he shouldered and sustained the burden cast on him: his arms reduced the Silures, a powerful and warlike race; he surmounted not only the valour of the enemy but also the physical difficulties of their land." (Tacitus Agricola xvii.2)
For the entire period of the Roman occupation of Britain, tradition dictates that high kings hold power and 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 ( Nennius wrote). 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.
During his short term of office, 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.
"... Julius Frontinus was, so far as a subject of the emperor could be, a great man, and he shouldered and sustained the burden cast on him: his arms reduced the Silures, a powerful and warlike race; he surmounted not only the valour of the enemy but also the physical difficulties of theland."(Tacitus Agricola xvii.2)
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 Governor Suetonius marches back from Wales 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.
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. Troops are based here in the build up to the invasion of 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'.
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. 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
"... ancient Siluria was a land of boggy uplands, wooded slopes and narrow valleys and plains, where arable was limited and most land was pasture or wilderness. It was a rougher, harder, more impoverished land, and its people, skilled in war, were doubtless accustomed, like the borderers of later ages, to supplement their meagre incomes by rustling thier neighbour's' cattle, carting off their corn-stocks, and abducting their children as farm-hands. ..." (Niel Faulkner The Decline and Fall of Roman Britain p.37/8)
This artist's reconstruction reveals the Roman tribal capital of Venta Silurum (Caerwent), which was founded around AD 74-75.