Monday, 26 May 2008

The Veneti

Caesar also feared the sea-based might of the Brittany oystermen; coveted the Cornish tin trade and was anxious to stop eastern England offering refuge and sanctuary to kindred tribes he thought he had subjected in north west France and Belgium. Caesar may well have had better intelligence as to the emergence of the westerly countries than we do

The defeat of the Veneti proved decisive in the fall of Britain. Much of the westerly European trade and culture would seem to have been invested in the main seafaring race of Gaul, The Veneti, or the men of Vannes, who lived in Brittany off the Morbihan coast but had intimate dealings with Cornwall and Devon. Without their submission, Caesar faced a sea battle to control the English Channel. That he chose this as his primary military task is a further pointer to the importance of a westerly European seaborne power axis.

The Veneti had developed their own kind of ship. Where the English built light curraghs that could skip across the Channel waves and were flexible enough to bend in stormy seas, the Veneti ships were huge, built out of oak with timbers as much as a foot thick and bolted together with iron pins “as thick as a man’s thumb”. In place of sails they used thin skins from untanned hides. Everything was built for strength. Instead of hemp cables, they had iron chains for their anchors, something that would not be seen again until the 19th century. These ships were obviously built to travel long distances and to handle the mighty swells of the open Atlantic. They had broad beams and also shallow keels so they could also nip more easily into tidal inlets.

With these ships, they had tapped the tin trade at source and established trading posts at Falmouth, Plymouth, and Exmouth. From there they sailed by the inland route with their freight to the Seine, the Loire, and even the Garonne. Devon and Cornwall were in close alliance and seem to have sent auxiliaries to fight against the Romans. There is even conjecture that the Veneti were linked up to a much wider geographical spread of support from the relics of prehistoric boats found in the silt at Glasgow which may have shared similar designs.

Caesar describes his struggle with the Veneti and their British allies as one of the most arduous in his Gallic campaigns. At first the Veneti were content to let the legions march into their countryside. They withdrew to their coastal strongholds and if a Roman army appeared, they would move everyone by boat along the coast.

The Roman war galleys depended largely on ramming to win their sea battles. On a first sail past, they would pass close by and smash the oars and then come back to board the stranded enemy. The Veneti ships were so solidly built that such attacks were useless. The lofty prows and sterns allowed the Veneti to tower over enemy boats and shoot arrows and drop firey cauldrons on to assailants that got too close.

After several unsuccessful skirmishes, Caesar came up with a new plan. He armed his boats with billhooks and instructed his captains to sail past the Veneti boats, ripping the huge leathern mainsails down from the masts so they swamped the boats and allowed the legionnaires time to board. He faced a Veneti fleet 220 strong. This was 56 BC.

The Veneti were defeated at the battle off Quiberon. The mainsails were slashed “covering the ship as with a pall”, hopelessly crippling the vessel, whether for sailing or rowing. The whole Venetian fleet fell into Roman hands. In Celtic versions of this battle there are variations. The fleet was becalmed and the men chose to drown themselves rather than be captured. In legend they fled south and colonised another lagoon and came to be known as the Venetians. Either way, the strongholds on the coast were then stormed, and entire populations either slaughtered or sold into slavery, as a lesson to the rest of the confederacy of the fate in store for those who dared to stand out against the genius of Rome. The slave dealers typically were Levantine Jews or Syrians.

Celtic historians point to the sophistication of the Veneti as evidence of long standing civilisation. They had soap and bathed regularly. They dressed smartly and their clothes were admired, adopted and traded by the Romans. All of which underlines the point that before Caesar butchered and enslaved them, there was an active cultural and commercial activity between Brittany and Rome. The Veneti, especially, had respect for beauty of the human body. Obese men, or those unfit to fight, might be fined.

The women too were sexually liberated. The 4th century AD historian Sulpicius Severus reproached the wife of an aristocratic Celt for the wantonness of Celtic women, but the Celtic woman replied cuttingly: "We fulfil the demands of Nature in a much better way than do your Roman women: for we consort openly with the best men, whereas you let yourselves be debauched in secret by the vilest." By that time, the decadence of Rome was rampant, much of the wealth had been acquired by money lenders, so the proud Celt may have chosen her words well.

It used to be argued but archaeology has now proved, that the Celts had developed a productive level of agriculture. Possibly it was these crops that the Romans were anxious to secure for themselves. Farming seems to have been common in Wales as far back as 4,000BC.