THE LANDS OF THE SILURES
By Darrell Wolcott
Historians and geographers uniformly
locate the Celtic-speaking tribe of Silures on the north shore of the Bristol Channel, in what is now called Glamorgan and
Monmouthshire...the former kingdoms of Glywysing and Gwent. While we agree those lands were occupied by folks called
"Silures", was that only a part of the territory held by its ruling families?
The second century geographer,
Ptolemy of Alexandria, drew rough maps of Britain on which he labeled southeast Wales as "Silures" and much of the lands north
of them as "Ordovices". He said the "Demetae" were located "west of the Silures". And he mentioned no tribe at
all in north Wales as "Deceangli". While we will allow the learned Ptolemy his opinions, we find his geography at odds
with that described by the Roman Tacitus in the first century...a man much nearer the scene. Following the 47 A.D. Iceni
uprising on the eastern coast of Britain, Tacitus tell us:
"The Roman army then struck against
the Decangi [see Appendix], ravaging their territory and collecting extensive booty. The enemy did not venture upon an open
engagement and, when they tried to ambush the column, suffered for their trickery. Ostorius had nearly reached the sea facing
Ireland when a rising by the Brigantes recalled him."
Although Tacitus refers to "Decangi"
and "Brigantes" in describing native Britains which the Romans encountered in two different parts of the island, these were
not names by which the inhabitants referred to themselves. They were merely Latin terms meant to describe either the
peoples or the lands they occupied. Since Decangli is said to be the eponym of the Welsh cantref Tegeingl, we would assume
it was that area which the Romans had invaded before retreating to put down an uprising occurring to their rear. Exactly
how far the Roman column had penetrated is only a guess. If moving northwest, the sea facing Ireland could be seen near
the north shore before reaching the Clwyd. But if moving due west toward Mon, it likely traveled as far as the Conwy.
After reporting that the Brigante uprising was quelled,
"But neither sternness nor leniency prevented
the Silures from fighting. To suppress them, a brigade garrison had to be established. In order to facilitate
the displacement of troops westward to man it, a strong settlement of ex-soldiers was established on conquered land at Camulodunum.
Its mission was to protect the country against revolt and familiarize the provincals with law-abiding government. Next
Ostorius invaded Silurian territory."
Are we to assume the Romans
wholly forgot about the mission they'd be on in far north Wales when that had been interrupted by the Brigante uprising?
It seems much more likely it was exactly that mission for which Ostorius brought more men west; that he had assembled a group
of ex-soldiers in Camulodunum to permit the regulars stationed in that area to accompany him on his renewed campaign in the
west. To bring to heel a group of people that refused to fight a pitched battle, to root them out of their deep forests
and mountain perches, would require many more Roman soldiers. So exactly who were these "Silures" that refused to yield
We suggest Tacitus used the
word to mean "men of the rocks", that is "mountain men"....literally all the inhabitants of what is now Wales. His account
"The natural ferocity
of the inhabitants was intensified by their belief in the prowess of Caratacus, whose many undefeated battles - and even many
victories - had made him pre-eminent among British chieftans. His deficiency in strength was compensated by superior
cunning and topographical knowledge. Transferring the war to the country of the Ordovices...."
We stop there to
consider what we are being told. Those rough maps Ptolemy drew up 100 years later placed the Ordovices to the north of
the Silures, but the campaign related by Tacitus was already near the north shore of Wales. And how does a tribal
leader "transfer the war" to the lands of another tribe who was not previously under attack? To go further, were the
"Ordovices" a separate tribe at all? The Latin "ordo" signifies "class" or "rank". Was the "country of the Ordovices"
actually "lands personally owned by the ruling family" of the Silures? Did Caratacus do no more than select a battle
site on nearby lands owned by his family and with which he had intimate knowledge of the terrain? Those who would place
his heroic stand around Herefordshire or Shropshire put, we think, entirely too much faith in Ptolemy's rough maps.
We would suggest the Romans
simply followed their previous route through Tegeingl, crossed the Clwyd and as they reached the Conwy, were finally
met by Caratacus in Arfon where he chose a spot in the foothills of Snowdonia on the west side of the Conwy. That this
was also the vicinity of his home is suggested by Tacitus' report that after the Romans defeated the army assembled there
by Caratacus, they took his wife and daughter as prisoners. It seems unlikely those ladies would be nearby the
battle site unless they lived there.
The later statement by Ptolemy that there were "Demetae" located
"west of the Silures" is somewhat misleading. The Latin "de metae" denotes "from the end boundry" or the westernmost
point of south Wales. Tacitus mentions no such separate tribe in Dyfed, we suggest because the men who lived there were
simply more "silures".
Later in his histories, Tacitus
tells us "the Ordovices were virtually exterminated". Based on the standard tribal maps now claimed by modern historians,
this would mean just about everyone who lived in Wales north of Glamorgan. We think, however, the men whom the Roman
army sought to exterminate (not simply subdue) were the members of the royal family who ruled virtually all of Wales; it was
they whose warbands stubbornly resisted the Romans. Rather than envisioning the slaughter of thousands of men, women
and children, we suggest the Romans only meant to deprive the "silures" of their leadership...the group they called "ordovices".
That the effort was mostly successful can be seen in the pedigree evidence; only a single line descended from Caratacus is
known until we reach the early third century.
Pedigree evidence indicates
that direct male descendants of Caraticus held extensive lands along all three coasts of Wales in the 3rd and 4th centuries,
and we posit that this extended family ruled the whole of Wales except for the eastern-central lands held by the Cornovii
tribe...both before the Romans came and after they left some 400 years later. We further think they had lavish personal
manors at several places along the coast which the Romans converted into forts, including Segontium and Caerleon.
While the following is
merely our own conjecture, we suggest that by the year 250AD the ruling family had divided their lands into four quadrants,
each ruled by a different family branch. In the northwest was Cernyw, so named for the "horn" formed by the Llyn peninsula.
Its royal residence was at Segontium and its lands extended east to the Conwy and south to the Dyfi. The island of Mon
was given over to the Druids but the rest was later to be called Gwynedd is Conwy. Its first king was Eudaf Hen, born
Directly to the east was the
kingdom of Llydaw, extending from the Conwy to the Dee and bordering Cornovii lands on the south and east.
Men from this kingdom were recruited by Emperor Maximianus Herculius for his Gaul campaign in the late 3rd century and rewarded
with lands in Brittany which they named after their Welsh birthplace. Its first king was Gereint ap Einudd of c. 235,
a brother of Eudaf Hen.
The southwest quadrant
was called Demetia, comprising what was later known as Dyfed and Ystrad Tywy. It was ruled from Menevia by
Caradog ap Einudd of c. 220, an older half-brother of Eudaf Hen and Geraint. His lands originally included the peninsula
of Cornwall across the Bristol Channel, the source of tin for most of the European world. Some early writers called
Cornwall "Cernyw" due to its horn shape, but the Cernyw or "Gorneu" of Welsh history was Llyn and the lands around it.
The final kingdom lay
to the east and directly south of the Cornovii lands later called Powys, encompassing what we now call Glamorgan, Gwent and
Brychieniog. It was called Dumnonia and originally included much of Devon and Somerset across the Bristol Channel.
It was first ruled by Arthfael ap Einudd, the uterine brother of Eudaf Hen and Gereint and ancestor of the Gwent dynasty.
We have elsewhere mentioned
the ancestor of this family, a seafarer known as Llyr Llediath "the man of the seas who spoke with a foreign accent".
This man, we think, had his ancestry with the Menapii Celts found both in Spain and Ireland and reknown as seamen plying the
trade routes between continental Europe and the British Isles. A number of later men descended from Llyr are called
Menapiian by historians, including Carausius and Macsen Wledig...men we believe were actually born in Wales of Menapii roots.
We suspect the early historians reserved the name "Silures" for men of the mountainous inland regions of Wales, but referred
to those who settled on the coastline as "Menapiians". Modern historians tend to confine Silures to Gwent and Glamorgan and
Menapiians to Spain.