TACITUS AND The Druids’ Last Stand - A military commentary on Tacitus’s account of the battle of the Menai Strait - Annals XIV 29-30

Reggie von Zugbach.

Modern scholars have criticed Tacitus for his treatment of women in this passage and for the fact he says next to nothing about the battle itself. This commentary seeks to put these criticisms into a military perspective .

The first thing to say about Tacitus's depiction of the battle is that there is a major inconsistency in the account. Tacitus on one hand he tells us that the enemy line, drawn up on the shore, is tightly packed with arms and men. Then, immediately afterwards, he says that the women were running about among them brandishing torches. Both cannot be. Clearly, Tacitus is trying to paint an impressionistic picture of what he goes on to describe in terms of a weird spectacle in order to explain why the Roman attack faltered a critical stage in the battle.

The Romans would have been genuinely shocked by the presence of women on the battlefield. Ordinary German troops during World War II were shocked to find Allied women non-combatant soldiers in the field and regarded this as a mark of highly uncivilised behaviour. A recent British military paper arguing that women could more easily fit into the confined space of armoured cars than men chosen for their excessive height (the latter, mounted, frightened Napoleon's infantry but at close quarters…… Channel No.5 beats last night’s Newcastle Brown…….) or that women are temperamentally suited to EOD (pulling live bombs apart), was greeted with almost hysterical moral outrage.

Over and above this, the aspect and demeanour of the Anglesey women are relevant to what Tacitus is going to go on to describe. There is no reason to ascribe misogyny to Tacitus. If there were women present, running about with torches (presumably it is night) among the ranks of the enemy, (with the Druids performing rites all around) then this is germane to the story. The image of Furies is almost certainly the one that would have come to mind of the soldiers on the ground. Having named what probably any contemporary observer or reader/hearer would have conjured up for himself anyway, Tacitus then goes on to describe their appearance which is indeed strange and awesome. They certainly were such and were probably meant to be such. None of this needs to be part of a further agenda of deprecation of the women or painting the Druids as worse than they were.

Later in the gobbet, when the attack falters and the troops stand transfixed by the nature of the spectacle before them, exposing themselves to enemy “fire”, they are urged on by their leader and rally themselves. They are exhorted not to be scared off by a line of fanatical women. (Obviously, Suetonius Paulinus had never been captured on an infiltration exercise by soldiers of the Women’s’ Royal Army Corps – I would take my chance with the Celtic ladies every time!) . But such is the nature of exhortations of war. Coincidentally, I once took part in an (daytime) exercise attack across the same waters -- the Menai Straits. In our briefing, the colonel, (whose name was not, but could well have been something like Williams-Powell-Jones), reminded us not to be afraid of an opposition made up merely of SS. By this he did not mean highly trained Nazis but of Welsh infantrymen, (the SS referring to the defamatory epithet used about opposing Welsh troops relating to their supposed “romantic” preference for sheep).

Tacitus probably repeated the story that he had heard from his father-in-law Agricola. Anglers’ fish become longer, soldiers tales, especially when they cover excuses for dereliction of duty, (vide Deighton L. on the collapse of the French Army in 1940 - Blitzkrieg), become wilder. It could also have been that the advocate Tacitus was “explaining” why some Romans might have been intimidated by these barbarians.

For the cynic, a less “attractive” explanation might be that an honest Tacitus wrote down just what had happened, as he had heard it from soldiers on the ground. To the potential discredit of Rome, an attack faltered under the psychological factors of war. The explanation lay partly in the presence of women – weirdly attired and behaving weirdly, at least to Roman eyes and in the presence of “cursing” Druids. Under other circumstances, the factor to be reported could have been men in “skirts” playing howling musical instruments which certainly disconcerted German troops in the WWI trenches.

Tacitus's audience would mostly have had military training and experience. For the soldier the battle is well described. A battle begins when the attacking force crosses the “Start Line”, in this case the Eastern bank of the Menai Strait.

As Bonaparte wrote to his kinsman, an assault across a water obstacle against a prepared enemy is the most difficult and dangerous “phase of war". Such an attack by night is particularly fraught with peril. Tacitus adds to a soldiers' perception of the difficulty of this attack by letting his audience know that the waters are shallow. Perversely, deep water is more congenial to an attacker than are shallows. (This is why the moat of our house is thigh deep - too shallow to swim, too deep to crawl. The attacker is forced to stand upright and get shot at while worrying about his foothold!). The infantry were put across on "flat bottomed" boats which are notoriously difficult to steer and would not have been able to maintain formation in the treacherous currents of the Menai Strait. Horses are very reluctant to wade and prefer to swim, but swimming against a strong current would again have caused the cavalry formations to be disorganised.

What would have landed on Ys Môn was not a disciplined fighting force but a disorganised and disoriented rabble. The Roman advantage on a battlefield lay in the deployment of heavy infantry in close order and the use of the shock value of cavalry sent in formation. The individual Roman soldier fighting out of formation, be he cavalryman or infantryman, would have been at a disadvantage against the enemy lines in close order packed with men and arms.

Bonaparte claims a three to one value of psychological over material factors on the battlefield. I have seen the unnerving effect of bagpipes on non-Scottish troops even on exercise. – unnerving at any time to the non-Scottish!! The British Army, until the Boer War wore red coats with white cross-belts so that an enemy could see their numbers and, with luck, retire to draw his pension before shots were exchanged. Again, Len Deighten shows how Stuka dive bombers were fitted with dive sirens. These had no value as weapons but they were known to intimidate the enemy so that a mere diving pass by planes that had discharged their bombs was generally enough to scare Allied units into inaction. This is why Tacitus's description of what was going on the Western bank of the Menai Strait is so important.

He does describe a battle which could well have been lost when a disorganised assault force, disrupted and disorientated in its landing had its morale damaged by this and by the psychological effect of the enemy's behaviour. The attack lost momentum and faltered and troops were standing about vulnerable to enemy “fire”. Nearly 2000 years later, this passage scares me for it must have been” a damned close run thing” whether the Roman attack rallied or was cut to pieces. I can hear the desperate shouts of the NCOs trying to turn chaos and order and put myself in the place of their officers, wondering if the troops really would rally. But they did and not only on account of their leader’s exhortations but because of what the German military calls “Innere Führung” – “internal leadership” – a very Roman value. This is what Tacitus’s piece would have said to his audience.

“...Igitur Monam insulam, incolis validam et receptaculum perfugarum, adgredi parat, navesque fabricatur plano alveo adversus breve et incertum. sic pedes; equites vado secuti aut altiores inter undas adnantes equis tramisere.

Stabat pro litore diversa acies, densa armis virisque, intercursantibus feminis, [quae] in modum Furiarum veste ferali, crinibus disiectis faces praeferebant; Druidaeque circum, preces diras sublatis ad caelum manibus fundentes, novitate adspectus perculere militem, ut quasi haerentibus membris immobile corpus vulneribus praeberent. dein cohortationibus ducis et se ipsi stimulantes, ne muliebre et fanaticum agmen pavescerent, inferunt signa sternuntque obvios et igni suo involvunt. praesidium posthac impositum victis excisique luci saevis superstitionibus sacri…” http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/tacitus/tac.ann14.shtml

Reggie von Zugbach is Professor Emeritus of the University of Paisley having held the chair in Management for ten years before his retirement. He is, however, a “sometime” classical scholar and served for eighteen years as a regular Army officer (in his words, “most of the time in a desk driving capacity”).

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