The Silures were a powerful and warlike iron-age tribe or tribal confederation located in southern Wales.
The Realm of the Silures according to Ptolemy
“More toward the east are the Silures whose town is Bullaeum 16*50 55°00.” Above quote from the Geographia of Ptolemy (II.ii)
Their hillforts, like those of thier western neighbours the Demetae, show influences of south-west England. Their neighbours to the north were the Ordovices of Central Wales, while to the east lay the Dobunni.
Other passages in Ptolemy Book II Chapter 2 give the ancient names of a number of rivers within the territories of the Silures tribe:
- Leuca Fluvius (River Loughor) Possibly marked the western border of the tribe with their neighbours the Demetae. There was a Roman fort sited on the east bank near it’s mouth, likewise named Leucarum (Loughor, West Glamorgan).
- Aventio Fluvius (Afon Ewenny) empties into the Bristol Channel near Porthcawl.
- Isca Fluvius (River Usk) Flows roughly southwards through the eastern part of the canton, upon which the legionary fortress at Isca was situated, also it’s precursor further upstream at Usk.
- Sabrina Fluvius (River Severn) Forms a natural barrier to the south and east of the canton, between the Silures and the Dobunni.
The Civitas Silurum The Principal Tribal Centre
Undoubtedly the civitas capital of the Silures, attested on a stone altar, ‘the Civitas Silurum Stone’, now on display in the portico of Caerwent Church.
The Tribal Πολις Assigned by Ptolemy
|Bvrrivm||(Usk, Gwent) – The only polis ascribed to the tribe by Ptolemy, where it appears as Bullaeum. There was a large fortress here, which was no-doubt accompanied by a vicus settlement.|
Other Places of Interest
- Llanmelin Wood (Gwent) – Iron Age camp just north of Caerwent, may have been the pre-Roman tribal centre of the Silures.
- Machen (Gwent) – Settlement associated with the nearby lead mines, probably under military control.
- Redwick (Gwent) – A small settlement on the Severn estuary, south-east of Caerwent.
- Blestivm (Monmouth, Gwent?) – Mentioned in the Antonine Itinerary, was probably a fort established in the centre of the iron mining district.
- Cardiff (Glamorgan) – A vicus settlement grew here, outside the Roman fort.
- Isca [Silvrvm] (Caerleon, Gwent) – A very large settlement or canabae, was attached to the fortress of the Second Augustan Legion.
There are a few Romanized farm buildings in the immediate area of Caerwent. Notable villas have been discovered at Ely (nr. Cardiff), further west at Llantwit, and at Llanfrynach (nr. Brecon), which included a large bath-house with elaborate fish mosaics. The Iron Mines around Monmouth and the Forest of Dean, even though they likely lay in the lands of the Silures, were actually administered from Ariconium (Weston under Penyard) in the neighbouring territories of the Dobunni.
The tribal name Silures, may itself be of Latin derivation, meaning simply ‘the people of the Rocks’, alluding to the mountainous region in which they lived.
Cf. Latin silex, silicis – pebble, flint; boulder, stone. Also modern English silicate – a class of minerals which constitute a large proportion of the Earth’s solid crust, such as quartz and cristobalite.
The Silurian Campaigns of Rome
Attacked by Ostorius Scapula for harbouring Caratacus 48/49AD
Following the short-lived uprisings of the Iceni and the Brigantes in 47, the new governor of Britain, Ostorius Scapula, turned his attention to the Silures.
“… 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)
Seemingly, the bulk of Legio XX Valeria was moved from its base at Colchester in Essex into a new legionary fortress at Kingsholm near Gloucester; to enable the movement of the legion west, and not to leave the east of Britain undefended, a Colonia of veteran soldiers was established at Camulodunum within the confines of the old fortress recently evacuated by the Twentieth Legion.
“The march then proceeded against the Silures, whose native boldness was heightened by their confidence in the prowess of Caratacus; …” (Tacitus Annales xii.33)
We now learn the reason for Ostorius’ interest in the Silures; Caratacus, the fugitive leader of the British forces opposed to the original Roman landing in Kent in 43, had found sanctuary among the hills of south-east Wales. The lands of the Silures were spared the full might of Roman arms in this particular campaign, for according to Tacitus, Caratacus now moved his camp to Snowdonia.
“… on this occasion, favoured by the treacherous character of the country, though inferior in military strength, he [Caratacus] astutely shifted the seat of war to the territory of the Ordovices: where, after being joined by all who feared a Roman peace, he put the final chance to trial. …” (Tacitus Annales xii.33)
There was, no doubt, a significant Silurian presence among the army of Caratacus which were subsequently beaten in pitched battle by Ostorius Scapula somewhere in Ordovician territory in 50AD. The site of this famous battle has, to this day, never been identified.
After his defeat in Wales, Caratacus escaped through the lands of the Deceangi in north-eastern Wales and had sought refuge amongst the Brigantes in northern England. Queen Cartimandua, however, in accordance with her agreement as a client of Rome, infamously ordered him bound in chains and handed over to the Roman governor Ostorius. For his part in the capture of the renegade British king, Scapula was awarded the ‘triumphal insignia’, which had in the time of the emperors, replaced the full-blown triumphal procession through the streets of Rome, which was the norm in more liberal republican times.
Following the removal of Caratacus from Britain, the attentions of Rome were brought to bear upon the Silures, who were themselves to keep the next three governors of the province particularly busy.
The Further Campaigns of Ostorius Scapula 51/52AD
” (Tacitus Annales xii.38-39)
The Campaigns of Aulus Didius Gallus 52-57AD
“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, and they carried their forays far and wide, until repelled by the advent of Didius. …” (Tacitus Annales xii.40)
- Publius Ostorius Scapula, legate in Britain from 47AD, had died of natural causes while on campaign against the Silures in 51.
- Emperor Claudius.
- Probably the Twentieth Legion, recently removed from Colchester. The attack may have been inflicted upon the legion whilst building the vexillation fortress at Clyro in Powys.
The attentions of Gallus were drawn away from the Silures in south Wales by an uprising among the Brigante tribe of northern England. The Brigantian ruling dynasty was in uproar, and as a client of Rome, queen Cartimandua called upon her allies to support her cause in the civil war between her own clan and factions loyal to her estranged husband, Venutius, who were presumably still unhappy with her earlier betrayal of Caratacus.
The Campaigns of Quintus Veranius 57/58AD
The intrigues of the Brigantian court were seemingly to keep Gallus occupied for much of the remainder of his tenure as governor of Britain, for no further operations against the Silures were made until the advent of the next governor, Quintus Veranius.
“… 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)
With the premature death of Veranius, the Silures were again given respite from the military advances of Rome. When the next governor Suetonius Paulinus came to Britain, although his plans very likely included an extensive campaign against the Silures, luck was with the tribe once more, for as soon as Paulinus started his campaigns in Wales with an attack upon the so-called “druid stronghold of Anglesea”, the rebellion of Queen Boudicca of the Iceni forced him to cut short his anti-Cymric activities and race eastwards in order to save the province.
Finally subdued by Julius Frontinus c.76AD
This and further calamities, both in Britain, on the continent and in Rome itself, saved the Silures from further harrassment for almost two decades, until the arrival of governor Sextus Julius Frontinus c.76AD.
“… 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)
The Silures People
The Roman writer Cornelius Tacitus provides us with a racial description of only one tribe in Britain, but we are lucky in that it just happens to be the Silures:
“… the swarthy faces of the Silures, the curly quality, in general, of their hair, and the position of Spain opposite their shores, attest the passage of Iberians in old days and the occupation by them of these districts; …” (Tacitus Annales Xi.ii, translated by M. Hutton)
This ancient theory is borne out in a more recent work, Facing the Ocean – The Atlantic and its Peoples by Barry Cunliffe (Oxford 2001), in which the author confirms a shared ethnic origin for the peoples of Northern Spain, and the promontories of Brittany, Cornwall, Wales, Ireland and Western Scotland.
“… the camp in Llanmelin Wood may have been the [pre-Roman] tribal centre of the Silures, but the choice of Caerwent for the cantonal capital of Venta Silurum may also have been influenced by its relationship to the Severn ferry. …” (A.L.F. Rivet Town and Country in Roman Britain p.74)
There is a cluster of Neolithic and Bronze-Age monuments on the Gower Peninsula which may represent the original tribal homelands, but It would appear that the Iron-Age is not very well represented in Siluria. This is perhaps due to the tribespeople leading an almost wholly pastoral lifestyle, having no permanent stone-built dwellings, and preferring to live in make-shift temporary structures which have left very little archaeological evidence. Their aceramic (pottery-free) culture suggests that they survived mainly off the rich flora and fauna of woodland and marsh in a somewhat carefree hunter-gatherer type of lifestyle.
“… 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)
The rocks which formed in the third period of the Palaeozoic era, between the Ordovician¹ and Devonian, are known by modern geologists as Silurian, because outcrops of this geological period occurred in the mountains of south-east Wales, which were the ancient territories of the Silures tribe. The Silurian period lasted 40 million years, during which time, fish first appeared in the oceans of Earth.
- Named after the Ordovices tribe of North Wales, where outcrops of rock from this earlier period occur.
References for The Silures
The Geography of Claudius Ptolemaeus, trans. by E.L. Stevenson (Dover, New York, 1991);
Atlas of Great Britain by the Ordnance Survey (Country Life, 1982);
Historical Map and Guide: Roman Britain by the OS (4th Ed., 1990);