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  • That Was Genius Team

Episode 120 - The Porridge in my Pants is Barely Drying (Speeches Week)

Tom's Notes:

Audience feedback. Lady from Australia; “I have never learned so much in such a truly stupid way. I love it.”

Patreon; welcome to Aaron and Jacob.

I’ve had a lovely couple of holidays, both from my house and this podcast. Last week we stayed in a super posh, old mansion in the Cotswolds that only affordable because of the number of people sharing it. It was a funny one because the owners were clearly posh country horsey types who enjoy the background whiff of dog piss infused rugs. They also had kitchen cupboards full of 15 different types of tea and decades old herbs and spices. They were that type of toff. Oh and there were at least five thousand sofas, all of which were filthy with dog hair all over them, none of which were plump and comfy. I like my sofas like I like my women; plump, comfy and clean.

I’ve returned to Agricola by Tacitus this week because it contains a stirring speech by Calgacus, leader of the Caledonians (or Britons, or Celts, let’s throw Picts in there too – whatever you want to call them) before the battle of the Graupian Mountains, or Mons Graupius in Latin, against the Romans. The speech was undoubtedly made up by Tacitus, but it’s still a classic with some interesting history surrounding it.

Agricola was made governor of Britain in 77/78 AD. For a bit of temporal context, the conquest of Britain had only started in 43AD under Emperor Claudius. We have a lovely account of the political life of Agricola from his son-in-law, the historian Tacitus. Agricola was a successful military commander who first expanded Roman control into Wales and then Northern England. By the end of the third campaigning season he was into what we now call Scotland as far as where the Antonine Wall was later built; between the Forth and Clyde Rivers. In 83AD he took his Roman forces further north almost as far as the Highlands of Scotland. It was in this year that the decisive Battle of Mons Graupius took place.

According to Tacitus, Agricola had been sending lightly armoured raiding parties, both by land and sea, into Caledonian/Briton lands to unsettle the enemy before taking full control of the area. Most notably, the Romans targeted the grain stores of the natives. “Take anything you like! Take our women, they’re ugly anyway, take our children too! They’re also ugly, and ginger. Just don’t take our porridge! I cannae live without the slow release energy a good porridge provides in the morning.”

The disparate and tribal Caledonians (I’ll use this term) had managed to unite under the leadership of one Calgacus, a man who no doubt possessed all the skills and talents that the native Caledonians held in high esteem. Red hair: check. Loud voice: check. Good at charging madly at the enemy waving a weapon around clumsily: check. Prefers mud huts to villas with baths and under floor heating: check. Good at rabble rousing speeches: check!

30,000 Caledonians gathered together to fight the Romans at Mons Graupius, exact locations unknown but much debated, possibly the Grampian Mountains. And these Caledonians were furious! Nobody targets another man’s oats, it’s like kicking someone in the nuts during a travellers bareknuckle brawl. It’s just not cricket, or should I say, shinty.

It’s the day of the battle, and it’s time for Calgacus to rouse the rabble with a stirring speech. The speech doesn’t start particularly well with this motivational gems put in the mouth of Calgacus; “Battles have been fought against the Romans before, with varying success.” NERD VOICE “Oh yes Calgacus, rile us up with the results of your analysis of the probability of the various possible outcomes of battle! Give us more uncertainty! That’s it! I’m beating my shield right now! Give me percentages! Come on!” However, it soon becomes clear that Calgacus had been studying night classes at the Mel Gibson School of Motivational Speaking where learnt the basics of Scottish speeches, anti-Semitism and how to make your teeth shiny white and your beard resemble a badger’s backside.

Calgacus points out to his army that, quote: “There is no land beyond us and even the sea is no safe refuge when we are threatened by the Roman fleet,” and shortly after, “There is no people beyond us, nothing but tides and rocks.” The army of Caledonians has nowhere to retreat. Moreover, Calgacus says that they are the last free people on earth not to have been subjected to the Roman tyranny.

Calgacus then talks of the greed of the Romans. They have an insatiable appetite to conquer, not only are the Caledonians stuck between the Roman forces and the sea, they are stuck between freedom, and enslavement and oppression. This is where there is the famous line; “They plunder, they butcher, they ravish, and call it by the lying name of empire. They make a desert and call it peace.”

Next Calgacus tries to convince his army that the Romans can easily be broken. He says that they are not good fighters; “It is by quarrels and disunion that they have gained fame. They have exploited the faults of their enemies to win glory for their own army.” The Roman army is also full of other subjected peoples who are far from home in a dull and wet land full of miserable locals who resent tourists from the south (somethings never change). These fresh Romans will not be fighting within hearing range of their taunting wives and parents (it actually says that) and so they will scatter under a bit of pressure. This is a nice hint at how the Caledonian fought; the men went off to battle and the wives and mothers in law climbed up trees and henpecked. MOTHER IN LAW “I told you you should have never married that great oaf, he can’t even hold a sword properly. Hit him over the head you useless fool! Not there! On the head! Stop stabbing and start whacking. And he dresses appallingly.” WIFE “No sex for you tonight Barry if you get killed today!” Personally I’d prefer to be a Roman slave in a nice warm area around the Mediterranean than have to put up with this during battle. Anyway, Calgacus also alludes to the successful revolt of the Brigantes under a female ruler which is quite interesting because it can’t be Boudica, the famous female resistance leader because she was leader of the Iceni. The Iceni were based in East Anglia and the Brigantes in the north of England. It is quite probable that this is a mistake, either by Tacitus or a copyist. The Brigantes did have a female leader at one point called Cartimandua but she did not rebel against the Romans, in fact, she is a good example of the Romans mendling in domestic affairs to disunite people. The Romans supported her because she had handed another Briton king to them after this king had fled from Roman defeat. Cartimandua actually received Roman support when her people revolted against her unpopular rule.

The speech finishes with the line “On then into battle and as you go think both of your ancestors and of your descendants.” After this, the Caledonians, quote “reacted to the speech with enthusiasm, expressed in the barbarian fashion with roaring, singing, and inarticulated cries.” Now the source doesn’t delve into what the Caledonians sang at this point, but I did discover something interesting in the works of a contemporary Roman writer Gaius Johan Virgos in his work Magna Confractus – BIG BREAK THEME TUNE.

The battle commences and, as you would expect, the better organised Romans rout the Caledonians. The Caledonian army, 30,000 strong, position themselves on a hill with their charioteers running around in front of them. The Romans form ranks at the bottom of the hill with auxiliary infantry at the centre (mainly Germanic and Gaulish cohorts). There are around 8000 such troops. These are flanked by 3000 cavalry and Roman legionaries are held in reserve in front of the camp, presumably to allow the auxiliaries to have a go at defeating a weak opposition, to prevent the auxiliaries from retreating and to finish off the job if needs be. We don’t know how many of these there were. The Caledonians are quickly outflanked and pressed by the infantry. They then scatter with around 10000 dying at a cost of 360 Romans. Bosh, job done, let’s get back to camp for some pizza.

Calgacus’s speech, obviously not heard first hand but created by Tacitus, explores a theme that crops up a lot in Roman literature from the first century AD, that is the corruption, despotism and cruelty of the Roman Empire versus the moral purity and salt-of-the-earth honesty of Roman Republic. Tacitus uses Rome’s enemies as voice pieces to express this.

A slight aside to finish off, Tacitus mentions recently conquered Britons fighting for the Romans. This is backed up by some of the Vindolanda tablets, which are some of the oldest written documents in British history. They were discovered in the Roman auxiliary fort of Vindolanda which is near Hexham in Northumberland (where I was born) just south of Hadrian’s Wall. These tablets are basically Roman letters that mostly document military matters but some are more personal (like an invitation to a birthday party). One such tablet, dated to around 92AD, reads, “The Britons are unprotected by armor. There are very many cavalry. The cavalry do not use swords nor do the Brittunculi mount in order to throw javelins.” Brittunculi is a particularly good word, because it means ‘wretched little Britons!”

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