G.A. Henty.

Beric the Briton : a Story of the Roman Invasion online

. (page 1 of 33)
Online LibraryG.A. HentyBeric the Briton : a Story of the Roman Invasion → online text (page 1 of 33)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Produced by Martin Robb









Beric the Briton

A Story of the Roman Invasion


by G. A. Henty




PREFACE.

MY DEAR LADS,

My series of stories dealing with the wars of England would be
altogether incomplete did it not include the period when the Romans
were the masters of the country. The valour with which the natives
of this island defended themselves was acknowledged by the Roman
historians, and it was only the superior discipline of the invaders
that enabled them finally to triumph over the bravery and the
superior physical strength of the Britons. The Roman conquest for
the time was undoubtedly of immense advantage to the people - who
had previously wasted their energies in perpetual tribal wars - as
it introduced among them the civilization of Rome. In the end,
however, it proved disastrous to the islanders, who lost all their
military virtues. Having been defended from the savages of the
north by the soldiers of Rome, the Britons were, when the legions
were recalled, unable to offer any effectual resistance to the
Saxons, who, coming under the guise of friendship, speedily became
their masters, imposing a yoke infinitely more burdensome than that
of Rome, and erasing almost every sign of the civilization that had
been engrafted upon them. How far the British population disappeared
under the subsequent invasion and the still more oppressive yoke of
the Danes is uncertain; but as the invaders would naturally desire
to retain the people to cultivate the land for them, it is probable
that the great mass of the Britons were not exterminated. It is
at any rate pleasant to believe that with the Saxon, Danish, and
Norman blood in our veins, there is still a large admixture of that
of the valiant warriors who fought so bravely against Caesar, and
who rose under Boadicea in a desperate effort to shake off the
oppressive rule of Rome.

Yours truly,

G. A. Henty



CHAPTER I: A HOSTAGE


"It is a fair sight."

"It may be a fair sight in a Roman's eyes, Beric, but nought could
be fouler to those of a Briton. To me every one of those blocks of
brick and stone weighs down and helps to hold in bondage this land
of ours; while that temple they have dared to rear to their gods,
in celebration of their having conquered Britain, is an insult and
a lie. We are not conquered yet, as they will some day know to
their cost. We are silent, we wait, but we do not admit that we
are conquered."

"I agree with you there. We have never fairly tried our strength
against them. These wretched divisions have always prevented our
making an effort to gather; Cassivelaunus and some of the Kentish
tribes alone opposed them at their first landing, and he was
betrayed and abandoned by the tribes on the north of the Thames. It
has been the same thing ever since. We fight piecemeal; and while
the Romans hurl their whole strength against one tribe the others
look on with folded hands. Who aided the Trinobantes when the
Romans defeated them and established themselves on that hill? No
one. They will eat Britain up bit by bit."

"Then you like them no better for having lived among them, Beric?"

"I like them more, but I fear them more. One cannot be four years
among them, as I was, without seeing that in many respects we might
copy them with advantage. They are a great people. Compare their
splendid mansions and their regular orderly life, their manners and
their ways, with our rough huts, and our feasts, ending as often
as not with quarrels and brawls. Look at their arts, their power
of turning stone into lifelike figures, and above all, the way in
which they can transfer their thoughts to white leaves, so that
others, many many years hence, can read them and know all that was
passing, and what men thought and did in the long bygone. Truly it
is marvellous."

"You are half Romanized, Beric," his companion said roughly.

"I think not," the other said quietly; "I should be worse than
a fool had I lived, as I have done, a hostage among them for four
years without seeing that there is much to admire, much that we
could imitate with advantage, in their life and ways; but there
is no reason because they are wiser and far more polished, and in
many respects a greater people than we, that they should come here
to be our masters. These things are desirable, but they are as
nothing to freedom. I have said that I like them more for being
among them. I like them more for many reasons. They are grave and
courteous in their manner to each other; they obey their own laws;
every man has his rights; and while all yield obedience to their
superiors, the superiors respect the rights of those below them.
The highest among them cannot touch the property or the life of
the lowest in rank. All this seems to me excellent; but then, on
the other hand, my blood boils in my veins at the contempt in which
they hold us; at their greed, their rapacity, their brutality, their
denial to us of all rights. In their eyes we are but savages, but
wild men, who may be useful for tilling the ground for them, but
who, if troublesome, should be hunted down and slain like wild
beasts. I admire them for what they can do; I respect them for
their power and learning; but I hate them as our oppressors."

"That is better, Beric, much better. I had begun to fear that the
grand houses and the splendour of these Romans might have sapped
your patriotism. I hate them all; I hate changes; I would live as
we have always lived."

"But you forget, Boduoc, that we ourselves have not been standing
still. Though our long past forefathers, when they crossed from
Gaul wave after wave, were rude warriors, we have been learning
ever since from Gaul as the Gauls have learned from the Romans,
and the Romans themselves admit that we have advanced greatly since
the days when, under their Caesar, they first landed here. Look at
the town on the hill there. Though 'tis Roman now 'tis not changed
so much from what it was under that great king Cunobeline, while
his people had knowledge of many things of which we and the other
tribes of the Iceni knew nothing."

"What good did it do them?" the other asked scornfully; "they lie
prostrate under the Roman yoke. It was easy to destroy their towns
while we, who have few towns to destroy, live comparatively free.
Look across at Camalodunum, Cunobeline's capital. Where are the
men who built the houses, who dressed in soft garments, who aped
the Romans, and who regarded us as well nigh savage men? Gone
every one of them; hewn down on their own hearthstones, or thrust
out with their wives and families to wander homeless - is there
one left of them in yonder town? Their houses they were so proud
of, their cultivated fields, their wealth of all kinds has been
seized by the Romans. Did they fight any better for their Roman
fashions? Not they; the kingdom of Cunobeline, from the Thames to
the western sea, fell to pieces at a touch and it was only among the
wild Silures that Caractacus was able to make any great resistance."

"But we did no better, Boduoc; Ostorius crushed us as easily as
Claudius crushed the Trinobantes. It is no use our setting ourselves
against change. All that you urge against the Trinobantes and the
tribes of Kent the Silures might urge with equal force against us.
You must remember that we were like them not so many ages back.
The intercourse of the Gauls with us on this eastern sea coast, and
with the Kentish tribes, has changed us greatly. We are no longer,
like the western tribes, mere hunters living in shelters of boughs
and roaming the forests. Our dress, with our long mantles, our loose
vests and trousers, differs as widely from that of these western
tribes as it does from the Romans. We live in towns, and if our
houses are rude they are solid. We no longer depend solely on the
chase, but till the ground and have our herds of cattle. I daresay
there were many of our ancestors who set themselves as much against
the Gaulish customs as you do against those of the Romans; but we
adopted them, and benefited by them, and though I would exult in
seeing the last Roman driven from our land, I should like after
their departure to see us adopt what is good and orderly and decent
in their customs and laws."

Beric's companion growled a malediction upon everything Roman.

"There is one thing certain," he said after a pause, "either they
must go altogether, not only here but everywhere - they must
learn, as our ancestors taught them at their two first invasions,
that it is hopeless to conquer Britain - or they will end by being
absolute masters of the island, and we shall be their servants and
slaves."

"That is true enough," Beric agreed; "but to conquer we must be
united, and not only united but steadfast. Of course I have learned
much of them while I have been with them. I have come to speak
their language, and have listened to their talk. It is not only the
Romans who are here whom we have to defeat, it is those who will
come after them. The power of Rome is great; how great we cannot
tell, but it is wonderful and almost inconceivable. They have
spread over vast countries, reducing peoples everywhere under their
dominion. I have seen what they call maps showing the world as far
as they know it, and well nigh all has been conquered by them; but
the farther away from Rome the more difficulty have they in holding
what they have conquered.

"That is our hope here; we are very far from Rome. They may send
army after army against us, but in time they will get weary of
the loss and expense when there is so little to gain, and as after
their first invasions a long time elapsed before they again troubled
us, so in the end they may abandon a useless enterprise. Even now
the Romans grumble at what they call their exile, but they are
obstinate and tenacious, and to rid our land of them for good it
would be necessary for us not only to be united among ourselves
when we rise against them, but to remain so, and to oppose with
our whole force the fresh armies they will bring against us.

"You know how great the difficulties will be, Boduoc; we want one
great leader whom all the tribes will follow, just as all the Roman
legions obey one general; and what chance is there of such a man
arising - a man so great, so wise, so brave, that all the tribes
of Britain will lay aside their enmities and jealousies, and submit
themselves to his absolute guidance?"

"If we wait for that, Beric, we may wait for ever," Boduoc said in
a sombre tone, "at any rate it is not while we are tranquil under
the Roman heel that such a man could show himself. If he is to come
to the front it must be in the day of battle. Then, possibly, one
chief may rise so high above his fellows that all may recognize
his merits and agree to follow him."

"That is so," Beric agreed; "but is it possible that even the greatest
hero should find support from all? Cassivelaunus was betrayed by
the Trinobantes. Who could have united the tribes more than the
sons of Cunobeline, who reigned over well nigh all Britain, and
who was a great king ruling wisely and well, and doing all in his
power to raise and advance the people; and yet, when the hour came,
the kingdom broke up into pieces. Veric, the chief of the Cantii,
went to Rome and invited the invader to aid him against his rivals
at home, and not a man of the Iceni or the Brigantes marched to
the aid of Caractacus and Togodamnus. What wonder, then, that these
were defeated. Worse than all, when Caractacus was driven a fugitive
to hide among the Brigantes, did not their queen, Cartismandua,
hand him over to the Romans? Where can we hope to find a leader
more fitted to unite us than was Caractacus, the son of the king
whom we all, at least, recognized and paid tribute to; a prince
who had learned wisdom from a wise father, a warrior enterprising,
bold, and indomitable - a true patriot?

"If Caractacus could not unite us, what hope is there of finding
another who would do so? Moreover, our position is far worse now
than it was ten years ago. The Belgae and Dumnonii in the southwest
have been crushed after thirty battles; the Dobuni in the centre
have been defeated and garrisoned; the Silures have set an example
to us all, inflicting many defeats on the Romans; but their power
has at last been broken. The Brigantes and ourselves have both been
heavily struck, as we deserved, Boduoc, for standing aloof from
Caractacus at first. Thus the task of shaking off the Roman bonds
is far more difficult now than it was when Plautius landed here
twenty years ago. Well, it is time for me to be going on. Won't
you come with me, Boduoc?"

"Not I, Beric; I never want to enter their town again save with a
sword in one hand and a torch in the other. It enrages me to see
the airs of superiority they give themselves. They scarce seem even
to see us as we walk in their streets; and as to the soldiers as
they stride along with helmet and shield, my fingers itch to meet
them in the forest. No; I promised to walk so far with you, but I
go no farther. How long will you be there?"

"Two hours at most, I should say."

"The sun is halfway down, Beric; I will wait for you till it touches
that hill over there. Till then you will find me sitting by the
first tree at the spot where we left the forest."

Beric nodded and walked on towards the town. The lad, for he was
not yet sixteen, was the son of Parta, the chieftainess of one of
the divisions of the great tribe of the Iceni, who occupied the
tract of country now known as Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridge, and
Huntingdon. This tribe had yielded but a nominal allegiance to
Cunobeline, and had held aloof during the struggle between Caractacus
and the Romans, but when the latter had attempted to establish
forts in their country they had taken up arms. Ostorius Scapula,
the Roman proprietor, had marched against them and defeated them
with great slaughter, and they had submitted to the Roman authority.
The Sarci, the division of the tribe to which Beric belonged, had
taken a leading part in the rising, and his father had fallen in
the defence of their intrenchments.

Among the British tribes the women ranked with the men, and even
when married the wife was often the acknowledged chief of the
tribe. Parta had held an equal authority with her husband, and at
his death remained sole head of the subtribe, and in order to ensure
its obedience in the future, Ostorius had insisted that her only
son Beric, at that time a boy of eleven, should be handed over to
them as a hostage.

Had Parta consulted her own wishes she would have retired with a
few followers to the swamps and fens of the country to the north
rather than surrender her son, but the Brigantes, who inhabited
Lincolnshire, and who ranged over the whole of the north of Britain
as far as Northumberland, had also received a defeat at the hands
of the Romans, and might not improbably hand her over upon their
demand. She therefore resigned herself to let Beric go.

"My son," she said, "I need not tell you not to let them Romanize
you. You have been brought up to hate them. Your father has fallen
before their weapons, half your tribe have been slain, your country
lies under their feet. I will not wrong you then by fearing for a
moment that they can make a Roman of you.

"You have been brought up to lie upon the bare ground, to
suffer fatigue and hardship, hunger and thirst, and the rich food
and splendid houses and soft raiment of the Romans should have no
attraction for you. I know not how long your imprisonment among them
may last. For the present I have little hope of another rising; but
should I see a prospect of anything like unity among our people, I
will send Boduoc with a message to you to hold yourself in readiness
to escape when you receive the signal that the time has come. Till
then employ your mind in gaining what good you may by your residence
among them; there must be some advantage in their methods of warfare
which has enabled the people of one city to conquer the world.

"It is not their strength, for they are but pigmies to us. We stand
a full head above them, and even we women are stronger than Roman
soldiers, and yet they defeat us. Learn then their language, throw
your whole mind into that at first, then study their military
discipline and their laws. It must be the last as much as their
discipline that has made them rulers over so vast an empire. Find
out if you can the secret of their rule, and study the training by
which their soldiers move and fight as if bound together by a cord,
forming massive walls against which we break ourselves in vain.
Heed not their arts, pay no attention to their luxuries, these did
Cunobeline no good, and did not for a day delay the destruction
that fell upon his kingdom. What we need is first a knowledge of
their military tactics, so that we may drive them from the land;
secondly, a knowledge of their laws, that we may rule ourselves
wisely after they have gone. What there is good in the rest may
come in time.

"However kind they may be to you, bear always in mind that you
are but a prisoner among the oppressors of your country, and that
though, for reasons of policy, they may treat you well, yet that
they mercilessly despoil and ill treat your countrymen. Remember
too, Beric, that the Britons, now that Caractacus has been sent
a prisoner to Rome, need a leader, one who is not only brave and
valiant in the fight, but who can teach the people how to march to
victory, and can order and rule them well afterwards. We are part
of one of our greatest tribes, and from among us, if anywhere, such
a leader should come.

"I have great hopes of you, Beric. I know that you are brave, for
single handed you slew with an arrow a great wolf the other day;
but bravery is common to all, I do not think that there is a coward
in the tribe. I believe you are intelligent. I consulted the old
Druid in the forest last week, and he prophesied a high destiny
for you; and when the messenger brought the Roman summons for me
to deliver you up as a hostage, it seemed to me that this was of
all things the one that would fit you best for future rule. I am
not ambitious for you, Beric. It would be nought to me if you were
king of all the Britons. It is of our country that I think. We
need a great leader, and my prayer to the gods is that one may be
found. If you should be the man so much the better; but if not,
let it be another. Comport yourself among them independently, as
one who will some day be chief of a British tribe, but be not sullen
or obstinate. Mix freely with them, learn their language, gather
what are the laws under which they live, see how they build those
wonderful houses of theirs, watch the soldiers at their exercises,
so that when you return among us you can train the Sarci to fight
in a similar manner. Keep the one purpose always in your mind.
Exercise your muscles daily, for among us no man can lead who is
not as strong and as brave as the best who follow him. Bear yourself
so that you shall be in good favour with all men."

Beric had, to the best of his power, carried out the instructions
of his mother. It was the object of the Romans always to win over
their adversaries if possible, and the boy had no reason to complain
of his treatment. He was placed in the charge of Caius Muro,
commander of a legion, and a slave was at once appointed to teach
him Latin. He took his meals with the scribe and steward of the
household, for Caius was of noble family, of considerable wealth,
and his house was one of the finest in Camalodunum. He was a kindly
and just man, and much beloved by his troops. As soon as Beric had
learned the language, Caius ordered the scribe to teach him the
elements of Roman law, and a decurion was ordered to take him in
hand and instruct him in arms.

As Beric was alike eager to study and to exercise in arms, he
gained the approval of both his teachers. Julia, the wife of Caius,
a kindly lady, took a great fancy to the boy. "He will make a fine
man, Caius," she said one day when the boy was fourteen years old.
"See how handsome and strong he is; why, Scipio, the son of the
centurion Metellus, is older by two years, and yet he is less strong
than this young Briton."

"They are a fine race, Julia, though in disposition as fierce as
wild cats, and not to be trusted. But the lad is, as you say, strong
and nimble. I marked him practising with the sword the other day
against Lucinus, who is a stout soldier, and the man had as much
as he could do to hold his own against him. I was surprised myself
to see how well he wielded a sword of full weight, and how active
he was. The contest reminded me of a dog and a wild cat, so nimble
were the boy's springs, and so fierce his attacks. Lucinus fairly
lost his temper at last, and I stopped the fight, for although
they fought with blunted weapons, he might well have injured the
lad badly with a downright cut, and that would have meant trouble
with the Iceni again."

"He is intelligent, too," Julia replied. "Sometimes I have him in
while I am working with the two slave girls, and he will stand for
hours asking me questions about Rome, and about our manners and
customs."

"One is never sure of these tamed wolves," Caius said; "sometimes
they turn out valuable allies and assistants, at other times they
grow into formidable foes, all the more dangerous for what they
have learned of us. However, do with him as you like, Julia; a woman
has a lighter hand than a man, and you are more likely to tame him
than we are. Cneius says that he is very eager to learn, and has
ever a book in his hand when not practising in arms."

"What I like most in him," Julia said, "is that he is very fond of
our little Berenice. The child has taken to him wonderfully, and
of an afternoon, when he has finished with Cneius, she often goes
out with him. Of course old Lucia goes with them. It is funny to
hear them on a wet day, when they cannot go out, talking together - she
telling him stories of Rome and of our kings and consuls,
and he telling her tales of hunting the wolf and wild boar, and
legends of his people, who seem to have been always at war with
someone."

After Beric had resided for three years and a half at Camalodunum
a great grief fell on the family of Caius Muro, for the damp airs
from the valley had long affected Julia and she gradually faded and
died. Beric felt the loss very keenly, for she had been uniformly
kind to him. A year later Suetonius and the governor of the colony
decided that as the Sarci had now been quiet for nearly five years,
and as Caius reported that their young chief seemed to have become
thoroughly Romanized, he was permitted to return to his tribe.

The present was his first visit to the colony since he had left it
four months before. His companion, Boduoc, was one of the tribesmen,
a young man six years his senior. He was related to his mother, and
had been his companion in his childish days, teaching him woodcraft,
and to throw the javelin and use the sword. Together, before Beric
went as hostage, they had wandered through the forest and hunted
the wolf and wild boar, and at that time Boduoc had stood in the
relation of an elder brother to Beric. That relation had now much
changed. Although Boduoc was a powerful young man and Beric but a
sturdy stripling, the former was little better than an untutored
savage, and he looked with great respect upon Beric both as his
chief and as possessing knowledge that seemed to him to be amazing.

Hating the Romans blindly he had trembled lest he should find Beric
on his return completely Romanized. He had many times, during the
lad's stay at Camalodunum, carried messages to him there from his
mother, and had sorrowfully shaken his head on his way back through
the forest as he thought of his young chief's surroundings. Beric
had partially adopted the Roman costume, and to hear him talking
and jesting in their own language to the occupants of the mansion,
whose grandeur and appointments filled Boduoc with an almost
superstitious fear, was terrible to him. However, his loyalty to
Beric prevented him from breathing a word in the tribe as to his
fears, and he was delighted to find the young chief return home
in British garb, and to discover that although his views of the
Romans differed widely from his own, he was still British at heart,
and held firmly the opinion that the only hope for the freedom of
Britain was the entire expulsion of the invaders.

He was gratified to find that Beric had become by no means what
he considered effeminate. He was built strongly and massively, as



Online LibraryG.A. HentyBeric the Briton : a Story of the Roman Invasion → online text (page 1 of 33)