BMCR 2021.06.34

Celts, Romans, Britons: classical and Celtic influence in the construction of British identities

, , Celts, Romans, Britons: classical and Celtic influence in the construction of British identities. Classical presences. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. 288. ISBN 9780198863076 $100.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Celts, Romans, Britons uses the concept of reception studies to examine the role that Classical and Celtic material culture and literature have played in the formation of British identity. This publication results from a conference held at the University of Oxford in July 2016, addressing national and political ideas through the lens of Britain’s Classical and Celtic heritage. The conference benefitted from chronologically arranged panels, with speakers offering an interdisciplinary approach to how Classical and Celtic cultures have been ‘appropriated, rejected, combined and contrasted by different generations.’[1] Just a month earlier, in June 2016, the Brexit referendum had taken place, and this conference reflected the intense political activity at the time. This is particularly the case in Richard Hingley’s paper on Hadrian’s Wall, which discussed Scottish independence in light of Brexit. Hingley comments on the reconstruction of Hadrian’s Wall and its function as an ‘immigration barrier’ if Scottish independence occurred. Hingley also compares Hadrian’s Wall to Donald Trump’s plans to convert the Mexican frontier into a barrier. However, the time elapsed between conference and publication has left the discussion of such fast-paced political events somewhat dated, with the American presidency shifting from Trump to Joe Biden. The volume’s eleven papers all discuss ideas of Britishness through Classical and Celtic topics, with a strong focus on literary sources. The authors contextualize their research alongside other scholarly debates, offering interpretations of various historical British identities, such as pre-Roman Britain; Anglo-Saxon; Medieval Britain and Ireland; Early Stuart England; and Georgian, and Victorian England.

Early-modern British material culture is used to contribute to the discussion of social class in Medieval Scotland, in a paper by M. Pia Coira, who identifies the connection between elitism and Classicism. Coira discusses the Classical reception of Gaelic poetry, identifying elite persons within an ‘aristocratic-warrior-society’ (98) who engaged with Scottish Gaelic poetry. She later comments on how ‘Classical allusions’ (101) contributed towards the concept of Britishness and how Gaelic history and identity were perceived in light of Gaelic participation in the British kingdom. Philip Schwyzer addresses the concept of Roman origin myths by commenting on the connection between Troy’s unsuccessful leaders and leaders in Stuart England, pointing towards a misuse of power incited by Oliver Cromwell. Schwyzer comments on Troy-Nouvant Must Not be Burnt, dated 1648, where ‘royal irresponsibility’ and ‘failings’ (95) are comparable to Emperor Nero, known for his inaction in 64 AD as fire ravaged Rome. Edith Hall discusses Celtic influence through a theatrical revival of Edward Elgar and Harry Acworth’s 1890 collaborative play Caractacus. Hall discusses how the play reflects British global imperialism; she addresses the achievements made overseas under Queen Victoria and cites the Government of India Act of 1858 and the foundation of Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). Caractacusperformed against a backdrop of celebratory imperialism contributed towards the Celtic revival, evident in the establishment of a newly-invented Order of Druids, the Caractacan Society, and performances with druidic characters. The Celtic overtones of the play were particularly appealing to Welsh communities, and during the First World War it was performed at schools in order to raise funds for wool, which was used in making ‘knitting comforts’ (156) for soldiers and sailors as part of the British war effort.

Several papers discuss the influence of archaeology on British identity when Roman legions evacuated from Britain, and the ruins of buildings were left behind. Philip Burton references the influence of Rome in J.R.R Tolkien’s literary creations, focusing on ruins of old Roman forts, walls, paved streets, and towers. The end of Roman rule in Britain was responsible, Burton explains, for the imagery Tolkien used in his fictional Middle Earth. Tolkein’s knowledge of Gildas’ references[2] to a stone wall and the Bridge of Stonebows is highly suggestive of his adoption of Latin literary structures. Burton also discusses Tolkien’s portrayal of diversity between different peoples as identified through the engagement between human and elvish groups. Burton comments on Tolkeins’ use of romantic relationships between female fairies and male humans referring, in fact, to Crypto-Celts and Crypto-Romans. Tolkein uses stereotypical Celtic ideas such as the fairy to reflect the Crypto-Celt, and the fictional Númenórean people as Crypto-Roman identified through their role as ‘bringers of civilization’ (191), their domineering nature, and their contribution to the collapse of the island. Burton observes that Tolkien’s representation of different peoples was a result of the time in which he wrote. He argues that Tolkien’s abhorrence of ‘Britishness’ (199) was a result of changes which occurred at the time such as the Second World War, the foundation of the Welfare State, and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953, which provided antecedents for Tolkien’s use of themes of struggle, victory and reconstruction. Burton also comments on Tolkien’s awareness of historical texts of Roman Britain through Gildas’ On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain, which describes towers built by the Romans. Michael Bintley takes the concept of Rome’s enduring legacy further by commenting on ‘Roman’ (32) spaces and Britons’ re-transformation of them in Early Medieval England at villas such as Norton Disney and Fishbourne Palace. These sites demonstrate late-sixth- and seventh-century building activities in burial places. Bintley observes how British identity was formed in Early-Medieval England through the construction of Roman churches through earlier Roman ruins. The remnants left behind by the Romans, such as settlements, forts, villas and roads, allowed for the occupation of these spaces. Bintley discusses Old English poetry, such as the Exeter Book elegy The Ruin, which discusses the Roman ruins left in Britain. Bintley comments on the identification of Roman settlements, which allowed medieval builders to re-use them as spolia. The original function of the structures, Bintley argues, is juxtaposed against the present state of their ruins. Richard Hingley also uses an archaeological approach in his discussion of ancient DNA (aDNA) research which confirms the ethnically diverse population of pre-Roman Britain. The study, published in 2015, sought to investigate the genetic structure of the British population, and resulted in a ‘pattern of genetic differentiation,’[3] it identified post-Mesolithic and pre-Roman movement, rather than finding a consistent ‘Celtic’ (309) population. The results help to undermine the idea of Anglo-Saxon ancestors for twenty-first century individuals, and bring the concept of multiculturalism into the discussion of reception studies through scientific data that confirm ancient Britain’s diverse population.

The weaknesses of the volume mostly result from inconsistent editing. Bintley provides translations of all ancient texts in full, welcoming non-linguistic readers in a volume that references sources in French, Gaelic, Latin, Middle English, Middle Irish, Old English, Scottish Gaelic, and Welsh. However, Mary-Ann Constantine and Arabella Currie, although both refer to translations in footnotes, are not consistent with the rest of the volume, which offers in-text translations. Concepts that are highly debated in archaeological discourse are not addressed fully, as for instance in Alex Woolf’s paper on the origins of the Britons. He discusses regions of Britain that demonstrated ‘Romanization’ through urban life, but does not acknowledge the ensuing debate of ‘Romanization’, despite much recent research challenging this contested concept.[4]

Using Classical and Celtic material culture to understand the formation of British identities is a valid approach to periods after the fall of Roman influence. Francesca and Rhys Kaminski-Jones have compiled a publication that debates British identity at a time of much contemporary political unrest. Hingley uses Hadrian’s Wall to develop the concept of Britishness by elaborating on ‘the power of the inherited myths behind ideas of the ‘English Wall’’ (222). Hadrian’s Wall’s original function, Hingley observes, was established through the political dissent, where contemporary bureaucratic issues still apply. This volume has something to offer to a wide range of reader. Burton’s paper on Tolkien, for instance, connects the single best-selling work of modern British literature with the country’s post-Roman past. Researchers in Celtic studies will benefit from examinations of Celtic identity by Helen Fulton and Coira through Medieval British and Irish writing and Gaelic poetry. Celtic scholars will also be interested in some of the papers, such as one on the Scottish Gaelic poetry by Coira, on the WW1 revival of Elgar and Acworth’s Caractacus by Hall, and on Trojan myths by Fulton. However, the density of the academic language used, the inconsistency of translations, and the cost will no doubt put off more general readers, who might have benefitted from this timely and insightful collection of papers on topics of such popular interest.


Freeman, P. (1997) ‘ ‘Romanisation – Imperialism’ – What are we Talking About?’  Theoretical Roman Archaeology Journal, pp. 8-14 [Online], London, Open Library of Humanities.

Gildas, De Excidio Britanniae, trans. R. Pearse (2003) [Online], Tertullian.

Leslie, S., Winney, B., Hellenthal, G., Davison, D., Boumertit, A., Day, T., Hutnik, K., Rourvik, E.C., Cunliffe, B., Wellcome Trust Case Control Consortium., International Multiple Sclerosis Genetics Consortium., Lawson, D.J., Falush, D., Freeman, C., Pirinen, M., Myers, S., Robinson, M., Donnelly, P., and Bodmer, W. (2015) ‘The Fine-Scale Genetic Structure of the British Population’, Nature, Vol. 519, pp. 309-314 [Online], London, Springer Publishing.

The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities. (2016) ‘Celts, Romans, Britons: Classical and Celtic Influence in Britain, 55 BC – 2016 AD’, The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities [Online], Oxford, University of Oxford.

Authors and titles

1. Celts, Romans, Britons: Introduction, Rhys Kaminski-Jones and Francesca Kaminski-Jones
2. British Ethnogenesis: A Late Antique Story, Alex Woolf
3. Romans, Britons, and the Construction of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Identity, Michael D.J. Bintley
4. Origins and Introductions: Troy and Rome in Medieval British and Irish Writing, Helen Fulton
5. The Politics of British Antiquity and the Descent from Troy in the Early Stuart Era, Philip Schwyzer
6. Greek Gaels, British Gaels: Classical allusion in early-modern Scottish Gaelic poetry, M. Pía Coira
7. Celts and Romans on tour: Visions of early Britain in eighteenth-century travel literature, Mary-Ann Constantine
8. British Imperialist and/or Avatar of Welshness?: Caractacus Performances in the Long Nineteenth Century, Edith Hall
9. Moderns of the past, moderns of the future: George Sigerson’s Celtic-Romans in Ireland, 1897-1922, Arabella Currie
10. Alternative Histories: Crypto-Celts and Crypto-Romans in the Legendarium of J.R.R. Tolkien, Philip Burton
11. Hadrian’s Wall: An allegory for British disunity, Richard Hingley


[1] The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (2016).

[2] De Excidio Britanniae 18.

[3] Leslie et al. (2015).

[4] Freeman (1997).