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The Bridge To An Empire

Agricultural Practices of the Atrebates

Before an Empire crossed a Channel and made for an Isle, there were quiet tribes living amongst mountains and streams, forests and ice, knowing little of how Rome was slowly spreading out into the world. One of them was the Atrebates, or “the Villagers,” who made their home in France and the south of England. From 50 BC onwards, they were one of the most powerful tribes in Britain, a country fertile and green beneath its blistering cold, where tribal lords ruled the rolling hills and wide plains of an ancient land.

The Atrebates lived near the fertile Thames floodplain, where the silt-rich soil gave birth to wheat and barley, and provided a means of living for the members of the tribe. Tribal structure, indeed, was based on the belief that everyone had to serve a practical purpose within the community, and that everyone in the tribe had to work towards feeding it and defending its territory. As a result, the Atrebates tilled their land, raised their crops, and tended to their livestock for a greater part of their lives. Pigs and sheep were especially important to the tribe: the former provided meat, lard, and leather, while the latter was used to produce wool and fabrics.

The Atrebates, like the rest of Britain’s pre-Roman tribes, worshipped gods. Theirs originated mostly from a culture deeply grounded in the fertility of the earth, in what the soil could offer, and how it could keep the tribe alive. Fertility was power – admired, revered, and feared, as it spelled the survival of the Atrebates. Fertility and land dictated lives, the distribution of people, territorial disputes, and spiritual concerns.
England seemed to be a green gem from afar, and to it, the Roman Empire was drawn. This migration, however, from “civilized” lands to “uncivilized” ones, was not much welcomed by the tribes. The Atrebates were one of the few to embrace the Romans, and one of the first to be Romanized, so much so that their capital was converted into a Roman city. The Calleva Atrebatum, or “Wooded Town,” became the center of commerce and justice, and the crossroads through which goods and soldiers traveled.
Trade and agriculture grew under the Romans, and Britannia became a granary and metal workshop. From the mountains came lead and silver. From the fields came barley, wheat, and flax. Animals such as cattle, dogs, pigs, sheep, and goats filled the yards. Together, the Romans and Britons tilled land, cast coins, and celebrated harvests. They even produced a brew called cervesa, or cervesia, also known as Celtic Beer.

And, from out of the huts and small villages rose Roman villas, which could produce goods in surplus, and into which imports from the continent – such as fish sauce, wine, and spices – flowed. Agriculture was still the primary activity – crop rotation was practiced in the fields, grain was stored in barns, and water-powered mills and drying ovens abounded.

The same continued to be so over the next few hundred years. The Atrebates remained upon their lands, served their masters or watched over their slaves, and merged their pagan rites with Roman ones. Rome, however, was slowly in decline, loosening its hold upon its colonies, and leaving the Atrebates and its companion tribes in an Isle once more, across a Channel, untouched by an Empire – save for the vestiges of villas, the figments of the grandeur of Rome, and walls and memories built by soldiers and tribesmen who once worked side by side.

For more information on the Atrebates and Roman Britain, read Roman Villas And The Countryside by Guy de la Bedoyere at

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