Saturday 10 November 2012

The End of the Tribe

Those few of you who purchased a copy of Polemos: SPQR may have noted the demise of the term ‘warband’, much loved of players of DBA, DBM and, for all I know, various other rules. In the descriptions of the different troop types I actually offer no explanation of why I have described what other rules might call warbands as ‘tribal infantry’ or ‘tribal foot’.

Firstly, of course, there was the desire to be different. The term warband had passed into wargaming language and would be freighted with certain expectations which I was by no means certain the rules would deliver. So some change in the language seemed to be required.

Secondly, my reading suggested that the expression warband should, perhaps, be reserved for the immediately available following of a chief or leader. These would be the ‘comitatus’ or noble’s retinue. According to Tacitus, the power of a noble would be displayed by the size of his comitatus, at least for the Germans, and these would be the men who rode out on raids and so on, so would be better trained and equipped.

However, the bulk of the foot for big battles would not be formed from the comitatus of the noble elite. Firstly, many of those men may have been equipped as cavalry within an army, and secondly, even if they were not, they would be likely to be the leaders of the rest of the foot. The rest of the foot would, of course, consist of agricultural labourers, peasant farmers and the like.

As Polemos: SPQR was designed to be a big battle rule set, I decided that the term warband would be unhelpful, and renamed by foot of the northern barbarians ‘tribal’.

Recently, I have read a very interesting paper, entitled ‘Detribalizing the later prehistoric past: Concepts of tribes in Iron Age and Roman studies’ (T. Moore, Journal of Social Achaeology 11(3) 334-360 (2011)), which I happened on by accident. In this paper Moore examines the idea of tribes in late pre-Roman Britain. The conclusions do not bode well for my nomenclature.

Essentially, as I understand it, Moore argues that the first sighting we have of tribes in Britain is during the second century AD. That is both Tacitus and Ptolemy note certain tribes and locations within Britain which they describe as ethnic and geographical entities. Thus, we get maps based on Ptolemy of the tribal areas of Britain, with such stars as the Votadini in the Scottish Borders and the Brigantines in the north.

The issue is, of course, that there is precious little evidence for these tribes existing before the invasion by the Romans. While Caesar encountered native forces, he does not really describe them as a distinct tribe. Indeed, at one point he observes that there were four kings in Kent (Conquest of Gaul V.22), an area usually described as belonging to the Cantiaci alone.

There are also issues of translation hidden in these depths. The texts of the authors of note here were often translated into English by men during the nineteenth century. As such, they imported into the texts a number of imperial and colonial concepts, such as tribe and state and nation. These terms are interpretations of such words as ‘civitas’ and ‘gens’ and may not have a one to one relationship with our concepts of their translations as ‘tribe’ or ‘people’. Confusion thus can abound.

Moore then goes on to suggest that, before contact with the Romans, there was no such thing as a tribe in Britain, and that the tribes described in the second century were formed by reaction to the invasion of the country.

The narrative goes something like this: The first contact was via long distance trade and gave the elite extra clout, as they were the people obtaining the valuable trade goods. Thus the elite became more so. Then, when the invasion happened, war leaders emerged who either were already the elite, or became so. As the Romans occupied the country, they would deal with the native elite only on terms that the Romans understood, that is, only by dealing with a select few of native nobles who were held responsible for the behaviour of the rest of those that the Romans defined as their responsibility.

The upshot of this, of course, is to argue that the tribes of Britain were, effectively, Roman constructs, together with the cities which are attributed to them. These were the places where the Roman administration decided to administrate from, and the conquered peoples had to conform. Even in a hostile colonial situation, there has to be some sort of contact between conquered people and conquering forces, and this contact is conducted on the terms of the conqueror.

This has a number of consequences for some  of the ideas that are around of the continuity of these tribes from pre-history through the Roman era to post-Roman kingdoms and  even, as has been claimed, to the English county boundaries. The fact is that, even if continuity can be traced from the Roman imposed ‘tribal’ system, the geographical boundaries cannot be traced through a stable tribal system pre-dating the Romans. Such a thing simply did not exist, and it is doubtful that the aboriginal Britons thought in those terms anyway.

So, what does this have to do with wargaming?

Well, as I mentioned above, I renamed warbands as tribal foot. Perhaps that term too is freighted with ignorance, and I should find some other description. It has to be said, though, that ‘political entity imposed by the Romans foot’ lacks a little as a snappy term for wargame rule use.

Aside from that, I think what this shows is that we need to be very careful in terms of our assumptions about the political entities from which our toy soldiers spring. Mostly, we have assumptions which, as the above shows, are based on nineteenth century concepts such as ‘tribe’ and ‘nation’ which may not fit the originals entities which they were designed for. History, for those who care to look into it, is fraught with these sorts of difficulties.


  1. Have had a look at Peter Heather's "Empires and Barbarians". There's some excellent discussion there about the politics of Germanic societies, especially the 'tribes' that turn out to have half-a-dozen kings of various degrees. The Alamanni, for instance, had thirteen kings at one point - and yet there seems to have been a real lasting nature to the confederation, they weren't just a vague agglomeration. The peasant class ('freemen', Heather classifies them as, to distinguish from 'retainers' and 'freedmen') also crops up a lot in his discussions: his claim is that overcoming strong resistance requires their mobilisation, but since they must be promised something in return, this provides an incentive for a different kind of warfare from raiding.

    The other thing that struck me here was a comparison with the difficulties in nineteenth century histories of the Middle Ages, as they back-projected nation states onto feudal society.

    1. Hi,

      Perhaps the view of the 'tribe' is far too much a projection of modern historiography onto pre-modern societies. We just don't have the words to describe the different evels of 'king' found (and, perhaps, nor did the Romans).

      Mind you, I do ownder what a Gallic description of say, Caesar, would look like; maybe they would have used a cognate of king.

      I don't think the claim described in the post indicates that there were no long lasting structures, more that we have little evidence for them and their nature, and later evidence for them is, well, later...

  2. I am intrigued by his comments but have not yet read the article. It's sitting on my desktop waiting for a free moment. Does he propose an alternative social organisation?

    Regarding the kings in Kent, and elsewhere, the use of the term king may well be a misnomer. It might be better to call them warlords or chieftains, purely because the term king is loaded for us with a wide variety of baggage. This is certainly the case in the Germanic societies that I have studied.

    The idea that there were no tribes in Britain before the Romans seems a little far-fetched, but I'm sure that depends upon one's definition of tribe. I really must get round to that article, now that you have made me aware of it.

    1. Hi,

      I think he does not mean that there were no tribes in pre-Roman Britain, but that the 'big' structure of the top dozen or so listed by Ptolemy did not exist, or at least there is no evidence for them.

      So he is suggesting a lower level of structure. The major tribes, such as Brigantes, only came into existence with the pressure from the Roman invasion and reorganisation of the tribes in response to it.

  3. David,
    I wanted to congratulate you on ditching the term 'warband', which as you said, should properly be applied to a noble's comitatus, housecarls, household knights, whatever - a different thing altogether to the wargames use of the term. (Not sure what the correct term should be - Rising out, Home Guard?)

    I'll have to read this article, but 'I hae ma doots', as my wife would say. Ok, I understand that a colonial power will tend to see native culture in its own terms; it's what we did in India, referring to native officials as 'squire' or 'magistrate', so maybe the written evidence is not that reliable.
    Not sure what constitutes lack of evidence though; British kings were minting their own coinage before the Romans arrived, and the size and power of some of our hillforts argues for some sort of organisation above the local village elder.

    However, assuming the function of a king (chief, leader) is to provide protection, dispense justice and perhaps provide public works, such as roads, for his people, what is the possibility of constantly changing 'tribes' as each community offers its allegiance to whichever king seems best able to provide these things? We have an assumption that there is some sort of familial or territorial link holding the tribe together, but maybe it's not as permanent as that.
    Maybe tribes came and went over time, and all we have is a snapshot of a particular moment taken by Tacitus or Ptolemy, etc, and fitting the British into a neat Roman-like organisation? The Romans didn't have much patience with irregularity.

    Every morning on my way to work, I cross an iron age earthwork. (500BC or so, the experts reckon.) It stretches from the (Brigantian) hill fort at Wincobank, parallel-ish to the River Don, bifurcating at one point to become two supporting earthworks, all the way to Mexborough - 15 miles. Surely this can only be a boundary between 'them' and 'us' - you couldn't defend it. If not a tribal boundary, then surely something very similar.

  4. Must have passed very close to that site several times travelling to and from work the other year. Wish I'd known it was there.

  5. Hi,

    I think it is certain that the Romans influenced at least southern Britain from about the 150's BC, and that included moving towards a coin based economy because the native elites needed cash to buy luxuries. They even as you say, started to mint their own.

    Quite what the effect of this was is unclear, but a lot of hillforts were, in fact, abandoned at this time, although I don't think the link between these events is at all clear.

    I do suspect that tribal boundaries were fluid, though. It is a western thing to look for real boundaries on the ground - I think I've mentioned before the Aztec empire wasn't an empire by, say, nineteenth century standards.

    On the other hand, your earthwork probably does indicate some sort of boundary, unless it is some sort of 'ritual' site. But then, our distinction between ritual and, say, politics is often far more rigid than it used to be.