Meet the ancient civilizations that influence your everyday life

Posted on 18 Dec 2019

'Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World' brings to life ancient civilizations that have left their trace in our language and culture. Here, discover the lingering influences of the Sabine Women, Boudica and the Goths.

Image: Boudica Statue, London

In 2013, Time magazine compiled a list of ‘the 100 most significant figures in history’. Around 40 per cent of those on the list had lived in the last 150 years, and the majority of the rest in the past 500. Yet the history of Homo sapiens spans some 200 millennia.

Our bandwidth for history is remarkably short. The further back in time you delve, the more individuals, events, and entire peoples have faded from our collective consciousness. Yet there are some distant peoples that we still acknowledge, without even realizing. These are the ancient cultures, tribes, or individuals who have left their imprint in our language, art, or ideas: Good Samaritans. The Midas touch. The Sabine Women.

But who were these people really? When and where did they live? What truth is there in the whisper that reaches us through the mists of time? Our new book, Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World, brings to life the rich diversity of peoples that paved the way for our modern civilization.

The Sabine Women (mid 8th century BCE)

Roman history is typically defined by militaristic masculinity. Yet Rome might not even have registered in the history books without the women of another, almost forgotten, tribe – the Sabines.

Ancient historians love to debate the origin story of Rome, but almost all agree that it involved early assimilation between Latin settlers on the Palatine and Capitoline hills and the Sabines, who lived on the neighbouring Viminal hill. In the more visceral version of the story, the Latin newcomers enacted a vicious land grab, rapidly fortifying their own hills and raiding surrounding settlements. By Roman myth, this included the seizure of every young Sabine woman to ensure the continuation of the Latin line.

The abduction became an enduring motif in Western sculpture and painting, including works by Nicolas Poussin and Picasso. Many modern married couples also unwittingly re-enact this violent episode. The tradition of carrying a bride across the threshold of a marital home derives from the Romans, in acknowledgement that the first brides in their city were forced.

Boudica (? – 63 AD)

One of the few female protagonists of British folk tradition, Queen Boudica is hailed as an icon of resistance against tyranny. When Britain was a patchwork of competing tribes, she led the Icenis – a prosperous people who lived across modern-day Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, with heartlands on the flat and fertile land in Norfolk.

Inter-tribal warfare was a regular feature of life in this period, with rapidly-shifting boundaries and power dynamics. But so, too, was the looming threat of Roman invasion from Gaul. When the Romans arrived in 43AD, the Iceni initially approached them as amicable allies against neighbouring tribes. But the Romans saw the Iceni as inferior subjects, readily placable to their expansionist agenda.

These differing perceptions came to a head when a Roman governor in Britain demanded Boudica’s royal property. When she declined, the men flogged her and raped her daughters. The crimes sent the Iceni into impassioned revolt. They pillaged the Roman cities of Colchester, St. Albans, and London, but were finally defeated by the training and discipline of the Roman forces.

Boudica vanished, probably committing suicide, and the Icenis were viciously wiped out over the coming years. Their story rested in relative obscurity until the late 19th century, when Queen Victoria styled herself as Boudica’s descendant and namesake, since both their names meant “Victory”. Today, a statue of Boudica stands on the Thames embankment, proudly celebrated by the city that she in fact burned to the ground.

The Goths, 376 – 800 AD

There were actually two types of Goths back in the Roman imperial days: Visigoths and Ostrogoths. As far as archaeology can tell us, neither had a particular penchant for piercing, dark hair, or black clothing. In fact, the Germanic people are typically described as tall, light-skinned, with blonde hair, and blue eyes. But they were an anti-establishment force, ultimately doing more to bring down the Roman empire more than any other Barbarian tribe.

After severe mistreatment from their Roman leaders, the Goths rose up in revolt.  They were granted Roman citizenship, as well as the use of their own weaponry and military structures rather than conscription into the Roman legions.

But the peace did not last long: the ruler Honorius later inflicted a catastrophic pogrom on the Goths, who retaliated in force. As Christians, the Visigoths spared many of Rome’s holiest places, but stripped centuries of treasure from the city. News of the sack sent a shockwave around the civilized world.

In the late Middle Ages, “Gothic” came to describe a style of architecture characterized by large, imposing structures. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it evolved to describe a genre of dark literature typified by blood, horror, and gruesome death, such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. These literary works later joined other references like Celtic mythology, Paganism, Punk, and New Wave to inform the Goth subculture that emerged in Britain in the 1980s.

Words by Eliza Apperly

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