History & Myth
Whether the Romans actually invaded Ireland is open to debate. We do know the Romans invaded and occupied Britain, starting with Caesar’s brief stay in 55 BC , when he did nothing more than reconnoiter
a small portion of southeast England. A year later he returned with five legions, fighting several battles
with the Britons. For his efforts he was rewarded not with the precious metals and jewels rumored to
abound on the island but with cattle. Caesar withdrew and it was not until 43 AD that the Romans
returned, this time under the Emperor Claudius and with 50,000 men. The Romans quickly established
a strong foothold in southeastern England but progress slowed as they moved west and north, Wales
proving particularly difficult.
A major revolt in 61 led by the Amazon-like redheaded Queen Boudicca reversed Roman progress for a
time but Roman legions were soon on the march again. Agricola completed the conquest of Wales during
the mid-late 70s and in 79 crossed the Cheviot Hills into Scotland. By 81 he had completed his conquest
of the Lowlands and cast a covetous eye on Ireland. Tacitus tells us Agricola sent Agrippa and a reconnaissance force into Ireland. Upon Agrippa’s return, Agricola immediately began preparing for a
large-scale invasion of the island and conspiring with an exiled Irish chieftain. It is thought Agricola sent troops to Ireland and that they fortified a beachhead for the legions that would follow. However, politics back in Rome now interfered. Agricola’s successes and his rising prominence worried the Emperor
Domitian and he refused to send the reinforcements Argicola would need.
In Ireland fear of a Roman invasion spread throughout the island. In response, a body of crack troops
was organized that would go down in history as the Fian, and the warriors themselves as Fenians. The
Fian was akin to a national militia with the many clans of Ireland contributing men and supplies to the
body. A candidate for the Fian had to pass a series of tests that not only evaluated his physical prowess but also his language skills and knowledge of poetry and history. Once accepted, he had to endure rigorous training and take vows of chivalry, which included, not surprisingly, an oath to stand and fight against
all odds, but also an oath to be gentle with all women. Normally, there were three battalions of Fian, each with 3,000 men, although there were times when the Fian boasted seven battalions. The Fian was active
for nearly two centuries before it succumbed to the clan and factional divisions that plagued Ireland.