Last of the Free, First of the Free


Calgacus speaking to the Caledonians. Public domain image from Wikipedia.

In the year 83 AD, the legions of the Roman Empire advanced into the mountains of Caledonia – what we would now call the Scottish Highlands. The warriors who came together to meet them in battle came from many different tribes, unified to some extent by their Celtic language but primarily by their mutual refusal to be conquered by Empire.

The Roman historian Tacitus, in his description of the battle, reports a stirring speech by the Caledonian chieftain Calgacus:

But there are no tribes beyond us, nothing indeed but waves and rocks, and the yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace.

If this description seems eerily familiar, that’s because all empires are basically the same. Crime on a large enough scale to declare itself the law. Most people, then as now, would rather just live their lives and not have to deal with people depraved enough to want to rule and exploit everyone else. As Calgacus told his warriors, fighting back comes naturally to some and not to others, but “in war and battle, in which the brave find glory, even the coward will find safety”. When “obedience and submission” bring no peace, it’s safer to fight back than it is to submit – just as it is for us today with the return of fascism.

In other translations of the same speech, Calgacus refers to the Caledonians as “the last of the free” and describes the horror the Roman soldiers must have felt, surrounded by enemies in a remote wilderness:

Few in number, dismayed by their ignorance, looking around upon a sky, a sea, and forests which are all unfamiliar to them; hemmed in, as it were, and enmeshed, the Gods have delivered them into our hands.

According to the Romans, the Caledonians suffered a crushing defeat at Mons Graupius despite their confidence, but it must have been a curious sort of defeat, because the Caledonians remained the last of the free. Rather than advancing to conquer and administer Caledonia, the Romans withdrew to the south and later built fortified walls to keep the Caledonians out. Over time, the unconquered tribes to the north of the Roman walls became known as the Picts. These walls are the obvious inspiration for the massive wall in George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, as the Caledonians and their successors the Picts are the obvious inspiration for Martin’s “Free Folk.”

The Picts were the Free Folk of ancient Scotland, defying the Romans for hundreds of years and surviving to pillage the declining empire. No one can say for sure who the Picts really were. They left behind so little – enigmatic stone carvings of strange animals and abstract shapes, bleak fortifications, a few place names that don’t seem to be of Gaelic origin but still seem to be Celtic.

I feel that I have a better sense now of who the Picts must have been, but the answer was not provided by any Celtic scholar. James C.Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Southeast Asia has changed my entire understanding of Celtic history, of history in general, and of what the State really is. It has also changed my understanding of how we can liberate ourselves and our world.


The Zomia Highlands is a vast region of mountains in Southeast Asia, most of which was effectively outside the control of any state for the past two thousand or so years. Down in the valleys, among the rice farmers, states came and went as they always have. Up in the mountains, among the hill tribes, there were not only no states but often no concept of hierarchical leadership at all. Some tribes did have chiefs and elite family groups, but others did not. For instance, the Kumlao Kachin people refused to acknowledge the authority of any leaders, and had no chiefs even at the village level. The Lisu had village headmen, but granted them no coercive authority and told many stories about headmen who were murdered for telling other people what to do too often. The British colonial authorities found it so impossible to accept this state of affairs that they imposed “tribal chiefs” on peoples that had never had such a thing before.

The peoples of the valley states usually interpreted the hill tribes as barbaric or primitive, holdovers from an earlier stage of human development. Scott’s argument in The Art of Not Being Governed is that the hill tribes were not an earlier stage at all, but people who had deliberately rejected the state and placed themselves beyond the reach of its laws:

best understood as runaway, fugitive, maroon communities who have, over the course of two millennia, been fleeing the oppressions of state-making projects in the valleys — slavery, conscription, taxes, corvée labor, epidemics, and warfare. (Scott)

No pre-modern state could exist without concentrating huge numbers of people in the richest agricultural areas where they could be taxed, conscripted and controlled. They did so through slavery, through violence, and through the establishment of armies. Once this fact is understood, we can see even the earliest states for what they really were – organized criminal enterprises.

At the same time, no state could prevent people from running for the hills if they decided to do so. Like Martin’s “Free Folk,” the Zomia Highlanders were not throwbacks to a more primitive era but simply people who chose not to be governed.

Before the modern era, no state was powerful enough to assert its authority effectively in remote and mountainous areas. In the British Isles, the Scottish Highlanders were outside the control of central authority until 1745. In the Zomia Highlands, most of the tribes were outside the control of central authority until after World War II, and to some extent a few of them still are.

When the Roman Empire invaded Britain, anyone who didn’t want to be ruled by Rome could always just head north and keep on going. While the original Caledonians were probably just the people who already lived in the Scottish Highlands, there were probably huge numbers of refugees from the original conquest, from the failed uprising of Boudicca, from the civil war among the Brigantes. Escaped criminals, escaped slaves, people who didn’t want to be told what to do – the Last of the Free. I think the Picts came into existence as a maroon people, a mix of native Caledonians and Britons fleeing Roman oppression.

Multicultural Peoples

Ethnic homogeneity is supposed to be one of the defining characteristics of a “tribe,” at least when that word was still being used by reputable anthropologists. Many indigenous cultures are and have been largely homogenous, but there are some interesting exceptions to this in border regions.

Scott’s research found many exceptions to this rule among the Zomia Highlanders. Some villages in Zomia didn’t even have a single common language, with up to five different languages being spoke regularly in the same small town and some villagers unable to communicate with each other except through intermediaries. Colonial authorities found this baffling, because it was too much like a cosmopolitan neighborhood in a big European city, and not enough like their own stereotypes about “tribal peoples.” The typical bureaucratic response to this was to declare each village the territory of a particular tribe, assign a chief, and then interact with the chief as the legitimate local representative – essentially creating an ethnically homogenous hierarchical tribe where none had existed before.

Not only were the villages not always ethnically homogenous, the individual people weren’t either. Any individual hill person could often claim two or three different ethnic identities at once – including the ability to speak the languages, tell the stories and participate in the customs and ceremonies of all those identities.

This may sound bewildering, but the evidence suggests it was not uncommon in similar areas elsewhere in the world. For instance, something similar could be said of the people who lived on the border between Highland and Lowland Scotland before the 18th century, and about the Gaulish tribes near the Rhine before the Roman conquest who could claim either a Celtic or a German identity depending on circumstances.

The Gaulish example is also interesting for another reason. Just as some Zomia hill tribes allowed no chiefs and killed anyone who tried to claim the title, so did some of the Gaulish Celtic tribes. The resistance leader Vercingetorix was the son of a man who was executed by his tribe for seeking the kingship.

It’s not that the ancient Celts had no concept of hierarchy – like other Indo-European peoples, they clearly did – but at least some of the anti-authoritarian tendencies found among the Zomia peoples also manifested among some of the Celts, and some of the Celts showed the same tendency toward blurry ethnic boundaries and multiple simultaneous identities.

If real “tribal peoples” are not always homogenous and are not always hierarchical, the whole right-wing fantasy of tribalism simply falls apart. What is left is something much more interesting for us as anti-capitalist pagans – an example of how people have become free before and may yet do so again.

Apocalypse Soon

In 2016, The Intercept acquired a Pentagon training video used in a course at the US military’s elite Joint Special Operations University. The title of the video was “Megacities: Urban Future, the Emerging Complexity,” and the theme of the video was that the cities of the near future will become so vast as to be effectively ungovernable. According to the video’s anonymous narrator:

Megacities are complex systems where people and structures are compressed together in ways that defy both our understanding of city planning and military doctrine… Even our counterinsurgency doctrine, honed in the cities of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, is inadequate to address the sheer scale of population in the future urban reality…

You read that right. Although the American military’s strategic planners seem to believe that these megacities will become “subterranean labyrinths,” (what a lovely, chthonic thought!) producing “sophisticated illicit economies and decentralized syndicates of crime” and divided up into autonomous neighborhoods with their “own social code and rule of law,” it does not propose to regain control over these future cities once control has been lost.

Why? Because it already knows there will be no way to do so. Other Army reports obtained by the Intercept make the same admission in even clearer terms:

the Army is currently unprepared. Although the Army has a long history of urban fighting, it has never dealt with an environment so complex and beyond the scope of its resources… U.S. Army is incapable of operating within the megacity…

Because the military knows that no one will be able to govern these massive cities, it does not propose to even try. Instead the goal will be containment – segregating the rich, affluent areas of the city under the rule of law from the vast slums of the now self-governing poor. Just as it was in the declining days of the Roman Empire, the Army’s job will be to maintain the frontier against the barbarians, not to attempt to reestablish control.

Is all of this merely a contingency plan, a possibility the Army wants to prepare for even though it probably won’t happen? Not according to the video:

This is the world of our future… It is one we are not prepared to effectively operate within and it is unavoidable.

Note the choice of language. They’re not even talking about trying to control these megacities, only to “operate within” them as one player among many. And they’re not even confident they can do that much.

As frightening as this scenario is, it is also an opportunity. There are no longer any large Highland areas in the original sense, only small remnants of what used to be vast ungovernable spaces. But the megacities of the future will become as impossible to govern as the Highlands once were. Some of these massive urban spaces will surely be divided into oppressive and violent patriarchal societies, warlord zones with no justice and little hope. But others may become Free Territories, liberated spaces where no one is allowed to rule. In fact, it’s already happening.

Liberated Zones

Viewed by many as “an evil den of anarchists and criminals living in a neighborhood that is beyond the law,” Exarcheia is an area of Athens into which the riot police enter only in force and always anticipate fierce resistance. The area’s tradition of resistance goes back at least as far as the Athens Polytechnic Uprising of 1973, which helped bring about the end of the Greek junta. In recent years, the neighborhood’s many militant anarchists have successfully radicalized the entire area, to the extent that any incursion by the police is likely to be resisted by an immediate neighborhood uprising.

The real Exarcheia is not an “evil den” but a liberated zone, a place where the rule of the State no longer applies. The result is not an apocalyptic wasteland, but a vibrant urban neighborhood:

home to students, immigrants, Greek families of different economic strata, restaurants, cafes, computer shops, used vinyl and CD shops, terrific guitar shops, used bookshops, boutiques, clubs, bars, anarchists, drug addicts, stray dogs and just about every kind of person, except cops. The police don’t really go to Exarchia except in extreme situations because for them just to enter the neighborhood creates trouble. So on many weekends in downtown Athens you will see police and soldiers stationed strategically on corners around Exarchia, not to keep people out, but to keep large groups of anarchists or troublemakers in. (Matt Barrett’s AthensGuide)

Some people argue against anarchism because they believe that only governments can provide effective social services. Exarcheia does have social problems, like any gritty working class neighborhood anywhere in the world. It also has free and low-cost medical clinics, pay-what-you-can-afford restaurants, and refugee housing. The anarchists have proven much more committed to creating a social safety net than the Greek government has.

Just as predicted by the Pentagon’s video, the Greek security services do not attempt to govern this liberated zone, but merely to contain it. Exarcheia only remains free because its inhabitants and ready and willing to fight for that freedom, and they do live under the constant and watchful eyes of armored riot police hovering just outside the liberated area. If Exarcheia was only one of thousands of such zones, how could any State even hope to contain them?

First of the Free

Just as the ancient Caledonians under Calgacus were the “last of the free,” the people of Exarcheia and similar liberated zones could be described as the “first of the free,” the first people who have begun to escape the rule of the State. This is what anarchists mean by revolution. Not an attempt to overthrow one government and replace it with another, but to liberate space from the rule of any government whatsoever. As the megacities grow and spread, and large areas drop out of the effective control of any government, the opportunities to create new liberated zones will only multiply. The opportunities to create pagan spaces will multiply too.

In the Zomia Highlands, rebellions against centralized authority usually took the form of religious movements. A revelation from a god or spirit was often the spark for a rebellion, destroying whatever elements of institutionalized hierarchy had managed to creep in. In The Art of Not Being Governed, Scott suggested that many of the existing ethnic groups in the Zomia Highlands may have begun as rebellious sects of this type.

Our gods and our dead have been speaking to many of us; sometimes with warnings and sometimes with urgent calls to action. As pagan radicals, we have seen the things we value most being used as weapons by our enemies. Many of the fascists now marching and killing on the streets of the United States identify as heathen, think of themselves as tribal warriors and base their entire selfhood on this set of lies.

We must drive them from the streets of our cities, but we must not stop there. We must also heed the words of our dead and our gods, by creating and defending new liberated spaces. We must work together in mutual aid and solidarity, to create a thousand and then ten thousand Exercheias.

We must become the first of the free.

Christopher Scott Thompson

cst-authorChristopher Scott Thompson became a pagan at age 12, inspired by books of mythology and the experience of homesteading in rural Maine. A devotee of the Celtic goddesses Brighid and Macha, Thompson has been active in the pagan and polytheist communities as an author, activist and founding member of Clann Bhride (The Children of Brighid). Thompson was active in Occupy Minnesota and is currently a member of the Workers’ Solidarity Alliance, an anarcho-syndicalist organization. He is also the founder of the Cateran Society, an organization that studies the historical martial art of the Highland broadsword.g

Christopher Scott Thompson is the author of Pagan Anarchism, available from Gods&Radicals Press. Order it here.

4 thoughts on “Last of the Free, First of the Free

  1. Calgacus’ words are soooo relevant to his time, what comes next, and now! ‘Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep.’ This speaks to me not only of the Roman Empire in Britain and their mining but of Arthur’s raid on the underworld and all the plundering since. ‘To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace.’ For me Arthur’s uniting Britain under one King and God stems from the ideals of the Roman Empire and led to the formation of the British and Anglo-American Empires. Right now, like the Roman and British Empires, the Anglo-American Empire is falling…

    Fascinating correlations between the Caledonians and Zomia Highlanders 🙂 Yes, as Empires fall the Last of the Free give the the First of the Free hope…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A stirring essay, thank you so much Christopher! It’s always good to see a seminal work of contemporary anthropology (The Art of Not Being Governed is on undergrad reading lists the world over) getting some popular exposure. It’s great that Scott’s work has encouraged you to re-think the received narrative about the late Iron Age in Europe.

    An interesting thing about Calgacus’s speech; its authenticity is actually open to question. Roman Historians and Geographers were more than happy to embellish the reports they received from elsewhere in order to create a smoother account – and it would have been hard (but not impossible) for a speech given to a bunch of Caledonian warriors before battle to reach Roman ears. As such, many Classical scholars read this speech as Tacitus using the character of Calgacus to voice the moral concerns many Romans had about imperialism – rather than what any Caledonian actually thought. This is probably why this speech resonates so much with us today; we’re very much in the same position as the Roman critics of Caesarian ambition – as with contemporary democracies, the Roman emperors used militarism abroad and rank populism at home to consolidate their power and clamp down on domestic dissent.

    One quibble – you mention “the Gaulish tribes near the Rhine before the Roman conquest who could claim either a Celtic or a German identity depending on circumstances.” My understanding has been that none of the Iron Age societies in Northern Europe ever explicitly identified as either Germanic or Celtic. Indeed, these terms were originally used by classical authors (to refer to regions – Germania – or vague broad categories of people – Keltoi), and only transformed into demonyms buttressed by linguistic and cultural distinctions by antiquarians in the Early Modern period. It isn’t that the people of the pre-Roman Iron Age would have adopted Celtic or Germanic identity as and when, it’s that these categories wouldn’t have made sense to people of the period, and thus wouldn’t have been adopted at all. Not that I think this detracts from your argument at all; rather, I think it strengthens it. Despite often positioning themselves as representing a deep atavism in the European mind; in reality the categories that the far right base their theories around are actually very recent constructs, with no basis in how people in ancient times actually understood or defined themselves.


    1. Thank you for your thoughtful and detailed comments! I was thinking specifically of the Belgae, who were seen as distinct from other Gauls but who nevertheless spoke Gaulish. Either Caesar or one of the other Roman writers, I can’t recall for certain, said that the Belgae would sometimes claim to be German. Maybe that should be taken with a grain of salt (like the speech of Calgacus) but that’s what I was thinking of. There’s also the fact that the worship of the Matronae was common on both sides of the Rhine and among both Celtic-speaking and Germanic-speaking groups. More fuzzy boundaries.

      Liked by 1 person

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