Monday, October 08, 2012

Roman Britain – A Much More Complicated Place than Believed

Romans in Britain – Roman Rule over the British Isles

Roman Britain — Industrial Production
Roman Britain — Industrial Production (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
At some time early in the first century AD, the Greek geographer Strabo set out what he considered to be the main reason why the Romans had not pursued their initial interest in conquering Britain. The expeditions that Julius Caesar had launched in 55 and 54 BC were not followed up because: although the Romans could have held Britain, they have rejected the idea, seeing that there was nothing to fear from the Britons, since they are not powerful enough to cross over and attack us, nor was there much advantage to be gained if the Romans were to occupy it.

Eventually in 43 AD, the lame and unloved emperor Claudius, in an attempt to garner some military glory for himself, did decide that it was worth sending the legions to bring Pax Romana to this distinctly unpromising corner of the world. However, one always suspects that the Roman imperial authorities had significant reservations about their new acquisition.


When Greek and Roman writers bothered to mention Britain it was usually to pass comment on its geographical remoteness and the barbarity of its native inhabitants. Other northern frontier provinces would produce their quota of bright young things who blazed a trail in the rarefied stratosphere of the Roman court. However, these tales of success stand in stark contrast to the deafening silence that surrounds the achievements of the Romano-British elite on the wider imperial stage.
Campaigns in the Roman Conquest of Britain, 43...
Campaigns in the Roman Conquest of Britain, 43 — 60; and showing Roman military organisation in 68 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This ancient ambivalence is in marked contrast to the enthusiasm of 19th- and 20th-century writers and scholars for whom the history of Roman Britain has mattered a great deal. In an age of empire when Britannia really did rule the waves, comparisons with Rome were just too tempting to resist. Thus, the concept of Romanisation, the process through which Britain and its inhabitants became Roman, came into being. The introduction of towns, villas, baths, classical education and law to a land which supposedly had previously possessed none of these things could be comfortably equated with the civilizing mission that cohorts of British colonial administrators were engaged in around the globe.

Yet it soon became clear to the more reflective members of the British establishment that such comparisons threw up as many awkward questions as they provided neat analogies. Imperial aspirations jarred against the history of the nation. If the British were the Romans then who were the ancient Britons? Were Boudicca and Caractacus national heroes battling to preserve the independence of the island or savages who needed to be brought under the rule of civilized law?

Debates over the validity of ‘Romanisation’ as an organizing idea have dominated the study of Roman Britain ever since. Everybody accepts that Britain did change under Roman rule but there has been little agreement as to what form it took and of its impact beyond the narrow confines of the Romano-British elite. Most importantly the term ‘Romanisation’ incorrectly presupposes the existence of a single ‘Roman’ identity.

This was a valid and important discussion to have but this protracted debate over the wrongs and rights of Romanisation has driven the potentially fascinating study of Roman Britain down a tedious and over-rehearsed cul-de-sac. But we should look beyond that. If we discard Romanisation as an organizing principle and replace it with a much more nuanced model that takes account of the often very different agendas of the military, urban and rural communities, we create a more complex but also far more interesting vision of Roman Britain. By concentrating on Britain’s essential regionalism, we are able convincingly to set out the multitude of ‘discrepant experiences’ which make up the Roman past.

The paucity of literary texts means that, aside from Boudicca and the revolts, Roman Britain lacks the exciting stories which are often the bread and butter of popular history. The extraordinary amount of fiction set in Roman Britain - Beric the Briton, Puck of Pook Hill, Eagle of the Ninth and The Emperor’s Babe, to name but a few – perhaps reflects our yearning to fill in these narrative gaps for ourselves. Archaeology remains our best chance of recovering more of Roman Britain but it makes for a very different sort of history, one of qualified hypothesis and unglamorous statistics.

Popular treatments of Roman Britain both in print and on television have often quickly descended into the kind of banal exposition of ‘everyday life’ which teaches one only that the past could be every bit as dull as the present.