We traditionally see Roman Britain from the Rome-centred view; but how did the Britons really react? Now, a new book by Miles Russell and Stuart Laycock explores a different perspective, asking: what did the Romans truly ever do for us?
In 2010, 1600 years after the traditional date when Rome cut the province of Britannia free from imperial control, more questions than ever are being asked about what impact the 400 or so years of Roman rule had upon the native population of Britain, and the language, customs, culture and laws of those who were to follow.
The imposing ramparts of Maiden Castle, Dorset, the largest and most complex Iron Age hill fort in Britain.
Too often, when people think of Britannia today, they tend to focus on the highly visible Roman aspects of the period, such as villas, temples, sculpture, mosaics and monuments. Visits to ‘Roman’ sites are the one-stop choice for learning about Roman Britain. There is nothing wrong with that; however it does mean not much time is spent considering less Roman aspects of this time period. Just because the native population adopted some Roman ways, does that mean that the population of this very remote, rather marginal region were in fact happy members of the Roman Empire? Britain has long had a love affair with imperial systems, but perhaps the Britons of Roman Britain were not quite so enthusiastic; certainly, it appears that many of them remained largely unaffected by Roman ideas or culture.
As the passage of centuries eroded memories of the reality of Roman Britain, people seem to have taken quite an enthusiastic view of Rome and its presence here. Both British and Anglo-Saxon dynasties were keen to adopt some of the trappings of Rome, no doubt as a strategy to imply that their kings were the successors to, and equals of, the mighty emperors. This, of course, was not just something that was happening in Britain. The phenomenon of later rulers adopting the trappings of Roman power to bolster their own importance was a firmly established tradition across much of the former territory of the empire, for example in Visigothic Spain, Frankish Gaul or Vandalic Africa, and in some areas far beyond it as well.
Underfloor heating system in the commanding officer's house at Housesteads, Northumbria.
Opinion is divided in considerations of Rome in Britain as to whether the Roman Empire was or was not a ‘good’ thing. The situation facing the indigenous population of 1st century AD Britain is often depicted as if it were relatively clear cut: you were either with Rome or against her. If you sided with the Romans, the argument runs, you were either a forward-thinking visionary participating in a great social experiment, a quisling collaborator, or turncoat betraying your own people. If you took a stand against Rome, you could be viewed as either a courageous freedom fighter or a terrorist in constant fear of arrest. In reality, things were never that simple.
Most people crave stability and feel uncomfortable when presented with change, especially that over which they possess little control. There is always disruption following a revolution, coup or invasion, especially when it involves loss of life on a tragically epic scale. It is interesting, however, how quickly those that survive adapt, and attempt to continue as before. For the bulk of the population living in Britain through the Roman invasion of AD 43, the basic rhythms of life would have continued as normal. Fields were ploughed, crops grown, children and livestock reared. Only the ruling elite understood that the arrival of a foreign war-band spelled trouble. For those aristocrats on the losing side, the choices were clear: continue to resist and possibly die on the battlefield; surrender and possibly die in captivity; stay put and modify outlook and allegiance so as to find a place in the new order; or migrate out of harm’s way. For many, the question of whether they and their friends and families were fed, housed and generally well looked after was more important than what particular small group of people were ultimately in control.
Whether Roman ‘imperialism’ was something which was oppressive and fearsome, or a welcome change in lifestyle offering a new life filled with luxury products and opportunity, depended on who you were, what you wanted in life, how much cash you had, and what you ultimately had to lose. The adoption of Roman culture, customs and fashions was a necessary prerequisite for success within the new imperial order, and those influenced early by Rome were more likely to benefit.
Miles Russell and Stuart Laycock, UnRoman Britain, History Press, ISBN 978-0752455662.
Dr Miles Russell, Bournemouth University: firstname.lastname@example.org
Stuart Laycock: email@example.com
For the original, extended version of this article, see Issue 249 of Current Archaeology, December 2010.