This last Christmas was, for me, a case in point. I had noticed the book ‘UnRoman Britain: Exposing the great Myth of Britannia,’ by Miles Russell and Stuart Laycock (2010, Stroud: History Press) a while ago, and thought rather little of it. I am something of one for judging a book by its covers, and subtitles like ‘exposing myths’ tend to set alarm bells ringing, along the same lines that ‘sensational new revelations’ about the family life of Jesus, or the Freemasons and their conspiracy to take over the world, or whatever other silly story happens to be running riot in the world at the moment.
Still, it has to be said that Russell and Laycock have a book with some very nice illustrations in, and so that is where I started to look. After that, slightly intrigued, I actually sat and read the text. Now, I’m not saying that the arguments have entirely convinced me, nor that what they are saying is entirely new, but there was sufficient of interest to make me read to the end and to feel happy at the investment of my time in doing so.
The overall thesis of the work is not, despite the claims on the cover, new. I was not aware before reading this that Britannia was a particularly well Romanised province and the author’s claim is that it was not. Fair enough. They put their case through archaeological finding and literature and come up with the idea that in Britannia only the top one or two per cent of the population ever bothered to become culturally Roman.
They also suggest that our picture of Roman Britain as Roman is due firstly to the artefacts of Roman occupation which we see around us, such as Hadrian’s Wall, assorted towns and so on, and the Victorian’s desire to legitimize their own empire. For that, the Victorians had to link the civilising achievements of the Roman Empire to the aspirations of a civilising British one and to argue that both had bought more benefits to the occupied than they had inconveniences. These arguments may have been as unconvincing to the British natives of the first century AD as they might have been to the average African of the 1880’s, but that was not really the point.
However, the thing that really struck me about the book was the bit towards the front discussing how the Romans actually came to be in Britain in the first place. I wrote a bit ago about how the impact of Rome changed the native British culture, in particular creating tribes by demanding some point of contact in the local structure. That may or may not be true, but certainly, even the standard history of pre-conquest Britain allows the Gallic wars and trade with Rome to have an impact on the British. For example, the Gallic wars led to the circulation of coins, and even the issue of them. Trade allowed the elites easier access to foreign luxuries and so on.
There is also some archaeological evidence for actual Roman military presence on the south coast by 30 AD, that is about fifteen years before the invasion. Now, unfortunately there is not enough evidence to determine what was going on, but it seems to me to be a reasonable enough guess that the Romans were there to protect their interests, be that in terms of trade or of protecting client kingdoms. As Russell and Laycock indicate, this was fairly standard practice with the Romans (p 40).
What happened in the 40’s AD seems to be that when Cunobelinus died (AD 40-3) he left the Romans with an undesirable situation in Britain. The British who felt they should be in power but were not appealed to Rome for help, and Claudius did what any good Roman general did in such circumstances, and attacked with full vigour and total lack of proportion. Within months the Romans were in Colchester receiving the surrender of British kings and proclaiming peace, good will and beneficence to all.
Now, strategically, the Romans wanted to strike west, towards the mineral reserves of Wales, the Mendips and Cornwall. Somehow, after all, empire had to pay for itself. To do this, they needed to secure the acquiescence, at least of the northern flank of their operations, and this meant the Iceni and the Brigantes.
The Iceni were largely left alone in the 50’s AD, and there is suggestion that they were, effectively, paid off by Roman gold, which is a classic client relationship. On the death of Prasutagus, the husband of Boudicca, things changed, however. Client kings negotiated settlements individually with Roman emperors. The death of one or the other required re-negotiation. Instead, Nero’s agents demanded repayment of loans and the Romans generally started to behave as if they owned the place and the people. Revolt was the next step.
The Brigantes were a bit more complex, but the loss of the client kingdom there was due to internal politics rather than Roman management techniques. Cartimandua was the victim of a palace coup and had no immediate aid from the Roman guarantors of her regime. The Romans managed to rescue her, but the die was cast for an occupation in due time and Brigantia was overrun in the 70’s AD.
So, the trajectory of Roman occupation can be seen to be a classic exercise in Roman dealings with client states, and of course divide, conquer and bribe politics. Is it any wonder that Britain rejected Romanisation?