Saturday 2 February 2013

The Right Flank of Roman Britain.

Every once in a while Santa comes up with the goods. I mean, your nearest and dearest ask you what you’d like the old man to bring for you in December, and you reply with something vague like ‘Oh, something on Roman Britain’, expecting to receive a worthy but dull tome on the Romans, the British or something in between. Having a broader eye, however, your nearest and dearest then supply Santa with something that you would never have touched with a barge pole, which actually turns out to have some very interesting ideas in it.

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?


  1. There now. We must have the same santa. Me Mam got me this one for Christmas and it's been on the 'pending' heap ever since.
    Might have to dust it off.

    She also got me 'The heirs of King Verica' by MArtin Henig - knowing my Romo-sceptic feelings, I suppose. I'm finding this quite hard work - seems to be written by someone who would be happier writing a novel but can't be arsed to think of a plot. Don't know if you've encountered this one.

  2. Hi,

    I've not read King Verica, but I did see it advertised as 'academic' which may be why it is heavy going. Russell & Laycock in fact refer to it briefly. I suspect the argument is similar, in that the Romans had little impact on Brtiain except some ruins and the whole cultural and political heritage comes from the iron age.

    Russell & Laycock's big win, for my anyway, were the nice colour photos of sites and artifacts.

  3. I think the problem with 'Verica' is the reverse - it's the periodic snatches of fiction which make it hard going - it's very off-putting.
    However, Henig's model is that Togodubnus was brought up in Rome and thought Romanitas was best, and it was the British upper class such as him which drove it forward, in South Britain, at least. You get the feeling that the Romans themselves were fairly incidental to the process. I hae ma doots, as my missus would say.

    However, I was surprised by the assertion that some British tribes in the south east spoke a Germanic language as far back as this. What do you think?

  4. I doubt if the Romans were really incidental. My vague mental model is of increasing trade across the Channel leading to Roman interests in the British ports, leading to Roman protection of those ports, leading to Roman involvement with British politics to protect Roman interests, leading, ultimately, to Roman 'invasion' when the situation got just too difficult and complex.

    Much like the British in India, I suspect.

    As to the language, I doubt if there is any particularly good evidence about it. I'm not aware that the culture in the SE varied radically from the rest, so I'd not really believe it without some knock out bit of data.

  5. Absolutely - that's exactly how I see it, and the parallels with Britain in India are very striking. While the British monarchs were important to the process - and some of them did very nicely out of it,thank you - I'm not convinced they were quite as central as this book suggests.

    I'll look back in the book to see what the thinking behind the Germanic claim was.

  6. David,
    I found the comment, such as it was.
    It said that some new evidence is about to be presented by Yeates that British tribes in the south east spoke a Germanic language. 'Verica' was published in 2010, so I don't know if 'about to be' has now come to pass.

  7. Hi,

    well the only reference I can find on a quick Google Scholar to Yeates (SJ) a review in Britannia of a 2009 book (The Tribe of Witches: The Religion of the Dobunni and Hwicce) which the review politely but comprehensively slates, with such comments as 'very few pages are free of basic errors'.

    Not one I'll be adding to my Christmas list, I think, and I cannot find anything more recent by Yeates.

    One fears an over productive imagination....

  8. Just so. I probably need to warn my santa as well.


  9. "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."

    I'd have my doubts about the thesis, though I'll cheerfully admit that I know little of ancient British society and what I do know is gleaned from the pages of Asterix.

    However, if the 19th century British scholarship can be accused of drawing parallels between their situation and the Roman one - can not the same argument be levelled against contemporary scholars. We live in a multi-cultural society which believes that no-one culture is best (so long as one is democratic, Western and rich), therefore the idea that one culture could substantially change another by fiat is not one that the average 21st century observer likes.

    If I'm spared, I really am quite looking forward to seeing our sacred cows as roughly handled by our grandchildren as we have mocked the sacred cows of our grandparents.

    1. I doubt that the Roman particularly thought in these terms either, but the Victorians wanted something to link their civilizing greatness to.

      Of course, in 100 years time or so, some scholar might be investigating this ridiculous sub-culture of grown men playing with toy soldiers, and what it tells us about 21st century society...

      One of the most interesting things I've read recently was about the ancient belief that rubbing a magnet with garlic destroyed the magnetism. As magnets were precious, no-one actually dared do it.

      Now, we can laugh or smile, but the author then asked 'what are our magnets today?' Maybe one answer would be international banking; it is said we cannot do without it, but have we tried recently?