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What Did the Romans Do For Us?

David Mattingly says it’s time to rethink the current orthodoxy and question whether Roman rule was good for Britain.

A stretch of Hadrian's Wall about 1 mile west of the Roman Fort near HousesteadsDespite an increasingly critical treatment of the reputations of many modern empires (the British empire included), the consensus verdict on the Roman empire remains sur prisingly favourable. It represents a nostalgic bench mark against which modern power continues to be measured – witness Boris Johnson’s 2006 TV series The Dream of Rome or the utterances of politicians on both side of the Atlantic in relation to current world events. But is this reading of the benevolent nature of the Roman empire the right one?

Although more and more books are published each year on Roman Britain, there is increasingly a mismatch between what most of them depict and what is actually known about the subject as represented by the extant body of information, greatly swelled in the last thirty years by the increased involvement of professional archaeologists in routine investigation across Britain. There has also been a lot of genuine new thinking about Roman Britain in the last twenty years, though this has not fully filtered through from specialist studies to books aimed at a popular readership. One of the problems with the current orthodoxy is that the Roman era has been cleansed of problems, allowing the story to be presented as largely one of progress and civility.

When I accepted Penguin’s invitation to write the opening volume of their History of Britain series, I did so with considerable trepidation, but also with the firm promise that I would on no account simply rehash the standard package. In addressing a twenty-first century audience, I wanted to write a book that would engage with its readers and get them to question fundamental aspects of the accepted vision of Britain under Roman rule. It would be an account of ‘Britain in the Roman empire’ and not simply another book entitled ‘Roman Britain’ – indeed, the crucial difference between these two terms is an underlying theme.

The story of Britain in the Roman Empire is very different to the sort of history that can be written for more recent periods. The relative shortage of surviving ancient literary and documentary sources is one key feature, meaning that archaeology plays a much larger part in our attempts to reconstruct the past. However, archaeology is much better at illustrating the texture of life than at providing an unambiguous narrative of events. So an account based on the archaeological record is bound to focus on the experience of living under the Romans rather than provide a minutely delineated chronological story.

The concept of ‘Romanization’ as a means of explaining cultural change in the empire has had a good run in Roman studies, but it has been much misused as a term and suffers from being understood in different ways by different people. It implies unilinear and progressive change, it encourages us to seek the lowest common de nom inator of homogeneity rather than engage with the troubling extent of cultural heterogeneity in the empire and, worst of all, the term has an unsavoury pedigree in the age of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century empires, when it was developed as an explanatory model for an admired past empire. Because of this, there has been a tendency for much scholarship on Roman Britain to promote a nostalgic and approving picture of empire – depicting a time of social progress and opportunity under the mild authority of a beneficent and paternalistic state. Romanization thus tends to position the reader close to the shoulder of the colonial representatives of Rome or to share the perspective of the wealthiest sector of society. By and large it ignores other perspectives on and experiences of imperial rule, though these encompass by far the majority of the population. Such top-down approaches were understandable in the formative years of Romano-British studies during the heyday of the modernBritish empire. They are less forgivable today in a post-colonial world. My analysis is built around the idea that various groups within Roman-British society constructed a series of different identities, reflecting discrete levels of engagement with and resistance to the imperial project.

If we concentrate on the diversity of experience of Roman imperialism and the varied responses to it, as revealed by much recent archaeology, the picture of cultural changes that emerges is more complex and less uniform than that which is often sketched using the traditional model of Romanization. In place of the generalizing and homogenizing model of Romanization, this approach focuses on the essential heterogeneity of material culture and behaviours that were used by different groups in society to define their identity and position within the Roman world. ‘Being Roman’ meant different things to the military, urban and rural communities of Britain under Rome, and this was manifested in distinctive uses of material culture and varied patterns of behaviour. For example, soldiers practised religion in a radically different way to most civilians, even if both groups were sometimes addressing the same deities.

Regional differences already existed in pre-Roman times, but were exacerbated by the varied impact of Rome on her subjects and neighbours. To talk about Roman Britain, as in the past, is shorthand for ‘only the most Roman bits’ – that is the army bases and the urban/villa landscapes of southeast England. Contrary to a common view, the roundhouse and other pre-Roman forms of habitation did not disappear rapidly after conquest to be replaced with uniform villas and rectangular farmhouses. There were profound continuities, and the lifestyles and circumstances of the rural population in some regions of Britain had changed little even by the late Roman period. Where there was change, it followed distinct regional trajectories, with some areas developing villa estates and manifesting displays of wealth much earlier than others.

Standard maps of the north and west of ‘Roman Britain’ feature clusters of Roman forts, camps and roads in an otherwise empty landscape, guarding the capital letters that spell out the names of British regional peoples. Many books similarly accept at face value the literary stereotypes of Roman sources describing the ‘barbarian other’ – warlike, nomadic, promiscuous, sub-human. There is no doubt that the Roman army inflicted damage on these supposedly primitive peoples, but invasion and resistance is not the only story to tell. The archaeological record reveals more advanced and complex societies than the literary sources allow in and beyond the frontier zones; these underwent an interesting and varied pattern of further development. The ultimate origins of independent states. Scotland, Wales and Ireland can arguably be traced to the period of contact with the Roman world. The existence and proximity of a major empire was a clear factor in the coalescence of powerful late Roman and sub-Roman kingdoms in Ulster, Pictland and Wales.

The isolated geographical location of Britain, at the very northwestern limits of the Roman empireaffected its socio-economic development. Both in the late Iron Age and Romano-British periods,Britain had a somewhat insular character, differing in important respects from neighbouring areas of the continent. The level of engagement with the Roman project and the economic development of the province were in part shaped by the fact that the British archipelago was isolated to a greater degree than other provinces. It was the end of a line of travel – you did not pass through Britain on route to other provinces.

Although colonial scholarship of modern empires has influenced my approach to the Roman empire, I did not set out to write an anti-imperial account, but tried to balance the positive and negative impacts of empire on its subject peoples. The experience of being subjects of the Roman empire may often have been challenging for the majority of the British population and the motives of the Roman state were underscored by self-interest in the exploitation of empire.

This is then a sceptical account of empire, with Britain depicted as an imperial possession, to be exploited for the prime benefit of the state. A careful reading of the evidence runs counter to the common view that the Roman conquest brought civilization and economic benefits to backward peoples – the winners in this colonial society were limited to a small number of the British elite, to the officials and servants of the state (including the army) and to an influential minority of carpet-bagging foreigners, many from northern Gaul. Far from being a prequel to Britain’s much later success as an imperial power, Roman rule was a challenging period of foreign domination that has much to teach us much about the complexity of colonial situations, the way that power operates and the resistance it elicits. It is true, of course, that Rome sought to engage (and reward) provincial elites in the imperial project. However, there are many aspects of the history and archaeology of Britain under Roman rule that are indicative of severe and sustained exploitation of the territory’s resources (human, natural and productive) by the imperial authorities. For every winner in the game of empire there were a hundred losers.

It proved a hard book to write, but hugely enjoyable to work on. I hope it offers a vision of the destiny of the British archipelago under foreign domination and rekindles discussion about the experience of incorporation into empire and life under imperial occupation. 

David Mattingly is Professor of Roman Archaeology at the University of Leicester. He is author of Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire (Penguin).

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