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The Decline of Roman Britain

C.E. Stevens searches the elusive world of ancient Britain.

Many years ago a scholar discussed the history of these islands during the fifth century in a book called The Lost Century of Britain. It was not a very good book, but the title was well chosen: the disappearance of Roman Britain was a catastrophe and we are still much in the dark about how it happened. The results of the Roman withdrawal, however, are clear enough. Within a century Roman Britain became a dead civilization, as dead as the Maya civilization of Yucatan. In a.d. 400 Britain was still an integral part of a Roman Empire that embraced the civilized western world, and its administrative structure was recorded in a general gazetteer of Roman administration, the Notitia Dignitatum. One hundred years later the Roman Empire of the West had vanished, and Britain was so cut off from Rome that a subject of vital import to the world of the fifth century, a change in the date of Easter, could be matter of indifference to the English, because they were not Christian, and of ignorance to the Britons, because the news could not reach them. In a.d. 400 Britain was subject to the Roman system of agriculture, tenure and taxation; a wealthy Roman living at Rome, could hold estates in Britain, and a woman of the Dumnonii (Devonshire) could belong to a family with claims to a seat in the Roman senate—and could commemorate the fact in an inscription that has survived in a Dalmatian town. In a.d. 596, on the other hand, the missionaries despatched by Gregory the Great were afraid to come to Britain, because it was “savage, barbarous and infidel and they did not know the language”. The tenants of landowners in Roman times would have had houses built of bricks and mortar, with mosaic pavements and central heating, and have used crockery turned on the wheel by workmen producing for a mass market. A hundred years later, the English were living in squalor comparable to that of the most backward African village today, building up their own pots by hand.

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