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.

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