Romanitas

Patrick Wormald

  • Roman Britain by Peter Salway
    Oxford, 824 pp, £19.50, August 1981, ISBN 0 19 821717 X
  • Roman Britain by Malcolm Tood
    Fontana, 285 pp, £2.95, May 1981, ISBN 0 00 633756 2

The history and historiography of Roman Britain abounds in paradoxes. The first and not the least of these is that one of the most obscure and geographically remote Roman provinces has attracted a literature that makes the history of Roman Greece or Syria seem peripheral by comparison. These two books are among five important general histories of Roman Britain to have been published in the last fifty years. No other part of the Roman Empire can claim as much. Yet the quantity and quality of specialist work in the field are such that both authors can claim, with some justice, that a new übersicht is needed.

Roman Britain was itself paradoxical. Clearly, it was highly prized by Rome. It was defended by a standing army infinitely greater than the regular forces available to any English ruler before the 17th century. The legions have left indelible evidence of their mighty presence, ranging from Hadrian’s Wall to the three-quarters of a million nails unearthed in a Perthshire fort which was abandoned after a few years. Yet no Imperial edicts addressed to Britain survive (probably, it is true, because British archives were out of reach when the most important legislative collection was made in 438); no Britains can be identified in the upper reaches of Imperial government and society, though natives of several other provinces attained the throne itself; and Britain was among the first provinces abandoned by the increasingly distraught fifth-century government.

Again, it is obvious that Britain was significantly Romanised. Upwards of six hundred villas are known, and more emerge all the time; there were over twenty important cities and many more small towns; a high proportion of the population was bilingual – if not monolingual in Latin. One reason individual Roman Britons are hard to identify is that those who had reached the stage of putting up an inscription had usually gone the whole cultural hog and adopted Roman names (so that they could also have been from elsewhere in the Empire); it is a rare and moving glimpse of social realities when a Corbridge inscription shows that a Syrian dealer in Roman ensigns had married a slave from the Catuvellauni, the most powerful of the British tribes who had opposed Roman conquest. On the other hand, literary culture did not apparently take root: we have nothing from the pens of known British provincials before the Christian writers, Pelagius and Patrick, from the last years of the province’s history. A simple comparison of the English and French languages shows that Romanitas was eventually lost to Britannia in ways that it was not to Gallia.

Yet again, Roman Britain can look very modern. It was the Romans who first arranged that nearly all English roads lead to London. Oysters from the Essex coast were consumed all over the province. British beer had its price fixed by government edict. More seriously, it is now thought that the population of Roman Britain was greater than that of England under Henry VII; and it seems that both coin and industrial produce were more widely distributed than for many centuries to come. Yet Roman Britain can also look strange if not sinister: many Britons were apparently buried, quite literally, in their boots, or with their severed heads between their legs; and among several hundred ‘cursing-tablets’ discovered on temple sites, we find this (written backwards) in the sacred spring at Bath: ‘May he who carried off Vilbia from me become liquid as the water; may she who so obscenely ate her lose the power of speech ...’ (eight suspects are listed, five men and three women).

The evidence available for the study of Roman Britain reflects these paradoxes. Classical historiography was on the whole uninterested in local provincial history, concerning itself only with the initial conquest, visits from the Emperor, and those occasions when he was especially worried about local defence. We therefore know quite a lot about events and conditions in Britain during the first century AD. After that, we have long blanks punctuated by the few crises that were sufficiently serious to attract the Emperor’s attention, the last of which, in the early fifth century, removed Britain from the Imperial view for good. What was written even about the rare periods of Imperial involvement could comfortably be copied into a school exercise-book. For 1066 And All That 55 BC was one of the only two ‘memorable’ dates in English history. Yet much of the history of Roman Britain is a history without dates.

It is not unusual to have little narrative information about the history of a Roman province; we probably know less about the history of Roman Spain. But the problem is compounded in Britain’s case by a lack of the sort of evidence that is available elsewhere. The provinces, cities, forts and garrisons of Britain can periodically be identified in rare Roman bureaucratic documents, but Britain’s absence from the codes of Imperial law deprives us of much administrative detail. The politics and society of other western provinces can to some extent be illuminated by private letter collections, especially in the fourth century, but from Britain there are none. Above all, the study of the vast numbers of surviving inscriptions has always been central to the knowledge of the ancient world. The inscriptions of Roman Britain run to several thousand, but even their number is a small fraction of what may be found in neighbouring Gaul. British inscriptions are commoner in the more militarised north than in the more civilised south: it seems that the inscriptional habit came less naturally even to Romanised Britons than to Roman soldiers and administrators.

What it comes down to is another paradox. Peter Salway protests twice that Roman Britain belongs to a historical, not a prehistoric period. But to a significant extent, so it seems to me, it was a prehistoric (or at least protohistoric) part of an intensely historical world. The written history of the Roman Empire gives a framework, but for anything in the way of local events or conditions we must turn to the archaeologists. Fortunately, the nature of Roman civilisation was such that archaeology is extremely rewarding in Roman Britain. A villa or a camp is relatively easily identified, and as easily dated, with any luck at all, by the pottery and coins which were so widely available in the province. In the absence of narrative or documentary sources, the history of the Roman walls can be reconstructed with some precision (if not always total unanimity) by archaeologists. One reason Roman Britain is so intensively studied may be the national obsession with all parts of Our Island Story: another is that archaeological, unlike historical, evidence is infinite, and fresh discoveries constantly modify the overall picture.

Of course, there is much that archaeology can never tell us. On its own, it cannot establish the names of officials and leading citizens, let alone their family background and actual, as opposed to relative, wealth. Archaeology has demonstrated the existence of over thirty villas in the approximate neighbourhood of the provincial capital at Cirencester. We haven’t the faintest idea who lived there, but we know how they lived. In much the same area in the early Anglo-Saxon period, we know from charters of about thirty monastic communities. In this instance, we can identify the local bishop and often the heads of the monastic houses, but we have very little idea of what most of their buildings looked like. It is an instructive contrast, and one that makes Roman Britain seem more prehistoric than Anglo-Saxon England, even though this is almost certainly a matter of the evidence that survives rather than of what was once available. So it is that, even in old-fashioned school history, pupils who memorised the dates of kings and battles drew villas when studying the Roman period; and what decorates the covers of these two books is not a picture of any known individual, but, respectively, a villa mosaic with a mythological theme and a stretch of Hadrian’s Wall. We can identify the topmost echelons of Roman government in Britain and we know a great deal about ‘daily life’, but we shall never penetrate the world of ideas and loyalties that lies between.

The result of all this is that the historiography of Roman Britain is an uneasy blend of two themes, which correspond to two academic traditions. One theme is the history of Imperial involvement in Britain, as it is scantily recorded by Classical historians; and it corresponds to the tradition of the Oxford ‘Greats’ School, with its intensive study of Classical texts, and its tendency to see the Empire as the ancient historians saw it. The other theme is the Romanisation of Britain as it is revealed by archaeology; and it corresponds to the traditions of the highly specialised subject of ‘Roman Archaeology’, with its characteristic, and unavoidable, concern with the army and the frontiers, villas and civic amenities, inscriptions, pottery and coins. All histories of Roman Britain tend to follow a similar format: the later Iron Age, Caesar and the Claudian conquest; Boudicca’s rebellion and Agricola’s campaigns; the establishment of the frontier; analytical discussion of government and society in their various aspects; the fourth century; and the end. This is the pattern dictated by the evidence: that is to say, the archaeological evidence, which takes over when narrative sources peter out (most towns and villas date from the late first to the mid-fourth century), and itself begins to fade when narrative sources resume, albeit marginally, towards the end of the province’s history.

What has been missing until quite recently is the sort of insight that might be derived from wider geographical and chronological perspectives. The historiography of Roman Britain cannot, of course, be insular in the way that that of Anglo-Saxon England has often been, because what happened was to a large extent determined by decisions taken overseas. But there has been some reluctance to understand Romano-British history in the light of what is known of other Roman provinces; or to consider the (admittedly almost impenetrable) evidence of the early Irish law-tracts for the light they might throw on the society the Romans conquered. Again, to look back at Roman Britain from later English history is to discover the increasingly strong possibility that some forms of social control and economic exploitation found in Medieval sources may go back to Romano-British roots, since they are found in Scotland and Wales as well as significant parts of England. And to apply to Roman Britain the sort of archaeological investigation that is needed for a society that did not leave many substantial stone monuments behind is suddenly, for example, to discover, almost too late, what may be learned about more intimate social levels from the careful excavation of Roman-British cemeteries.

Although both these books are recognisably and inevitably in the mainstream tradition of Romano-British studies, they also, in different ways, reflect new insights as well as new discoveries. Peter Salway’s is the first volume in the new Oxford History of England. It ‘replaces’ the volume by Collingwood, which, together with those by Stenton, Taylor and perhaps Watson, was among the successes of a not entirely happy series. He can thus afford the luxury of a leisured and expansive approach that is rarely granted nowadays to the authors of standard histories. His book is in fact twice as long as Collingwood’s, and if (as he is the first to admit) it is not as elegantly written, it is lucid and remarkably rarely dull. He likes to draw parallels with other historical periods and indeed with modern times. Some of these are not wholly successful (as when he compares the barbarian officers in the Roman army with Prince Albert or Von Braun), but others are instructive (like his comparison of the consequences for government patronage of the death of an Emperor with those of a change of President in the United States).

The drawback of writing a very big book is of course the risk that in the time it takes to write, one will be overtaken by further research. For Salway, there was the further, unenviable difficulty of constructing what is, naturally, intended as the standard work for a generation on a subject which the central importance of archaeology makes highly volatile. It is obvious that he has tried to incorporate as much as possible of what appeared when his book was already substantially complete. Thus he can give some answer to the very recent and very radical suggestion that Roman towns in Britain were effectively deurbanised from the mid-fourth century. Equally, a non-specialist can see, simply from comparing his book with Malcolm Todd’s, that some of his views have been overtaken, or at least are not shared by everyone. In the circumstances, this is hardly surprising. What must be emphasised, with no disrespect to Collingwood, are the very marked advances in the study of the subject which Salway’s book represents when compared with that of his illustrious predecessor. The trebling or quadrupling of population estimates since Collingwood’s day, and the understanding of the mechanics of the iron and pottery industries, are only two of the most startling of these.

Salway insists that he is writing a history, not an archaeology, of Roman Britain. Inas-much as the distinction is valid for this subject, his meaning is apparent from the fact that two-thirds of his book is a continuous narrative of the province’s history, interspersed with a dynamic rather than static analysis of social development: only after he has reached the ‘End of Roman Britain’ (which he puts c.500 – itself something of a revolution) does he turn to an essentially archaeological study of society, economy and religion. It is even more apparent in his unusual determination to see Roman Britain against the background of the Empire as a whole. The influence of the ‘Greats Tradition’ is strong here. Salway not only fills in the narrative background of what was happening in the rest of the Empire, but also discusses the Roman constitution and the Roman character at some length. His tone is often that of the Roman historians themselves, of Gibbon, and of so much of the writing about the ancient world which they inspired. He can write, among many other such instances, of the ‘ludicrous, scandalous, or downright abominable behaviour by emperor and imperial family’. Nowadays, medieval and modern historians rarely write that sort of sentence. Perhaps they should. Yet some contemporary ancient historians are readier than Salway to discount such judgments in their sources as vitiated by gossip and political prejudice, while Salway himself does as much in taking Claudius a good deal more seriously than Suetonius did. Despite such possible drawbacks of the ‘Greats’ approach, the overall effect of Salway’s book is that one can see how Britain fitted politically and socially into the Roman world; and Salway makes effective use of evidence from sub-Roman Gaul to show how it might all have ended. The corresponding weakness is perhaps that we see and understand less of the Celtic society which the Romans conquered, and the ways in which it did (and conceivably did not) adapt itself to Roman ways.

Malcolm Todd’s much shorter book belongs to one of Professor Elton’s many series, the admirable Fontana History of England. The books in this series tend to come in pairs, each book dealing with one of the two major themes of its period. It is not clear whether Todd’s Roman Britain will have a twin – perhaps a study of settlement and economy from Neolithic times to Domesday Book? If it does, this might explain how he was emboldened to write what is, so far as I know, the first wholly narrative history of Roman Britain, with all social and economic analysis fitted in at the appropriate point in the story.

As I have said, Todd clashes on several points of detail with Salway: notably on aspects of the pre-Roman position, and on the political and social significance of the late Roman Pelagian heresy in Britain. On this last matter at least, his views are in closer accord with the latest research. Yet in many ways the two books complement each other. Todd has very much less, proportionately as well as absolutely, about the Imperial background than Salway – so much less that some of what he says may be obscure to those without prior knowledge of Roman history in general. On the other hand, he is an acknowledged expert on barbarians of various hues, and is perhaps especially strong where Salway can be considered weakest – on the Celtic background and the ways in which it was modified or survived. He does make some use of the Irish law-tracts, and he is aware of the possible significance of post-Roman methods of rural organisation in Britain. The one exception, oddly, is Celtic religion, about which, unlike Salway, he has almost nothing to say, apart from a fashionably Druid-knocking appendix (Irish material might profitably be used on this subject). In general, he goes at a cracking pace, allowing fewer pauses for contemplation than Salway, but perhaps permitting a clearer overall pattern to emerge.

Does Roman Britain matter? In the end, the Emperors apparently thought not, and Bishop Stubbs, from a different point of view, emphatically thought not: ‘From the Briton and the Roman of the fifth century we have received nothing.’ To the outsider, the most striking single point is the extent to which, within two centuries of its severance from the Empire, society in Britain had reverted to pre-Roman type. Over much of the island the dominant language was now Germanic rather than Celtic, but many of the basic social elements seem the same: a warrior society, rurally-based, but with gradually emerging urban and commercial concentrations, and a coinage that in each case spread over much the same area. There is less continuity between Britannia and England than between Gallia and France. Why? Salway falls back on the suggestion that the Anglo-Saxons were more uncompromisingly barbarian than the Franks. But it is not clear that this is demonstrable, or indeed true; and one senses that he is not entirely happy with the suggestion. In the end, the problem must surely lie in the nature and depth of British Romanisation: at the level of the severed head rather than the villa. In Britain, after all, the Celtic language did not die out, in Gaul it did. Yet, given the nature of the available evidence, this problem can hardly be solved. It may be some consolation that it needs solving in other western provinces of the Empire too, and ultimately perhaps some help that it may be more easily solved there. But even to accept the possibility that Romanitas was in some sense a veneer is also to strengthen the likelihood that aspects of Romano-British society and culture lived on to affect the very un-Roman society that followed. In which case, Roman Britain might after all matter, very much.

One undoubted legacy from Roman Britain to Anglo-Saxon England was, Christianity. For the most part, the legacy was indirect, through Ireland, which Patrick and his fellow Britons converted, although it seems increasingly possible that Christianity survived at least in parts of pagan England. Salway is sceptical of the extent or strength of Christian convictions in late Roman Britain. To me, his scepticism seems overdone, and it will surely need modification in the light of Charles Thomas’s new Christianity in Roman Britain.[*] Both Salway and Todd seem to misunderstand the point of the well-known episode at the Council of Rimini (359), where three British bishops accepted traveling-expenses from Imperial funds: the implication of the story as we have it is that there were (many?) other British bishops not so impoverished, and in any case that the three were short of cash because they did not consider it appropriate to burden their flocks. To argue, as Salway does, from the survival of pagan cults is to overlook the point that, in early Medieval societies which can hardly not be considered Christian, churchmen waged a continuous war against rural superstitions for many centuries: in the eighth century, St Boniface protested to the Pope about pagan celebrations of New Year’s Day in Rome itself! The argument that Christianity has left few archaeological traces is conceptually dubious, quite apart from the difficulty of determining what constitutes positive evidence for Christianity in an ordinary burial. Who would have guessed that the earliest known hoard of church plate in the whole Empire would be discovered near Peterborough in 1975 and who knows how much more such evidence may turn up one day?

Above all, there is the consideration that, even when Imperial patronage of the Faith had been removed, even when the traditional position of the landowning class, whether Christian or pagan, had been undermined or transformed, Christianity is found flourishing, vigorously sprouting the Pelagian heresy and the Patrician mission alike. Is this a conceivable development for a society that was only marginally Christian in 400? Much depends on where the onus probandai is considered to lie. But it is arguable that the one respect in which Roman Britain certainly did matter to subsequent British history places it firmly on those who would minimise the reality of late Romano-British Christianity. There is symbolism as well as irony in the fact that the second and last Roman Briton who speaks to us across the centuries, in his crude but in tensely moving writings, was Patrick, himself almost the embodiment of Gibbon’s ‘triumph of barbarism and Christianity’. The victim in his youth of the chaos that ultimately transformed Roman Britain out of almost all recognition, he was also the bearer of a Roman faith beyond its shores.

[*] Batsford, 408 pp., £14.95, 26 February, 0 7134 1442 1.