One Stock and Nation

Christopher Kelly

  • The Recovery of Roman Britain 1586-1906: A Colony so Fertile by Richard Hingley
    Oxford, 389 pp, £83.00, June 2008, ISBN 978 0 19 923702 9

The history of Roman Britain has always been – perhaps predictably – more about Britain than about Rome. For those committed to our island story, the Romans, after all, are something of an embarrassment, as invaders and occupiers who brutally suppressed native independence movements. Even if conquest can be glossed with more comfortable ideas of civilisation, there is still the nagging problem of the Dark Ages: the inability of the British to maintain good order once the legions had been withdrawn. It was several centuries before towns were rebuilt, roads straightened and the hot water reconnected – and longer still before the locals started taking regular baths again.

Britain was one of the last provinces to be added to the Roman Empire. In the summer of 54 BC, in one of his least successful military adventures, Julius Caesar marched briefly through Kent and Essex before returning to France. Not a single Roman soldier was left behind. Caesar rightly reserved his famous bon mot – veni, vidi, vici – for his campaigns in Pontus on the southern shore of the Black Sea. Britain was annexed a century later by the otherwise unmilitary Claudius who, once his generals advised that victory was certain, sailed from Boulogne with reinforcements.

Most accounts of Roman Britain pass quickly over the initial shock of conquest and the difficulties it raises. There is often a willingness to accept the Romans’ own justifications for their empire: that whatever the costs of conquest, these were more than outweighed by the benefits of imperial civilisation. In the much quoted words of Virgil (the Kipling of the Roman Empire):

Roman, remember through your empire to rule
Earth’s peoples – for your arts are to be these:
To pacify, to impose the rule of law, To spare the vanquished and war [sic] down the proud.

On this view, what matters is not the brutality of subjugation, but the relationship between rulers and ruled. In his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Churchill took up the theme: ‘For nearly three hundred years Britain, reconciled to the Roman system, enjoyed in many respects the happiest, most comfortable and most enlightened times its inhabitants have had.’ More recently, it has been fashionable among archaeologists – carefully distancing themselves from Churchill’s ethnic nationalism – to emphasise that Romano-British culture was an amalgam, a complex process that created common ground between conquerors and the (surviving) conquered.

This happy state of affairs is central to the presentation of Roman Britain in the classroom. The national curriculum includes the study of Roman Britain in Key Stage 2 for seven to 11-year-olds. It asks that pupils undertake ‘an overview study of how British society was shaped by the movement and settlement of different peoples in the period before the Norman Conquest and an in-depth study of how British society was affected by Roman or Anglo-Saxon or Viking settlement’. In this pedagogical version of the past, only the Normans conquer; the Romans are quietly absorbed into a longer and more pacific narrative of ‘movement and settlement’. Museums have obligingly followed the national curriculum. The British Museum website (to take just one example) invites visiting school parties to ‘uncover unique remains and treasures from Roman Britain. Find out about how Britain became part of Rome but developed its own distinct identity as a province of its empire.’ Virgil would be delighted.

Richard Hingley’s book deals with the troublesome process of uncovering Roman Britain. This is difficult territory. He explores how, between 1586 (the date of William Camden’s Britannia) and 1906 (when Francis Haverfield’s lecture on ‘The Romanisation of Roman Britain’ was published), the Romans were accommodated in narratives of Britishness: ‘This book explores how ideas derived from the Roman domination of Britain were articulated in the definition of nationhood between the 16th and early 20th century.’ In other words, it is a thoughtful history of the history of Roman Britain.

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