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the nagging problem of the Dark Ages: the inability of the British to maintain good order once the legions had been withdrawn.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.

Camden has a good claim to have invented the subject. His Britannia (first published in Latin and then, revised and expanded, in English in 1610) offered a clear view of the contemporary relevance of Britain’s Roman past. He presented the work as a ‘chorography’ or description of the landscape: in it, he toured England systematically, naming, surveying and classifying Roman remains and, where possible, using these to explain or supplement classical literary accounts. Camden emphasised the importance of his extensive, and often arduous, field trips. ‘I have travailed over all England for the most part; I have conferred with most skilfull observers in each county.’ Here was an expert guide who knew how to read the countryside. At Richborough in Kent, Camden recognised the value of crop marks in revealing the extent of Roman settlement: ‘When the corne is come uppe a man may see the draughts of streetes crossing one another: (for, wheresoever the streetes went, there the corne is thinne).’

For Camden, the Romans were irreducibly part of British history, just as their traces were indelibly written on its terrain. Most important, as Hingley stresses, ‘Camden developed the significant proposal that Roman culture had been passed through to the population of ancient Britain as a result of Roman contact and conquest.’ It was Roman intervention that had ensured ‘the society of civill life’ and ‘chased away all savage barbarisme from the Britans minds’. The result was the creation of a new identity. ‘And meet it is we should beleeve, that the Britans and Romans in so many ages, by a blessed and joyfull mutuall ingrafting, as it were, have growen into one stocke and nation.’ But there were visible limits to the Romans’ success. In marked contrast to his study of the southern counties of England, Camden’s brief survey of Scotland and Ireland recorded hardly any Roman material. The Picts’ Wall (not commonly known as Hadrian’s Wall until the 19th century) marked the boundary of civility. ‘The wall, the most renowned workes of the Romans, which was the bound in times past of the Romane province; raised of purpose to seclude and keepe out the barbarous nations, that in this tract, were evermore barking and baying (as an ancient writer saith) about the Roman Empire.’ The north-south divide was clearly legible on the landscape.

Camden’s account of an island separated by Roman-inspired civility was not seriously challenged until the 18th century. Hingley presents a careful and detailed history of antiquarian accounts of the wall and Scotland. Most striking are the claims made for a settled Roman presence in the Lowlands. Robert Sibbald, geographer royal for the kingdom of Scotland under Charles II, suggested that the barrier between civilisation and barbarity was not the Picts’ Wall but Graham’s Dyke (the later turf rampart, now known as the Antonine Wall, built 100 miles north, between the Clyde and the Forth). Sibbald argued in his Historical Inquiries (1707) that finds of Roman coins south of Graham’s Dyke demonstrated that ‘the Romans stayed long in this Country: They did introduce Order and Civility where ever they came, and by the Arts and Policy they taught our Ancestors, they tamed their Fierceness, and brought them to affect a civil life.’

This image of a divided Scotland was sharpened by the suppression of the Jacobite uprising of 1745. Some of those commissioned to ensure the effectiveness of Hanoverian rule in the Highlands saw themselves as completing an imperial mission that had been abandoned by the Romans. Hingley provides an excellent account of the work of William Roy. In 1750, with the support of the Duke of Cumberland, Roy was responsible for mapping the whole of mainland Scotland at a scale of one inch to a thousand yards (1:36,000). He also surveyed Roman remains. The pattern of Roman camps, forts and roads which he traced in the Lowlands offered an instructive parallel with the construction of fortifications and military highways in the Highlands begun under George Wade in the 1720s and 1730s. On Roy’s detailed maps, the past and present were visibly united in one imperial enterprise.

The close connection between conquest and civility suggested by the (Roman and Hanoverian) subjugation of Scotland was not always appealing to antiquaries in England. Two of the most important – John Horsley and William Stukeley – paraded, like Camden and Roy, their first-hand knowledge of Roman monuments. Horsley assured readers of Britannia Romana (1733) that in gathering the materials for his chorography ‘several thousand miles were travelled on this account, to visit antient monuments, and re-examine them.’ From his own observations, Stukeley insisted on the civilian character of the south of Roman Britain. He questioned the conventional interpretation of mosaic floors – mostly isolated finds in ploughed fields – as evidence of military encampments. John Pointer, in a pamphlet published in 1713 on the recently discovered Stonesfield pavement in Oxfordshire, explained that Roman commanders on campaign had ‘amongst the rest of their Baggage … little square bits of Bricks and Marbles, about the bigness of Dice … sufficient to pave the Place where they set the Praetorium, or General’s Tent’. (It is clear that Pointer hadn’t thought through the military logistics of his explanation.) Stukeley, who had recorded mosaics discovered in the 1730s near his home in Northamptonshire, rightly suggested that these floors were the remains of Roman villas, and significant evidence of a permanent civilian presence.

This tranquil image of a province settled under Roman rule was further reinforced by an emphasis on the foundation of cities. Hingley offers well-observed accounts of 18th-century excavations and research in London, Silchester (in Hampshire), Chichester, York, Bath and Manchester. Opinion, as Hingley points out, was sharply divided on how to interpret the contribution of Romans and Britons to these cities. In London, Christopher Wren (whose survey of the Roman city remained unpublished until 1750) suggested that burials found during the construction of St Paul’s Cathedral belonged ‘to the Colony where Romans and Britains lived and died together’. In his History of Manchester (1771), John Whitaker imagined a cosmopolitan way of life that was ‘partly Roman and partly British’, a direct result of ‘the speedy growth of civility and the rapid progress of politeness among the natives of the north’. This was a contented world. ‘The northern Britons were thus happily adopting the elegant refinements of the Italian politeness.’

Others were much more sceptical of the locals’ ability to embrace Rome. In his expansive study of York (published in 1736), Francis Drake, a surgeon by profession, emphasised the importance of the city’s Roman past. York had been an isolated outcrop of civilisation in northern England, the ‘settled station of a large army of Roman soldiers’. York was a mini-Rome, a ‘perfect model of the great city itself’. Here there could be no mingling with the natives. Indeed, Drake complained, at times the Britons had ‘divested themselves of their reason, as well as cloths, and run naked into the mountains, to starve among their few unconquered countrymen … like the Hottentots of Africa, who have thrown off the finest garments, and left the cosiest diet, to besmear their bodies with stinking grease, and fall to gnawing, again, of dirty guts and garbage.’ For Drake, nakedness and politeness were incompatible. Camden had been mistaken, in Roman Britain there was no ‘blessed and joyfull mutuall ingrafting’. Rather, it required strong imperial government to maintain civilisation, cleanliness and proper table manners.

That sense of an unbridgeable divide between conquerors and natives dominated most 19th-century accounts of Roman Britain. As Hingley perceptively suggests, the discovery and display of impressive Roman buildings, elegant sculpture and fine mosaics on urban and villa sites across England pushed Romans and Britons even further apart. In best antiquarian style, Hingley offers his own mini-chorography, with discussion of contemporary accounts of excavations at Bath, Silchester, London and St Albans, and at villa sites at Bignor (in Sussex), Woodchester and Witcombe Park (both in Gloucestershire). What is noticeable is the insistence on the Romanness of Britain. Samuel Lysons, who dug Bignor, Woodchester and Witcombe, confidently asserted in the introduction to the first volume of Reliquae Britannico-Romanae (1813) that ‘sufficient remains have been discovered beneath the surface of the earth to shew … that no province of the Roman Empire contained a greater number of extensive and richly decorated villas.’ Britain was at last on the imperial map. In Lysons’s view it was transformed into one of the most Roman places in the empire.

In this new imperial world there was little space for the natives. In 1852, Thomas Wright suggested, in The Celt, the Roman and the Saxon, that the Britons had no place at all in a history of British nationhood. Instead, British racial origins could be located among the Germanic Saxons. Frequently reprinted, his was one of the most influential Victorian reassessments of Roman Britain. For Wright, the Britons (or Celts) had ‘lost their nationality’ soon after they lost their independence. In this conquered state the subjugated majority lived like slaves in primitive villages; the rest ‘rivalled one another in their eagerness to become Romanised’. The possibility of both separation and assimilation suggests to Hingley that Wright’s argument was not properly thought out. But it is better to think of Wright as deliberately and powerfully attempting to define ‘Romanised’ in explicitly nationalist terms. For him, Romanised Britons were no longer Britons: they ‘soon relinquished the manners, the worship and even the language which they had received from their forefathers’. Romanising – like enslavement – was another means by which Rome effectively erased the national identity of its subject populations. Both were part of the armoury of empire.

The force of these explicitly nationalist reformulations may be gauged from late 19th-century excavation reports. Even those scholars willing to allow the local population a place in towns and cities struggled to give them any active role in the creation of Roman Britain. In 1870, J.W. Grover summarised 20 years of excavation at Verulamium (modern St Albans): ‘Claudius … determined to add Britain to his unwieldy empire. He came, and saw, and conquered; and lo! Verulam is changed as by a magician’s wand – a new city rises amidst the wigwams, and long straight streets of lordly mansions take the place of hovels.’ Mediterranean culture was imported fully formed; the city’s theatre ‘enabled the inhabitants of this remote province to appreciate the drama of Plautus and Terence, or the cadence of a Greek chorus’. The natives were awestruck onlookers of a grand imperial project. ‘Civilisation, with its blessings and curses, amazes the simple islander.’

Attempts to dislodge Roman Britain from the narrative of British nationhood were not effectively countered until 1905. Haverfield’s lecture to the British Academy on ‘The Romanisation of Roman Britain’ may fairly be reckoned the most important intellectual contribution to the subject since Camden’s Britannia. It offered a brilliant synthesis of three centuries of archaeological investigation. Hingley (who has written extensively on Haverfield) praises him for offering ‘a new interpretation of the province based on the idea of “Romanisation”’. As Hingley notes, ‘“Romanisation”, which suggests a more active process of social transformation than the earlier terms “civility” and “Romanised”, evidently built on the later term, which had been used sparingly prior to the end of the 18th century and during the 19th.’

This neat summary requires two adjustments. First, as Hingley mentions in passing, Haverfield owed a significant debt to the great German scholar Theodor Mommsen; in particular, the idea of Romanisierung, most extensively worked out in the fifth volume of Mommsen’s Römische Geschichte (1885), which surveyed the provinces of empire in the first three centuries ad. Haverfield’s achievement has a significant European dimension. Second, his insistence on ‘Romanisation’ as an active process was more than an elaboration of 18th and 19th-century ideas. It was a well-aimed (and partly polemical) attempt to reappropriate the term from antiquarians such as Wright. For Haverfield, Romanisation was not an erasure of national identity, but a process through which a new identity was forged. In a later and much revised version of his lecture he stressed that ‘Roman and native coalesced, and again the exact proportions of the mingling must have infinitely varied.’ Nor were conquerors and conquered separated. Haverfield insisted on the presence of the ‘heavy inevitable atmosphere of the Roman material civilisation’ in Romano-British villages, and on the combination of ‘native as well as Roman elements’ in Romano-British towns.

At first sight, there is clear continuity between Camden’s civility and Haverfield’s Romanisation. But Hingley is right that any connection should not be overplayed. What separates them is Haverfield’s very Victorian concern with race as an important factor in historical explanation (another indication of his engagement with the ideas popularised by Wright). For the modern reader, this is Haverfield at his least attractive. In western Europe ‘Rome found races that were not yet civilised, yet were racially capable of accepting her culture … Celt, Iberian, German, Illyrian, were marked off from the Italian by no broad distinction of race and colour, such as that which marked off the ancient Egyptian from the Italian, or that which now divides the Frenchman from the Algerian Arab.’

Yet in other ways Haverfield’s formulation does bring him close to Camden. Both want to demonstrate that Britons played an active part in forging an imperial culture and argue for the inclusion of Roman Britain in the narrative of British nationhood. Modern views of Roman Britain are built on these twin foundations. In his sophisticated engagement with Haverfield’s ideas, The Romanisation of Britain (1990), Martin Millett stresses that ‘it is essential from the outset to realise that Romanisation was a two-way process of acculturation: it was the interaction of two cultures.’ And from acculturation it is an easy step, as Key Stage 2 neatly illustrates, to the inclusion of the Romans in ‘an overview study of how British society was shaped by the movement and settlement of different peoples’. The bitterness of subjection to a foreign power can soon be swept aside in a celebration (to quote the national curriculum again) of ‘social, cultural, religious and ethnic diversity’. The pain of conquest has been left far behind.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the Romans once again constitute an important part of a more inclusive narrative of national identity. Their impact can be claimed as broadly positive. The history of Roman Britain is no longer principally a story of brutal repression or sharp racial separation or the imposition of a grand imperial style on awestruck natives. Indeed, the locals themselves can be seen as actively engaging the incomers in a two-way process that generated new and distinct cultural forms. Camden would be the first to approve of the return of this ‘blessed and joyfull mutuall ingrafting’. Acculturation has become the new civility. It is once again acceptable to cheer on the Romans – while also, of course, applauding the Britons.