Little Brits

Tom Shippey

  • The Real Lives of Roman Britain by Guy de la Bédoyère
    Yale, 241 pp, £20.00, May 2015, ISBN 978 0 300 20719 4

‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ John Cleese asks in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. His audience, not realising his question is rhetorical, replies: aqueducts, sanitation, medicine, public order, etc etc. Guy de la Bédoyère, on the other hand, doesn’t need a list: the Romans’ most important legacy, he suggests in his new book, is literacy, and specifically the habit of written memorialisation. Pre-Roman relics are visible all over Britain – there are barrows, hill-forts, stone circles and chalk figures – and we can infer quite a lot about the people who made them: we can measure their skeletons, test the isotopes in their teeth to see if they were born nearby, and often establish how they died. But none of the information we have is personal. There are no names, no faces. Those come in with the Romans, and the inscriptions that record them provide a narrative that runs in parallel to the histories of Caesar, Tacitus and their successors. They document the lives of ordinary people, slaves and centurions, potters and graffiti writers.

Roman tombs have given us the first named face in Britain, the first named woman and the first self-proclaimed Londoner. The face belonged to Marcus Favonius Facilis, a centurion of the XXth Legion, and was carved, along with an inscription, on the elaborate statue that once sheltered his ashes. The statue was found in Colchester. De la Bédoyère’s book contains 32 coloured plates, but he has chosen not to waste one on Marcus Favonius, perhaps because the statue can easily be seen online – just Google his name. Both figure and inscription are surprisingly well preserved, because the statue seems to have fallen on its front not long after it was finished, and wasn’t set upright again. Marcus Favonius, who stands with one hand on his sword and the other holding his centurion’s olive-wood swagger-stick, or cudgel, hasn’t given his legion the title Valeria Victrix, which suggests that he died before the Boadicea rebellion of 60-61 ce, in which the legion played a significant part. It’s quite possible his statue was thrown down during that rebellion by the vengeful British tribesmen who stormed Colchester. Marcus Favonius must have served during the conquest of Britain under Claudius nearly twenty years earlier. His face may not be the most prepossessing – he had a small chin and protruding ears – but it did belong to him alone. The stone was commissioned, not unusually, by the centurion’s grateful freedmen, or ex-slaves, Verecundus and Novicius.

The first ‘securely dated and attested named woman in British history’ is Julia Pacata Indiana, or Induta. She was the wife of Julius Classicianus, who was procurator of Britain after the rebellion and castigated by Tacitus for being too soft on the natives. She commissioned his tombstone, which survives in fragments, and had her name put on it beside his. The inscription reveals that she was the daughter of a Gaulish leader of the Treveri who had stayed loyal to the Romans during a previous Gaulish rebellion. When her husband died, in 65 ce, she was probably around forty years old.

The first person to declare himself ‘a Londoner’ was Tiberinius Celerianus, who had a stone carved in dedication ‘to the Spirits of the Emperors and to the god Mars Camulos’. Tiberinius was another Gaul, ‘a citizen of the Bellovaci’, but he described himself as Londiniensis. Why should a Gaul call himself a Londoner? He also described himself as moritex, or moritix (one of the book’s plates shows his stone, but it’s not easy to read), which de la Bédoyère suggests must mean ‘a shipper, a man who plied his trade across the English Channel’. The same word appears on a coffin from York belonging to a man from Gallia Aquitania.

One of the book’s running themes is the international character of Roman Britain. People came to Britain from much further afield than Gaul. One striking example comes from the tombstone and statue of Regina, which now has pride of place in the museum at South Shields, a supply port for Hadrian’s Wall. Regina was a British woman of the Catuvellauni in Essex or Hertfordshire, but her husband, who commemorated her, was one Barates, a Syrian, perhaps the same man as the Barates vexillarius (de la Bédoyère calls him a ‘flag-bearer’ but he was more likely a veteran on detached duty) whose stone survives not far away at Corbridge. The fort at South Shields was called Arbeia, which may derive from Arabi and mean ‘Arabtown’, and at a later date it was garrisoned by an auxiliary unit of Barcarii Tigrisienses, ‘boatmen from the Tigris’. Regina died at the age of thirty and Barates commemorated her both in Latin and in his native language, Palmyrene, a dialect of Aramaic.

A Caledonian called Lossio Veda had a dedication made in Colchester, while the tombstone of Ammonius son of Damio, a centurion of an auxiliary unit from Spain, was incorporated into a medieval chapel at Ardoch in Perthshire, not far from a Roman fort that dates from the campaigns of Agricola. Multi-ethnic name-mixing was common: a woman and her children from Bath are given the thoroughly Latin names Docilosa, Docilis and Docilina, but her British husband is called Uricalus. Some Britons, one suspects, took Roman names out of a desire to be upwardly mobile, while others retained native names out of family pride.

Another of the book’s themes is the complex nature of slave ownership. An inscription on a writing tablet found in London records a Gaulish slave called Fortunata, from somewhere near Le Mans, who was sold by one Albicianus for 600 denarii, two years’ pay for a legionary soldier. She was bought by Vegetus, a slave himself on the staff of Montanus, another imperial slave. That made Fortunata, legally speaking (since slaves couldn’t own slaves), the property at third-hand of the emperor, though Vegetus may have bought her in order to marry her. At about the same time, another ‘slave of the province’, Anencletus, buried his 19-year-old wife, Claudia Martina, with a tombstone and statue. They can’t have been married for long, and it’s possible that she, too, was a bought slave, but her husband nevertheless loved and respected her enough – and was also prosperous enough – to lay out a considerable sum in her memory. Many slaves, especially male prisoners of war, were worked to death in mines and quarries, but slavery wasn’t racialised and inescapable as it is in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Husbands commemorated slave-wives, and freed slaves did the same for their former masters.

Everyone I’ve mentioned so far was a member of the upper class, or at least was related to or owned by someone who had special status. Is there any sign of the underworld of Roman Britain in the surviving inscriptions? One stone set up at Bath by a retired centurion (he describes himself as Emeritus), records that he had had to spend good money repairing a ‘holy place’ (locum religiosum) wrecked by vandalism (per insolentiam). But we don’t know who these insolent people were or what their motive was.

Graffiti tell us a little more. The pottery industry was another major benefit of Roman occupation: after the Romans left, Britain became ‘aceramic’ for centuries, with people scavenging for funerary urns to cook in. One pottery worker left behind a tile on which he had written, before the clay was fired, a comment about a fellow worker who was considered a skiver: ‘Au(gu)stalis, for 13 days, wanders off by himself every day.’ The Latin isn’t perfect – ‘Augustalis’ is a correction of Austalis, and three out of the six other words are misspelled – but it’s not-bad doggerel verse that rhymes tredecim with cotidim. By this date in ‘the boom years, CE 61-161’, literacy had spread to the lower end of the social scale.

That, though, was in London. Roman influence was more marked in the north, where the army was increasingly concentrated. Units with, one suspects, not too much to do, made inscriptions about their work at Hadrian’s Wall, or the Antonine Wall beyond it, or at outpost forts like High Rochester. Most of the soldiers were provincial auxiliaries: Thracians from modern Bulgaria, like Longinus Sdapeze, Batavians and Frisiavones from modern Holland, and a Suebian unit that called itself ‘Gordian’s Own’. The Frisiavones and the Suebians were neighbours of the Anglo-Saxons, who called them Frysan and Swæfe: when, in the fifth century, the immigrations that eventually turned Britannia into England started, the invaders knew the country at least at second-hand. Bored soldiers also put up monuments to themselves, to their own gods, or to the native gods and goddesses who seemed most worth placating, Brigantia and Coventina. So many coins and brooches were thrown into Coventina’s sacred spring at Carrawburgh, south of the Wall, that they all but blocked it up.

Officers moved around even more than the rank and file. The commander of the First Cohort of Dalmatians, from modern Croatia, was one Junius Juvenalis, who was based at Maryport on the Cumbrian coast, though the inscription that tells us this was found at his birthplace in Italy, Aquino. He was, in all likelihood, the satirical poet known as Juvenal, whose poetry mentions the ‘short-nighted Britons’.

The most striking northern find has been the Vindolanda tablets, which are written in more casual language than the official inscription. Best known is the corresp0ndence between Sulpicia, wife of the commanding officer of IXth Batavians, and her friend Claudia Severa, wife of another commanding officer not too far away. Claudia wanted Sulpicia to come to her birthday party, and assumed she would have no trouble crossing the moors. Sulpicia’s husband wrote to Claudia’s to ask to borrow some hunting nets, so long as they were well repaired first. This looks like settled peacetime garrison duty, though derisive comments on the Brittunculi, ‘the little Brits’, indicate that relations with the locals weren’t all that cordial.

Other writing tablets have turned up here and there. One found in a ditch in Carlisle records a remarkable loan made in November 83 ce: a hundred silver denarii borrowed by Quintus Cassius Secundus of Legio XX from Gaius Geminius Mansuetus. A hundred denarii was four months’ pay before stoppages, and it’s surprising that a common legionary was prepared to take on such a debt. Did he want to buy a wife? Wives may well have come much cheaper in areas where campaigns were ongoing. It’s surprising, too, that Gaius had it to lend. Gaius could have been a professional dealer or moneylender, who followed the armies for easy earnings. Happily, we also have a stone commemorating a Cassius Secundus of the XXth who died at the age of 80 and was buried at the legion’s then headquarters in Chester many years later. Perhaps he paid his debt and lived long into retirement, possibly with a British wife.

De la Bédoyère frequently emphasises the impressive level of modernity and competence that Roman civilisation possessed, even on its fringes. Trade crosses the seas, accounts are kept, ordinary soldiers and workmen write and commission dedications and inscriptions, skilfully crafted bronze work turns up in Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire. Ovidian verses, composed for the occasion, ornament the Europa mosaic at Lullingstone in Kent, and verses from Virgil, abbreviated but unmistakable, are alluded to on the coins and medallions of the usurper Carausius. Another retired soldier of the Second Legion paid for a marble carving of the ‘tauroctony’, or bull-killing, the central event of the Mithras cult; round it are the signs of the zodiac and the faces of the four winds. Like much Roman work it’s as good as anything we could produce now.

But there is also evidence of terrible incompetence. At Nettleton Scrubb in Wiltshire someone paid a lot of money for a forty-foot-high octagonal temple: it wasn’t buttressed so it fell down. Just behind Lullingstone (with its remarkable mosaic) two VIPs were buried in lead coffins, inside a wooden sarcophagus, in the gravel beneath a stone mausoleum. The wood rotted, the mausoleum collapsed, the coffins were crushed and the identity of the VIPs – young people, male and female – will never be known. At Croughton in Northamptonshire a complex mosaic was planned, with a geometrical pattern of star and octagon framing a central scene of Bellerophon killing the Chimaera. When the central panel arrived from the workshop it was too big and didn’t fit. The mosaicists bodged it by taking chunks out of the frame and panel. One imagines there was a fine old row between client and contractor.

Shoddy work becomes more common as the book goes on, as do other signs of what de la Bédoyère calls ‘death, disruption and decline’. Murder victims keep being unearthed: a little girl buried in the barracks at Vindolanda in ‘a grave so shallow that she must have been deposited there in haste’; two corpses, one with a knife in his ribs, under the floor of a tavern at Housesteads; 97 babies near the villa at Yewden in Buckinghamshire – was there a midwifery unit there, or a military brothel? An even more ominous indication of widely unsettled conditions are the hoards of treasure that keep being discovered: at Shapwick in Somerset (9238 silver coins), at a house in Dorchester (more than 22,000 coins), at Thetford, at Mildenhall (a 17-pound silver dish), at Hoxne (ninety pounds of gold and silver). The entry for the year 418 in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says: ‘This year the Romans collected all the gold-hoards in Britain and hid some in the earth so that no one afterwards could find them.’ The author, writing centuries later, seems to have had accurate information. But ‘so that no one afterwards could find them’? Surely those who buried the treasures meant to recover them. What stopped them?

Civilisation still had a while to run, however, and the chapter after ‘Death, Disruption and Decline’ is called ‘Roman Britain’s High Summer’. It has been suggested that what happened in the later fourth century is that when small farmers were bankrupted by the heavy taxes needed to pay for the soldiers, the richest members of society bought them out at knockdown prices and built their enormous estates and palatial villas in the Cotswolds and along the south coast. The poor got poorer, the rich got richer, and in the end the whole society collapsed. De la Bédoyère offers no comment, but it’s not hard to see a parallel.

At this stage, though, the ‘real lives’ begin to be obscured by the uncertainties of archaeology – once more, they become nameless and faceless. Even in the north, the unit inscriptions dry up and ‘the army ceases to be a useful source of information about individual lives.’ One inscription from the time was found at the signal station near Ravenscar in North Yorkshire, but it has two names on it, no unit designation, emperor’s name or date, and the word masbier must be a really bad misspelling of magister – by someone who knew no Latin at all? The idea of inscriptions seems to have survived as a matter of prestige, as one can see from post-Roman finds like the badly carved and misspelled stone commemorating ‘Votiporix Protictor’ in Carmarthenshire. The stone also bears his name in its Irish form, written in the Irish ‘ogham’ alphabet. He may have been one of the tyrants condemned by Gildas in his work ‘On the Destruction of Britain’. But for centuries after the Brito-Roman ‘high summer’, literacy for ordinary people – documents of any kind mentioning people who weren’t kings, heroes or saints – vanishes from the British Isles entirely. Historians don’t like the term ‘dark ages’, preferring ‘late antiquity’, but there’s a reason why people call the period that: for several generations we have only the sketchiest accidental documentation to work with.

It’s a bit John Cleese-like to say so – remember the scene where Cleese, as the Roman centurion, corrects the Latin in Brian’s anti-Roman graffiti at sword point? – but Amandus the military architect does not, as de la Bédoyère claims, have a name meaning ‘contemptuously dismissed’. De la Bédoyère offers the strange explanation that this ‘would have meant nothing pejorative at the time’. Presumably he’s thinking of amandatus, the past participle of amandare, ‘to send away’, but as far as we know no one was ever called that. Amandus is just the gerundive form of amare, ‘to love’; and a gerundive – ah, those stale mnemonics for Latin grammar! – is a passive adjective, so it means ‘to be loved’ or ‘lovable’, and is the masculine form of the familiar feminine Amanda. The ‘triple death’ of Lindow Man, which de la Bédoyère quotes as fact, is also now thought to be ‘thoroughly insecure’, as Ronald Hutton explained in Blood and Mistletoe (2009), a book that also reminds us not to believe all that classical historians wrote about druids.[*] And though de la Bédoyère is suitably cagey about the disappearance of IX Legion Hispana, he does like the idea that it might have been destroyed in northern Britain: the romantic scenario imagined in Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth (1954), which many of us read as children. Sutcliff could have found inspiration for further stories among these, The Real Lives of Roman Britain.

[*] Tom Shippey reviewed Blood and Mistletoe in the LRB of 9 July 2009.