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The Romans Who Shaped Britain

Sam Moorhead and David Stuttard

(Sunday LT review)

The ancient Roman geographer Strabo had strong views about Britain. Writing in the early 1st century AD, he appreciated some of its more useful exports (grain, cattle, gold, silver, slaves and hunting dogs). He was impressed with the sheer size of the inhabitants (a good six inches taller than the average Roman, although with a tendency to be bandy-­legged). But, with a flash of economic rationality rare in the ancient world, he was opposed to any attempt to conquer the island: quite simply, he observed, the cost of the occupying army would be more than the tributes and taxes gained for the Roman treasury.

I suspect that many Romans would later regret not taking Strabo’s advice. For more than 400 years — from the successful invasion in AD43 under the emperor Claudius, who formally turned the place into a province, to the final withdrawal of the last Roman soldiers in the early 5th century — Britain was Rome’s Afghanistan. The island was never fully under Roman control and the native guerrillas knew exactly how to make life dangerous for the occupying legions. There were some significant Roman defeats, inconclusive battles presented as Roman successes (starting from Julius Caesar’s ramshackle skirmish in 55BC and 54BC), and, just occasionally, a real victory over the barbarians, extravagantly hyped by the PR machine of the imperial court. Every now and then, the emperor himself or an imperial prince would visit the place for the ancient equivalent of a “mission accomplished” photo opportunity. Claudius marched into Colchester in AD43, when most of the initial fighting was safely finished, Hadrian came almost 100 years later to inaugurate his wall, and in AD297 Constantius Chlorus rode into London to reclaim Britain after a few years of rule by a provincial usurper (an event commemorated on a gorgeous gold medallion, illustrated in Sam Moorhead and David Stuttard’s new book, showing Constantius being welcomed by a kneeling Briton, along with the slogan “Restorer of Eternal Light”).

The authors tell a lively story of Roman interventions in the province. It is an unashamedly “great man” view of history. There’s no truck here with what they call “the fog of academic theory” and little interest in the deeper structures of Roman rule or even in Strabo-style economics. But the book has the great merit of getting to grips with the story of the ­province well beyond Hadrian — after whom most people’s knowledge of Roman Britain tends to flag — and it offers a wonderful gallery of later characters, whose careers in part “shaped” the province. One memorable walk-on role is taken by Marcus Aurelius Mauseus Carausius: native of Gaul, claimant to the imperial throne and the man whose downfall Constantius’s medallion celebrated. In what is now a puzzling series of moves, in the late 3rd century AD, Carausius went from being a commander of Roman troops against German raiders to a break-away emperor based in Britain, with London as his capital city. “Barbarian” he certainly was not; in a way he was more Roman than the Romans. As Moorhead and Stuttard illustrate, he minted a series of coins and medals carrying quotations from Virgil’s Aeneid and Eclogues. No Roman emperor had used the classics of Latin poetry in this way before (though it is the ultimate precedent for the Virgilian tag, Decus et Tutamen — “An ornament and a safeguard” — on our modern £1 coin).

If the authors have a fault, it is one shared by many enthusiastic students of Roman Britain: on one hand, they tend to overestimate how important the province was to the Romans (there would have been no security crisis, but only a few lost photo opportunities, if the place had been let go — something that may be equally true of Afghanistan); on the other, they imply that the impact of the Romans on Britain was greater than it was. Historians have often liked to imagine that the province was “Romanised”, sharing its culture with Italy at the heart of the empire. The archeologist who dug up the Roman “palace” at Fishbourne in ­Sussex went so far as to claim that some of the wall decoration there had been painted by the same artist whose work was still visible on the walls of villas around the Bay of Naples, destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79.

That was, of course, a wild fantasy. The truth, as Moorhead and Stuttard more or less concede, is that the “Romans” who controlled Roman Britain were much more often provincial “Romans” from Gaul (such as Carausius), not metropolitan types from Italy. And for most people, peasant life went on much as it had done before they arrived. True, some people did move into the new towns of the province, learnt Latin and sported togas (another aspect of their slavery, as the Roman historian ­Tacitus put it); others, implacably opposed to Rome, made it their mission to terrorise the occupying forces. But when the last legions left (a story well told in this book) I doubt that the majority of ­Britons on their farmsteads noticed much of a difference — apart from lower taxes.

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