The Roman occupation of Britain lasted for 360 years, considerably longer than the existence of the United States. Generation after generation was born, toiled and died knowing nothing different.
Guy De La Bedoyere has attempted to give us some understanding of the native Britons of the time, the artisans, laborers, soldiers, and slaves. He only partially succeeds, but that he succeeds at all is no small thing. As he notes, in four centuries tens of millions of people lived as natives of the island, and we know at most a few hundred names.
Still, for a non-scholar like me, some engaging themes emerge. First is the observation that of course none of these people would have thought of themselves as “Britons” any more than a Comanche would have identified as an “American” or “Texan.” Identity and loyalty belonged to tribe and family, and other terms would have been meaningless.
A second insight is the power of a well-structured bureaucracy. Disdain of bureaucracy is reflexive to most of us, but as De La Bedoyere writes: “It is easy to become obsessed with the mercurial personalities of the emperors and forget that the reason the Roman Empire continued to function, rather than constantly fragment into fractional disputes, was because there was a system of institutions, law and order that was widely accepted by the population across Europe. “ You might mull that one over next April 15th.
De La Bedoyere reminds us that globalization is hardly a new phenomenon. There were Syrian archers garrisoned on Hadrian’s Wall, and those archers started families in this new world. Worship of Mithras and Isis was common in London in the late first century. Greeks, Anatolians, Cypriots, and, of course, Gauls were present as soldiers, slaves, and occasionally enterprising merchants.
And, trite as it may sound, we see again and again how little has changed in our longings and our weaknesses. We learn of a cottage industry based in Bath of “curse tablets”, where grievances large and small, along with the desired cosmic retribution, are inscribed (for a fee) on lead sheets and tossed into the waters. The author shows us that in times of instability there is nostalgia for a golden age of lost virtue and nobility. He nicely demonstrates how figures like the warrior queen Boudica were enthusiastically embraced, re-packaged, and spun for both local and Roman purposes.
As the remotest region of the Empire, it was probably inevitable that Britain would see some of the steepest declines in comfort, wealth, and technology after the fall of Rome. We know from other sources (Bryan Ward-Perkins, for one) that every one of the building crafts introduced by the Romans disappeared by the end of the fifth century. The same was true of coinage – not just Roman coinage, but coinage generally. Written language was mostly if not entirely lost and the quality of everyday items like pottery became noticeably inferior. After the occupation, Britain in effect fell below the level of the pre-Roman Iron Age.
It is hardly surprising, then, that the lives of everyday Britons from sixteen centuries ago are hard to discern in more than fleeting detail. As anyone who has sat in a multiplex in the last twenty or so years well knows, we shouldn’t be too smug. Near the end of his book, De La Bedoyere writes:
Our own age now produces data in unprecedented quantities yet almost all of it exists only in electronic form, reliant on software and computers to access and understand it. It would take very little for it to be wiped out and lost forever. It may well be that in several thousand years’ time our own era will be proportionately no better, or even worse, represented in whatever record survives than Roman Britain.