When Britain was thus dismembered from the empire its importance was sensibly felt and its loss sincerely lamented. The Romans celebrated, and perhaps magnified, the extent of that noble island, provided on every side with convenient harbours; the temperature of the climate, and the fertility of the soil, alike adapted for the production of corn or of vines; the valuable minerals with which it abounded; its rich pastures covered with innumerable flocks, and its woods free with wild beasts or venomous serpents. Above all, they regretted the large amount of the revenue of Britain, whilst they confessed that such a province well deserved to become the seat of an independent monarchy.
In this passage, Gibbon seems to get a bit carried away with some of the panegyrics written after the recovery of Britain from the rebellion of Carausius. He occasionally has a tendency to get a little bit patriotic and play up his home in a way that jars with the rest of the narrative.
It’s a good thing everyone has stopped over-estimating the importance of Britain!
I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did. Guy De La Bedoyere (an expert on Roman Britain who often featured on archaeological TV show Time Team) has gathered together as many cases as he can of people in Roman Britain – rich/poor, slave/free, native or not. There often isn’t much to go on, and that means that De La Bedoyere speculates on who that person may have been – the guesswork is based on a solid foundation, what we know of Roman society and so on. But even with this, there isn’t much to say in the majority of cases. This means that we get a paragraph on one figure, then a paragraph on another, then a paragraph on another and it starts to feel like a dense wall of half formed information (welcome to archaeology!).
The author structures the book very loosely in a chronological fashion, but this means that the subject changes constantly. One case might highlight a social concern, the next economic, the next something more military. I thought Invisible Romans by Robert Knapp managed to structure a similar idea in a much more readable way. But Britain fundamentally was out of the way, and was different to the East of the empire, or to Italy, or even to Gaul so De La Bedoyere does have less information to go on. Themes do emerge – the upper class that was always just passing through temporarily, the freedmen and women, the ethnically diverse population of soldiers.
To end this post on a high – some figures do stick in the mind, even on the slightest of information. Gaius Severius Emeritus, a centurion who left a rather snippy note complaining of the insolent wrecking his local town. The potter of Aldgate/Pulborough who the author repeatedly brings up as an example of notably bad craftsmanship. All we have is a few fragments of badly made pottery, but that is enough to give a sense of something. And of course the curse tablets from Bath, “Docimedis has lost two gloves and asks that the thief responsible should lose their minds [sic] and eyes in the goddess’ temple.”.
Subtitled ‘A Quest for Arthur, England and the Anglo-Saxons’, this is thankfully much more than a rehash of Arthurian myths or Anglo-Saxon aggrandisement. The veteran archaeologist looks at the period from the end of Roman rule to the Anglo-Saxon invasion and tackles parts of the popular view. In brief, through his archaeological work he finds sites with a continuity that seems to call into question the idea of a huge Saxon invasion.
There are a few problems with this argument – language being the main one; if there was such continuity in population, then why does English have so few words from its Celtic predecessors? There are also a few potential issues with the style of the book: it is short, but dry and occasionally unfocused – digressions onto anecdotes from Pryor’s early career on dig sites are enjoyable; digressions onto the history of Arthurian myth actually feel tacked on to the main thrust of the book.
Although this book certainly doesn’t tell the whole story, it is an interesting read and often thought provoking. Pryor uses his experience to offer some speculative arguments, but these feel grounded and plausible (compared to Neil Faulkner, who got a bit carried away on the same topic). I’d be keen to read his other work (I believe Britain BC offers similar arguments for the Celtic era invasions), or more books that shed light on early British history.
NB/ I believe there was a TV series of the same name in 2004; I have not yet seen it.
As I often do, I skipped the preface to this book and went straight into the main text. Because of that, it was only about half way through that I realised Neil Faulkner was a Marxist – all the references to class war finally started to make sense.
In this book, actually charting the whole history of the Romans in Britain, this approach has advantages and disadvantages. Roman society was undeniably full of inequality and, in an otherwise dry book, Faulkner does succeed in bringing that to life. His descriptions of the settlements, showing the disparity in wealth, are bolstered by plenty of archaeological evidence. His explanation of the effects of Diocletian’s economic reforms is much more vivid that I’d thought the history of taxation could be.
On the downside, his conclusion, that the end of Roman Britain would let a peasant revolt kick out the landlords and live a brief but ideal agrarian society before the Saxon warlords moved in, comes across as far fetched and lacking any real basis to back it up. His descriptions of the Roman empire outside of Britain are short and one-sided, mostly existing to show either Britain’s role in the empire or the inequality in the system.
I’m not as well read on Roman Britain as I should be, but this stands as an interesting if occasionally uneven take on that particular fringe of the Empire. Worth reading, but perhaps best balanced with an alternative point of view.