This article first appeared in the June 2006 issue of BBC History Magazine
Walk round any museum in the UK with a Roman Britain display and you’ll probably see coloured mosaics, wall-plaster, coins, pottery, altars, and tombstones. Watch any television programme about British archaeology and you’ll see Roman sites yielding anything from an amphitheatre’s ruins to the foundations of a Roman villa.
Compared to almost any other period until the 1700s, Roman Britain was a cavalcade of phenomenal change. The population of prehistoric Britain was dragged into a world of fortresses, towns, and roads after the Romans invaded in
AD 43. That world disappeared almost as quickly after Roman rule ended in 410.
Visibility is the key word. Roman stuff is easy to find because a lot was made, and a lot survives. But I’ve been wondering just how true that picture is. The physical remains are beyond doubt but are we so dazzled by them that we overlook the possibility that being Roman in Britain was the preserve of only a few? It’s always been hard to explain why Roman culture disappeared in the fifth century. All this high-visibility evidence really belongs to a very small proportion of the population, mostly soldiers, foreigners, and the indigenous tribal upper-class – in other words, only those with a stake in the Roman system of patronage where power and position were conferred as a reward for being “Roman”.
Coin depicting Britannia on the reverse, issued by Antoninus Pius in AD 143. (Guy de la Bédoyère)
Evidence from the military
A word of caution. Excavation and conservation techniques have advanced so far that now we have the celebrated Vindolanda writing tablets. They record the minutiae of everyday life in a Northumberland fort about a generation before Hadrian’s Wall was built. Vindolanda is a paradox.
The preservation in waterlogged conditions of wooden
writing tablets, and other perishable items, shows us that the Roman period was even more crowded
with manufactured items and documentary records than the usual range of more durable artefacts like pottery suggests.
But Vindolanda is a military site. Roman military sites always produce more archaeological finds than anywhere else apart from towns. Although the Romans influenced our road layout, the location of some of our towns and left a few words behind, perhaps they had a minimal permanent effect on much of society.
A Roman auxiliary fort just south of Hadrian’s Wall (Getty Images)
On closer examination the archaeological evidence isn’t what it always seems. Let’s take the example of Roman inscriptions, invaluable items that give us unadulterated texts from antiquity – they name Celtic gods we’d never know about otherwise, date public buildings, name governors of the province, while tombstones name some of those millions of Roman Britons now lost to the ages like Claudia Crysis of Lincoln who died at the age of 90.
Inscriptions are evidence of Latin literacy in a completely Roman style, however provincial or clumsy the execution. Over two thousand survive in Britain. But this is tiny compared to most Roman provinces. The vast majority of them come from the military zone in the north and Wales. Only a few name anyone demonstrably British. Head off abroad to the rest of the Roman Empire and there’s scarcely a single instance of a Briton recorded there either. Yet in Britain we have inscriptions recording people from all over the Roman world.
Even in towns like London almost all the inscriptions we have name Roman officials, soldiers, their families or foreigners. Silchester or St Albans, which were never forts, have produced only a handful of inscriptions. So how much of all the rest of what we call Roman in Britain like Gaulish Samian ware had little or nothing to do with the millions of ordinary people? I don’t want to over-egg the pudding. Roman coins and pottery do turn up widely across Britain, even in modest rural farmsteads. But there’s a galactic difference in proportionate quality and quantity compared to what we find in forts and towns.
In the fourth century, 260 years after the invasion, the age of the wealthy villas really took off. Adopting a grand Roman tradition of rural splendour, Britain’s villa owners installed mosaics and other expensive comforts. The classical images they chose for their mosaics show that many were out to show they were Romanised. This hypothesis is supported by crucial numismatic evidence produced by a British-based rebel emperor called Carausius (AD 286–93) who quoted Virgil on his coins to show what a proper Roman he was. We don’t know who the villa-owners were, but many were probably the descendants of tribal leaders who accepted Roman patronage in return for their loyalty to Rome after the invasion.
But the villa owners, their families and attendants, could never have accounted for more than a tiny proportion of the rural population. Like the rich and elite of every era, and especially in the Roman period, they are simply far more visible in the archaeological record than everyone else. That’s what makes the disappearance of that way of life in the fifth century so difficult to explain. Unless we take the view that this high visibility was caused by only a small part of the population, in which case it might not take much to cause a dramatic change in the record.
This slab dedicating a stage is the only evidence that a theatre existed at Brough on Humber in the Roman period. The donor of the stage was probably a military veteran. (Guy de la Bédoyère)
Facing the apocalypse
The excavations at the fort of Birdoswald on Hadrian’s Wall, and the town of Wroxeter in Shropshire are usually feted for having uncovered evidence that a Roman way of life carried on amongst the decaying Roman buildings, with timber halls and other prestige structures being erected in these former key military and urban centres.
But those excavations have confirmed that the end of Roman Britain was genuinely apocalyptic, at least for the people who used those high-visibility Roman goods. The people living in those timber halls were unable or unwilling to repair or rebuild the stone structures, and had little or no access to coins and pottery. The end of taxation and the paying of soldiers meant that coinage disappeared, and as the whole economy crumbled so the whole financial system that could support lavish country villas went with it. In archaeological terms the effect is incredibly dramatic. It’s almost like a switch had been thrown. But perhaps most of the population, who’d never had much of a share in all this, continued to be as invisible to us as they’ve always been.
Why? Because Roman Britain was a phenomenon driven by a system and when that system fell apart many of the archaeological phenomena of what we know as Roman Britain went with it. In the beginning some of Britain’s tribal leaders saw Rome as a means to enhancing their own power and prestige. By adopting Roman ways that elite becomes more visible in the record available to us because Roman “things” just are more visible.
In the end some of Britain’s leaders continued to see Rome as the source of prestige and authority by which they sought to control their communities. But when Rome ceased either to be able to fulfil those expectations or to show any interest in doing so then the nature of power in Britain changed forever. As society fragmented, creating the building blocks for a different way of life based on regional kingdoms, patronage and power derived their strength from other sources or concepts.
The new post-Roman leaders defined themselves with different possessions and status symbols which happen to be relatively invisible, reflected in the lack of a material record easily available to us. It begs all sorts of questions about just how reliable the broader archaeological record is, especially when there isn’t any history to back it up.
Discovering Roman Britain: places to visit
A Roman town: Wroxeter
Known as Viroconium, Wroxeter was the fourth largest city in Roman Britain, and features impressive second-century municipal baths.
A Roman villa: Lullingstone
Mosaics, paintings, and fourth-century baths can still be seen at this Kent villa occupied for 300 years.
A Roman fort: Vindolanda
Near Hadrian’s Wall, the remains include Roman buildings and artefacts, and a Northumbrian croft.
A native village: Chysauster
Nine stone houses of an Iron Age village in Cornwall during the Roman period. Roman-style goods have been found, but its inhabitants were probably not dominated by the occupation unlike settlements further east.
Guy de la Bédoyère is a historian, archaeologist and broadcaster. He has written many books on Roman Britain and has appeared on Channel 4’s Time Team. He is the author of Roman Britain: A new history, published by Thames and Hudson.