The Romans in Britain: exploitation or innovation?

David Mattingly asks was the Roman conquest a great civilising opportunity for the British peoples or a period of prolonged military occupation and exploitation?

Evening Light on Hadrian's Wall

The history of Roman Britain has often been written – perhaps too often given the relative paucity of conventional historical sources. Problematically, the subject has remained profoundly influenced by outmoded research agendas that arose in the age of modern colonialism and these impede our understanding of the impact of the Roman interlude.

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When Victorian and Edwardian Britain sided wholeheartedly with the Roman invaders rather than with the subjugated natives, this was perhaps a natural response from servants of a great modern empire that controlled one third of the territory and population of the world and that modelled itself in part on Roman structures. Consciously or subconsciously most writers on Roman Britain have tended to form a view on whether or not the fact of Roman government was a positive thing. The perspective is neatly illustrated in 1066 and All That, the famous spoof history of Britain: “The Roman Conquest was, however, a Good Thing, since the Britons were only natives at that time”.

This tells us nothing, of course, about ancient reality and everything about late 19th- and early 20th-century beliefs. The “father of Romano-British archaeology” in the early 20th century, Francis Haverfield, summed up this attitude of underlying sympathy with modern colonialism: “The old theory of an age of despotism and decay has been overthrown, and the believer in human nature can now feel confident that, whatever their limitations, the men of the [Roman] Empire wrought for the betterment and happiness of the world”.

This sympathy for worthy Romans manifested itself, for example, in the adoption of prominent Romans as the “founders” of many modern British cities – a notable case being the governor Agricola, who occupies pride of place over the entrance to Manchester Town Hall. The attitude still prevails – when I was consulted about the erection of a statue to an individual associated with early Leicester. I suggested we commemorate an Iron Age British ruler, because there is a paucity of “Romans” who can be definitively linked to Leicester and the earliest settlement pre-dates the foundation of the Roman town. This clearly did not fit the bill and the idea was quietly dropped.

What the Romans did to us

Military occupation

350 years of military occupation, with heavy burden of costs falling on provincial peoples

Natural resources

Main profits from exploitation of minerals taken by state

Local government and autonomy

Limited urban growth in southern Britain, stymied socio-economic development in large parts of western and northern Britain

Demographic impacts

As the result of wars, revolts, enslavement and enforced conscription into Roman army

Land and taxes

Substantial reallocation of land and the imposition of taxes

Civilised Romans and spiky-haired barbarians

Nostalgic association with Roman colonisers still underscores much writing on Roman Britain. The Romans, we are told, brought towns, roads, stable government, the villa economy, art, culture, literacy, togas, baths and other elements of high culture. By the same token, the native Britons in many popular accounts are presented stereotypically as semi-naked, spiky-haired, tattooed and woad-painted “barbarians”. This favourable vision of imperialism (and concomitant denigration of native Britons) remains enshrined in the popular image of Roman Britain. But is it really deserved? The stress on Rome’s civilising mission, the benefits of her rule, and so on, contrasts with perceptions of the Norman conquest, where the negative impacts have never been denied in quite the same way. The point is neatly illustrated in Tom Stoppard’s play Indian Ink where an Indian is informed by an ex-Memsahib that: “We were your Romans, you know. We might have been your Normans”. Can we really distinguish between nice Romans and nasty Normans?

More than 40 years beyond the effective final dismantling of the British Empire, it seems extraordinary that our views on the Roman Empire remain constrained by outmoded collective assumptions about the legitimacy of imperialism, with profound consequences for the reading and writing of that history. In Britain’s, and especially England’s, national mythology, the Roman period is presented as one of development and opportunity far more than one of defeat, subjugation and exploitation. Books on “Roman Britain” tend to present a top-down vision, with the emphasis on conformity, progressive change and elite culture (exemplified by the problematic Romanisation paradigm). Only in the Celtic “fringes” has there been much interest in the themes of resistance and underdevelopment.

An alternative to the orthodox approach focuses greater attention on the fate of Britain as an imperial possession during nearly four centuries of foreign domination, exploring more fully the positive and negative aspects of imperial rule and their impacts on subject peoples. As regards negative aspects, post-colonial studies of modern empires have done much to show up imperialism’s flaws, by focusing on the experience of colonised peoples. It is clear, for instance, that the idea of the “white man’s burden” was largely a post facto attempt at self-justification and, when power was abused, or people and resources unreasonably exploited, how often was the excuse trotted out that the ends justified the means? Empires use power to induce people to comply with their authority and to deliver up resources, while subjects devise their own stratagems to evade obligations such as taxation.

British public opinion has not always taken kindly to post-colonial criticism of imperialism. In the 1980s, performances of Robert Brenton’s play, The Romans in Britain caused a furore because of the staged rape of a male Briton by a group of Roman soldiers. In part the outcry was provoked by this being a graphic and shocking piece of theatrical sex-and-violence, but for some this was compounded by the fact that parallels were being drawn between Roman imperialism and the modern experience of Northern Ireland patrolled by British troops. The violence is the sort of plausible outrage that imperialism begets (and that we would prefer not to be reminded of).

The human cost of conquest

The Roman exploitation of conquered peoples operated differentially according to the circumstances of their surrender and their subsequent behaviour. The following quote from a Roman land surveyor, Siculus Flaccus, summarises the process: “Certain peoples, with pertinacity, have waged war against the Romans, others having once experienced Roman military valour, have kept the peace, others who had encountered Rome’s good faith and justice, declared their submission to the Romans and frequently took up arms against their enemies. This is why each people has received a legal settlement according to merit: it would not have been just if those who had so frequently broken the peace and had committed perjury and taken the initiative in making war, were seen to be offered the same guarantees as loyal peoples”. We should thus expect to see a high degree of regional diversity within Britain, reflecting varying degrees of generosity, exploitation and penalisation. Conventional studies of Roman Britain downplay this important element of nonconformity.

The human costs of Roman conquest and domination should also not be forgotten

The human costs of Roman conquest and domination should also not be forgotten. The invasion of AD 43 involved the use of exemplary force, but did not lead to rapid acceptance of military occupation – major campaigning continued for two generations after the Claudius invasion, with the Boudican revolt (AD 60–61) exacting a particularly high cost in lives. For the majority of its subjects, Roman Britain remained a militarised and exploited territory. This was not a Golden Age then, though there were golden opportunities for select individuals amongst the British elite and assorted immigrants. These were the exceptions, participating in government and enjoying a certain level of influence and wealth.

For the majority, the benefits of Roman rule were less tangible than the conventional archaeological presentation of Roman Britain would suggest. The large size of the military garrison – at its peak more than one tenth of the available armed forces of the empire – exacted a high price on civilian communities in all parts of the island and this continued for generation after generation. The slow development and early decline of towns (and the limited extension of the known area of civil local government in southern Britain) is hardly a resounding success story. The villa, that archetypal marker of rural wealth, was also limited in distribution and numbers, especially before its early fourth-century florescence. Natural resources, notably mineral deposits, were confiscated for the benefit of the state and the redistribution of land was also a tool of exploitation through rents and taxes. Especially in the first century of Roman rule, deaths in warfare and revolts, enslavement and transportation, and enforced conscription were significant motors for demographic change, exacerbated by the inflow of new groups into influential positions in provincial society in Britain (carpet-baggers from northern Gaul, discharged soldiers and so on).

Britannia was an expensive province and one with a distinctly military and financially exploited character. To be sure, this was a period of significant social and cultural changes, though these were more complex and regionally more varied than commonly presented. For every winner under Roman rule, there were a hundred losers, with the gap between richest and poorest widening as never before. Above all, we must recognise that Britain’s early experience of empire, as an imperial possession, was far removed from its later destiny as a collector of colonies.

David Mattingly is professor of Roman Archaeology at the University of Leicester and author of An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire 54 BC – AD 409, published by Penguin in June 2006

Books: An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire 54 BC – AD 409 by David Mattingly (Penguin, 2006); An Atlas of Roman Britain by Barri Jones and David Mattingly (Oxbow 2002); Short Oxford History of the British Isles. The Roman era by Peter Salway (ed.) (Oxford UP, 2002).
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This article was first published in the July 2006 issue of BBC History Magazine