“The problem for the British however was that they were ‘Johnny-come-latelys’ into an empire that had practically stopped expanding and they lay at its very outermost edge.”
You may have noticed I’ve been reading a lot of fiction about Roman Britain/Roman culture in the 1st-5th centuries. As I’m sure you will have guessed if you have paid any attention, that was due to my discovery of The Eagle late last year. However, I’ve only managed to read fiction until I decided the time had come to sift the fiction from the fact (such as it is!). That’s when I embarked on this exacting tome by David Mattingly, more than a month ago. It was a rather painstaking hike back through the centuries, as the book required a great deal of concentration, more so than even many of nonfiction specialist books for my PhD. Archaeology is obviously not my field, and though the series (Penguin History of Britain) is meant to be accessible to the average (intelligent and fairly educated) reader, it was not at all a narrative-driven piece.
“Just the facts, ma’am”—however, facts are surprisingly thin on the ground given that we can draw fewer reasonable conclusion based on evidence and supposition than I would have imagined, given how long historians and archaeologists have been interested in Roman Britain. Mattingly is exceptionally demanding of his own theses, the major ones (as far as I can pick out) being that he will not under any circumstances leap to a narrative or form a hypothesis unless there is enough evidence to justify it. This is a style very different from the speculation of, say, The Fossil Hunter which reaped pages from the bare bones that exist about Mary Anning. “There are no large surviving Roman works specifically dealing with Britain . . . There are, of course, snippets of historical and geographical information to be gleaned from a wide range of other source material” (3). Furthermore, it makes me feel both slightly more uneasy and slightly more relieved about The Eagle’s interpretation of the Painted People. (Mattingly also doesn’t like the term Celts as it implies that the people thought of themselves as one ethnic group or race, whereas “Britons” which he uses is more neutral.)
The other assertion, and one which I think Mattingly defends consummately, is exploding the familiar and rather pat idea that the Celts got good things in return for being conquered by the Romans. Frankly, I think the otherwise enjoyable (though occasionally dogmatic!) Horrible Histories is guilty of this—their very funny segments, especially The Historical Wife Swap, seem to underline that all things Roman were “good,” “pleasant,” and closer to “modern,” whereas I have never seen Horrible Histories show us anything positive about pre-Roman Britons. Mattingly argues that being conquered and subjugated by the Romans could not be made any rosier by straight roads—basically, we should think of it in terms of colonialism (in, for example, the British Empire of the 19th century). “In our national mythology, the Roman period is presented as one of development and opportunity far more than one of defeat, subjugation and exploitation” (4). “Yet, Britons do not appear to have broken through in numbers to the very highest levels of Roman society. Because of the substantial military garrison, Britain as a whole probably endured more than its share of oppression” (10). Mattingly drives this point home by noting that a 1986 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 to do with this being a graphic and shocking piece of sex and violence in a theatre,” but also because the parallels were being drawn with British troops in Northern Ireland (12). In a chapter titled “The Iron Fist,” Mattingly describes conquest, which would have affected not only British combatants but their families (suffering “massacres, rape, random killings, burning and destruction of settlements, displacements as refugees, enslavement”) as well as the peculiarly Roman practice of recruiting for the military right out of the conquered peoples (92).
One of the major difficulties with historical sources is that they were mostly written by the elite, who of course would have a pro-conquest point of view. “People who might be conceived of as pro-Roman from their consumption of Roman goods (Italian wine, olive oil, metal tableware, medical tools, toilet utensils, board games) did so primarily as part of a new formulation of power and status within their own societies” (84). There are glimpses of other points of view. “Caratacus is a romantic figure in the story of resistance to Rome, not only for his military resourcefulness , but also for his consistent refusal to admit defeat” (103). Queen Cartimandua seems at least as interesting as Boudicca, if a less polarized figure. Mattingly devotes a fair amount of discussion to the Boudiccan revolt, thoughtfully pursuing the causes as well as the effects, and noting that the rebels also targeted Gauls for their participation in “a systematic effect of Roman colonialism,” those who had “sought to profit from the conquest phase” (109). Mattingly thinks at least 7,000 Romans from the army must have been killed in the revolt, while as many as 10,000 may have died at Colchester. Meanwhile, the probably inflated figure of 80,000 is the number of Britons said to have died by the end of this bloody conflict. “When Tacitus put the famous words ‘They make a desolation and they call it peace’ into the mouth of the Caledonian chieftain Calgacus, he was using a literary device, not reporting actual speech. However, the sentiment may have been especially appropriate” (117).
I was astonished to learn (though I’m not sure why I was astonished) that the Romans tended to win on their campaigns due to a brutal and highly specialized combination of technological superiority, vicious reprisals, and the sheer dogged determination of a professional class of soldiers. “Compared to other ancient Italian peoples the Roman state was exceptionally aggressive and warlike” (6). The way the Britons used chariots in war was a fascinating section as it related to the really impressive battle section early in The Eagle of the Ninth. “There was thus a distance between soldiers and civilians in the Roman world—demonstrable by examples in Roman literature of soldiers being more feared and despised than loved and respected civilian communities” (167). Moreover, The Silver Branch dealt comprehensively with the “civil wars and mutinous acts” that characterized the Roman army as “not a machine, but a living, breathing and sometimes defective community” (124). Six legions were known to have served in Britain; for much of the period the book covers, Mattingly estimates around 5,500 men. Enjoyable as the notion of Marcus and Esca “going off grid” in The Eagle of the Ninth is, Mattingly stresses that among Hadrian’s Wall’s many uses, it probably did not work as a strict north-south, barbarians-Romanized divide. I have yet to see the Roman fort at Caerleon, but I can easily imagine “the huge resources in materials and manpower invested by Rome in the creation and maintenance of garrison posts” and the “local impact in terms of takeover of land, felling of timber, quarrying of gravel, sand and stone, cutting of turf and so on” (161). Rather hilariously (in hindsight), it seems that Britain as a province was not paying its way in terms of returning the investment its conquerors had made in subjugating the island—much like the reason the Stamp Act was introduced to the American colonies in 1765.
Alongside vast amounts of crafted chariot fittings which showed the wealth of the charioteers, there is a dearth of evidence for how the Britons disposed of their dead; with some evidence for inhumation and some for cremation, some for dismemberment, much more for informal burial practices. The deposition of goods into running water is a familiar one to any Arthurian scholar (indeed, any viewer of “Battlefield”) and I was interested to discover there seems to have been a similar tradition as far away as Colombia. (However, a profusion of severed heads discovered in the Walbrook tends toward rituals of sacrifice.) Tilla sweating around in her wool garment in Ruso and the Root of All Evils highlights that most people wore wool in Britain; the incongruous Roman villa in King Arthur is that much more incongruous as “it would be strange indeed to find standard Mediterranean fashions of clothing” (208). There are in fact very few depictions of what was worn; there are only two known depictions of togas. Mattingly highlights the almost bartering relationship some Romano-Britons may have had with their gods; “Frumentius, a soldier of the cohors II Tungrorum at Birrens, got his money’s worth by dedicating to ‘all the gods and goddesses’” (216). I love reading about historical cookery, so it’s worth noting that Romans in Britain ate many different types of cereals, pork, bacon, ham, lard, goat, roe deer, venison, chickens, geese, fish, oysters, eggs, butter, beans, radishes, apples, plums, honey, olive oil, spices, salt, wine and beer.
One of the more interesting places where a little human interest is allowed to creep in is with epigraphy—writing and inscriptions on all kinds of media including stone, copper-alloy sheets, etc (furthermore, many people appear to have carved their names or initials into everyday objects). There are also some surviving wooden tablets—most of them are palimpsests because the wax that used to be in them, and upon which a stylus wrote, is of course gone, but there are traces of the writing from marks on the wood. Much better are ink tablets from Vindolanda which seem to have given a treasure trove of data. I can imagine they informed R.S. Downie’s writing, considering that they range from duty rosters to contracts, accounts, personal letters, and many “relate to the household of one of the commanding officers, Flavius Cerialis and his wife Sulpicia Lepidina” (162). The correspondence between Sulpicia and Claudia Severa, wife of an auxiliary commander at Briga offers one of the rare windows into humanity that exist within the book. “A letter sent by Claudia to Sulpicia inviting her to attend her birthday party is among the most interesting tablets. Other letters refer to further visits and to the loneliness of the women between-times” (183). However, the epigraphic tradition seems to have been one rarely picked up by the Britons and therefore we have the most data about communities near garrisons (the absolutely amazing curse tablets from Bath are one exception). The fact that younger soldiers were more likely to be commemorated by messmates rather than by wives (or “wives”) also illuminates that “the sexual needs of the younger soldiers were probably served by casual contacts (however organized) around military bases” as shown to some extent in Medicus and the Disappearing Dancing Girls. Interestingly, several female names mentioned along with those of “messmates” attests to the fact that at Vindolanda at least, there would have been concubines of the soldiers with them in the fort (names such as Elpis, Verecunda, “sister Thuttena,” Crispa, Ingenua, and Varranilla suggest German or Gallic origins). Regina, wife of Barathes the Palmyrene, is an interesting “success” story; it appears she started out as his slave, and he freed her in order to marry her. “The fact that she was a Catuvellaunian by birth and had been taken into slavery long after the conquest phase suggests that she may have been sold into slavery by her own family” (196). Another “success” story is that of a woman called Melania in the fifth century, who “chose to dispose of her multi-million property portfolio across Italy, Sicily, Spain, Africa, and Britain” (455).
Further to the debts Ruso gets into in Medicus, Mattingly notes, “The sums involved were mostly trifling (a few denarii), but several sums exceeded a year’s pay and one exceptional debt of 2,000 denarii appears to have involved an officer” (191). Fascinatingly, noting where oil lamps have been found suggests they were much more popular around military contexts. On the other hand, “small metal toilet implements” “remained popular personal grooming items throughout the Roman period, though they became much more rare on the Continent” (473). Clearly tweezers, probes, and nail cleaners really appealed to the Britons. There is huge difficulty in investigating British urban sites because of the “success of many of the locations selected as urban centres. About two thirds of the major towns of the province lie beneath modern urban conurbations” (263). One of the best exceptions is Silchester, which of course Sutcliff used for The Eagle of the Ninth, though Mattingly suggests it may be in fact atypical. Interestingly, old habits die hard: timber construction was, despite fire hazards, extremely well-developed and may have been a pre-Roman specialization.
I enjoyed the (somewhat romanticized) idea in The Silver Branch of the lights of Roman Britain extinguishing themselves, though it is interesting that “there thus appears to have been a small garrison of sorts in Wales down to close to the end of Roman Britain,” chiming with what I think I was told back in 2008 that one of the last forts before the “Dark Ages” was Segontium in Wales (245). “One of the few certain later fourth-century military texts from Britain, dedicating a signal station on the Yorkshire coast, is barely intelligible as Latin” (248). Despite the rather sad feeling one gets as the Romans “leave” and literacy “crumbles,” I am very much attracted to the idea that left over buildings took on new functions and continued to be used sometimes for 80 years after their original function was abandoned. Evidence suggests that the elite moved out of town centers when their fresh water supply became unreliable. I confess I’m interested in the volume that follows this, though perhaps even more so with what might have gone before. After all, Mattingly says, “the late Iron Age in southern Britain was a story of dynastic rivalry (with Shakespeare’s Cymbeline perhaps oddly prescient)” (59).
There is still so much we don’t know. I mean, what’s up with Ogam? Personally, despite all the problems with it, a romantic part of me really likes the tack King Arthur took in making Arthur a Romano-Briton with his Darmatian knights (calvary of which cohors?), somehow passing the flame of civilization (?) or a British identity (?) independent of those rough and destructive Saxons (naughty, naughty Saxons!). Of course, given that most of the Druids were slain in brutal reprisals (look at the one on Anglesey) it seems unlikely Merlin could have been one, but who knows? Furthermore, Guinevere as a Pict (?) / Woad (?) / anachronistic Boudicca figure (oppressed by Christianity rather than the military) made about as much historical sense as the “Celts” in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, but heigh ho. “Vortigern may be an apocryphal figure, but clearly he represented a type of local tyrannus” (532). If we had a time machine, would we really want to use it?
 “A Roman helmet from London with no less than four separate names stamped into its neck guard” (207).
 “The implications are that the large-scale use of such tablets was standard and wide-ranging in terms of the types of records and communications. . . . a typical Northumberland rain storm seems to have extinguished a smouldering bonfire and preserved one of the main groups” (200).
 The curse tablets get their own table covering several pages and are worth investigating in full. The thefts range from a silver ring to a bathing tunic to 5 denarii to 4 cows. “The formulaic nature and language of the tablts is characteristically Roman . . . the pattern . . . strongly suggests that this was a British peculiarity” (315).
 “Evidently invented by a native Irish person with a knowledge of Latin” used in inscriptions in southern Wales, some of which I have seen myself.
 “The nature of the ‘Saxon’ presence changed in about 440” (536).