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Roman Britain: Fresh perspectives

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Sharon Marshall

on 16 February 2015

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Transcript of Roman Britain: Fresh perspectives

Roman Britain: Fresh perspectives
Britain before the conquest
Romanization often in the past seen as the coming of civilization to Britain
Now sometimes considered as the military imposition of a new fashionable culture
Might we now see it as a story of change rather than necessarily improvement or progress?
Archaeology has been able to give the Britons a voice, showing them to be more sophisticated than previously thought (v. little known from texts)
Towns before Rome
Art and culture
Brilliant technical and artistic skill, particularly in metalwork
Suggests lack of monumental architecture to rival Greece and Rome was not ignorance, but cultural choice
Britons chose to expend effort on portable artefacts (jewellery, weapons, wheeled vehicles), not static ones like temples. Why might that be the case?
Any massive engineering works were usually made of perishable timber or earthworks (e.g. hillfort of Maiden Castle, Dorset)
Celts
In antiquity “Celtic” only used of continental peoples, especially the Gauls of France
British and the Irish were regarded as similar, but not the same
Label dates to 18th century when scholars recognised that Gauls, Irish, Britons and others all spoke similar “Celtic” languages
Linguistic term soon became ethnic one used by historians
Misleading as suggests uniformity if people who varied enormously
Effects of Romanization
Much of Caledonia (Scotland) was far outside the province, and hardly touched
Presence of a large army and a new road network in South had more profound effect
But
for many districts the lifestyle of ordinary farming families changed little
Most incomers were soldiers from huge variety of ethnic backgrounds (very few Italians)
Modern estimates: incomers were outnumbered by native Britons by at least 20 to 1
(but of course this minority was a politically, militarily and culturally dominant ruling elite)
Resulted in development of unique
Romano-British culture
Britons, like the Gauls, were already developing “proto-urban centres” before the invasion
Agglomerations of industrial, religious and governmental activities
Partly, but not wholly, inspired by urban developments in Iron Age and Roman Gaul
Most important developed into the major cities of the Roman province e.g. Colchester and St. Albans
Literacy and administration
Britons were probably largely non-literate
Did they need or want writing for most purposes? (Did they ban its use for religious matters, like the Gallic Druids?)
Coins introduced as administration became more centralised

Produce and population
No revolution in agriculture when Romans arrived
Farming intensified, probably as a result of bigger markets, but native farming practices continued
Not surprising as staples of Italian farming won’t grow grow in Britain (e.g. olives, figs)
Productivity of the land attested by huge numbers of late Iron Age farmsteads
Thousands of these settlements = a population approaching several million by Roman conquest (far more than assumed a few decades ago)
Resistance to Roman rule
Revolt of Iceni tribe in 61 AD led by Boudicca unusual
Triggered by localised extremes of brutality and administrative incompetence
Rareness shows that Roman methods of government were usually successful in pacifying the conquered and reconciling them to their new status
Houses
Most people continued to live in Iron Age-style round houses of (timber and thatch)
Most villas lacked hypocausts (“central heating”), bath-houses or mosaics
Villas represented the yearning of the wealthy to be Roman more than big advance in comfort/culture
Truly luxurious villas with baths and mosaics always the exception
Religion
Romans brought their state gods to Britain and the imperial cult
But also venerated gods of the conquered, as at Bath, where the invaders worshipped British Sul
Identified her with their own goddess Minerva, a common Roman practice
Basic similarities of Roman and British religions aided this; both were polytheistic
Clash with the Druids = relatively unusual example of religious intolerance in the Roman world
Ostensibly on grounds that Druids practised human sacrifice
Real reason for the clash was political; the Druids were supra-tribal order which might co-ordinate rebellion
A dynamic picture
Britons Still spoke Celtic dialects
Aristocratic class developed a local form of Roman culture, but bulk of the population continued to live much as their ancestors had done
From top down, much of Romano-British society looked fairly Roman, but from bottom up, even in the most Romanized areas it still looked fairly “Celtic”
Changes took time
Took generations to build up the Romanized infrastructure of roads and towns, etc.
Most “palatial” villas (never more than a few dozen) date to the fourth century, late in the occupation
Roman army underwent a profound reverse change, going native as it switched to local recruitment
In the third and fourth century, most Roman
soldiers in Britain were British-born
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