The Romanization of Britain Under the Roman Empire

Prev | Next | Contents


From this consideration of the evidence available to illustrate the Romanization of Britain, I pass to the inquiry how far history helps us to trace out the chronology of the process. A few facts and probabilities emerge as guides. Intercourse between south-eastern Britain and the Roman world had already begun before the Roman conquest in A.D. 43. Latin words, as I have said above (p. 24), had begun to appear on the native British coinage, and Arretine pottery had found its way to such places as Foxton in Cambridgeshire, Alchester in Oxfordshire, and Southwark in Surrey.[1] The establishment of a municipium at Verulamium (St. Albans) sometime before A.D. 60, and probably even before A.D. 50,[2] points the same way. The peculiar status of municipium was granted in the early Empire especially to native provincial towns which had become Romanized without official Roman action or settlement of Roman soldiers or citizens, and which had, as it were, merited municipal privileges. It is quite likely that such Romanization had begun at Verulam before the Roman conquest, and formed the justification for the early grant of such privileges. Certainly the whole lowland area, as far west as Exeter and Shrewsbury, and as far north as the Humber, was conquered before Claudius died, and Romanization may have commenced in it at once.

[Footnote 1: Babington, Anc. Cambridgeshire, p. 64; E. Krüger, Westd. Korr.-Blatt, 1904, p. 181; my note, Proc. Soc. Antiq. Lond., xxi. 461 Journal of Roman Studies, i. 146. Mr. H.B. Walters has dealt with the Southwark piece in the Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiq. Society,

  1. 107, but with some errors. The Alchester piece may be later than A.D. 43.]

[Footnote 2: The grant is very much more likely to have been made by Claudius than by Nero, and more likely to belong to the earlier than to the later years of Claudius.]

Thirty years later Agricola, who was obviously a better administrator than a general, openly encouraged the process. According to Tacitus, his efforts met with great success; Latin began to be spoken, the toga to be worn, temples, town halls, and private houses to be built in Roman fashion.[1] Agricola appears to have been merely carrying out the policy of his age. Certainly it is just at this period (about 75-85 A.D.) that towns like Silchester, Bath, Caerwent, seem to take definite shape,[2] and civil judges (legati iuridici) were appointed, presumably to administer the justice more frequently required by the advancing civilization.[3] In A.D. 85 it was thought safe to reduce the garrison by a legion and some auxiliaries.[4] Progress, however, was not maintained. About 115-20, and again about 155-63 and 175-80, the northern part of the province was vexed by serious risings, and the civilian area was doubtless kept somewhat in disturbance.[5] Probably it was at some point in this period that the flourishing country town of Isurium (Aldborough), fifteen miles from York, had to shield itself by a stone wall and ditch.[6]

[Footnote 1: Tac. Agr. 21, quoted in note 3 to p. 13.]

[Footnote 2: Silchester was plainly laid out in Roman fashion all at once on a definite street plan, and though some few of its houses may be older, the town as a whole seems to have taken its rise from this event. The evidence of coins implies that the development of the place began in the Flavian period (Athenaeum, Dec. 15, 1904). At Bath the earliest datable stones belong to the same time (Victoria Hist. of Somerset, vol. i, Roman Bath), the first being a fragmentary inscription of A.D.

  1. At Caerwent the evidence is confined to coins and fibulae, none of which seem earlier than Vespasian or Domitian: for the coins see Clifton Antiq. Club's Proceedings, v. 170-82.]

[Footnote 3: A. von Domaszewski, Rhein. Mus., xlvi. 599; C. ix. 5533 (as completed by Domaszewski), inscription of Salvius Liberalis; C. iii. 2864=9960, inscription of Iavolenus Priscus. Both these belong to the Flavian period. Other instances are known from the second century.]

[Footnote 4: Classical Review, xviii. (1904) 458; xix. (1905) 58, withdrawal of Batavian cohorts. The withdrawal of Legio ii Adiutrix is well known.]

[Footnote 5: See my papers in Archaeologia Aeliana, xxv. (1904) 142-7, and Proceedings of Soc. of Antiq. of Scotland, xxxviii. 454.]

[Footnote 6: The town wall of Isurium, partly visible to-day in Mr. A.S. Lawson's garden, is constructed in a fashion which suggests rather the second century than the later date when most of the town walls in Britain and Gaul were probably built, the end of the third or even the fourth century. Thus, its stones show the 'diamond broaching' which occurs on the Vallum of Pius, and which must therefore have been in use during the second century.]

Peace hardly set in till the opening of the third century. It was then, I think, that country-houses and farms first became common in all parts of the civilized area. The statistics of datable objects discovered in these buildings seem conclusive on this point. Except in Kent and the south-eastern region generally, not only coins, but also pottery of the first century are infrequent, and many sites have yielded nothing earlier than about A.D. 250. Despite the ill name that attaches to the third and fourth centuries, they were perhaps for Britain, as for parts of Gaul,[1] a period of progressive prosperity. Certainly, the number of British country-houses and farms inhabited during the years A.D. 280-350 must have been very large. Prosperity culminated, perhaps, in the Constantinian Age. Then, as Eumenius tells us, skilled artisans abounded in Britain far more than in Gaul, and were fetched from the island to build public and private edifices as far south as Autun.[2] Then also, and, indeed, as late as 360, British corn was largely exported to the Rhine Valley,[3] and British cloth earned a notice in the eastern Edict of Diocletian.[4] The province at that time was a prosperous and civilized region, where Latin speech and culture might be expected to prevail widely.

[Footnote 1: Mommsen, Röm. Gesch., v. 97, 106, and Ausonius, passim.]

[Footnote 2: Eumenius, Paneg. Constantio Caesari, 21 civitas Aeduorum ... plurimos quibus illae provinciae (Britain) _redundabant accepit artifices, et nunc exstructione veterum domorum et refectione operum publicorum et templorum instauratione consurgit.]

[Footnote 3: Ammianus, xviii. 2,3, annona a Brittaniis sueta transferri; Zosimus, iii. 5.]

[Footnote 4: Edict. Diocl. xix. 36. Compare Eumenius, _Paneg. Constantino Aug., 9 _pecorum innumerabilis multitudo ... onusta velleribus, and Constantio Caesari, 11 _tanto laeta munere pastionum. Traces of dyeing works have been discovered at Silchester (Archaeologia, liv. 460, &c.) and of fulling in rural dwellings at Chedworth in Gloucestershire, Darenth in Kent, and Titsey in Surrey (Fox, Archaeologia, lix. 207).]

No golden age lasts long. Before 350, probably in 343, Constans had to cross the Channel and repel the Picts and other assailants.[1] After 368 such aid was more often and more urgently required. Significantly enough, the lists of coins found in some country-houses close about 350-60, while others remained occupied till about 385 or even later. The rural districts, it is plain, began then to be no longer safe; some houses were burnt by marauding bands, and some abandoned by their owners.[2] Therewith came necessarily, as in many other provinces, a decline of Roman influences and a rise of barbarism. Men took the lead who were not polished and civilized Romans of Italy or of the provinces, but warriors and captains of warrior bands. The Menapian Carausius, whatever his birthplace,[3] was the forerunner of a numerous class. Finally, the great raid of 406-7 and its sequel severed Britain from Rome. A wedge of barbarism was driven in between the two, and the central government, itself in bitter need, ceased to send officers to rule the province and to command its troops. Britain was left to itself. Yet even now it did not seek separation from Rome. All that we know supports the view of Mommsen. It was not Britain which broke loose from the Empire, but the Empire which gave up Britain.[4]

[Footnote 1: Ammianus, xx. 1. The expedition was important enough to be recorded--unless I am mistaken--on coins such as those which show victorious Constans on a galley, recrossing the Channel after his success (Cohen, 9-13, &c.). On the history of the whole period for Britain see Cambridge Medieval History, i. 378, 379.]

[Footnote 2: See, for example, the coin-finds of the country-houses at Thruxton, Abbots Ann, Clanville, Holbury, Carisbrooke, &c., in Hampshire (Victoria Hist. of Hants, i. 294 foll.). The Croydon hoard deposited about A.D. 351 (Numismatic Chronicle, 1905, p. 37) may be assigned to the same cause.]

[Footnote 3: It is hard to believe him an Irishman, though Professor Rhys supports the idea (Cambrian Archaeol. Assoc., Kerry Meeting, 1891). The one ancient authority, Aurelius Victor (xxxix. 20), describes him simply as Menapiae civis. The Gaulish Menapii were well known; the Irish Menapii were very obscure, and the brief reference can only refer to the former.]

[Footnote 4: Mommsen, Röm. Gesch., v. 177. Zosimus, vi. 5 (A.D. 408), in a puzzling passage describes Britain as revolting from Rome when Constantine was tyrant (A.D. 407-11). It is generally assumed that when Constantine failed to protect these regions, they set up for themselves, and in that troubled time such a step would be natural enough. But Zosimus, a little later on (vi. 10, A.D. 410), casually states that Honorius wrote to Britain, bidding the provincials defend themselves, so that the act of 408 cannot have been final--unless, indeed, as the context of Zosimus suggests and as Gothofredus and others have thought, the name 'Britain' is here a copyist's mistake for 'Bruttii' or some other Italian name. In any case the 'groans of the Britons' recorded by Gildas show that the island looked to Rome long after 410. On Constantine see Freeman, Western Europe in the Fifth Century, pp. 48, 148 and Bury, Life of St. Patrick, p. 329.]

Such is, in brief, the positive evidence, archaeological, linguistic, and historical, which illustrates the Romanization of Britain. The conclusions which it allows seem to be two. First, and mainly: the Empire did its work in our island as it did generally on the western continent. It Romanized the province, introducing Roman speech and thought and culture. Secondly, this Romanization was perhaps not uniform throughout all sections of the population. Within the lowlands the result was on the whole achieved. In the towns and among the upper class in the country Romanization was substantially complete--as complete as in northern Gaul, and possibly indeed even more complete. But both the lack of definite evidence and the probabilities of the case require us to admit that the peasantry may have been less thoroughly Romanized. It was covered with a superimposed layer of Roman civilization. But beneath this layer the native element may have remained potentially, if not actually, Celtic, and in the remoter districts the native speech may have lingered on, like Erse or Manx to-day, as a rival to the more fashionable Latin. How far this happened actually within the civilized lowland area we cannot tell. But we may be sure that the military region, Wales and the north, never became thoroughly Romanized, and Cornwall and western Devon also lie beyond the pale (p. 21). Here the Britons must have remained Celtic, or at least capable of a reversion to the Celtic tradition. Here, at any rate, a Celtic revival was possible.

Prev | Next | Contents

roman culture