The Romanization of Britain Under the Roman Empire

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[Illustration: FIG. 17. HERCULES RESCUING HESIONE. (From a piece of Castor ware found in Northamptonshire. C.R. Smith, Coll. Ant., vol. iv, Pl. XXIV.)]

A second instance may be cited, this time from sculpture, of important British work which is Celtic, or at least un-Roman (Frontispiece). The Spa at Bath (Aquae Sulis) contained a stately temple to Sul or Sulis Minerva, goddess of the waters. The pediment of this temple, partly preserved by a lucky accident and unearthed in 1790, was carved with a trophy of arms--in the centre a round wreathed shield upheld by two Victories, and below and on either side a helmet, a standard (?), and a cuirass. It is a classical group, such as occurs on other Roman reliefs. But its treatment breaks clean away from the classical. The sculptor placed on the shield a Gorgon's head, as suits alike Minerva and a shield. But he gave to the Gorgon a beard and moustache, almost in the manner of a head of Fear, and he wrought its features with a fierce virile vigour that finds no kin in Greek or Roman art. I need not here discuss the reasons which may have led him to add the male attributes to a properly female type. For our present purpose the important fact is that he could do it. Here is proof that, once at least, the supremacy of the dominant conventional art of the Empire could be rudely broken down.[1]

[Footnote 1: For the details of the temple and pediment see Vict. Hist. Somerset, i. 229 foll., and references given there. I have discussed the artistic problem on pp. 235 and 236.]

A third example, also from sculpture, is supplied by the Corbridge Lion, found among the ruins of Corstopitum in Northumberland in 1907 (Fig.

  1. . It is a sculpture in the round showing nearly a life-sized lion standing above his prey. The scene is common in provincial Roman work, and not least in Gaul and Britain. Often it is connected with graves, sometimes (as perhaps here) it served for the ornament of a fountain. But if the scene is common, the execution of it is not. Artistically, indeed, the piece is open to criticism. The lion is not the ordinary beast of nature. His face, the pose of his feet, the curl of his tail round his hind leg, are all untrue to life. The man who carved him knew perhaps more of dogs than lions. But he fashioned a living animal. Fantastic and even grotesque as it is, his work possesses a wholly unclassical fierceness and vigour, and not a few observers have remarked when seeing it that it recalls not the Roman world but the Middle Ages.[1]

[Footnote 1: Arch. Aeliana, 1908, p. 205. I owe to Dr. Chalmers Mitchell a criticism on the truthfulness of the sculpture.]

[Illustration: FIG. 18. THE CORBRIDGE LION. (P. 43.)]

These exceptions to the ruling Roman-provincial culture are probably commoner in Britain than in the Celtic lands across the Channel. In northern Gaul we meet no such vigorous semi-barbaric carving as the Gorgon and the Lion. At Trier or Metz or Arlon or Sens the sculptures are consistently classical in style and feeling, and the value of this fact is none the less if (with some writers) we find special geographical reasons for the occurrence of certain of these sculptures.[1] Smaller objects tell much the same tale. In particular the bronze 'fibulae' of Roman Britain are peculiarly British. Their commonest varieties are derived from Celtic prototypes and hardly occur abroad. The most striking example of this is supplied by the enamelled 'dragon-brooches'. Both their design (Fig. 19) and their gorgeous colouring are Celtic in spirit; they occur not seldom in Britain; on the Continent only four instances have been recorded.[2] Here certainly Roman Britain is more Celtic than Gallia Belgica or the Rhine Valley. Yet a complete survey of the brooches used in Roman Britain would show a large number of types which were equally common in Britain and on the Continent. Exceptions are always more interesting than rules--even in grammar. But the exceptions pass and the rules remain. The Castor ware and the Gorgon's head are exceptions. The rule stands that the material civilization of Britain was Roman. Except the Gorgon, every worked or sculptured stone at Bath follows the classical conventions. Except the Castor and New Forest pottery, all the better earthenware in use in Britain obeys the same law. The kind that was most generally employed for all but the meaner purposes, was not Castor but Samian or terra sigillata.[3] This ware is singularly characteristic of Roman-provincial art. As I have said above, it is copied wholesale from Italian originals. It is purely imitative and conventional; it reveals none of that delight in ornament, that spontaneousness in devising decoration and in working out artistic patterns which can clearly be traced in Late Celtic work. It is simply classical, in an inferior degree.

[Footnote 1: Michaelis, Loeschke and others assume an early intercourse between the Mosel basin and eastern Europe, and thereby explain both a statue in Pergamene style which was found at Metz and appears to have been carved there and also the Neumagen sculptures. As all these pieces were pretty certainly produced in Roman times, the early intercourse seems an inadequate cause. Moreover, Pergamene work, while rare in Italy, occurs in Aquitania and Africa, and may have been popular in the provinces.]

[Footnote 2: I have given a list in Archaeologia Aeliana, 1909, p. 420, to which four English and one foreign example have now to be added. See also Curle, Newstead, p. 319, and R.A. Smith, Proc. Soc. Ant. Lond., xxii. 61.]

[Footnote 3: I may record here a protest against the attempts made from time to time to dispossess the term 'Samian'. Nothing better has been suggested in its stead, and the word itself has the merit of perfect lucidity. Of the various substitutes suggested, 'Pseudo-Arretine' is clumsy, 'Terra Sigillata' is at least as incorrect, and 'Gaulish' covers only a part of the field (Proc. Soc. Antiq. Lond., xxiii. 120).]

[Illustration: FIG. 19. 'DRAGON-BROOCHES' FOUND AT CORBRIDGE (1/1). (P.

  1. ]

The contrast between this Romano-British civilization and the native culture which preceded it can readily be seen if we compare for a moment a Celtic village and a Romano-British village. Examples of each have been excavated in the south-west of England, hardly thirty miles apart. The Celtic village is close to Glastonbury in Somerset. Of itself it is a small, poor place--just a group of pile dwellings rising out of a marsh, or (as it may then have been) a lake, and dating from the two centuries immediately preceding the Christian era.[1] Yet, poor as it was, its art is distinct. There one recognizes all that general delight in decoration and that genuine artistic instinct which mark Late Celtic work, while the technical details of the ornament, as, for example, the returning spiral, reveal their affinity with the same native fashion. On the other hand, no trace of classical workmanship or design intrudes. There has not been found anywhere in the village even a fibula with a hinge instead of a spring, or of an Italian (as opposed to a Late Celtic) pattern. Turn now to the Romano-British villages excavated by General Pitt-Rivers at Woodcuts and Rotherley and Woodyates, eleven miles south-west of Salisbury, near the Roman road from Old Sarum (Sorbiodunum) to Dorchester in Dorset.[2] Here you may search in vain for vestiges of the native art or of that delight in artistic ornament which characterizes it. Everywhere the monotonous Roman culture meets the eye. To pass from Glastonbury to Woodcuts is like passing from some old timbered village of Kent or Sussex to the uniform streets of a modern city suburb. Life at Woodcuts had, no doubt, its barbaric side. One writer who has discussed its character with a view to the present problem[3] comments, with evident distaste, on 'dwellings connected with pits used as storage rooms, refuse sinks, and burial places' and 'corpses crouching in un-Roman positions'. The first feature is not without its parallels in modern countries and it was doubtless common in ancient Italy. The second would be more significant if such skeletons occupied all or even the majority of the graves in these villages. Neither feature really mars the broad result, that the material life was Roman. Perhaps the villagers knew little enough of the Roman civilization in its higher aspects. Perhaps they did not speak Latin fluently or habitually. They may well have counted among the less Romanized of the southern Britons. Yet round them too hung the heavy inevitable atmosphere of the Roman material civilization.

[Footnote 1: The Glastonbury village was excavated in and after 1892 at intervals; a full account of the finds is now being issued by Bulleid and Gray (The Glastonbury Lake Village, vol. i, 1911), with a preface by Dr. R. Munro. The finds themselves are mostly at Glastonbury.]

[Footnote 2: Described in four quarto volumes, Excavations in Cranborne Chase, &c., issued privately by the late General Pitt-Rivers, 1887-98.]

[Footnote 3: Vinogradoff, Growth of the Manor, p. 39. A parallel to the non-Roman burials found by General Pitt-Rivers may be found in the will of a Lingonian Gaul who died probably in the latter part of the first century. Apparently he was a Roman citizen, and his will is drawn in strict Roman fashion. But its last clause orders the burning of all his hunting apparatus, spears and nets, &c., on his funeral pyre, and thus betrays the Gaulish habit (Bruns, p. 308, ed. 1909).]

The facts which I have tried to set forth in the preceding paragraphs seem to me to possess more weight than is always allowed. Some writers, for instance M. Loth, speak as if the external environment of daily life, the furniture and decorations and architecture of our houses, or the clothes and buckles and brooches of our dress, bore no relation to the feelings and sentiments of those that used them. That is not a tenable proposition. The external fabric of life is not a negligible quantity but a real factor. On the one hand, it is hardly credible that an unromanized folk should adopt so much of Roman things as the British did, and yet remain uninfluenced. And it is equally incredible that, while it remained unromanized, it should either care or understand how to borrow all the externals of Roman life. The truth of this was clear to Tacitus in the days when the Romanization of Britain was proceeding. It may be recognized in the east or in Africa to-day. Even among the civilized nations of the present age the recent growth of stronger national feelings has been accompanied by a preference for home-products and home-manufactures and a distaste for foreign surroundings.

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