The Romanization of Britain Under the Roman Empire

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One western province seems to form an exception to the general rule. In Britain, as it is described by the majority of English writers, we have a province in which Roman and native were as distinct as modern Englishman and Indian, and 'the departure of the Romans' in the fifth century left the Britons almost as Celtic as their coming had found them. The adoption of this view may be set down, I think, to various reasons which have, in themselves, little to do with the subject. The older archaeologists, familiar with the early wars narrated by Caesar and Tacitus, pictured the whole history of the island as consisting of such struggles. Later writers have been influenced by the analogies of English rule in India. Still more recently, the revival of Welsh national sentiment has inspired a hope, which has become a belief, that the Roman conquest was an episode, after which an unaltered Celticism resumed its interrupted supremacy. These considerations have, plainly enough, very little value as history, and the view which is based on them seems to me in large part mistaken. As I have pointed out, it is not the view which is suggested by a consideration of the general character of the western provinces. Nor do I think that it is the view which agrees best with the special evidence which we possess in respect of Britain. In the following paragraphs I propose to examine this evidence. I shall adopt an archaeological rather than a legal or a philological standpoint. The legal and philological arguments have often been put forward. But the legal arguments are entirely a priori, and they have led different scholars to very different conclusions. The philological arguments are no less beset with difficulties. Both the facts and their significance are obscure, and the inquiry into them has hitherto yielded little beyond confident and yet wholly contradictory assertions and theories which are not susceptible of proof. The archaeological evidence, on the other hand, is definite and consistent, and perhaps deserves fuller notice than it has yet received. It illuminates, not only the material civilization, but also the language and to some extent even the institutions of Roman Britain, and supplies, though imperfectly, the facts which our legal and philological arguments do not yield.

I need not here insert a sketch of Roman Britain. But I may call attention to three of its features which are not seldom overlooked. In the first place, it is necessary to distinguish the two halves of the province, the one the northern and western uplands occupied only by troops, and the other the eastern and southern lowlands which contained nothing but purely civilian life.[1] The two are marked off, not in law but in practical fact, almost as fully as if one had been domi and the other militiae. We shall not seek for traces of Romanization in the military area. There neither towns existed nor villas. Northwards, no town or country-house has been found beyond the neighbourhood of Aldborough (Isurium), some fifteen miles north-west of York. Westwards, on the Welsh frontier, the most advanced town was at Wroxeter (Viroconium), near Shrewsbury, and the furthest country-house an isolated dwelling at Llantwit, in Glamorgan.[2] In the south-west the last house was near Lyme Regis, the last town at Exeter.[3] These are the limits of the Romanized area. Outside of them, the population cannot have acquired much Roman character, nor can it have been numerous enough to form more than a subsidiary factor in our problem. But within these limits were towns and villages and country-houses and farms, a large population, and a developed and orderly life.

[Footnote 1: For further details see the Victoria County Histories of Northamptonshire, i. 159, and Derbyshire, i. 191. To save frequent references, I may say here that much of the evidence for the following paragraphs is to be found in my articles on Romano-British remains printed in the volumes of this History. I am indebted to its publishers for leave to reproduce several illustrations from its pages. For others I refer my readers to the History itself.]

[Footnote 2: See my Military Aspects of Roman Wales, notes 60 and 82. There was some sort of town life at Carmarthen.]

[Footnote 3: The Roman remains discovered west of Exeter are few and mostly later than A.D. 250. No town or country-house or farm or stretch of roadway has ever been found here. The list of discoveries includes only one early settlement on Plymouth harbour, another near Bodmin, of small size, and a third, equally small and of uncertain date, on Padstow harbour; some scanty vestiges of tin-mining, principally late; two milestones (if milestones they be) of the early fourth century, the one at Tintagel church and the other at St. Hilary; and some scattered hoards and isolated bits. Portions of the country were plainly inhabited, but the inhabitants did not learn Roman ways, like those who lived east of the Exe. Even tin-mining was not pursued very actively till a comparatively late period, though the Bodmin settlement may be connected with tin-works close by.]


Secondly, the distribution of civilian life, even in the lowlands, was singularly uneven. It is not merely that some districts were the special homes of wealthier residents. We have also to conceive of some parts as densely peopled and of some as hardly inhabited. Portions of Kent, Sussex, and Somerset are set thick with country-houses and similar vestiges of Romano-British life. But other portions of the same counties, southern Kent, northern Sussex, western Somerset, show very few traces of any settled life at all. The midland plain, and in particular Warwickshire,[1] seems to have been the largest of these 'thin spots'. Here, among great woodlands and on damp and chilly clay, there dwelt not merely few civilized Roman-Britons, but few occupants of any sort.

[Footnote 1: Victoria Hist. of Warwickshire, i. 228.]

And lastly, Romano-British life was on a small scale. It was, I think, normal in quality and indeed not very dissimilar from that of many parts of Gaul. But it was in any case defective in quantity. We find towns in Britain, as elsewhere, and farms or country-houses. But the towns are small and somewhat few, and the country-houses indicate comfort more often than wealth. The costlier objects of ordinary use, fine mosaics, precious glass, gold and silver ornaments, occur comparatively seldom.[1] We have before us a civilization which, like a man whose constitution is sound rather than strong, might perish quickly from a violent shock.

[Footnote 1: See my remarks in Traill's Social England (illustrated edition, 1901), i. 141-61.]

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