The Romanization of Britain Under the Roman Empire

Home | Prev | Next | Contents


We may now proceed to survey the actual remains. They may seem scanty, but they deserve examination.

First, in respect of language. Even before the Claudian conquest of A.D. 43, British princes had begun to inscribe their coins with Latin words. These legends are not merely blind and unintelligent copies, like the imitations of Roman legends on the early English sceattas. The word most often used, REX, is strange to the Roman coinage, and must have been employed with a real sense of its meaning. After A.D. 43, Latin advanced rapidly. No Celtic inscription occurs, I believe, on any monument of the Roman period in Britain, neither cut on stone nor scratched on tile or potsherd, and this fact is the more noteworthy because, as I shall point out below, Celtic inscriptions are not at all unknown in Gaul. On the other hand, Roman inscriptions occur freely in Britain. They are less common than in many other provinces, and they abound most in the military region. But they appear also in towns and country-houses, and some of the instances are significant.

The town site that we can best examine for our present purpose is Calleva or Silchester, ten miles south of Reading, which has been completely excavated with care and thoroughness. Here a few fairly complete inscriptions on stone have been discovered, and many fragments of others, which prove that the public language of the town was Latin.[1] The speech of ordinary conversation is equally well attested by smaller inscribed objects, and the evidence is remarkable, since it plainly refers to the lower class of Callevans. When a weary brick-maker scrawls SATIS with his finger on a tile, or some prouder spirit writes CLEMENTINVS FECIT TVBVL(um) (Clementinus made this box-tile), when a bit of Samian is marked FVR--presumably as a warning from the servants of one house to those of the next--or a rude brick shows the word PVELLAM--probably part of an amatory sentence otherwise lost--or another brick gives a Roman date, the 'sixth day before the Calends of October', we may be sure that the lower classes of Calleva used Latin alike at their work and in their more frivolous moments (Figs. 2, 3, 4). When we find a tile scratched over with cursive lettering--possibly part of a writing lesson--which ends with a tag from the Aeneid, we recognize that not even Vergil was out of place here.[2] The Silchester examples are so numerous and remarkable that they admit of no other interpretation.[3]

[Footnote 1: For these and for the following graffiti see my account in the Victoria History of Hampshire, i. 275, 282-4. For the 'Clementinus' tile (discovered since) see Archaeologia, lviii. 30. Silchester lies in a stoneless country, so that stone inscriptions would naturally be few and would easily be used up for later building. Moreover, its cemeteries have not yet been explored, and only one tombstone has come accidentally to light.]

[Footnote 2: Sir E.M. Thompson, Greek and Latin Palaeography (1894),

  1. 211, first suggested this explanation; Eph. ix. 1293.]

[Footnote 3: To call them--as did a kindly Belgian critic of this paper in its first published form--'un nombre de faits trop peu considérable' is really to misstate the case.]

[Illustration: FIG. 2. ... puellam.]

[Illustration: FIG. 3. Fecit tubul(um) Clementinus.]

[Illustration: FIG. 4. vi K(alendas) Oct(obres)....]


  1. ]

[Illustration: FIG. 5. GRAFFITO ON A TILE FOUND AT SILCHESTER (P. 25). Pertacus perfidus campester Lucilianus Campanus conticuere omnes. (Probably a writing lesson.)]

I have heard this conclusion doubted on the ground that a bricklayer or domestic servant in a province of the Roman Empire would not have known how to read and write. This doubt really rests on a misconception of the Empire. It is, indeed, akin to the surprise which tourists often exhibit when confronted with Roman remains in an excavation or a museum--a surprise that 'the Romans' had boots, or beds, or waterpipes, or fireplaces, or roofs over their heads. There are, in truth, abundant evidences that the labouring man in Roman days knew how to read and write at need, and there is much truth in the remark that in the lands ruled by Rome education was better under the Empire than at any time since its fall till the nineteenth century.

It has, indeed, been suggested by doubters, that these graffiti were written by immigrant Italians, working as labourers or servants in Calleva. The suggestion does not seem probable. Italians certainly emigrated to the provinces in considerable numbers, just as Italians emigrate to-day. But we have seen above that the ancient emigrants were not labourers, as they are to-day. They were traders, or dealers in land, or money-lenders or other 'well-to-do' persons. The labourers and servants of Calleva must be sought among the native population, and the graffiti testify that this population wrote Latin. It is a further question whether, besides writing Latin, the Callevan servants and workmen may not also have spoken Celtic. Here direct evidence fails. In the nature of things, we cannot hope for proof of the negative proposition that Celtic was not spoken in Silchester. But all probabilities suggest that it was, at any rate, spoken very little. In the twenty years' excavation of the site, no Celtic inscription has emerged. Instead, we have proof that the lower classes wrote Latin for all sorts of purposes. Had they known Celtic well, it is hardly credible that they should not have sometimes written in that language, as the Gauls did across the Channel. A Gaulish potter of Roman date could scrawl his name and record, Sacrillos avot, 'Sacrillus potter', on the outside of a mould.[1] No such scrawl has ever been found in Britain. The Gauls, again, could invent a special letter Ð to denote a special Celtic sound and keep it in Roman times. No such letter was used in Roman Britain, though it occurs on earlier British coins. This total absence of written Celtic cannot be a mere accident.

[Footnote 1: One example is Sacrillos avot form., suggesting a bilingual sentence such as we find in some Cornish documents of the period when Cornish was definitely giving way to English. Another example, Valens avoti (Déchelette, Vases céramiques, i. 302), suggests the same stage of development in a different way.]

No other Romano-British town has been excavated so extensively or so scientifically as Silchester. None, therefore, has yielded so much evidence. But we have no reason to consider Silchester exceptional in its character. Such scraps as we possess from other sites point to similar Romanization elsewhere. FVR, for instance, recurs on a potsherd from the Romano-British country town at Dorchester in Dorset. A set of tiles dug up in the ruins of a country-house at Plaxtol, in Kent, bear a Roman inscription impressed by a rude wooden stamp (Fig. 6).[1] In short, all the graffiti on potsherds or tiles that are known to me as found in towns or country-houses are equally Roman. Larger inscriptions, cut on stone, have also been found in country-houses. On the whole the general result is clear. Latin was employed freely in the towns of Britain, not only on serious occasions or by the upper classes, but by servants and work-people for the most accidental purposes. It was also used, at least by the upper classes, in the country. Plainly there did not exist in the towns that linguistic gulf between upper class and lower class which can be seen to-day in many cities of eastern Europe, where the employers speak one language and the employed another. On the other hand, it is possible that a different division existed, one which is perhaps in general rarer, but which can, or could, be paralleled in some Slavonic districts of Austria-Hungary. That is, the townsfolk of all ranks and the upper class in the country may have spoken Latin, while the peasantry may have used Celtic. No actual evidence has been discovered to prove this. We may, however, suggest that it is not, in itself, an impossible or even an improbable linguistic division of Roman Britain, even though the province did not contain any such racial differences as those of German, Pole, Ruthene and Rouman which lend so much interest to Austrian towns like Czernowitz.

[Footnote 1: Proc. Soc. Antiq. London, xxiii. 108; Eph. ix. 1290.]


Home | Prev | Next | Contents

roman culture