The Romanization of Britain Under the Roman Empire

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I have dealt with the language and the material civilization of the province of Britain. I pass to a third and harder question, the administrative and legal framework of local Romano-British life. Here we have to discuss the extent to which the Roman town-system of the colonia and municipium, and the Roman land-system of the villa penetrated Britain. And, first, as to the towns. Britain, we know, contained five municipalities of the privileged Italian type. The colonia of Camulodunum (Colchester) and the municipium of Verulamium (St. Albans), both in the south-east of the island, were established soon after the Claudian conquest. The colonia of Lindum (Lincoln) was probably founded in the early Flavian period (A.D. 70-80), when the Ninth Legion, hitherto at Lincoln, was probably pushed forward to York. The colonia at Glevum (Gloucester) arose in A.D. 96-98, as an inscription seems definitely to attest. Lastly, the colonia at Eburacum (York) must have grown up during the second or the early third century, under the ramparts of the legionary fortress, though separated from it by the intervening river Ouse.[1] Each of these five towns had, doubtless, its dependent ager attributus, which may have been as large as an average English county, and each provided the local government for its territory.[2] That implies a definitely Roman form of local government for a considerable area--a larger area, certainly, than received such organization in northern Gaul. Yet it accounts, on the most liberal estimate, for barely one-eighth of the civilized part of the province.

[Footnote 1: The fortress was situated on the left or east bank of the Ouse close to the present cathedral, which stands wholly within its area. Parts of the Roman walls can still be traced, especially at the so-called Multangular Tower. The municipality lay on the other (west) bank of the Ouse, near the railway station, where various mosaics indicate dwelling-houses. Its outline and plan are, however, not known. Even its situation has not been generally recognized.]

[Footnote 2: If the evidence of milestones may be pressed, the 'territory' of Eburacum extended southwards at least twenty miles to Castleford, and that of Lincoln at least fourteen miles to Littleborough (Ephemeris Epigraphica, vii. 1105=ix. 1253, where the last two lines are AVGG EB|MP XX (or XXII), and vii. 1097). The general size of these municipal 'territoria' is amply proved by Continental inscriptions.]

Of the rest, some part may have been included in the Imperial Domains, which covered wide tracts in every province and were administered for local purposes by special procurators of the Emperor. The lead-mining districts--Mendip in Somerset, the neighbourhood of Matlock in Derbyshire, the Shelve Hills west of Wroxeter, the Halkyn region in Flintshire, the moors of south-west Yorkshire--must have belonged to these Domains, and for the most part are actually attested by inscriptions on lead-pigs as Imperial property. Of other domain lands we meet one early instance at Silchester in the reign of Nero[1]--perhaps the confiscated estates of some British prince or noble--and though we have no further direct evidence, the analogy of other provinces suggests that the area increased as the years went by. Yet it is likely that in Britain, as indeed in Gaul,[2] the domain lands were comparatively small in amount. Like the municipalities, they account only for a part of the province.

[Footnote 1: Tile inscribed NERCLCAEAVGGER, Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (Eph. ix. 1267). It differs markedly from the ordinary tiles found at Silchester, and plainly belongs to a different period in the history of the site. Possibly the estate, or whatever it was, did not remain Imperial after Nero's downfall; compare Plutarch, Galba, 5. The Combe Down Principia (C. vii. 62), which are certainly not military, may supply another example, of about A.D. 210 (Vict. Hist. Somerset, i. 311; Eph. ix. p. 516).]

[Footnote 2: Hirschfeld in Lehmann's Beiträge zur alten Geschichte,

  1. 307, 308. Much of the Gaulish domain land appears to date from confiscations in A.D. 197.]

Throughout all the rest of the British province, or at least of its civilized area, the local government was probably organized on the same cantonal system as obtained in northern Gaul. According to this system the local unit was the former territory of the tribe or canton, and the local magistrates were the chiefs or nobles of the tribe. That may appear at first sight to be a native system, wholly out of harmony with the Roman method of government by municipalities. Yet such was not its actual effect. The cantonal or tribal magistrates were classified and arranged just like the magistrates of a municipality. They even used the same titles. The cantonal civitas had its duoviri and quaestors and so forth, and its ordo or senate, precisely like any municipal colonia or municipium. So far from wearing a native aspect, this cantonal system merely became one of the influences which aided the Romanization of the country. It did not, indeed, involve, like the municipal system, the substitution of an Italian for a native institution. Instead, it permitted the complete remodelling of the native institution by the interpenetration of Italian influences.

We can discern the cantonal system at several points in Britain. But the British cantons were smaller and less wealthy than those of Gaul, and therefore they have not left their mark, either in monuments or in nomenclature, so clearly as we might desire. Many inscriptions record the working of the system in Gaul. Many modern towns--Paris, Reims, Chartres, and thirty or forty others--derive their present names from those of the ancient cantons, and not from those of the ancient towns. In Britain we find only one such inscription (Fig. 15),[1] only one town called in antiquity by a tribal name--and that a doubtful instance[2]--and no single case of a modern town-name which is derived from the name of a tribe.[3] We have, however, some curious evidence from another source. There is a late and obscure Geography of the Roman Empire which was probably written at Ravenna somewhere about A.D. 700, and which, as its author's name is lost, is generally quoted as the work of 'Ravennas'. It consists for the most part of mere lists of names, about which it adds very few details. But in the case of Britain it notes the municipal rank of the various coloniae, and it further appends tribal names to nine or ten town-names, which are thus distinguished from all other British place-names. For example, we have Venta Belgarum (Winchester), not Venta simply; Corinium Dobunorum (Cirencester), not Corinium simply. The towns thus specially marked out are just those towns which are also declared by their actual remains to have been the chief country towns of Roman Britain. This coincidence can hardly be an accident. We may infer that the towns to which the Ravennas appends tribal names were the cantonal capitals of the districts of Roman Britain, and that a list of them, perhaps mutilated and imperfect, has been preserved by some chance in this late writer. In other words, the larger part of Roman Britain was divided up into districts corresponding to the territories of the Celtic tribes; each had its capital, and presumably its magistrates and senate, as the above-mentioned inscription shows that the Silures had at Venta Silurum. We may suppose, indeed, that the district magistrates--the county council, as it would now be called--were also the magistrates of the country town. The same cantonal system, then, existed here as in northern Gaul. Only, it was weaker in Britain. It could not impose tribal names on the towns, and it went down easily when the Empire fell. In Gaul, Lutetia Parisiorum became Parisiis and is now Paris, and Nemetacum Atrebatum became Atrebatis and is now Arras. In Britain, Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester) remained Calleva, so far as we know, till it perished altogether in the fifth century.[4]

[Footnote 1: Found at Venta Silurum (Caerwent) in 1903: ... leg. legi[i] Aug. proconsul(i) provinc. Narbonensis, leg. Aug. pr. pr. provi. Lugudunen(sis): ex decreto ordinis respubl(ica) civit(atis) Silurum--a monument erected by the cantonal senate of the Silures to some general of the Second legion at Isca Silurum, twelve miles from Caerwent--perhaps to Claudius Paulinus, early in third century (Athenaeum, Sept. 26, 1903; Archaeologia, lix. 120; Eph. ix. 1012). Other inscriptions mention a civis Cantius, a civitas Catuvellaunorum and the like, but their evidence is less distinct.]


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