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The long shadow of Roman Britain

May 16, 2015


I have had a lifelong interest in Roman Britain. When I was 6, having failed to visit the Roman site at Chester on the way back from a family holiday in North Wales, I decided, one Sunday morning, to take the law into my own hands.  Being the “intelligent clot” I am I knew that the A41 which went past the bottom of our road went all the way to Chester.  So I set off with a carrier bag with a drawing pad and a packet of custard cream biscuits.  I had walked two miles into Birmingham before my father found me.

46 years later I still find anything to do with the Romans in Britain fascinating and as my family know to their cost, it will take very little to divert me from wherever we happen to be going to visit some little piece of Romanitas, however far off the beaten track it may be.  Recently it’s been a great pleasure to discover someone else’s fascination with the subject while reading Charlotte Higgins Under Another Sky which describes her journey round some of the principal (and less principal) sites of Roman Britain together with some of the stories which surround those places.  It’s a great read and I thoroughly recommend it.

While there are one or two earlier references in other writers to Britain, the arrival of Julius Caesar in 55BC marks our country’s transition from prehistory to history, the first emergence of named individuals with some idea of what they did and said.  I always take a pleasure that it wasn’t any old Roman who first tried to conquer Britain.  He came, he saw and, of course, he didn’t quite conquer.  After two expeditions, of mixed success, he was forced to give up his ambitions and it wasn’t until 43AD and the Emperor Claudius that the Romans finally added Britain to the Empire.  They remained here for another 367 years until the Emperor Honorius was forced to call the legions home in 410AD and leave the British to their own devices.

As Charlotte Higgins brings out very well Under Another Sky an interest in Roman Britain is both an interest in the Romans and in Britain itself.  While militarily and economically one of the most challenging parts of the Empire the Romans nonetheless successfully brought the trappings of their civilisation to Britain.  Cities, roads, bathhouses, literacy are amongst the list of what the Romans did for us and while, with the exception of Hadrian’s Wall, the physical remains of Roman Britain are not as grand as those to found in other parts of the Empire the lasting legacy of the Romans is still with us.  It is probably the Romans who first defined Britain as a distinct geographical and cultural entity and who initiated many of the reference points which are still very important references for our cultural identity.

Our capital London is a Roman foundation, for a while one of the most significant cities of the Empire as it became the centre of the grain supply for the Roman army in Germany.  The essence of London as the administrative and economic centre of the country is a Roman creation and many of the main roads leading out of the capital still follow the lines of their Roman predecessors.  Furthermore our relationship with Europe is still underpinned to an extent by the shadow of having been part of the Roman Empire.   Finally, while no one should idealise the motives and conduct of Roman imperialists they were the first to bring an idea of “civilisation” to this country.

While the Romans would have definitely recognised the economic fault line between the North West and South East halves of the country  Roman Britain is not just about the South East.  The military investment in maintaining the northern frontier of the Empire at Hadrian’s Wall and, at times beyond, ensured that Roman life and Roman civilisation was well established in northern England as well.   York, a crucial staging point on the Great North Road, was an important Roman city where two Emperors died and where one, none less than Constantine the Great, was proclaimed.  The discovery of the wonderful Vindolanda tablets (from one of the forts on Hadrian’s Wall) show Roman civilisation alive and well on the very edge of the Roman world.  It is impossible not to be moved by the birthday party invitation sent from the wife of one of the senior officers of the unit based at Vindolanda to one of her friends.

It is this sense of distant, but yet at times quite intense, connection with the inhabitants of Roman Britain which I felt when spending a large part of my University summers working on archaeological excavations at two Roman cities:  Wroxeter in Shropshire and Silchester, near Reading.  In both cases the cities were abandoned at the end of the Roman period (although in the case of Wroxeter much later than was originally supposed) and they are again green fields.  In both there is a lovely haunting sense of the shades of the ancient Romans who went about their business in these places, looking at the same sky and the same scenery.  AE Houseman captures this perfectly in the line in his poem about Wroxeter

The tree of man was never quiet:

Then ‘twas the Roman, now ‘tis I.

The gale, it plies the saplings double

I t blows so hard it will soon be gone.

Today the Roman and his trouble

Are ashes under Uricon.

Like the Romans we will, at some point, all become dust but it does not mean that our time on this earth is without meaning.   Roman Britain is a distant but significant period in our history.  Despite all that has happened since, it has contributed to our identity and values and is worthy of our interest and reflection now.


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