Start At The Very Beginning… Sort Of.

Welcome to my first post for ‘Time in a Toga.’ A project borne out of a sad obsession with the Romans that university has not successfully abated. It is my fervent wish that together (dear readers), we will delve into parts of Roman  (and some of their contemporaries to spice it up a little) history, politics, culture and whatever else the muse descends upon.  Much like every ancient military leader after Alexander the Great, someone else has inevitably not only got there before me but also blogged or podcast(-ed) with more panache, time and expertise to bring up the rear. Nonetheless, much like Spartacus with a spatula, in the fun (read historically elaborated) stories, I’m going to take a lucky stab at it anyway.

As Fortuna has it, while I was desperately searching to get the proverbial ball rolling, the news hit that a Devon man  (a metal-detectorist) had unexpectedly unearthed 22,000 Roman coins, from a field in Seaton, Devon.   The coins, which also mark the one-millionth find for the Portable Antiquities Scheme, date from about AD341, were struck at the mint in Lyon and according to the British Museum:

“shows the personification of Constantinopolis on the obverse and a Victory on prow on the reverse. This very common type was struck by Constantine the Great across the Empire to celebrate the inauguration of the new city of Constantinople, which was to become the capital of the Eastern Empire”

There will be a time and a place later in this blog to discuss Roman coins, economy and why the owner of such coins chose to stash them in the ground. What I am interested in, for the time being is the presence of Romans in Britain at all. Why, at nearly the height of the empire would they choose to invade and annex a small rainy island, by all contemporary accounts right on the edge of the known world to the west? It had very little in the way of agricultural potential, compared to Rome’s ‘bread-basket’ in Egypt and the people inhabiting it were of not dissimilar dispositions to those that Caesar encountered and fought during his Gallic War (which he handily wrote about… in the third person).

The Roman outlook on the Non-Roman peoples that inhabited modern-day north western Europe was  likely to be generally one of barbarity and backwardness. In other words, the opposite of all the attributes that the Romans prized amongst themselves. It would be wrong to say that the Romans were attempting to justify imperial expansion in term of ‘civilizing missions’ or even ideas of colonialism (something that can be seen to be propagated by the British during the expansion of their influence around the globe).

“Their [the Britons] habits are in part like those of the Celti, but in part more simple and barbaric — so much so that, on account of their inexperience, some of them, although well supplied with milk, make no cheese; and they have no experience in gardening or other agricultural pursuits. And they have powerful chieftains in their country. For the purposes of war they use chariots for the most part, just as some of the Celti do. The forests are their cities; for they fence in a spacious circular enclosure with trees which they have felled, and in that enclosure make huts for themselves and also pen up their cattle — not, however, with the purpose of staying a long time.Their weather is more rainy than snowy; and on the days of clear sky fog prevails so long a time that throughout a whole day the sun is to be seen for only three or four hours round about midday.”

~ Strabo, Geography, 4.5

Not the best of outlooks for a prospective future province of the empire then. In fact the only plus sides that Strabo can think of are the exports which include hunting dogs and slaves backed up archaeologically by the presence of the accoutrements of slave-trade, such as chains found Llyn Cerrig Bach, Anglesey.

Considering this we are left with three contributing factors for invasion: politics, culture and precedent. It was the combination between the these, plus a bit of luck that all came together to allow the Emperor Claudius to attempt an invasion. The ancient sources are our only guide on the details of the invasion itself. Suetonius (The Lives of the Twelve Caesars) who is typically disparaging:

“He made but one campaign and that of little importance. When the senate voted him the triumphal regalia, thinking the honour beneath the imperial dignity and desiring the glory of a legitimate triumph, he chose Britain as the best place for gaining it, a land that had been attempted by no one since the Deified Julius [who conducted punitive invasions into Britain in 55 & 54 BC] and was just at that time in a state of rebellion because of the refusal to return certain deserters.”

~ Suet. Claudius,  17

Dio Cassius‘s account points out the role of imperial freedmen in the administration and inducement of the army to actually go on campaign in the first place:

“Aulus Plautius, a senator of great renown, made a campaign against Britain; for a certain Bericus, who had been driven out of the island as a result of an uprising, had persuaded Claudius to send a force thither. Thus it came about that Plautius undertook this campaign; but he had difficulty in inducing his army to advance beyond Gaul. For the soldiers were indignant at the thought of carrying on a campaign outside the limits of the known world, and would not yield him obedience until Narcissus, who had been sent out by Claudius, mounted the tribunal of Plautius and attempted to address them.”

~ Dio 60.19.1

So, according to Suetonius, Britain was earmarked for conquest owing to the convenient lack of any previous ‘serious’ conquest. This meant that Claudius could not only emulate but surpass the achievements of Caesar (and his half-hearted attempt to ‘conquer’ Kent). This would by all estimations take the Roman Empire to the edge of the known world. Which, in theory, would justify to the Senate and the people of Rome that he, despite some physical disabilities (Claudius is recorded to have suffered from a limp and speech impediment), was worthy of the emperorship and all of the titles that now came bestowed with it.  But, by highlighting the fact that it was the freedman Narcissus that had to persuade the army to go Dio is also drawing attention to the fact that the Emperor himself was not leading the campaign. Dio and Suetonius are pretty cynical in their perspectives on the invasion, and perhaps this is not completely without warrant. Some of the ferocious resistance attempted to not only halt the Roman advance but expel them from Britain altogether. One notable example being in the figure of one Boudicca who in AD 60/61, slaughtered the Legio IX Hispana, as well as burning down a fledgling Londinium.

Ultimately however, by around AD 78 under the governorship of Agricola the British (at least in the south) were increasingly in line with the Roman style of living.  As Tacitus (Agricola’s son-in-law) later noted:

They [the Britons] who lately disdained the tongue of Rome now coveted its eloquence. Hence, too, a liking sprang up for our style of dress, and the “toga” became fashionable.
~ Tacitus, ‘The Agricola’, chapter 21

To be horrifically self-referential, the ‘time in a toga’ for the Britons had begun. Roman occupation of Britain would continue until AD 410 when the legions would be withdrawn in order to attempt to defend Rome itself from the very real threat from invading barbarians. Briton and the Roman influence therein has benefited from a great deal of archaeological interest, thanks in a large part to the rise of archaeology as a discipline as well as the hangover of the British Empire’s obsession with Rome as a forerunner of it’s own territorial acquisitions.

This VERY brief sprint through the Roman beginnings in Britain hints at some of the topics that may be covered in future updates. This blog will generally take the form of thematic and topical insights into the world of the Romans. The order of the day being social history, as well as some of the interesting things some of the more famous Romans got up to. In the style of the best discount shop bargain bucke,t I may well throw some of the archaeology that affects Romans and sometimes even other parts of history too. Phew. So after making that as easy to follow as a Germanic barbarian in Teutoburg forest, we will together embark on the well trod world of Ancient Rome.

If you liked what you read and would like to keep more up-to-date on the developments of Rome, as well as the super-fun world of a history blogger-waitress-sandwich connoisseur, remember to follow me on twitter or sign up for e-mail updates.

Next week: What (not) to Wear – The Ultimate Style Guide to Roman Dress Sense

Thanks for reading.

Emma pinxit

Some of the Ancient Sources referenced:

Dio CassiusRoman History

Strabo, Geography, Book IV, Chapter 5 

Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Claudius

Tacitus, The Agricola

Some more reading for the industrious or extremely interested:

Roman Britain: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) by Peter Salway

A History of Roman Britain by Peter Salway

The Romanisation of Britain: An Essay in Archaeological Interpretation by Martin Millett


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