Britain is essentially just a middling island off the coast of the continent. But it can be easy to lose sight of that in the context of with the Romans. Our thriving trade in classical reminiscing during the British Empire has ensured a huge amount of time money and effort is thrown into researching it. This is one of those cases complicated subject by our modern world view. The academics of today still have to deal with the legacy of imperial pomposity. The little and initially inconsequential province that Claudius conquered certainly learned how to upsell itself. But, it is telling that the first depiction of Britannia isn’t even in the Western Empire at all but Aphrodisias, now in modern Turkey.
I think it is fair to assert that the ancient world view which tended to lean east, rather than westwards. If you’ve ever tried to holiday in Britain you can appreciate why the Roman’s inclined towards Syria from a purely based on preferential weather. But there were other advantages to the east as well including other established empires, resources and knowledge. This helped contribute to the idea of ‘orientalism’ famously covered in the seminal work by Edward Said. This is not to say that prehistoric Britain and Ireland didn’t have rich material culture, complex societies, as any archaeologist of the period will tell you. But the Romans, unlike the likes of Francis Pryor, failed to pick up on the more positive attributes of our green and pleasant land. Not nearly enough olives and far too much rain.
I myself, in Rome, saw mere lads towering as much as half a foot above the tallest people in the city, although they were bandy-legged and presented no fair lines anywhere else in their figure. Their 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.
Strabo’s Geography, book IV, chapter 5
No cheese, heaven forbid.
Unsurprisingly, the Romans who arrived in the new province of Britannia would not have viewed the Atlantic ocean in the same way as later peoples. We have to bend away from our understanding of geography and lean towards a different approach to ‘world’ view. As countless civilizations that have followed, the Romans appear to have been no different in seeking knowledge of the further reaches of the known world. They were just also remarkably efficient in turning it into Empire.
To look at this ancient world view, I’m going to start with Herodotus. His work The Histories encompassed a great swath of the known world, with Greece in the middle, and shows one way of seeing the ancient perception of the world.
[Herodotus] believes that the world is symmetrical. When he compares the Danube and the Nile, he points out that they both divide a continent in two halves, and that their deltas are on the same geographical longitude. Since it is -according to Herodotus- well-known that the sources of the Danube are in the far west, in the Pyrenees, he is positive that the sources of the Nile must be in the west too, in the Atlas mountains. And because the Danube has five mouths, two of the seven branches of the Nile must be canals. This symmetry is not complete: Herodotus knows that it is cold in the north and warm in the south.
Between these extremes is Greece at the midpoint of the earth. The fact that there is an unpleasant climate at the ends of the (flat) earth, is compensated by the natural richness of those far-off lands: cinnamon, gold, tin, amber and all the perfumes of Arabia.
What is interesting (although not that surprising) is how much more knowledge there is about Eastern areas going as far as India. This landmass east was fairly continuous and sea-trade routes much more accessible to Rome. For the Greeks, the cold Atlantic was far flung and on the edge of the world (note the tin islands in the far North-west).
But Caesar extended his conquests west and north. This did bring him to Britain. From documents such as Caesar’s Gallic War (the whole of which can be read here) one would almost think that there was some serious military strategic things going on. Certainly according to Tacitus, later in the governor Agricola seemed to have a civilising mission in mind:
For, to accustom to rest and repose through the charms of luxury a population scattered and barbarous and therefore inclined to war, Agricola gave private encouragement and public aid to the building of temples, courts of justice and dwelling-houses… He likewise provided a liberal education for the sons of the chiefs, and showed such a preference for the natural powers of the Britons over the industry of the Gauls that they 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. Step by step they were led to things which dispose to vice, the lounge, the bath, the elegant banquet…
Despite what Tacitus thought Agricola (his father-in-law) had in mind, Caesar’s and then Claudius’ motivations were likely far more based on politics than a higher calling. Britain represented an opportunity for political gain in Rome. For Caesar a progression of his play for power. For Claudius, a means of cementing his authenticity and credibility as an emperor. Britain would eventually see some of Rome’s politics played out on it’s spoil, with the recognition of Constantine on the spot now occupied by York Minster. The use of specific ‘cold-weather gear’ for the Northern climbs especially on Hadrian’s wall should come as no surprise.
The birrus Britannicus, effectively a Roman water-proof woollen hood, “as archetypically British as Harris Tweed or a bowler hat is today” was the only British-made item to make a list of quality items traded across the Empire under Diocletian. The cost for the garment was equivalent to buy 300 kilos of pork or 500 litres of cheap wine. Despite the obvious stylistic advantages… I know what I’d prefer. Birrus Britannicus party anyone?
McLaughlin, R. (2012). What did the Romans (N)ever Do For Us? History Ireland, 20(2), 16–19. doi:10.2307/41480783
Lynch, J. J. (1992). The Maps of Discovery. The North American Review, 277(5), 6–15.