Barbarism and Civilisation

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A response to Miles Russell’s and Stuart Laycock’s theory of UnRoman Britain.

In their interesting essay UnRoman Britain, in CA 249, Miles Russell and Stuart Laycock argue that Romanisation in Britain was only a veneer, and that most of the population of the country remained firmly ‘UnRoman’. I disagree. I think that their argument is anachronistic; they accuse earlier scholars of basing their assessment of the Romans on British attitudes to empire in the 19th century, yet their own theories are based on late 20th century attitudes towards imperialism.

I believe that ‘imperialism’ is an anachronism — something that only makes sense in late 20th century academic discourse, and had no equivalent in the Roman world: you can not translate ‘imperialism’ into Latin. If we are to understand the Romans, we must think of them in their own lingo: we must talk of barbarism and civilisation. The secret to the attraction of Rome was that it brought civilisation into the barbarian world — and many of the barbarians wanted to be civilised.

In their book UnRoman Britain, Russell and Laycock set out two main propositions. The first is that Britain was never fully Roman. This is a proposition one may accept, providing one relies heavily on that word ‘fully’. Part of the reason for Rome’s success was that it was flexible: no province ever became ‘fully’ Roman. Their second proposition is that Roman ideas only infected the minds of a small minority of the British population. This is far more dubious. By the 2nd century, even the poorest shepherd would have realised that the Romans had come, and that their lives were the better for it.

In my opinion, becoming part of Roman civilisation made an enormous change to Britain, reflected throughout society. For instance, look at the first and most obvious sign to archaeologists: pottery. With the coming of the Romans, pottery not only became much better — it held water — but there was much more of it. The widespread distribution of Roman pottery exceeds anything till the 17th century, and this must have made a difference to every family in the country. Pottery is presumably a marker for many other material remains; there would have been more iron, more bronze, and probably better and warmer clothes. The whole range of material life would have been improved.

Look, too, at settlements and housing. It is, perhaps, noteworthy that the site chosen by the authors to illustrate UnRoman Britain (and to decorate the front cover of CA 249) is Chysauster, in Cornwall, which was outside the Roman Empire. Admittedly, there was no fixed boundary in the South West, but wherever the boundary was, Chysauster would have been outside it. In Chysauster, we see the equivalent of a Roman villa. If the inhabitants had had the good fortune to live within the empire, they would have lived in a villa: it would have been warmer, drier, and more comfortable. Their lives would have been altogether more luxurious.

What we must remember is that with the coming of Roman civilisation, the ordinary people, who hitherto would have been invisible, suddenly become visible. When we consider all those villages with roundhouses in the Romano-British landscape, living a life not dissimilar to that of the Iron Age peoples, we are, in effect, comparing the Roman lower classes with Iron Age middle or perhaps even upper classes. Even so, many of them began to live in stone-built longhouses with better foundations, probably better walls, almost certainly drier — and probably considerably warmer.

But the major advantages would have been in the non-material sphere. Perhaps the biggest of all was peace. After the initial invasion period, the Roman army moved on.

By the 2nd century, it was concentrated in the north and west in a military zone with a different political regime to that of southern Britain. Thus, throughout most of rural Britain, during the height of the Roman Empire, the sight of a Roman soldier would have been rare. How different was this to the war-dominated world of the Celts! Classical sources paint the Celts as being exceedingly warlike, and the evidence from the Celtic sagas (if these do, indeed, provide a window into the Iron Age) tell us of an era when fighting was continuous, with the leaders jostling for the ‘champion’s portion’; and where ordinary farm labourers would be expected to go off with the lord and master every summer to fight his battles, or perhaps also find his own land and family similarly devastated. The Romans brought an end to this vicious cycle.

The Romans also brought taxation. Taxation is not normally considered to be a benefit, but one needs to consider the alternative. It is tempting to assume that before the Romans, everyone lived in un-taxed bliss. Anthropology suggests otherwise. Before taxation, there existed a ‘gift exchange’ society, similar to Medieval feudalism, where you would be expected to give a proportion of your harvest to the lord. In addition, one would be expected to work regularly on the Lord’s demesne. Looking at it this way, it is possible to see the benefits of taxation: rather than working in the lord’s field, you pay a fixed taxation in cash.

If we are to understand Rome, we need to need to understand the sheer attraction of the Roman way of life. I believe this is essentially the attraction of ‘civilisation’ over ‘barbarism’. Rome represented ‘civilisation’, and the outsiders were attracted in, despite the disadvantages.

It is the same story in many of the poorer countries today, where people all over the world are leaving their ancestral villages to go and live in the big city, even though to outsiders the cosy embrace of the ancestral home seems preferable to the glittering, but often unattained, attractions of the big city.

The three benefits

Un-Roman courtyard houses, Chyauster in Cornwall (Hamish Fenton)

So, what were the attractions of Roman civilisation? I believe there were three. In order to understand them, we need to go back to before the great war with Hannibal. When Hannibal invaded Italy, he won the battles but lost the war: all the cities that he expected to come over to his side remained obstinately loyal to Rome. Clearly, Rome was perceived to offer a better way of life than did the Carthaginians.

I believe this goes back to 338 BC, when the Romans adopted the three Latin rights  (for details, see account of the Rise of Rome on my website, No doubt these Latin rights were formally obsolete by the time the Romans came to Britain, but I suspect that their influence lingered on and, in practice, proved a major attraction.

There were three principal rights: the first was the ius connubii, the right of marriage. The difference between barbarism and civilisation is perhaps best distinguished by the marriage rite. In a barbarian society, marriage is simple: your mother tells you one day, ‘My boy, I’ve found a lovely girl for you, and I have arranged your marriage for next week.’ Simples! Your mother may be a better judge than you are of a suitable girl. Or possibly not. In practice, the result is often cousin marriage, where you marry your cousin because you have never met any other girl. Indeed, perhaps one of the biggest attractions of Western civilisation is that it offers the opportunity to meet the opposite sex, so that you, rather than your mother, can choose who you marry. And I suspect that this was also one of the big attractions of Roman civilisation — Ovid’s Ars Amatoria gives detailed instructions as to the Roman way to chat up a girl.

The second major ius (right) was the ius migrationis, the right of migration, to move anywhere you liked within the Roman world. In hierarchical societies such as Soviet Russia or Medieval Britain, the peasant is tied to the soil, and one suspects that in Iron Age Britain this would have been the case for most people. Being able to leave the family home and go off to the big town in search of fame and fortune is one of the great benefits of civilisation.

The third great right was the ius commercii, or the right of free trade, with other Roman cities. Quite how far this worked in practice we do not or cannot know, though it is remarkable how many small potteries were established in Britain in the early stages of the Roman Empire. Economically, of course, free trade is a huge benefit. But from the social point of view, this again was surely one of the great attractions of Roman civilisation for the barbarian Britons.

Changing face of Rome

By the 4th century, many of these benefits were lost. The second half of the Russell/Laycock hypothesis is that Roman influences vanished exceptionally rapidly in the 5th century AD, because they were only a veneer in the first place. I would argue differently. The trouble is that Rome changed. What Gibbon called the Decline and Fall began in the 3rd century, when many of the characteristics of Roman civilisation were subverted. The crucial seed of Rome’s decay lay in inflation. Inflation is an insidious disease, for it inflicts the worst damage on the entrepreneur, the small farmer or trader who does not understand what is happening and continues to offer his services at the same price, when the value of money has declined. Inflation led to political instability and economic chaos.

More important than the economic effects of inflation were the bureaucratic reforms introduced by Diocletian and Constantine at the end of the 3rd and the beginning of the 4th centuries. These reforms saw the end of the small independent farmer, replaced by serfs who were tied to the land: the ius migrationis — the right of migration — came firmly to an end. The big landowners flourished, but the vast majority of people became poor, and the population as a whole began to take on the pyramid shape that is typical of barbarism — rather than the much flatter, more egalitarian shape of civilisation.

At the end of the 4th century, when the Germanic armies were playing havoc with the Roman forces, the stuffing had already been knocked out of a demoralised peasant population. As Gildas said, the rulers were all rotten, there was civil strife everywhere, and disease stalked the land, decimating the population. It was no wonder that Roman Britain collapsed.

Yet Roman Britain was no myth. The argument seems to be that since the shepherd or farm labourer lived a very different life from the villa-dweller, Romanisation did not really exist. Yet the shepherd living in the foothills behind Rome, by birth and descent fully Roman, would have had far more in common with a shepherd in Roman Britain than he would have done with the aristocrats in Rome. Both, however, would have shared in the benefits of Rome.

There can surely be little doubt to us, as archaeologists, simply looking at the huge production of pottery, or at the number of Romano-British ditches dug everywhere in the countryside, that the coming of Rome meant a huge acceleration.

The accelerator was pressed down, and the motor zoomed ahead, providing a higher standard of living than anything that had gone before — and anything that would follow for 1,000 years thereafter. We should not let the late 20th century anachronistic terminology of ‘imperialism’ destroy the archaeological reality.

February 2011

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