Review – New Visions of the Countryside of Roman Britain: Volume 2 – the rural economy of Roman Britain

5 mins read
Martyn Allen, Lisa Lodwick, Tom Brindle, Michael Fulford, and Alexander Smith
Roman Society
Publications, £36
ISBN 978-0907764441
Review John Manley

This is the second volume in the New Visions of the Countryside of Roman Britain series. The first volume, published in 2016 (see CA 324), dealt with settlement evidence and the third volume will be much more people-focused, looking at identities, beliefs, and burial practices.

There are eight chapters in this volume, their titles suggesting how the authors marshalled their data. After a short introduction come three chapters that analyse the evidential fundamentals for farming in Roman Britain – arable farming, pastoral farming, then a chapter that combines them under the heading of ‘agricultural strategies’. The text then takes a ‘material turn’ by considering rural crafts and industry, coins and markets in the countryside, and the movement of material resources. The volume ends with a concluding chapter.

The underlying economic mainstay of Roman Britain was agricultural production, and thus provision of food. Unfettered economic flows within the province, however, were skewed considerably by the large military presence in the north, which required feeding, and was potentially exacerbated by the export of grain to the Continent in the 4th century (if not earlier). The authors argue that the most pervasive outcome of this imbalance was that the anticipated ‘free-market’ transactions between the province’s emerging towns and settlements, and their gradually more productive surrounding countrysides, were hamstrung from the beginning. This bleeding of food resources away from the agricultural heartlands may have contributed to the stagnation of development in both town and country by the start of the 3rd century.

In terms of arable farming, cultivation was initially a continuation of the crops and practices of the Iron Age, albeit with an expansion of the areas under crop, leading to a surplus production of cereals. Spelt wheat and barley continued as the main cultivars throughout the life of the province. This picture was modified in the later Roman period, with the appearance of a considerable number of corn-dryers at villas, roadside settlements, and complex farmsteads. Surplus grain produced at such establishments may have been intended for export to sustain the military on the Rhine frontier.

The authors also see an intensification of pastoral farming, with a particular increase in the size and number of cattle during the later Roman period. It is possible that the main driver for this was the use of cattle as draught animals, either for the plough or to pull carts. The military in the north is also cited as a consumer of large numbers of cattle, presumably procured through a version of an imperial command economy.

Understanding just how the rural economy operated in Britain, compared with some other provinces, is frustrated by the almost complete absence of written evidence, which could provide some light on land ownership, agricultural strategies, and tax systems. As a result, we can observe some economic outcomes, such as the production of agricultural surpluses or the intensification of crop-processing in corn-dryers, but we struggle to understand the detailed mechanisms producing those outcomes, such as how procurement for the military, or the relationship between town and country, actually worked. The rural ‘economy’ must have operated on different levels – imperial command, political encouragement, some elements of a ‘free market’, and coinless barter and exchange. The novel suggestion that an explanation for the widespread appearance of BB1 pottery in farmsteads, where coins were absent, lies in the fact that BB1 may have been a ‘currency’ itself opens up a panoply of exchange practices that might have been rooted in the indigenous, rather than the Roman, worldview.

The authors are to be congratulated for producing a comprehensive appraisal of our current state of knowledge. We all look forward to the appearance of the final volume, where some correlations and putative explanations can be made (and no doubt disjunctions observed) between rural settlement types (volume 1), rural ‘economic’ practices (volume 2), and, crucially, the different communities who lived in Roman Britain.

This review appeared in CA 338.

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