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date: 29 February 2020

(p. xxvii) Introduction

(p. xxvii) Introduction

The potential reader of this book might be forgiven for an initial response along the lines of ‘why yet another book on Roman Britain?’ After all, as Sir Mortimer Wheeler wrote in discussing the subject:

[W]e are slowly approaching a little more nearly to the mind of Roman Britain, for what that mind be worth-and all human mentality is presumably worth something. We must not expect much of great consequence. Hadrian’s Wall, for example, has long ceased to matter as a major historical problem. … But for the major attainments of mankind the young scholar, thus trained, must now look to other periods, other lands. Haverfield’s work was not merely a monument, it was a tombstone.

(Antiquity no. 138, 1961: 157–8)

We would assert that there are two sound answers to this question. First, whilst there are many books on Roman Britain, most follow an approach that was first used in the 1930s with R.G. Collingwood’s contribution to the Oxford History of England, namely using the archaeological evidence within a chronologically organized narrative of historical events, complemented by chapters on topics such as art and religion. It is remarkable how enduring this framework has proved, not only in describing the subject but also in setting the agenda for how the subject should be approached right down to the radical reappraisal provided in David Mattingley’s An Imperial Possession (2006). In his review of Peter Salway’s volume in the Oxford History of England published in 1981 and replacing Collingwood’s 1937 volume, Richard Reece attacked this approach, memorably saying:

Textbooks on Roman Britain to date make the subject appear like a nice sand-pit in which toddlers can safely be left to play. I am thankful that it is a wild overgrown garden in which anything may happen. And I shall continue to try to prove it.

(Archaeological Journal Vol. 139, 1982: 456).

This book takes its lead from Richard Reece’s critique, and seeks to provide a comprehensive review of Roman Britain from an entirely new perspective, that represented by younger scholars who have embraced new perspectives on the subject since the establishment of the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference (TRAC) in 1991. In this sense although about Roman Britain, the book offers a new approach that is very different from the many other volumes already on the shelf.

(p. xxviii) Second, for all students of the archaeology of the Roman Empire, it must be acknowledged that although Roman Britain itself was arguably marginal to the mainstream, it remains amongst the most fully explored and best documented of Rome’s provinces. There are very fully publications of primary data: inscriptions in the Roman Inscriptions of Britain (1965–); sculpture in the Corpus Signorum Imperii Romani (1977–); mosaics in D. Neal and S. Cosh’s Roman Mosaics of Britain (2002–10); and place-names in A.L.F. Rivet and C. Smith’s Place-names of Roman Britain (1979). In addition there is a wealth of synthetic works, finds studies, maps, and site reports. These mean that the province is worthy of study because with its evidence we can explore ideas and interpretations more thoroughly than in other less well documented provinces. In that sense, by offering a Handbook which contains new approaches this book seeks to capitalize on such past work whilst offering thoughtful signposts for the future.

In summary, given the dramatic increase in new scholarship over the last thirty years in the field of Roman Britain, we feel the time is ripe for a comprehensive review of the topic. This Handbook is organized around sections that reflect recent theoretical approaches to the material. In particular, we hope that it reflects the new questions and interpretations brought to the subject since the inauguration of TRAC. The sections are structured around the following themes: (i) the nature of the evidence; (ii) Britain in the Roman Empire; (iii) society and the individual; (iv) forms of knowledge; (v) landscape, settlement, and the economy; and (vi) materiality. The individual articles range from surveys to more focused discussions, and represent the methodological and theoretical breadth of the field.

We are deliberately eschewing a chronological structure that has dominated past work on Roman Britain but it is of course important to bear in mind how the province originated and developed through time. The table below provides a summary of the textual evidence for the province, thus providing the basic evidence on which historical accounts are usually based. In many works on Roman Britain there is a tendency to embellish this primary record with historical inference derived from the study of finds, principally pottery and coins. This may of course be entirely reasonable in the context of a particular site narrative or regional study, but we are concerned that generalizing from such evidence to provide a broader chronological narrative provides a false sense of secure knowledge rather than acknowledging the fragmentary and mutable nature of the evidence. For this reason the framework provided below simply uses texts.

Timeline of Roman Britain

55–54 bc

Julius Caesar, engaged on his conquest of Gaul, made two military expeditions to Britain. The first in 55 bc was of limited success although it generated a useful propaganda advantage in Rome where Britain was known as a mysterious place on the other (p. xxix) side of the ‘Ocean’. The larger-scale campaign in 54 bc was more successful and resulted in the imposition of treaties on the peoples of the south-east, which marks the first stage of a projected Roman annexation. (Caesar, Gallic Wars, V)

54 bcad 43

Events, first in Gaul then at Rome, prevented any capitalization on Caesar’s success. Diplomatic contacts between British tribes and Rome continued with the arrival in Rome of tribal leaders deposed in Britain under Augustus (27 bcad 14) and Caligula (ad 37–41). It is plausible that Rome considered some of the peoples of the south and east to have been client states. (Res Gestae, 32; Tacitus, Annals, II). Both Augustus and Caligula (in ad 40) are said to have considered invading Britain, although neither acted. (Dio Cassius, LIII; Tacitus, Annals, II)

54 bc–ad 43

There was also commercial contact, with the export of products from Britain and imports from the empire, which seems to have been worthwhile for Rome (Strabo, IV). Rome influenced political evolution in Britain in the period down to AD 43 and this engendered internal conflicts. Although outside the territory of the empire, some of the states remained as clients of successive emperors and had close contacts with Rome. This was a period of rapid development and the growth of one dominant indigenous people, the Catuvellauni, whose capital lay at Camulodunon (Colchester). Their expansion threatened the adjacent areas, and deposed leaders appealed to Rome to help re-establish themselves.

ad 43

The last such leader was Berikos (Verica) who fled to the emperor Claudius leading the latter to intervene in Britain. Claudius, anxious to obtain prestige through military success, sent an invasion force of about 40,000 men. The force moved through southern England, and took the principal indigenous centre, Camulodunon (Colchester), under Claudius’ personal command. Claudius accepted the surrender of eleven British kings, and was honoured at Rome where he returned immediately. (Dio Cassius, LX; Suetonius, Claudius, 17; Inscription, CIL V no. 920; Dio Cassius, LX)

ad 43–60

Following the defeat of the south-eastern states, campaigning continued in the south-west under the command of the future emperor Vespasian, who won a series of victories. (p. xxx) A revolt occurred in East Anglia (in ad 47), but the expansion of the Roman occupation continued into Wales where it was slowed by the guerrilla tactics of the inhabitants, and by a revolt in the Pennines. Early in the reign of Nero (ad 54–68) consideration was given to withdrawal, presumably because of slow military progress. (Suetonius, Vespasian, 4; Tacitus, Annals, XII; Suetonius, Nero, 18)

ad 58–60

Campaigns were undertaken against the Druids on Anglesey. (Tacitus, Annals, XIV)

ad 60

East Anglia rose against the Romans under the leadership of Queen Boudica, with the destruction of the Roman towns of Colchester, London, and Verulamium. (Tacitus, Annals, XIV)

ad 61–71

The crushing of the revolt was followed by a period of consolidation. (Tacitus, Agricola, XVI)

ad 71–4

The allied kingdom of the Brigantes in the Pennines became divided internally, so Rome intervened and conquered the area. (Tacitus, Histories, III, 45 and Agricola, XVII)

ad 74–7

Expansion of the Roman province continued with the subjugation of south Wales. (Tacitus, Agricola, XVII)

ad 77–83

The new governor, Agricola, led a sustained series of campaigns which enlarged the province substantially. (Tacitus, Agricola, XVIII–XXXVIII)

(p. xxxi) ad 80

Agricola completed the conquest of Wales and Anglesey, then he turned to the consolidation of northern Britain, before moving into Scotland where he reached the Tay in ad 80. He garrisoned the area up to the Forth-Clyde isthmus, and dealt with south-west Scotland, at the same time suggesting to Rome that Ireland would be easy to conquer.

ad 82

Agricola again advanced northwards up the eastern coastal plain, leading to the establishment of a garrison as far as the Tay.

ad 83

The great set-piece battle of Mons Graupius, somewhere in north-east Scotland, marked the successful completion of Agricola’s campaigns. At this stage Britain was also circumnavigated by Agricola’s fleet.

c. ad 87

Following Agricola’s departure, Roman military attention was turned to the Danube, and as a result troops from Britain were removed, with resultant withdrawal from Scotland. (Inscription, ILS no. 2719)

The historical sources for the next thirty years are very poor but it is suggested, on the basis of the distribution of forts and dated pottery, that the army was slowly withdrawn from most of Scotland and the occupied zone contracted to the area based on a line from the Tyne to the Solway.

ad 122

Hadrian visited Britain following a military disturbance. The construction of Hadrian’s Wall, built ‘to separate the Romans from the barbarians’, followed shortly afterwards. (Scriptores Historiae Augustae (SHA), Hadrian, 5; 11)

ad 139–42

The new emperor, Antoninus Pius, abandoned Hadrian’s Wall and advanced northwards, driving back the barbarians, before constructing a new wall between the Forth and the Clyde. (SHA, Antoninus Pius, 5)

(p. xxxii) ad 138–61

Antoninus Pius may have removed territory from the Brigantes and fought a war in the Genounian region although this reference may not concern Britain at all. (Pausanius, Description of Greece, VIII, 43)

The evidence for the following period is ephemeral and ambiguous. The conventional interpretation that the Antonine Wall was abandoned in the mid-150s and then briefly reoccupied again until 163–4 has been revised. It is now thought that the withdrawal back to Hadrian's Wall was piecemeal and took place through the period between 155 and 163–4.

ad 181–4

Tribes invaded across Hadrian’s Wall, but were repulsed. (Dio Cassius, LXXII)

ad 184–5

The emperor Commodus took the title Britannicus, and issued coins to commemorate his victory in Britain. (Coins, RIC 437, 440, 451)

ad 185

A mutiny among the troops in Britain led to the downfall of Perennis, the praetorian prefect in Rome. As a result, Commodus appointed the future emperor Pertinax as Governor of Britain. (Dio Cassius, LXXII; SHA, Pertinax, 3)

ad 192–96/7

Commodus and then his successor Pertinax were assassinated, and in the struggle for the succession Clodius Albinus, the governor of Britain, was one of three contenders. For an initial period, Septimius Severus recognized him as his deputy (i.e. Caesar) while fighting against the third pretender, Pescennius Niger. Once he was defeated, Severus and Albinus engaged in a civil war, with Albinus taking troops from Britain with him. Severus won after a major battle outside Lyon. Following his victory Severus divided Britain into two provinces, probably to ensure that no single governor again had command of so large an army. (Dio Cassius, LXXIII; Herodian, II, 15; Dio Cassius, LXXV; Herodian, III, 8)

(p. xxxiii) ad 197–205

The tribes of the Maeatae and Caledonians in Scotland broke their treaty with Rome and waged war in the North. Since Roman military concerns lay elsewhere, the Maeatae were bought off. (Dio Cassius, LXXV)

ad 208–11

Renewed troubles in Britain provided the opportunity for the emperor Severus to come in person with his sons to campaign in Scotland. He defeated the Caledonians but this was followed by a revolt of the Maeatae, and a renewed guerrilla war by the Caledonians. While preparing for the campaign of 211 Severus died in York. He was succeeded by his sons, Geta and Caracalla, who terminated the expedition and withdrew from the territory gained. (Dio Cassius, LXXVI; Herodian, III, 14–15; Dio Cassius, LXXVII; Herodian, III, 15)

After 244 the structure of authority within the empire failed, and there was a period of about forty years during which emperors neither maintained power for long, nor ensured a peaceful succession. In the period from 259 to 274 Britain formed part of the Gallic Empire, which had effectively seceded from the remainder of the empire. Political stability was restored with the accession of Aurelian (27–5) and consolidated by Diocletian (from 284), who shared power with Maximian from 286. Within Britain the events of the mid-third century up to this period are little known.

ad 286–9

Carausius was appointed to patrol the English Channel which was infiltrated by ‘barbarians’. His success enabled him to profit from the campaigns, and for exploiting this he was sentenced to death by the emperor. He responded by declaring himself emperor. His control of Britain was unchallenged until Maximian launched a naval attack which seems to have been repulsed. Carausius then occupied parts of northern Gaul. (Aurelius Victor, 39; Eutropius, IX. 21; Panegyric on Maximian, 11–12)

ad 293

Constantius, Maximian’s deputy (i.e. Caesar), attacked and took Boulogne.

Carausius was assassinated by one of his ministers, Allectus, who was declared emperor in Britain and northern Gaul. (Panegyric on Constantius Caesar, 6; Eutropius, IX, 22)

(p. xxxiv) ad 296

Constantius’ army attacked, landing on the south coast, and Allectus was killed. Constantius was accorded a triumphal welcome in London. (Panegyric on Constantius Caesar, 13–20)

ad 305–6

Constantius, now co-emperor with Maximian, came to northern Britain to conduct a military campaign. He was joined by his son Constantine, and reached the far north of Scotland. While staying at York the emperor died, and Constantine was declared emperor. (Aurelius Victor, 40; Eutropius, X, 1–2)

ad 312–14

Coins show that the emperor Constantine was in Britain. In 315 he took the title Britannicus indicating that he had won a victory here. (Coins, RIC 133–41, 142–3, 144–5)

ad 342–3

A winter visit to Britain by the emperor Constans perhaps suggests a crisis here. (Libianus, Orationes, LIX)

ad 350–3

A revolt in Gaul toppled Constans, who was replaced by Magnentius. The defeat of the rebellion was followed by reprisals in Britain. (Ammianus Marcellinus, XIV. 5)

ad 360

Troops were sent to Britain to deal with the Picts and Scots (although the motive may have been simply to remove the troops from Gaul). (Ammianus Marcellinus, XX. 1)

ad 364

Barbarian raids by Picts, Scots, and Saxons are recorded. (Ammianus Marcellinus, XXVI, 4)

(p. xxxv) ad 367–8

A concerted barbarian attack occurred, with the loss of a senior military commander. Count Theodosius was sent to recover the situation and we are told that he restored the province after a major campaign. (Ammianus Marcellinus, XXVII, 8; XXVIII.3)

ad 383–8

Magnus Maximus, a British army commander, led another revolt, killing the emperor Gratian. Maximus gained control of much of the western empire and ruled it from Trier. He moved against Italy and was defeated by Theodosius. (Zosimus. IV, 35; 37; Orosius, VII, 35)

ad 396–8

The general Stilicho ordered an expedition against the barbarians in Britain. (Claudian, Stilicho, II, 247–55)

ad 399

Peace was restored by Stilicho’s expedition. (Claudian, Eutropius, I, 391–3)

ad 401–2

Troops were withdrawn by Stilicho to defend Italy. (Claudian, Gothic War, 416–18)

ad 406–7

A usurper, Marcus, took power in Britain. Marcus was replaced first by Gratian then by Constantine III. Constantine was left to defend Gaul against the barbarians. (Zosimus, VI, 2; Orosius, VII, 40)

ad 408–9

Britain is attacked by the Saxons. ‘The Britons freed themselves, expelling their Roman governors and setting up their own administration.’ (Zosimus, VI, 5)

(p. xxxvi) ad 410

The emperor Honorius replied to an appeal for help from Britain by telling the cities to look after their own defence. (There are serious doubts about whether this reference does refer to Britain: it is more likely to relate to Bruttium in southern Italy.) (Zosimus, VI, 10)

ad 429

St Germanus visited Britain to counter heresy in the church and defeated a Saxon raiding party. (Constantius, Vita)

ad 435–7

St Germanus may have visited Britain for a second time. (Constantius, Vita)

The accounts of events after the first decade of the fifth century are difficult to interpret. There were clearly continuing Saxon raids, which resulted in the loss of territory. By this stage events at Rome prevented any help being sent from outside Britain. It is likely that from shortly after 400 the government of the province had degenerated, with effective power moving into the hands of the landed aristocracy who acted as local barons. From the 440s land was lost to the Saxons piecemeal, as a result of the limited power of the local lords. Territory in Kent seems to have been lost first, but there remained a strong sub-Roman enclave in the west and north which certainly lasted down to the early sixth century.