Legacy of the Romans in Britain

September 23, 2010

This is an excerpt from one of the articles contributed by Roman military historian Mike Ibeji to an online BBC series on ancient history.

Striving to be Roman


The Roman invasion of Britain was arguably the most significant event ever to happen to the British Isles. It affected our language, our culture, our geography, our architecture and even the way we think. Our island has a Roman name, its capital is a Roman city and for centuries (even after the Norman Conquest) the language of our religion and administration was a Roman one.

For 400 years, Rome brought a unity and order to Britain that it had never had before. Prior to the Romans, Britain was a disparate set of peoples with no sense of national identity beyond that of their local tribe. In the wake of the Roman occupation, every 'Briton' was aware of their 'Britishness'. This defined them as something different from those people who came after them, colouring their national mythology, so that the Welsh could see themselves as the true heirs of Britain, whilst the Scots and Irish were proud of the fact that they had never been conquered by Rome.

Yet perhaps Rome's most important legacy was not its roads, nor its agriculture, nor its cities, nor even its language, but the bald and simple fact that every generation of British inhabitant that followed them — be they Saxon, Norman, Renaissance English or Victorian — were striving to be Roman. Each was trying to regain the glory of that long-lost age when Britannia was part of a grand civilisation, which shaped the whole of Europe and was one unified island.

I am usually asked five questions whenever people talk to me about Roman Britain, and they find the answers profoundly surprising. People's view of Rome is of a grand, monolithic dictatorship which imposed its might upon an unwilling people, dictating how they lived, how they spoke and how they worshipped. They see the Romans as something akin to the Nazis (which is hardly surprising since the fascists tried to model themselves on Rome). The truth about Roman Britain is much more subtle and surprising, and serves to show why on the one hand their legacy has endured so long, and on the other, why their culture vanished so quickly once they departed from these shores.

Dr Mike Ibeji. "An Overview of Roman Britain". BBC History: Romans, 2001-2009.

4 comments

Barbarian said...

The Romans were like Nazis, vicious and ruthless.
They were thick too learning everything from other races like the Greeks.

SW said...

This is a good write up on Roman Britain and its influence on subsequent generations:

http://www.britishmuseum.org/PDF/british_museum_roman_britain.pdf

My opinion is that Rome's occupation in Britain had *very* little genetic or cultural impact on the island, and that essentially, any trace of it was all but lost when the Anglo-Saxons invaded. Then, with the Renaissance spreading to Northern Europe, it sparked an interest in the cultures of Greece and Rome, and caused them to look to their own Roman heritage, in Britain (and often times, overstating its impact, which is, again, basically nonexistent).

The author of the above article would seem to agree with me....

Italianthro said...

That British Museum piece seems to have a bias toward showing how "talented and wealthy native British societies" were and discounting Roman influences. Also, all of the sources cited at the end are from the 80s and early 90s.

According to more recent research by British archaeologists, Romanization was extensive in Britain and lasted centuries after the Anglo-Saxon invasions:

http://www.britarch.ac.uk/ba/ba68/feat1.shtml
http://www.britarch.ac.uk/ba/ba32/Ba32feat.html#dark

lcnman said...

@ SW

"Rome's occupation in Britain had *very* little genetic or cultural impact..."

Quite the opposite, considering that the Romans established many settlements in Britain, which lasted for a long time, London (Londinium) among them.

Here are some arguments:

1. The Roman historian Tacitus mentions some 70.000 Italian colonists murdered by the Britons (so, who where the "Nazis"?) when they rebelled against Roman rule, shortly after the conquest of Britain under Claudius (I think the revolt, led by "queen" Boudica, was in Nero's time). So, there certainly were more than 70.000 Romans in Britain at that time, perhaps 100.000, considering that many of the settlers managed somehow to escape. Also, these were only civilian colonists, not counting the Roman legions quartered there. And this statistics refers only to the first 20-30 years of Roman occupation, which in total lasted for three centuries and a half. When the Romans suppressed the revolt, many Britons were also killed and afterwards more settlers and veterans were brought in to secure the conquest.

When it is said that the Romans "left" Britain around 400, we should obviously understand that only the current administration and the army did so, not the earlier settlers already living there since the 1st century conquest.

2. I remember from a British documentary that in some places, like Wales, at Caerleon, where a Roman legion had a permanent base, Latin inscriptions were found as late as the 6th century (something like "...magistratus...", I don't remember exactly, I am not a Latinist). I need to mention, though, that the documentary was very pro-British and anti-Roman, the general tone being that the Roman occupation was an oppressive one which did not benefit the island. And yet, it let many truths escape, like this one about the lasting Roman influence even after the Anglo-Saxon invasion.

As an aside, the documentary overemphasized the fact that the 2nd Legion Augusta, based at Caerleon, was the Romans' best legion, because, you know, they could not afford to send anything less to pacify these extraordinary Britons. You see, all the other crappy legions were good enough along the Rhine and the Danube, but not in Britain.

3. Also from the documentary: in terms of the level of goods and services produced, the Roman period in Britain was surpassed only in the XVIth century, quite unbelievable, but remember, from a pro-British, anti-Roman documentary. I don't remember exactly the economic indicator used, it must have been something like the per capita GDP.

4. Another example from the documentary of a truth let loose while trying to prove the opposite: a middle-class Roman house, of which important remains (with mosaics and other decorations) were discovered in Britain, was considered as something accessible to only 10-15% of the island's population, the idea being that it was not representative for most people (i.e. 15% was a low figure), that only the Roman conquerors lived like that, that the locals and the poor resented the occupation (sort of Marxist shit). Now, I can assure you that even nowadays, most Europeans would envy the owner of such a house, if we ignore, of course, the 21st century amenities available to us. 15% is a VERY high figure.

So, yes, the article is correct in its conclusions. Although the Anglo-Saxon conquest greatly changed the character of the country, the Roman influence was too strong and profound to be erased.