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history
 

history

 



The Roman occupation intervened between the coming of the Celt and the coming of the Saxon, and delayed the latter for perhaps two hundred years.
Celt, Saxon and Dane came over to slaughter or expel the inhabitants and settle in their place, but the Romans came to exploit and govern by right of
superior civilization. In this they resembled the Europeans in Africa rather than the Pilgrim Fathers in America. Yet the natives of Britain were white men,
capable of adopting Latin ways more fully than most Africans are capable of adopting the ways of Europe.
Nor, on the other hand, had the Gauls and Britons an elaborate civilization of their own, (...). And, therefore, once the Roman conquerors had glutted their
first rage for plunder their main effort was to induce their Western subjects to assimilate Latin life in all its aspects. Their success with the Gauls was
permanent, and became the starting point of modern European history. But in Britain, after a great initial success, they had complete ultimate failure.
"From the Romans who once ruled Britain," wrote Haverfield, (...), "we Britons have inherited practically nothing."
In the end the Romans left behind them here just three things of value: the first of these would have amused or shocked Caesar, Agricola, and Hadrian,
for it was Welsh Christianity; the second was the Roman roads, the third, a by-product of the second, was the traditional importance of certain new city
sites, especially that of London. But the Latin life of the cities, the villas, the arts, the language, and the political organization of Rome vanished like a
dream. The greatest fact in the early history of the island is a negative fact - that the Romans did not succeed in permanently Latinizing Britain as they
Latinized France.
55 B.C.
As a military undertaking his (=Caesar's) first expedition was a failure. He took too small a force, and scarcely moved ten miles inland from the Dover
Straits. In the next year's invasion on a larger scale, he won several battles, forded the Thames in the face of the enemy, and penetrated into the
Hertfordshire territories of Cassivelaunus, King of Catuvellauni. (...) But many of the Britons, including the men of Kent, put up a stout fight against Caesar,
and though their undisciplined infantry was useless against the "legion's ordered line", the yellow-haired, athletic aristocracy of the Celts in their scythed
chariots clattered down the war-ways of the battle like heroes of Homer, in a manner disconcerting even to the veterans of the Tenth. The chariot,
however, had seen its day as a method of warfare; it had already been abandoned in Celtic Gaul as well as in the Hellenized East, and the British chiefs
would have been more truly formidable if they had taught themselves to fight as cavalry. But the island never had the luck to be defended by an
aristocracy trained to fight from the saddle, until the Norman Conquest acclimatized the medieval knight.
The expedition of 54 B.C., though not a failure like that of the year before, was no great success. As Cicero complained to his cronies, the famous British
gold was secured in very inadequate quantities; the slaves were too ignorant to fetch fancy prices in the market, and there had been neither the time nor
the means to carry off rebellious clans wholesale to the auctioneer, as was Caesar's practice in Gaul. The expedition had no permanent results, except
the memory on both sides of the Channel. The tribute soon ceased to be paid.
The conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar, more decidedly than his invasions of Britain, had brought the South British tribes into the orbit of Latin civilization.
They were of the same race and political group as the northern Gauls, and the Gauls were now Roman subjects, many of them Roman citizens. A
peaceful penetration of the island resulted from the work of Caesar, and prepared the way for the conquest under Claudius. The hundred most important
years in the history of the world were not wholly a blank even in Britain. While Julius was being murdered and avenged, while the loves of Antony and
Cleopatra were raising the question of the relations of East and West inside the Roman world, while Augustus was cannily constructing the Empire, while
Christ was preaching and while Paul was being converted, far in the north Roman traders and colonists, working from the base of the Latinized province
of Gaul, were establishing settlements in the interior of Britain and gaining influence at the courts of its tribal Kings.
To this time, perhaps, belongs the origin of London as a city, which then began to exist at the bridge-head on the northern shore. In Caesar's time and
long afterwards, Middlesex was a forest and much of future London a marsh. But a bluff of hard ground afforded a good bridge-head where roads from
Kentish ports could cross the river and spread out again on their journeys northward and westward over the island. It was also the best landing place for
continental commerce coming up the estuary of the Thames. The bridge and port coincided in situation, and their geographic coincidence made the
greatness of London.
It was the point at which goods from Europe could be unshipped well inside the land, and sent to its most distant parts by roads planned not for the local
needs of tribes but for the imperial needs of the province. The principal exports of Roman Britain, with which she purchased the luxuries of the world,
were tin, skins, slaves, pearls, and sometimes grain.
London became larger and richer under the Romans than she ever was again after their departure, until near the Norman Conquest. The Roman walls
enclosed an area corresponding very closely to the walls of the City in medieval times, which were in fact only the Roman walls restored. In both periods
London was a commercial, not a governmental centre. Officially she ranked lower in the Roman hierarchy than much smaller and less important towns.
43 A.D.
It was under the Emperor Claudius, a century after Caesar's exploring expedition, that the actual conquest of the island took place. Unlike the other
invaders of Britain, the Romans did not achieve their conquests by indiscriminate slaughter and destruction, nor by ushering in a host of farmer
immigrants, nor by the erection of private castles. Their method of conquest was to make military roads, planned on system for the whole island, and to
plant along them forts garrisoned by the regular troops. It was thus that the legions were able, after a first check, to do what the Saxons failed to do, and
the castle-building Norman Barons only did after long centuries, namely, to subjugate and hold down the Welsh mountaineers.
They could not Romanize the mountains as they Romanized the eastern and southern plains, nor plant cities at the foot of Snowdon and Plynlymmon.
But by means of roads and forts they had made an effective military occupation of Wales within five-and-thirty years of their landing.
It was not till a century and a half had passed after the Claudian conquest that the Emperor Severus marked the final limit of the northern frontier by
renovating (210 A.D.) the wall that Hadrian had erected (123 A.D.) from Solway to the mouth of the Tyne. Several times the Romans had tried to conquer
Scotland; once under Tacitus' father-in-law Agricola, the great Governor of Britain, with his victory at the 'Mons Graupius' somewhere on the edge
of the Highlands (84 A.D.); once in the reign of Antonius Pius (130 A.D.), and once again under Severus himself. But the Romans failed in Scotland as
repeatedly as the English Plantagenet Kings.
Their failure was due not only to the frontal resistance of the Picts in their waterlogged straths and inaccessible mountains and forests, but to the frequent
rebellions of the Brigantes in the rear. No attempt was made to add Ireland to the territory of the Caesars.
The area of true Roman occupation was therefore confined almost exactly to modern England and Wales. But this area was itself divided into two sharply
contrasted regions, the Latinized South and East, the barbarian North and West. North of Humber and Trent, west of Severn and Exe, Celto-Iberian
tribalism survived in its more primitive form. This moorland half of Britain, where nearly all the garrison spent nearly all the time, was indeed the chief
area of military occupation, but it was nothing more. It was patrolled by some 40,000 men, nearly a tenth of the total forces of the Empire. Their three
bases were the great fortresses of York, Chester and Caerleon, each the headquarters of a legion. In Wales, the Pennines, Cumberland, and Northumbia,
the mail-clad infantry marched and countermarched along the roads they had made from mountain camp to mountain camp, through a sparse and
savage population, either hostile or indifferent to their passage. Devon and Cornwall were an isolated pocket of Celtic tribalism. It was in the fruitful
plains of the South-East that the Latinized Britons were concentrated, in a peaceful and civilian land, where the sight of a cohort on the march was a
rarity, but where Roman cities and villas were plentiful and Roman civilization powerful in its attraction.
Owing to this cultural distinction between the two geographic sections of the island, it happened that the districts destined to be overrun by the Saxon
destroyer were the districts most given over to Latin influences of city and villa life. On the other hand, Wales and Cornwall, Strathclyde and Lancashire,
where alone independent Celtic life was destined to survive the coming of the Saxons, were precisely those districts wherein Celtic life had been
least altered by the Roman civilization. This accident goes far to explain why Roman influence was permanent in no part of the island.
But a second and more general reason can be given for Rome's failure to Latinize Britain as she Latinized Gaul. Britain was too far from the
Mediterranean. Southern France is itself a Mediterranean land. But the civilization of the Italian city, the life of the forum and piazza, shivers when
transplanted too far north. (...) This civilization, of which Rome had become the armed missionary, was based on city life. In that respect it differed from
the Celtic civilization which it conquered and from the Saxon and feudal civilization that was destined to succeed it.
The Roman Empire had grown out of a city state; it had annexed a number of other city states in the Mediterranean, and had planted new cities among
the tribes of Gaul. The true life of the Empire lay in the hundreds of walled towns, linked up by military roads, that held together its otherwise unwieldy
bulk. From each of these cities it strove to govern and transform the surrounding countryside. And so in south Britain the first thing the Romans did
was to build cities.
Besides London and the greater municipalities there were many lesser towns like Silchester , which the Romans planned out in their rectangular fashion,
and in most cases protected with stone walls. In these towns even the common workmen talked Latin and were educated enough to read and write it, as
we know from the words they scribbled for their amusement on tile and potsherd as they worked, which modern archaeologists have dug up and
interpreted. It was a high civilization, much more elaborate than anything seen again for many centuries in England. But it was not a native product,
sprung from the soil; it was the life of the great cosmopolitan Empire oversea, of which the more progressive among the island tribes were content for a
while to become a part. These cities did not thrive; they seldom grew to much above 3000 inhabitants each. And with the exception of the commercial
port of London they had fallen into decay more than a century before the final downfall of Roman rule in the island.
Beyond the city walls Roman civilization petered away by degrees, through regions of Romano-British "villadom", into regions of mere Celtic tribalism.
The countryside was sprinkled with smart Roman villas, built of stone in the Italian style, adorned with mosaics, frescoes, and baths.
Attached to each villa was an estate worked by slaves, or by "coloni" who were bound to the soil and to its proprietor under rules as harsh as those which
bound the medieval villein (= feudal serf in the Middle Ages). If there was no liberty there was peace. So real was the Pax Romana in the demilitarized
districts of the South-East that these country-houses were not fortified or even protected by a moat, like the medieval castle or manor house. The only
people trained to fight were the soldiers of the regular army: this was one reason why Romanized Britain fell so easy a prey to the invader when men
could no longer count on the protection of the legions.
The area of agriculture and the area of land reclaimed from forest and fen were both extended in Roman times, at least in some districts, as for instance
in Cambridgeshire. But even there the work was only begun; and the Midlands from Bucks to Warwickshire were still left in the main to the forest. The
valleys of Thames and Trent, still water-logged, contained no connected line of important towns and villages as in later days. The Romans did something
for deforesting and draining, but the yeoman's work in these matters was left for the stalwart industry of Saxon and Danish townships, extended over a
thousand years.
The government of Britain was far from being a rigid and uniform bureaucracy. For the Roman Empire, though at bottom a military despotism standing on
the social basis of slavery, was in some respects very liberal. In accordance with its custom, the privileged municipalities in the island not only enjoyed
self-government but had jurisdiction each over a rural area about as large as a modern country. There were five such governing cities:
Verulamium, Colchester, Lincoln, Gloucester, and York; mercantile London, though larger than any of these, had less official status.
The rest of civilized Britain was divided up into cantons, answering to Celtic tribal areas and bearing the tribal names. The cantonal administration was
as far as possible centred on some Roman town not of municipal rank. It was characteristic of the Romans that instead of trying to stamp out native
tribalism they used it as a means of government, while undermining its spirit by contact with their own more attractive civilization. Every inducement was
offered to the Celtic chief to become Roman in dress, language, and heart; on these conditions he could remain a Celtic chief in relation to his tribesmen,
exercising his authority over them as a toga-ed Roman official. This policy, which might appear to an iron bureaucrat to be a dangerous concession to
tribalism, became in fact the means of Romanizing the Celt with his own good will. The same cantonal system was established in Gaul; but whereas the
cantonal names and areas survived the Frankish conquest of Gaul, they disappeared in the more destructive Saxon invasion of Britain.


(about 2500 words)

from: G. M. Trevelyan, ROMAN BRITAIN




Assignments


1. Describe the first Roman encounters under Caesar.
2. In which way did the Romans succeed in establishing an administration in the first century?
3. Describe the military aspects of the Roman occupation of England.
4. What was life like in the non-Celtic part of Britain?
5. Explain the importance of the following towns: London; York; Gloucester; Chester.
6. Which lasting effects did the Roman invasion have?
7. Why was it so easy for the Angles, Saxons and Jutes to invade Britain from 300 A.D. onwards?
8. Is history "bunk"? Explain why or why not.
9. Translate "It was under the Emperor Claudius ... repeatedly as the English Plantagenet Kings"

 
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