What did the Romans ever do for us?
As I write this, we are witnessing the chaotic withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan. History will judge whether this 20 year occupation served a purpose for either side. Did the suppression of the Taliban safeguard the West after 9/11? Was the occupation by Western forces good for the Afghans?
We could ask similar questions about Roman Britain. Did the Roman Empire work in, and for, Britain?
Again, there are two sides to consider. Beginning with the invaders, what did the Romans hope to gain, and were they right?
In BC 55, in the midst of the Gallic Wars, Julius Caesar used the excuse that British tribes were aiding his Gallic opponents to attempt to invade Britain. He spun his inconclusive adventures as victory against adversity, thus burnishing his prestige in Rome. A century later his descendant Emperor Claudius, also in need of points-scoring to prop up a wobbly throne, learned from Caesar’s experiences and made a better job of invasion.
Beyond the advantages of political gain, Rome’s leaders were already aware of various valuable resources in Britain. Caesar expected to find bronze, tin, gold and iron, although Cicero was less hopeful, writing to an acquaintance that “there is not a scrap of gold or silver in Britain.” That turned out not to be true, and the mineral wealth of these islands certainly benefitted Rome. Pottery, too, became an export industry.
During the third and fourth centuries, when civil war and rebellion at times affected trade and business elsewhere, a settled Britain continued to prosper. Its agriculture had advanced in methods and plant and animal breeding, and by distribution to market via the Roman road and sea networks. At the end of the third century Britain was described as “a most wealthy island”. (Ironically, it may have been that reputation that first attracted the interest of the next wave of invaders, who we now call the Anglo-Saxons.)
Meanwhile, what about the British? Did being Roman work for them, in the short term and over time?
In economic terms, doubtless many Roman merchants and traders made money from British agriculture, production and trade; but not all were from overseas, and not all the silver left these shores. Those merchants who made money, and the increasingly wealthy British estate owners, will have spent much of their wealth in Britain. They patronised the many smaller traders and artisans who came to prominence, such as the mosaicists of Dorchester and Cirencester.
Britain began and remained a militarised frontier province, with at least three legions tied down here. Not to mention large bodies of auxiliaries and the classis britannica patrolling the coasts. Soldiers cost a fortune at any time, and much of Britain’s value to the Empire would undoubtedly have been offset by the cost of the British garrison. At the same time, the Roman army itself was a valued customer of British merchants and farmers. In Viroconium (modern Wroxeter), the vast cattle market outside the town walls bears witness to the trade in meat, leather and other by-products supplied to the garrisons of north Wales and Deva (Chester).
Apart from the privileged aristocracy, there is little evidence as to how much the British came to value romanitas, or adopted Latin and Roman culture. It is likely that beyond those in the upper and educated classes, many people would have continued the same peasant life as before, living in roundhouses, speaking the British tongues and working the land. But as Guy de la Bédoyère (2013) says, an equilibrium was reached in Roman Britain “which seems to have been eventually acceptable to most of the participants”.
The current panic to leave Kabul continues to show that throughout history people most value stability and security. Long after the apparent end of pax romana in Britain, St Germanus visited in AD429/435 and reported finding a largely Roman province still. Tantalising glimpses of efforts to maintain a valued Roman way of life crop up in archaeology: imported wine and olive oil in 6th century Tintagel; the continued occupation of Wroxeter and Caerwent for hundreds of years; 5th and 6th century repairs to Hadrian’s Wall.
And there’s our most enduring legend, that of a Romanised king, the heir of Ambrosius Aurelianus, who defeated the pagan invaders to preserve a beloved way of life – King Arthur.