From Literary Review, April 2012
Peter Jones reviews
The Romans Who Shaped Britain
by Sam Moorhead and David Stuttard
(Thames and Hudson 288pp £18.95)
1066 And All That begins with Julius Caesar’s arrival in 55 BC and the woad-covered Britons’ heroic defence ‘under their dashing queen Woadicea’. The Conquest was ‘a Good Thing since the Britons were only natives at the time’. The Romans built a wall to keep out the Picts, but then the legions left to take part in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, caused by the Romans’ desire for bread and circumstances. This ‘left Britain defenceless and subjected Europe to that long succession of Waves of which History is chiefly composed’. Britain was soon overrun by Angles, Saxons and Jutes, led by ‘Hengist and his wife (or horse?) Horsa’.
This is my sort of history: a strong, clear story line, people at the heart of it, and a lurking suspicion of theory (in this case, the ‘Wave’ theory). Sam Moorhead of the British Museum and David Stuttard take precisely the same view. The result is splendid, easily the most attractive available narrative account of Roman Britain from Caesar to the departure of the legions c. AD 410.
This is some achievement. The fact is that, with a few exceptions such as Julius Caesar’s account of his expeditions into the island in 55 and 54 BC, our literary sources are pretty scanty; and while archaeological work continues at a great rate, there is a limit to the story that mute shards and post-holes can tell. M-S do a first-rate job of integrating the two into a compelling narrative that does not disguise the interpretive problems – amply discussed in the sensible notes at the back, with full bibliography – but does the best job possible with the existing evidence.
M-S’s decision means that the story is told largely from the Roman point of view. It is not uncritical, but with little of the modern breast-beating about rotten Romans’ evil, exploitative ways. This is something of a relief. Every nation would have done precisely the same, had they been able to. They were just up against a relentless military and (for the most part) intelligent, flexible institutional system that kept the Roman empire going for c. 700 years. For many Germanic peoples living beyond the Rhine-Danube frontier, Rome’s streets were paved with gold. When the empire folded in the West, economic recovery took 200 years.
Britain, however, was not an easy province to govern. It always required standing legions. The Scots, eternal losers even then, caused pointless trouble whenever legion numbers dropped, quite incapable of seeing that it was to their advantage to reach a modus vivendi with their vastly more successful and powerful southern neighbours. Nor did the province pour much into Roman coffers.
But the pride in controlling such a mysterious, distant territory was intense, rather as we might regard a colony on the moon. Caesar’s first brief, shambolic sortie in 55 BC brought him a 20-day thanksgiving in Rome. When Claudius’ legions conquered it in AD 43, there were celebrations all over the empire. A relief in Aphrodisias (central southern Turkey) shows a youthful, heroically nude Claudius beating down a defeated Britannia, one breast bared, the first depiction we have of our island goddess (one of many magnificent illustrations). Romans wrote it up as place almost beyond imagination, where ‘they endure hunger and cold and any kind of hardship; for they plunge into the swamps and exist there for many days with only their heads above water’. That would be the Highlands, then.
But M-S emphasise how important Britain became in the end-game of the Roman empire, when its granaries were ransacked to supply the hard-pressed Roman armies on the Rhine facing Germanic incursions. This did not go down well with the Britons, and may be one reason for Britain’s brief secession from the empire (AD 286-c. 293) under the Belgic Carausius. He demonstrated his classical learning by issuing coins stamped with references to Virgil’s Aeneid, as if he were a second Augustus, promising a new age of prosperity. One wonders what the Brits made of them. They did not impress the Romans.
There is one bizarre misjudgement. Each of the twelve chapters begins with a brief vignette of an incident in it. In these, grizzled veterans with narrow, piercing eyes unleash tidal waves of fury among troops, with their swords or armour flashing in the chilly dawn or the midday, afternoon or, as it may be, dying sun, while their horses, sleek, groomed or foam-flecked, whinny, paw the ground, snort or with flying hooves thunder over the bracken and heather in the grey drizzle of a raging storm at sea. Reader, avert the gaze.