Was the Roman Empire a beacon of civilisation or a mechanism of exploitation? Did it exist to spread peace, prosperity, and enlightenment? Or was it a ruthless system of robbery with violence to enrich the 1%?
Should we understand the 350-year Roman occupation of Britain as a story of progress and culture, or a story of imperialism and oppression?
The Romans themselves were aware of the argument. They had a somewhat schizophrenic view of their own history. Their greatest poet, Virgil, encapsulates the contradiction in a famous passage in Book 6 of The Aeneid.
The subject is the relative contributions of Greeks and Romans to world civilisation. The Greeks are credited as the world’s premier artists, orators, and scholars. ‘But as for you, Roman,’ prophesies the spirit of Anchises, speaking to his son Aeneas in the Underworld, ‘let your concern be to command the nations, and may this be your skill: to impose the rule of peace, to spare the submissive, and to crush the proud.’
Now this is very double-edged – as Virgil knew perfectly well. It means: we decide, not you. It means: we leave you alone if you do as you’re told, and we take you out if you don’t.
All of history’s imperialists have said the same. The British claimed their empire was good for its victims. They called it ‘the White Man’s Burden’. Bush and Blair claimed their wars were to benefit the people they bombed. They called it ‘the war on terror’.
Imperialism has always been contested. Roman Britain was no exception. The Romans were experienced and manipulative imperialists. They had a tried-and-tested programme of what we now call ‘Romanisation’.
In essence, it meant winning over native elites by offering to protect their property, privilege, and power, just so long as they endorsed Roman rule. The deal was symbolised by local adoption of Roman culture.
The aim was summed up by the historian Tacitus in his biography of his father-in-law, Agricola, a former Roman governor of Britain. Tacitus relished the irony of the descendants of Celtic warrior-nobles living in posh town-houses, learning Latin, and wearing the toga. ‘And so,’ he concluded with unashamed cynicism, ‘the population was gradually led into the demoralising temptations of porticoes, baths, and grand dinner-parties. The unsuspecting Britons spoke of such novelties as ‘civilisation’, when in fact they were only a feature of their enslavement.’
The majority, of course, never lived in towns or villas. The majority were Celtic-speaking peasants living in villages, hamlets, and farmsteads. These were the beasts of burden who supplied the wealth – in taxes, rents, and labour services – on which civilisation and empire were based.
They are largely hidden from history. The written record is dominated by the Romanised elite. The archaeological record is dominated by monumental architecture, grand houses, and rich artwork. Only occasionally is our attention drawn to the social experience of the 99%. The events of AD 60/61 represent one such occasion.
The Boudican Revolt was provoked by heavy-handed land seizures and debt collection. Agents of the Emperor Nero moved in to take over the territory of the Iceni (in what is now Norfolk) when the pro-Roman Celtic client-king Prasutagus died. Their purpose was probably to add former royal land to the imperial estate, and to impose Roman taxation on everyone else.
Court expenditures on luxury and largesse were vast. Prodigious consumption at the centre of the empire was met by rising exploitation of the provinces. Money was running out, and orders were dispatched to increase revenue streams.
At the same time, multi-millionaire creditors, like the leading minister Seneca, were calling in overdue debts, now grossly inflated by the crippling interest rates that prevailed in the Roman world, a form of legalised swindling with which hapless British notables were probably unfamiliar until they received demand for repayment.
Title to property suddenly looked unsafe – vulnerable to both government agents and private debt-collectors. The brutal treatment of the royal widow Boudica – who was flogged – and her daughters – who were raped – symbolised the threat to the Icenian nobility. They rose as one to protect their estates and their rank.
They found the Celtic peasantry ready, on the brink of revolt in response to new taxes, forced-labour demands, and land seizures around the Roman colonial settlement at Colchester.
Until now, dispersed across the countryside in relatively isolated settlements, the peasants had lacked the organisation to fight back. No doubt they had resisted as best they could, as their kind always do, invisibly, beneath the gaze of history, hiding grain in the ground, pigs in the woods, and sturdy sons on distant farms. But now came the call to arms from their traditional leaders, and they formed for battle as in the old days, armed with the rusty weapons of their fathers.
A fast-swelling tribal revolution swept south, and the new towns of Colchester, London, and Verulamium (St Albans) – parasitic growths on native land – were burnt to the ground. A Roman legion was smashed in open battle. The survival of the Roman province of Britannia was momentarily in the balance.
But the Roman governor, campaigning against the Druids of Anglesey on the far side of the country, raced south-eastwards when he got the news. Somewhere in the Midlands, he engineered a battle in which the vastly superior numbers of the rebels were broken on the iron front of the legions.
The revolution dissolved. Boudica escaped into her heartland and killed herself. The Roman Army rampaged through East Anglia, killing, looting, burning.
As Tacitus said of Roman imperialism in Britain on another occasion, ‘They create a wilderness and call it peace.’ The defeat of the Boudican Revolt was a defeat for the 99%. It meant a world made safe for the enrichment of a few.
Neil Faulkner FSA is a Research Fellow at the University of Bristol.