Once upon a time there were some simple answers to that simple question. Julius Caesar spent much of the 50s BC making war in what is now France in an effort to acquire the money, fame and loyal soldiers he would need to win the next round of political competition in Rome. Each year at the end of the campaigning season he would send despatches back to Rome reporting on his successes. We no longer have the original versions read out the senate and people of Rome (SPQR) but we do have a polished account usually entitled On the Gallic War (de bello Gallico or DBG for short). What DBG reports to SPQR is that towards the end of the campaigning season in 55 BC Caesar built a fleet on the Channel Coast, sailed it to Dover and so became the first Roman general to cross the stream of Ocean, the great circular sea that ancient geographers believed encircled the inhabited world. Next year Caesar returned, won further victories and then resumed his continental campaigns. No Roman army visited the island again for nearly a century until the emperor Claudius launched an invasion from a now fully pacified Gaul. Britain was now the new frontier. From AD 43 on that frontier was gradually extended ever northwards to the mouths of the Glens. Between Caesar and Claudius the surviving Greek and Latin texts preserve just a few of the PR announcements on Britain. “Britain was effectively subjected” was one line. Another ran “Britain was so poor it would not repay the cost of occupation”. More than one court poet predicted an imminent resumption of conquest. Perhaps that was what wore Claudius down in the end. But take your pick, Roman Britain starts with Caesar or it starts with Claudius, 55 BC or AD 43.
Looking back, it seems amazing that we have allowed Roman poets and Roman politicians to shape our stories about Roman Britain for so long. Because if we look at everything else we know about the island in the last and first centuries we see a very different story.
For a start it is hardly one place at all. The histories of what happened in the south and east are not at all the same as what happened further west and north, let alone in that great outer arc that Romans seem barely to have touched, an arc that includes all of Ireland, most of Scotland and some other more remote zones too. During the last five hundred years BC Iron Age societies had emerged across all of the British Isles. At first agriculture expanded in most areas, populations grew, and forts and villages were built on a scale rarely seen before in prehistory. Most archaeologists no longer think this has anything to do with the arrival of new peoples – Celts or whoever – but ideas and technologies and some trade goods certainly flowed back and forth across Europe. The stream of Ocean was no obstacle at all.
During the last centuries BC the different parts of the British Isles began to go their different ways. In Ireland and much of Wales expansion slowed and stopped: perhaps the impact of the new metal had run its course, perhaps these societies had reached the limits of what their local environments could sustain. But in the South East of England from Hampshire to the Fens change actually seems to speed up. A few huge settlements appear, as big as cities. Within their tangled complexes of earthworks we find temples and palaces and very rich graves. Those graves contain a mass of imported goods. A few originated in the Roman Empire - this is when wine first came to Britain. - but new things and styles and technologies came from other parts of continental Europe. Pottery begins to be made on the wheel. Coins appear, first decorated with swirling abstract designs created in Gaul and Germany well before Caesar arrived there, later with Roman images and even the occasional Latin word – like REX. Most spectacular of all are great metal treasures worked in bronze and silver and gold, helmets and shields, the twisted neck rings called torcs, bracelets for warriors, intricate brooches, swords and horse ornaments, razors and other grooming equipment with which to make men beautiful, cooking implements for feasts and so on and so on.
Almost all of this was about display. The Battersea Shield, made of polished bronze inlaid with dark red glass – another innovation of this period – was far too delicate to defend a warrior and it was never used in battle. Probably it was always intended to be sunk in the Thames where it rested until it was found in 1857. It is now on display in the British Museum. Another team from the British Museum is currently investigating a dozen great cauldrons buried together at Chisledon after some spectacular feast. Gradually we are beginning to appreciate how laboriously they sourced the materials needed to for the working of these treasure that would be displayed only once of twice before their spectacular public destruction or sacrifice. Imagine being buried in a Porsche, setting fire to a thousand Ipads, throwing your rolex watch into the sea before a crowd mesmerized, horrified and bewitched by the grandness of the gesture. The manufacture of these objects continued for centuries. So did rich burials like those at the King Harry Lane cemetery in St Albans still in use in the last decade of the first century AD. The kinds of pottery in the latest graves are not quite the same as in those of the last centuries BC – that is how we date them after all – but the principle was the same. Extravagant bronzework continued to be made in Britain until the end of the first century, elaborate brooches even longer. It is as if no-one had told the chieftains and their smiths that prehistory was over and Roman Britain had begun.
It is very easy, when we approach the history of these islands through the words of Caesar and Tacitus and others writing in Greek and Latin, to buy into their story of a primitive world beyond the Ocean suddenly civilized by heroes like Agricola. That was what many Romans believed of course. Just as they believed that Britain was one place instead of a patchwork of kingdoms and tribes and societies each with their own character. The modern study of Roman Britain began in a period when one nation state ruled all the British Isles. Even now that Eire is independent and Scotland on the verge of following it, we still try to tell a single story around the theme of Roman conquest and the transformation of Britain that followed it. The classic school book Our Island’s Story. A child’s history of England published in 1905 and still in use in some schools in the sixties, began with the Romans and ended with the death of Queen Victoria. Our current Prime Minister once described it as his favourite childhood book and it is true that it is an exciting read, but the truth is more complex.
It would better to start our story by remembering that Rome too was an Iron Age society; by the time Claudius’ fleet sailed for Kent the Roman Empire was already in effect a federation of Iron Age peoples. The Iron Age peoples they encountered on the other side of the Channel were not very different from their north Gallic cousins and in fact were rather different from the peoples of the Highland Zone of Great Britain or the rest of the British Isles. And not everything did change at once, as the generations of chiefs buried at St Albans before and after the Claudian invasion show. Shields, cauldrons and gorgeous ornaments continued to be intricately fashioned and ostentatiously disposed of long after Agricola was recalled to Rome by Domitian. Beyond the south east things remained different under Roman rule, just as they were already different before the Romans arrived. Neither 55 BC nor AD 43 meant much in many parts of these islands. And although there was for a while a provincial council to which the thirty odd communities of Briton sent delegates, there is little sign of any British identity before the middle ages. The notion of Britannia as a place with a character all of its own probably mattered to just a few administrators and geographers. Not until the sixteenth century do people begin to think of it as a distinct period in the history of the English nation. Maybe that is when Roman Britain really started.
Professor Greg Woolf is the Director of the Institute of Classical Studies, University of London.