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Book Review: The Romans Who Shaped Britain

The Romans Who Shaped Britain

Sam Moorhead and David Stuttard

Thames & Hudson, 2012

Opponents of the ‘Great Man’ approach to history will be predictably miffed at the appearance in bookshops of The Romans Who Shaped Britain, a handsomely-produced new volume from Thames & Hudson. The book’s two authors, Sam Moorhead and David Stuttard, set out to tell that so-familiar story, the history of Roman Britain, and they are both experts on the subject, well aware that the history of Roman Britain is in constant supply of new details dug up at regular intervals from fields, roadways, and parking lots all across England and Scotland. Jewellery talks about status; gifts hint at the shape of colonialism; coins were ubiquitous propaganda – and our authors are past-masters at the skill of reading all these mute makings.

But such things are secondary concerns for them in this volume, as they make pugnaciously clear right at the outset:

For the premise of this book is that the unbroken narrative of Roman Britain is a story made by people. That this needs to be stated is a reflection of our times, when many modern historians, lost in the fog of academic theory, tend to treat their chosen period as a laboratory in which empiricism will provide a ‘true’ and scientific picture of the past. But because the past was created by unpredictable and emotionally driven human beings, there is a danger that answers thrown up by such an approach are, in fact, delusions.

Moorhead and Stuttard give touchstone praise to Peter Salway’s magnificent ‘Roman Britain’ (written in 1981 and still largely indispensable) – which is cheeky, since they must know how far their opening proclamation strays from anything Salway himself believed while writing his own book. In fact there’s nothing delusional about academic theory, although forecasts of fog are always possible. The ‘empiricism’ (surely the wrong word?) our authors have set their pikes against does indeed produce some crashingly dull books, but its main philosophy is that events, trends, and historical cycles are immense waves, on which ‘unpredictable and emotionally driven human beings’ ride like surfers. It’s not an assertion of the anonymity of action – Caesar will always be Caesar – but rather an observation that the times are always bigger than their inhabitants. As Rome expanded the reach of its empire, it would have made contact with the British Isles whether Julius Caesar had been born or not; it would have fought and conquered the native inhabitants of that distant land whether Claudius had gone there with his legions or not – if it hadn’t been Claudius, that is, it would have had to be somebody, because the expansion itself was dictated by social, economic, and even political forces that were much bigger than ‘the Romans who shaped Britain.’

Fortunately, for all their open bluster, Moorhead and Studdard are too well aware of all this to truly give readers an old-fashioned ‘Great Man’-driven story of Roman Britain; there’s plenty of sociology here, for those who might come here seeking it. And as for the men and women who did happen to ride the crest of these particular waves – they’re given knowledgeable, exuberant treatment as they progress across center stage. We get cautious Hadrian and his famous wall, Tacitus’ immortalized Agricola, here cut down to mere human dimensions, the usurper emperor Carausius, who blazed forth from the British ranks and held power for a few years, the rebel leader Boudica, Constantine the Great, who was proclaimed by the troops at York, and Septimius Severus, campaigning against the Scots and sending gruesomely effective dispatches back to Rome:

Ransacking all the hackneyed stock motifs, reports sent back to Rome spoke of dark, gloomy swamps, of rivers, mists and marshes inhabited by fierce sub-human creatures, naked and tattooed, their bodies hung with iron. These beings, they said, could stand for days on end up to their necks in icy water, while eating nothing more than bark and roots. They armed themselves with shields and spears and fought, or so the bulletins implausibly proclaimed, from chariots. Like many military assessments, written with an eye to an audience back home, this was (to say the least) a skewed, exaggerated and eccentric evaluation of the Maetae and Caledonii. But it was just what the Senate and people of Rome wanted to hear, aggrandizing as it did the bravery of Roman troops by adding a mystique to the extremities of empire.

A picture emerges of an over-extended empire gradually coming to rely on the grain and other foodstuffs supplied by Britain – and the consequently nasty power-politics that always grow up around imperial bread-baskets. When Constantius overthrows Magnentius and installs his ‘ruthless proxy’ Paul to bring Britannia into line, Moorhead and Studdard follow the money:

Coins of Magnentius, in fact, were outlawed after his defeat, part of Constantius’ drive to eradicate all memory of him. Throughout Britain, people responded by burying their now illegal tender or cutting small coins out of larger ones. At every level of society, from the richest villa owner to the poorest artisan, Britons were being made to suffer for supporting Magnentius. In the years following Paul’s predations, the province went into a sharp decline, as Britain’s towns and villas and once-thriving industries fell into disrepair.

This was ironic, for in the years to come, the island was to be the saviour of the northwest empire. Grain, after all, and other produce were still flowing from this, ‘the greatest island under the sun’, to the army of the Rhine. As time went on, this traffic became more and more essential.

When Constantius faced a major invasion by the Alamanni in AD 356, he and his nephew Julian took special pains to make sure the grain supply from Britain flowed unchecked (Julian later had the noxious Paul burned alive).

All of this is done as entertainingly as it can be done – “The Romans Who Shaped Britain” is most certainly a book to give to any history buff without fear of disappointing them – but it has its perils. The ‘Great Man’ (or woman) approach to history is only one narrow county over from hagiography and myth, and even the most careful of authors can wander the distance without even knowing it. Moorhead and Studdard end their rousing story with the Battle of Mons Badonicus, fought sometime between 490 and 520, in which the ranks of Ambrosius Aurelianus contained a certain flaxen-haired star-in-waiting:

So it was as a purely British hero that he strode into the world of folklore and mythology and shaped, more than any Roman ever had, the island’s psyche. Even in death this British grandson of a rebel Roman emperor would fire his people’s spirits. For centuries he was their once and future king. Today we know him as King Arthur, and it would be his story, along with that of Guinevere and Galahad and Lancelot and Merlin, which would lend to Britain her new, indomitable character.

It’s lucky that our authors follow this last paragraph with several pages of highly detailed and truly delightful triple-columned end-notes to restore the reader’s confidence, because ‘indomitable character’ comes dangerously close to the ‘bulldog tenacity’ of that very worst of ‘Great Men,’ Winston Churchill – and once you stray into Churchillville, you abandon all hope of empiricism, good or bad. The fog settles in.

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