Early Societies: Britain and the Ancient World

The Romans

The Roman Empire casts a long shadow. It is no exaggeration to say that it has dominated the political imagination of Europe and the Mediterranean for two thousand years. From Charlemagne to Hitler, repeated attempts have been made to revive it in some form or claim the mantle of its inheritance. Even movies like Star Wars draw upon the image of the universal empire for their inspiration. The Roman legionary, the world's first proletarian professional soldier, marches endlessly across our screens disguised as a storm-trooper, an alien invader, or a poor GI. Through the Romans we got our alphabet, much of our language, our Christian traditions (with their Jewish antecedents), and our concept of law. As a result we tend to think of the Romans as having a very distinctive culture, but in fact they owed a great deal to the Greeks, for example, their art and architecture, science, theatre and love of sport. Rome itself was governed like a Greek city. with an assembly of citizens which made all the laws and a council or senate made up of the heads of the most important families. There were exact Roman equivalents of most of the Greek gods, and the same stories about them were told to young Romans, along with the stories from the Trojan War and inspiring episodes from Roman history.

Like the Greeks, the Romans belonged to the Mediterranean. Their psychology was essentially that of a warm climate, with bright blue skies and a sparkling sea. Although they pretended to like the countryide Romans prefered to live in towns where they could meet and talk in civilised surroundings. They built towns wherever they went, linking them together by the famous straight roads, by a common system of law and language, and by a single, universal currency. Whatever local differences there were, a Roman was a Roman because he thought in a Roman way, dressed in a Roman way, took his meals in a Roman fashion and looked upon Rome itself as the centre of the universe.

Illustration: Ancient Rome

Ancient Rome

The first of the world's great cities, Rome was always more than a place; it became an idea and a way of living to which anyone could aspire irrespective of race or origin.

Within the city itself however the temptations of a life of ease overcame the desire for liberty. Eventually the only voice of freedom was that of the mob.

Why was one small city by the River Tiber able to conquer an empire encompassing all the Mediteranean lands as well as France and most of Britain ? Undoubtedly, the Romans were 'empire-minded'. Their early history of struggle against neighbouring townships gave them the view that other peoples and cultures were inferior and would always be overcome by Roman courage and organisation. A crucial stage was passed when what had been an amateur army - made up of traders and farmers going on campaign for a limited time - became a paid one, composed of soldiers who were full-time and long-serving. Not only did this army develop modern methods of training and discipline but it also became extremely efficient at equipping and supplying itself so that it could operate far from home over long periods.

The transformation of the army is generally credited to a man called Marius (156-86 BC ), the first of a succession of 'strong men' who came to the fore as the empire grew too large to be governed in a democratic way. In 30 BC Julius Caesar's nephew Octavian, who had just defeated his rival Antony in a civil war, took the title of first citizen (princeps in Latin). The assembly made him its special representative (tribune), and the senate appointed him commander (imperator) of the whole Roman army. It wasn't exactly a monarchy, but it settled the question of who was in charge, and soon Octavian's family name - Caesar - became the official title of the Roman emperor.

Holding on to an empire is more difficult than conquering one. The Romans tried hard to make the frontiers of their empire easy to defend. This was why they invaded Britain in 43 AD and why they pushed northwards into Scotland. Hadrian's Wall represents an expensive compromise, decided upon when no natural boundary could be found. It required a large permanent garrison whose wages helped to make Britain one of the most prosperous provinces in the Roman Empire. Chief beneficiaries of this wealth were the men whose ancestors had been leaders of the British before the Roman conquest. Like proper Romans they now lived in towns, turning the former tribal lands into great country estates (villas) and creating work for a middle class of craftsmen and traders, some of whom may also have become rich.

What was the typical Romano--British town like? Most towns were irregular in shape but laid out on a grid pattern, with two main streets crossing in the middle. Near the centre of the town would have been a forum. This was a large open space surrounded by shops, built in imitation of the famous forum in Rome. Facing its entrance would the basilica - a long, sometimes aisled, building which served as a meeting place for the town council and also as a home for its law courts. Nearby might be a suite of public baths, houses for the rich, a hotel (mansio) and further temples. Populations were probably not large by today's standards, although estimates vary. Four to five thousand people might have lived in Roman Exeter, whilst the population of Roman Britain as a whole might have been as large as three million (much the same as Henry VIII's England).

The empire in crisis

By the end of the second century AD the province of Britannia was thoroughly Romanised. A hundred years of administration by enlightened emperors like Trajan and Hadrian had brought peace and prosperity to many parts of the empire. But now the picture changed. A plague at the end of the 2nd Century AD created a growing shortage of labour and led to an increasing reliance on slaves brought in from outside the empire, who also made up an increasing proportion of the army. At first these immigrants were completely Romanised, but by the 4th Century AD they were entering in large groups, living under their own laws and rulers. Relations between these outsiders and the Roman administration were often tense and from time to time a group would go on a rampage. One such band - the Vandals - attacked Rome itself in 412 AD.

Under these pressures the character of the empire was transformed. The emperors became increasingly autocratic, discarding even the pretence of being first magistrate of a republic. Rival generals fought for the supreme power and parts of the empire seceded under their own rulers. Even the adoption of Christianity by Constantine the Great (312-337 AD) can be seen as a way of ensuring the obedience of his Christian subjects. Meanwhile his son and eventual successor Constantius II invented the world's first secret police (agentes in rebus) whose chief, Paul 'the Chain', was the most hated and feared man in the empire. What was happening can be studied in the faces of these rulers as they were now seen by the public. In place of the humanity and moderation captured in portraits of earlier emperors we see now only the terrifying gaze of the god on earth.

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The end of Roman Britain

The Roman system of defence relied upon mobility and good communications. When large areas of territory were effectively out of control, troops could not be moved rapidly from place to place. Distant frontiers like Hadrian's Wall had to be abandoned. In 407 AD the last regular troops were withdrawn, and three years later the leaders of Roman Britain were advised to make their own provision for defence.

The effect on the British economy was catastrophic. Without the soldiers' wages money effectively disappeared and the province lay open to the attacks of raiders from across the North Sea who we call the Anglo-Saxons. Already a nuisance for at least a century, now they came in increasing numbers, offering to fight for rival British leaders and taking control of large areas of land in the South East from their erstwhile employers. Wealthy Britons who wanted to stay alive had no option but to abandon the comfort of their villas and retreat to hill-forts abandoned since the Roman conquest. From strongholds like South Cadbury in Somerset, they fought a long but losing battle against the Saxon invaders. In the process one particularly brave commander and his Christian followers became immortalised as 'King' Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.

Illustration: A Legionary of the 2nd Century A.D.

A Legionary of the 2nd Century A.D.

Recruited at the age of seventeen years and serving for at least twenty five, one of the keys to Roman success was the world's first professional soldier.

Five thousand of these heavily armed infantry made up a legion. Their perfect discipline gave them long term superiority over enemies who were not prepared to undergo the same rigorous training.

Like the battleships and aircraft carriers of a modern navy the legions were usually stationed some way behind the empire's frontier. In many of Rome's later wars the actual fighting was done by auxiliary troops raised from the tribes who lived along the empire's borders.

As the ultimate weapon there were times when the legions suffered from inactivity. They also proved to be vulnerable when attacked on the march or when surrounded and unable to manouevre.

However, the worst damage to Rome's armies was done during civil wars between rival emperors. Lack of a system for ensuring the smooth transfer of power proved to be the empire's greatest political weakness.

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