The Impact of Civilization:
Life in Celtic and Roman Britain
‘Who the original inhabitants of Britain were, indigenous or foreign,’ wrote the Roman historian Tacitus, ‘is, as is usual among barbarians, little known.’ But one fact is certain: 500 years before the birth of Christ most of the people in what we now know as England were ‘Celts’ or, more accurately, Celtic-speaking tribesmen.
Who were these Celts? They were communities speaking a language ancestral to modern Welsh. In prehistoric times their forbears had spread from the steppes of southern Russia right across the face of central Europe north of the Alps. They must have been prolific: unable to find sufficient food to maintain themselves they searched for richer soil. In early classical times they had been warlike, for in 390 BC they sacked Rome and in 279 BC they devastated Delphi. But by 200 BC they were decisively defeated by the Romans and submitted to their rule.
During the first millennium BC the Celts occupied much of what is now Austria from the upper reaches of the Danube as far as Czechoslovakia (now known as to two countries of the Czech Republic & Slovakia), Bavaria and Switzerland. Still seeking new lands to conquer or in which to settle, they expanded into Belgium and France, giving them the name of Gaul, and parts of Spain and Portugal. Coming from the European mainland they crossed the straits of Dover (narrower then than they are today) or even ventured from the Low Countries in their coracles or wooden boats across the North Sea.
Basically the Celts were colonists in the same sense as the Pilgrim Fathers. For although they had at times to fight for what they needed, they were hardly warriors like the Romans, the Franks, the Germans, the Visigoths and the Vandals of their age, at any rate once they had settled. The Welsh monk Gildas, himself a Celt, was to write much later that they were ‘unwarlike’ and ‘completely ignorant of the practice of war’.(1) It is true that they possessed two-wheeled chariots drawn by ponies, which in battle they drove up and down to frighten their enemy before they dismounted and wielded their daggers, lances and slings. Though they fought their way into maritime regions such as east Yorkshire and parts of Wales, their settlement was always a cumulative process, mingling with the native population. In the course of colonizing much of what was to become England (they called it Albion) they built hill forts, no doubt effective enough against cattle raiders, but useless to fend off trained soldiers. The Roman commander-in-chief, Julius Caesar, who was to defeat the Celts both in Gaul and in the country he named Britannia, noted that ‘the Britons call it a fort [oppidurn] when they have defended a tract of dense woodland with a rampart and a ditch’. (2)
The Celtic forts were not planned systematically to withstand an invading army. Even Maiden Castle in Dorset, which has been described as ‘a stupendous fortress’ (its outlines may still be seen today), presented little difficulty to the Roman army. By the time the Celts had found their way by sea to the island that was thought to be the last outpost of the western world and settled down with their wives and families either upon the light upland and forest-free soils such as constituted Salisbury Plain, or upon the gravel of river banks, they behaved as peasants peacefully cultivating their fields, not seriously organized for war. The Celtic aristocrats – that is to say, the tribal chieftains and their relatives and companions (equites) – sublimated their martial instincts into hunting; it has been said that for them ‘fighting was a sport rather than a necessity’. (3) Though in the last millennium before Christ swords and spears were being manufactured by bronze founders and iron forgers, what the mass of the Celts appreciated most were the axes and sickles, buckets and cauldrons which helped them to sustain their modest agricultural life.
Undoubtedly the country was populated many thousands of years before the Celts arrived: first with the inhabitants of what is called the Old Stone Age, who fed themselves by hunting or grubbing up wild fruit and vegetables and dwelt in caves that were warm in winter and cool in summer. Later came the pastoralists who kept their own flocks and herds and also cultivated grain crops. After that a succession of immigrants appeared who knew first of copper, then of bronze (copper with the addition of tin) and finally of iron. It was during the Iron Age (600-500 BC) that Britain became a largely Celtic country.
The Celts practised mixed farming, which well before their time had been the basis of subsistence. Their settlements were single farms or hamlets of round wooden houses. Land for cultivation was parcelled into squarish small fields, divided by banks, which can still be observed through the magic eyes of air photography. They used foot ploughs or light ploughs drawn by a couple of oxen, which did little more than scratch the surface of the soil without turning the sod. Their food was supplemented by hunting and fishing. No towns in the modem sense of the word existed, though some of the hill forts served as tribal centres.
The Celtic settlements had spinning and weaving, basketry and carpentry. Pots could be made at home, but pottery manufacturing centres existed, whose goods were distributed by pack-horse. Bronze, which was normally cast, was again the work of specialists. Bronze and iron utensils were manufactured and sold by travelling metaismiths, except that in the case of tribal chieftains a workshop would have been maintained for the production of weapons as well as other high-class goods. Lead was mined, notably in the Mendip hills, its exploitation being first seriously undertaken by the Romans; from it silver was produced by the method called cupellation, the cupel being a small flat circular vessel employed for assaying and refining.
When in the second half of the fourth century BC a Greek explorer, Pytheas by name, who had been commissioned to discover new trade routes, reached present-day Cornwall from Marseilles, he noted that tin was mined there and also in the Isle of Wight. Forty years later another Greek traveller reported that ingots of tin, smelted in Cornwall and intended for export, were sent to St Michael’s Mount (near Penzance) where they were bartered for goods coming from the Roman world. Three centuries after this the Greek geographer Strabo noted that wheat, cattle, minerals (gold, silver, iron), hides, slaves and hunting dogs were exported, while imports included bracelets and necklaces, amber, glassware and ‘suchlike trifles’; wine was largely imported from Italy. Thus the land which later came to be known as England was an early example of an underdeveloped country exporting raw materials to pay for manufactured goods, mostly of a luxury class.
We may therefore picture the Celtic-speaking peasant farmers – the first inhabitants of England about whom we know anything much – working, sleeping and eating in round huts of timber and cob (that is, clay-coated wattle work) with just one largish living-room and under it a number of cells or pits for store rooms, kilns and privies. The roofs were thatched; and since drier soil of chalk or gravel or limestone was preferred for building-sites, floors and pits were less liable to damp than if they stood on clay. Around the huts would be found pasture for livestock, except where the farmsteads were situated on high ground whence the cattle could be driven down the valleys to graze. These early settlers avoided the forests that covered much of the country, growing especially on the clays between the rivers and their gravels, for example in most of London and the Home Counties.
After a purely pastoral life receded and the hoe gradually gave way to the plough, women who might previously have worked alongside their menfolk in the fields would spend more time indoors weaving or making pottery. The kinds of grain that were grown have been discovered: oats and rye most often in the north, but a great deal of barley and also wheat. The finding of brooches, bracelets, golden neck rings and other jewellery that can be dated from pre-Roman times suggests that a number of wealthy people existed – presumably chieftains, their women and their retinue. On festive occasions wines were drunk as well as mead, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented honey and water, which has been called hyperbolically the Celtic champagne. Much later the Venerable Bede was to write in his celebrated History of the English Church and People that vines were cultivated in various parts of the country; Verica, one of the Celtic tribal chieftains, displayed upon his coinage a vine leaf as his emblem. Since Verica ruled over modern Sussex perhaps the medium-sweet wine produced there today was anticipated by the Celts. As to industry, iron was mined in Sussex and elsewhere, while copper had been known from at least 2000 BC. By Roman standards, however, Celtic Britain was far from rich. Disparagingly Cicero was to assert – wrongly – that neither silver nor gold came from Britain and that its slaves were uneducated. By and large it was a self-sufficient economy, though the export of corn suggests that a surplus was available in a good season.
Nevertheless it is easy to exaggerate the primitiveness and poverty of Britain as compared with the material strength of republican Rome. Julius Caesar remarked on the temperate climate, warmer than that in Gaul. Tacitus, writing during the early Roman Empire, noted that severity of cold was unknown. Consequently with the exception of olives and other trees and plants that flourished in hotter climates the soil yielded ‘and even abundantly all ordinary produce’. The numerous rivers were full of edible fish including salmon; oysters might harbour pearls, and from cockles a red dye was extracted. Caesar, who collected this part of his information at second hand, wrote that the population was remarkably big and the ground thickly covered with homesteads. Other foreigners who visited the country in Celtic times described the male inhabitants as tall and fair with blue eyes, tall at any rate in comparison with the darker Mediterranean’peoples. They were clean-shaven, but kept their hair long and had graceful flowing moustaches. They did not wear hats or caps; they dressed in brightly coloured clothes and leather shoes or sandals.
While the men ploughed the land or looked after their flocks the women spun and wove woollen cloth or linen fabrics out of which to make clothes, and converted into bread the corn, which was harvested before it was ripe and dried in kilns and ovens; for this purpose they used small hand-mills or querns and cooked hot food for their menfolk on tripods, pyrites being sparked off by flint or tinder. Such evidence as we have suggests that the Celtic women were treated as equals in a way not followed until recent times. It is true that in the notes collected by Caesar he recorded that wives were shared between ten or twelve men, but it is more likely that the Celts had at any rate principal wives. In aristocratic society archaeology appears to show that women were accorded parity with men. When the Romans finally conquered the country and transformed it into an imperial province, two of the biggest tribes were ruled by queens who fought from their chariots just as the kings did. One of them, Queen Boudicca of the Iceni, had a huge frame, a terrifying aspect, a harsh voice and red hair that reached to her knees – formidable indeed.(4)
Comparatively little is positively known about the tribal life of the Celts. But it is likely that the land belonged to the tribe as a whole rather than to individuals, although cattle were private property. Serfdom and slavery existed, chiefly of men who had been captured in war and degraded. Each tribe had its gods, whose assistance was invoked in moments of crisis. The Celts believed in an afterlife; the soul, they thought, was immortal and would be transferred to the bodies of living men after death. According to Diodorus, a Sicilian historian who wrote during the first century after Christ, this doctrine of the transmigration of souls was a tenet of the Druids, a privileged priestly caste, whose headquarters lay in the island of Anglesey. In the memories of the Druids were stored the customary laws of the Celts, although the tribal chieftains also had a part to play. The Druids were not priests in temples (the idea that they were connected with Stonehenge has long been exploded) but are recorded as worshipping in groves; their ceremonies, which included the sacrifice of human lives as well as those of animals, were intended to placate their various gods and goddesses. Their influence on the Celts was profound and they must have been the best-educated men in Britain.
During the centuries before the birth of Christ the Belgic immigrants crossed into Britain from western Gaul. These, the only Celts whose invasion is recorded in Greek or Latin documents, came over from the nearest position in the Belgic territories, that lying to the north-west of the lower river Seine. In his book on the conquest of Gaul Julius Caesar stated that they were the bravest of the Celts because ‘they were the least often visited by merchants with enervating luxuries for sale’. He also tells us in the notes he collected before his expedition there that the coast of Britain was inhabited by Belgic immigrants ‘who came to plunder and make war . . . and later settled down to till the soil’. (Caesar was concerned with them because it was from the Belgic areas of Britain that the main resistance to his forces came.) They colonized modern Kent and also the drift soils north of the Thames. They dominated much of the south-east, but avoided the difficult country in the Sussex Weald. Others were in Hampshire and Wiltshire; the Parisi, neighbours of the Belgae from the Seine valley, had earlier occupied eastern parts of Yorkshire.
These tribes made a remarkable contribution to economic and cultural progress in their new homes. They introduced a gold coinage (later silver and also copper) from Gaulish models based on Greek or Macedonian; they made pottery on the true potter’s wheel; they had longer and wider ploughs with shares (cutting blades) constructed of iron which could exploit heavier soils than before; and their blacksmiths produced stronger iron axes with which forests could be cleared. Also like the earlier Celtic settlers, they practised what is known to archaeologists as the La Tène art style (La Tène was a Celtic lake-side site in Switzerland) with abstract patterns, freely flowing curves and fantastic or humorous reliefs of animals and human faces.
Of course the Romans regarded the Celts as barbarians, as they did everyone but themselves. But in fact, as Dr John Corcoran wrote, ‘in general, the technological level of the La Tène Celts, with very few exceptions was equal to, and in some matters surpassed, that of the Romans’.(5) The Belgic settlements were never true towns, but they certainly had rural markets and in good years the export of wheat enabled them to pay for imported luxuries.
The Celts, it is clear, were virtually illiterate, but otherwise they certainly should not be described as barbarians. Their art was vigorous and of a higher quality than much that the Romans could produce. They owned strong ploughs, four-wheeled carts and beautifully shaped pots. Their men shaved with razors, using oil instead of soap. Their women had bronze dress-fasteners to hold together their colourful clothes, dyed purple, green or crimson, and they had polished metal mirrors in which to contemplate their looks. The men exercised with long swords, played a kind of hockey and amused themselves with fighting cocks and dice. They were also musical, possessing flutes, horns and trumpets. They drank wine, cooked with olive oil, used knives and spoons (but not forks) to eat with at meals, and owned table lamps. Thus the standards and culture among the Celts who settled in the area that was to become England were far from contemptible. In spite of the short lives they must have lived, they enjoyed an equable climate, a cultivable soil and varied recreations.
In the Roman republic little was known about the offshore island. It was partly for this reason that Julius Caesar, whose information was sparse and largely inaccurate, carried out a reconnaissance in force during 55 BC. On the basis of what he learned and because he believed that a full-scale military operation would strengthen his hold on Gaul, he organized a much bigger expedition in the following year to which he committed legions, 2,000 cavalry and over 800 ships: his aim surely was conquest. But the Belgic charioteers resisted him as far as they could; though they were beaten, Caesar decided to withdraw after imposing the best terms obtainable. His conclusion was that the island was valuable for its corn and slaves. Hearing after his victories there that trouble was brewing in Gaul, from which he had launched his invasion, and since, as he wrote, when the summer was over ‘the Britons could easily hold out for the short time that remained’, he recrossed the Channel with his ships crowded full of hostages and prisoners intended as slaves, and relied on promises given him by the kings of the Celtic tribes that they would pay an annual tribute to Rome. His great-nephew and successor, Octavius, who assumed the title of Emperor Augustus, preferred to reinforce the army in Gaul rather than bother with the Britons. So it was not until nearly a century later that Britain became a province of the Roman Empire.
During the interval, however, commercial relations between Britain and the European mainland grew closer; Strabo’s list of exports and imports applies to this period. Merchants visited Britain from the Rhineland and Spain as well as from Gaul and Italy. Wine, pottery, glassware and metalwork were brought there in considerable quantities, while the Roman authorities must have received intelligence that the output of food in the island was sufficient to maintain a permanent garrison and that its military needs could be supplemented by the exploitation of local resources. So it was resolved that it would be cheaper to defend the western extremity of the Roman Empire by stationing a garrison in Britain than by strengthening the forces occupying Gaul, which had been required to provide food for the Rhineland as well as the Roman army there and its own inhabitants. It was also hoped that gold and silver would be discovered in the new province. Thus it was partly for economic reasons that the Romans were induced to subdue Britain by conquest in AD 43, as Julius Caesar had intended.
The subjugation of Britain had been on the agenda of the Roman emperors for nearly a century when Claudius determined to put it into effect. He dispatched four legions and auxiliary troops amounting to about 40,000 men, who rapidly overcame the Celts because they were disunited. Now the mists began to lift from the history of the country that Caesar had named Britain. It was found to be divided into fifteen principal Celtic kingdoms: they lay thicker in the south than in the north and it was in the south-east, where the Belgic tribes had chiefly settled, that the people were most cultured and civilized and agriculture farthest advanced. Verulamium (near modern St Albans) was the capital of the most powerful Belgic tribe, the Catuvellauni, who unsuccessfully battled against the Roman army. After the conquest the Romans garrisoned the north with bases at Chester and York, also at Lincoln in the Midlands and Caerleon in south Wales. The victors left the rest of the country in the hands of the Celtic or British tribal communities (civitates) who had to pay taxes and obey the orders of the Roman Governor and Procurator. During the first century after the conquest, chiefly because of Celtic rebellions, the romanization of Britain proceeded slowly.
Rome’s most significant contributions to the social and economic development of the country were the building of towns and the introduction of ‘villas’, that is to say, landed estates. It has been a matter for argument how far towns can be said to have existed before the coming of the Romans. Undoubtedly the Celtic kings possessed fortified wooden strongholds, which were called in Latin oppida, but these were nothing like the Roman towns or cities, where sophisticated centrally-heated buildings, markets, streets and shops were to be found. Sometimes, however, Romano-British towns were constructed on or near the sites of these oppida, though generally the new towns were erected in valleys and not on hill tops. The Romans first built four towns or coloniae specifically for the benefit of their retired legionaries: they were Colchester, Lincoln, Gloucester and later York. The only town which is known to have been given a municipal status was Verulamium; that is to say, it was provided with a charter conferring Latin citizenship on its inhabitants. All the rest of the towns in Roman Britain were built with the help of Roman technology but at the expense of the Britons. Twelve of them were capital cities, the cantonal centres of tribal areas with specific rights and duties.
What were these towns like and how many of them were there? About fifty towns are known to have been distributed in Kent, in southern England (as it was to become), around the mouth of the river Severn and a few, such as Leicester and Aldborough, in the Midlands and north. They were laid out in a chequer-board pattern surrounded, though seldom at the start, by walls and excellently served by road. Each town had a city hall (basilica) and a forum, which was used as a civic assembly and a market-place. The houses, rectangular in shape, were ordinarily built of local materials such as stone or timber, with the rooms grouped round a court or corridor, with thatched roofs, painted plaster walls and in some cases tiled mosaic floors. Shops were normally the quarters of craftsmen who made goods to order and lived either above the premises or at the back. The houses rarely contained bathrooms, but invariably a bath house was built in each town with an aqueduct, drains and sewers: there women bathed in the mornings and men in the afternoons and evenings. The sort of shops that were established along the main streets were butchers, blacksmiths, tanners, dyers, shoe-makers, potters, glass-makers and wine shops. A number of towns had amphitheatres large enough to hold their whole population. They also contained temples, where the gods worshipped included Roman emperors, who were chief priests when they were alive and deified after they were dead; sometimes Celtic and Roman deities were fused, such as Minerva, the versatile Roman goddess, and Sul, the Celtic sun god.
Most of these towns were quite small: in the forums all the citizens could gather, as they had done in the famous Greek city-states. In fact most Romano-British towns were in size and population what would be regarded today as modest villages. It has been estimated that Silchester in Hampshire, capital of the Atrebates tribe, the town which has been most thoroughly examined by archaeologists, contained some 150 buildings and a population of only about 1,200 people. A modern geographer has suggested that all the Romano-British towns, if put together, would have covered but four square miles.(6)
One town about which we know less than we should like is London. Although the word itself is Celtic and a trading settlement on the north bank of the Thames may have existed before the arrival of Claudius, as a city it was a Roman foundation. Tacitus wrote that by the middle of the first century AD it was crowded with merchants and a great centre of commerce: evidently it had become a busy entrepôt at the lowest point where the Thames could be bridged. Fifteen years after the Roman conquest it was destroyed by Queen Boudicca when she and her tribe rose against the Romans in AD 60. After her defeat London was rebuilt as a more civilized city, with an efficient draining system, an adequate water supply and buildings of timber, stone and brick. A meeting-place of no fewer than six main roads, London grew to be an active trading port, importing oil and wine and exporting corn and slaves. Its estimated population of 20,000 or 30,000 would have made it the fifth largest town in the northern provinces of the Roman Empire. It contained the first and only mint known to have been established by the Romans in Britain. The Procurator or Finance Officer, Gaius Julius Alpinus Classicanus, who was sent to Britain by the Emperor Nero after Boudicca had been defeated, lived in London and was buried there; but what the precise legal status of the city was has not yet been resolved. In the fifth century, after the Romans had left, London was for a time a derelict port inhabited by squatters.
So much has been written about the Roman towns of Britain that one is liable to have an exaggerated impression of their economic importance. Apart from the mining of minerals, the manufacture of glass and the making of pottery, industry, as it is now known, scarcely existed: Britain was almost entirely an agricultural country. Although a good deal of small-scale manufacture took place in urban workshops, such as the making of tools, agricultural implements and some textiles, many of the people who lived in the towns (which were, as has already been indicated, the size of small modern villages) went out from them each day to work in neighbouring fields and came back to the protection of the town walls at night. The bulk of the population was engaged in farming: the production of food was stimulated by the constant demands of the Roman garrison. Taxes were chiefly paid in corn (annona). The well-to-do spent more of their time and money on landed estates than in the cities. And one may hazard the guess that most towns were much like, say, Welshpool today, though with a population half its size, where farmers gather on market days to sell their produce, wholesale or retail, to do some shopping and to quench their thirsts in inns which stay open all the afternoon for their benefit.
Whereas the towns may be dated back to an early stage of the Roman occupation, the ‘villas’, focal points of landed estates of 1,000 to 2,000 acres belonging to men of wealth and enterprise, evolved more slowly and were mostly confined to lowland areas with rich and ample arable land. The highlands were largely, but not entirely, pastoral. A few villas developed out of the isolated farmsteads that were characteristic of the pre-Roman Celtic period. The owners would also have town houses and could afford to employ a bailiff, servants, labourers and domestic slaves. The villa or main house on the estate usually had six to nine rooms distributed around a courtyard with no upper storey, though some smaller farmhouses were also called villas. The family and its serfs or slaves lived in the villa, while farm buildings and huts accommodated numerous agricultural labourers nearby. Villas have been identified chiefly in Kent and south-eastern England; few have been located in Devonshire or Cornwall, on Salisbury Plain or in the fenlands, which the Romans started to drain. Normally villas were clustered in the neighbourhood of towns where their surplus produce could be sold. These country estates were not as delectable as in other parts of the Roman Empire. Only at Fishbourne in Sussex has a palace or ‘classical luxury villa’ been found: that no doubt was owned either by a high Roman official or a client king.
On the open fields belonging to these large estates a fair-sized plough with a coulter and a mould-board to throw the soil into ridges and furrows would have been used. The bulk of the population, however, who were either smallholders, tenant farmers or villagers, lived in round or square cottages built with wood or stone and had pits for storage. They occupied only a few acres and cultivated the less promising ground on chalk or gravel, employing the light wheel-less scratch plough, its wooden shares tipped with iron, that had been employed by their ancestors. Furthermore, by contrast with the large open fields on the villa estates the arable land cultivated by the poorer classes was still divided into enclosed rectangular plots, an acre or two in extent, which yielded barely enough food to live on.
It was once thought that the Romans, being essentially town dwellers, brought no agricultural improvements to Celtic Britain. But now ploughs with large coulters and mould-boards, reliable axes, iron-tipped spades, rakes, balanced sickles and two-handed scythes are all attributed to them,(7) though the new type of plough which needed eight oxen to draw it may have been used only on villa estates. A disadvantage to agriculture, however, were the towns and roads the Romans built, which introduced numerous kinds of common weeds. On the other hand, the systems of roads and the enforcement of peace made the land more accessible and allowed it to be more intensively worked.
Although Britain was essentially an agricultural province capable of supplying enough food for their army, the Romans also encouraged the development of mining and industry, minerals being by law government property. The hoped-for precious metals were discovered, but only on a limited scale. At Dolaucauthi in Carmarthenshire were, as far as is known, the only gold mines. Whether they were worked by slaves under the direct supervision of the Roman army or handed over to concessionaires under an imperial licence is uncertain, but plainly the technical expertise must have been provided by Roman engineers and most of the profits went to the Roman emperors, even if some of the gold was handled and sold by goldsmiths in British towns. The mining and cupellation of silver from lead was, to begin with, carried out under military management in the Mendip hills, Derbyshire and elsewhere, but later was leased out to concessionaires. Lead was also alloyed with tin to produce pewter mugs and dishes during the last two centuries of the Roman occupation. Some coal was mined. Tin, for which Britain had been known from earlier times, was not in great demand until the Spanish industry dried up in the course of the third century. Though domestic consumption increased, tin was not to any large extent exported.
The one manufacturing industry that developed on a widening scale was pottery, made by wheel out of the clay to be found in many parts of Britain. The industry was stimulated by the fact that cheap Samian ware, imported in quantity from Gaul and elsewhere in Europe, ceased for various reasons to be available towards the end of the second century. The best-known British pottery came from Castor on Nene (near Peterborough) and from the New Forest. The Castor pottery, which consisted chiefly of drinking cups, was highly decorative, often painted with scenes of hunts, gladiatorial combats and chariot races, while the New Forest pottery was simpler and utilitarian since it was largely intended as kitchenware, although it also furnished flagons, goblets and vases. Whereas the manufacture in the Castor district was organized on a big scale, the New Forest potters were independent craftsmen who can be pictured as carrying their wares on the backs of donkeys and selling them directly in neighbouring villages. It is known that the potteries in Dorset, Shropshire and Yorkshire served the needs of the Roman army under contract as well as supplying civilian markets. Some of the so-called villas also had small pottery works.
The character of Roman Britain was by no means uniform. The lowland zone was comparatively densely populated and was inhabited principally by peaceful farmers or wealthy landowners looking after the cultivation of their estates or dwelling in neighbouring towns. The west Midlands and Wales were also fairly thickly populated, but the east Midlands and East Anglia were less so. The highland zone, that is to say, the area lying to the north of a line stretching from the mouth of the Severn to the Humber or Tees, lacked both towns and villas: the inhabitants were mainly shepherds, who lived in hill-top villages; they tended their flocks in the valleys and were little affected by Roman civilization or culture. On the whole, the north-west and Wales were less romanized than the east and the northeast, and the extreme north was under direct military control. What the total population of the country was is a question of inspired guesswork: recent research suggests that in the second century it might have been as high as five million.(8) The evidence of air photography indicates that more people lived in the south than in the north.
What was consolidated during nearly 400 years of Roman occupation was a class society. In the cantonal capitals the administrative class would have spoken Latin, which was the language of the army, commerce and, in its later stages, Christianity. For all official purposes, too, Latin must have been used because Celtic had virtually no script. The upper and middle classes were for the most part bilingual, but the villagers in the lowlands knew little or no Latin and in the highlands none at all. It has been estimated that some 800 Latin words were borrowed by the Celtic language, such as brassica, fibula and papyrus, a fact which has been held to prove that the language differed importantly from that of the western Empire in general and Gaul in particular. The notion that in Roman Britain the common people all spoke Latin and lived comfortably in centrally-heated houses has long been discarded. In fact the distinguished historian R.G. Collingwood suggested that ‘as in northern Gaul and Germany the economic development of Britain may have been towards converting free peasants into coloni of great proprietors’. The gap between the rich with their ‘villas’ and town houses and the poor living on a subsistence level in small villages or hamlets was vast. As to slaves, it is known that their children were exposed to die.
For many years the British people lived and worked securely enough under the protective screen of the Roman army. According to Tacitus, they were reconciled to paying their taxes and bore other burdens imposed on them without flinching. For food they had sufficient corn to make bread, meat from farm animals, fish – chiefly shellfish but also river fish such as pike, perch, dace and eels; their fruit included apples, plums, wild strawberries, raspberries and blackberries; and cultivated vegetables, notably peas, parsnips, radishes, carrots and celery, all introduced by the Romans. Salt, obtained either by being boiled from the sea or dug from salt springs at places like modern Droitwich, was plentiful and essential for preserving food during the autumn and winter. About the only kind of sweetening was procured from honey; as sugar was unknown, British teeth were relatively free from caries. Cooking was done on a charcoal fire raised on a stone hearth.
Men wore tunics and breeches, but not long trousers, although these had been worn by earlier Celts. Tacitus tells us that the loose-flowing Roman robe known as the toga, made of white wool, became fashionable. Shaving was done with bronze or iron razors and must have been a slow and painful process, out of which barbers could earn a regular living. It was not until the second quarter of the second century that beards were commonly worn. Women had all or most of the aids to beauty familiar to them in recent times: mirrors, face powder, rouge, tweezers, combs and perfumes. Wealthy ladies had slave girls to look after them. If they needed to recuperate from the duty of supervising the housework they and their husbands could visit and enjoy the hot springs at Bath and Buxton, celebrated holiday resorts then and of the future. At home dogs and cats were kept, but not as pets. Dogs were indigenous and, being needed for hunting, were valuable exports; cats were introduced by the Romans to cope with mice. Early Welsh laws speak of ‘a perfect cat, perfect of ear, eye, teeth, claw, without marks of fire, and it should kill mice and not devour its kittens, and should not go caterwauling every new moon’, while big dogs were told to catch and fetch.(9)
For the well-to-do at any rate plenty of entertainment was available. Pantomimes were performed in the theatres and bull-baiting, cock-fighting and gladiatorial displays in the amphitheatres. Dinner parties were given at home and restaurants could be patronized in the towns. But most of these leisure activities did not stretch far downwards. The agricultural labourer earned extremely modest wages, though his food was provided for him: he had to work for five days to buy a pair of boots.
Life was short, for medical knowledge was limited. The average expectation of life at birth was thirty years at the most; so consoling superstitions abounded. The Romans were relatively tolerant about them, though they insisted on the worship of dead emperors and wiped out the Druids, not because they disapproved of their human sacrifices but because they were thought to have provoked Celtic opposition to rule by their conquerors. Christianity penetrated into the country during the fourth century – a small church of that date was discovered at Silchester – but took hold slowly. It boasted its martyrs, including St Alban, who was put to death at the beginning of the fourth century. A notable heretic in Roman Britain was Pelagius, who was accused of questioning the omnipotence of God by propagating the doctrine of free will. Mithraism, which pictured life as an unending struggle between good and evil, was also imported from the east and was a cult that appealed particularly to soldiers and the merchant class. Whether in pagan or in Christian terms, the belief in an afterlife was general; grave goods, which included both food and ornaments, have been discovered in cemeteries and crematoriums: they bear witness to the conviction that the dead needed provisions to carry with them on their journey to the other side.
Naturally, generalizations about Roman Britain are not all valid at the same time. It has to be remembered that the military occupation lasted for nearly 400 years, as long a period as that from the accession of Queen Elizabeth I to the accession of Queen Elizabeth II. Roman economic and social practices took hold of the Celts slowly and in some cases hardly at all. For instance, it was not until the third century that British pottery and pewter came into big demand. After an era of general prosperity in the second century inflation and the depreciation of the currency caused a severe depression, which Diocletian vainly tried to remedy by publishing an edict in 301, freezing prices and wages throughout his empire. The rebuilding and enlargement of ‘villas’ which took place in the fourth century can be interpreted as showing a fairly rapid recovery in Britain. By the middle of that century a flight both of capital and labour is believed to have taken place from Gaul, which was then being attacked both by the Franks and the Teutons, into what was thought to be the safer shelter of Britain. Thus from the point of view of the national economy the fourth century was a flourishing age, though the chief beneficiaries were the upper classes.
- Gildas, de excidio Britanniae, ed. Hugh Williams (1901), p. 33
- R. G. Collingwood, Roman Britain (7), p. 81
- Nora Chadwick, The Celts (1970), p. 136
- Cit. Dio Cassius, ibid., p. 5o
- Introduction to Chadwick, op. cit., p. 38
- George C. Boon, Silchester: the Roman Town of Calleva (1974), p. 53 etc; E.W.Gilbert, ‘The Human Geography of Roman Britain’, in H. C. Darby, Historical Geography of England before 1800 (1969), p. 65
- Sheppard Frere, Britannia (1978), p. 317; cf. Shiman Applebaum, ‘Agriculture in Roman Britain’, Agricultural History Review, vi (158), p. 73
- Peter Salway, Roman Britain (1981), p. 544
- Nora Chadwick, Celtic Britain (1963), pp. 88, 91