An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire, 54 BC - AD 409

An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire, 54 BC - AD 409This remarkably complete history of Britain under Roman occupation is probably the only book an amateur needs if he wants a reasonably concise summary of what has to be an archaeological understanding of the period Mattingly is rightly critical of texts authored by the conqueror.He is careful to be clear that Roman Britain essentially the large army of occupation and the ruling caste that made up 2% of the population is not to be confused with a Britain available for plundering and exploitation by the Roman imperial machine.He corrects the prevailing view of the Romans as a civilising force which was derived from the aspirations of our own past imperial caste also perhaps 2% of the population while retaining a balanced view of the occupation This is not a polemic but a reasoned contribution to history.Rome ruled Britannia and had its effects on Scotland and Ireland for just over 450 years from Caesar s tentative invasion in 54BC The story is not one of stasis by any means but the exploitative nature of the Roman Empire is well argued on the evidence throughout.To make the story manageable, having given us an account of a brutal invasion, he divides the Roman occupation into three aspects, the military, the urban and the rural, and looks at the economy and the unoccupied zones through these lenses before giving a cogent view of collapse.The only word of warning to the general reader is that he is determined to give us as much data as possible He writes clearly but this is only partly a narrative in the standard historical manner It is also an account of the archaeology This by its very nature means lots of detail.The virtue is that he proves his points on the data The book has many informative maps and lists of artefacts and buildings The vice is that you are going to have to treat it in part as a reference work and be quite committed to the subject if you are to read it straight through.There is much intellectual meat in the book I find I cannot disagree with his judgements or at least disagreements are a questioning of perhaps a bare 1% and he is clear when he shifts into interpretation with sufficient data for us to come up with alternative explanations if we wish.It is also good to find a contemporary history book that tries to get out of the ideological traps we set ourselves and just tell it like it is For once, there is not the scurrying around trying to find a black Briton to make a point about race that would have meant nothing to the era.The one major lack perhaps, especially given his interest in the identity politics of Roman imperialism and occupation, is any serious awareness of gender in the broadest sense Even a brief note on Roman attitudes contrasted with Iron Age ones might have been useful.But this is a quibble The essential story stands as one of a brutal invasion that would not have put the Nazis to shame, succeeded by a complicated settlement involving seizure of assets, sales and grants of land to carpet baggers and collaborators and taxation to keep the machine going.My Nazi analogy is not entirely stupid no, there was no racial extermination though the destruction of the religious leadership comes close as does exterminatory strategies towards rebels but the imperialist model was much the same with a militarised economic system like Himmler s.Britain also comes across as particularly badly hit by Roman occupation compared to most other provinces, partly because it was at the end of the line for exploitation but also because exploitation was intensified in part by the lack of investment return compared to the costs of the military.A Romano British civilisation does emerge in due course outside the military but this is one of weak towns dependent on soldiery that cannot survive the collapse in the fifth century and of wealthy landowners The vast mass of the population adjusts but is not truly Romanised.The precursor to collapse was the Roman provincial military on one side and resentment at taxation on the other combining to drag the country into the struggles for power in the late Empire, Eventually when the military left, the spine of the economy collapsed.The speed of events suggests what a top down system it was with no roots in a nation The depradations of Scots and Irish and the handover of power to German mercenaries are not sufficient in themselves to explain what happened This looks like a failure of the 2%.With the removal of centralised control, the towns declined rapidly without their Gallic, Rhenish and military market and the country seems to have shifted back to a sub Roman variant of the Iron Age Kingdoms of the pre Roman era, albeit now requiring different defensive tactics.Mattingly points out the irony that it was the zones previously most resistent to Romanisation in the North and West that became most Roman in terms of cultural aspiration, owing a lot to Christian maintenance of Roman values, while the South and East fell to the Germans.Mattingly does not discuss the Germanisation process in any detail, courteously leaving that to the next author in the series, but the hint here is that the incoming warrior bands did not face a great deal of resistance from a population that linked Rome to taxation and slavery.Just as the Iron Age elite moved West to resist the Romans and may have ended up in Ireland or dead or enslaved, so the Roman elite followed a similar trajectory with fastnesses in the West If they had had the love of their people, they would probably not have needed to do this The role of Christianity is interesting because the evidence seems to show that it was present but only lightly held under the Empire and that the association of Christianity with Romanitas was an elite and military game Iron Age religious forms seem to have been sustained in the countryside.The rapid subsequent trumph of Christianity in the face of attacks by assorted barbarians and then the capture of those barbarians by the Church in a sort of spiritual occupation, first in the West and much later amongst the Germanics, is a story for the next volume.Rome is, in this sense, is like Schwarzenegger s Terminator It ultimately never seems to let up, reinventing itself after its own crises first through the medium of Christianity and then through the rediscovery of Imperialism in the Modern West, perhaps now as Washington s informal empire.It is remorseless and, as always, those in occupied territories simply have to sit out and have the ordure dropped on them by whichever 2% of the population is lucky enough to get its fingers on the economic and cultural buttons Christianity clearly made itself a useful button in bad times.Not that Mattingly is inclined to romanticise Iron Age life but only to point out that the narrative of its primitiveness does not entirely stand up and that much of the vaunted urban civilisation brought to Britain by Rome was for the benefit of a select few and the occupying forces.Nevertheless, once the initial punishing occupation was over and taking account of the vast tracts of land given over to the military s tribute and exploitation economy, it may be that there was a middle period when the country had some sort of equilibrium and progress was made.Unfortunately, all imperialisms are like the oozalum bird The sheer weight of the system and its demands for taxation eventually did for the Roman one as it has done for all others as economic sclerosis and political revolt From a certain point, Rome in Britain was stuffed.This is an excellent and scholarly book that is highly recommended with enough detail for you to make up your own mind on the analysis We have noted the superb maps and tables although there are no photographs while the notes for further reading are exhaustive. The Definitive History Of Roman Britain In The First Major Narative History Of The Subject In Than A Generation, David Mattingly Brings Life In Britain During Four Hundred Years Of Roman Domination Into Vivid Relief Drawing On A Wealth Of New Research And Cutting Through The Myths And Misunderstandings That Commonly Surround Most Perceptions Of Roman Britain, An Imperial Possession Describes A Remote And Culturally Diverse Province That Required A Heavy Military Presence Both To Keep Its Subjects In Order And To Exploit Its Resources For The Empire With His Wonderful Addition To The Penguin History Of Britain Series, Mattingly Shows Just How Interesting Life Could Be On The Outer Fringes Of The Roman Empire The Sunday Telegraph Extensively researched, this book was hard work for me I started it at least three times Mattingly is attempting to show that not all Brits delighted in the Roman occupation and not all adapted and or adopted Roman ways He does it with what can feel like excruciating archaeological detail Roman style villas Roman pottery His conclusion sums up This history of Britain in the Roman empire has replaced the simplistic paradigm of Romanization with the idea of discrepant experiences of empire What we must recognize, however, is that the existence of the Roman empire evoked a range of reactions from its subjects, including resistance or non conformity alongside compliance and participation. Turgid archaeological tome with interesting nuggets buried in a myriad of detail Main themes are that the occupation of Britain was just that and not some exercise in benign civilisation and that the experience differed among the military, urban and rural communities. I am a history buff and an Anglophile, but the length and repetitiveness of this book wore even me down after a while There s a lot of good information here, but it could have been cut by a hundred pages without losing much, and I found myself longing to rearrange chapters and sections to make it flow better The author s thesis is intriguing, but I wish it had been better argued. I wanted to enjoy this, but for some reason I didn t It was well written and had the kind of detail I particularly enjoy, so I m not sure what the problem was Perhaps I ll come back to it another time and be in the right frame of mind then. One of the problems with reading about British History pre Norman Conquest is the lack of story based history and subsequent reliance on archeaological history This results in drier reads and this book is no different However, comprehensive does not begin to describe the content it provides Mattingly no doubt knows about Britain in the Roman Empire NOT Roman Britain than most of it s inhabitants He has compiled surely the most modern and complete picture of this period to date This is the definitive work in Romano British history. I bought this book in England because I was fascinated by Bath and the Roman villa ruins we saw, and realized I knew next to nothing about Roman Britain This book was very informative, but heavy on archaeology and got extremely dry in parts, which made it hard to finish But, overall, it s a good book on Roman Britain that challenges the Romanization theory. Well done, though a bit dry and full of statistics On the other hand, the resources available are pretty minimum It will be interesting to see what evidence comes to light after another decades worth of archeological excavations The book is about the Romans in Britain than about the British, but then there s very little physical evidence about the early Britons available Thus far. A very informative look on Britain under the Romans based on both historical and archaeological sources of the latter, for obvious reasons Might be a bit heavy on the details if you re just looking for an introduction to the subject but I loved it.

Specialist in the archaeology of the Roman empire Fellow of the British Academy since 2003.

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  • Paperback
  • 622 pages
  • An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire, 54 BC - AD 409
  • David Mattingly
  • English
  • 10 February 2018
  • 9780140148220

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