Ancient History & Civilisation



Hadrian’s Wall must have been a decidedly undesirable posting for a soldier in the Roman army. Many a British schoolchild has reflected on just how undesirable it was, with the help of W. H. Auden’s engaging piece of doggerel, ‘Roman Wall Blues’:

Over the heather the wet wind blows

I’ve lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.

The rain comes pattering out of the sky

I’m a Wall soldier; I don’t know why.

The mist sweeps over the hard grey stone

My girl’s in Tungria; I sleep alone …

And so it goes on, for a few more verses, in much the same vein.

What neither the children nor, I suspect, most of their teachers have often realised is that this poem – as its title hints – was originally a song, with music by Benjamin Britten (the score, once believed lost, has recently been re-discovered – showing that Britten could be very ‘Blues-y’ indeed). It was written to be part of a radio documentary for the Home Service broadcast in 1937, on the ancient and modern history of the Wall. In fact, this Reithian background probably explains some of the poem’s coyness: when Auden goes on to characterise an irritating Christian mess-mate as being against ‘kissing’ (‘There’d be no kissing if he had his wish’), it’s hard not to imagine that Auden had something a bit more raunchy in mind.

Auden’s script of the whole programme survives intact. It is an imaginative interweaving of two stories. The first features a motley family of tourists making a visit to the fort at Housesteads: the kids are enthralled by their guidebook’s account of the building of the Wall; Dad refuses to be impressed (‘I’m glad they put up notices to tell you what’s what. It looks to me more like a housing estate after the builder’s gone broke’). The second story, told in song and spoken dialogue, is that of the Roman garrison, with their discomforts and troubles, lice and all. It ends on an unsettling note, as Auden poses the question that dogs so many histories of Roman Britain: whose side are we on in this conflict between invader and native? Auden’s answer is bleak and even-handed. There is little to choose between Romans and Britons and not much moral difference between (Roman) imperialism and (native) barbarity: ‘That man is born a savage, there needs no other proof than the Roman Wall. It characterizes both nations as robbers and murderers’. The very last line of the script must have struck home in the late 1930s: ‘Whoever deprives an unoffending man of his right, is a barbarian’.

The fact that Auden’s lyrics are less well known now than they were twenty or thirty years ago has little to do with changing tastes in poetry, and not much to do with any decline of Classics from the school syllabus (the Romans in Britain still have a secure place in Key Stage 2 of the National Curriculum). It has more to do with the fact that teachers can now offer their pupils authentic Roman voices from the Wall and dispense with Auden’s ventriloquism. These voices come from the famous documents that since the 1970s have been unearthed at the fort of Vindolanda. Never mind the fact that Vindolanda is actually a mile south of the Wall, or that the overwhelming majority of the preserved texts date from a period before it was even built. The documents discovered there, written on small sheets of wood – letters, complaints, lists and accounts – bring us much closer to real Roman soldiers than Auden ever could. How far they have captured the scholarly and popular imagination is shown by a television vote on Britain’s ‘Top Ten Treasures’ in 2003. BBC viewers put them second only to the finds from Sutton Hoo.

Out of the hundreds of texts so far discovered, the popular favourite is a letter from the wife of one officer to another, inviting her to a birthday celebration (‘I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival’). This has been a godsend to teachers looking for a female angle in the generally blokeish world of Roman military history. It has also launched a load of nonsense about just how like us the Romans were (they even had birthday parties …). More interesting are the apparently more austere documents. A ‘Strength Report’, for example, of the cohort garrisoning Vindolanda at the end of the first century AD gives the lie to our usual image of cohesive, individual units of the Roman army, based all together at a single camp. Out of the 750 soldiers who made up this cohort, more than half were absent from base: including over 300 at the neighbouring fort at Corbridge, a handful on some business in Gaul, eleven in York ‘to collect the pay’. When you subtract the 15 sick, the six wounded and the ten squaddies with an eye infection, only 265 at Vindolanda were ‘fit for active service’. Other documents in the collection give the Roman view of the military capabilities of the ‘bloody Brits’ (Brittunculi), list the impressive quantity of poultry consumed in the officers’ mess, request that hunting nets be sent, or record the dispatch of new underwear.

David Mattingly’s An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire is by no means the first history of Roman Britain to make use of these documents. But it is the first major historical synthesis to integrate the implications of the Vindolanda texts into its whole interpretation of the province. Thanks to these texts, Mattingly’s views about the character of the military zone are much more nuanced than that of most of his predecessors. He paints a picture of a ‘community of soldiers’ in Britain (about 55,000 in all in the second century AD) that is unlike our usual vision of an army in a war zone. It was all much more ‘family friendly’ than we would expect (other finds at Vindolanda include a good number of children’s shoes), with closer social and domestic links to the communities outside the garrison walls. ‘The old belief’, he stresses, ‘in a rigid demarcation between soldiers inside and civilians outside seems much less acceptable.’

As part of this approach he boldly – and possibly unwisely – takes the number of prostitutes supplied by the twentieth-century Japanese army command to their troops (a ration of one per forty soldiers) and adds a total of 1,375 prostitutes to the population of the Roman province.

Mattingly seems to have two aims for his book: that it should both be a work of reference and make a radical contribution to our understanding of Britain under Roman rule. In some respects that combination works well. He avoids the relentless narrative history that so many textbooks offer (‘Chapter 22: The Third-Century Crisis’), giving instead a brisk chronological account followed by a series of thematic chapters on different aspects of the subject, from the uncertain success of Romano-British towns, through conflicts of religion, to the economy of the countryside. There is some excellent analysis here, and a refreshing fearlessness in admitting the fragility of much of our archaeological evidence. He is more open than many, for example, to some healthy scepticism about the history and function of the Roman ‘palace’ at Fishbourne, which is usually assumed without much argument to be the residence of the British king, and Roman ally, Togidubnus. And Mattingly very properly refuses to be drawn to identify the cathedral of the fourth-century AD bishopric of London: one favourite candidate, he points out, could be an entirely secular building. (Not that his scepticism always goes far enough for my taste. He blithely repeats the current fantasy that the undistinguished scraps of curved metalwork discovered in a Late Iron Age tomb at Lexden near Colchester were parts of a Roman magistrate’s official chair – and so are good evidence for close diplomatic contact between the Iron Age princelings and the Roman authorities in the pre-invasion period.)

That said, some of Mattingly’s reference sections do make dreary reading. I challenge anyone but a narrow specialist to derive much pleasure from the region-by-region survey of rural settlement patterns. And the complete absence of illustrations (presumably an editorial decision for this new series of the Penguin History of Britain) will repeatedly leave anyone not already familiar with the material evidence quite baffled. Many of the arguments about the culture of Roman Britain are necessarily founded on the character of pottery, mosaics, coins or sculpture. Is this ‘bad art’ or is it intentionally ‘Celtic’? How far does this pre-Roman British coin type derive from Roman or Greek models? It is almost impossible to understand these issues, let alone evaluate them, without the image in front of you.

Yet the problems run deeper than the style of presentation. One of Mattingly’s major goals is to liberate the study of Roman Britain from the old question of ‘Romanisation’. Since the work of Francis Haverfield in the early twentieth century, and his pioneering study in 1915, The Romanization of Roman Britain, the big issue in Romano-British studies has always centred on problems of cultural contact and change. How Roman did the province of Britain ever become? What were the main vehicles of acculturation? How far down the social hierarchy did Roman culture reach?

Mattingly bravely dubs this a ‘defective paradigm’, dependent on a simplistic and monovalent view of both Roman and native culture. He aims to replace it with a view of Roman Britain based on the idea of (as he calls it, following various post-colonial studies) ‘discrepant experience’. He emphasises, in other words, that different groups within the native Britons had different forms of contact with, and responses to, the occupying power of Rome. So, for example, the urban elite engaged with Rome and Roman culture to a very different degree from the rural peasants.

Mattingly must be right about this. The problem is not his interpretation of the ancient evidence but the judgement he passes on his scholarly predecessors and colleagues. If Romano-British studies did still adopt the kind of undifferentiated model of Roman and British culture that he claims, if they still posited a simple form of cultural transition between the ‘native’ and the ‘classical’, it would indeed be a subject ripe for revolution. But, in fact, Mattingly is pushing at an open door. Although his colleagues by and large do still find the idea of ‘Romanisation’ a useful idea to work with (or debate), they are already using the basic idea of ‘discrepant experience’. Archaeologists such as Jane Webster or Martin Millett do not for a moment imagine that a single model of cultural change fits all. To imply that they do, is almost insulting much important recent work in the field.

Another problem is Mattingly’s uneasy relationship with the Roman literary evidence for the province of Britain. Like most archaeologically inclined historians, he takes a good deal of care, and many pages, to distance himself from what Romans themselves, such as Tacitus or Julius Caesar, wrote about the place. In fact, he sharply reprimands most ancient writers for their woeful historical and political inadequacies: they were not ‘critical researchers of their material’; they were writing for an aristocratic readership; they were relying on elite stereotypes of barbarity, and seeking, in provincial histories, ‘confirmation of their own innate superiority and the backwardness of others’; and much of what they say is not confirmed by the science of archaeology anyway.

It is easy enough to see where these arguments are coming from. In part, they are a healthy reaction to a previous generation of Romano-British historians who slavishly followed whatever any ancient source chose to tell them, however improbable. But this gloomy pessimism about the ancient literary texts is also to miss the point. True, they offer a biased, elitist, culturally loaded version of the history of Britain. But try telling scholars who work on other pre-industrial empires that in the case of this most remote of ancient Roman provinces we have not only an autobiographical account by one of the first invaders (that is, Caesar), but also a biography of one of the first governors written by his son-in-law (that is, Tacitus’ Agricola). Their response would surely be to suggest we analyse them with all the care and sophistication these complex texts deserve, not dismiss them with a gamma minus for political correctness.

Besides, even the most stringent archaeologists are too seduced by the nuggets of ‘information’ in these texts to pass them over entirely, especially when they fit neatly with their own position. So, after reprimanding Caesar and Tacitus for their blinkered, elitist perspective, Mattingly happily trots out, as if it were fact, Cassius Dio’s claim that one of the causes of the revolt of Boudicca was big business: namely the multi-millionaire philosopher Seneca, who suddenly called in the lavish loans that he had made to the unsuspecting Britons and left them desperate for cash (p. 152). Dio, of course, was living a century and a half after the events he described, and relying on information gleaned from who knows where, reliable or not; but it is too tempting a defamation of a Roman bigwig for Mattingly to discard, despite all the warning notes he sounds about the dangers of believing what ancient writers have to say.

It is too tempting because, for Mattingly, the Romans by and large were, and are, the enemy. Again this is an understandable response to some of his predecessors, who often revealed ‘a nostalgic association with the colonizers’, and welcomed the benefits of civilisation, from baths to brooches, that the Romans brought to the spiky-haired, unwashed natives. It is in this spirit, as he points out, that a statue of Agricola stands in ‘pride of place over the entrance to Manchester Town Hall’, as if he were an honorary Mancunian blessing the civic virtues on display in the Council Chamber. (Thomas Thornycroft’s statue of Boadicea on the Embankment in London may, however, tell a rather more complicated story, associating nineteenth-century values with a rebel British queen.)

Mattingly rejects any cosy picture of cultural progress, emphasising instead that ‘Roman Britain’ was a period of military occupation and foreign domination. For him, the Romans were a group of obsessive militarists: ‘Their whole society became structured around the idea of war’ (well, not absolutely all of it); they had a keen eye for economic profit; and they inflicted untold damage on the civilian population of these islands. Of course, he is right to remind us of the violence that underpinned all ancient imperial expansion (it is easy to forget that ancient wars had casualties, too). But it is not clear exactly what we should do with that realisation. Mattingly’s own next step is to attempt to assemble some data about the scale of destruction. He estimates, for example, that in the period of conquest (43–83 AD), between 100,000 and 250,000 people were killed, out of a total population of some two million. Sounds bad. But where on earth do those figures come from? There is no good evidence whatsoever for either.

But in the end the problem is not one of mere numbers, inflated or otherwise. It is that, for all his detailed discussion, his up-to-the-minute information and his sometimes sophisticated sections of analysis, Mattingly is still in danger of replacing one oversimplified model with another (for ‘Romans were good’, read ‘Romans were bad’). The point is that there are no heroes in this story and no innocents. The prospect of living under Boudicca is no more appealing than that of living under her adversary, Suetonius Paulinus (who was, by all accounts, brutal even by Roman standards). And that, of course, is what Auden saw so clearly and encapsulated so much more neatly in his 1937 documentary. Both nations were murderers and robbers. The poor squaddies on the Wall were victims as much as they were victors.

Review of David Mattingly, An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire, 54 BC–AD 409 (Allen Lane, 2006)

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