All Roads Lead to Britain: Chapter III (Part III)



Putting the finishing touches  (If you can’t beat them,...)

         After Boudicca’s defeat, the conclusion of the conquest of Britain by the Romans took a short time. Wales was subdued the same year the queen of the Iceni had committed suicide (61 AD); most of what is nowadays known as England was already in the hands of the Romans; and in 83 AD Governor Agricola defeated the Picts (or Caledonians, as they were called in Latin) at the battle of Mons Graupius, in central Scotland, thus gaining control of the Scottish Lowlands. Everything had practically been plain sailing.
         But it was not a total victory for the Romans. Fortunately there were the Picts for the islanders to save face; they were the ones who stood up to the Romans to the end. Though Agricola had achieved some success, the Picts did not give in. Their strength, their courage, their mountains and (why not?) their climate forced the Romans to turn tail southwards. Not being able to beat them, the Romans contented themselves with their conquests on the rest of the island; after all, since the time of Emperor Claudius their intention had been just to control the southeast of the country, so if now they owned two thirds of the island, it was not so bad! (well..., that was the official version; what they really thought was: ‘sour grapes!’)
         Anyway, in order to avoid possible “visits” from the Picts, Emperor Hadrian decided to have a big wall built; this would also mark the northern frontier of Roman Britain. Hadrian’s wall was much more than a boundary mark or a fence to keep out the Picts; it was a magnificent feat of engineering which took five years to be finished (122-127 AD). It ran for seventy-three miles between Wallsend-on-Tyne and Bowness on the Solway Firth; it was approximately four metres high and three metres thick; there was a ditch along the wall which was three metres deep and nine metres wide; there were forts and turrets on top of it and some seventeen garrisons were stationed there permanently. It seemed as if those Picts were people one should be really afraid of... Were so much length, so much height, so much thickness, so much depth and so much width so necessary...? If you knew the Picts of those times, you would not hesitate to answer: “yes, they were”.
         In spite of the dimensions of Hadrian’s wall, the Picts did not accept their confinement with quiet resignation. They made continuous attempts to destroy the wall and break through; in fact, not only the passing of time is the reason why most of the wall is nowadays demolished. Only a few years later another wall was built some miles further north of the first; this time it was Emperor Antonine who ordered its construction, but the result was the same as with his colleague’s wall: you can’t tame the untameable. Both walls stopped being effective barriers in the 4th century. ‘OK, since you insist, we’ll leave you alone..., and you’ll leave us alone too’,  the Romans might have thought.
         The fact that the Picts (ancestors of the present Scots) resisted the Roman invasion and were the only ones in Britain who were not conquered has made Scotland a bit different from the rest of the country (there are no traces of Roman architecture, for example, or no roads of Roman origin, which probably explains why the Scottish roads are so narrow and so full of sheep, cows and other living “surprises” one comes across while driving). This fact has also been, up to the present moment, a cause of argument between Scottish and English people on account of the courage shown against the enemy (as if what one’s ancestors had done centuries ago could be a reason to make someone who lives now feel either proud or ashamed!, but it clearly explains why a rugby match between both teams is much more than a mere sporting event).
         Anyway during the 2nd, 3rd and 4th centuries this was the situation: south of Hadrian’s wall were the conquered Britons; north of Hadrian’s wall were the untamed Picts; and on top of the wall were the Roman sentinels watching one side and the other. Let’s imagine we could call together one Roman, one Briton and one Pict of the 2nd century. What would each of them say to the other two? The following diagram will show us:

                   If you can’t beat them, join them. We can’t beat you, so we’ve joined you

A Briton                                                                                 A Roman                           We have beaten you, so you’ve joined us. What did you expect?

                   If you can’t beat them, ignore them. We haven’t beaten you, so we’ll ignore you

A Roman                                                                                     A Pict

                   You haven’t beaten us, so we won’t join you. Who do you think we are?

                   You were not able to beat them and finally joined them...Boo!

A Pict                                                                                              A Briton

                   Don’t boast about being the only ones who have not been beaten, please.

                   If there is someone we’d like to join, that’s you

We lose in hake but gain in herring

         This is not the moment to justify any sort of invasion (if somebody can, let them do it), but, after all, what the Romans did was not so terrible. Certainly, moved by their desire to conquer, they caused pain, death, destruction and desolation, but what’s that compared with all the things they left? What are those four insignificant things compared with the civilized way of life they gave not only to Britain but to the then-known world? The Roman invasion and the subsequent colonization were a sort of contract. Have you ever signed a contract? Surely you have, and you will have realized that very often there is something you lose but what you receive is much better. Equally, the Britons lost their freedom, were absorbed  by the Roman civilization and became mingled with the invaders. But what did they get in return?...The glory to belong to the Roman Empire. Certainly we must admit that the Britons carried little weight in the life of their own country and that soon were part of the furniture... But what furniture!!! First-class!!!

A blessing in disguise

         Consequently what at first sight seemed to be a misfortune turned out to be a gift from the gods for the Britons, who in fact lived a long period (almost four centuries) of peace, economic progress, cultural flourishing and prosperity. At least that was the thought of those who belonged to the highest classes, who could live like fighting cocks, but regarding the lower classes, as it has usually happened in the history of the world, they remained what they were...: poor, and they continued to do what they had been doing: living from hand to mouth.
         But apart from city names ending in -chester, -cester, or -caster, what did the Romans give the Britons?

1.- A system of government and administration. Septimius Severus, emperor from 193 to 211 AD, divided the imperial province into Lower and Upper Britain, both under a governor. Lower Britain (or Britannia Inferior) had its capital at York, in the north; and Upper Britain (or Britannia Superior) had its capital at London, in the south... Don’t read it again...There is no mistake. It should be more logical to call them the other way round, yes, but never contradict an emperor, for what an emperor says is gospel truth.

2.- A network of paved roads all over the country. These later became the main roads of present-day Britain. Six of them led (and still lead) to London, not all of them since, as everyone knows, that only happens when talking about Rome. The most important of these roads were Watling Street (Dover-London-Chester), Ermine Street (London-Lincoln-York) and Fosse Way (Exeter-Bath-Cirencester-Leicester-Lincoln).

3.- The towns. The earlier Celtic settlements became towns in the proper sense of the word, that is, the new centres of population now had paved streets which had been designed on a plan, pavements on each side of them on which pedestrians could walk without being run over by carts (something that the disorganized Britons could have never imagined it was possible), markets halls where one could buy anything which was for sale (vegetables, meat, fish, fruits, clothes, slaves...), a central square (or forum) where one could meet everyone (wanted or unwanted)...; the towns had local autonomy and there were public buildings where the romanized Britons learned how to do as the Romans do: theatres, amphitheatres, public baths (the most renowned of them, of course, in Bath), temples, etc...  Apart from London, which had already become an important commercial centre, the main towns were Colchester, St Albans, Gloucester, Lincoln and York; they had the rank of coloniae, settlements that were peopled by soldiers who had completed their service.

4.- Household facilities. In some houses (no prizes for guessing whose houses) there was a system of central heating and in most of them there was running water. Kitchens were spacious, well-equipped and organized, with a stove to cook on. And there was a drainage system to get rid of the unwanted water and sewage. For the British Celts, all these facilites were something beyond their wildest dreams. If they wanted to get warm they had to be by a fire; if there was no fire around, they always had the chance to start a fight to heat their muscles. The only running water they had known before was that of the river stream. When they cooked, they had to light a fire on the ground and put the pot on top of it; this had the inconvenience that at any moment the pot could move and all the food could fall onto the dusty earth. And as regards the drainage system..., well..., it is better not to go into detail about this matter.

5.- Large farms, or villas. They were one of the most illustrative characteristics of Roman life. These large estates belonged to the Romano-British aristocracy and represented the basis of the economy. They were born as the result of a curious chain reaction: wood was necessary  as fuel for private houses and public baths and as a raw material to build ships, so forests started to be chopped down and, consequently, large extensions were cleared up. Now what can you do with a vast empty land?... Build a house, as luxurious and big as possible, and use the land around as the soil to grow crops in order to earn enough money to pay the people who work on your lands and the servants who work in your house. One of the finest examples of a Roman villa can be found at Fishbourne, in West Sussex.

6.- Reading and writing. These skills were practically unknown by the Celtic tribes before the Roman occupation. The Romans gave them their first written descriptions, people began to use Latin as a common language and, although its use was less frequent among the peasants, at least in the cities it became the official language. We must assume that the introduction of Latin was not sudden but gradual, and that for a time Celtic and Latin languages coexisted and influenced each other. The use of written language led up to a cultural flourishing which was not equalled until the second Golden Age in British culture, the 16th century.

7.- And, of course, we can’t forget to mention...the toga, the garment worn by Roman citizens, whose use started to spread all over Britain. It is not necessary to give many details about this piece of clothing (you have seen them in films like Ben-Hur or Quo Vadis?) but please don’t ask how they managed to perfectly cover all their body with just one single piece of fabric. However, one doubt springs to mind: judging by what we can see in the films or in drawings that depict the Romans dressed in their togas, one might conclude that the garment most frequently worn by them was this (underwear not included), so... were all the Romans very tough and did not worry about the cold?...or were they cold most of the time but pretended not to be?...or, like bears,  did they hibernate and only live and work in the summer?
         These customs, and many others, did not endure. Although Britain was romanized and the invaders had a considerable influence on many aspects of British life, it did not become a Latin country. All this was lost when the Roman Empire started to decline.

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