David Mattingly is Professor of Roman Archaeology at the University of Leicester. He is the author of An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire, 54 BC - AD 409.
Feature by David Mattingly, author of An Imperial Possession
The story of Britain in the Roman Empire is very different to the sort of history that can be written for other periods covered in the Penguin History of Britain series. The relative shortage of surviving ancient literary and documentary sources is one key feature, meaning that archaeology plays a much larger part in our attempts to reconstruct the past. However, archaeology is much better at illustrating the texture of life than at providing an unambiguous narrative of events. As a result, my story focuses on the experience of living under imperial rule, rather than providing a minutely delineated chronological account of events, battles and personalities.
There are plenty of rival books on the subject, but, in writing this new account for a 21st-century audience, I have attempted to challenge the orthodox presentation of Roman Britain. There is a tendency in much scholarship on Roman Britain to promote a nostalgic and approving picture of empire – depicting a time of social progress and opportunity under the mild authority of a beneficent and paternalistic state. Such views were understandable in the formative years of Romano-British studies during the heyday of the modern British empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They are less forgiveable today in a post-colonial world. I certainly hope you will find that my book offers a fresh approach and some novel insights on the period. Two prime contentions of my book are that the experience of being subjects of the Roman empire was one of hardship for the majority and that the motives of the Roman state were underscored by self-interest in the exploitation of empire.
What I have tried to explore is the diversity of experience of Roman imperialism and the varied responses to it. The resulting picture of cultural changes is more complex and less uniform than that which is often sketched using the traditional model of Romanization. In place of the generalizing and homogenizing model of Romanization, I focus on the essential heterogeneity of material culture and behaviours that were used by different groups in society to define their identity and position within the Roman world. A novel feature of the book is the presentation of the story of Britain under Rome from three separate perspectives – those of the military, urban and rural communities. ‘Being Roman’ meant different things to each of these groups.
Another strong theme in my book is the importance of regional differences. These already existed in pre-Roman times, but were exacerbated by the varied impact of Rome on her subjects and neighbours. I’ve given more emphasis to the north and west of Britain (and to the contemporary situation in Ireland) than is usual in Romano-British studies, making this emphatically a book about Britain in the Roman empire rather than Roman Britain (shorthand in many accounts for ‘only the most Roman bits’).
An Imperial Possession reflects my profound pessimism about the impacts of colonial regimes, however well-intentioned and liberal-sounding the rhetoric. It is true that Rome did seek to engage (and reward) provincial elites in the imperial project. However, there are many aspects of the history and archaeology of Britain under Roman rule that are indicative of severe and sustained exploitation by the imperial authorities of the territory’s resources (human, natural and productive).
I hope that my book will challenge your preconceptions about the nature of the Roman empire and that you will find my vision of the destiny of the British archiopelago under foreign domination a plausible corrective to the consensus story.
David Mattingly, Leicester, June 2006