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Britons

Britons. The peoples living in Britain during the Roman occupation. The name, which the people of Britain seem to have given themselves, first appears in the account of the voyages of the Greek explorer Pytheas of Marseilles in the late 4th cent. bc. The Greek form of the name is Prettani (or Pritani) and this form was used by later Greek writers such as Polybius (2nd cent. bc), Diodorus, and Strabo (1st cent. bc). Strabo, however, writing after Caesar's expeditions, also used the form Brettani, and Latin authors such as Catullus and Caesar wrote of the Brittani from the first. From the name of the people came the name of the Roman province, Britannia. The meaning of the name is uncertain, but is thought to be something like ‘the tattooed people’. Tattooing, however, barely figured amongst the descriptions of the Britons provided by ancient authors. Only Herodian (3rd cent. ad) wrote of tattoos of patterns and animals on the naked bodies of the Britons, and he referred specifically only to the people of the most northern regions. Caesar claimed far more widespread use of the blue dye woad, but this was used over the whole body and not for painting or tattooing patterns.

In general, Roman authors presented a rather dismal picture of the Britons, as barbarians who wore skins or went naked, practised a form of polygamy, and lived a simple and frugal life. Strabo, who claimed he had seen British youths in Rome, described them as relatively tall, but bow-legged and graceless. But Caesar recognized that not all Britons were the same, identifying those around the south-east coast as more civilized and of different stock from the people of the interior. Tacitus, whose father-in-law Agricola had campaigned widely in Britain in the mid-1st cent. ad, also observed that the Britons varied widely in physical type, and specifically compared the red-haired, heavily built Caledonii to the swarthy, curly-haired Silures of south Wales.

It is clear, from the writings of Strabo and Caesar, that, even before the invasion, the Britons in the south-east corner of the island were becoming socially and politically sophisticated and acquiring a taste for things Roman. They were using gold and bronze coins, and exporting raw materials (gold, silver, and iron) along with grain and hides. In exchange, they received manufactured goods such as bronze- and silverware and fine pottery, together with amphorae full of wine. These products are found mainly at a limited number of major tribal centres like Camulodunum (Colchester) and Verulamium (St Albans) and in a small number of adjacent burials. They were acquired mainly by tribal élites from whom came the chieftains, and increasingly the kings, who wielded power in Britain at the time of the Roman invasion.

To some extent, therefore, political and social developments in the century before the Claudian invasion of ad 43 paved the way for the sort of political system and settlement that conquest by Rome brought with it. Nucleated settlements which acted as centres of administration for large tribal territories were known to both the invaders and the natives. Equally, both Romans and Britons were used to a society in which ultimate power was in the hands of a single individual, supported by, and who in return patronized, an élite class.

The Romans developed a system of provincial administration which perpetuated, at least initially, the existing tribal framework. Thus in Britain they created, between ad 70 and ad 120, about fifteen self-governing tribal authorities (civitates), each with elected magistrates and council and each based on a major town. The first such grants of local self-government were in areas which had shown the most political sophistication before the invasion—Kent, Essex, Hertfordshire, and Buckinghamshire, where the civitates of the Cantiaci, the Trinovantes, and the Catuvellauni were established. Other civitates were added later, and there is little doubt that the first magistrates and councillors in these authorities were drawn from the old tribal élites. Nor should we be surprised that they reacted in the same way as other native élites have reacted throughout history, by attempting to emulate the life-style of their conquerors. By ad 80, according to Tacitus, the Britons were widely adopting Roman fashion in housing, clothing, language, and diet. Houses with mosaics, plastered walls and ceilings, under-floor heating, and their own bath-suites were built in town and country alike. Roman shoes and sandals were made and worn, and although there is little evidence to support Tacitus' claim that the toga was to be seen everywhere in Britain, fragments of imported silk and tombstones showing natives in Roman-style clothes testify to the fashionable aspirations of some Britons. The same tombstones, inscribed in Latin, together with private messages varying from a simple word or two scratched on a pot to a full letter written on a waxed tablet reveal the spread of Latin. Along with wine, a variety of amphorae demonstrate that olive oil, fish-sauce, and other exotic foodstuffs were imported by the shipload from the Mediterranean. These developments spawned others, as the demand for both manufactured and imported products created a growing class of craftsmen and middle-men. Accumulating wealth, and other routes to social advancement such as the army, provided opportunities for social mobility which extended the franchise and the opportunity for public service and positions of power and influence to families previously excluded from them. ‘And so the Britons were slowly introduced to the luxuries that make vice agreeable’, wrote Tacitus.

Just how widespread was the adoption of a Romanized life-style is hotly debated. It is reasonable to claim that all those living in towns were to some extent exposed to a way of life unknown before the Roman occupation, and certainly the families who built and lived in ‘villas’ in the country were displaying their adoption of a Romanized life-style. But there were probably less than a hundred towns in Roman Britain, mostly very small, and with a total population unlikely to have much exceeded 200,000 people. The villas, even if we assume 3,000 of them (three times the number of probable examples currently known), would add little to this total, since the greatest part of a villa estate's population would be the agricultural labour force and servants. If we compare this to recent estimates of the total population of Roman Britain, at around 2–3 million, we can see that the Romanized element of the population was very much in the minority.

What is more difficult to assess is the extent to which the lives of the agrarian population were significantly changed by the Roman occupation. Even in rural settlements which show few signs of Romanized architecture, imported pottery and glass, coins, Roman-style jewellery, and occasional Latin graffiti are found. There were some changes in agricultural practice too, with new agricultural implements and crops, new methods of land management, and an increasing emphasis on cash-crops and farming for profit. But these changes, not surprisingly, are best attested in those areas where villas were most prolific—roughly in the area south and east of the Fosse Way. Outside this area, the clearest signs of Romanization are often found in the civilian settlements that grew up to serve the soldiers in the garrison forts of the north and west. By providing for the needs of the troops, by intermarriage, and by social intercourse, the native Britons of these areas were introduced to a Roman way of life different perhaps from that of the towns in the south-east but equally quite different from anything they had known before the conquest.

It would be easy to make much of this and claim that the life of the British was totally transformed by the Roman conquest and occupation. But this would be to go too far. For a minority, changes in life-style, and even in attitudes, were dramatic, but for the vast majority of the population, the impression is that much of life went on as before.

Keith Branigan

Bibliography

Alcock, L. , Economy, Society and Warfare among the Britons and Saxons (Cardiff, 1987);
Cunliffe, B. W. , Iron Age Communities in Britain (3rd edn. New York, 1991);
Laing, L. R. , Celtic Britain and Ireland, AD 200–800: The Myth of the Dark Ages (New York, 1990).

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