6 May 2020

STUBBORN TO THE CORE

Miles Russell and Stuart Laycock. UnRoman Britain: Exposing the Great Myth of Britannia. The History Press, 2011, reprinted 2019.

'Imagine a scenario today where county boundaries suddenly become impassable. Supplies of raw materials would not be able to get to manufacturers and manufactured goods would not be able to get to customers'. When this book was written the authors probably thought imagining this would be quite hard to do but life in 2020 has made it our actual experience, courtesy of Covid 19. 

The scenario just described occurred after Britain voted Rexit (Rome exit) in 411 AD when it left the Roman empire of its own accord, deciding that it preferred to fight invading Picts and Scots (amongst others) on their own without the hefty tax burden of Rome. Nice idea but unfortunately things fell apart pretty much the moment the legions left. Historians have puzzled over the reason for this, but the book provides a convincing explanation, drawn in part from the authors' own experience of the modern world.

The main theme of the book however is to question in great detail the extent to which Rome actually influenced Brits on the ground, and the answer is a pretty conclusive thumbs down. Whilst the Romans left a few ruins dotted about they signally failed to penetrate British society culturally and hardly at all materially. People of course took advantage of the newly available manufactured goods but otherwise they carried on living their lives in much the same way that they had before the invasion of 56 AD. One reason for this is that the Romans never came to these isles in large enough numbers to make an impact, and underneath the veneer of Roman Britain the old tribal identities still persisted, so that when the opportunity came to throw off the Roman yoke permanently it was seized with alacrity. The legions' departure in 411 AD was just the final chapter in a series of endless uprisings, and when the Romans left they probably agreed with the monk Gildas writing in the 6th century that,

"This island, stubborn to the core, from the time people first lived here, rebels ungratefully sometimes against God, sometimes against its own citizens, and often against foreign kings and their subjects."

The final myth debunked by the authors is that the invading Anglo-Saxons were the authors of ghastly ethnic cleansing against the British, forcing the survivors to huddle together in corners of wet Wales. This invention of 19th century imperial Britain is exposed by the authors, who proffer a far more intriguing and nuanced explanation of what happened.

This book, although written with a refreshing lightness of style, is clearly the product of extensive research. By writing a history covering such a long expanse as the period of the Roman occupation and the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons from the perspective of the natives British, to my mind it breaks new ground so that a careful reading of it must alter forever ones preconceptions. – Robin Carlile

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