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Thread: Decline and Fall of the Roman Culture in Britain

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    Arrow Decline and Fall of the Roman Culture in Britain

    Roman culture was fading in Britain from the early 200s. It had all but gone a century later. Neil Faulkner looks at the evidence.

    It used to be thought, years ago, that Roman Britain `ended' in AD 410. The impression was that, one day, the Roman army marched out in orderly fashion under their standards, and on the next, the barbarian Saxons sailed in and consigned everywhere to the Dark Ages.

    More recently, archaeologists have taken a different line, arguing that Roman Britain hardly ended at all. Using evidence mainly from single sites like Wroxeter, they claim that some aspects of Roman culture - such as town life, bureaucracy and the use of Latin - continued, at least in the west, as late as the 7th century. Although some scholars have pointed to signs of early decline, the dominant view has been that of survival.

    New research, however, throws that consensus into doubt. Taking the excavated evidence as a whole, it now seems that Roman culture was disintegrating in Britain from the early 200s and had almost completely gone by the end of the 4th century.

    This gradual but inexorable collapse affected towns, villas and villages. Nothing was exempt. The imperial project, the bringing of civilised life to barbarian lands, started with enthusiasm but ended - and ended early - amid piles of refuse and squalor, with abandoned farms and villages, country houses turned into barns and workshops, and towns heavily fortified by an embattled class of state officials desperate to cling on to power.

    Part of the new research work was a large-scale survey of Roman buildings I conducted during the 1990s with Jack Newman, a retired quantity-surveyor and amateur archaeologist based in Essex. We looked at published excavation reports to catalogue and analyse large samples of excavated Romano-British buildings from town and country, first recording the approximate date of construction, then the likely length of occupation. Some of the results were published this year.

    The towns survey included about 1,500 buildings from 300 excavations at 17 urban sites across England (civitas capitals, coloniae and possible municipia), ranging from Wroxeter to Canterbury and from Exeter to Lincoln. A clear pattern emerged. Most civic buildings were erected in about AD 75-150, most private town-houses in about AD150-225, and urban occupation (measured by rooms in use) reached peak levels in the early 3rd century.

    Civic construction work then collapsed as resources were diverted into building town walls in the mid to late 3rd century. There was a partial recovery in the early 4th - the so-called `Constantian renaissance' - but it was a temporary blip, and, from around AD 325, Romano-British towns faced terminal decline. Few new buildings were erected, many old ones were abandoned, and by about AD400 there was little left in most places but a wasteland of ruins and rubbish.

    Colchester is a prime example. My survey counted 115 private buildings, most of them excavated by Philip Crummy's Colchester Archaeological Trust in the 1970s and 80s. Especially important were two massive rescue sites up against the south wall of the town - Lion Walk and Culver Street - which between them represented about half the total area so far excavated in the town. We now know of 20 grand houses in Colchester at its peak in about AD 250, but a hundred years later only three of these were left, and by AD 400 there were none at all.

    Archaeologists have sometimes made too much of a few exceptional sequences. When Shepherd Frere uncovered Building XXVII.2 at Verulamium (St Albans) in 1955-61, most scholars agreed with him that Romano-British town life must have flourished well into the 5th century - and a new consensus was quickly established.

    It seemed confirmed when Philip Barker's excavations on the Baths Basilica site at Wroxeter in 1966-91 revealed a long post-Roman sequence culminating in a grand residence of 6th century date which many felt was highly Romanised. Ken Dark has argued recently that, in the early Dark Ages, supposedly `Celtic' western Britain was in fact `Roman' - with Latin literacy, classical tastes, trade links with the Mediterranean, and a whole political framework inherited from the Romans of the 4th century (BA March 1998).

    These conclusions seem much less compelling in the light of my survey results. Early Dark Age elites used the forms and symbols of Romanitas to legitimise their claims to wealth and power. It is no surprise that much of their material culture looks `Roman'. The same process can be witnessed in other periods. The Sutton Hoo Saxons imported Byzantine luxuries, Renaissance scholars wrote in Latin, and the Georgians built in a neoclassical style - in each case we are dealing with the reuse of ancient cultural symbols in a new situation.

    The 5th and 6th centuries in Britain were probably no different - some elite culture was retained, but it was a thin veneer behind which one of the most complete transformations in British history had taken place. What the archaeology as a whole shows is near-total collapse of the Roman settlement pattern - not just the disappearance of towns, but of villas too, and indeed many native villages and farmsteads.

    Two further recent surveys add weight to this view - one by Jack Newman of 78 villas randomly selected from published reports, another by Katie Meheux from the Institute of Archaeology (UCL) of 162 possible villa sites in the Severn Valley/Welsh Marches region. Neither survey has yet been published.

    One favoured explanation for urban decline is that the Romano-British gentry `retreated to the countryside' to escape the burdens of public service in towns, and there, from the late 3rd century onwards, invested heavily in the embellishment of their country seats. Because of this, Guy de la Bédoyère has described the 4th century as Roman Britain's `golden age' (BA July 1999).

    In fact, the boom in the villa economy seems to have ended early in that century. Newman's survey showed that between AD 300 (the peak) and AD 350 the amount of new building-work undertaken on villas fell by almost two thirds. Both his survey and that of Meheux revealed that a majority of villas had been abandoned by about AD375 and virtually all by about AD 400.

    The odd exception - like Whitley Grange in Shropshire - cannot alter the general picture. Much more typical were sites like Gorhambury in Hertfordshire, where the grand house was a ruin and had been incorporated into the farmyard by the mid-4th century, and Thurnham in Kent, where one of the central rooms was being used as an iron smithy at an even earlier date.

    Native villages and farmsteads fared somewhat better, but many were still deserted or contracted sharply in the 4th century. Katie Meheux surveyed 317 native rural sites in the Severn Valley/Welsh Marches region and discovered a fall of 27 per cent in the number occupied between AD 100-150 and AD 350-400. My own more modest survey of 177 rural sites excavated in 1969-96 (as listed in the Roman archaeology journal Britannia) showed a fall of 35 per cent for the same period.

    When careful modern excavation reveals evidence of early decline at sites like the Romano-British village of Heybridge in Essex (BA September 1999), excavators often conclude that here is the exception, and they seek special-case explanations. Certainly, it was the more marginal sites that succumbed - economic crisis strikes down the weakest - but it was part of a general pattern. At Heybridge, some peripheral areas had been abandoned by about AD200, few new buildings were erected in the central zone in the 3rd and 4th centuries, and rubbish pits were encroaching on the sacred precinct around the temple.

    Taken as a whole, the evidence implies not a 4th century `golden age', but after about AD325 at any rate, an agricultural slump, a decaying class of gentry and an increasingly hard-pressed peasantry. There was, it seems, decline in both town and country - Roman Britain was in crisis long before AD 410. What had gone wrong?

    The crisis must have had deep roots. In the centuries before the Claudian invasion of Britain, Rome had been a fast-growing empire - a dynamic system of robbery with violence in which wars of plunder were waged to fill the treasury, support the army, and subsidise the policy of `bread and circuses' which ensured domestic peace.

    But the conquest of Britain had been one of the last great military adventures, almost an afterthought. Rome had already reached the limits of her empire. Civilisation - forts, towns, villas and `the world of taste' - was expensive. In the absence of a continuing stream of plunder, it could only be paid for out of the surpluses generated by extensive arable agriculture, which enabled the Roman authorities to raise labour corvées and taxes from rural areas to devote to building a Roman way of life.

    By the 1st century AD, the Roman frontiers ran roughly along the limits of ploughed land - beyond lay a true barbaria of upland crofters and pastoralists whose impoverished economies could not support `Romanisation'. The Roman army repeatedly failed to conquer the wilderness of northern Britain. This was not a localised failure. Central Europe was also beyond its reach. An ancient system of military imperialism such as Rome was tied to the ploughed.

    For some time the empire's dependency on internal resources did not matter much. Landowners, rich peasant farmers and numerous petty traders found ready markets for their surpluses in an economy pump-primed by state arms expenditure. But there was a fine balance. Without the subsidy of conquest, documentary sources tell us, taxes slowly crept up, labour corvées became longer, and arbitrary requisitions were more frequent. By analogy with other, better documented historical periods, it is likely that rising demands provoked resistance. Peasants no doubt secreted their grain, hid their cattle in the woods, and their sturdy sons on cousins' farms. Sometimes perhaps they banded together to ambush tax collectors and press-gangs. We know that some abandoned marginal plots and took to the hills and forests to live as bandits beyond the law.

    Caught in the middle were the municipal gentry who ran the towns. Faced with trying to hold together a disintegrating infrastructure, many lost their taste for public service and town life. Ancient historians have long acknowledged a `decline of the decurionate' from the later 2nd century onwards, but Romano-British archaeologists have often assumed that Britain was different.

    A parallel development was the rising wealth and power of a small class of imperial grandees - holders of high office, owners of multiple estates, men networked into the late Roman bureaucracy and protected by their contacts within it. The evidence was meticulously collated by the great ancient historian AHM Jones in his 1960s book The Later Roman Empire, but again Romano-British archaeologists have been reluctant to use these insights in interpreting their own data.

    The awkward relationship between archaeology and history is an old problem. Archaeologists are often fearful of drifting too far from the `scientific' rigour of postholes and potsherds into a reliance on what some see as `biased' documents. But if our task is to explain what happened in the past, historical and archaeological evidence need to be integrated so that a proper story can be told.

    Nor can archaeologists restrict themselves to looking only at their own patch - a single site, region or province. New thinking about interpreting the past urges us to see Roman Britain as part of a `world system'. We should be able to fit together the evidence collected by historians of the empire with what we find on our excavations.

    I think this can be done.

    Let us take the example of late Romano-British towns. We have known for a long time that town walls were strengthened in the 4th century - principally with the addition of projecting bastions - but recent excavation evidence has given a much fuller picture of what things were like inside late Roman towns.

    It is not just that grand old townhouses fell into ruin and were not replaced. Civic buildings also decayed - like the public baths at Canterbury, which, after refurbishment at the beginning of the 4th century, soon fell into disuse and were taken over by `squatters'. On the other hand, town life of a sort certainly continued. Amid abandoned houses, plebeian hovels and piles of refuse and sewage, there were government offices, arms factories, official warehouses, and active markets. Canterbury's municipal baths were in ruins, but a street-front portico with shops and stalls was completely rebuilt around AD 400.

    After the grand houses had been pulled down in Colchester's Culver Street suburb, a huge aisled warehouse was constructed, perhaps for storing taxes-in-kind and military supplies.

    At Caerwent, though much of the old town hall was demolished, one part was retained and given a central-heating system, perhaps for government offices, while another was used for metalworkers' hearths and furnaces, possibly for making armaments. These sites were still towns, but very different from those of the 2nd century - no longer the local centres and garden-cities of a Romanising gentry, but heavily defended outposts of an embattled empire. Imperial defence was the priority and local infrastructures were kept up because the war effort needed them. The imperial grandees in control - courtiers, officers, civil servants and bishops - enriched themselves; but gentry, peasantry, towns, villas and villages were left impoverished.

    When the last Roman soldiers left the island or melted back into the countryside in the early 5th century, Britain's fragile Romanitas had already rotted away to almost nothing.

    The succeeding Dark Ages are `dark' for archaeologists precisely because virtually none of the rich material culture of Roman Britain survived.

    Almost the whole edifice of Romanisation vanished in a generation or two - the forts, towns and villas, the mosaics, frescoes and hypocausts, the stone-quarries, potteries and markets. Late Roman Britain had been part of a world system in crisis, and because it was a distant, under-developed region, it was one of the first to fall.

    Neil Faulkner's book `The Decline and Fall of Roman Britain' was published by Tempus last month



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    Quite a contrast to the early Celtic warriors the Romans faced.
    A people which takes no pride in the noble achievements of remote ancestors
    will never achieve anything worthy to be remembered with pride by remote descendents.

    Lord Macauley

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    an interesting portrait
    of the collapse of a political leviathan
    brought about by a increasingly disaffected population's
    inablity or unwillingness to support
    the grandiosity of centalised authority.

    the soviet union comes to mind,
    as does the contemporary russian polity
    and the united states of america.

    is there a discernible "tipping point"?

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    Lightbulb Roman culture was fading in Britain from the early 200s

    Roman culture was fading in Britain from the early 200s. It had all but gone a century later. Neil Faulkner looks at the evidence.


    It used to be thought, years ago, that Roman Britain `ended' in AD 410. The impression was that, one day, the Roman army marched out in orderly fashion under their standards, and on the next, the barbarian Saxons sailed in and consigned everywhere to the Dark Ages.

    More recently, archaeologists have taken a different line, arguing that Roman Britain hardly ended at all. Using evidence mainly from single sites like Wroxeter, they claim that some aspects of Roman culture - such as town life, bureaucracy and the use of Latin - continued, at least in the west, as late as the 7th century. Although some scholars have pointed to signs of early decline, the dominant view has been that of survival.

    New research, however, throws that consensus into doubt. Taking the excavated evidence as a whole, it now seems that Roman culture was disintegrating in Britain from the early 200s and had almost completely gone by the end of the 4th century.

    This gradual but inexorable collapse affected towns, villas and villages. Nothing was exempt. The imperial project, the bringing of civilised life to barbarian lands, started with enthusiasm but ended - and ended early - amid piles of refuse and squalor, with abandoned farms and villages, country houses turned into barns and workshops, and towns heavily fortified by an embattled class of state officials desperate to cling on to power.

    Part of the new research work was a large-scale survey of Roman buildings I conducted during the 1990s with Jack Newman, a retired quantity-surveyor and amateur archaeologist based in Essex. We looked at published excavation reports to catalogue and analyse large samples of excavated Romano-British buildings from town and country, first recording the approximate date of construction, then the likely length of occupation. Some of the results were published this year.

    The towns survey included about 1,500 buildings from 300 excavations at 17 urban sites across England (civitas capitals, coloniae and possible municipia), ranging from Wroxeter to Canterbury and from Exeter to Lincoln. A clear pattern emerged. Most civic buildings were erected in about AD 75-150, most private town-houses in about AD150-225, and urban occupation (measured by rooms in use) reached peak levels in the early 3rd century.

    Civic construction work then collapsed as resources were diverted into building town walls in the mid to late 3rd century. There was a partial recovery in the early 4th - the so-called `Constantian renaissance' - but it was a temporary blip, and, from around AD 325, Romano-British towns faced terminal decline. Few new buildings were erected, many old ones were abandoned, and by about AD400 there was little left in most places but a wasteland of ruins and rubbish.

    Colchester is a prime example. My survey counted 115 private buildings, most of them excavated by Philip Crummy's Colchester Archaeological Trust in the 1970s and 80s. Especially important were two massive rescue sites up against the south wall of the town - Lion Walk and Culver Street - which between them represented about half the total area so far excavated in the town. We now know of 20 grand houses in Colchester at its peak in about AD 250, but a hundred years later only three of these were left, and by AD 400 there were none at all.

    Archaeologists have sometimes made too much of a few exceptional sequences. When Shepherd Frere uncovered Building XXVII.2 at Verulamium (St Albans) in 1955-61, most scholars agreed with him that Romano-British town life must have flourished well into the 5th century - and a new consensus was quickly established.

    It seemed confirmed when Philip Barker's excavations on the Baths Basilica site at Wroxeter in 1966-91 revealed a long post-Roman sequence culminating in a grand residence of 6th century date which many felt was highly Romanised. Ken Dark has argued recently that, in the early Dark Ages, supposedly `Celtic' western Britain was in fact `Roman' - with Latin literacy, classical tastes, trade links with the Mediterranean, and a whole political framework inherited from the Romans of the 4th century (BA March 1998).

    These conclusions seem much less compelling in the light of my survey results. Early Dark Age elites used the forms and symbols of Romanitas to legitimise their claims to wealth and power. It is no surprise that much of their material culture looks `Roman'. The same process can be witnessed in other periods. The Sutton Hoo Saxons imported Byzantine luxuries, Renaissance scholars wrote in Latin, and the Georgians built in a neoclassical style - in each case we are dealing with the reuse of ancient cultural symbols in a new situation.

    The 5th and 6th centuries in Britain were probably no different - some elite culture was retained, but it was a thin veneer behind which one of the most complete transformations in British history had taken place. What the archaeology as a whole shows is near-total collapse of the Roman settlement pattern - not just the disappearance of towns, but of villas too, and indeed many native villages and farmsteads.

    Two further recent surveys add weight to this view - one by Jack Newman of 78 villas randomly selected from published reports, another by Katie Meheux from the Institute of Archaeology (UCL) of 162 possible villa sites in the Severn Valley/Welsh Marches region. Neither survey has yet been published.

    One favoured explanation for urban decline is that the Romano-British gentry `retreated to the countryside' to escape the burdens of public service in towns, and there, from the late 3rd century onwards, invested heavily in the embellishment of their country seats. Because of this, Guy de la Bédoyère has described the 4th century as Roman Britain's `golden age' (BA July 1999).

    In fact, the boom in the villa economy seems to have ended early in that century. Newman's survey showed that between AD 300 (the peak) and AD 350 the amount of new building-work undertaken on villas fell by almost two thirds. Both his survey and that of Meheux revealed that a majority of villas had been abandoned by about AD375 and virtually all by about AD 400.
    The odd exception - like Whitley Grange in Shropshire - cannot alter the general picture. Much more typical were sites like Gorhambury in Hertfordshire, where the grand house was a ruin and had been incorporated into the farmyard by the mid-4th century, and Thurnham in Kent, where one of the central rooms was being used as an iron smithy at an even earlier date.

    Native villages and farmsteads fared somewhat better, but many were still deserted or contracted sharply in the 4th century. Katie Meheux surveyed 317 native rural sites in the Severn Valley/Welsh Marches region and discovered a fall of 27 per cent in the number occupied between AD 100-150 and AD 350-400. My own more modest survey of 177 rural sites excavated in 1969-96 (as listed in the Roman archaeology journal Britannia) showed a fall of 35 per cent for the same period.

    When careful modern excavation reveals evidence of early decline at sites like the Romano-British village of Heybridge in Essex (BA September 1999), excavators often conclude that here is the exception, and they seek special-case explanations. Certainly, it was the more marginal sites that succumbed - economic crisis strikes down the weakest - but it was part of a general pattern. At Heybridge, some peripheral areas had been abandoned by about AD200, few new buildings were erected in the central zone in the 3rd and 4th centuries, and rubbish pits were encroaching on the sacred precinct around the temple.

    Taken as a whole, the evidence implies not a 4th century `golden age', but after about AD325 at any rate, an agricultural slump, a decaying class of gentry and an increasingly hard-pressed peasantry. There was, it seems, decline in both town and country - Roman Britain was in crisis long before AD 410. What had gone wrong?

    The crisis must have had deep roots. In the centuries before the Claudian invasion of Britain, Rome had been a fast-growing empire - a dynamic system of robbery with violence in which wars of plunder were waged to fill the treasury, support the army, and subsidise the policy of `bread and circuses' which ensured domestic peace.

    But the conquest of Britain had been one of the last great military adventures, almost an afterthought. Rome had already reached the limits of her empire. Civilisation - forts, towns, villas and `the world of taste' - was expensive. In the absence of a continuing stream of plunder, it could only be paid for out of the surpluses generated by extensive arable agriculture, which enabled the Roman authorities to raise labour corvées and taxes from rural areas to devote to building a Roman way of life.

    By the 1st century AD, the Roman frontiers ran roughly along the limits of ploughed land - beyond lay a true barbaria of upland crofters and pastoralists whose impoverished economies could not support `Romanisation'. The Roman army repeatedly failed to conquer the wilderness of northern Britain. This was not a localised failure. Central Europe was also beyond its reach. An ancient system of military imperialism such as Rome was tied to the ploughed.

    For some time the empire's dependency on internal resources did not matter much. Landowners, rich peasant farmers and numerous petty traders found ready markets for their surpluses in an economy pump-primed by state arms expenditure. But there was a fine balance. Without the subsidy of conquest, documentary sources tell us, taxes slowly crept up, labour corvées became longer, and arbitrary requisitions were more frequent. By analogy with other, better documented historical periods, it is likely that rising demands provoked resistance. Peasants no doubt secreted their grain, hid their cattle in the woods, and their sturdy sons on cousins' farms. Sometimes perhaps they banded together to ambush tax collectors and press-gangs. We know that some abandoned marginal plots and took to the hills and forests to live as bandits beyond the law.

    Caught in the middle were the municipal gentry who ran the towns. Faced with trying to hold together a disintegrating infrastructure, many lost their taste for public service and town life. Ancient historians have long acknowledged a `decline of the decurionate' from the later 2nd century onwards, but Romano-British archaeologists have often assumed that Britain was different.

    A parallel development was the rising wealth and power of a small class of imperial grandees - holders of high office, owners of multiple estates, men networked into the late Roman bureaucracy and protected by their contacts within it. The evidence was meticulously collated by the great ancient historian AHM Jones in his 1960s book The Later Roman Empire, but again Romano-British archaeologists have been reluctant to use these insights in interpreting their own data.

    The awkward relationship between archaeology and history is an old problem. Archaeologists are often fearful of drifting too far from the `scientific' rigour of postholes and potsherds into a reliance on what some see as `biased' documents. But if our task is to explain what happened in the past, historical and archaeological evidence need to be integrated so that a proper story can be told.

    Nor can archaeologists restrict themselves to looking only at their own patch - a single site, region or province. New thinking about interpreting the past urges us to see Roman Britain as part of a `world system'. We should be able to fit together the evidence collected by historians of the empire with what we find on our excavations.

    I think this can be done.

    Let us take the example of late Romano-British towns. We have known for a long time that town walls were strengthened in the 4th century - principally with the addition of projecting bastions - but recent excavation evidence has given a much fuller picture of what things were like inside late Roman towns.

    It is not just that grand old townhouses fell into ruin and were not replaced. Civic buildings also decayed - like the public baths at Canterbury, which, after refurbishment at the beginning of the 4th century, soon fell into disuse and were taken over by `squatters'. On the other hand, town life of a sort certainly continued. Amid abandoned houses, plebeian hovels and piles of refuse and sewage, there were government offices, arms factories, official warehouses, and active markets. Canterbury's municipal baths were in ruins, but a street-front portico with shops and stalls was completely rebuilt around AD 400.

    After the grand houses had been pulled down in Colchester's Culver Street suburb, a huge aisled warehouse was constructed, perhaps for storing taxes-in-kind and military supplies.

    At Caerwent, though much of the old town hall was demolished, one part was retained and given a central-heating system, perhaps for government offices, while another was used for metalworkers' hearths and furnaces, possibly for making armaments. These sites were still towns, but very different from those of the 2nd century - no longer the local centres and garden-cities of a Romanising gentry, but heavily defended outposts of an embattled empire. Imperial defence was the priority and local infrastructures were kept up because the war effort needed them. The imperial grandees in control - courtiers, officers, civil servants and bishops - enriched themselves; but gentry, peasantry, towns, villas and villages were left impoverished.

    When the last Roman soldiers left the island or melted back into the countryside in the early 5th century, Britain's fragile Romanitas had already rotted away to almost nothing.

    The succeeding Dark Ages are `dark' for archaeologists precisely because virtually none of the rich material culture of Roman Britain survived.
    Almost the whole edifice of Romanisation vanished in a generation or two - the forts, towns and villas, the mosaics, frescoes and hypocausts, the stone-quarries, potteries and markets. Late Roman Britain had been part of a world system in crisis, and because it was a distant, under-developed region, it was one of the first to fall.


    (Courtesy of Morfrain_Encilgar who brought this article to my attention)

    Source: British Archaeology


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    ...But Rome never assimilated imperial provinces (which were never completed conquests), only republican provinces. That is why Britain and Germany kept the indigenous cultures and tongues after Rome fell, whereas those South of the Channel like Gaul and West of the Rhine like Belgium never quit on Rome, having been completely remoulded. Nevertheless, the HRE period translated Roman culture through Vatican imposition, but it was all "spiritual" and therefore, not "temporal". The Vatican turned us against ourselves, proving that the pen is mightier than the sword. Of course, we see through it now and have repudiated it in most cases, but I don't think anybody saw that coming.

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