Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.12.25 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.12.25

Mike McCarthy, The Romano-British Peasant. Towards a Study of People, Landscapes and Work during the Roman Occupation of Britain.   Bollinton:  Windgather Press, 2013.  Pp. xii, 164.  ISBN 9781905119479.  $60.00.  

Reviewed by Eric C. De Sena, American Research Center in Sofia (

In the late 1960s and 1970s, a small number of British and Italian scholars, including David Peacock, Peter Garnsey and Andrea Carandini, began to introduce social history and archaeology in the context of the Roman period. Inspired primarily by the work of Mikhail Rostovzeff and Moses Finley, these scholars diverged from the norm of developing historical narratives, discussing elites and focusing upon architecture and art. In Roman archaeology, this helped to usher in an ongoing age of meticulous studies of mundane artifacts, such as pottery, glass, and utilitarian goods with the notion that documentation and analysis of such materials can shed light upon socio-economic issues and societal groups who did not generally receive attention, such as slaves, craftsmen and merchants. The late 1990s and first decade of the 21st century has seen a trend of holistic studies, which merge many kinds of data, such as animal bones, ancient texts and Roman art, with theory and/or and comparisons to other times and places. The latter is often to compensate for the subjects and activities with little or no mention in ancient texts and for material, such as leather or wood, that does not normally survive in the archaeological record. This is the context of Mike McCarthy’s book, The Romano-British Peasant.

Scholars of the Roman period, no matter their origin or place of training tend to avoid themes for which little evidence exists or which may not be deemed to have an insufficient audience. While Britain is one of the best studied Roman provinces and scholars working in Britain have been focusing upon the nuances of mundane objects and have undertaken programs of landscape archaeology, McCarthy laments that very little has been said about “the people who got their hands dirty in the fields and behind the potter’s wheel” (p. x). His aim, therefore, is to recount a story about these unthanked subjects who allowed the Roman empire to exist and flourish. In a very readable narrative style, McCarthy merges archaeological and textual evidence from the Iron Age, Roman period and Middle Ages with information regarding climate and environment, social theory and documentation from the Early Modern period.

Chapter 1 (pp. 1-13) introduces three concepts that the writer considers important in the study of peasants in Roman Britain. The first is “survival”. Reviewing a small selection of processual and post-processual archaeology studies as well as twentieth-century economic theory, McCarthy discusses a hierarchical set of needs beginning with physiological needs and including psychological needs such as love, belonging, and esteem. The second concept touched upon is “peasantry”. The author cites a number of scholars focusing upon the Greco-Roman world as well as Britain through the Early Modern period in order to define what a peasant is. He concludes that peasants in Roman Britain were free men and freedmen who may or may not have held possessions and were bound to social superiors. The final concept, “chest of drawers”, critiques scholarship on Roman Britain. McCarthy complains that archaeologists pick and choose evidence from the corpus of archaeological features and finds in order to discuss general trends of Roman Britain. This book is about the peasant for which very little textual or archaeological evidence exists and puts questions before the evidence.

Chapters 2 and 3 (pp. 14-30, 31-61) characterize the varied landscape of Britain (2) and the pre- and post-Roman populations of the land (3). The first part of chapter 2 provides a simple overview of the geography, geology, flora and climate of Britain, which leads into two sections concerning regionalism. In these two sections, McCarthy draws upon literature regarding the early modern period and indicates how farming practices and animal husbandry were affected by the environment. New agricultural technologies introduced by the Romans allowed the local populations to acquire somewhat greater yields from the land and introduce some new species of plants, but farming within given regions was not radically changed. In his discussion of the people of Roman Britain, chapter 3, the author covers a lot of terrain from population estimates, the location of tribes, the organization of family units, nutrition and homes. The chapter serves as a “chest of drawers”, aspects of peasant life to be pondered and serve as stimuli to seek archaeological evidence. For example, how large a space would a humble family of 6 require and how much land and human energy would be necessary to feed the family?

Chapters 4 (pp. 62-89) addresses farming activities in the lives of Romano-British peasants. The chapter is based upon environmental data, early modern records, archaeological evidence as well as observations springing from an experimental farm. The author begins with a discussion of the depth of knowledge possessed by ancient people about the seasons and annual cycles. This is followed by sections on the selection and management of land, crops and storage, woodlands, livestock and equipment. Each section contains a detailed description of procedures; thus, the reader is instructed when fields are plowed and with what equipment, the moments and manner of sowing fields, and the qualities of manure.

Chapters 5 (pp. 90-122) is another “chest of drawers”, describing extraction industries (salt, iron and stone), the construction of canals, manufacture of textiles and pottery, and retail and distribution. The lower class was engaged, of course, in many other industries and services; however, in a relatively short volume that strives to provide an overview and food for thought, the author selected those activities which are recognizable in the archaeological record. McCarthy describes in some detail the processes involved in each task. While interesting for scholars with little prior knowledge of these activities, there is nothing new and the author introduces little archaeological evidence, if any, that attests to peasants conducting these tasks. For example, in his overview of pottery, the author might have discussed to the Arretine sigillata industry for which there is ample and detailed evidence of master potter-slave/freedman relations.1

Chapter 6 (pp. 123-138) concerns the social relationships and connections of the inhabitants of Roman Britain. Based primarily upon ancient texts, such as Tacitus, McCarthy describes the system of tribes, indicating that not all tribes were organized in the same manner. The Romans took advantage of the tribal system, developing relations with leaders who would help govern their own people. The Roman army and senatorial class took possession of significant tracts of land upon which local peasants worked. The peasants who worked the land may have been tenant farmers or may have been employed by large landowners. Quarries and mines were state or private possessions with peasants living in small communities. “Romans” also consisted of soldiers and traders hailing from all parts of the Empire who introduced new goods and concepts, such as qualities of wine or eastern divinities. This is followed by a short concluding chapter.

The key to The Romano-British Peasant is the author’s claim that this is the first attempt to discuss peasants in Roman Britain in any meaningful way. Since there is virtually no textual evidence and the current state of the archaeological record does not provide many clues to this very large underclass, McCarthy has chosen to develop a framework which future archaeologists may use in their search to construct a more detailed picture of the life of peasants in the Roman period. At times, however, the discourse is too general and specialists will already be well aware of procedures, such as stone quarrying. Chapters 4 and 5 are clearly the core of the book, yet together they represent little more than one third of the text. I appreciate the scenarios and procedures involved in agriculture and other kinds of work based upon evidence from medieval and early modern contexts; however, the reader would benefit from a few more examples based upon excavation of Roman sites. For example, in Chapter 4 on farming, the importance of managing and exploiting woodlands is mentioned but not discussed at length. Wood was clearly used in Roman times for many purposes from scaffolding on construction sites to the manufacture of barrels and fuel, but there are no cases discussed for the Roman period. Part of the problem is perhaps the fact that McCarthy rarely looks beyond Britain for examples. The book would clearly benefit from some well known cases, such as Andrea Carandini’s work at the Settefinestre villa,2 or more obscure discoveries such as a charcoal preparation center in southern Lazio.3 Despite some inadequacies, there is considerable food for thought in this book and I hope it provokes scholars to ponder the scenarios and seek evidence to build upon the framework.


1.   G. Fülle. 1997. The internal organization of the Arretine Terra Sigillata industry: problems of evidence and interpretation. JRS 87: 111-155.
2.   A. Carandini and A. Ricci (eds.). 1985. Settefinestre I. Una villa schiavistica nell’Etruria Romana: la villa nelle sue parti and Settefinestre II. Una villa schiavistica nell’Etruria Romana: la villa nel suo insieme III. Modena: Edizioni Panini.
3.   G.R. Bellini, F. Lugli, S. Pracchia. 1998. Colle il Fico. In S. Pracchia, L. Petrassi, F.M. Cifarelli (eds.), Elementi Minori di un Paesaggio Archeologico: Una Lettura dell’Alta Valle Latina. Roma: LAND, 205-217.

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