BMCR 2007.04.22

An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire

, An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire. London: Penguin, 2006. 622. £30.00.

Mattingly’s comprehensive publication on Roman Britain is aimed at the general reader, although scholars and students alike will also benefit from this detailed, well presented, new collection of perspectives on the province of Roman Britain. Mattingly takes a fresh approach to the study of the Roman conquest of Britain. Most previous scholars choose the view-point of the conqueror, considering at most only native British interaction with Roman rulers. Mattingly instead ponders the effect of Roman rule on the native population in Britain. His book is a very valuable contribution to the history and archaeology of the province.

The book is divided into five parts: an introduction and four themed parts, respectively entitled ‘The Military Community’, The Civil Communities’, ‘The Rural Communities’ and ‘Comparative Perspectives and Concluding Thoughts’. The detailed introduction is in turn divided into three sub-chapters. In the first , ‘The Spectre of the Empire’, Mattingly discusses the effect of colonialism on modern scholarship on Roman Britain. He points out that the history of the province has never been studied from the perspective of the defeated, since the colonialist and post-colonialist scholars who studied it have always identified with the conquerors rather than the ‘barbaric British’, in contrast to the situation in France, where Vercingetorix became a symbol of French resistance to the German occupation during the Second World War. British researchers, Mattingly argues, tend to glorify their conquerors rather than native leaders. In response, Mattingly proposes to write a post-colonial history of Roman Britain with a focus on the native British view point. Mattingly further argues that ‘Romanization’ was not a one-way process but that native society also contributed to what made a Roman province. Mattingly proposes to attempt to reconstruct British identity under Roman rule. In the second part of his introduction, entitled ‘Sources of Information and Rules of Evidence’, he points out that since most of the sources for Roman Britain come from outside the province they are not always reliable. Mattingly notes that the written sources create a very fragmented view of Romano-British society and that even the archaeological evidence is slightly skewed, since the choice of excavated sites favored the Roman conquerors of Britain. The third introductory chapter, ‘Nothing for Us to Fear or Rejoice At — Britain, Britons and the Roman Empire’, gives an account of the relationship between Britain and the Mediterranean world prior to the period of conquest. Mattingly moves away from the traditional claim that the south of Britain was very eager to embrace Roman rule, remarking that the archaeological material does not provide any evidence for this assumption. He argues there was a careful selection of practices, which is worth stressing.

Part II deals with the military communities of Roman Britain. Chapter 4, ‘The Iron Fist: Conquest (43-83) and Aftermath’, starts with a discussion of the general organisation of the Roman army and then enumerates the campaigns and rebellions during the first century AD. Mattingly argues that the Romans were ruthless in the slaughter and enslavement of rebellious opponents, but perhaps no more so than other ancient armies. Problems in other provinces, difficulties of terrain, native resistance and ultimately lack of manpower contributed to the Romans’ failure to conquer the whole of the island of Britain. Chapter 5, ‘ Britannia Perdomita : The Garrisoning of Provinces’, deals with the organisation of the Roman army in Britain and provides a very detailed summary of the military units. It also includes evidence for military outposts in the so-called ‘civilian’ zone, which shows the entirety of Mattingly’s approach, since most other publications tend to concentrate on either the so-called ‘military’ or the ‘civilian’ zone. His discussion of structural evidence for military buildings is a good summary of recent discoveries, including the function of the walls in Northern Britain, but he fails to mention recent archaeological discoveries pertaining to first century advances into Scotland.1 In Chapter 6 , ‘The Community of Soldiers’, Mattingly underscores the regional variety in the Roman army. He talks about auxiliary patterns and the fact that ethnic origin and cultural identity will have become diluted after a period of time. Mattingly argues that the civilians named on inscriptions were usually closely related to the army and therefore not very representative of the overall population. He argues that most of the British population left no such records and that the presence of the Roman army was not necessarily beneficial to the lives of the ordinary native Britons. He continues to stress that the social effects of the strong military presence on native society have never been explored properly, arguing that many of the women who are commemorated as soldiers’ wives would have been forced into these relationships because of their families’ poverty, which would have had a negative effect on the community. However, whereas this interpretation is undoubtedly justified when talking about the initial period after conquest, Mattingly’s hypotheses are somewhat contradictory at times, since he also states that the auxiliaries and other soldiers were well integrated into society in later periods. It is unlikely that the division between Roman and British would still have been very pronounced during the late second and third centuries AD. In this chapter, Mattingly uses already well known sources, such as the Vindolanda tablets, but reinterprets them. Furthermore, the author shows himself open to various hypotheses on one source, as illustrated in his reading of the inscription from South Shields about the Palmyrene Barates who, according to Mattingly, could have been both a soldier and a civilian in his lifetime.

In Chapter 7, ‘The Fashioning of Military Identity’, Mattingly looks in detail at the factors that contributed to the military’s distinctive identity and how this differentiated soldiers from other groups in society in Roman Britain. Mattingly points out that the Roman military treated civilians quite harshly, although this assumption is based mainly upon records from other provinces. His suggestion that the two skeletons found at Canterbury with military belts and cavalry swords represent cruel cavalry officers murdered during civilian acts of revenge is highly hypothetical. Some cultural habits mentioned in this chapter, such as the culture of eating and the subject of native British art and religion, are not exclusive to the military and therefore move the conversation slightly away from its topic. However, the main conclusions regarding ethnic and cultural diversity in the Romano-British army are very well illuminated by a selection of various sources. Mattingly finishes with a list of deviations from the archetypical Roman military identity by naming some unusual ethnic groups within the Romano-British army, as known from dedications, pottery and the evidence from military burials. The fact that there was a native element in the Romano-British army from the early period and the phenomenon of intermarriage are also highlighted.

Chapter 8, ‘ De Excidio Britanniae‘, deals with the decline and fall of the Roman era in Britain. Mattingly compiles a list of sources of events associated with the fall of Roman Britain in a table, which shows very clearly that the evidence used to create the hypotheses about the decline of Roman Britain from the fifth century AD is mainly literary. Mattingly argues that the third century AD crisis may have been used to shape modern scholars’ views about the following centuries. He also suggests that there is evidence that the military system changed during the late period and argues that the reduction of military power in the fourth century must have brought positive changes to the British economy. According to Mattingly, this is visible in the relative wealth of some level of British society in a time of relative peace. Again, the author displays the ability to analyse already well known sources from a totally different perspective.

Part 3 deals with the civil communities. In Chapter 9, ‘ Forma Urbis : The Development of Towns’, Mattingly challenges the conventional view that a region needed to be ‘pacified’ before being handed over to the civil administration of the new towns. On the origin of the early towns, he includes two recent research results, the existence of native settlements under some towns and the existence of military settlements under others. He states that modern scholars either emphasize one or the other phenomenon, depending on whether they intend to argue for or against native involvement in the founding of cities. However, according to Mattingly, the reality was probably situated somewhere between those two possible scenarios. A list of Romano-British towns follows, as well as a section on the small towns of Late Roman Britain.

Chapter 10, ‘Townspeople’, deals with society in these towns and uses inscriptions and material culture to analyse the lives of their inhabitants. The chapter illuminates very well that city dwellers were a minority in Roman Britain. Also, several interesting points about the diversity of Romano-British city dwellers are made concisely, matched by few other studies of Romano-British towns. Palaeopathological studies, Mattingly adds, do not support the common view that the Roman period brought an improvement in health and nutrition to the population of Britain. Chapter 11, on ‘The Urban Failure’, deals with the controversy over whether or not Romano-British society went into decline from the fourth century AD. Mattingly reviews the evidence, concluding that there was a decline of public buildings but that domestic buildings continued to flourish after the AD 450s, which merely shows that town life as known in the Roman period was replaced by a different system.

Part 4 deals with rural communities. Chapter 12, ‘The Villa and the Roundhouse’, starts with the observation that the lands of the defeated people were usually given to the conquerors. Again, Mattingly attempts to analyse the material from the perspective of the conquered Britons and rejects the recently fashionable view that the British elite played a large part in the design of the new cities. He argues that the strong military presence in many areas of Britain shows that the towns must have been built by the conquerors, similar to the situation in Dacia where there is little evidence for the presence of civilians in the shaping of the town on the frontier zone. However, recently it has been become clear that much more information is needed on rural settlement, and new results may still change this view. Mattingly’s discussion of villas is a rather welcome, new approach since he does not lose himself in the description of single villas but instead asks questions about the influence of villa estates on an area and the origin of the villa owning class. His discussion of rural non-villa sites is rather short, given the fact that the life of the indigenous population is one of the main interests of the book. Since it is a fairly new research interest, this is probably not surprising. Chapter 13, ‘Provincial Landscapes’, investigates rural landscapes according to the criteria laid out in previous chapters. It raises issues about existing research problems, such as the difficulties of investigating non-villa sites; however, the concentration is again mainly on villas. Mattingly also highlights the role of the military in the construction of native British buildings and states that the prata legionis at Chester are an exception because there is evidence for increased native British influence in a military territory. However, our definition of prata may be too broad since recent studies have shown that the borders between military and civilian areas are often not as clearly cut as generally anticipated.2 Chapter 14, ‘Free Britannia : Beyond the Frontiers’, offers a good summary of the Roman material from beyond the Romano-British frontiers, showing that the movement of goods was controlled by hierarchical centres. Mattingly’s interpretation of the material is not new, but the fact that the Irish material is included in the study shows that this book offers a very well-balanced approach. Mattingly shows in Chapter 15, ‘Rural culture and identities’, how the inhabitants of the towns and Roman-style elite were a minority in Roman Britain. He discusses the different groups of possible villa owners, such as occasionally local chieftains, Italian state officials, wealthy refugees from the continent in the third century, and presumably the church during the fourth century AD. The decorative art of the elite is used to gather information about rural identities and culture, as well as eating culture, religion and funerary cult. However, overall this chapter is a list of habits, and Mattingly does not dwell on the question of individual identities too much, which is probably because of the scanty evidence for such individuals.

Part 5 is entitled ‘Comparative Perspectives and Concluding Thoughts’. It begins with Chapter 16, ‘Different Economies, Discrepant Identities,’ which deals with the difference between the native and Roman economy. Mattingly starts with the observation that the view of Romanization as a one-way process has long been replaced by the realization that the Roman Empire was one of discrepant experiences. From this observation, he draws conclusions about the economy of Roman Britain. He points out that the economy of a Roman province was driven by the desire to extract resources from the conquered areas, since large armies were in need of maintenance and the taxation of the defeated tribes was one way to achieve this. Mattingly differentiates between provincial economies and the imperial economy. On top of these, he argues, there was the extra-provincial economy, represented by the material outcome of trade with neighbouring societies in Ireland and Scotland. Mattingly does not agree that there was Roman control of goods exchange with these areas. However, other scholars, such as Erdrich, have proven that there appears to have been Roman control of the trade routes, at least in some cases.3 Again, Mattingly attempts to highlight the negative impact of the Roman occupation on British society and compares this with the more recent example of slave trade in West African societies. In his concluding thoughts on this chapter, Mattingy argues that there was no uniform way of being ‘Roman’ in Britain, since different communities would have embraced different aspects of Roman life-style. Mattingly roughly divides areas into those that were more opportunistic about becoming Roman and those that were more resistant. Overall, Mattingly’s view of Roman Britain is a good deal less rosy than that of other scholars. He fiercely believes that colonialism was always an exploitative system and that its effects on native British society would not have differed from other those of other examples of colonialism in the more recent past. Thus, he interprets the collapse of Roman Britain as a native response to ongoing unhappiness with the status quo.

In Chapter 17, ‘No Longer Subject to Roman Laws’, Mattingly argues that it is likely that the end of the Roman rule in Britain was mainly the result of the resistance of British population after having been oppressed for four centuries. Unlike Wood, he interprets Romano-British culture after AD 409 as essentially sub-Roman and does not believe early medieval sources which state that Roman rule was reinstated after this period.4 In Mattingly’s eyes, the native population was only too keen to rid itself of the Roman economy and taxes, and he argues that the absence of coins from the early fifth century AD proves that an official Roman rule was never re-established. However, his view may be slightly one-sided and influenced by studies on more modern colonial systems. It is evident that there must have been a lot of dissatisfaction with the Roman rule in Britain during the period following the conquest, as shown by the revolts of the first century AD. However, by the early fifth century AD it is unlikely that there would have been much awareness of the status quo before the conquest or longing for the freedom of their pre-Roman ancestors, especially in those areas that were not near the frontier. Thus, interpreting Honorius’ refusal to send more troops and the decision of some Romano-British aristocrats to take refuge on the continent as a form of large-scale and long-time ‘liberation’ movement in Britain might be somewhat drastic.

Mattingly’s book is a very detailed, valuable introduction into the subject of Roman Britain, which does not repeat previous summaries of the history and archaeology of the province but instead offers a new point of view, analysing the province from the perspective of the conquered rather than the conquerors. Aimed at the general reader, it nonetheless offers a wide range of theories and new research results, rendering the book attractive for readers with a more detailed knowledge of Roman Britain as well. Understandably, there is little room for detailed references in a general study; however, it would be easier to relate the statements in the book to the evidence for them if such references were made within the text as well as in the excellent and comprehensive bibliography at the end of the book. Overall, many of Mattingly’s theories on the native British viewpoint on Roman Britain differ significantly from other scholars’ analyses of Roman Britain. His book offers a refreshing new angle, although occasionally the models offered by more recent cases of colonialism represent a highly hypothetical approach to the study of native identity in Roman Britain. Unfortunately, relatively little is known about the native communities in Roman Britain compared to the occupying forces, and even less about the lives of country-dwellers compared to those of city dwellers. Therefore, a good deal of Mattingly’s scenarios cannot be proven, in spite of his best efforts to shed more light on native British identity. Because the book is mainly a collection of sources on the conquerors rather than the conquered, not through the fault of the author but because our main source material still comes from this part of Romano-British society, any conclusions about the native British feelings on the Roman rule are largely based upon more recent examples, such as the slave trade in western Africa, and are therefore highly hypothetical. Nevertheless, this book is an admirable and very comprehensive study, which offers a variety of sources and their interpretations and very detailed analysis of various aspects on the Roman rule in Britain and the lives of members of native society from within and outside the frontiers as well as immigrants from the Roman world. Therefore, this study is highly recommended to the general readership interested in Roman Britain as well to as experienced readers.


1. D.J. Woolliscroft and B. Hoffmann. Rome’s First Frontier — The Flavian Occupation of Northern Scotland. Stroud: Tempus Publishing, 2006.

2. R. Kurzmann. “The definition of ancient military territories.” Bulletin of the Hadrianic Society, N.S. 1 (2006) 11-17.

3. M. Erdrich. Rom und die Barbaren: das Verhältnis zwischen dem Imperium Romanum und den germanischen Stämmen vor seiner Nordwestgrenze von der späten römischen Republik bis zum gallischen Sonderreich. Mainz: Von Zabern 2001.

4. I. Wood. ‘The final phase’, in: M. Todd (ed.), A companion to Roman Britain (Oxford 2004), 428-42.