An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire, 54 BC – AD 409 by David Mattingly - review by Peter Jones

Peter Jones

Britons Never Shall Be Slaves

An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire, 54 BC – AD 409


Allen Lane The Penguin Press 580pp £30

There are two stories about Roman Britain. One is that ancient Brits were gentle, egalitarian souls, ideologically committed to the concept of community, passionate about the arts and culture, and with a nuanced sensitivity to dance rhythms. The arrival of horrid Romans with their rough armies came as a terrible shock to this warmly liberal pre-Guardian culture. The other is that the Brits were brutal, ignorant, naked, woad-spattered, murderous, ululating slobs to whom the arrival of civilised Romans, with their superb language, mighty economy and strong sense of legal process, all accompanied by the smack of firm government, was the best thing that could ever have happened.

These alternative stories bring into focus two complementary and crucial issues. How do you write a history of a conquered people when the few written sources that have survived, literary and epigraphic, were the product of the imperial conquerors? And how do you determine in whose eyes any generalisations that

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