Sunday 2 September 2018
Were the Romans in Britain a Good or Bad thing?
I've never been able to decide! I spent some time yesterday in and around the Roman archaeology and museum in Vindolanda . It was the site from which one of the nation's greatest treasures was retrieved - many small slips of thin wood, with writing on them of many kinds... by far the earliest (known, understood) writing from Britain.
I find something both inspiring and appalling about the Romans. The imprint on the Northumbrian countryside is indicative - the Roman remains are rectangular grids, stamped-on the landscape; and stereotyped across the Empire. Compared with the more ancient Celtic and neolithic hillforts, temples, barrows - which are generally distinctive, emerge-from the landscape, and typically composed of curves and circles.
A comparison of the Romans with the Normans brings-out the similarity of engineering genius (the Norman castles were the main instrument of oppression, their cathedrals were a wonder of beauty) but there is a greater contrast. Under the Romans the prosperity of Britain increased greatly, whereas the Normans severely damaged the economy (by razing the North, and by destroying farms to make forests on a vast scale). The Romans brought full bellies, roads, glass and warm baths; the Normans systematic and deliberate mass starvation.
Overall, I feel that - for all their many faults - the Romans were A Good Thing; but the Normans were Bad.
Another mysterious aspect of the Roman time was the arrival of Christianity... I am an adherent of the idea that the first church was built in Glastonbury by Joseph of Arimathea; and that Christianity therefore slowly, but incrementally, spread through the country from the middle thirties AD. This was likely helped by the unification of the nation imposed by the Romans.
After this point, Christianity was never eradicated in Britain - although it reached a low ebb after the Angles and Saxons invaded, and before they converted.
In general, the Romans seemed timely, and synergistic - what was needed at that time and in that place, and strengthening of the distinctiveness and destiny of the nation. When the Romans had left (from the early 400s) there was an economic collapse, and social and military disorder - the nation took hundreds of years to re-emerge.
By contrast the Normans were an alien and parasitic imposition on the nation, and held back its spiritual development for several hundred years - perhaps only in the middle 1300s (with Chaucer, Langland, the Gawain poet) did England re-emerge from the under the invader's yoke, and much good had been lost.