The Romans in Britain: David Mattingly Revisits an Article by Graham Webster, First Published in History Today in 1980, Offering a Surprisingly Sympathetic Account of Roman Imperialism

By Mattingly, David | History Today, January 2011 | Go to article overview

The Romans in Britain: David Mattingly Revisits an Article by Graham Webster, First Published in History Today in 1980, Offering a Surprisingly Sympathetic Account of Roman Imperialism


Mattingly, David, History Today


It is a truism of history that each generation refashions the past in line with the preoccupations of the present. Graham Webster's article on the British under Roman rule is of interest largely because it deals with the first stirrings of post-colonial consciousness in Romano-British studies, even though the conceptual framework employed by Webster prevented him from taking his insights to their logical conclusion. Today the inadequacies of Webster's attempt to produce a 'study in colonialism' are apparent, but more recent revision has built on these first faltering steps.

The predominant 20th-century paradigm of Roman archaeology was 'Romanisation', reflecting a fundamentally positive evaluation of the impact of Rome on indigenous societies and the progressive nature of the transformation of the provinces under its 'benign' rule. The historical narrative of the period took on trust the surviving Roman sources--indeed British scholars imbued with modern colonial ideology were predisposed to sympathy for the Roman view of events in the Empire's frontier territories.

Webster describes events, motivations and outcomes in very certain terms, though the available evidence to support many of his assertions is thin, resting largely on unspoken assumptions. He was part of the last generation of scholars to have grown up believing in the probity of imperial rule; his underlying sympathy for the Roman Empire is patent throughout the article. When things went wrong the explanation lay with 'rogue' agents of the Roman state, such as the 'weak and self-seeking' procurator Decianus Catus, whose actions contributed to the Boudican revolt in AD 60. It is also manifest in the way the native Britons are described: Webster makes repeated allusions to 'tribes', whereas in southeast England at least, Rome was increasingly dealing with sophisticated kingdoms in the run up to the Claudian invasion of AD 43. Note also the choice of language to describe the druids ('insidious' and 'inimical') or the ascription of anti-Roman feeling to 'the more susceptible British chieftains', implying that any right-minded British leader would have recognised the innate superiority of Rome and the opportunities that the Roman Empire offered.

Yet there are elements in Webster's account that demonstrate awareness of the complexities of colonialism and its negative connotations for any society in any age on the receiving end. References to shows of force, to the attempted extermination of obdurate enemies, to 'sheer terror tactics' on the part of Rome and to the tendency of veteran Roman colonists to regard the Britons as 'the defeated enemy to be despised and kicked around' hint at this darker side of Roman imperialism. …

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