The Art of Roman Britain

The Art of Roman Britain

The Art of Roman Britain

The Art of Roman Britain


With the help of over 100 illustrations, many of them little known, Martin Henig shows that the art produced in Britannia - particularly in the golden age of Late Antiquity - rivals that of other provinces and deserves comparison with the art of metropolitan Rome.The originality and breadth of Martin Henig's study is shown by its systematic coverage, embracing both the major arts - stone and bronze statuary, wall-painting and mosaics - and such applied arts as jewellery-making, silversmithing, furniture design, figure pottery, figurines and appliques. The author explains how the various workshops were organized, the part played by patronage and the changes that occurred in the fourth century. Above all, he emphasizes the high aesthetic merit of so much of the work produced during the four centuries of Roman Britain.


O, patience!
The statue is but newly fix’d, the colour’s
Not dry.

In his essay, The Romanization of Roman Britain, read to the British Academy in 1905 (and revised twice in the next ten years), Francis Haverfield wrote:

When the Romans spread their dominion over the island [Celtic art] almost wholly vanished. For that we are not to blame any evil influence of this particular Empire. All native arts, however beautiful tend to disappear before the more even technique and the neater finish of town manufactures (p.48).

Later, when discussing the Celtic artist in Roman society, Haverfield concluded that ‘his Celtic art lost its power and approximated to the conventionalism of Samian ware’ (p.51). When he writes of ‘the heavy inevitable atmosphere of the Roman material civilisation’, it is hard not to conclude that his bias is formed by Late Victorian society and those values which Morris and Burne-Jones assailed so passionately. Clearly complex societies, whatever their undoubted virtues, were no good for art.

In the next generation, R. G. Collingwood’s assessment of Romano-British art was still more damning. Haverfield’s essay belongs to the confident Edwardian age. Collingwood’s has the experience of the First World War, of the rise of fascist tyranny exemplified by the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, and the menace of Nazi Germany behind it. Native cultures were being trodden underfoot by ‘Imperial’ powers which were anything but benificent. Of course Collingwood was too good a philosopher, Classicist and historian to make a direct comparison between the Empire of Rome and the Empire of Mussolini, but the chapter on art in Roman Britain and the English Settlements first published in 1936 and revised in the following year contains telling remarks:

At its lowest terms, the history of Romano-British art can be told in a couple of sentences. Before the Roman conquest the Britons were a race of gifted and brilliant artists: the conquest, forcing them into the mould of Roman life with its vulgar efficiency and lack of taste, destroyed that gift and reduced their arts to the level of mere manufactures (p.247; author’s italics).

Remember that in Italy this was the fascist era, where Mussolini dreamed of a refounded Roman Empire and where the trains ran on time into tasteless and grandiose railway stations.

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