David Braund looks at the physical, institutional and social environment of Britain at the time of the Roman invasions and shows how archaeology and the written word illuminates an obscure age.
AT THE BEGINNING OF THE FIRST millennium AD there was very much a north-south divide in Britain. The southern lowlands had recently experienced major change, driven both by local processes and by new relationships across the Channel.
We depend particularly upon the results of archaeology for any understanding of local processes in ancient Britain, for at this stage the inhabitants of Britain did not produce written accounts of themselves, whatever oral traditions may have been current among them. Archaeology shows that by the middle of the first century BC a major shift in forms of settlement had occurred in lowland Britain. Hitherto communities had been centred upon defended `hillforts', such as Maiden Castle in Dorset. Yet the term may mislead. Hill-forts were more than defensive acropoleis: they included dwellings and may best be seen as representing a stage in the process of developing urbanisation. However, in the early decades of the first century BC, settlement in lowland Britain steadily shifted to sites suited not so much for defence as for farming, communication and trade.
These new settlements still tended to take advantage of such natural defences as might be available, such as rivers and marshes. Their inhabitants might even devote substantial labour to the construction of earthworks and dykes. However, while the change requires nuanced interpretation, we may safely infer that, as the first millennium AD approached, a measure of peace had come to the British lowlands. There was a new stability there which made the change of settlement viable. That in turn seems best explained by the development of larger political entities across southern Britain. These not only provided a peaceful atmosphere necessary for the move from hill-forts, but perhaps also made new demands upon agrarian and other types of production in the form of taxes, overwhelmingly, no doubt, in kind, such as grains and hides.
The archaeological evidence can be supplemented by Caesar's account of his brief incursions into the south-east corner of Britain in 55 and 54 BC. He landed in Kent and went as far as the Hertfordshire and Essex borders. However, Caesar's account is fraught with difficulties, despite (and perhaps because of) its simplicity of language and content. While Caesar may seem to offer an impartial account of what he discovered in Britain, he was of course profoundly implicated in his own narrative. As far as we can judge, his account was designedly polemical. It was constructed to demonstrate the propriety of his British adventures, not to mention his activities in Gaul. For Caesar, though located far from Rome, remained at the very heart of the political furore there, which soon culminated in civil war, with Caesar himself as the key protagonist. While Caesar's enemies in Rome freely criticised each step of his campaigns, he wrote his own account to answer and undermine these criticisms. His agenda is indicated by his decision to write about himself in the third person, as if he were not the author as well as the subject. In all probability he sent a portion of that account back to Rome each year, for circulation and perhaps public recitation there, together with his formal reports to the Senate. The point is central to any attempt to understand Britain at this stage, for when Caesar offers information on Britain we should expect it in some way to contribute to his own defence or aggrandisement. That does not mean that Caesar's evidence is to be ignored, but it does mean that we must subject it to much closer scrutiny than it might seem at first to require.
Yet Caesar's self-serving account does offer a partial snapshot of southeastern Britain. And his account tends to confirm inferences from the archaeological record of changes in settlement. …