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An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire

An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire

By David Mattingly. Pp. xvi + 617, figs. 17, tables 14. Allen Lane, London 2006. £30. ISBN 978-0-713-99063-8 (cloth).

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In An Imperial Possession Mattingly has produced a mighty book, representing a landmark in the study of Britain during the Roman period. It is admirably researched, comprehensive, balanced, and analytical. The text is cast in highly readable prose, remarkably free of typos and errors. His study combines the rich fabric of up-to-date facts about the era in Britain with cogent interpretation that intentionally advances debate. It is a book that all scholars of the Roman world should be interested in reading, while its pitch is (purposefully) accessible to the nonspecialist reader, consistent with the idiom of the Penguin History series. In his preface, the author states that he wishes “to engage and excite readers both new to and expert in the subject” (xiii). In this aim he deserves to be successful.

The author declares that this is, he hopes, a controversial book (xi); it is certainly a book with a strong argument and an interpretative case to make. The text represents a culmination of thinking on Britain in the Roman empire that emerged during the early to mid 1990s. This was in response to Millett's seminal discourse, The Romanization of Britain (Cambridge 1990), and the growing utility of applying postcolonial and postprocessual perspectives to the Roman era (e.g., the Dialogues in Roman Imperialism [JRA Suppl. 23, 1997], edited by Mattingly), as archaeological studies explored changing paradigms. One sees here perhaps something of the (acknowledged) formative contribution from the author's immediate theoretical hinterland, not least the dynamic set of scholars associated with the author's departmental base (The School of Archaeology and Ancient History at Leicester University) where perceptions of, and research on, the empire have been fruitfully advanced in recent years. Thence An Imperial Possession is about “identity, communities and regions” (xv), a case study of “the investigation of discrepant identities in the Roman empire” (xii; cf. 17), and a “book ... very much concerned with the experience of people in Britain under Roman rule and as such it is far more social history than political history” (5). It represents a marked interpretative shift from the Romanization perspective of the later 1980s and early 1990s, but the “controversy” of the perspective is disarmed by the success of the author and others, notably Hingley and Webster, in their erstwhile critique of Romanization from the mid 1990s (R. Hingley, Globalizing Roman Culture [London 2005]). In other words, this volume for many readers has an anticipated perspective: it brings together now widely accepted threads. It is a book of its time—linked to a generation of scholars at a point in time. Nonetheless, the arguments have force.

Three fundamental characteristics of the book define it. First, there is the focus upon identity, community, and discrepant experience. The range of impacts, experiences, and political, economic, and cultural possibilities and limitations for peoples are explored. Second (and prominently), there is the thesis that provincial Britain was very much under the Roman yoke, the subject of imperial exploitation, a possession of empire to be used and abused. The reader is reminded that “The conquest of Britain and its long-term occupation was no act of altruism” (355), with the author's “vision of the operation of the Roman empire ... a good deal less rosy than that of many modern commentators” (524). This is a profound rereading of the evidence when contrasted with the view of 15–20 years ago when there was a widely shared acceptance of a “light hand” to Roman imperialism, which emphasized cultural continuities from the Iron Age and a minimal impact of the imperial system upon the politics and economics of localities.

Finally, the book's frame of reference is to some considerable degree the milestone texts of the later 20th century dealing with Roman Britain: Frere's Britannia: A History of Roman Britain (London 1987), Salway's Roman Britain (Oxford 1981), and The Oxford Illustrated History of Roman Britain (Oxford 1993) on one side, and Millett's Romanization on the other. While Mattingly's volume is inclusive of archaeological evidence, there is a great deal of history in this book, supplemented by epigraphic records (the Vindolanda archive, inscriptions, etc.), while the Roman army is front of stage. For these reasons, the book might be seen more as a successor to Frere and Salway, since it has less of the depth of archaeologically based analysis than Millett's volume. Indeed, Mattingly advises and reminds us that this is a history book (xii, 491). Yet it will be rightly consumed both by ancient historians and by archaeologists, as well as those who straddle both disciplines. It will be read alongside its contemporary commentary, Creighton's Britannia: The Creation of a Roman Province (Abingdon 2006), which presents a somewhat contrasting, and mainly elite-focused, perspective.

The comprehensive approach of the author is manifest at every turn. This is apparent, for instance, in terms of chronology, from an introduction via a summary of Britain in the Late Iron Age to an absorbing essay on “sub-Roman” Britain. The fullness of the text's scope is seen especially in its geographic coverage. The part of the British Isles conquered by the Romans is contextualized via perspectives incorporating the free part of the Islands in a manner not usually seen with other studies of “Roman Britain.” The two-way connections and influences between the Roman province and the unconquered peoples of northern Britain and Ireland are fully considered. What the reviewer finds particularly impressive is the balanced and nuanced coverage of the regions and subregions about which Mattingly writes with a comfortable, convincing authority. The reader gains a strong sense that their guide knows the landscapes and sites in question firsthand or has taken the trouble to learn about them. This depth, and the assured ease of Mattingly's style, speaks of authoritative awareness and attentiveness.

The book's content will, for the established scholar, be a reminder of the great range of “facts” and facets of evidence (many familiar) but with a digest of recent discoveries. The new findings are discussed, as noted above, in terms of “identity, communities and regions” (xv). Different communities leave different records, and so one often sees marked contrast in the types of evidence Mattingly calls upon. When dealing with all matters military (and Britannia, as made abundantly apparent, is a military province), history and epigraphy are deployed with prominence; but in considering town and country, one sees more focus upon archaeology and artifacts. This is not to say that the latter are not considered when the subject is military; rather, they become a complementary source. This signals the fact that while there has been a “massive accumulation of high quality data, especially relating to finds assemblages” (xii), their analysis in a military context needs more work along the lines established by Allason-Jones, Hoffmann, Gardner, and Jilek.

Mattingly's picture of Britannia is forcefully colored by a reading of the evidence that identifies Rome as pursing a deeply exploitative agenda and imposing an iron fist. Recent imperialisms have demonstrated such dark elements, and the record for the British province is such that Mattingly's argument has gravitas. It is a rather bleak portrayal (cf. 12), an exercise in social realism, and if accepted, exorcises any remnant of a fair-weather pastoral ideal of villa and civilization. For Mattingly, the outcomes of this draconian imperialism are underdevelopment and social distortion (though, of course, Millett had emphasized the negative impact of the Roman army upon the military zones in his 1990 work). This is the Absolutist State at work (cf. P. Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State [London 1979]), and there is no such thing as a cohesive society under this configuration. Unpalatable truths may have to be swallowed; readers will come to their own view (xii). Accordingly, there is much on the Roman army, its deployment and associated spheres (ca. 40% of the book), but is this too great a proportion when one considers what else needs to be covered? This is brought into perspective by the fact that, for this reviewer, Mattingly is at his best on the “ideas” front, with sections on towns and the countryside.

The author periodically touches on the dynamic of the structural overworld of imperialism and the scope for local agency. Choice and autonomy are considered, for instance, in relation to oppida and towns (267) and cultural identity and expression (e.g., 319). More is at work in the province than the imperial agenda, and maybe that agenda does not fracture all indigenous traditions. Interestingly, Creighton's Britannia points up substantive continuities from the Iron Age into the Roman era, containing new observations and readings of landscape use. Continuities seem to endure and be remade despite Roman impositions and refashioning.

Mattingly raises many points of interest. His contention that “the territories assigned to the British towns were much smaller than generally believed” (281) is a comparatively novel argument that will excite debate. Similarly, his emphasis on the distinctiveness of the British experience within the empire is valuable. The identification of relatively slow urbanization (278), his handling of the late Roman town (341), and especially his revisitation of “an important link between religion and an emergent urban identity” (307) are other important characterizations. Economics are soundly reviewed, as are relationships between the province and the empire. There is little on the presently popular domains of structured deposition, ritual, spatial analysis, phenomenology, etc., but these are somewhat specialized archaeological spheres. Experience, identity, and community have replaced Romanization, and “Britain in the Roman era” has become a more comfortable term than the now problematic “Roman Britain” (cf. ch. 12). Mattingly shows us how, for Britain, Roman imperialism could be holistic, hegemonic, permeating, limiting, and, indeed, contingent. Yet the history and archaeology show this was a profound period of human expression made within and despite those constructs.

The maps and tables are clear, helpful, and support the text. The paperback edition makes this volume wonderfully affordable and will give the work the wide audience it deserves.

Steven Willis
School of European Culture and Languages
University of Kent
Canterbury, CT2 7NF
United Kingdom

Book Review of An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire, by David Mattingly

Reviewed by Steven Willis

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 112, No. 4 (October 2008)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1124.Willis

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