Who Were The Romans?

This seems to be a very simple question. “Roman” is a term that we are all familiar with in common usage, in fact, school children every year have a whole term dedicated to learning about Roman history. So, we all know what we mean by it… or do we? 

The term “Roman” is used by archaeologists to refer to a particular period of history. In Britain this is from AD 43 when Claudius’ army invaded and annexed southern Britain, to AD 410, when the last of the Roman military presence was recalled and Britain was left to defend itself. 

Using the word Roman in that way doesn’t say anything about the people living here during that time period. So, as well as talking about the years the Romans were active in our country, we can also use “Roman” to refer to the material culture (the “things”) that characterise life across the Roman empire.

Example of a Roman drill, to make accurate holes in wood.

On the large scale this includes “things” like particular forms of architecture, the roads they designed and military tactics. On the small scale “things” such as types of dress accessories (brooches, buckles, etc.), hand tools like the drill in the photo, or pottery. 

Roman artefacts, being useful items, were also adopted, imported and made by local populations (in our case the British tribes). Although these objects are recognisable as distinctly Roman, there is a lot of variation between products made in different places. At its height the empire spanned 4.4 million km². As you can imagine, this is a lot of cultural variety, so when we talk about Roman “things” they have, if you like, regional accents.  

By The Roman Well Edwardo Forti (19th C. Italian)

Roman People

It is when we start to apply the label “Roman” to people that we get into difficulties. Today we often talk as if “the Romans” arrived at a location, conquered it, brought civilisation, and just as suddenly left, taking all that “civilisation” with them. However, the people we refer to as “Romans” were not a homogenous group – and certainly not all from Rome… or even Italy.

By the time Britain was conquered, the Roman empire covered a vast area, from north Africa in the south, Syria in the east and Spain in the west, and as far north as the Rhine. Military units recruited inhabitants from all these areas, and many more served at various times on Hadrian’s Wall.  

A couple of soldiers discussing their tenure.

Roman citizenship was another issue. Not all “Romans” were born as Roman citizens. For a start, the vast number of slaves who lived in Rome did not have citizenship. The empire imposed a set of obligations on individuals, but it also granted them legal rights. In AD 212, the emperor Caracalla granted Roman citizenship to all free men living within the empire.

Before that time, citizenship could only be inherited by birth, or granted to those deemed worthy, wherever their birthplace was within the empire. To serve in the military legions, one had to be a Roman citizen. Non-citizens could only serve in the auxiliary units whereby citizenship was a reward they could earn… after 25 years service. 

Roman Lifestyle

Dionysiac Frieze,Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii, Second Style, 60-50 BC

Roman citizenship was certainly something that was sought after, as were the accoutrements and relative conveniences of a typical “Roman” lifestyle. Being Roman (in the sense of living in a certain way), was something that many aspired to. This was a route to social betterment, prestige and power. 

But did a wealthy provincial farmer living in a villa a thousand miles from Rome think of himself as “Roman” or Kentish? Or possibly both? Identity is a complex issue. Many of us, when we think about it, have multiple, overlapping identities – are you defined by where you live, your job, your lifestyle choices, your family heritage, your taste in music? 

Indeed, we talk about the society at the time as Romano-British meaning a population of predominantly local origin, living under Roman rule and adopting (to a greater or lesser extent) a package of particular behaviours and material culture. 

A Roman Market, courtesy of http://www.romanobritain.org

What is certainly true is that there was no wave of foreign invaders, sweeping aside and replacing the local population. Rome preferred, where possible, a light touch in governing its provinces. Though it was certainly willing to use the iron fist when necessary. A foreign governor would be imposed and high-level administration would be done by career civil servants or seconded army officers. Nevertheless, at a lower level much would be entrusted to local elites acting on behalf of the regime. There is no reason to think that the majority of the inhabitants of Roman Kent were not ethnically British. In AD 410, Rome ‘abandoned’ Britain, but there was no great exodus of the “Roman” people… because the majority of society were those whose ancestors had lived here long before the invasion, and whose descendants would continue to do so forming the county you know today. 

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