LIFE AND DEATH IN THE COUNTRYSIDE OF ROMAN BRITAIN

Smith, A., Allen, M., Brindle, T., Fulford, M., Lodwick, L., and Rohnbogner, A.

Roman Society Publication (2018) p/b 448pp £32.40 (ISBN 9780907764465)

This book is a social history. It draws together recent research into rural Britain during the first four centuries AD. Much of that research arises from developer-funded excavations since the change in planning law in 1990 or from recent advances in zooarchaeology.

We begin with a chapter on personal appearance. In the south east of Britain brooches, bracelets, finger rings and hairpins were common. In the north and west, such items were much rarer; this may reflect tight military control of the settlement hierarchy. An unusually large collection of brooches found in Cornwall may be attributable to smelting in that area. But, as the authors point out, we do not have to seek specific explanations for every unexpected assemblage. Occasional unusual finds may be attributed to social mobility. 

There is then a broader chapter on ‘lifestyle and social environment’. Here the impact of Rome was substantial. The creation of roads led to the construction of mansiones (lodgings for official travellers) and the emergence of roadside settlements. The authors identify 182 such settlements, 18 of which had bathhouses. Roman technology spread into the countryside. Lamps often featured as grave goods, which suggests that they were widely used. Domestic architecture developed. There was a move away from round houses to rectangular buildings. Literacy and the use of Latin also spread into the countryside. Wooden leaf writing tablets, lead curse tablets (found in wells or at shrines) and numerous inscriptions are evidence of widespread literacy. The authors argue that bilingualism in Latin and the local Celtic dialect was common.

The Roman conquest also brought about substantial changes in farming methods and in the exploitation of wild resources. Across central and south east England, cultivation of spelt wheat became common. There was large-scale herding of cattle, in place of household herding. Long distance droveways appeared, as well as substantial enclosures. Farming became more of an industrial enterprise, no doubt because there was an occupying army and a growing urban population to feed. Cattle increased in size. Curiously, so also did sheep, pigs, horses and even chickens. During the early second century areas of extensive grazing, defined by ditches and trackways, appeared in the Upper Thames Valley.

Many juvenile sheep bones have been found in the major towns, which suggests that lamb was a luxury meat. Horses were used for new purposes, such as chariot racing and entertainment, as evidenced by bone assemblages found at Colchester and Silchester. At the same time, the Iron Age practice of eating horsemeat seems to have died out. Dog-breeding intensified, as did fishing. Shell fish, especially oysters, became a popular dish for the élites. The Romans seem to have introduced fallow deer, as well as pheasants and peacocks, to this country. They also created parks and ornamental gardens where such exotic creatures could be admired. When these developments are viewed collectively, it is clear that Roman occupation brought profound changes across the countryside, which was where the vast majority of the population lived and worked.

One chapter is devoted to ‘religion and the rural population’. As the authors point out, all the classical writers on the subject of religion, such as Ovid, are firmly rooted in the Mediterranean. They may be of little relevance to religion in Roman Britain, especially rural Britain. Therefore, the best evidence that we have is archaeological. In religion, as in agriculture, there was a clear regional divide. Across the Central Belt, there were sacred areas and shrines within farmsteads. In the east there was a preference for religious enclosures without architectural embellishment. In the north and west of Britain, away from military sites, there are very few places or structures which can be interpreted as shrines or which contain the remnants of religious objects. Finally, the minute proportion of the rural population who lived in formal villas adopted the trappings of official Roman religion, with mosaics depicting the classical gods. During the fourth century, when Christianity emerged as the favoured religion, the élite classes started to adopt Christian art forms.

The latter part of the book provides a comprehensive survey of rural burial practices. These varied widely across the province. Cremation burials were the norm in the south east, especially in the early Roman period. Over time, inhumations became more common. There was an increased use of defined burial zones. In the fourth century, for no obvious reason, many corpses were buried decapitated. Forty-nine stone coffins have been recovered from rural sites, generally close to close to villas. The élite classes, at least, could look forward to a splendid send-off. The rural working population fared less well both in life and in death. Analysis of their bones and teeth reveals a generally unhealthy diet and a lack of vitamins C and D. As the authors conclude in the final chapter: ‘Although the benefits of Roman civilisation are widely and repeatedly trumpeted, it is clear that these did not impact favourably on the mass of the population of Roman Britain.’

This book is packed with details, analyses and statistics. It is not for the casual reader. The book is intended for the serious student of Roman Britain. To such a reader, it has much to offer.

Rupert Jackson

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