The Romans in Britain

THE TRUE EXTENT of the Emperor Augustus’s power can be found in the exile of the great poet, Ovid in AD 8. Just why he was punished is not clear; however, having offended the emperor he was sent to an island in the middle of nowhere. So clear was Augustus’s authority, Ovid was told to go and go he went. [¤ see below]

Throughout the empire, the emperor’s word ensured stability and even peace. To counter external threats, he bribed potential enemies not to attack the borders; without internal challenge, life went on without interruption. The distribution of powers was balanced, if not equitable. Augustus, army, senate: the power flowed in diminishing proportions in that order while the people were content with adequate food and peaceful prosperity.[§ see below] This extraordinary state of affairs lasted for the next 150 years or so. Skirmishes in Britain with the Scots and Welsh were easily dealt with; while the ‘English’ seemed also to prosper with the rest of the empire.

Having such extensive, despotic powers was a temptation which felled some emperors like Caligula and Tiberius. [see below how William the Conqueror is described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.¥]Yet there were enlightened rulers, indeed liberal as we would understand the term. The following is from a letter Trajan wrote to Pliny the Younger who had asked for guidance on the growing number of Christians and their ‘superstition’.

They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it–that is, by worshiping our gods–even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance. But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of our age.

There were something like 15,000 legionaries stationed in Britain — it was officially a province, as was Gaul and Lusitania, for example — who were supported by perhaps three times that number of auxiliaries.

It’s worth remembering that the majority of the Roman Empire’s armed forces were not exclusively Romans, and were probably not even born in Italy. There weren’t enough citizens for that. The legions recruited throughout the empire; one of the bonuses was retirement in a colony such as Lincoln — and great cash gifts or ‘donatives’ on the accession of a new emperor. These sweeteners meant later that the soldiers would decide the new emperor.]

This lack of native soldiers and the use of ‘mercenaries’ to fight Rome’s battles was one of the primary reasons Edward Gibbon cited for the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

It’s likely that Horncastle was garrisoned by auxiliaries; while Lindum [Lincoln] would have been home to some legionaries. [The legions’ main bases were at York, Chester, and Caerleon.] Horncastle was simply a small fort on the way to Lincoln — and further north — which in time became a major centre of power. In fact, it was designated a colonia in AD 98 . [York had to wait until AD 237.]

Like most imperial troops, the Romans treated Britons with disdain and contempt. This is scarcely surprising. British troops in the British Empire were disdainful and contemptuous of all local inhabitants in Africa and the Far East; the Americans effectively destroyed the Indians and weren’t too well behaved towards the Vietnamese, either.

For the local Britons in the first, second and later centuries, the Romans used the term ‘Britunculus’ for one of the locals. Literally, it meant ‘little Brit’ but it carried the same value of contempt as does the word ‘frog’ when used to refer to the French.

Further articles on this subject will appear in the next few weeks.

¤ Ovid’s was not true exile which would have entailed the loss of all property, as well as liberty. [His full name was Publius Ovidius Naso.] Instead he was ‘relegated’ to Tomis, a decrepit, crude town on the coast of the Black Sea in what we today call Romania. The reason this case is so exemplary is that Ovid went into exile on his own: there were no armed guards to ensure he went. Rather, he made his own arrangements. To do otherwise would have been folly. In some ways, this is more frightening than armed soldiers or police hammering on the door at 5am as the Gestapo used to do during the last world war.

It’s thought the reason for Ovid’s exile was that he was somehow involved in a love affair involving one of the emperor’s family — either directly or simply as one of a circle of friends. [Ovid’s circle was somewhat akin to the Sloanes of the 1990s: upper-class, well connected, wealthy and frivolous. However, the poet lived among them but was not one of them.] The apparent offense was to publish love poetry at the same time — which the great man took to be mockery of him. Augustus, while maintaining public order in the empire, was rather strait-laced and perhaps a bit of a prude. Indeed he sought the moral reform of Rome and to curb the decadence of its wealthy citizens — which contrasts sharply with the line from Ovid below.

Jupiter from on high laughs at lovers’ perjuries.
[Iuppiter ex alto periuria ridet amantum.]
Ars amatoria, i.633 [The Art of Love]

Often enough to be almost customary, the emperors were likened to Jupiter, greatest of the Roman gods.

Ovid and his wife petitioned the emperor regularly for remission or abatement without success. Indeed after Augustus’s death in AD 14, his successor Tiberius also declined to forgive. In Tiberius’s case. however, it was probably proof of his mean-streak — which developed in time to reveal him as a truly great, world-class monster.

Ovid died in the crude frontier town [imagine one of the barren villages depicted in the Clint Eastwood series of Fistful of Dollars films, then make it even worse] in the year AD 17, having been confined within it for almost 10 nightmarish years.

¥ The Chronicle had some rough things to say about William the Conqueror, for example:

Assuredly in his time had men much distress, and very many sorrows. Castles he let men build, and miserably swink the poor. The king himself was so very rigid; and extorted from his subjects many marks of gold, and many hundred pounds of silver; which he took of his people, for little need, by right and by unright. He was fallen into covetousness, and greediness he loved withal

Although begun by Alfred the Great c 895 AD, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was in fact an on-going project which was added to regularly until the mid-twelfth century, with the death of King Stephen in 1154, grandson of the Conqueror.

§ A one-man dictatorship probably has a life of about 20-25 years, perhaps 30. Hitler ruled from 1931 till 1945. Stalin lasted from Lenin’s death in 1924 till 1952 — all that time as ‘secretary’ of the party!. The Ceausescus had from 1965 until 1989 when everyone lost patience with him, and his own security forces put him up against a wall with his wife and disposed of them summarily with machine-guns.

It would be wonderful were it possible to read what Edward Gibbon would have made of the twentieth century’s monsters, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and the barbed minnow of the group, Ceausescu.