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The peoples living in Britain during the Roman occupation. The name, which the people of Britain seem to have given themselves, first appears in the account of the voyages of the Greek explorer Pytheas in the late 4th cent. bc. The Greek form of the name is Prettani (or Pritani): Latin authors such as Catullus and Caesar wrote of the Brittani, whence came the name of the Roman province, Britannia. The meaning is uncertain, but is thought to be something like ‘the tattooed people’.

In general, Roman authors presented a dismal picture of the Britons, as barbarians who wore skins or went naked, and practised a form of polygamy. Strabo, who claimed he had seen British youths in Rome, described them as relatively tall, but bow‐legged and graceless. But Caesar recognized that not all Britons were the same, identifying those around the south‐east coast as more civilized and of different stock from the people of the interior. Even before the invasion, the Britons in the south‐east were becoming socially and politically sophisticated and acquiring a taste for things Roman. They were using gold and bronze coins, and exporting raw materials (gold, silver, and iron) along with grain and hides. In exchange, they received manufactured goods such as bronze‐ and silverware and fine pottery, together with wine. These products are found mainly at a limited number of major tribal centres like Camulodunum (Colchester) and Verulamium (St Albans).

To some extent, therefore, political and social developments in the century before the Claudian invasion of ad 43 paved the way for the political system that conquest by Rome brought with it. Nucleated settlements which acted as centres of administration for large tribal territories were known to both the invaders and the natives. Equally, both Romans and Britons were used to a society in which power was in the hands of a single individual, supported by an élite class.

The Romans developed a system of provincial administration which perpetuated, at least initially, the existing tribal framework. Thus in Britain they created, between ad 70 and ad 120, about fifteen self‐governing tribal authorities (civitates), each with elected magistrates and council and each based on a major town. The first such grants of local self‐government were in the areas which had shown political sophistication before the invasion—Kent, Essex, Hertfordshire, and Buckinghamshire, where the civitates of the Cantiaci, the Trinovantes, and the Catuvellauni were established. Other civitates were added later, and there is little doubt that the first magistrates and councillors were drawn from the old tribal élites. By ad 80, according to Tacitus, the Britons were widely adopting Roman fashion in housing, clothing, language, and diet. Houses with mosaics, plastered walls and ceilings, under‐floor heating, and their own bath‐suites were built in town and country alike. Roman shoes and sandals were made. Along with wine, a variety of amphorae demonstrate that olive oil, fish‐sauce, and other exotic foodstuffs were imported from the Mediterranean.

Just how widespread the adoption of a Romanized life‐style was is debated. There were probably fewer than a hundred towns in Roman Britain, mostly very small, and with a total population unlikely to have exceeded 200,000 people. The villas, even if we assume 3,000 of them, would add little to this total, since the greatest part of a villa's population would be the agricultural labour force and servants. If we compare this to recent estimates of the total population of Roman Britain, at around 2–3 million, we can see that the Romanized element of the population was in the minority. Yet even in rural settlements which show few signs of Romanized architecture, imported pottery and glass, coins, Roman‐style jewellery, and occasional Latin graffiti are found. There were some changes in agricultural practice too, with new agricultural implements and crops, new methods of land management, and an increasing emphasis on cash‐crops and farming for profit. These changes, not surprisingly, are best attested in those areas where villas were most prolific. Outside this area, the clearest signs of Romanization are often found in the civilian settlements that grew up to serve the soldiers in the garrison forts of the north and west. For a minority, changes in life‐style were dramatic, but for the vast majority of the population, the impression is that much of life went on as before.


Subjects: British History.

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