Download file in PDF format: TRAC 1993: Britannus/Britto: Roman Ethnographies, Native Identities, Labels, and Folk Devils (pp. 14–32)
Britannus / Britto: Roman ethnographies, native identities, labels, and folk devils
Keith J. Matthews
Classical and antique writers used two words to describe the inhabitants of Britain: Britannus and Britto. Did these two terms mean
anything to the people they labelled, or were they imposed by outsiders?
Is there any significance in the difference between the two terms? Use of
either term, both by “proper authors” and colloquially, suggests that
Britons were looked down upon. As late as the end of the fourth century,
Ausonius was able to claim that “no Brito can link himself with Bonus”.
Ethnic names convey all sorts of meanings, as with any name used by
outsiders. Names have power, as many cultures have recognised. If we
look at the archaeology of the Romano-Britons, it is difficult to understand how they can have shared a common identity at the time of the
conquest Rather, I will argue, that common identity arose from the
treatment of the locals by the Roman administration but was, at best,
fragile. By focusing on the classical ethnonyms Britannus and Britto, I will
argue that the terms were coined by non-Britons and belong to a classi-ROMAN ETIINOGRAPHIES AND NATIVE IDENTITIES 15
ficatory tradition of ethnography alien to the peoples so labelled. In this
instance the label describes a state of being not recognisable to archaeologists. What we generally refer to as “archaeological cultures” draw
together diverse elements of material culture without regard to group
identity or ethnicity; in this instance the label describes a state of being
only recognisable to archaeologists. Finally, I will examine the concept of
“value” within the practice of the naming of groups to demonstrate the
value-laden overdetennination of such labels.
As archaeologists we are prone to inventing complex classificatory
schemes as well as adopting those of contemporaries (particularly of
ethnonyms or supposed ethnonyms). We should be wary of projecting
the values inherent in our labels onto the entities they describe.
USE OF THE TERMS
Two words were used by classical authors to describe the inhabitants of
Britain: Britannus/BQLw..vvoC;, the most conunon, and Britto. Both words
are found in a number of different spellings, with varying numbers of ts
and ns. The chronological difference between the two fonns is of little
definite significance: while the fonner is the only fonn used before the
conquest of Britain, the latter is attested by the late first century AD in the
works of Juvenal and Martial. The two words share a conunon derivation
discussed below, but it is unclear whether Britto is of Latin or Celtic origin (Rivet and Smith 1979, 281). Claims that Britto refers to lithe more
primitive peoples of the north” (Frere 1987, 183) can be refuted by looking at its usage, especially in inscriptions and by sub-Roman insular
authors. If there is a distinction to be drawn, it is that Britto appears
originally to have been a more colloquial fonn, although it was quickly
adopted by officialdom. It is noteworthy, though, that it became the
dominant fonn in the sixth century both in continental and in insular
writers: could its adoption be a reflection of Romano-British practice? I
will return to this important point in the conclusions.
The classical ethnographers agree on a number of points: the Britons
are less civilised than the Gauls, a situation that becomes worse the farther north-west one travels; in war, they use chariots and cavalry; they
are prone to fighting each other. At the same time, there is disagreement
on detail: either they had a considerable arable surplus or most did not
know how to sow crops; they are either wholly native to the island or
they are from Gaul, Spain and Germany. With the confused mass of
detail these authors supply, it is difficult to assess how much the classical 16 K. J. MATTIIEWS
writers really knew about Britain and its inhabitants. I will be arguing
later that there was no British identity and that this was a creation of classical writers who lumped together a very diverse population in order to
categorise and thereby include them in their world view.
An element of racism can also be detected in the sources. Ausonius’s
curious outbursts (“no good man is a Brito” quoted in Rivet and Smith
1979, 54) might be dismissed as humorous in intent, but they display an
underlying attitude which was clearly not shocking or offensive to his
audience. Furthermore, while the word Brittunculi (“wretched little
Brits”) is used by a Roman officer to refer to probably hostile natives
(Vindolanda Tablet II.164, quoted in Bowman 1994, 106), the popular
derivation of Britto from brutus recorded by the encyclopaedist Isidore in
the sixth century shows that anti-British prejudice was commonplace.
LABELLING AND GROUP IDENTITY
There has been only sporadic interest shown by archaeologists in cultural
identity. Much of this work consists of a critique of the older view that
II style ” is an important element in cultural identity following similar critiques in anthropology. Older generations of prehistorians, for instance,
were happy to conclude that particular ceramic styles were associated
with definable cultural and ethnic groups, and this remained unchallenged by the New Archaeology of the 1%Os and 1970s (e.g. Sackett 1977,
317; Clarke 1978, 85). There have been a number of studies (notably
Strathern 1979; Weissner 1984; Larick 1985; 1991) which have shown this
view to be mistaken and which suggest that material culture styles are
much more closely related to personal identity than to collective identity,
even in pre-industrial societies. This is an interesting observation in view
of the way in which sociologists and historianshave treated the
conswnption of material culture as a means of establishing individuality
as if it is a recent (even post-modem) phenomenon (Miller 1994).
Vere Gordon Childe (1929, v) first defined an archaeological culture as
“certain types of remains – pots, implements, ornaments, burial rites,
house forms – constantly recurring together.” He identified these entities,
which were defined purely by repeated patterns of material culture, with
ethnic groups. His most famous and influential exposition of this
equation was The Dawn of European CiviIiZlltion (Childe 1973), which
reached its sixth edition in 1957.
Attempts were made to retain the concept of the archaeological culture,
most importantly by David Oarke (1978, 299 ff.). His definition (ibid, ROMAN ETHNOGRAPHIES AND NATIVE IDENlTIlES 17
490) was more sophisticated than Childe’s and recognised that it was
grounded in material culture and nothing more: II CULTURE: Specific cultural assemblage; an archaeological culture is a polythetic set of specific
and comprehensive artefact-type categories which consistently recur together in assemblages within a limited geographical area.” It is obvious
that this definition is tautologous.
The problem with this type of definition is that it is utterly self-referential and self-fulfilling. By creating a definition of archaeological entities
that relies on material culture and nothing else – which is all we can do as
archaeologists – we tend to draw in other non-archaeological concepts
which define human groups. Colin Renfrew recognised this as long ago
as 1978 with his realisation that the archaeological definition of culture is
nothing more than an arbitrary label imposed on a continuously
changing set of material culture. The change might be through time,
through space, or both.
There is a useful parallel here with the sociological “labelling theory”
much used in studies of criminality and deviance. This theory holds that
the label creates the category and that, once created, the categorised individual will behave in a manner appropriate to the label (Giddens 1997,
178; Sumner 1994,203). Although material culture is inanimate and therefore incapable of independent behaviour of this type, its interpretation is
embedded within archaeological practice. In this way, the definition of
certain classes of material culture as belonging to a particularly labelled
archaeologically defined entity will cause that class of material culture to
be regarded as “behaving” identically in very different situations.
To simplify further, the naming of a group – be it of artefacts, assemblages of artefacts, individual human beings, or assemblages of human
beings – creates in the namer and their audience an impression of uniformity of behaviour. This uniformity of behaviour need not exist, or at
least might only exist in one very specific attribute of the thing being
named. Thus, in criminology, there is no uniformity of overall human
behaviour among “criminals” any more than there is uniformity of behaviour among pottery sherds in the archaeological record. Nevertheless,
the criminal II breaks the law” and the potsherd “represents the cognitive
processes of its producer”.
The label applied to a particular group by an outsider helps others outside the group to understand it The analogy I am drawing is between
archaeologists and their labelling of assemblages of material culture and
between ethnographers and their labelling of assemblages of human
culture. In classificatory ethnography (in other words, ethnography as 18 K. J. MA TIHEWS
practised in the colonial West or the Roman empire), the labels applied to
ethnic groups are overdetermined (that is, determined by outsiders in a
position of superiority). As archaeologists labelling material culture and
categorising it, fitting it into recurring assemblages, we overdetermine
archaeological cultures. Labelling in this way can draw together many
clisparate elements which do not show any uniformity of behaviour or
For instance, there has been cliscussion for some time about the label
“Celt” and its appropriateness in archaeology (Collis 1996; Fleury-Ilett
1996; James 1998). Our knowledge of ancient Celtic identity derives from
classical writers, exactly as our knowledge of Romano-British identity
depends on their accounts. They give a clear impression of a group of
peoples who had no political unity, and perhaps not even a common language (Powell 1958, 17). According to Caesar, their northern border lay
on the Rhine, although he regarded them as only one of three groups of
peoples in Gaul.
While the relationship between ethnicity and material culture is an important question in archaeology, it is now widely recognised that there is
no simple equation between the two (Shennan 1989, 10; Jones 1997, 141).
This is evident in the doomed attempts to define a Celtic culture complex:
its geographical extent varies accorcling to the criteria used for definition
as does the date at which it is supposed to have emerged. Archaeologists
have long identified it with the La Tene culture complex and sought
Celtic origins in the earlier Hallstatt and Urnfield cultures (Fitzpatrick
1996, 241). Linguists have identified it with a particular group of closely
related languages, but linguistic definitions of Celticity fail in pre-literate
societies. Such is the confusion over Celticity that it has even been
possible for a Celticist to write that “Celtic art … is anything but Celtic”
(Green 1989, 6).
A large part of the problem is that an identity called “Celtic” still exists
in contemporary Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Brittany, and Cornwall. However, that identity is a fusion between a sub-culture officially suppressed
for centuries and its Romantic re-creation two centuries ago. The
ethnonym Celt as currently used is invested with many emotional burdens: other-worldliness, oppression, exoticism, nationalism, periphery,
lost grandeur, bellicosity, and so on (Delaney 1986, 219). Study of the
Celts has particularly been linked with Welsh and Irish nationalism and,
more surprisingly perhaps, with French nationalism (Kristiansen 1990,
827; Fleury-Ilett 1996, 204). Thus, in using the overdetermined label
“Celt”, we cannot avoid the many nuances of meaning inherent in its ROMAN ETHNOGRAPHIES AND NATIVE IDENTITIES 19
This type of modem politicised ethnic identity is meaningful only in
terms of relations between groups, self-identifying or otherwise (Cohen
1978, 389). It must be questioned whether the peasant farmers of the
second century BC from the Danube to Ireland could conceive of themselves as part of a single people. If there were any community of interest,
it was shared between those engaged in the exchange network of prestige
goods, the consumers of La Tene metalwork. These material signifiers of
identity were not ethnic signifiers as they were not available to the
majority of the population: they circulated among a restricted, selfidentifying “subpopulation”, in other words, a subculture. When
archaeologists use the term “Celtic”, it is not one that would have had
any meaning whatsoever to the peoples of temperate western Europe in
the late first millennium BC (Collis 19%, 175). The label “Celtic”
describes something unrecognisable archaeologically; the classical writers
who used it were not consistent in its application and it is unreasonable
for us to use a term that attempts to reity a concept that is ultimately
PERCEIVING NATIVE IDENTITIES
So, how do we begin to understand how the natives of Roman Britain
saw themselves? Apart from the writings of St Patrick, the sub-Roman
Gildas, and the odd graffito, they left no descriptions of themselves. We
are therefore dependent on archaeology to fill in these details, with all the
uncertainties which it involves. Before turning to the physical evidence,
though, what can we make of the scant literary references?
Patrick has very little to say about his British origins, but he does let
slip one or two odd comments about the Irish that tell us something
about his perception of himself. At the beginning of the Epistola, an open
letter addressed to Coroticus, King of Durnbarton, he claims to live
among barbarian people (inter barbaras ita que gentes habito (Hood 1978,
35)), the obvious implication being that he is not himself a barbarian. The
itaque (“verily”) reinforces this interpretation. He further qualifies this in
the next paragraph by describing the Irish as his fellow citizens in
contrast to the citizens of the holy Romans or the citizens of the demons,
meaning Coroticus’s subjects (non dico civibus meis neque civibus sanctorum
Romanorum sed civibus daemoniorum). Despite his self-deprecating
comments about his own rusticity (rusticus: Confessio 12 (Hood 1978, 5)),
he evidently saw himself as civilised in an uncivilised land, but already 20 K. J. MATIHEWS
not actually Roman. Is this because of his Britishness or a result of his
self-imposed exile among the barbarians? Unfortunately, he does not say.
Gildas, typically, has a lot more to say. However, he was writing at a
distance of some four or five generations from the collapse of imperial
power in Britain (unless we follow the singular views of Higham 1994,
139), and had little concrete infonnation about the Roman past This
means that his comments about the Britons must be taken primarily as
referring to those of the mid-sixth century. However, he does make a few
generalising comments which are meant to refer to the past The most
obvious of these comes right at the start of his historical summary: “ever
since it (ie. Britain) was inhabited, it ungratefully rebelled, stiff-necked
and stubborn” (haec erecta ceroice et mente ex quo inhabitata est … ingrata
consurgit (Winterbottom 1978, 90)). He quotes a proverb to the effect that
the Britons were neither strong in war nor trustworthy in peace (Eritanni
nec in bello fortes sint nec in pace jideles (Winterbottom 1978,91)).
This is a general theme of Gildas: the duplicity and untrustworthiness
of his fellow countrymen, and we should not perhaps take it too seriously. Nick Higham (1994, 190) has pointed out that Gildas’s approach to
history was largely providential: his aim was to show how God’s grace
had operated through British history. Because of this, he was at pains to
show the wickedness of his countrymen, as this explained their current
misfortunes. We must conclude that although his writings provide evidence for a native self-awareness, he does not supply any information we
can legitimately regard as ethnographic or as supplying any information
about the fonn that self-awareness took.
Without written statements from the natives themselves, it is important
to consider how they constructed their identities through material culture. This phenomenon is generally referred to as consumption, and its
study has been a fashionable branch of sociology for the past fifteen years
or so. Material culture is seen to be invested with multiple meaning in
modem society (Campbell 1995, 109). This has been assumed to be a
recent change in attitude, with Baudrillard (1996 , 200) claiming
that “the virtual totality of all objects and messages readily-constituted as a
more or less coherent discourse” (his italics) is a recent conversion in the
relationship between humanity and the material world.
This mistaken deduction derives from the privileged position which
traditional Marxian analysis accords socio-economic status: many documented societies, including pre-modem (or “simple”) societies, also
consume material culture as a means of establishing personal identity.
The symbols used in this may never have been simple; it is only the ROMAN ETIINOGRAPHIES AND NATIVE IDENTITIES 21
views of earlier generations of archaeologists that have treated them in
this way. The views of more recent archaeologists have not yet been
taken up by the majority of culture historians or sociologists. In contrast
to the widely held belief that symbols identify close-knit populations,
collective identity is constructed from polysemous symbols and it is the
margins which define membership of a community (Cohen 1985, 50). In
this way, sub-cultures are central to a community’s self-definition: existing on the boundaries between different communities of interest, subcultures enable a group to define itself by what it is not This has an interesting correlate in sexual identity: there have been few theorisations of
male heterosexuality, and a large part of traditional masculine identity
consists of placing the notions of femininity and homosexuality in opposition to conceptions of the self (Matthews forthcoming). For a
politicised ethnicity to develop, it is therefore necessary to have a complex of sub-cultures and an awareness of their specific and divergent
consumption of cultural symbols.
The important factor is Baudrillard’s (probably correct) insistence upon
understanding the totality of all objects to begin to grasp the discourses
they represent With archaeological material this is clearly difficult Not
all objects survive in the archaeological record, nor can we usually be
certain that any assemblage is representative of even a small part of the
discourse of objects. The discourse of archaeological entities is therefore
at best fragmentary, at worst unrepresentative. Analyses of material
culture tend to objectify, even fetishise, certain classes of artefact For
instance, pottery takes precedence over bronze objects in the average
excavation report, yet the value placed on these objects by those who
used them was almost certainly the other way round. On the other hand,
does the very banality of pottery mean that it has a more subtle but
pervasive r6le in the total discourse? Of course, even to ask this question
highlights Baudrillard’s insistence on the near-totality of what he calls the
“system of objects”.
BURIALS AND SELF-IDENTIFICATION
There is one archaeological situation where we can be reasonably sure of
retrieving at least that part of the system of discursive objects to survive
in the ground: the excavation of human burials. Where they have not
been disturbed by later activity, they will contain those durable objects
which the living thought appropriate to accompany the dead individual.
Here we have a discourse potentially involving disposal of the dead, care 22 K. 1. MA TIHEWS
of the deceased person’s afterlife, the prevention of haunting, personal
grief, religion, commemoration of departed family members, expressions
of lave fram a partner, and sa on. The discourses are likely ta be as
complex as thase .of everyday life, and it may therefare be passible to
recover same infarmation abaut haw the living viewed themselves in
relatian ta the dead. This in tum might help us to understand samething
of their ethnic self-awareness.
There is a perception that burial rites in the late pre-Roman Iron Age
were fairly homogeneous across south-eastern England and narth-westem France (e.g. Stead and Rigby 1989, 86), with cremation being the main
rite. However, significant variations do .occur, including uniquely inhumatian cemeteries (Burleigh and Matthews farthcoming; Matthews
this valume and farthcoming). There is thus already a tensian between
the alder rite .of inhumation (which appears ta .originate in th.e middle
Iran Age) and the “continental” innovatian of cremation. The chaice .of
which rite to emplay must have been based an a number .of camplex
factars, nat Simply religious belief. Cremation, far instance, is much more
expensive than inhumation because an open pyre of Iran-Age type needs
ta be fed with fuel for up to eight hours to reduce a bady. Moreaver,
there may have been a resistance ta “foreign” rites by same sectians of
the papulation while others eagerly took up the new practice.
The “standard” Aylesford-Swarling cremation burial is nevertheless
typical .of the last century .of independence; burials were deposited in pits
with a variety of pattery vessels and ather .objects. Sametimes the burial
was in the centre of a square enclosure, thaught ta have been a quarry for
a central mound (Burleigh 1982, 12; Stead and Rigby 1989, 86). The mare
elabarate graves cantain items such as planked buckets with branze fittings, probably used far mixing wine during feasts, imparted branze
vessels, and ampharae. The richest .of these are referred ta as “Welwyntype” burials, after the first well-publicised discovery in 1906 (Smith
King Harry Lane, Verulamium
At the King Harry Lane site, in Verulamium, a cemetery dating ta the
first sixty years of the first century AD was extenSively excavated in the
mid-1960s and remains one of the few fully published sites of this type.
The grave graups there consisted .of between .one and ten vessels, with
beaker and jar types being the preferred containers for the ashes
(although every closed vessel farm represented an the site was used as an
urn). There seems ta be na sex or age patterning evident in the choice .of ROMAN ETIINOGRAPHIES AND NATIVE IDENTITIES 23
goods placed in the grave pit Even more curiously, little attempt seems
to have been made to fill the cinerary urn with human remains, a phenomenon which has been observed on other sites (McKinley in Burleigh
and Matthews forthcoming).
The pottery derives from a variety of sources; while there was much
locally made material, early imports came from elsewhere in south-eastern England, northern Gaul, central Gaul, and the Mediterranean region.
Later groups also included southern Gaulish wares, but it is notable that
post-conquest groups contain only locally made wares and central
Gaulish Samian. Two vessels had been inscribed: one tazza in the grave
of an adult female bore the legend ANDOC (to be compared with
AND/ ANDOCO on coins of Tasciovanus) while a platter had RX cut into
its underside. Around ten per cent of all vessels had been damaged
before burial, mostly by removing small sherds from the rim, while seven
vessels had been trimmed before deposition. These latter phenomena are
known from contemporary burials elsewhere in the region (Ashworth in
Burleigh and Matthews forthcoming; although not mentioned in the text,
plans and drawings in Partridge 1981 make it dear that the same
practices were known in Romano-British Braughing).
Other objects from the cremations include ten coins, large numbers of
copper-alloy brooches, three bracelets (from male graves), six mirrors,
toilet instruments, spoons, as well as iron nails, knives, tools, and other
objects. There were a few bone objects, a number of glass objects
(including some beads associated with an inhumation), and metal fittings
from decayed wooden objects. Some of the graves had been covered with
wooden or other organic “lids”.
What can we deduce from the huge quantity of data? All the common
vessel forms belong to the international Gallo-Belgic style: butt-beakers,
platters, and flagons, with sixty-one per cent of all vessels belonging to a
cosmopolitan style. The obvious inference of this is that those responsible
for arranging the types of goods which went into the graves saw the dead
as part of the “international set”, the users in life of this highly visible and
status reinforcing material. Little interest seems to have been shown in
expressing personal differentiation: apart from brooches, items of
adornment were uncommon and only token amounts of calcined bone
were deposited. We cannot, of course, be sure of the status of the pottery
in the burials. Some of it had evidently been re-used as there were fifteen
vessels with signs of repair, although they all came from smaller (and
perhaps poorer) grave groups. On the other hand, there was a complete
lack of cooking pots and storage jars, common on the adjacent and 24 K. 1. MA TIHEWS
contemporary settlement site at Prae Wood.
There is thus a specificity to the burial group, for all its complexity,
which sets it apart from the standard domestic assemblage. The pottery
was deliberately chosen, not simply collected from whatever was found
lying about the horne, although the motives behind the choice are not
now apparent, except in the negative sense of knowing what people did
not want to use. However, following the Claudian conquest, the range of
goods in the cemetery changed dramatically.
The post-conquest phase of the King Harry Lane cemetery lasted for
only twenty years, but the burial groups from this phase are completely
different from earlier groups. Gone are the large numbers of imports
from Gaul and the Mediterranean, and instead almost all the pottery
(except for some central Gaulish Sarnian) is locally made and restricted to
a much narrower range of fonus. It is scarcely credible that the Roman
conquest would have led to the complete cessation of trade with continental Europe (indeed, we know from the plentiful imported pottery
found throughout Britain that it was more readily available): what we
can see must be put down to consumer choice.
I contend that the choice was in part dictated by a sudden need to emphaSise the local roots of the popUlation, not its cosmopolitan taste. The
changes caused by the conquest had included a brief period of resistance
and warfare for the Catuvellauni, the loss of its apparently dynastic
rulers and the probable incorporation of the remaining aristocracy into
the regional government Like it or not, everyone was now part of the
“international set” and it was no longer necessary to assert this through
the consumption of those meaningful objects that were part of that
discourse. Instead, it was now more important to use those forms which
proclaimed a sense of belonging to the region; additionally, the forms
include flagons and poppy-head beakers, good Roman forms, which
show a continuing interest in being cosmopolitan. There may also have
been an element of economic support for the local pottery industry, but
this cannot have been paramount
To summarise so far: we have seen how classical writers use two terms
to refer to the inhabitants of Britain, although there is little significance in
the choice of tenn. We have also seen how the terms were used as a classification system without reference to native identity but how, by the
sixth century at least, a politicised ethnicity can be detected in the works
of Gildas. The archaeological evidence is less able to speak directly, but it
can be shown that the King Harry Lane burials (which are probably the
best means of determining how people think about themselves) show a ROMAN ETIINOGRAPHIES AND NATIVE IDENTITIES 25
distinct change after the Roman conquest I have attributed this change to
a shift in consumption patterns away from those which declare cosmopolitan identities towards those which instead emphasise the local.
Roman and native deconstructed
I would also like to examine the binary opposition Roman/native, which
figures prominently in the modern literature of Roman Britain and is an
important element in the contemporary archaeologist’s understanding of
Romano-British self-identification. In structuralist terms, we can refer to
this as “myth” (Barthes 1972, 109). The modern archaeological discourse
neatly parallels the classical ethnographic discourse. On one side we have
the Romans, usually male, a military and active force, promoting
Mediterranean ways of life, administration, language, economy, and so
on. Some of them even left behind literature, often descnbing the deeds
of other men (and, very occasionally, mannish women and femme fatales).
Conversely, we have the native, who is also usually male, but who is
acted upon, receives Roman influences, and figures very little in our
histories or archaeologies. The hypothesised process of Romanisation, so
important in twentieth-century archaeological discourse, becomes the
point of articulation of these opposites. Table 1 summarises some of the
principal elements of the mythic structure.
I have already reached the conclusion that the term Britannus was given
to the population by outsiders rather than deriving from a sense of common identity. However, the word has been thought to possess
linguistically Celtic antecedents, ·Pritanos in southern Britain and
·Pritenos in the north: this is first recorded as Greek The
name has traditionally, and probably correctly, been taken to mean
“tattooed” or “painted”, an epithet that is well suited to people, but less
so to places. The place-name Bn·tannia given to the island (probably
known as Albion before this) is almost certainly an abstraction from the
ethnonym and not its source. Rivet and Smith (1979, 281) have pointed
out that it is reasonable to assume that the name was conferred on the
people by outsiders, probably Gauls. It could then have passed into
Greek usage through the colonies established in southern Gaul. The term
itself cannot, then, be taken as evidence for a unified native selfawareness.
What, then, is the purpose of using an opposition of romanitas with an 26 K. J. MATIHEWS
Table 1: The Roman/Native mythic structure
identity that is likely to have had meaning as a label only to outsiders?
There is the indisputable historical fact that much of Britain was conquered by an army of the Roman empire. Insofar as the inhabitants of the
island were then subjugated to an imperialist regime, a distinction must
be drawn between those involved in conquering and those being conquered Moreover, as we have already seen, it may be that the conquest
itself lent impetus to the creation of a British self-awareness.
It is widely recognised that Roman imperialism was very different from
British colonialism, but it is still difficult for the English (or Welsh or
Scots, for that matter) to shake off colonial attitudes. This is not helped by
the education system, which teaches British history in terms of waves of
invaders and settlers (a concept now unhappily enshrined in the National
Curriculum). Indeed, imperialist discourse in Victorian Britain
consciously employed models derived from Roman history. There can be
little doubt, though, that the Roman empire was neither colonialist in the
sense of the British empire, nor was it expansionist in the sense of Nazi
Germany. ROMAN ETHNOGRAPHIES AND NATIVE IDEN1TI1ES 27
True enough, the Roman government fully intended to exploit the territories it conquered, but there were rarely periods at which the state
became expansionist for its own sake and there is no evidence for mass
migration into newly pacified areas. The idea of romanitas does not seem
to have been specifically problematised by Roman writers, although it is
possible to detect certain features which were thought to characterise it
Fifty years ago, R. H. Barrow (1949, 215) drew attention to what he called
“a sense of self-subordination which marked the Roman mind”. All the
characteristics he goes on to list – pietas, humanitas, libertas, mores, fides,
disciplina, severitas, gravitas, and constantia – are surprisingly abstract for a
people we today regard as principally practical. However, the very abstraction of these concepts proved immensely useful in subsuming a
variety of ethnic groups into thinking of themselves as Romans.
Further myth making: citizen/non-citizen
The constantly expanding citizenship of Rome allowed the incorporation
of provincials into her public life, blurring the distinctions between
Roman and native. Instead the dominant polarity became citizen/noncitizen. At the time of the conquest of Britain this division already
operated among the approximately 40,000 “Romans” engaged in it (Frere
1987,48) with the parallel opposition between legionary and auxiliary. As
locals were taken into the army and civil service, this division would
have become much more important socially than that of Roman/native.
The distinction will have been apparent from an early date in southeastern Britain, where the native aristocracy was assimilated rapidly (or
perhaps simply and instantly transformed) into the new urban elite. Even
in northern areas the practical effect of changing from one system of
taxation to another seems to have been relatively painless. Evidence for
widespread dissatisfaction at Roman rule within the province (which to
the local farmers would primarily have meant taxation) does not exist
The Boudican rebellion stands out as a unique incident.
The effect of the Roman/native structural myth is to keep the natives
firmly in the background with little understanding of their self-identity.
The “Romans” are presented as a civilised, literate people who are readily understandable, even by seven-year olds; “natives” are benighted
savages, lifted from the mire of prehistory by their conquerors. In Britain
the conquerors transformed material culture, importing Mediterranean
styles and tastes, which were adopted by the native elite who are then
transmuted into “Romans” by modem historiography although,
interestingly, not by ancient or medieval historiography: this is the 28 K. 1. MATffiEWS
process generally called Romanisation (Haverfield 1906, 186). This
deconstruction of the term “Romanisation” still permits a distinction to
be drawn between those who have been “Romanised” and those who
have not In crude Marxian terms, this is a class division, access to (and
consumption of) Romanising material culture being determined
primarily by the possession of transformable wealth. The original
Roman/native opposition is a convenient fiction which allows us to
disguise our ignorance of the daily lives of the majority of the population
and to continue to extol the virtues of classical civilisation.
GROUP LABELLING AS VALUE SYSTEM
Ethnic labels have frequently been bestowed by outsiders, often with the
best of intentions but with no appreciation of the self-identity of the
peoples so labelled Nevertheless, the ethnographers of colonial powers
are not disinterested observers, no matter how much they may claim to
be. Classical authors used the language of ethnicity as a classificatory tool
for peoples they regarded as “other” (that is, non-Roman); we can go
further and ask why they regarded these categories as useful.
To the Romans, all good literature had a moral purpose: the ethnographer was not concerned to give a scientific account of the various foreign peoples the Romans knew about, but to use their supposed traits as
warnings and lessons for the audience. This is immediately apparent in
Tacitus’s Germania, which contrasts the simple lives of the Germans with
the decadent population of Rome. In many ways, these Germans closely
resemble the supposedly more austere Romans of the early Republic.
That, of course, was the main purpose of Tacitus: to encourage his
contemporaries to return to the ancient virtues. This could be achieved by
pointing out how the Germans of his day posed a threat by displaying
those very qualities that had made Rome a world power.
It is less easy to trace such attitudes in the disparate accounts of the
Britanni. While their lives are at times made to appear simpler and less
complicated (and, therefore, supposedly more authentic) than those of
the Romans, there is also a sense that the writers are stressing that the
Britons are essentially primitive and uncivilised They are not, therefore,
to be admired or feared. Caesar makes the point very tellingly when he
declares that the inhabitants of Cantium are the most civilised: he uses the
term humanissimi, “most human”. The inhabitants of the interior do not
know how to sow crops and run around in skins, much like the popular
twentieth-century view of a /I caveman”. At the same time, of course, ROMAN ETIiNOGRAPIDES AND NATIVE IDEN’ITI’IES 29
Caesar is desperate to show that his opponents were skilled warriors,
otherwise he would have had more success in his campaigns. This makes
Caesar’s Britons more akin to The F1intstones than to Stig of the Dump.
The tenn Britannus was already ancient by the time Roman authors
adopted it and it is important to remember that they did not coin it
However, there is no indication in the very limited information we have
about pre-Roman political affairs in Britain that its inhabitants saw themselves as a unified ethnic group. Indeed, the British policy of Augustus
seems to have been designed to prevent the fonnation of large power
blocs by pitting groups against each other (Frere 1987, 30). In a society
which valued warfare as a source of prestige, it is unlikely that a conunon
identity transcending political and tribal boundaries could ever fonn.
It was the impact of the Roman conquest which changed this situation
by stopping inter-tribal warfare. Michael Fischer (1986, 197) has pointed
out that the superficial homogenisation of culture throughout the world
in the late twentieth century has led to an upsurge of an emotionally
charged and politicised ethnic awareness and considers the two closely
linked. Can we suggest that similar processes were at work in first-century Britain, with the imposition of Roman government speeding up the
process by which native peoples were acquiring Roman-style goods? It is
easy to see how a new British identity might coalesce around worries
about this rapid incorporation into a pan-European identity; the very act
of the Roman conquest and subsequent classification of its new provincial subjects was the catalyst by which a politicised ethnic identity was
forged. This much is evident from the material culture changes in burials
at King Harry Lane.
The purpose of classical ethnography may have been partly concerned
with creating and reinforcing Greek and Roman identities. I observed
above how many communities define themselves by reference to what
they are not, in other words, to the marginal groups on their conceptual
boundaries; the self-awareness of classical Greeks and Roman was constructed with reference to the groups on their physical boundaries. With
the incorporation of Britain into a large political unit as a single province,
for the first time its inhabitants could view themselves as a group in opposition to the inhabitants of the other provinces.
To return to the Britannus/Britto question with which this paper opened,
it is now possible to suggest an answer about their difference. Britannus is 30 K. J. MATIlIEWS
clearly an etic category, devised by the peoples of Gaul who had contact
with the inhabitants of the island they knew as Albion; it passed into classical usage and remained a popular characterisation. Britto is probably an
emic category, deriving from a self-awareness of what it was to be an
inhabitant of Roman Britain. As such, it is unsurprising that it is not
recorded until the end of the first century, two or more generations after
the conquest This also explains why it becomes the dominant form in
sub-Roman insular texts.
As archaeologists trying to extract meaning from the material culture
remains of the past, we must return to Baudrillard’s insistence on the
total system of objects: under certain favourable conditions, we can
examine the synchronic and diachronic relationships of these systems. As
I have shown, a diachronic treatment of burial groups from a single site
can uncover something of the semiotics behind their composition.
Among these semiotics there are meanings which relate to selfidentification, although not specifically ethnicity, which depends on the
interplay of many more factors.
In using archaeology as a tool to reconstruct ethnic identities, there are
many traps into which we can fall. The most obvious is the mapping of
material culture assemblages directly onto ethnic groups, as Gordon
Childe attempted. Secondly, we can search for the ethno-specific object as
in the futile attempts to recognise separate “Saxon” and “Anglian”
brooch types. Most damaging of all, though, is the acceptance of ethnographic labels as givens in historical archaeology. What I hope to have
shown is that the ethnic label can precede the formation of ethnic identity
and that the existence of an ethnonym does not always mean that the
group so named is even aware of its existence.
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