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UnRoman Britain: Exposing the Great Myth of Britannia Kindle Edition
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Why did the "Romaness" of the prior 350+ years wash off so fast once the Romans left Britain to her own devices? How did the Anglo-Saxons seemingly take over so completely? Why doesn't Britain speak a Romance language today?
The central concept of the book is that the tribal divisions existing amongst the British when the Romans first occupied the country never really went away. Thus, when Rome pulled out, this tribalism easily re-emerged - it had never disappeared.
A very provocative interpretation presented in plain language for the general reader. See also Britannia: The Failed State: Ethnic Conflict and the End of Roman Britain, Warlords: The Struggle for Power in Post-Roman Britain and Roman Sussex.
There are essentially two parts in the case made by the authors. The first is that, despite the Roman Empire's efforts over more than three centuries, it somehow failed to Romanize Britannia which therefore remained largely "UnRoman." Attempting to make this case takes up most of the book, which, in reality, is structured chronologically, just like Stuart Laycock's other book - "Britannia, the Failed State". The second part of the case is an attempt to explain why Britain, that is geographically modern England and Wales, somehow did not follow the same pattern as others regions of the Western half of the Roman Empire, as the Empire crumbled. It is also an attempt to "explain" the demise of almost everything that had made Britain into a province of the Empire Roman. It is finally an attempt to explain how and why the "Anglo-Saxons" took over most of Britain .
Both parts of the case are interesting and even fascinating at times. Both are also presented as "revisionist" as well, to the extent that they are presented as challenges to the "established" views about Roman Britain, its end, the Romano-British transition period and the take-over by the "Anglo-Saxons". This is where some of the hype comes into play because the cases themselves, and many of the elements that they contain, are hardly new and not very original.
This is a point already made by another reviewer (B. Santa) who showed how a number of statements made by Russell and Laycok have already been made by others. A typical example is the point about "most people lived in round huts", rather than in Roman cities or villas. In itself, this does not "prove" anything, and certainly not that the "Britons" (here meant as the collection of tribes that populated Britain when the Romans started to conquer it) were averse to "Romanization". All that it does prove, if anything at all, is that there were huge disparities between the very few rich, who could afford a "Roman lifestyle" (living in villas, access to "luxury goods") and a minority of the population, who lived in Roman (or Romanized) towns, on the one hand, and the vast majority of the population which lived in the countryside and had to make do with much humbler dwellings because they simpler could not afford anything else. This, by the way, was the case throughout the Roman Empire. It is rather unsurprising, at a time when at least 80% (or perhaps even 90%) of the population did not live in cities and towns. So, not original at all and nothing specific to Britain.
The authors fail to mention both points, preferring to mention that Britain, unlike other provinces, was less urbanized and that towns and cities somehow did not develop as much and as well as in other Roman provinces. While this may be at least probable, there is a range of possible reasons for this and these are never properly discussed. Instead, it is assumed, rather than demonstrated, that this was because of some kind of unique unwillingness from the Britons side to "integrate". This would possibly have made "Britons" somewhat unique across the whole of the Empire, even when compared with the less Romanized parts of Northern Gaul or North-Western Spain, but this uniqueness, assuming it existed elsewhere than in the authors' minds, is only explained through a collection of carefully selected, but very unconvincing, statements.
One of these is that Romanization started later in Britain than almost anywhere else. There is, however, the notable exception of Dacia. This comparison is certainly an interesting one, and one which the authors do not really make. This is because Dacia was abandoned (around AD 270) well before the Empire left Britain to fend for itself. It is also of interest because Rumanians still speak nowadays a language derived from Latin. This is despite all the invasions they have been subject to, despite having ferociously resisted Domitian and Trajan's rather terrible wars of aggression and despite the slaughters and mass enslavement that followed Roman Conquests. Again, the main reason provided by the authors to "explain" the presumed "uniqueness" of Britain is some kind of passive resistance by a majority of Britons who, somehow mysteriously, would have managed to cling to some kind of "British identity" and "British culture" where all other populations subjected by Rome would have been more thoroughly "Romanized". There are numerous problems with this kind of allegation.
- one is the authors make a case for some kind of "Britishness" and "british culture" while elsewhere they also claim that, given the country's dividions into tribes, there was no such thing. This contradiction was rather puzzling
- Slightly more convincing, is one leaves the "Britishness" issue to the side, is the assumption that pre-Roman populations managed to maintain strong tribal identities. Again, parallels are made with less-Romanized parts of Gaul and Spain where tribes also retained some importance in terms of identity for Romanized populations. Here again, however, the authors are not convincing. The "evidence" supposed to support it is, at best, circumstantial and, at worst, inconclusive. For instance, if the tribes did retain as much importance and influence as the authors believe, then it begs the question as to why Rome would have tolerated this, whether in Britain or elsewhere. This is a question that the authors do not raise or address. Instead, they mention that Britain was largely subdivided along tribal lines by the Romans themselves when they set up their administration. While perfectly true, this gives at least the impression that Rome may somehow have tried (and failed) to Romanize the tribes. Interestingly, this is where the authors fail to continue the parallel with other less Romanized Roman provinces, also inhabited by Celtic populations. Had they pursued their comparison, they would have been forced to show that both in Spain and in Gaul, the tribes continued to exist but were Romanized by being included into Roman structures similar to the civitates in Britain.
Beyond these few examples, and there are dozens and dozens of others throughout the book, I was simply amazed by the authors use of rather dubious methods when attempting to make their case. I had never, up to this one, read a book that was some full of "maybes" and "perhaps", in other terms assumptions, interpretations and tentative explanations that are not backed by sufficiently solid evidence. What made it worse, however, was that the interpretations were carefully selected to fit the authors' cases. Moreover, all other possible interpretations, and there is at least one alternative for each point made throughout the book, are simply and rather systematically ignored. Here is one example, among many others. The authors never really consider the case of Britain from rome's perspective, which is something that I found quite astonishing. They sometimes get close to this, particularly when mentioning that Britain was peripheral in terms of geography, but they never quite get to mentioning that, for Rome, Britain was an expensive and largely unrewarding conquest. It seems to have barely, and, at some times, not at all, have justified the cost of maintaining such a large military force. If anything, and seen from Rome, Britain was a backwater and a relatively unattractive proposition for anyone who got posted there. Partly because it was a backwater, the civilians that went there may have been largely those that had little to lose, who were adventurous types and/or who wanted to "get rich quick" by exploiting the locals and were not too scrupulous on the means to do so. While all this is just as speculative as what the authors have done, it does illustrate the range of possible and plausible interpretations, a range that the authors have not even taken the trouble to mention, let alone discuss.
Another problem related to the tentative "evidence" is that the book includes what I can only qualify as questionable methods. The typical starts with the authors presenting tentative interpretations. Little by little, and sometimes just through sheer repetition, these become "facts". One case in point is the tentative statement that "it is quite possible that most Britons may never have fully seen themselves as Romans." This, apart from being a case of second-guessing (who can even pretend to really know how the "Britons" may have seen themselves, especially some 20 centuries after?), is indeed "quite possible" since there is not enough evidence to make a point either way. By the end of the book, it has become a "fact". Another example, although perhaps an extreme one, is about general Gerontius (Contantius III's main general) who, after being tentatively presented as British ("also seems to have been British") suddenly becomes "The Briton" after three pages of glossy photos and illustrations.
Yet another amazing case of "second-guessing" arises at the beginning of Chapter 1 (titled "Powergames"). Here, the authors state that "Britain was viewed as a natural target by the power-hungry Roman general Julius Caesar" and that his expeditions in 55BC and 54 BC were "invasions into Britain." They then mention that by 55BC, Caesar had subjugated much of Gaul and punished the Germans. What they fail to mention is that in the process, he had acquired a huge fortune, enormous prestige and considerable power, including a regular increase in the number of legions under his direct command. They also fail to provide a plausible explanation as to why Caesar, given that he had it all, would have or needed to "invade" an island which was, for him, at the end of the known world? What could Caesar still have to prove, and to whom? The authors' explanation - he wanted to demonstrate to the Roman public `his ability to go anywhere and do anything" - falls rather short. This was what he had already been demonstrating, and rather successfully, since he had fabricated his first "Gallic War" against the Helvetes. After all that he had achieved since 58 BC (defeating the Helvetes, the Germans, the Belgian tribes, crossing the Rhine to "punish" them and then defeating the tribes of modern Brittany, including the Venetes at sea), one would think that the point had perhaps been made already. So, very unconvincing, once again.
A related consideration is the very biased interpretation about the Roman Army of Britain becoming somehow more "British" overtime (this is despite the authors mentioning previously that the term was rather meaningless!). The authors make the point that this happened especially from the third century onwards because recruitment became more localized, as elsewhere in the Empire. This is where the revolt of some of Julian's crack Gallic troops, who supposedly refused to be posted to Asia because they were attached to Gaul and their families, is brought in to illustrate the alleged "regionalisation" of Roman armies. Apart from being a rather traditional ploy (each and every historian seems to use the same example to illustrate this regionalisation point), this is only part of the story. This is because, interestingly enough, the very same troops do not seem to have had the slightest objection in following Julian when he marched East and then embarked on his Persian campaign.
The supposed increased "Britishness" of the Roman Army, which is used as the main explanation for having the Army rebel against Rome, contradicts at least two other points that are made about the Roman Army. It was a major vector for integrating recruits from very different horizons, including so-called Barbarians living beyond the Empire's borders, and it seems to have been very attractive and have worked rather well, and for much longer than was traditionally believed (at least until AD 378 and perhaps even up to the early fifth century) as an integration tool. So even assuming that recruitment did become more localized, one fails to see, and the authors do not explain, why the Army would have so much more trouble in integrating Brigantes or Durotriges than it had in integrating the thousands of Roman-trained and equipped Germanic warriors (Franks, Vandals etc...) who fought for Constantine the Great or for Valentinian the First.
Yet another problem is the supposed "rebellious nature" of the Britons in general, and of the Roman Army in Britain in particular, with the link between the two providing the main explanation. Here again, this is one - rather far-fetched - interpretation. There are others which may be at least as plausible, if not more, but they are neither discussed nor mentioned, because they do not, once again, fit in with the authors' case. One of these interpretations is that the Roman Army in Britain represented a large concentration of troops, and perhaps even a rather disproportionately large one (initially four full legions, so about 20000 legionaries with at least as many auxiliaries) when compared with the rest of the Empire and given the secondary importance of Britain. Overtime, as the Empire's resources declined and the pressure on the frontiers increased, a very logical choice from Rome's point of view (but, of course, a choice which would not at all been popular with those remaining in Britain) would have been to reduce the size of the Army and use the freed-up troops elsewhere, for instance on the Rhine or the Danube. If such reductions increased over time, the cumulative impact in economic terms (with the Army being, by far, the main source of "public spending" for the Empire's Treasury) and in terms of reduced security would certainly be felt on the remaining forces and on the populations they were tasked to defend. Accordingly, and rather than far-fetched ethnically-motivated rebellions, the Roman Army rebellions could have had the same kind of motivations that other military rebellions that took place on other borders. For instance, Postumus' rebellion, and that of the Rhine legions took place in AD 260 after these had been severely depleted by Emperor Gallien who had stripped them of part of their effectives and deployed the numerous detachments to fight on the Danube.
Accordingly, and despite the hyped up and misleading chapter title of "Britain conquering Rome", what all of these rebellions would have illustrated are bitter civil wars between various sections of the Army wanting a larger and more adequate share (from their point of view, of course) of the Empire's dwindling resources (in both money and men) in order to fulfil their jobs under better conditions. However far-fetched this might seem, it is at least as plausible as the authors' "ethnic" interpretation.
Then there is an even more amazing case made by the authors. This is about "Britain leaving the Empire", to quote yet another chapter title. Needless to say, the populations, and even the elites in Britain, never had ANY say in the matter. Apart from the sheer implausibility of this, the authors clearly show further on in the book that leaving the Empire was economically disastrous for the Britons, or at least for their elites, since it meant becoming cut off of the rest of the Empire and no longer integrated in it. To justify this rather surprising decision to leave, Emperor Honorius, having vanquished the latest rebel from Britain (Constantius III) shortly before, would have accepted the `fait accompli" of Britain's rebellion and secession. The traditional explanation - Rome abandoned Britain to its own devices - although perhaps less palatable and more unpleasant, since it implies that Britania saw abandonned, seems much more realistic, given the context in AD 410. The Empire pulled out whatever little military forces (although some Roman military might have preferred to desert and stay, assuming they could not bring their families with them) and the imperial civil servants that were still posted in Britain. The British civitates were told that, from now on, they had to fend for themselves and defend themselves. This is exactly what the civitates, that is the local level of administration organized around the Roman towns did, including arming militias of citizens/tribesmen and the raising of private war bands by the landlords. This is also similar to what happened elsewhere in the Western part of the Roman Empire, especially in Gaul and Spain. In all three regions, as the authors mention, bands of "barbarian" mercenaries seem to have been hired to participate in the defense. Alongside the use of Anglo-Saxons, and maybe even before AD 410, Roman Britannia seems to have have hired banks of Franish warriors. Interestingly, all these elements (militias, private forces, barbarian mercenaries) are "Roman ways" of dealing with localized defences as the dwindling imperial regular forces increasingly concentrated on defending the Imperial heartlands in the West. As for Northern Gaul, this became a frontier or even a war zone, with Constantius and then Aetius stationing various groups of Barbarian federates as "buffers" against renewed attacks (for instance the Alanian bands stationed at Orleans and Vienne, south of Lyon). Britain, which had no longer any role to play in any of this, was on its own and remained so, despite the pleas for help that at least some Romano-British elites made (a couple of times, if I remember correctly) to Aetius. There were no military resources to spare for Britain and defending it was clearly not a top priority in Ravenna.
Finally, there are some very difficult, controversial - but fascinating - issues about the transition from "UnRoman Britain to Anglo-Saxon England." The authors made a number of points, some of which are excellent - but none of these are entirely original. Some of these also hold true for other former Roman provinces on the mainland. One of these is to minimize the scale of the Anglo-Saxon "invasions" and show that the take-over process (rather than an outright conquest) was lengthy (up to 100 years), was not necessarily as violent as it is traditionnally presented and involved small numbers of newcomers trickling in every year rather than one or several major waves of invaders. A similar case has become accepted for the continent over the last 2-3 decades and the numbers that took part in what used to be called "The Great invasions" have been scaled down significantly.
With reagrds to numbers, those provided by the authors - some three million "Britons" when the Romans left, with this number halved a hundred years later and including some 100000 - and which are drawn from other authors - are tentative estimates and, in reality, no more than educated guesses. The size for the Briton population by AD 410 could just as well have been 2 million or 3 million, for instance, and the total cumulated number of "newcomers" over a century could have been three or four times larger, for all we know. In other terms, the range between extremes is simply huge and, in reality, we have no plausible order of magnitude, contrary to what the authors' suggest.
Another point picked up from other authors is to show that the "Anglo-Saxons" included many other groups than just Angles and Saxons. Again, the same was true on the continent with the Franks, the Vandals or the Visigoths (to mention just these), which were all confederations of tribes, picking up along thjeir way and over time many additions with very different backgrounds (including runnaway slaves, destitute farmers or deserters from the Roman army). Here again, the authors make a somewhat different case similar case, although an interesting one, by arguing that many "Anglo-Saxons" by the mid-sixth century would have been "Anglo-Saxonized" Britons. This is another point which seems to have become more or less "mainstream" nowadays. To some extent, the authors seem to have been guilty of applying double standards here: a large scale change of identity and the assimilation of Britons by Anglo-Saxons seems perfectly acceptable to the authors. However, a similar process over a much longer period and during which a much more powerful Empire would have failed to Romanize a bunch of tribes is also argued. The rather dubious explanation for this is a cultural one: the "Briton culture" (although, again, this contradicts the authors' other assertion about tribalization and the absence of any common identity) was vibrant when the Romans arrived but the Romano-British culture was dying when the Anglo-Saxons took over. Inm itself, the argument is hardly convincing. When its contradictions are exposed, it becomes not at all convincing. Anyway, why would someone fight any harder for his home, family and way of life in one case than in the other?
To conclude, at last, I hope to have shown in this overlong review to what extent the methods used in this book are problematic and biased. It is for this reason that I cannot rate the book more than two stars, despite an interesting case which is unfortunately very poorly made.
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