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Tony Grist

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The End Of Roman Britain [Jan. 4th, 2012|11:52 am]
Tony Grist
Something I've never really understood is the collapse of Roman Britain. We had 400 years of towns and roads and baths and then the troops were withdrawn and everything went to pot. I was reading an article last night about the archaeology of the Roman fort at Binchester in County Durham. It wasn't abandoned when the soldiers left. Instead the local tradesmen moved in and dug pits all over the place and spread offal around. When the fabric started to crumble they patched it up with wood. Had they forgotten how to build in stone or did they prefer not to?

I find it hard to imagine what that transition must have been like. Were people traumatised by the sudden collapse of their world or did they relapse into tribal ways the way one might slip into a stinky old dressing-gown at the end of the day? Did anyone struggle to maintain standards of governance and civilisation? The evidence suggests not.

I've read fiction about the last days of Empire and fiction about the so-called Dark Ages, but I've never read fiction that deals with the generation of the collapse- the people who lived in towns one year and in ruins the next. Does anyone know of any?
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: strange_complex
2012-01-04 11:59 am (UTC)
You might find it helpful to think in terms of the impact of a global economic depression to help you understand the reasons for and scale of the change. Britain was doing quite well economically in the late third / early fourth century, but over the course of the fourth century the whole empire suffered serious economic decline, with empire-wide trade and the spending power of the imperial state both shrinking dramatically, and affecting all whose livelihoods depended on either. By the time the troops were withdrawn, Britain, like the rest of the western empire, was already seriously impoverished by comparison with its position a century earlier. Roads and baths were just no longer sustainable.

Neither are fictional, but I can recommend two books which you might enjoy on this period. Bryan Ward-Perkins' extremely readable book, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation gives a vivid and up-to-date account of the reasons for the change on an empire-wide scale, and the sorts of effects it would have had on people living at the time. And Ken Dark's book, Britain and the End of the Roman Empire will give you more of the fine detail on Britain itself, while also setting it into the wider context of what was going on in the rest of the empire at the same time.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2012-01-04 05:19 pm (UTC)
Thank you for the suggestions.

The totality of the collapse- with the concomitant loss of skills and technologies- is alarming. Could something similar happen to our civilisation, or are we too well embedded?
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[User Picture]From: ooxc
2012-01-04 01:28 pm (UTC)
Um - yes - -
But did withdrawing the troops mean that there was no longer any Roman occupation at all?
No settlers?
It's never occurred to me before that I know nothing about this period!
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[User Picture]From: strange_complex
2012-01-04 01:59 pm (UTC)
The question to ask here is, four hundred years after the first Romans arrived, how meaningful would the difference between 'Roman' and 'British' have remained?
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[User Picture]From: wemyss
2012-01-04 01:45 pm (UTC)

With caution:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Imperial-Possession-Britain-Empire-History/dp/0713990635.

(Not fiction, of course.)

I'll say no more just now, as am busy.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2012-01-04 05:24 pm (UTC)

Re: With caution:

Thanks for the link.
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[User Picture]From: rosamicula
2012-01-04 01:51 pm (UTC)
Learning about this was one of the shocks of my school history lessons (which were brilliant; unlike the present national curriculum which is all 'let's do the nazis three times in five years because there's loads of videos') is that things can regress or be unlearned.

I found that terrifying; Britons inventing giants to explain how roads were built. It reminded me of the end of Planet of the Apes, which, as a child, I found horribly upsetting.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2012-01-04 07:56 pm (UTC)
Most of us coast along on other people's expertise. A society like ours depends on an army of specialists. If the specialists were neutralised the rest of us would be helpless.

If our society collapsed tomorrow I wouldn't even possess the basic skills of a hunter-gatherer. I'd go round looting shops until the stocks ran out (which would be almost immediately) and then I'd die.
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[User Picture]From: shewhomust
2012-01-04 02:20 pm (UTC)
Had they forgotten how to build in stone or did they prefer not to?

Like strange_complex, I'd look for explanations in the economy; and in the difference between what can be built by organised workers with an infrastructure behind them, and what an individual or small group of artisans can patch up after they've done their stint on the day job.

Bear in mind, too, that the remains didn't get any respect just for being old: they were a resource to be used, and often no more than a quarry where the hard work of cutting the stone had already been done for you.
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[User Picture]From: ooxc
2012-01-04 02:32 pm (UTC)
Yes - economy - and, as you suggest, direction of labour.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2012-01-04 08:00 pm (UTC)
That's a good point. If there's no economy to support skilled craftspeople the crafts will simply disappear.

Apparently some of the stone from Binchester eventually wound up in the little Saxon church at Escomb.
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[User Picture]From: sovay
2012-01-04 02:40 pm (UTC)
I've never read fiction that deals with the generation of the collapse- the people who lived in towns one year and in ruins the next. Does anyone know of any?

Rosemary Sutcliff's The Lantern Bearers (1959) is about life in immediately post-Roman Britain: the legions withdraw and the protagonist stays behind. I do not know how well it matches with contemporary archaeology, but it's a great book.
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[User Picture]From: steepholm
2012-01-04 04:46 pm (UTC)
I was about to recommend the same book - but instead I'll second it heartily.

Another novel that deals with the same period, but with less effort at realism, is Ann Lawrence's Between the Forest and the Hills. You know how in Asterix one Gaulish village is surrounded by the might of Rome? In this, it's kind of the other way round (except the village is in Britannia).
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From: athenais
2012-01-04 05:52 pm (UTC)
I am very fond of Jo Walton's novels The King's Peace and The King's Name which deals with the changes after the "Vincans" left. It is a take on the Arthurian legend as well.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2012-01-04 07:24 pm (UTC)
Thank you. These sound promising.
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