Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Britannia: Why Bother?

In The Silver Pigs, Falco has very little positive to say about the most northerly province in the Empire. He describes it as unrelentingly grey, damp, cold, dark and boring. Having spent my formative years in Northwest England and then twenty years on the low-lying Aberdeenshire plain, I can certainly understand why a man born in Rome would see it that way. Being so much further north, Britain is naturally colder than the areas around the Mediterranean and has much shorter days in the winter. It’s position in the North Atlantic places it directly in the path of the Gulf Stream and most of the low fronts that sweep across the ocean, so it is undoubtedly a very wet country, with a great deal of that rain falling as a dismal and persistent drizzle. This adds to the feeling of cold, as damp air sucks the heat out of you, and creates the grey skies for which it is famous. Even in mid-summer the light is never as bright or vibrant as it is in Rome. You do get used to it, but it is certainly not conducive to a positive outlook on life, which is one of the reasons that I like living in Maine, although Rome would be better!

So, if it is such a dismal place, why did the Romans bother to conquer it?

As we can see from this map, which dates from 120 CE, even when the Empire was at its greatest, Britannia is rather out of the way and disconnected from the rest. The English Channel, which is only about twenty miles wide at the narrowest point, is not renowned for being difficult to traverse, but it presented a significant barrier to invasion and the Roman army was essentially a land-based force. However, it offered very little barrier to trade, and that is what drew the Romans to these seemingly uninspiring shores.

Originally, trade was conducted via through Gaul and Britannia exported mostly precious metals such as silver, gold, lead, iron, tin and copper. Strabo, writing in his Geography, also adds grain, cattle, hides, slaves and hunting dogs as significant exports in the first century CE, while salt, wool and seafood were probably also important. Rome was always eager to control the supply of important commodities and so it was inevitable that it would want to secure the metal mining activities in Britannia. It also had advanced technology at its disposal that increased the productivity of the existing mines and the exploitation of reserves that were more difficult to reach.

In The Silver Pigs, Falco works in a mine that excavates lead ore and then processes it to extract the silver hidden within it. Although the ultimate goal was to provide the silver needed to produce coinage, we forget how valuable lead was to the Roman Empire. It was primarily used for piping and lining watercourses, such as those in the many aqueducts that carried water to the towns and cities of the empire. Although we now avoid lead piping because of its inherent toxicity, it was vital for all water capture and movement within the Empire, from the gutters on villas to the linings of water storage cisterns. It was also used to produce a wide variety of decorative and kitchen ware in the form of pewter, an alloy of lead with tin. By the end of the first century CE, Britannia was the leading producer of lead within the Empire.

Iron ore was a relatively widespread deposit in the Empire, but Britannia offered the added bonus of abundant trees in close proximity to its mines. This provided the charcoal necessary to allow the ore to be smelted nearby and then shipped as iron ingots after processing. Copper and Tin were still greatly in demand for the production of the alloy bronze, which still had many uses, even though iron was replacing it in the production of weapons and tools.  

Finally, we can see how important the Province was in the political life of Rome because of the effect it had on various men and their careers. Finally bringing it into the Empire, when even the great Julius Caesar had failed in his attempts, was a huge triumph for the Emperor Claudius and helped to counteract his image as a man incapable of being a soldier. The future Emperor Vespasian spent roughly eight years conquering various parts of the Province as part of the initial invasion force and then during the expansion north and west. He was highly effective and distinguished himself enough to earn a triumphal regalia when he returned to Rome and saw him raised to the position of Consul in 51 CE. The importance and isolation of the Province meant that only trusted, senior men were chosen to serve as governors of legionary commanders, two more of who would go on to be Emperor, though only briefly.

However, I think that the wealth generated by all that lovely metallic loot was not the most important reason for the Romans to invade . . . I pretty sure it was the cute greyhounds! :)

Would this make YOU invade?

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