May 28, 2016


When the Barbarous Brits First Quit Europe (TOM HOLLAND, MAY 27, 2016, NY Times)

Just as Charles de Gaulle once warned against admitting Britain into the European Union's predecessor, the Common Market, on the grounds that, as an island nation, Britain would always look to the sea, so Roman ethnographers regarded the Britons as a people apart. The catalog of their barbarisms, from their florid body painting to their taste for milk, even made Rome's imperial strategists doubt the value of conquering them at all.

Even when, in A.D. 43, they finally decided on an invasion, the advance of the Roman legions was ultimately blunted by the increasingly inhospitable landscape and the savagery of the natives. As a result, the northern outposts were always heavily -- and no doubt oppressively -- militarized. Historians have aptly described the occupation of the north as Rome's equivalent of Afghanistan, resistant to all attempts at subjugation. Hadrian's Wall still stands as a memorial to the failure of the Caesars to subdue the rebellious Picts.

Farther south, however, classical civilization gained a greater hold. From their Continental masters, the native aristocracy acquired a taste for baths, mosaics and central heating; the villas they built during the third and fourth centuries were tributes to Roman taste.

AND yet, even these acculturated Britons remained to some degree outsiders. Unlike their counterparts in Spain and Gaul, they did not enter the highest echelons of imperial society. As late as the mid-fourth century, by which point Britain had been a Roman province for 300 years, the very notion of a cultured Briton could generate snorts of derision. "There's no such thing as a good Briton," one Roman author declared, after a British poet had dared to give him a bad review.

Britain would soon become notorious for something far removed from literary criticism: armed insurrection. "Fertile in rebels," the early Christian theologian St. Jerome wrote of the island. By the time he did so, in 415, Britain's status as the troublemaker of the Roman world was firmly established. As early as the third century, one insurgent leader declared himself the emperor of Britain and northern Gaul; and in 383, another British warlord crossed the Channel and ruled as emperor in Gaul for five years.

By the early fifth century, it was evident that the imperial authorities, struggling to cope with mass immigration and economic upheaval in their own heartlands, had lost control of Britain. It is possible that they opted deliberately to cut the province loose; but the evidence points to a more startling conclusion. The Britons, so we are told by a near-contemporary historian, "threw off Roman rule, and lived independently, no longer subject to Roman laws." So, Britain, uniquely among the provinces of the Roman Empire, seems to have chosen exit.

Posted by at May 28, 2016 10:51 AM