Never mind the Romans, what can the Romano-British teach us?

Ever since the BBC’s splendidly practical Adam Hart-Davis took up Monty Python’s challenge and answered Reg’s burning question:

Reg: But apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?

…something else has been niggling away at the back of my mind. Recently, it thrust its way to the front (generally rather a crowded place, mostly full of ‘when can I escape and go for a run?’, ‘how can people not be able to tell the difference between a squid and a cuttlefish?’, ‘I wish everyone would just stop talking for a bit’, ‘why isn’t there more cake?’ and ‘just how did Holmes escape Moriarty and fake his own demise at the Reichenbach Falls?’ type stuff) because of conversations I’ve been having with my Viking Sousaphonist about Peak Oil and its attendant woes.

With fossil fuel stocks – at least the relatively easily accessible ones – rapidly running out, our bubble-based economies in melt-down and the climate of our planet changing so dramatically that it is already messing with global weather patterns and adversely impacting crop-growing across the world, many people are predicting the collapse of our civilisation. Whether gradual or catastrophic, either way the end result is likely to be the same: we’ll have to give up our consumer-based culture in favour of a return to the kind of pre-industrial lifestyle of our great-great-great grandparents.

We will probably no longer be able to rely on (or afford) to draw endless electricity from our respective national grids to power our washing machines, dishwashers, tumble-driers, fridges, cookers, hoovers, treadmills etc – not to mention our TVs, DVD players, stereos, iPods, computers, games consoles and so on.

Gone will be the days of long distance travel, either for us on holidays or for the food, drink and consumer goods we currently import everyday. Even relatively short distances will undoubtedly have to be re-thought – we’ll have to use a bike or walk rather than automatically hopping in the car for journeys of just a few miles, for example.

Which brings me back to my original point – how did the people living in southeast Britain at the time the Romans pulled out in the early 5th century AD survive the collapse of their civilisation? We call the period of several hundred years that followed the Roman’s retreat ‘The Dark Ages’ for good reason: imported luxuries became scarce, roads fell into disrepair making communication and trade more difficult – especially away from coasts and rivers – centralised law and order disintegrated as local chieftains fought for land and resources while bandits preyed on unlucky travellers with impunity, literacy rates fell and childhood mortality rates jumped as aqueducts were left to crumble and sanitation became a distant memory, and without a steady flow of new slaves to work copper, tin and silver mines, and a central authority to assure quality, the coinage was debased and inflation rocketed.

So how did they survive?

Archeology shows us that as the large and sophisticated country villas of the Roman period were abandoned – with their underfloor heating systems, bathhouses, mosaics and frescos – more modest, but probably more practical in reduced circumstances, structures replaced them, often built right over the top of the earlier foundations.

Did families 1500 years ago face similar challenges to the ones we will shortly face? Did they tell themselves “Right, no more Italian wine? Fine, we’ll grow our own vines. The roads are more pothole than paved? Alright, we’ll give up the carriage and just ride or walk instead. The bathhouse, circus and arena are falling down? No problem, we’ll tell stories about a legendary king and his knights in a fabled city to entertain ourselves with folk memories of past glories. And the slave market is non-existant? Well, we need power so let’s give our powersource their freedom and the protection of our walls in exchange for their labour.”

I wonder…


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19 Responses to Never mind the Romans, what can the Romano-British teach us?

  1. modestypress says:

    It is worrisome, and we are not well prepared. We have gone soft. I shoot the occasional rabbit and then throw it into the woods for the crows and coyotes instead of cleaning and cooking it myself. We raise the occasional chickens for their eggs and my wife intends to support them for their senior years after they stop laying eggs because she (and I) are too squishy to boil them and suck their marrow. Our only chance with the barbarians will be if they laugh themselves silly as they contemplate us as their prospective victims.

  2. Woo says:

    I was taught how to skin and prepare a rabbit by the farm yard pump aged 8, by the tiny but redoubtable Danny Dixon, the lovely Irish gentleman who looked after my grandmother’s gardens. I remember he told me it was just “like taking their little pyjamies off now so” and I have dispatched and plucked chickens/pheasant when necessary for the pot… So, if worse comes to worst, I shall be fully and lethally prepared to battle lagomorphs and plump game birds anywhere… however, Barbarians at the gate would certainly be more problematic.

  3. piereth says:

    Yes, largely, but the change was more achievable because they were only two-odd generations removed from susbsistence agriculture. We’re about 5 generations away and have worked actively to subsume any relic of our agricultural past; to place it firmly at the level of a historical curiosity.

    Basically the majority of modern Britons (who are the Britons???) would be comprehensively fucked if the Dark Ages returned – coldly, this is a good thing. The fittest survive and the rest go to the wall.

    This country can’t support 65m people unless everyone became vegetarian and even then it’s a stretch. There’d be a period of extreme anarchy and then things would settle down again and, unfortunately, we’d probably start trying to industrialise, somehow, what with I don’t know.

    As long as you’ve got the ability to heat a couple of rooms in your home independently of the grid, somewhere (and the ability) to grow vegetables, and a less squeamish attitude to wild foods, you’ll probably be ok.

    • Woo says:

      Absolutely. I remain positive – largely because my lifestyle has never been particularly wedded to the current consumer culture. I don’t run a car, I don’t use a dishwasher or tumbledrier (though I do use a washing machine and oddly that would be the thing I’d miss most if I were without electricity), I can and have grown my own veg etc etc… I’d probably need to learn to fish and set snares though, I reckon.

  4. sledpress says:

    Well, I couldn’t kill an animal to eat it or for any other reason unless it was attacking me, and unfortunately I can’t even grow grass on a bare spot. But I also am a little suspicious of expectations of total chaos and meltdown. These scenarios seem to fascinate people. I suspect reality is not likely to be quite so dramatic.

    The irony is that I consciously took care to have a body that would hold up under all kinds of conditions and a skill that required only my bare hands, because as a child I used to ruminate a lot about post-catastrophe scenarios. But now I’m nearly sixty, and I can’t think of any real reason I’d want to survive into a dog-eat-dog future. I have nothing to prove. No one’s depending on me except cats, and I really would have to sit down and decide if it would be more humane for us all to die at once or if they would fend pretty damn well for themselves. The human race, as such, isn’t worth hanging around for.

    • Woo says:

      Oh, the cats will be here long after we’ve all gone, I’m sure. Easily hoodwinking the next species that ends up at the top of the foodchain into providing them with food and shelter in return for the occasional purr 🙂

  5. azahar says:

    You used impact as a verb! Talk about the end of civilisation as we know it…

  6. The short answer to your question “How did they survive?” is that a lot of them did not.

    I am not so sanguine about the possibilities for total chaos and meltdown as Sledpress is. I’ve been worrying about it for some time, probably because I have read Waaaay too much SciFi that deals with exactly that sort of scenario. Herein the US we are living in an economy that has switched from local warehouse based supply lines to demand based supply. This means that at our major stores, they only have easily available what they can put on their shelves. When a product is sold, then they order a replacement. This makes it easy for them to keep their inventory costs low, but it also means that any disruption of the supply chain means the supplies would run out quickly with no possibility of replacement

    I still remember what THAT was like when I lived in Fairbanks AK in the 70s and the Teamsters went on strike in Seattle, where about 95% of our food supply came from. It was pretty sobering to go to the grocery store and find the shelves empty — really, EMPTY. The only food available at the grocery stores was fresh produce, which was flown in on Northwest Orient and did not need teamsters to get it from the rail to the container ships. We wound up scoring a 50lb bag of bird seed at a local feed supply company, and it made a passable soup. But I digress.

    Additionally, in this country we used to have large supplies of surplus food warehoused, specifically wheat and rice and corn. At the present time, those warehoused supplies have dwindled drastically. When you start looking at the forecasts in articles about wheat crops, it is hard to know whether to be happy or sad. I guess it depends on whether you trade in the futures market, because a lot of forecasts show the wheat production going down due to drought. This is an interesting forecast considering that last year the midwest corn crop was negatively impacted by flooding at planting time, followed by a hot dry summer and then further wet weather at harvest time. At any rate, if you travel through the American Midwest and observe the gigantic monoculture of Roundup Ready wheat and soybeans that is being farmed, it is sobering to read articles that talk about how these same crops seem to be becoming more and more vulnerable to disease because of the rampant use of Roundup. While the results of research on this subject are inconclusive, it is still worth some thought about our commitment to GMO food sources. And the trouble with monocultures is that they are very susceptible to disease even if the use of glyphosphate doesn’t promote disease.

    Being able to kill and prepare something to eat is just the tip of the iceberg of problems that would arise for people in this society if there was a collapse. It is also helpful to be able to grow something to eat as well. And I’m afraid that knowing how to text at 1000 characters per minute is not really a helpful skill if what you need to know is how to grow, harvest and store beans and wheat for the winter. I personally know several young people who not only do not know the slightest thing about growing a food supply, they do not even know how to build a fire on which to cook the putative food supply should they be so fortunate as to have something to cook.

    We are all so secure in our modern conveniences and with our food chain, we just can’t believe that anything could make it break down. I notice that there is a rather large volcanic eruption going on down in Chile, ( ) which has disrupted air traffic down there and dumped tons of ash all over. The experts have no idea when it will quit, and it has already prompted declaration of an agricultural state of emergency in Argentina, and the ash cloud is now dropping ash on Australia and NZ. What would happen to our fine American economy if the stratovolcano under Yellowstone decided to become active? There wouldn’t be much we could do about that, and I’m pretty sure that the disruption to our food supply and infrastructure would change life as we know it. Finding a place to charge our cell phones would be the least of our worries.

    Well, I have probably gone on way too long in this comment, so I shall descend from my soap box and go plant the agastache plants my mother gave me for my birthday.

    • Woo says:

      As usual, we’re in complete agreement hmh. Learning how to grow, store and prepare food should be part of every child’s education. Far more useful than abstract geometry but nowhere to be seen in most public school systems, and just as absent from home life since most parents don’t know the first thing about it, either.

      I only have a small balcony now, but when I had my own garden I grew my own vegetables and fruit and enjoyed it thoroughly.

      My Viking Sousaphonist and I plan to live that way together in future, so we’ll be seeking advice from you and Jim on many of those skills, in terms of canning and preserving particularly 🙂

  7. You know, I have been thinking lately that large corporations operate on something that is very like a feudal system, except that those who work there are not property, and there is more room for movement. Still, the CEO is like the king, etc. Perhaps coporate America is our Dark Ages . . .

  8. modestypress says:

    Attached to this comment is a sound bite of cockroaches practicing their purring.

  9. ombudsben says:

    My additional two cents: most of the Britons were killed by the invading Anglo-Saxons; those Britons who survived fled to Brittany, Wales and other outposts. The Danes also came in and scrimmaged with the Anglo-Saxons for a bit — odds are these are your ancestors, no? And they all brought their own implements for survival along with them.

    Additional cent: It’s worth noting that the Romanized Britons had cut a deal with the Anglo-Saxons, to protect themselves from the Picts to the north. Once Rome recalled the legions, which had protected the Britons for centuries, the Picts were marauding, plundering, murdering, raping and making a real nuisance of themselves, so the Brits gave an island (Thanet, I think) to the Angles & Saxons to come fight off the Picts. I think the intent was for them to use Thanet as a trading center in England.

    The Anglo-Saxons came in, kicked the Picts back up north, then took Thanet and the rest of England, too. This, basically, is How the West Was Won for the Germanic tribes. I took a wonderful course caled The History of English, and loved the stories of how the language evolves.

    English borrows words from all over the world as the power of that little island grew. Sad truth: very few words are borrowed from the original Britons. Pushed aside, the Anglo-Saxons used their own lingo, then borrowed lots from Norse, French, Latin, and other sources.

    In the fifth century, life was pretty tough for the Britons. Myself, I’d want to have been on one of those boats bound for Brittany on the continent …

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