AmeriCymru spoke to author and historian David Leedham recently about Roman Wales, historiography and in particular his epic five part series - "The Bitter Sea" :- "The five books in 'The Bitter Sea' series attempt to give a long-overdue narrative account – that bit is important as you will see – of how Rome established its power in the British Isles, how it fought to maintain that power, and how the various component parts of these islands emerged after the collapse of imperial control."
David: Hello Ceri, and to all who read this in AmeriCymru.
Firstly, allow me to say what a privilege it is for me to be interviewed by you in this way. Perhaps I could add that it is particularly apt. Your society is inevitably concerned with roots, the roots of Americans who can trace their ancestry back to Wales in the UK. Roots are exactly what the series The Bitter Sea is about. The five books attempt to give a long-overdue narrative account – that bit is important as you will see – of how Rome established its power in the British Isles, how it fought to maintain that power, and how the various component parts of these islands emerged after the collapse of imperial control. In other words, the books attempt to trace the history of the relations between the peoples who lived around the borders of what we call the Irish Sea during the Roman empire and its aftermath.
Two themes dominate. This study challenges and rejects the generally held belief that during the period of the Roman occupation of Britain, Ireland was virtually a self-contained, self-enclosed world, its only dealings with its larger neighbour being through quite low-level trade contacts. If this view has altered in any way over recent years, it is to admit that limited contact did impact on religious and material developments. That the Irish Sea was instead the focal point of political and military attention during the years of Roman rule over Britain will for many, therefore, be a highly controversial claim.
The inevitable result of this change of focus leads us to see how what today we call Wales emerged out of the collapse of western imperial authority in the fourth century. This is the second theme. The Roman presence in Wales was, for the most part, dictated by the strategic needs of an island diocese vulnerable to attacks, invasions, and attempts at settlement coming from that more westerly island we call Ireland. It is no accident that Segontium, Caernarfon, and Holyhead remained garrisoned till the end of formal Roman control over Britain.
AmeriCymru: What is your personal opinion of the idea that there was a solidarity amongst the British Celtic tribes that transcended temporary Roman influences and alliances?
David: The word ‘solidarity’ is problematical for a period when land communications were difficult, and where tribes were often extended family groupings that had managed to take control of a particular area. Resentment at the intrusions of outsiders was not only directed against the Romans. It focussed on any people that represented a threat to power, the control of wealth and position. Indeed, the decades prior to the Roman conquest saw British leaders appealing to the empire for help against other tribes or in situations of domestic strife and civil war.
Your reference to ‘temporary Roman influence’, leads us into a whole area of debate
AmeriCymru: To what extent in your view did the Celtic tribes of Wales become Romanized?
David: The Romanization of Britain is an enormous topic on which many volumes have been written with many more to come. It will help if we look separately at Britain before and after the conquest. Britain was, in part, Romanized before the events of 43, the date of the invasion. You can make a direct comparison with Britain in the nineteenth century and the United States in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. All three, Rome, Britain and the USA had/have what we might call formal and informal empires. Formal empire implies direct rule, usually where law, taxation, and citizenship rights apply. Informal empire involves economic and cultural domination whilst the outward forms of independent political life continue. [Dare I say it? Many historians regard the USA in the nineteenth century as part of Britain’s informal empire. Some would claim that Britain is part of America’s informal empire today.] The British empire and the Roman empire were alike in that even within the formal empire there were enormous differences in government ranging from direct and even brutal rule to areas where self-rule almost amounting to independence held sway. Ultimately, all that Rome demanded was obedience; that’s its will was done and respected, and the taxes paid.
Even the words formal and informal can be misleading. We have all grown up with maps of western Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East showing a red line for the boundaries of the Roman empire. We are endlessly shown pictures of Hadrian’s Wall in Britain, or see again Alec Guinness playing Marcus Aurelius crouching down behind a Danube defence line as the snow drives horizontally! All good movie stuff, but it’s not history.
Beyond what might still be called the formal empire lay zone after zone of ever decreasing influence, right out until remote parts where control was exhausted and nonexistent. But pushing out in this way improved defence. My neighbour’s neighbour was indeed my friend.
Also, long before 43, peoples neighbouring the empire would have seen the benefits conferred by forming alliances with Rome and the greater control in their own areas this conferred. To become client kings, receiving support, in times of emergency even military support was worth following Roman direction and contributing to its coffers. It was the insufficiency of that sort of control, with malcontents in the Continental empire seeking refuge and support in Britain, which led Rome to move in and establish a surer footing. Initially the aim was simply to make sure that the ‘invasion coasts’ on both sides of what we call the English Channel were firmly in Roman hands.
AmeriCymru: What have recent development in the history of philosophy contributed to our understanding of the nature and purpose of historical research? Or have they perhaps subverted the entire exercise?
David: Now we come to the great issues of historiography which, I believe, has so interfered with our understanding of history. When did anyone looking at this piece last read a narrative political history of events in the Roman period, at least one written in Europe? We have many books on different aspects – gladiators have since the Russell Crowe film of that name become something of an obsession – with social history usually to the fore, and almost continuous archaeological excitement at some new discovery or other which is supposed to change our view of everything but never does, and that is all.
This question is a difficult one, and I try to disentangle it in the Introduction to Book One of the series, The Limits of the Habitable Earth, from which much of what follows is taken
Since the 1960s, developments in philosophy going back over two hundred years, have led to profound scepticism about our capacity to approach anything that can be called truth about the past. This is the ‘Crisis of History’, where History’s validity as a form of knowledge has come to be doubted and its value, even its credibility, challenged. Some would claim that the truth we think we know about the past is mere pretence and no truth at all.
History is about trying to establish the truth of facts in the past, and putting these together to establish a relationship between these facts, giving them a relationship to each other, a coherence. If we are not convinced of the truth of our information about the past then we are left with fiction. If we deal with the facts without attempting to put them into some relationship with each other, if we abandon any attempt to create coherence, then we are left with what is merely chronicle. However, to be worth anything History must be true and it must make sense. Leonard Krieger spelt all this out in his wonderful, though admittedly difficult book, Time’s Reasons. Philosophies Old and New, in 1989.
But over the past one hundred years, both our ability to establish the facts of the past and the legitimacy of our attempts to impose some coherence on these have been radically called into question. What needs to be stressed is that we are looking here at the earliest period of history for the British Isles, and in this area of study some of these doubts for a period on which we still know so little can hardly be challenged. The few facts we have are nearly always given us as part of accounts put together for a specific purpose. What we are not told might be equally important, and when our information is so sparse, this can be crucial. Had we been told these facts, what we have would appear in a very different light.
Then, as soon as the facts of history, whatever their truthfulness, are put together – the way this is done, the facts we choose and emphasize, or leave out and belittle – all betray what some would describe as the fraudulence of the attempt. Any attempt at linking facts about the past, any scheme of coherence, involves us in bringing to the issue our own ideas, prejudices, or standpoints.
Today, and almost universally so amongst historians, the old, extra-historical coherences coming from religion, liberalism, Marxism, and the like are rejected. Yet now the attack by some is even more radical. We have, so these critics say, no reason to assume people in the past thought and behaved as we do, and time can advance through a series of dramatic lurches almost impossible to analyse. All we are left with now from the past are tiny scraps, traces, and hints. Some would then claim that History is finished.
The result has been the birth of something called the New History.
For a start, narrative has to be abandoned. This is the old stuff, discredited because totally unscientific. In other words, narrative creates an apparent coherence between the facts which their sparsity will simply not allow. We are being cheated and misled. As history is seen to be just one more weapon in the armoury of the powerful and dominant in society, the narratives dealing, so it seemed, only with kings and emperors, bishops and popes, came to be even more derided. These tiny groups have dominated our view of the past simply because they were the only ones to leave us records.
The ultimate aim of the New History has been to ditch, and to be seen to be ditching, the old sources of coherence which even laymen were beginning to see lacked validity. For the academic historian, the argument was conclusive. They were extra-historical: that is, they had no justification that could be found within history itself. The task then was to discover new sources of coherence, ones that could be justified from within the subject. How could what was said be shown to be true?
It is possible to see four avenues of approach taken by historians today, especially those dealing with early periods of history such as ours. The first can be called critical history. Here the demolition workers are still on site continuing with the work of deconstruction, showing in the process how past ideas of coherence quite easily crumble and topple over before the rigorous application of facts. The second involves itself in the science of documents, palaeography, and diplomatics. This attempts to lay bare the written evidence as we now possess it, and show its passage through time. Another approach is to take extremely narrow, circumscribed topics and, by dissecting, analysing, and bringing together the insights of many disciplines lying well beyond the purely historical, create surer ground on which others might build when enough of the foundations are complete. The obvious question which springs to mind is: will that day ever come? The last main stance is to stress what can only be called the historical coherence of the present, exposing the presence and, indeed, the absence of the past in what we now have. All these approaches have become part and parcel of today’s scholarly orthodoxy, and the results have been extremely impressive. But much has been lost.
The most obvious result of the triumph of the New History is seen in the way the study of language, philology, and the practice of archaeology have come to dominate the study of Roman and post-Roman Britain and Ireland completely. This is because, with the practice of History having been so criticized and undermined, these two areas of study hold out the possibility that advances in our understanding will be self-validating and owe nothing to extra-historical sources of coherence. Problems arise, however, because these specialisms, apparently now alone in the field, often stray well beyond this limited rôle with none to challenge them.
AmeriCymru: Can you explain for our readers differences in approach of Celticists and Classicists in their interpretations of this period?
David: As historical study has become increasingly restricted to narrow areas of specialism in the way I describe, so more and more we are deprived of any attempt at an overall view. I now wonder how far English universities still aim at this or if the modular approach, now so common, is further militating against this. In our period, the most obvious deficiency left us by these excessively specialist studies, this lack of the joined-up thinking which historians should be bringing to the period, is the difference, seen in interest, attitude, and not surprisingly results, between the Celticists working backwards from a pre-Norman, pre-Saxon Britain, arguing for a Romanization that made little impact – during three and a half to four centuries! – and emphasizing a continuity with pre-Roman Britain, as opposed to Classicists who approach the position in Britain from the standpoint of Rome and Trier, Milan, and Ravenna. When one sees these practitioners approaching the issues from such a narrow linguistic base, in some cases with barely concealed and highly partisan views, one is tempted to ask Kipling’s question; ‘And what should they know of England who only England know?’ Is it really so impertinent to enquire what history is known. Is history, the past, really considered important by these researchers?
The other great unintended consequence of the general and widespread acceptance of the New History by the academic world has been to deprive the rest of us of the great narrative histories which once informed and shaped the views and outlook of those who had any claim to education and culture. We no longer have grand histories such as Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, and those attempting to follow down this path in our own day, such as Dr John Morris of London in the early 1970s with The Age of Arthur, are shot down in flames. Any general view is rejected and any pattern that is now described has to emerge out of the historical process itself. The emphasis now is all on epistemology, how we have the knowledge we think we have, what its scope is, and above all, what its reliability.
If the New History approach has increased scepticism, then this is to the good. The whole historical quest depends on such questioning. But there are levels of scepticism. The ‘global’ scepticism of much modern philosophical thinking would, as we have seen, wipe History away almost entirely. Others use this general outlook to cloak barely concealed fundamentalist beliefs on the significance of other disciplines with which they would seek to replace the subject entirely. Archaeology comes to mind especially in this regard.