In the Punic Wars of the mid-late 3rd century BC, Roman imperialism erupted out of the Italian peninsula and won dominance over the Western Mediterranean. In the Macedonian Wars of the early-mid 2nd century BC, Rome established dominance over the Balkans and became a threat to the old Hellenistic kingdoms of Anatolia and Syria. By 140 BC, the Mediterranean was, for the Romans, mare nostrum – ‘our sea’.
An imperial interlude
Roman imperialism was self-feeding. Foreign wars generated huge wealth in the form of booty; and, as the empire expanded, the income streams to the central state from provincial taxation swelled. War captives provided slave labour for the estates of Italian aristocrats and the building projects of Roman warlords. Above all, ‘it was revenue from war that funded new wars. Rome was now inextricably caught up in the momentum of unlimited empire-building: this was to drive the state until the early 2nd century AD, when the emperor Hadrian decided to call a halt and begin to stabilise the frontiers.’
Such was the dynamism of the system that, under the Late Republic (133-130 BC) and the Augustan Principate (30 BC-AD 14), Rome was sometimes fighting two or more major wars at once. As well as pushing east to collapse the Hellenistic kingdoms and incorporate Syria, Egypt, and the Levant into the empire, and south, spreading their control along the North African littoral, the Romans also pushed deep into the northern temperate zone of the European heartland.
It was not always violent. Long before the soldiers came, there were traders buying slaves and furs from the ‘barbarians’ in exchange for Italian wine and Pompeian bronzeware. There is a dramatic increase in the number of wrecks found off the south coast of France which can be dated to the period after c.150 BC. Most were carrying mixed cargoes, but wine was dominant, often occupying more than 75% of the available space. One estimate is that Gaul imported 40 million amphorae of Italian wine in the course of a century, representing two million gallons per year.
‘They are exceedingly fond of wine,’ reported Diodorus Siculus of the Gauls, ‘and sate themselves with the unmixed wine imported by merchants; their desire makes them drink it greedily, and when they become drunk, they fall into a stupor… Therefore, many Italian merchants, with their usual love of cash, look on the Gallic craving for wine as their treasure. They transport the wine by boat on the navigable rivers and by wagon through the plains, and receive in return for it an incredibly high price, for one amphora of wine they get in return a slave – a servant in return for a drink.’
The Italian traders were serving an increasingly stable Celtic elite, which, since the 2nd century AD, had been constructing fortified proto-towns known as oppida. Excavations at Bibracte (Mont Beuvray) near Autun in Eastern Gaul have revealed a massively defended hilltop location carefully laid out with areas reserved for elite residences, communal meeting places, religious foci, and artisan quarters. As well as manufacturing a wide range of artefacts, imported Mediterranean luxuries were received and redistributed at the site. Bibracte was the capital of the Aedui tribe, who were pro-Roman, providing Caesar with a firm political and logistical base for his conquest of the rest of Gaul in the 50s BC.
Roman commerce won friends: Celtic oppidum-chieftains could consolidate their power by monopolising the inflow of imported luxuries. But others resisted, and the violence of conquest sometimes flared into a frenzy of genocide and enslavement. Plutarch estimated that Caesar’s eight-year campaign of conquest in Gaul involved the subjugation of 300 tribes, the storming of 800 settlements, the killing of a million people, and the enslavement of a million more.
The limits of empire
But there were limits. Beyond the oppida zone, with its advanced agriculture, stable elites, centralised polities, and a taste for Mediterranean luxury, lay a more intractable barbaricum: a zone of forests and uplands, of scattered communities, and of natural guerrilla fighters. The Romans completed the conquest of Spain, Gaul, and the Balkans, but in both Britain and Germany they found limits to empire.
‘The chiefs fight for victory, the followers for their chief,’ wrote the historian Tacitus of the Germans for a morbidly fascinated Roman readership. ‘Many noble youths, if the land of their birth is stagnating in a long period of peace or inactivity, deliberately seek out other tribes which have some war on their hands. For the Germans have no taste for peace; reknown is more easily won among perils, and a large body of retainers cannot be kept together except by means of violence and warfare.’
The Romans had first encountered this restless warrior society of the Central European forests in the late 2nd century BC, when mobile war-bands of Cimbri and Teutones had burst into the Po Valley. Later, Caesar had crossed the Rhine and fought pitched battles with Germanic tribesmen, and Augustus’ generals spent years fighting to carve out a great German province bounded by the Rhine, the North Sea, the Elbe, and the Danube.
It was not to be. In AD 9, the Roman general Varus perished with three legions in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, the fragile imperial infrastructure in Central Europe disintegrated, and a gaping hole was left in the frontier defences along the Rhine and Danube. Here was the line – between Roman and German – along which the empire would stand or fall.
The ‘interlude’ of empire lasted until AD 300. Though the frontier line was breached in the 170s and then repeatedly between the 230s and 280s, each time the invaders were ejected and the defences restored. But during the 4th century AD, great folk-movements were set in motion, both in the eastern steppes and the northern forests, and the frontiers buckled and eventually burst apart. The Western Roman Empire was dissolved in a wave of migrations during the 5th century. ‘People were on the move on a scale quite unlike anything experienced before. The frontier had inhibited the natural flow of people, but … the population pressures building up in the north could no longer be contained, and the military boundary collapsed in a frenzy of mobility… The migrations … gathered a frightening momentum. A century or so later, by which time the energy had dissipated itself, reaching the remotest corners of the old Western Roman Empire, the face of Europe had been totally reconfigured.’
What had happened? Barry Cunliffe sees the empire as having been divided into three concentric rings. In the centre lay Rome and Italy, ‘a highly non-productive zone that sucked in and consumed the productivity of the provinces, largely in the form of taxes’. The outermost ring comprised the frontier provinces, where the army was stationed: this, too, was a consuming zone. Between the two lay ‘a middle zone comprising the productive provinces of Spain, Gaul, Africa, Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt, which generated the surpluses and revenue required to maintain the other two’. Luxury consumption at the centre, and military consumption on the periphery, drained the surpluses from the agricultural core of the system. As long as the system was in equilibrium, all was well. But when the system was battered by invasion, plague, and depopulation, ‘the fragile edifice of the empire began to fall apart’.
Once the dam had burst, wave after wave broke across the continent. The Vandals came from Central Europe to conquer Roman Africa. The Alans moved from the Pontic steppes to south-west Spain. The Visigoths travelled from the Baltic to new settlements in Aquitaine. They were followed by the Franks, the Burgundians, and the Lombards. And then came Avars, Bulgars, and Magyars. ‘The successive waves of eastern peoples sweeping westwards and ending up in the restricted territory between the Carpathian arc and the eastern Alps are a recurring theme throughout the 1st millennium BC and 1st millennium AD. It is a dynamic stimulated by the constant build-up of population on the distant steppe. Presented with such a remarkable phenomenon, it is difficult not to accept that geography is sometimes a major determinant in history.’
The final wave included the Arabs. United and inspired by the new faith of Islam, they began their advance out of the desert in AD 636. In the following century, they achieved one of the greatest campaigns of conquest in military history. Syria was overrun by 638, Egypt and Iraq by 642. They attacked Constantinople in 669, founded Kairouan in Tunisia in 670, and rode their horses into the Atlantic waves in 683. By the early 8th century AD, the Arabs controlled the entire southern Mediterranean region in a gigantic arc stretching from the Caucasus to the Pyrenees. The surge was finally halted at opposite ends of their dominion by the Byzantine Empire’s successful defence of Constantinople in AD 717-718 and Charles Martel’s victory at Poitiers in AD 732.
The vast area once controlled by Rome was, by AD 800, divided into three great blocs: the Frankish, Byzantine, and Arab empires. But these mega-states did not endure. Though the Byzantine Empire remained a centralised military monarchy, it gradually lost territory to Arabs and Turks, and by the 11th century AD only survived in any form thanks to the intervention of Crusaders from Western Europe. The Islamic world fractured into separate emirates and caliphates, with Spain, Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt breaking away from the authority of the Abbasid caliphs in distant Baghdad. Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire did not long survive his death in AD 814, fragmenting first into three, then into many more-or-less independent medieval states.
As peoples moved and polities rose and fell, trade shifted onto new axes, and the sea-ways filled with raiders and pirates. Rome had once been the centre of the Mediterranean commerce, but the population fell from 800,000 in the 4th century AD to just 60,000 in the 6th. In the reign of Justinian, Constantinople received 160,000 metric tonnes of grain each year from Alexandria alone, but when the Arabs captured Egypt a century later, this grain tithe collapsed. Trade then developed primarily within the emergent blocs, the Franks and the Anglo-Saxons oriented on the North Sea, the Byzantine Empire on the Black Sea and trade with Russia.
But the highways and sea-ways of Europe also carried, in this multipolar world, raiders and pirates – Arabs in the Mediterranean, Magyars in Central Europe, and Vikings in the North Sea. ‘The number of ships grows,’ wrote a terror-stricken Frankish monk in AD 860. ‘The endless stream of Vikings never ceases to increase. Everywhere the Christians are the victims of massacres, burnings, plunderings: the Vikings conquer all in their path, and no-one resists them.’
Geography had reasserted itself. It did not allow permanence to a continental super-state such as the Roman Empire. Europe’s connectedness, the ease of movement across it and around it, the restless ebbing and flowing of people, warriors, and goods engendered by its natural form, meant that even the mightiest empire the world had ever seen could not bind it together under a single authority forever.
British type site: Portchester
Period: Late Roman
As the power of the Roman Empire waned in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, the northern seas became infested with pirates. The Pax Romana proved to be an unstable interlude in which the propensity of Europeans to move, interact, and clash was temporarily dammed up behind heavily defended frontiers. The massive military effort necessary was unsustainable. One clear measure of this is the strings of forts built on the British and Gaulish coasts from the early 3rd century AD onwards.
Portchester Castle, at the head of Portsmouth Harbour, was initially built as a ‘Saxon Shore Fort’ in the time of the rebel emperor Carausius in the late AD 280s. Unlike earlier Roman forts, which were essentially walled barrack compounds, Portchester was designed to resist direct attack. Along the line of the square circuit of walls, spaced roughly every 30m, were round projecting towers, allowing defenders armed with high-powered bows and light arrow-shooting artillery to enfilade attackers. The two main gateways were narrow, defended by square towers either side, and set back from the line of the walls so as to create a killing-ground enclosed on three sides in front. The implication is a radical change in the dominant military doctrine: instead of going onto the offensive when threatened, the Roman Army was now prepared to fight from fixed fortifications.
Portchester was one of at least 14 defended sites on the coast of south and east Britain. They are paralleled by up to 20 similar installations on the opposite Gaulish coast. The forts were located to cover estuaries and navigable rivers, and it is likely that many of them had their own naval units, so that seaborne raiders could be challenged both when they attempted to land and on the water.
Little is known of the raiders. This was a low-intensity, amphibious guerrilla war, and it is likely that raids were very occasional, and often involved only a single vessel. Our best evidence is the three Nydam boats, found in 1863 in a bog on the coast of Jutland, Denmark. They had been ritually deposited in the mid 4th century AD. The largest of them was 24m long and 3.75m wide, with accommodation for perhaps 15 rowers on either side. This is comparable with the Sutton Hoo ship, dating to about 250 years later, which, at 27m long and 4.5m amidships, might have accommodated 20 rowers on each side. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, when describing the ‘invasions’ of the 5th century AD, cites major expeditions comprising just three or five ships. It was, of course, the wide-ranging mobility afforded by the sea-ways that permitted small bands of 50 or 100 warriors to have an impact out of proportion to their numbers. Portchester is a monument to the insecurity of a declining empire in the face of asymmetrical warfare.
Europe’s longue durée
Resources and population are rarely in balance for long. Humanity is forced to be mobile, sociable, and sometimes aggressive to get what it needs and desires. Europe’s geography made all three – movement, interaction, and war – easier than in any other region of the world of comparable size. Thus, Mesolithic hunter-gatherers filtered northwards as the glaciers melted, and Neolithic pioneers spread across the Aegean into the heart of Central Europe and leapfrogged along the northern shores of the Mediterranean until they reached the Atlantic.
Five thousand years later, Europe was still being swept by migratory movements, both internal, especially from Central Europe into the former Roman Empire, and from the east, with Scythians, Sarmatians, Alans, Huns, Avars, Bulgars, Magyars, and Turks following in quick succession. And it continues: millions of Europeans emigrated to America in the 19th century; while in 2006 alone, 570,000 people arrived in Britain, and 385,000 departed.
Equally striking over the millennia is Europe’s ‘connectivity – the establishment of intricate social networks by means of which commodities were exchanged and ideas and beliefs were disseminated. Peninsular Europe, with its huge stretch of coastal interface and its plethora of rivers offering cross-peninsular routes, provided ideal conditions for networks to develop.’ Instead of being barriers, seas and rivers have usually been arteries of movement and communication, creating a richness of culture and a pace of change that would eventually enable Europe to dominate the globe.
Cunliffe concludes his study in AD 1000. ‘The Europe that was to emerge afterwards is the familiar Europe of conventional history. As the Scandinavian kingdoms lost their vigour and the circumscribed Mediterranean dissipated its energies in exhausting rivalries, the Atlantic façade came into its own again. Its skilled and well-tried boat-building traditions provided it with sturdy square-rigged cobs capable of carrying large cargoes and with lateen-rigged caravels able to sail close to the wind. And in its people, the lure of the west was ever-present. It was from the ports of Spain and Portugal, and later from Britain, France, and the Low Countries, that countless people from the peninsula of Old Europe sailed to the wider world.’
British type-site: Lundenwic
A gold coin minted by the Mercian king Coenwulf (AD 796-821) around the year AD 807 bears an image of the king in the style of a 4th century Roman emperor on the obverse and the legend DE VICO LVUNDONIAE on the reverse. The legend means ‘from the wic [market] of London’. The coin is similar to an earlier issue of Coenwulf’s rival Charlemagne, where the inscription on the reverse reads VICO DOSESTAMS – ‘from the wic of Dorestat’. Here are two contemporary rulers bragging not about military triumphs, but about the commercial success represented by major emporia under their control.
The three best known examples of Middle Anglo-Saxon emporia – port-towns devoted to artisan production and long-distance maritime trade – are London, Southampton (Hamwic), and Ipswich. Lundenwic grew up to the west of Roman Londinium – its remains lie beneath the modern West End – and not until some two centuries had passed since the end of Roman rule. The Venerable Bede records the foundation of a church dedicated to St Paul in AD 604, and it seems likely that the former Roman town was a developing ecclesiastical centre contemporary with the growing emporium outside the walls. Bede certainly describes London as an emporium by AD 730, defining such as ‘a market for many peoples coming by land and sea’, while there is a royal charter of the AD 670s which mentions in passing ‘the port of London where the ships land’.
Several West End archaeological sites have now confirmed the literary and numismatic evidence. Excavations north of the Strand, between Trafalgar Square and Covent Garden, have revealed traces of wooden buildings, rubbish pits, and finds datable to the 7th, 8th, and 9th centuries AD.
It is almost certain that the trading settlement represented was under tight control from above. At the very least, the right to operate a workshop, to use the port, or to engage in commercial exchange will have required official licensing, and the emporium would have been an important source of revenue for the royal state. It is even possible that much of the activity was under direct state control, with a royal monopoly over ‘prestige goods’ necessary to maintaining political power-bases.
Readers wishing to purchase Barry Cunliffe’s Europe between the Oceans, 9000 BC-AD 1000 at the special price of £25 (rrp £30) with free p&p within the UK should contact the Sales Department of Yale University Press in London on 0207 079 4900 and quote the Current Archaeology offer.
Barry Cunliffe’s Europe between the Oceans, 9000 BC-AD 1000, Yale University Press.
Images: Museo e Gallerie Nazionali di Capodimonte,Italy/The Bridgeman Art Library; Aachen Cathedral Treasury, Aachen, Germany/Bildarchiv Steffens/TheBridgeman Art Library.