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Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Extract

This extract deals with the conquest of Britain in AD 43. The eighteenth century British took great pride in the fact that Britain had been part of the Roman Empire: they saw themselves and the empire they were beginning to establish overseas as 'new Romans', their heirs to the Caesars. The Roman occupation of Britain was therefore generally presented in a positive light, as is the case here.

The only accession which the Roman empire received, during the first century of the Christian era, was the province of Britain. In this single instance the successors of Caesar and Augustus were persuaded to follow the example of the former, rather than the precept of the latter. The proximity of its situation to the coast of Gaul seemed to invite their arms; the pleasing, though doubtful intelligence, of a pearl fishery, attracted their avarice;1 and as Britain was viewed in the light of a distinct and insulated world, the conquest scarcely formed any exception to the general system of continental measures. After a war of about forty years, undertaken by the most stupid, maintained by the most dissolute, and terminated by the most timid of all the emperors, the far greater part of the island submitted to the Roman yoke.2 The various tribes of Britons possessed valour without conduct, and the love of freedom without the spirit of union. They took up arms with savage fierceness; they laid them down, or turned them against each other with wild inconstancy; and while they fought singly, they were successively subdued. Neither the fortitude of Caractacus, nor the despair of Boadicea, nor the fanaticism of the Druids, could avert the slavery of their country, or resist the steady progress of the Imperial generals, who maintained the national glory, when the throne was disgraced by the weakest, or the most vicious of all mankind. At the very time when Domitian, confined to his palace, felt the terrors which he inspired; his legions, under the command of the virtuous Agricola, defeated the collected force of the Caledonians at the foot of the Grampian hills3; and his fleets, venturing to explore an unknown and dangerous navigation, displayed the Roman arms round every part of the island. The conquest of Britain was considered as already achieved;4 and it was the design of Agricola to complete and ensure his success by the easy reduction of Ireland, for which in his opinion, one legion and a few auxiliaries were sufficient.5 The western isle might be improved into a valuable possession, and the Britons would wear their chains with the less reluctance, if the prospect and example of freedom were on every side removed from before their eyes.
Edward Gibbon The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Vol.I edited by Oliphant Smeaton (New York: Modern Library n.d. c.1976; first published 1776-88)

 


 

1 Caesar himself conceals that ignoble motive; but it is mentioned by Suetonius c.47. The British pearls proved, however, of little value, on account of their dark and livid colour. Tacitus observes, with reason (in Agricola c.12), that it was inherent defect. "Ego facilius crediderim, naturam margaritis deesse quam nobis avaritiam."
2 Claudius, Nero, and Domitian. A hope is expressed by Pomponius Mela, 1.iii.c.6 (he wrote under Claudius) that, by the success of the Roman arms, the island and its savage inhabitants would soon be better known.
3 [Grampian Hills] – Later investigation has thrown grave doubt upon the assertion that the Mons Grampius of Tacitus referred to any peak in the Grampian range. The spot cannot now be identified. – O.S.
4 The admirable abridgement given by Tacitus, in the Life of Agricola, and copiously, though perhaps not completely, illustrated by our own antiquarians, Camden and Horsley.
5 The Irish writers, jealous of their national honour, are extremely provoked on this occasion, both with Tacitus and with Agricola.

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