Mike McCarthy looks to the common man to shine new light on Roman Britain in his new book The Romano-British Peasant


For a long time medievalists have been examining a wide range of topics, from kings and queens, castles, the church, to the common people, how they made a living, living conditions, landscapes and a host of other topics. As a generalisation the approaches of medievalists appear to be relatively balanced, although such a view might not command universal approval.  By contrast, however, Romano-British studies have tended to concentrate rather more narrowly on the military, conquest and the army, whilst the civilian population is represented by studies of villas, towns, monumental buildings and fine artefacts. In recent years landscapes and hinterlands have attracted more attention, but rarely has the ordinary man in the street been seriously considered.

In preparing The Romano-British Peasant I set out not to write yet another book about Roman Britain, but to try and pull out some key themes that affected the lives of ordinary people.  Why, when many of the key primary sources are missing? The answer is that we already have a plethora of books on Roman Britain – many purporting to be histories, some general in scope, some with a special focus on ‘daily life’. I concluded that we don’t need yet more of this stuff, at least not at present. This literature, and the media, concentrates heavily on elites who, however large or small the overall population may have been, can never have amounted to more than 5% of the total, and probably less than that. I decided to focus on the remaining 95%.

That aim was always going to be fraught with difficulties, not least because very little direct evidence survives for the labouring classes and farmers of Roman Britain in contrast to other parts of the Roman Empire or, indeed, later periods.  Equally, I didn’t want to write a book that is largely descriptive. I wanted the freedom to speculate and suggest lines of thinking that may not be supported by ‘evidence’, but which ‘commonsense’ told me might, nevertheless, be plausible. For that reason I drew on material dating from other periods, especially Anglo-Saxon, medieval and post-medieval Britain.


Starting from square one, it seemed to me that the absolute imperative of anyone living in relative poverty in pre-industrial times was survival. Nowadays most of us take the acquisition of food, clothing and shelter pretty much for granted, but before industrialisation and mechanization this was not possible. Survival was hard work. Most people lived off the land, where survival meant knowing about local weather, variations in local soils, where the heavy soils or the stony patches are, which land would grow wheat and which might be better left for oats, or which hillside or vale might be best for pasturing sheep or cattle. Understanding the landscape, as archaeologists today might put it, was basic to survival. Survival meant providing food, drink and shelter for one’s dependants, but it also meant having sufficient resources to pay one’s dues.

There are other angles to be explored for those at or near the bottom of the social heap. Archaeologists talk glibly about farming, manufacturing, trade and construction, but the implications of words such as ironworking, potting, cloth-making, ploughing and raising cattle, for example, rarely get spelled out.  What did it mean in terms of effort and equipment to plough the land, work in a salt mine, or extract and smelt iron-ore? How were people recruited or press-ganged into some of these activities, and to what extent did the diversion of labour into activities such as digging canals or building town walls have on essential but time-consuming subsistence activities such as ploughing or harvesting?

What of the people themselves? Graves and facial reconstructions are exciting and usually attract media attention, but after more than a century during which Romano-British archaeology has flourished, we still know remarkably little about the health of ancient peoples, and very little about their food intake. Of course, we can cite the main cereal crops, barley, wheat and oats, and domesticates such as cattle, sheep and pigs, as evidence of diet, but understanding nutrition requires more than a list of species. What was needed in the way of calories and essential nutrients to energize a ploughman or woodsman? For this, as with so many other facets of ancient peasant life, we have to rely on analogies drawn from post-medieval or contemporary societies and modern science.


Another difficult aspect of Romano-British peasant life concerns social structure.  It is easy to draw a distinction between a villa owner, with his mosaics and hypocausts, and the occupant of a small strip-house. Lessons taken from elsewhere in the Empire or slightly later periods in Britain show that such a simplistic division almost certainly masks much complexity. Nevertheless, by raising questions associated on the one hand with coloni, and including landlord exploitation of the impoverished or unfree peasantry, and on the other, the dues in cash, kind or labour imposed by lords in Anglo-Saxon England or in Wales, the debate about social complexity can be aired.

In this book I don’t claim to have come up with many or, for that matter, any answers, but I have attempted to ask questions and raise issues, and that is a primary function of research. The model I have implicitly adopted is one of essential continuity of life at the level of the poor from the first century BC/AD into post-Roman times.  Of course there are differences between the first century AD and the fourth, or between Roman Britain and that of the late Saxon period or thirteenth century England, but when it comes to survival, many of the issues faced in ‘getting by’ day by day would have been as familiar to the Romano-British colonus as to the medieval villein or cottar. The old saw that some scholars might advance, that ‘there is no evidence’ for some of the issues discussed in this book, is an excuse not to discuss it. To my mind a little lateral thinking, and the use of material derived from other places or periods, quickly widens the scope and interest of the debate.

Mike McCarthy

The Romano-British Peasant: towards a study of people, landscapes and work during theImage Roman occupation of Britain is available now in the UK and coming soon in the USA.

Order today from Oxbow Books, UK
Order today from the David Brown Book Co., USA