Readers reply: how might things have turned out if the Romans had stayed in Britain?

<span>Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

How might things have turned out if the Romans had stayed in Britain? Jane Shaw

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Readers reply

Underfloor heating for all? Giles Dallaway

Film classification would have to change to prevent 10 year-olds watching X-rated movies. Ken Treanor

More straight roads, more walls, more wine – a mixed blessing! Michael J Day

There would be fewer potholes! Catherine Brown

My Latin A-level might have been more useful. xck33l

Another couple of hundred years, and we might have learned to speak Latin. In France, Italy, Spain and Portugal, Latin survived the invasion of Goths, Vandals and Huns. As it was less embedded in Britannia, we ended up speaking a German dialect after the invasion of Angles, Saxons and Jutes. Peter Hulse

The differences would have been legion. sparklesthewonderhen

The last legions were withdrawn by Constantin III in AD407 but, life continued pretty much as normal in Britain for over 170 years afterwards. Barbarian raids continued but, while there were no legions to confront them, local militias continued as they had always done to protect Roman Britain. As for the “Anglo-Saxon invasion”, there really is very little evidence that anything like this happened. There are no battlegrounds filled with arrow heads and bits of bodies, nothing written in contemporary sources. That Saxons arrived and settled is not disputed, whether they came muscling their way in with axes and swords is another thing. Did Roman Britain end at all or did it simply adapt? Genetic tests have proved that the Romans never left Britain, we just changed our outlook on life. Hippaferalkus

Sorry, Hipperferalkus, but this is nonsense. The supply chains collapsed and within a generation, urban life had more or less collapsed. Smelting, coinage and all the trappings of civilisation had gone by circa 430. True, this occurred before the Saxons arrived in any numbers, but archaeologists and historians agree it was a swift and dramatic decline, ie 30 years. Britain was badly placed on the outer reaches of the empire to adapt, unlike Gaul which continued much trade and urban life into the Merovingian era. The Saxons arrived over several decades, even a century or so, and never more than a few hundred thousand. Latin survived and perhaps many British spoke it, and adapted to the minority Saxon new culture, hence Old English and not Brittonic. The natives either accepted the new elite or were enslaved (probably the same thing) or migrated west, to Cornwall and Brittany. Many were perhaps slaughtered. Archaeology suggests taller settlers and superior weaponry, so it was coercive at the very least. Written sources include Gildas (circa 530); Bede of course was writing in 730. Even by circa 600 there was no coinage, written documentation (the first laws date circa 605), and grave goods recycled Roman iron and metalwork 200 years on. Kent was an outlier of Merovingian Francia and it was only when Rome returned in 595 that literacy, learning, coinage written laws and charters re-emerged over the seventh century. It may not have been the Dark Ages, but it was pretty murky. Guthrum878

Life did not go on as before for 170 years. Aspects of the archaeology are difficult to date precisely but the general view is that by the mid- to late-fifth century:

  • Urban life was in sharp decline, buildings were abandoned, infrastructure such as sewers and water pipes ceased to be maintained, the centre of many towns moved (implying abandonment and later rebuilding) and some places, such as Silchester, disappeared.

  • Large villa estate centres that were agricultural foci were being repurposed or in most cases abandoned.

  • Material culture radically simplified; so, crudely, people had less stuff and it was of poorer quality.

  • In particular pottery became local products which differed from the preceding Roman era when non-British pottery containers were used to import from the continent, suggesting a decline in long-distance trade.

  • Coinage drastically declined or disappeared, suggesting a substantially non-monetised economy based around local barter.

All this suggests the economy became less sophisticated, more insular and local, and was thus unable to sustain a larger state structure.

It is true that the classic model of Saxon conquest may be overstated and some (most? who knows) Saxons may have come as peaceful settlers. That view has found its proponents in recent years. But it is also clear that the new Germanic elite did not learn to speak the Brythonic Celtic languages that had previously been spoken by the majority under the Romans, and that Latin totally disappeared except as a language taught to a tiny elite. I am not aware of any example in history of a language spoken by the majority of a population being replaced by another spoken by a minority – except where that minority has carried out some form of military conquest.

Some, however, argue the fall of the Roman empire may actually have produced an improvement in the living standards of ordinary peasants because they were no longer subject to a powerful centralised state that forced them to pay taxes. Since they had never really enjoyed many of the empire’s luxuries anyway, the loss of imported goods was less important to them. Thus freed from tax, they were able to hold on to more of the fruits of their labour, and so for a time enjoyed a slightly more comfortable life. I believe there is some arguable evidence (although I think it is from Italy) that general health and life expectancy may have improved somewhat.
Which is perhaps not quite what one would expect from the end of Rome. Geppid

Related: Romans ventured deeper into Wales than thought, road discovery shows

We would probably have a Berlusconi type as a prime minister, a liar, serial adulterer, self-aggrandising nepotistic mediocrity with a delusional Nero-istic self-image of being a witty, artistic idol of the popular masses. Luckily that will never happen in this country. waynebijljeerheid

Better, straighter roads but a somewhat reduced dormouse population. _Be_Kind_

Match of the Day might be terminal for some of the players. imstilldpack

The England team might be an actual three lions! NewMe359

They did stay. The Roman armies left, but the Romano-British population stayed just where it was – at least until all those Angles, Saxons and Jutes turned up. If you want to imagine what might have happened had the Roman troops remained, the problem is that you’d have to imagine a very different scenario playing out in the rest of the empire for them not to be recalled. So you’d already be envisaging a quite distinct alternate history quite apart from the troops remaining in Britain.

Perhaps you could suppose that things elsewhere were much as in reality, but the Roman troops refused to leave. Perhaps you could imagine that they were now loyal to local rulers rather than to their remote leaders in Rome – rather as they transferred loyalty two centuries earlier to Carausius, in the third-century version of Brexit. But would they really be much different from the British troops that did fight against the invading Saxons et al in reality? JonathanCR

Edwards Gibbon’s second book, OK, So I Was Wrong, would still be in print. ChairmanMouthwash

Today’s Britons would be asked in the fish and chip shop: “Do you want garum on your chips, mate?” In dog Latin, of course. lycomedes

Colonies tend to be more conservative than their motherland. We can imagine a Roman Britain still clinging on to the old ways long after mainland Europe had moved on. However the influx of peoples from the east would have continued, a wave caused ultimately by the Mongols and other Asian people, who displaced the Germanic peoples who then roamed all through western Europe; some Visigoths even settled in north Africa. Perhaps they would have sought refuge in Britain away from the horse raiders. However the economic crisis would have still affected the island.

Perhaps the Anglo-Saxons would still have come, but as the Roman identity was strong they would have Romanified, like the Norsemen did in France, who became the Normans. Would Britain have adopted a romance language like the Normans? Or would Celtic have survived there too?

Because the Roman links remained so strong with the continent, you would have seen earlier meshing of the noble families of Britain and that of Charlemagne. Christianity from Ireland, that particular strain, might have become stronger and flowed south to counter the popes and bishops.

So I would say basically Britain would be more like Charlemagne’s empire, and you wouldn’t have such a distinct difference between the British and mainland peoples, and perhaps a different blend of Christianity would have arisen. Beyond AD1000 I could not tell you! Poem51

Related: Romans, Druids and Camelot: the UK’s best ancient sites, as chosen by readers

I think it was Peter Heather who argued that if Constantine III had declared himself emperor of Britain and retained the legions (mobile comitatenses and garrison limitanei by this time, even elite units such as auxilia palatina and cataphracts) and fleets for the defence of the isles, Roman Britain would have remained viable. The defensive system is well known: watchtowers and beacons lined the coasts, infantry garrisons held the forts and cities, cavalry units acted as fast responders to raids, with the elite mobile infantry force hard on their heels. The fourth century was prosperous for Britain: the mines and factories and textile mills and mass production of weapons and pottery and clothes and other goods boomed. Roman Britain exported food, metals, manufactured goods and taxes to the continent; it was a major source of provisions for the Rhine armies. Whether Briton, Roman or Saxon, southern Britain was always an agricultural powerhouse.

Maybe this system could have survived autonomously. But every decade in an alternative history brings more variables, so who knows. Britain never seemed big enough a horizon for its Roman lords. Michael_GPF