Saturday, 2 February 2013

Roman Lincoln and the north/south divide

The division between the north and the south in modern England is a subject that rears its head from time to time in the media. The issues the debates centre around tend to be ones of money, social conditions, family values and political voting demographics rather than of mere geography.

Some places are clearly defined as to their position in this debate. Manchester is a northern city, Oxford is a southern city. But what of the nebulous bit of England in the middle - the oft sidelined and much maligned 'Midlands'?  Lincoln is very much a Midlands city geographically, even though it is about level with Liverpool (somewhere no one would categorise as either southern or Midlands), but most Lincoln residents would probably say they were more northern than southern.

But what about in Roman Britain? Where did the citizens of Lindum Colonia place themselves in the context of the province of Britannia?  Can we even suggest that people thought of themselves in such terms?

We have to begin by going back before the Roman invasion, to the Iron Age Corieltavi tribe.  The Corieltavi are often categorised as the most northerly of the south-eastern group of tribes that might be termed 'more civilised' to Roman eyes.  This 'civilisation' effectively relates to a greater degree of trade and contact with the continent and the production of coinage.  

At the point of the Roman invasion, then, the Corieltavian people living in and around what would become Lincoln, unaware of the changes that would soon come upon them, might well have considered themselves more akin to their southern neighbours than those north of the Humber, though important trade links undoubtedly existed with the north, as coin distributions attest.

The position of Lincoln at the northern edge of a 'civilized south eastern' corner of the country is reinforced in the early years of the Roman occupation, when the Ninth Legion had advanced as far as southern Lincolnshire.  The sequencing of the Roman fortresses at Lincoln is still open to debate.  The more famous fortress on top of the hill was a Neronian foundation, constructed in the AD60s, but there is the tantalising prospect of an earlier fortress at the south of the city, based mainly on tombstone finds.  The Fosse Way, running diagonally southwest from Lincoln to Exeter became the first established frontier of the new province, placing Lincoln on the very edge of the Roman Empire but most definitely within it.

The next point at which we can reflect on Lincoln's relative position within the province is in the early AD200s.  The Emperor Septimius Severus, desirous to reduce the power that the Governor of Britain possessed following the revolt of Clodius Albinus, decided to split the province into two, although the actual split seems to have been enacted by Severus' son Caracalla.

The two provinces created were known as Britannia Superior (the south) and Britannia Inferior (the north).  Although the modern English meanings of these names can be taken to refer to a hierarchy of importance, the names in Latin simply mean 'upper' and 'lower'.  However, it would be surely be disingenuous to suggest that the wealthier, less rebellious south wasn't the favourable province to govern.

The province to which Lindum belonged was unknown until the 1928 discovery of an altar in Bordeaux.  Set up in AD237 by Briton called Marcus Aurelius Lunaris, it expressed thanks to the goddess Tutela for a safe voyage across the Channel.  Lunaris was a priest of the Imperial Cult at both Lincoln and York, which he helpfully stated were both in the province of Britannia Inferior.

Despite previous cultural affiliations with the south of Britain, Lindum was now firmly established as one of the southernmost settlements of the new northern province.  It is also worth noting that it was in the reign of Caracalla that Roman citizenship was extended to everyone living in the Empire, so the special status afforded those living in a Colony such as Lincoln became universal.

The final major alteration to provincial governance occurred in around AD300. As part of an Empire-wide reorganisation under the Emperor Diocletian, the province was divided into four parts.  Although the new look and structure of the province is often presented in books and on the web as established fact, the evidence is actually rather scant and the interpretation quite conjectural.  For example, the boundaries of the four provinces are pure guesswork, and the capitals of them based mostly on those proposed boundaries.

The most commonly used interpretation sees the province divided as in the map below, with Lincoln becoming the capital of 'Flavia Caesariensis'.

An interesting site just to the east of the Roman walled city is the site known as Greetwell Villa.  This large rural estate was discovered and destroyed by Victorian quarrying, but the records that were made at the time show a home on a palatial scale with the longest corridor known from Roman Britain.  Could this have been the home of the provincial Governor of Flavia Caesariensis?

So the conclusion of all this?  Although we can never know the feelings of the citizens of Roman Lincoln, it is possible that a sense of not quite truly belonging to either north or south may be older than we imagine.  While definitely set apart from the rebellious tribes of the north, and perhaps even looking disdainfully on their northern neighbours, the people of Lincoln may equally have felt distinctly provincial when faced with the wealth and continental interaction of their southern counterparts.

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