Sometimes the freedom enjoyed by the hitherto un-Romanized Britons was valued more highly than the supposed benefits of civilization, especially if that civilization was corrupt or no longer the force for good as put forward by Augustus. The intentions and achievements of Augustus were celebrated in his res gestae, Virgil’s Aeneid and in the visual rhetoric of the ara pacis.
Part of Tacitus’ agenda, in Agricola 21 at least, was to promote the importance of freedom by which he meant avoiding “things that dispose to vice” such as “the lounge, the bath, the eloquent banquet” because he feared that the Romans would become enslaved to luxury and lose their fighting spirit. He noticed that the Romans were now introducing luxuria to the provinces, knowing that human nature would make the barbarians choose impressive building programmes and education at the expense of their personal freedom. The poet Juvenal raises the issue of slavery in Satire 11, where he makes his character yearn for the supposedly good old Republican days before his countrymen had “acquired a taste for Greek objets d’art”.
But Juvenal’s character shows dangerously barbaric tendencies as he fondly recalls the former habit of recycling any acquired loot for use on the farm or battlefield. This seems to be a tongue-in-cheek swipe by Juvenal at his contemporaries who claim to hanker after the simple life but are too enslaved by their luxuries to embrace it fully. The conclusion drawn from both Tacitus and Juvenal is that the empire itself has become a slave to its own craving for luxury. In the context, therefore, of freedom as opposed to slavery, the image of the barbarian is a positive one, albeit rather idealised as the “noble savage”, and the final message seems to be that some things are never fully appreciated until they have been irretrievably lost.
Romans and Barbarians stereotyped
In the Romans’ personal view of the world, it seems there was no place for the barbarian and they clearly felt they had the duty to take possession of any land that could be profitable to them because it was wasted on barbarians. Tacitus states that “Britain yields gold, silver, and other metals, to make it worth conquering.” On a distance slab from the Antonine Wall, barbarian men are depicted as kneeling captives, naked with long hair and beards. They are instantly recognisable as different from the Roman couple in the centre (one of whom may be Britannia).
Presumably the bearded figures represent natives in general who had tried in vain to resist and the sculpture would serve as a warning to any who saw it. The Romans seem to have depicted barbarians in this way in order to show that they positively needed civilising (i.e. Romanising). The figures of the Roman couple and the male barbarians are, however, merely stereotypes, signifying that the Romans had little interest in Britons other than as a means of showing their own superiority by comparison.
Romans biased against barbarians
It is significant that all histories that refer to barbarians were written by Romans, as victors. Therefore it is difficult to gain a balanced view of barbarians in any of the provinces, just as it is difficult to learn much about them from the few Roman images of them that exist. When they are depicted, they are invariably generic representations, although we know from Tacitus that there were noticeable physical variations in people between the different regions of Britain.
This gives an overwhelmingly biased view not only of barbarians but also of Romans and Romanisation since outright dissent is rarely expressed until it is “safe” to do so, as when Tacitus evidently felt he could criticise Domitian with impunity. It is very significant that Tacitus gives the question of “who the first inhabitants of Britain were” the briefest attention, stating starkly: “one must remember we are dealing with barbarians.”
This is very different from the Graeco-Roman epics of Homer and Virgil which were highly-embellished accounts of their own legendary past. His comment, therefore, may arise from the fact that, as an illiterate culture, there was no written account of their own origins that could be studied (with the help of a translator), nor any spoken history that Tacitus was able or willing to access or record. Exploring the Romans’ use of the barbarian as a means of self-definition by representing that which the Roman Empire was not, is therefore both useful and frustrating.