Roman Cultural Influence on Britain
After the Roman Empire's conquest of Britain in the first century A.D., the presence of administrators, merchants, and troops on British soil, along with the natural flow of ideas and goods from the rest of the empire, had an enormous influence on life in the British Isles. Cultural influences were of three types: the bringing of objects, the transfer of craft workers, and the introduction of massive civil architecture. Many objects were not art in even the broadest sense and comprised utilitarian items of clothing, utensils, and equipment. We should not underestimate the social status associated with such mundane possessions which had not previously been available. The flooding of Britain with red-gloss pottery from Gaul (modern-day France), decorated with scenes from Classical mythology, probably brought many into contact with the styles and artistic concepts of the Greco-Roman world for the first time, whether or not the symbolism was understood. Mass-produced goods were accompanied by fewer more aesthetically impressive objects such as statuettes. Such pieces perhaps first came with officials for their own religious worship; others were then acquired by native leaders as diplomatic gifts or by purchase. Once seen by the natives, such objects created a fashion which rapidly spread through the province.
In the most extreme instances, natives literally bought the whole package of Roman culture. The Fishbourne villa, built in the third quarter of the first century A.D.,probably for the native client king Cogidubnus, amply illustrates his Roman pretensions. It was constructed in the latest Italian style with imported marbles and stylish mosaics. It was lavishly furnished with imported sculptures and other Classical objects. A visitor from Rome would have recognized its owner as a participant in the contemporary culture of the empire, not at all provincial in taste. Even if those from the traditional families looked down on him, they would have been unable to dismiss him as uncultured. Although exceptional, this demonstrates how new cultural symbols bound provincials to the identity of the Roman world.
Such examples established a standard to be copied. One result was an influx of craft worker, particularly those skilled in artistic media like stone-carving which had not existed before the conquest. Civilian workers came mostly from Gaul and Germany. The magnificent temple built beside the sacred spring at Bath was constructed only about twenty years after the conquest. Its detail shows that it was carved by artists from northeast Gaul. In the absence of a tradition of Classical stone-carving and building, the desire to develop Roman amenities would have been difficult to fulfill. Administrators thus used their personal contacts to put the Britons in touch with architects and masons. As many of the officials in Britain had strong links with Gaul, it is not surprising that early Roman Britain owes much to craft workers from that area. Local workshops did develop and stylistically similar groups of sculpture show how skills in this new medium became widerspread. Likewise skills in the use of mosaic, wall painting, ceramic decoration, and metal-working developed throughout the province with the eventual emergence of characteristically Romano-British styles.
This art had a major impact on the native peoples, and one of the most important factors was a change in the scale of buildings. Pre-Roman Britain was highly localized, with people rarely traveling beyond their own region. On occasion large groups amassed for war or religious festivals, but society remained centered on small communities. Architecture of this era reflected this with even the largest of the fortified towns and hill forts containing no more than clusters of medium-sized structures. The spaces inside even the largest roundhouses were modest, and the use of rounded shapes and organic building materials gave buildings a human scale. But the effect of Roman civil architecture was significant. The sheer size of space enclosed within buildings like the basilica of London must have been astonishing. This was an architecture of dominance in which subject peoples were literally made to feel small by buildings that epitomized imperial power. Supremacy was accentuated by the unyielding straight lines of both individual buildings and planned settlements since these too provided a marked contrast with the natural curvilinear shapes dominant in the native realm.