Themes of the Frontier

THE BEST WAY TO ASSESS the impact of the Roman Empire is to analyse the extent of continuity and change experienced by the people of South Yorkshire. One of the over-arching themes that this project has drawn from the study across its three and a half century history is of South Yorkshire ‘The Frontier’. Throughout the Roman occupation there was constant competition between the new Roman and the traditional Brigantian ways of life. Whilst the Roman history of South Yorkshire may have begun as a Roman military frontier and a repeatedly rebellious challenger to authority, it also developed into a major cultural frontier as Roman society continually fought to establish itself on a resistant landscape, and failed to do so compared to other areas of Roman Britain. With this in mind, this subject has been organised into four key themes: the Military, Urbanisation, Economy, and Religion.

THESE THEMES best express the greatest areas of competition, and most interesting perspectives on the varied levels of continuity and change in Romano-British society. To summarise, militarily South Yorkshire would gradually grow more accustomed to the change of Roman military presence, which would likely have assisted the process of urbanisation, dependent on the Roman presence to incentivise and impose Roman cultural urbanism. Economically, great levels of continuity in some aspects were equalled by great change in others, with the most lasting changes. Finally, Roman religious impact provides an excellent demonstration of the adaptability of cultural exports as religions mixed, evolved, and exchanged both ways between Roman and Brigantian society. There are naturally limits to this form of assessment of the period, as the distinctions between these themes are easily blurred after closer inspection, as each is deeply interlinked with the others. The impact of the Roman military for example is especially linked the process of urbanisation, in both its growth and decline.

WHAT DO WE MEAN BY ‘CONTINUITY’ AND ‘CHANGE’? When analysing concepts such as continuity or change through the paradigm of Roman studies, it inevitably leads towards becoming solely about the Roman impact, as the differentiating factor in Iron-Age and Roman South Yorkshire, and the direct or indirect consequences of invasion. This is particularly due to the limited availability of evidence, and the asymmetry between modern knowledge of Roman and Brigantian culture. The Roman perspective is undoubtedly a crucial part to understanding the Romano in Romano-British society, but it is equally crucial not to forget the role of the Brigantes. It would be unfair to simplify Brigantian society as a static society only reacting to the new dynamism of the Roman occupation, or without their own degree of power and influence on imported Roman culture.

WHAT HOWEVER DOES THIS MEAN OVERALL? Whilst it is possible to pull all of these themes back together and paint a picture of South Yorkshire as a ‘cultural frontier’, the most general and salient conclusion which can be drawn is a recognition of the limits of our knowledge. Firstly we need to recognise that the significance and direction of a frontier depends largely upon the emphasis of either a Roman or Brigantian perspective. Secondly, our inability to boldly claim any South Yorkshire wide experience should be accepted, due to the many differences which exist within South Yorkshire, such as between rural and urban communities. Finally, abstracting this conclusion further, the greatest limitation takes the form of how South Yorkshire can be compared to the rest of Roman Britain. The differences exemplified by Roman South Yorkshire society, in contrast to more well-known examples of Roman Britain, act as a key example of why many studies in history should not be overly generalised or simplified, and why no example of Roman Britain should be seen as typical. To best engage and understand life in Roman Britain, a future in-depth comparative approach to each area, however difficult, is necessary.