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Britannia: The Failed State by Stuart…

Britannia: The Failed State

by Stuart Laycock

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181845,035 (3.13)None
Attempts to understand how Roman Britain ends and Anglo-Saxon England begins have been undermined by the division of studies into pre-Roman, Roman and early medieval periods. This groundbreaking new study traces the history of British tribes and British tribal rivalries from the pre-Roman period, through the Roman period and into the post-Roman period. It shows how tribal conflict was central to the arrival of Roman power in Britain and how tribal identities persisted through the Roman period and were a factor in three great convulsions that struck Britain during the Roman centuries. It explores how tribal conflicts may have played a major role in the end of Roman Britain, creating a 'failed state' scenario akin in some ways to those seen recently in Bosnia and Iraq, and brought about the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons. Finally, it considers how British tribal territories and British tribal conflicts can be understood as the direct predecessors of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and Anglo-Saxon conflicts that form the basis of early English History.… (more)



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The Failed State is a narrative discussion of the collapse of the British tribal system in the late Roman and early post-Roman era. Laycock outlines the existence of and collaboration/antipathy between the tribes of Britain, marshalling the archaeological evidence into a detailed account of the power struggles between the major factions. It is far from a complete account, not really taking the emergin genetic evidence into account and lacking depth outside of southern England but it does offer a convincing scenario around major shifts in power between the various tribes.

Britannia pieces together the evidence that shows the distribution of tribal peoples in Britain prior to the arrival of the Romans. Laycock convincingly argues that the arrival of Caesar can be accounted for in terms of British tribal politics and that the Roman period was in fact an occasion of relative calm holding down the underlying tensions that burst out once Roman authority had declined.

The deconstruction of the myths surrounding Boudicca was a useful and clear exposition as was the brief discussion of the interaction between southern Britain and near neighbours in Gaul, Belgium, and Germany. I would though have liked more on who the Britons were in these tribes - the genetic evidence and emerging linguistic discussion suggesting that links between Britain and the continent are far closer than is supposed by historians such as Laycock.

Equally a discussion of the tribes of Britain could really have done much more in discussing the role of the North. The evidence might just not exist but it would have been useful to understand more about what role the Welsh, Pict, and Gaelic tribes played rather than just the peoples of southern England.

Still, Laycock's argument includes some great snippets such as the role of Commius in the arrival of Rome, the positioning of tribes prior to Roman supremacy and their eventual consolidation into Anglo and Saxon kingdoms in the post-Roman era was illuminating. Still, it is frustrating to read discussions that conflate the Angle and the Saxon and there was not event the allusion to the links between the Angle and the Iceni before the apparently sudden arrival of Anglia.

I ignored most of the discussion around links with Bosnia and Iraq. While my personal experience of tribal society in conflict comes from elsewhere rather than these two cases explicitly, I felt the parallels were limited and the lines at the end of the book about Welsh and Scottish independence were insulting at best. ( )
  Malarchy | Apr 1, 2009 |
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