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4.1 out of 5 stars
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on 20 July 2010
I feel nervous about writing a review of this book since I came to it as a very general reader with no knowledge of the period beyond that of a layman. I was fascinated by what happened when the Roman period in Britain ended, and was rewarded with a really interesting set of ideas which my simple understanding summarises as follows. Our understanding of history has been seriously warped by the 20th century experience of two world wars (plus, I would add, our highly selective memory of our military history as consisting of decisive battles such as Waterloo or Trafalgar). Laycock's argument is that this is fundamentally misleading and the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and in Iraq/Afghanistan in the last decade are much more informative. His hypothesis is that the tribes who occupy the islands we now know as Britain were likely forming shifting alliances, of which the introduction of the Romans was just one more example. He argues this tribal system was deep-rooted and people still thought of themselves as from their tribe first and from Roman Britannia second - hence the title, "Britannia: The Failed State". When external pressures emerged in the fourth century (and even earlier) the long-standing tribal system started to come to the fore again. Laycock argues this system is the most likely successor to Roman government of these islands.
There's a lot more to it than that, but this put things in a new light for me (my previous knowledge having been based on half-remembered school lessons and history documentaries on TV). The problem for me as a general reader is that there is probably an interesting 20 to 30 page article in here. However, Laycock is writing to persuade a more specialist audience so to support his case he adds in a lot of evidence to support his hypothesis (total length 250 pages). I'm really not the best person to comment on this but as a layperson I felt these sections of the book pretty heavy going and it wasn't too long before I was skipping ahead to the next chapter.
I did enjoy the bits I understood, but I hope in future Laycock gets an opportunity to put forward his ideas from a popular platform - a bit of the Michael Wood treatment on TV! There you go, now all you real historians can vote my review "unhelpful"!
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on 25 May 2009
This is a well told revisionist version of how the Romans and the Saxons actually took over Britain. The Britons hated the tribe next door more than the overseas newcomers, and invited in the Romans and Saxons to help them in their local rivalries. The Romans were happy to perpetuate and rule through the tribes, and the defensive works of later Roman Britain reflect inter tribal violence, being mostly on tribal borders rather than against external marauders. After the Romans had gone, the tribal kingdoms reasserted their political independence, in a process the author usefully compares to the revival of local nationalisms in late 20th century eastern Europe and Africa. The tribal kings then called in the Saxons as hired swords and settled them on disputed tribal borders, and in due course the Saxons took over the tribal kingdoms more or less intact as the starting point for their own disunited kingdoms - the Heptarchy.

The argument is credible and persuasive. Both Caesar and Gildas commented on the Britons' disunion, and the author shows how the defensive and military archaeology matches the tribal geography. The Catuvellauni in particular made enemies of everyone around as they tried to push out from their territories north of the Thames. Boadicea's Iceni tribe burned London and St Albans in AD 61 not simply because they hated new towns but because they hated Catuvellauni towns. For the Romans the province was routinely treated as a PR opportunity or a launchpad to take over the rest of the empire. The Britons always thought in tribal terms - they had no idea a United Kingdom would come along over a thousand years later. The barbarians in other Roman provinces were strong enough to stop this sort of balkanisation when the western Empire fell, but the Saxons in Britain were not strong or united enough to do the same for another five hundred years.

So why only four stars. Well the author could have tried harder to fill in the historical gaps in the Roman period : how far did the Romans treat Britannia as an entity ; did the later Roman "sub provinces" match the tribal borders ; what was the impact of the large permanent Roman military presence upon the tribes ; did the local aristocracy view themselves as British ? What part in all this was played by the Christian church, and why did it vanish ? Also the author rightly complains of the poor historical record, so it is surprising that he feels able repeatedly to contradict or ignore Tacitus who is the best historian that we do have - his father in law had governed Britannia for eight years soon after Boadicea's revolt. Tacitus is clear and plausible for example on the causes of Boadicea's revolt (greedy and overbearing Romans), he does detail the British atrocities (including crucifixions - presumably picked up from the Romans) and he is also clear that it was Boadicea who attacked the Romans in the final battle (with or without a stirring speech first). However, these lapses do not undermine the book's central point.

Finally, as the author says, several of the tribal kingdoms survive to this day, as Sussex, Kent and Essex for instance. So when these counties clash at cricket, they are prolonging a two thousand year old struggle.
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Too long the history of sub-Roman Britain has relied too much on doubtful small snippets of written evidence, often from authors on the other side of Europe writing over a century after the events described, which too many people have accepted at face value. Really the only thing we can rely on for sure is the evidence from archaeology.

Laycock presents here a thesis, which he attempts to back up from the archaeological evidence, that the tribal kingdoms of pre-Roman Britain retained their boundaries, their identity and their accompanying tribal hatreds, throughout the Roman period. Despite the Roman administration, the province never became unified. Many of the "barbarian attacks" of the Roman period may actually have been in effect civil wars between rival tribes. Furthermore, he asserts, these tribal mini-states formed the nuclei for the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Each brought in various Germanic tribes from the continent as foederati to fight for them against their immediate neighbours, as opposed to the standard historical model in which they were intended to fight against outside invaders such as Picts and Irish. Subsequently these Germans, either peacefully or by coup d'etat, took over the leadership of the mini-states and turned them into kingdoms. The spread of the Anglo-Saxons as indicated by archaeology has always seemed far too rapid to me compared to the standard historical model based on the written sources, and such a scenario as posited here with geographically widespread Anglo-Saxon immigration right from the start seems more consistent. (There's even serious discussion these days about the possibility that some of the peoples of south-eastern pre-Roman Britain were Germanic speakers rather than Brythonic speakers. See for example The Origins of the British: A Genetic Detective Story.)

I would say that Laycock's thesis is highly plausible, more plausible than many other scenarios presented by historians and archaeologists, but not quite enough evidence to be totally convincing. Like much archaeology and history writing, there is plenty of phraseology used of the form "we may suppose that" or "there is no reason to doubt that" as a prelude to certain conclusions. We may have to wait to see what further archaeological evidence build up in future.

Certainly a valuable contribution to the history of pre-Roman, Roman and post-Roman Britain, and recommended reading.

(Update 30/5/09: Laycock has since followed up this work with Warlords: The Struggle for Power in Post-Roman Britain.)
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on 8 July 2008
I very much enjoyed this book- the central premise is that the tribal system that pre-dated the Roman invasion began to re-asserted itself after the legions left.

It draws very stimulating parallels with the post-Tito Balkans where Bosnian/ Serbian / Albanian/ Slovenian ethnic rivalries similarly re-emerged after decades of Yugoslav rule.

The analysis of brooch types- potentially identifying tribal/ ethnic groupings- was new to me- and convincing. It also made sense of some of the obscurer parts of Gildas on the entry of the Saxons.

Very much recommended for those interested in how Britannia changed from a Roman province to the Anglo-Saxon/ Romano-British kingdoms- well-written as well.
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on 10 January 2009
This is a thoughtful work that just doesn't prove its case. The idea that Romanized British tribes maintained a murderous antagonism toward one another for 400 years, and that this brought about the collapse of Post-Roman Britain, is an interesting one. But the author fails to present a single unambiguous instance of this. The fires found along the highways around Bath look more like the Irish incursion that most think it is. The "garrisons" around British cities in many cases are more plausible as a long-term siege of urban Britons. Indeed, both Gildas and the Noricum experience testify that this was a common Germanic strategy.

Laycock's core point--that regional variations in military belt buckles are evidence for a strong British militia at the time of the Roman withdrawal--is potentially a very valuable insight. But this just makes it much less likely that Britons would hire unreliable Saxons to fight for them. There is only one certain instance of Saxon mercenaries. It was in 450, in a naval context, and was remembered with horror by all Britons. That half a dozen British rulers would then make the same fatal error seems highly doubtful. The author also follows the current sad academic fashion of labeling any written source that doesn't conform to his hypothesis as "propaganda."

Also, having spent 4 months in Sarajevo in 1999, I can testify that the deep linguistic and religious divides in the Former Yugoslavia in no way parallel the situation in Roman Britain. Ditto for Iraq. Britons all spoke more or less the same language, and had no deep religious differences. It's diffiult to see what could have kept alive antagonisms over 400 years--with any written record of them having disappeared.

Laycock is a very meticulous investigator, and offers some good evidence for British and Saxon cooperation. His call for a re-think of the written sources can only be applauded. This writer would hope to hear from him again. But the archaeology from this period is simply too ambiguous to support his main argument. Gildas sees the end of Post-Roman Britain as a very specific, disastrous event. Britain most certainly was a "failed state." But the unbridgeable divide was between Christian "citizens" and pagan barbarians. And that makes the study of the Proud Tyrant who tried to bridge that gap the most critical question of all.
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on 3 December 2010
Laycock's book is a very engaging read, but the basic problem with the book is demonstrated by a sentence on p. 146, "Outlining such a conflict is, of course, hugely speculative, but there are reasons, in addition to those discussed, for supposing that something broadly similar to this may have happened". In the end, there just doesn't seem to be enough to hang it all on. Yes, it is certainly plausible that Romanization didn't reach all of the British, or even most of them, and that Roman adminstration papered over at least some of the differences between the British. Yes, it is plausible that in the vacuum left by the collapse of the Roman administration old conflicts over territory and prominence reasserted themselves. But that doesn't mean that absolute chaos ensued, or that conflict reached the fratricidal and genocidal depths seen during the breakup of Yugoslavia. Concentrations of Roman belt buckles might imply the presence of militia, but it might also imply that locals, because of the breakdown of the economy (it wasn't just the political administration that broke down), simply looted remaining Roman military depots.

It's a good read, but where it is good is when is is trying to figure out what was going on during Roman adminstration, and discussing the earlier-than-usually-thought arrival of the Angles and Saxons. In other areas, such as mentioned above, Laycock seems to be forcing the story beyond what evidence there is to support it.
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on 4 November 2011
The book is generally well written, and appropriately illustrated; the version of history championed by the author is skilfully presented, though the flow of the later chapters is less smooth. The importance of the interactions of the tribal states in the years immediately before the Roman invasions, and during the early years thereafter is convincingly advocated. However, the Romans become almost invisible as his account progresses, even although their army was still 25000/30000 strong in a Britain sustaining a population of perhaps two million. One is left to draw the conclusion that they were a benign force, keeping the tribes apart, and protecting those who were peaceably inclined. Were they not enforcers of an exploitative imperial rule, aiming to extract enough value from their British colony to make it pay? In this regard, his Bosnian references are hardly helpful since the objectives of the peace-keeping forces were hopefully very different, and I am doubtful that they add much more to his arguments throughout.
I found the author's stress on the enduring nature of tribal boundaries from the pre-Roman Iron Age, to the Anglo-Saxon era convincing enough, but some of the conclusions he draws appear perverse. The fact that two sets of conquerors kept existing boundaries, at least at first, is hardly unique, and certainly does not imply much input from the vanquished, (think the British in India, or even Hitler). The author discounts a straightforward Anglo-Saxon conquest, as portrayed by Gildas, though he at least allows for some conflict, rather than standing for an entirely peaceful integration of migrants, or even that there were really no migrants at all. Of course, he may be right about events in some areas, but it stretches credibility that each tribe would make the same mistake, one after the other, in attempting to co-exist with Anglo-Saxon war-bands. Artefacts were mingled, but this is not a guarantee of friendly contact, but simply that the tribal peoples and invaders occupied the same space at similar times. Surely it remains most likely that the former were simply an irresistible target because they were comparatively wealthy, and had been kept demilitarised by the Romans for centuries, and that the Anglo-Saxons, as later the Vikings, Danes, and Normans did not hold back.
Justifiably, the author focuses on southern and central England, the heartland of Britannia, but this does not prevent his making some wider and wilder suggestions in his final pages. So he seems to imply that Bernicia was not occupied by Angles and makes modern-day speculations about independence movements in Scotland and Wales, which appear to equate their political leaders to some well-known Balkan war criminals.
Nonetheless, I enjoyed the book, and even though the author follows his ideas further than seems reasonable, it provides food for thought and argument.
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on 29 September 2015
An interesting treatment of this historical conundrum. I always suspected that Britain was not as romanised as Gaul and reverted to its tribal squabbling once the romans left. Hence the loss of latin and civic amenities. The only effective military power -anglo saxon mercenaries became style icons of language and culture amongst the peasants leading to the UK we know today
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on 23 January 2009
By the standards of archaeology and history, it's easy to read and it comes up with new approaches on some of the main questions about Roman Britain that make a lot of sense. The second half of the book looking at the end of Roman Britain and what happens afterwards is particularly interesting, because currently there are so many unanswered questions about the period. The author's ideas about a power vacuum and tribal fighting at that point do seem to fill many of the gaps in other theories. The information about different tribes and civitates adopting different buckle styles in the period is fascinating and could have huge implications, as could the author's ideas about some of the tribes organising their own defences and choosing which settelements to defend and which not. Lots of interesing maps and pictures in this book.
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on 3 June 2010
I enjoyed this book; it made me think much more about the importance of tribal identities, not just the obvious significance in pre-Roman Britain but the continued importance in Roman and post-Roman Britain too. I suppose its unique selling point is the use it makes of Bosnia and Iraq as analogies to the situation in Britannia. These are really interesting but it's not completely clear why these should be good models for tribal behaviour in Britain. Laycock's suggestion that the Boudiccan revolt was at least in part a continuation of inter-tribal warfare and not aimed specifically just at the Roman invaders is a new idea to me, but not one that had me entirely convinced. The idea that the Anglo-Saxons were invited in to Britain as a part of our late- and post-Roman defences is not new, but Laycock gives a fresh slant to it by suggesting they were for tribal defence against other tribes rather than an external threat. It's in this sense that Britannia was a 'failed' state, by the end of Roman rule Britons were still thinking in tribal identity terms rather than as part of a larger political entity. Personally I think he stretches the case to suggest tribes were still trying to redress perceived injustices of tribal boundaries from 400 years earlier.

Laycock uses much archaeological artefact evidence, he clearly knows a lot about military buckles and strap ends. This leads him to the suggestion that early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms are 'successor states' to the old British tribal territories.

A good read, even if you don't agree with all Laycock's conclusions.
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