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Roman Britain

Roman Britain is the term applied to the historical period when Britain was under Roman rule, usually considered AD 44 to 410.


Background to the invasion

Julius Caesar made two campaigns to Britain, in 55 and 54 BC. While not resulting in the conquest of any territory, they still brought at least part of the island within the influence of Rome.

Augustus prepared invasions in 34 BC, 27 BC and 25 BC. The first and third were called off due to revolts elsewhere in the empire, the second because the Britons seemed ready to come to terms. According to Augustus's Res Gestae, two British kings, Dumnovellaunus and Tincommius, sent supplications to Rome during his reign, and Strabo's Geography, written during this period, says that Britain paid more in customs and duties than could be raised by taxation if the island were conquered.

Caligula planned his own campaign against the British in 40, but its execution was bizarre: according to Suetonius, he drew up his troops in battle formation facing the English Channel and ordered them to attack the standing water. Afterwards, he had the troops gather sea shells, referring to them as "plunder from the ocean, due to the Capitol and the Palace."

The actual Roman invasion of Britain had to wait until the reign of Claudius, in 44. The Roman troops defeated the British under Caratacus, and captured his capital Camulodunum or Colchester. Caratacus refused to submit, and retreated deeper into unconquered Britain, coming to the domain of the Ordovices in 47. He incited this tribe to fight the Romans, and they lost the ensuing battle. Once again Caratacus fled, this time to Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes. Cartimandua prudently surrendered Caratacus to the Romans, who brought him in chains to Rome. Thus ended the first phase of the conquest.

Roman rule is established

For the first twenty years, the Roman rule was oppressive, and this treatment forced Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni, to revolt. The Trinovantes and Catuvellauni joined, and the alliance assaulted the Roman colony at Camulodunum, looting and burning the town as well as slaying every man, woman and child they found. The governor Suetonius Paullinus, upon reaching London from his campaigning in the western part of the province, found the town indefensible with the few troops he had. As a result, Paullinus was forced to abandon the city and took only those who could afford to leave in time to retreat with him, leaving some behind. The legio XIV Gemina Martia Victrix joined him at a battlefield of his choosing, and the combined Roman forces crushed the revolt (it was in this occasion that XIV Gemina gained her Martia Victrix cognomen). Boudicca took her own life shortly afterwards.

For much of the history of Roman Britain, there was a large number of soldiers garrisoned on the island. This required that the emperor station a trusted senior man as governor of the province. As a side-effect of this, a number of future emperors served as governors or legates in this province, including Vespasian, Pertinax, and Gordian I.

In the following years the Romans conquered more of the island, increasing the size of Roman Britain. The governor Agricola, father-in-law to the historian Tacitus, conquered the Ordovices in 78. With XX Valeria Victrix, Agricola defeated the Caledonians in 84 at the Battle of Mons Graupius, in what is today northern Scotland. This marked the high tide mark of Roman territory in Britain; shortly after his victory, Agricola was recalled from Britain back to Rome, and the Romans retired to a more defensible line along the Forth-Clyde isthmus, freeing soldiers badly needed along other frontiers of the Empire.

The occupation and retreat from Scotland

There is no historical source describing the decades that followed Agricola's recall, even the name of his replacement is unknown. Archaeological work has shown that some Roman forts south of the Forth-Clyde isthmus were rebuilt and enlarged although others appear to have been abandoned. Roman coins and pottery are found circulating at native settlement sites in the Scottish Lowlands in the years before 100 indicating growing Romanisation. Around AD 105, however, a serious set-back appears to have happened; several Roman forts were destroyed by fire at this time with human remains and damaged amour at Newstead indicating hostilities at least at that site. There is also circumstantial evidence that auxiliary re-inforcements were sent from Germany and an unnamed British war from the period is mentioned on the gravestone of a tribune on Cyrene. Trajan's Dacian Wars may have led to troop reductions in the area or even total withdrawal followed by slighting of the forts by the natives rather than an unrecorded military defeat however. The Romans were also in the habit of destroying their own forts during an ordered withdrawal in order to deny resources to an enemy. In either case, the frontier probably moved south to the line of the Stanegate at the Solway-Tyne isthmus around this time.

A new crisis occurred at the beginning of Hadrian's reign (117), a rebellion in the north which was suppressed by Quintus Pompeius Falco. When Hadrian reached Britain on his famous tour of the Roman provinces around 120, he directed an extensive defensive wall, known as Hadrian's Wall to be built close to the line of the Stanegate frontier. Hadrian appointed Aulus Platorius Nepos as governor to undertake this work who brought VI Victrix with him from Lower Germany. Legio VI replaced the famous IX Hispana whose disappearance has been much discussed. Archaeological evidence indicates considerable instability in northern Britain during the first half of the second century AD and the shifting frontier at this time should be seen in this context.

The Hadrianic border was briefly extended north to the Forth-Clyde isthmus in the reign of Antoninus Pius, where the Antonine Wall was built around 142 following the re-occupation of the Scottish Lowlands led by a new governor, Quintus Lollius Urbicus. The northward extension of the empire was probably the result of attacks, probably by the Selgovae of south-west Scotland, on the Roman client kingdom of the Votadini who lived north of the Hadrianic frontier.

The first Antonine occupation of Scotland ended as a result of a further crisis in 155-157, when the Brigantes revolted. With limited options to despatch re-inforcements, the Romans moved their troops south and this rebellion was suppressed by governor Cnaeus Julius Verus. Within a year the Antonine Wall was re-occupied but by 163 or 164 it was at last abandoned. The second occupation was probably connected with Antonius' undertakings to protect the Votadini or his pride in enlarging the empire as the retreat to the Hadrianic frontier occurred not long after his death when a more objective strategic assessment of the benefits of the Antonine Wall could be made. The Romans did not entirely withdraw from Scotland at this time however, the large fort at Newstead was maintained along with seven smaller outposts until c. 180.

During the twenty year period following the reversion of the frontier to Hadrian's Wall, Rome was concerned with continental issues primarily problems in the Danube provinces. Increasing numbers of hoards of buried coins in Britain at this time indicate that peace was not entirely achieved. Sufficient Roman silver appears in Scotland to suggest more than ordinary trade and it is likely that the Romans were boosting treaty agreements with cash payments, a situation with comparators elsewhere in the empire at the time.

In 175 a large force of Sarmatian cavalry, consisting of 5,500 men arrived in Britain, probably to re-inforce troops fighting unrecorded uprisings. Certainly, in 180 Hadrian's Wall was breached and barbarians had killed the commanding officer or governor there in what Dio Cassius described as the most serious war of the reign of Commodus. Ulpius Marcellus was sent as replacement governor and by 184 he had won a new peace only to be faced with a mutiny from his own troops. Unhappy with Marcellus' strictness, they tried to elect a legate named Priscus as usurper emperor, he refused but Marcellus himself was lucky to leave the province alive. The Roman army in Britain continued its insubordination, they sent a delegation of 1,500 to Rome to demand the execution of Tigidius Perrenis , a Praetorian Prefect whom they felt had earlier wronged them by posting lowly equites candidates to legate ranks in Britain. Commodus met the party outside Rome and agreed to have Perrenis killed which only felt more secure in its mutiny.

The future emperor, Pertinax was sent to Britain to restore order and was initially successful in regaining control. A riot broke out amongst the troops however in which Pertinax was attacked and left for dead and he asked to be recalled to Rome, briefly succeeding Commodus in 192.

Trade and industry

By the time of the Roman occupation, Britain's key tin exports to the Mediterranean had been largely eclipsed by the more convenient supply from Iberia. Gold, iron, lead, silver, jet, marble and pearls however were all exploited by the Romans in Britain along with more everyday commodities such as hunting dogs, animal skins, timber, wool, corn and slaves. Foreign investment created a vigorous domestic market and imports were often of exotic Continental items such as fine pottery, olive oil, lavastone querns, glassware, garum and fruit.

Mineral extraction sites such as the Dolaucothi gold mine, the Wealden ironworking zone and the lead and silver mines of the Mendips seem to have been private enterprises leased from the government for a fee. Although mining had long been practised in Britain, the Romans introduced new technical knowledge and large-scale industrial production to revolutionise the industry. Many prospection areas were in dangerous, upland country and although mineral exploitation was one of the main reasons for the Roman invasion, it had to wait until these areas were subdued.

Although Roman designs were most popular, rural craftsmen still produced items derived from the Iron Age La Tène artistic traditions. Local pottery rarely attained the standards of the Gaulish industries although the Castor ware of the Nene Valley was able to withstand comparison with the imports. Most native pottery was unsophisticated however and intended only for local markets.

By the third century, Britain's economy was diverse and well-established with commerce extending into the non Romanised north. The design of Hadrian's Wall especially catered to the need for customs inspections of merchants' goods

The third century

The death of Commodus put into motion a series of events which eventually led to Civil War breaking out in the Empire. Following the short reign of Pertinax, several rivals for the empery emerged, including Septimius Severus and Clodius Albinus. The latter was the new governor of Britain and had seemingly won the natives over after their earlier rebellions; he also controlled three legions, making him a potentially significant claimant to the purple. His sometime rival Severus promised him the title of Caesar in return for Albinus' support against Pescennius Niger in the east. Once Niger was neutralised however, Severus turned on his ally in Britain—though it is likely that Albinus saw that he would be the next target, and was already preparing for war.

Albinus crossed to Gaul in 195 where the provinces were also sympathetic to him and set up at Lugdunum. Severus arrived in February 196 and the ensuing battle was decisive. Although Albinus came close to victory, Severus' re-inforcements won the day, and the British governor found it expedient to commit suicide. Severus soon purged Albinus' sympathisers, perhaps as well confiscating large tracts of land in Britain in punishment.

Albinus demonstrated the two major political problems posed by Roman Britain. First, in order to maintain its security, it had three legions stationed there, which would provide an ambitious man with weak loyalties a powerful base for rebellion, as it had for Albinus. Second, deploying the legions thusly would strip the island of its garrison, with the result that Britain was defenceless to invaders.

Following Albinus' defeat, Septimius Severus tried to solve this problem by dividing the existing province into Upper Britainand Lower Britain. While this kept the potential for rebellion in check for almost a century, it was not permanent. With the revolt—and subsequent repression—of Carausius (286-297), Constantius Chlorus found it necessary to further divide the island into four provinces:

The fourth century

Constantius remained in Britain for the rest of the time he was part of the Tetrarchy, dying in Eburacum, present-day York, in 306. Constantine had managed to be by his side at that moment, and assumed his duties in Britain. Unlike the earlier usurper Albinus, he was able to successfully use his base in Britain as a starting point on his march to the imperial throne.

For a few years, the British provinces were loyal to the usurper Magnentius, who succeeded Constans following his death. Following his defeat and death in the Battle of Mon Seleucus in 353, Constantius II dispatched his chief imperial notarary Paul Catena to hunt down Magnentius' supporters. Paul's investigations deteriorated into a witch hunt, which forced the vicarus Flavius Martinus to intervene. When Paul instead suspected Martinus of treason, the vicarus found himself forced to physically attack Paul with a sword with the aim of assassinating him, but at the end committed suicide.

In the fourth century, Britain was also subjected to increasing outside attacks, the Saxons from the east, and the Irish from the west. A series of forts were built, starting around 280, to defend the coasts, but these preparations were not enough when a general assault of Saxons, Irish, and Attacotti combined with a general revolt of the garrison on Hadrian's Wall, left Roman Britain supine in 367. This crisis, sometimes called the Great Conspiracy was settled by Count Theodosius, father of future emperor Theodosius I with a string of military and civil reforms.

Another usurper, Magnus Maximus, attempted to repeat Constantine's success by raising the standard of revolt in Segontium in 383, and bringing the troops across the Channel with him. Maximus held much of the western empire and fought a successful campaign against the Picts and Scots around 384. His continental military exploits required troops from Britain and it appears that forts at Chester and elsewhere were abandoned at this period, triggering raids and settlement in north Wales by the Irish. His rebellion was ended in 388, but this time not all of the troops were returned to Britain by an empire that had suffered a great loss of life in the Battle of Adrianople in 378, and now was scrambling to find sufficient manpower to defend all of its borders. Around 396, Rome was forced to address the increasing barbarian incursions in to Britain and an expedition, possibly led by the Vandal general Stilicho, brought naval action against the raiders. It seems peace was restored by 399 although no further garrisoning was ordered and indeed by 401 further troops were withdrawn to assist Rome in the war against Alaric.

The end of Roman rule

The archaeological records of the final decades of Roman rule show undeniable signs of decay. Urban and villa life had grown less intense by the fourth quarter of the fourth century and coins minted past 378 become increasingly rare, indicating economic stagnation. Some villas however had new mosaic floors laid around this time. Irish records show attacks on the south coast around 405 and the few remaining troops in Britain were too thinly spread to mount an effective defence. Hadrian's Wall and the Yorkshire forts were abandoned around 400 with evidence in some cases of a violent end. So when Constantine III became Emperor in 407, and crossed the channel with the remaining units of the British garrison, effectively Roman Britain ended. A severe Saxon incursion in 408 was apparently seen off by the Britons themselves who had also expelled the civilian Roman administration. The inhabitants were thenceforth forced to look to their own defences and government -- a fact made clear in a rescript the emperor Flavius Augustus Honorius sent them in 410.

It seems that Christian religious links were maintained, largely because of the influence of Pelagianism on the ruling classes which the church in Gaul was keen to discourage. Sometime after 429, Germain of Auxerre, a former Roman general led an army of Britons successfully against the Picts and Saxons probably under the auspices of the Church. The story of Saint Patrick indicates that villas were still occupied until at least 430 and cities such as Wroxeter and Winchester remained occupied and economically active. Saxon settlement began around this time, the immigrants traditionally being invited from the continent by Vortigern to assist in fighting the Picts and Irish. The new arrivals rebelled around 442, plunging the country into a series of wars that eventually led to the Saxon occupation of Lowland Britain by 600. The last fixed date in sub-Roman Britain is the famous Groans of the Britons, an unanswered appeal to Aetius, leading general of the western Empire, for assistance against Saxon invasion in 446. Around this time many Britons fled to Brittany although the survival of place and river names along with occupation sites that span the switch to barbarian rule indicate peaceful transition in some cases.

There is some scholarship which suggests that the later legends of King Arthur may have had their origins in this "twilight" period between the lingering end of Roman rule and the establishment of Anglo-Saxon hegemony in the east of Britain.

The Legacy

During their occupation of Britain, the Romans built an extensive network of roads, many of which are still in use today. The Romans also built water and sewage systems.

The prestige of the empire influenced Britons' views of themselves for generations to come

Britain is also noteworthy as having the largest European region of the former Roman Empire which currently speaks neither (as a majority language):

  • a Romance language (as say, Romania, which although located in an area controlled by the Roman Empire about half of the time as Britain, speaks Romanian, which is descended from Latin), nor
  • a language descended from the pre-Roman inhabitants (such as Greek), though Welsh exists as a minority language, with many borrowings from Latin, eg. "llaeth" ("milk"), "ffenestr" ("window").

For what is known of the process that introduced English to much of this former province, see the article Anglo-Saxons.

Romano-British settlements

A number of important settlements were founded by the Romans, during their occupation of Britain. Many of which still survive.

Cities and towns which have Roman origins include: (with their Latin names in brackets)

For a bigger list see: List of Roman place names in Britain.

See also

External Links

Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04