Exploring Roman Britain

Michael O. Varhola

Almost the entirety of what is now Great Britain, to include all of England and Wales, was for an extended period of time a province of Rome known as Britannia, and that fascinating episode from the past is what we are going to be exploring here. 

Even people who are somewhat familiar with the Roman Empire are often surprised when they see just how extensive were the lands under its control. It was centered on Rome itself, of course, pretty near to the middle of the shaded area indicating the extent of Roman dominion on the map below. It controlled the entirety of European, Asian, and African Mediterranean coasts; its boundary in the east was Mesopotamia, or modern-day Iraq; its boundary in the west was the Iberian Peninsula, occupied today by Spain and Portugal; its boundary in the south was Upper Egypt, and, its boundary in the north was a rather fluid line between what are now England and Scotland. And that was the case starting in 43 A.D. and lasting until about 410 A.D. 

Britain was not unknown in the classical world. Phoenicians visited the it as early as the 5th century B.C., and along with Greeks and Carthaginians traded for Cornish tin from the 4th century B.C. onward, leading the Greeks to refer to them as the Cassiterides, or "tin islands." And, in the 1st century B.C., when Rome was spreading out across Europe, Africa, and Asia, there was regular contact between Britain and mainland Europe.

The first direct Roman contact came when Roman general and future dictator Julius Caesar made two expeditions to Britain, in 55 and 54 B.C., as an offshoot of his conquest of Gaul. In his first expedition, more of a reconnaissance than a full-blown invasion, he gained a foothold on the coast of Kent but, diminished by storm damage to the ships and suffering from a lack of cavalry, was unable to advance further.

In his second invasion, Caesar took with him a substantially larger force and proceeded to coerce or invite many of the native Celtic tribes to pay tribute and give hostages in return for peace. A friendly local king, Mandubracius, was installed, and his rival, Cassivellaunus, was brought to terms. Hostages were taken, but historians disagree over whether the tribute agreed was paid by the Britons after Caesar and his forces departed.

Caesar had conquered no territory and had left behind no troops, but had established clients on the island and had brought Britain into Rome's sphere of political influence. The relationship between Britain and Rome settled into one of diplomacy, trade, and cultural exchange, with the empire Rome encouraging a balance of power in southern Britain and supporting two powerful kingdoms there. 

Ultimately, however, Rome decided it would be in its interests to control Britain directly and invaded in A.D. 43, probably with three full legions, or around 15,000 combat troops, supported by artillery and elephants and led in part by the future emperor Vespasian.

This force probably landed at Richborough in Kent. The Romans defeated the ruling tribe and their allies in two battles, the first, assuming on the river Medway and the second on the banks of the Thames, and then marched on the enemy capital and overran it. Future emperor Vespasian subdued southwestern Britain, established a friendly king over several territories, and made treaties with tribes outside the area under direct Roman control. And this was a pattern they were to follow for the next four decades or so.

With southern Britannia secure, the Romans turned their attention to what is now Wales. The local Silures, Ordovices, and Deceangli tribes remained implacably opposed to the invaders and for the first few decades were the focus of Roman military attention, despite occasional minor revolts among Roman allies like the Brigantes and the Iceni. The Silures in particular carried out an effective guerilla campaign against the Italian invaders and, despite being defeated in pitched battle in A.D. 51, persisted in their resistance for some time thereafter.

Then, in A.D. 60–61, while the imperial governor  was campaigning in Wales, the southeast of Britain rose in revolt under the leadership of Queen Boudica, widow of the recently-deceased king of a people called the Iceni. With the assistance of another tribe unhappy with their treatment by Rome, they destroyed the Roman colony at Colchester and routed the forces sent to relieve it. The rebels then moved on the London and St. Albans, overrunning and destroying them in turn. All told, they slew as many as 80,000 people in the course of their uprising.

The Roman governor managed to regroup his forces and, despite being heavily outnumbered, led them against the rebels and defeated them at the Battle of Watling Street. Despite their ultimate success, however, the Emperor Nero considered withdrawing Roman forces from Britain altogether.

There was further turmoil eight years later, in A.D. 69, when civil war broke out in Rome and weak governors in Britain were unable to control the legions under their command. Under their king Venutius, a tribe called the Brigantes took advantage of the chaos and rose up, driving the Roman out of the north of the Britain and seizing control of it.

Once Vespasian secured the empire, he appointed two new governor and tasked them with defeating the Brigantes and Silures and reclaiming Roman control of their territories and extending Roman rule to all of South Wales. They also began exploitation of mineral resources in the region, such as the gold mines at Dolaucothi, in Wales.

In the following years, the Romans conquered more of the island, increasing the size of Roman Britain, conquering the Ordovices in A.D. 78 and the Caledonians in A.D. 84 at the Battle of Mons Graupius, in northern Scotland. This was the high-water mark of Roman territory in Britain and,. soon after, the Romans retired to a more defensible line along the Forth-Clyde isthmus, freeing soldiers badly needed along frontiers elsewhere in the empire.

Over the decades that followed pacification of Britannia in the late 1st Century A.D., the empire continued to Romanize the region and a distinct Romano-British culture began to emerge. The savage Scots, however -- known at that time as Caledonians -- continued to press against the Roman defenses in the north, burning at least one and possibly more forts, and eventually began to drive the line southward. During this period an entire Roman legion stationed along the border, Legio IX Hispana, disappeared, and to this day its fate remains unknown.

When Emperor Hadrian visited Britannia around A.D. 120, he directed that an extensive defensive wall, known to posterity as Hadrian's Wall, be built along the northern frontier to help stabilize it. Rome tried to extend its control beyond this line a few times but these periods were brief and, ultimately, unsuccessful. There is evidence, in fact, that Rome helped keep the troublesome Caledonian tribesmen in check by paying them tribute. This was not enough to pacify them, however, and Hadrian's Wall itself was overrun more than once and the lands south of it pillaged.

Over the ensuing centuries, the north remained the most difficult area for Rome to control, but rebellions broke out periodically, provincial governors and military commanders were dragged into one side or another in the course of civil wars or attempted coup d'etats, imperial usurpers seized control of Britannia or its armies, and troops mutinied for various reasons. Problems elsewhere in the Empire led to resources being diverted from Britannia and it being consequently more difficult to maintain control over. Governors and emperors themselves contended with the chronic instability through a number of measures, include punitive expeditions and political and military reorganization of Britannia.

As the 4th century progressed, there were increasing attacks from the Saxons in the east and the Irish in the west. A general assault of Saxons, Irish, and other barbarian peoples, combined with apparent dissension in the garrison on Hadrian's Wall, left Britannia prostrate in A.D. 367 and was resolved only with great difficulty. During the three decades that followed, troops were increasingly withdrawn from Britannia and sent to deal with barbarian invasions elsewhere in the collapsing empire.

Moving into the 5th century, Britannia became increasingly fragmented, people began to abandon communities, and civilized society started to collapse. Industry broke down and coinage was abandoned as a medium of exchange, being replaced with barter. Some communities and leaders tried to maintain the Roman organization and traditions that they had known their entire lives but any sort of central organization had ceased to exist, along with the failed empire itself.

ROMAN CITIES, Including London and Southampton
During the four hundred years that Rome controlled Britannia, it founded a number of important settlements, many of which survive to this day. Colchester was probably the earliest capital of Roman Britain, but it was soon eclipsed by London with its strong mercantile connections.

Following the conquest of local tribes in the southern portions of Britannia in A.D. 70, Rome established the fortress settlement of Clausentum near what is now the city of Southampton. It was an important trading port and defensive outpost of Winchester, at the site of modern Bitterne Manor. Clausentum was defended by a wall and two ditches and is thought to have contained a bath house and was not abandoned until the very end, around 410.

Roman towns could be broadly grouped in two categories. Civitates, "public towns" were formally laid out on a grid plan, and their role in imperial administration occasioned the construction of public buildings. The much more numerous category of vici, "small towns" grew on informal plans, often around camps, fords, or crossroads.

Just a few of the cities and towns that have Roman origins, or were extensively developed by them other than the afore-mentioned include Alcester, Bath, Canterbury, Dover, Exeter, Gloucester, Ilchester, Lincoln, Manchester, Newcastle upon Tyne, St. Albans, Silchester, Towcester, Winchester, and York.

Most Romans departed from Britain around the year 410, but the legacy of the Roman Empire was felt for centuries in Britain.

During their occupation of Britain, for example, the Romans built an extensive network of roads which continued to be used in later centuries and many of them are still followed today. The Romans also built water supplies, sanitation and sewage systems, and public baths. And, as discussed previously, many modern people now live in towns and cities founded by the Romans.

And, although mining had been practiced in Britain since the most ancient times, the Romans introduced new technical knowledge and large-scale industrial production that revolutionized the industry, with innovations that included hydraulic mining to prospect for ore and work alluvial deposits.