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Britannia - History of Roman Britain



Britain experienced almost four hundred years under the control of the Roman Empire. It grew from a Celtic nation full of tribes (that were often at war with each other) to a peaceful Roman province, populated by Romans, Britons, and foreigners. At its height, the Roman Empire encompassed hundreds of thousands of square miles and millions of people. Britain was only a small part of this, but the Roman period brought many changes and was one of the most influential periods in the history of these islands.

I Early Roman Contacts

In the first century BC, Britain was settled by Iron Age societies, many with long-term roots in Britain, others closely tied to tribes of Northern France. Commerce was flourishing, the population was relatively large and several British tribes even had their own coinages. Tribes in southwest Britain and Wales controlled considerable mineral wealth in tin deposits and copper mines.

The British Isles were known to the Romans as the "Tin Islands", from Punic traders and merchants who engaged in commerce with the Celtic tribes of this land from their bases in Carthaginian Hispania.

The Roman general and future dictator, Gaius Julius Caesar, briefly invaded Britain (in the year 55 BC and again in 54 BC) as an offshoot of his campaigns in Belgium and Gaul. Both the 55 and 54 BC Roman expeditions left from Boulogne (Portus Itius), and landed at Deal, a few miles northeast of Dover.

On August 26, 55 BC, two Roman Legions (about 10,000 soldiers) under Caesar's personal command crossed the channel in a group of transport ships leaving from Portus Itius (today's Boulogne). By the next morning (August 27), as Caesar reports, the Roman ships were just off the chalky cliffs of Dover, whose upper banks were lined with British warriors prepared to do battle. The Romans therefore sailed several miles further northeast up the coastline and landed on the flat, pebbly shore around Deal.

The Britons met the legionaries at the beach with a large force, including warriors in horse-drawn chariots, an antiquated fighting method not used by the Roman military. After an initial skirmish, the British war leaders sought a truce, and handed over hostages.

Four days later, however, when Roman ships with 500 cavalry soldiers and horses also tried to make the channel crossing, they were driven back to France by bad weather. The same storm seriously damaged many of the Roman ships on the beach at Deal. This quirk of fate resulted in Caesar's initial landing force having no cavalry, which seriously restricted the mobility of the 55 BC operations. It was also disastrous for the planned reconnaissance since the legionary soldiers were forced to repair the ships and were vulnerable to the British forces who began new attacks.

Thus immobilized, the Roman legions had to survive in a coastal zone which they found both politically hostile, and naturally fertile. The need to procure food locally resulted in scouting and foraging missions into the adjacent countryside. Caesar reports abundant grain crops along a heavily populated coastline; and frequent encounters with British warriors in chariots. After repairing most of the ships, Caesar ordered a return to Gaul, thus curtailing the reconnaissance of 55 BC.

The next year saw the Romans organize a much larger expedition to Britain, with a total of 800 ships used to transport five legions and 2000 cavalry troops, plus horses and a large baggage train. They sailed from Boulogne at night on July 6, and landed unopposed the next day on the beach between Deal and Sandwich.

Upon seeing the large size of the Roman force, the Britons retreated inland to higher ground. Caesar immediately marched inland with most of his troops to the Stour River, about 12 miles from the beach landing camp. At daybreak on the 8th of July, 54 BC, the Romans encountered British forces at a ford on the Stour (later the town of Canterbury). The Romans easily dispersed the Britons, who retreated to a hill stronghold The Seventh Roman legion attacked the hill fort but were blocked out by trees piled in the entrance by the Britons. To advance, the Roman troops filled in the outer ditch with earth and brush, making a ramp across it, and then capturing the fort.

Bad news came for the Romans, however, from the beach camp at Deal. An overnight storm had driven most of the Roman ships on shore. The main body of troops returned to the beach, to find at least forty boats completely wrecked. Security precautions required Caesar's army to spend ten long days building a land fort within which the entire fleet of 760 ships was transported. This, the second catastrophe for Roman ships in as many years caused by storms on the open beach, could have been averted had Caesar sailed only a few miles further up the coast to the protected harbor at Richborough (where the Romans landed when they next invaded Britain, in 43 AD).

During this ten day hiatus, a large British force was briefly united under a single commander, Cassivellaunus, who ruled the Catuvellauni tribe on the north side of the River Thames. The army of Cassivellaunus met the Romans again at the Stour crossing. The Britons used chariot warfare, with two horses pulling a driver and warrior, the latter hurling javelins, then dismounting at close quarters to fight infantry-style. After a hard-fought battle, the Romans eventually drove back the Britons, and then pursued Cassivellaunus toward the Thames.

In the wooded terrain north of the River Thames, Cassivellaunus adopted scorched-earth, guerrilla-warfare methods, destroying local food sources and using chariots to harrass the Roman legions. But neighboring tribes who resented the domination by Cassivellaunus, went over to the Romans. Caesar thus learned from native informants the location of the secret stronghold of Cassivellaunus, probably the hill fort at Wheathampstead, located on the west bank of the River Lea, near St. Albans. Even as the Roman army under Caesar were massing outside his fort's gates, however, Cassivellaunus made the bold move of ordering his allies in Kent to attack the Roman beach camp at Deal. This attack failed, and Cassivellaunus then gave up. Yet the terms of surrender he negotiated with the Romans seem to have been moderate, as Caesar had learned of mounting problems back in Gaul, and wanted to return there. The Roman legions left Britain in early September, 54 BC. They were not to return again for 97 years, when the Claudian invasion of AD 43 began the active Roman conquest of Britain. Roman influence manages to increase in Britain during this time, even though Roman troops are absent, as a direct result of trade and other interaction with the continent.

II Roman Conquest

Caesar's military expeditions set the scene for the second exploitation of Britain - by the Emperor Claudius. The reasons behind the invasion of the emperor Claudius I in AD 43 are complex.

King Verica seems to have been driven from his kingdom by Caratacus and Togodumnus, two sons of Cunobelin, and had fled to Rome. This event provided a casus belli (justification for war), for the whole of South-Eastern Britain was now under a single rule which, if hostile to Roman interests, might cause local trouble in Northern Gaul.

More important for Rome was Britain's natural resources, such as slaves and skins, and especially metals: tin, lead, and silver.

The key reason, however, was Claudius's personal need for military prestige. He had become emperor only in AD 40, as the result of a coup which led to the death of his nephew, Caligula. He had been discovered hiding behind cu 11211e415l rtains in the palace by members of the Praetorian Guard who gave the throne to this most unmilitary of rulers. If he were to establish himself as a strong ruler, he had to conquer Britain, as it could be suggested that the conquest of the island had been part of the uncompleted programme of Caesar and Augustus. Like Caesar, Claudius seized his chance. In AD 43, he sent four legions across the sea to invade Britain. They landed at Richborough and pushed towards the River Medway, where they met with stiff resistance. However, the young general Vespasian forced the river with his legion supported by a band of 'Celtic' auxiliaries, and the British were routed. Meanwhile, Claudius, who arrived around the beginning of September, was able to stage an entry to the enemy capital, Camulodunum. He founded a temple there, containing a fine bronze statue of himself, and established a legionary fortress.

In AD 47, superficially over half the conquest had been completed but it would take almost a century for the North and West of Britain to be under effective military control.

During the 70's and 80's the Romans, under the command of Gnaeus Julius Agricola, the Romans extended their control into Northern and Western England. Legions were located at York, Chester and Caerleon marking the limits of the 'Civil Zone'. Agricola moved North-wards, defeating the Caledonian tribes at the battle of Mons Graupius in North-Eastern Scotland.

By the end of the Ist  century, the military establishment of Britain had assumed a form which was to be maintained for two centuries. There were three legions, the Second Augusta at Caerleon; the Twentieth at Chester; and the Ninth at York. There were smaller auxiliary forts scattered through Wales, the Pennines and along a line between the Solway and Tyne rivers.

These positions were consolidated by the Emperor Hadrian, who visited Britain in AD 122 and ordered the building of a frontier wall, running between the Tyne and Solway. It was to be furnished with small forts every Roman mile and, between any two mile castles, a pair of turrets. This impressive frontier line, intended partly as a symbol of the divide between Greco-Roman civilization and the outer darkness of the barbarian, was nevertheless of great practical use as a barrier.

Hadrian's successor, Antoninus Pius, also took an interest in Britain. He abandoned the newly completed wall and again pushed northwards. A new frontier, the Antonine Wall, was established between the Forth and Clyde rivers in Scotland. Around 160 AD the Antonine Wall was abandoned and Hadrian's Wall became once again the Northern boundary of the Roman Empire in Britain.

III The Government of Britannia

Historical accounts of life in Roman Britain concentrate on military themes, mainly of conquest, of maintaining frontier defences and of withstanding barbarian attack. However, the main concern of the Roman administration, and increasingly of the leaders of the Britons themselves, was to maintain just and orderly government and to spread Roman civilization. There are hints of this attitude in the writings of Tacitus, concerning the first century AD. These writings are backed up by the archaeological findings consisting of a wide range of Roman sites in Britain, both in towns and in the countryside.

Except for very brief periods when the Roman emperor was present (as was Claudius in AD 43 and Hadrian in AD 122), the most important man in the Roman province during the first 150 years after the conquest was the governor. In the early third century AD, Septimius Severus divided Britain into two provinces, under the control of two governors; in the 4th century, it was further fragmented into four, although an was put in charge of what was now called 'the diocese of the Britons'.

Most governors were actively involved in campaigning. However, they did not ignore their tasks as administrators and supreme judges within the province. In Britain, a governor's role was primarily military, but numerous other tasks were also his responsibility. These included maintaining diplomatic relations with local client kings, building roads, ensuring the public courier system functioned, supervising the civitates and acting as a judge in important legal cases. When not campaigning, he would travel the province hearing complaints and recruiting new troops. However, the emperor, not wishing one man to have too much power, appointed a procurator to look after financial affairs and also to monitor the activities of the governor.

At a local level, in Southern Britain, the old Celtic tribes were organized into civitates (local communities), each civitas having a capital town. The citizens of coloniae (colonies), such as Colchester, Gloucester, Lincoln, and York, were mostly retired legionaries.

In virtually all cases, civitas capitals were built on the site of Roman forts and perhaps trace their immediate origins to the civilian settlements that grew outside the gates; there was certainly an element of deliberate planning in their foundation, after the army had moved on, as their more or less regular street-grids testify. As for their status, we know that Verulamium, the capital of the Catuvellauni, which preceded St Albans, became a municipium (autonomous borough) within a short period after the conquest. This status gave the city certain legal rights, recognizable throughout the Roman Empire, including the automatic bestowal of Roman citizenship on its 100-strong town council, or ordo, which met here, as in other towns, in a chamber at the back of the basilica. Verulamium was surely not the only "native" city in Britain with such rights, and it is fairly certain that Leicester, for example, was also a municipium.

Most civitas capitals developed into some of the most important English towns and citiesin present-day Britain; among them are Canterbury (Durovernum Cantiacorum), Winchester (Venta Belgarum), Leicester (Ratae Corieltavorum), Cirencester (Corinium Dobunnorum), and Chichester (Noviomagus Regnorum).

IV The Army

After the 1st century, the army was for the most part stationed well away from civilian centers. London, however, had a fort manned by detachments from all three units stationed in Britain, providing a guard for the governor.

A Roman fort of Vindolanda From the early third century, a line of forts was established along the South-Eastern coast of Britain to serve as protection against possible attacks from the sea.

Civilian areas of ancient Britain saw only a few soldiers seconded from the legions to serve, for instance, as policing officers for the Cursus Publicus (imperial communications system).

In addition, the army was a focus for Romanization, as the civilian settlements outside forts show. There is evidence that native Britons around such outposts adopted a Romanized lifestyle and learnt how to speak Latin.

For most of the time, Roman soldiers were not fighting; they were simply keeping the Pax Romana (peace under Roman rule) in distant outposts and discouraging, with their presence, possible incursions. Their duties included observance of the Roman religious calendar of festivals and sacrifices, maintaining their own forts, establishing customs controls on the frontier, and even farming, although taxes were levied on the native inhabitants of these regions.

Along Hadrian's Wall, the Romans left the most tangible traces of their presence in Britain; recent excavation, for example at Burdoswald, in Cumbria, has confirmed that when, at the end of the fourth century and the beginning of the fifth, Roman political control crumbled, the forts continued to be occupied..

Roman soldiers were brought from all over the Empire and were eventually granted citizenship and a packet of land after their 25 years' service. They settled all over Britain, becoming naturalized British citizens of the Roman Empire, erecting a wealth of inscriptions which confirm their assimilation and prosperity. Most of them settled in or near the fort where they had served, staying close to their friends. Gradually, these urban settlements outside the fort grew into townships, which were eventually granted municipal status. In certain cases, such as Colchester ('the Colonia by the camp'), the city was an official colony of veteran soldiers imposed upon the local population; but usually the evolution was more generic. Chester (or 'the camp') is an example of this. Standing on the city walls, one can still look down upon the remains of the amphitheatre that stood outside the military camp.

In this way, the army acted as the natural force of assimilation.

The evidence for what life was like in these places has largely been eradicated by the cities' urban sprawl, but in more remote areas, like at Vindolanda up on Hadrian's Wall, the original Roman settlement have been preserved. Vindolanda housed several units in its history, among them the Ninth Batavians - from whom a large pile of correspondence was found written on thin wooden writing tablets, deposited in one of their rubbish tips. There were over 200 of these writing tablets dating to AD 95-115. Mainly official documents and letters written in ink, they are the oldest historical documents known from Britain.

In the third century AD, marriage for soldiers was permitted, and the vicus, where their concubines had always lived, was rebuilt in stone. They constructed a beautiful little bath-house where the soldiers could relax, and a guest-house called a mansio, with six guest-rooms and its own private bath suite - for travellers on official business - along the wall. The vicus at Housesteads was rebuilt at the same time (incidentally, an excavation of one of its houses uncovered a murdered couple hidden under the floorboards). By this time, all adults in the empire had been granted blanket citizenship and the 'Romans' in Britain had become fully assimilated with their British neighbours.

V Towns and Town Life

Such terms as 'civilization' (from civis, meaning citizen) and 'urban' (from urbs, meaning city) emphasize that culture springs from the town.

The towns stood at nodal points on a road system that enabled goods to be brought from nearby regions. From the nearby civitas, came local products such as corn, vegetables, fruit, meat, wool, building materials, and coarse pottery; from coastal areas came fish and shellfish; from Spain and Italy came wine, olives, olive-oil, and fish sauce, in amphorae (two-handled earthenware containers); from Gaul came simian ware (a fine red tableware); sometimes, from Campania, came bronze vessels; and, from the East, came marble facings and glass. The town acted as the market from which agricultural surpluses (such as wool from the Cotswolds, in the case of Cirencester) or locally made items (such as shale dishes and armlets, in the case of Dorchester, or jet, in the case of York) were dispatched. A flourishing money economy led to the creation of service industries such as baking bread, making shoes, agricultural tools and interior decorating. By the second century, merchants, as well as local landowners, were building quite luxurious town houses; the main rooms were decorated with frescos and had mosaic floors.

In a list of the amenities which sprang up in towns in Britain, houses come third after temples and forums. The construction of an administrative centre, including a vast basilica and a market square, doubtless needed government permission and perhaps even assistance. Temples were sometimes built or embellished by guilds of artisans or merchants (as in Chichester and Silchester). No town was complete without at least one suite of public baths, allowing the citizen and, at a minimal charge, the visitor to progress through a range of rooms from cold to steamy-hot and back again, or to idle away the time and taking moderately strenuous exercise. Most towns doubtless had an amphitheatre, or an arena combined with a theatre, so that the populace and countrymen, in town for a festival, could enjoy bear-baiting or bull-baiting, or a performance by mime actors.


The beginnings of London can be dated with some exactitude to the invasion of the Romans in AD 43. Prior to the Roman invasion there was no permanent settlement of significance on the site of London. Instead, the Thames River flowed through marshy ground sprinkled with small islands of gravel and sand. There were probably more mosquitoes than people inhabiting the area.

The commander of the Roman troops was Aulus Plautius. He pushed his men up from their landing place in Kent towards Colchester, then the most important town in Britain. The Roman advance was halted by the Thames, and Plautius was forced to build a bridge to get his men across. This first "London Bridge" has been excavated recently, and found to be only yards from the modern London Bridge.

The Roman Bridge proved a convenient central point for the new network of roads which soon spread out like a fan from the crossing place and allowed the speedy movement of troops. The Roman settlement on the north side of the bridge, called Londinium, quickly became important as a trading centre for goods brought by boat and unloaded at wooden docks by the bridge.

Just 18 years after the arrival of the Romans, Boudicca, queen of the Iceni tribe of present-day East Anglia, launched her rebellion against the new rulers of Britain. The new trading centre of London was one of her primary targets and her warriors levelled the burgeoning city to the ground and killed thousands of the traders who had begun to settle there.

The city was quickly rebuilt, with a cluster of timber-framed wooden buildings surrounding the imposing Roman civic buildings. The city continued to grow in size and splendour over the next century, reflecting the increasing importance of trade in Britain.

By the middle of the second century AD, Londinium possessed the largest basilica (town hall) west of the Alps, a governor's palace, a temple, bathhouses, and a large fort for the city garrison.

One of the best Roman remains in London is the second century Temple of Mithras (mithraism was a form of religion popular among Roman soldiers). It was found near Walbrook during construction work in this century, and moved to Temple Court, Queen Victoria Street. Artefacts recovered from the excavation of the temple are now in the Museum of London.

Traces of the wall can still be seen in a few places in London.

London continued its growth under the late Roman Empire, and at its peak the population probably numbered about 45,000. But, as the Roman Empire creaked its way to a tottering old age, the troops defending London's trade routes were recalled across the Channel, and the city went into a decline which lasted several centuries.

Aquae Sulis 

The Great BathAlthough still mostly buried beneath sumptuous Georgian streets, the Roman ruins in Bath are unsurpassed in Britain. Some believe Bath's Roman art and grandeur to equal any in the empire; certainly Bath has no rivals north of the Alps. About 2m below the present level of the city, the Romans started building their great baths and temple at the sacred spring soon after the Conquest, in the middle of the 1st century AD. They named their city Aquae Sulis and soon transformed the Celtic druids' grove into one of the major therapeutic centres of the West. The Romans revered the spring just as the Celts had done; by the 3rd century its stunning temple and luxurious baths attracted pilgrims from throughout the Roman world.

The art and engineering of the remarkable baths at Minerva's temple offer us a glimpse of Roman Britain at its most exalted. The complex housed no fewer than five healing hot baths by the time that it was completed in the 4th century ad. An elaborate hypocaust heating system serviced a series of ever-hotter sweat-rooms; swimming pools and cold-rooms cooled the pilgrims down. At the centre, in its own hall and lined with 14 massive sheets of lead, was the Great Bath. Surrounded by the gods, whose statues emerged mysteriously from the swirling steam, the Great Bath must have seemed a wonder of the ancient world.

The ancient world marvelled at Minerva's great temple in Bath. Shrouded in steam, pilgrims approached the mysterious sacred spring at the heart of the temple believing it to be the actual residing place of Sulis Minerva, whose healing cult had spread from Britain throughout the Empire. Not only was Minerva's water renowned for its healing powers; by throwing their offerings into the spring, pilgrims believed that they could communicate directly with the Underworld. Almost 20,000 coins and several gold and silver artefacts have since been recovered.

The visual and symbolic focus of the temple was the sacrificial altar. The great mass of stone stood nearly 2m high; its top was chiselled smooth and slightly dished to hold the animals that were slaughtered for augury.

Amongst the most remarkable and revealing artefacts recovered from the Roman baths are the written dedications, vows and curses that centuries of pilgrims cast into the hot spring. As well as appealing to Sulis Minerva for health or wealth, the pilgrims inscribed curses on thin pewter sheets which were then usually rolled up and placed in the water. Typically, each curse stated a lost love or piece of stolen property; numerous suspects 'whether pagan or Christian' were often listed with an appeal that the guilty should meet some foul end. Common are spells to counter others' curses; writing backwards was thought to imbue the magic with extra potency.

Flooding finally ruined Bath's wondrous temple and the Great Bath complex. Built in the slight hollow around the hot spring, the baths and temple were particularly vulnerable to the rising water level of the 4th century ad. The baths drained into the River Avon, as they do today, and as the Avon's level rose so river water increasingly backed up the drains until they were eventually blocked with mud and silt.

When the Romans withdrew from Britain, the baths were simply not repaired and soon fell to ruin. Saxon Christians dismantled the sacrificial altar to use as paving stones for their new monastery. Before long the hot spring returned to marsh. The site of Minerva's great temple became a dumping place for town refuse and in later times a Saxon graveyard. The famous eight century Saxon poem 'The Ruin' begins to describe the scene: 'Wondrous is this masonry, shattered by the Fates. The fortifications have given way, the buildings raised by giants are crumbling. The city fell to earth.'


The Romans established a military base at Canterbury soon after Claudius's invasion. Then, around AD 110-120, they built a new civitas, or provincial centre, on top of the remains of an older settlement.

Canterbury, known by the Romans as 'Durovernum', saw rapid development after about 100 AD with stone houses, a grid-pattern of paved roads, drainage, and trade.

It was not until a period of disturbance across the Empire in the 270's that a ditch and wall around the city was constructed; the route that the Roman engineers chose is the one

followed by the remains of the walls today. The walls were substantially rebuilt in the late-1300's, but Roman traces survive in three places (Saint Mary Northgate Church, Queningate, and in the Castle grounds).

Located on the main route from the south-east coast to London, it became the principal trading and administrative centre for the area. Roman

Canterbury was prosperous and contained many sizeable public buildings and private dwellings: a large Roman Theatre, the remains of parts of which can be seen today in the basement of Slatters Hotel. Adjacent to it were the Public Baths, and opposite was a Temple complex; it is believed that a town square and meeting place - the Forum - lay not far beyond that. To the North-East of these public areas was a large private house with high-quality mosaic floors - this property, revealed by the World War II bombing, can be visited in the Roman Museum.

Later during the Roman occupation, around AD 270, the combination of Saxon raiders and increasing conflicts within the Roman Empire itself led to the construction of a defensive wall around in the city.

In the 300s and early 400s Roman Canterbury was at its peak: a walled city with a theatre, forum, temples, quality housing with heating and mosaic floors, and lively markets stocked with goods from the surrounding rich agricultural lands, benefiting from trading links to continental Europe. Canterbury had achieved a level of relative civilisation that it was not to reach again for some six hundred years.

VI The Countryside

In Roman Britain, at least 3 million people lived in the countryside, in dwellings that ranged from wattle-and-daub huts to substantial stone-built Roman farmsteads (villas). The former were identical to those in which the Iron Age peasant had lived they were especially common in Northern and Western areas of Britain, where towns were not found.

Country houses, even those with only a few rooms and perhaps a living-room with mosaic floor (as at Sparsholt, in Hampshire), required considerable investment.

There are some villas with many exceptional mosaics which could be compared with the houses of more recent times, such as Audley End, in Essex, or Blenheim Palace, in Oxfordshire. The villa at Fishbourne, in West Sussex, dating from the first century, was possibly the palace of a local 'client' king called Cogidubnus (or, more probably, Togidubnus). Those at Bignor, also in West Sussex, and at Woodchester, in Gloucestershire, were, during the fourth century, the centres of great country estates Other richly appointed courtyard buildings in the countryside may not, in fact, have been villas but hostelries associated with religious cults. This is certainly the case of the guest-house beside the temple of Nodens at Lydney Park, Gloucestershire. It has recently and most plausibly been proposed that Chedworth Roman villa, further east in the same county, is no such thing as a villa but also a hostelry.

Most villas were farms. The central house was fairly compact, with five or six rooms. Sometimes the rooms were fronted by short wings, and a veranda providing an open corridor between them. Like modern farms, with which they can be compared, Roman villas also included barns and other outbuildings for farm servants, livestock, and the storage of grain, as well as paddocks and fields. Some villas may have been owned by small farmers, but others were occupied by bailiffs and formed part of larger estates whose owners may have lived abroad.

Sometimes, an estate would be farmed by a resident owner with the help of dependent clients, as an inscription on a mosaic from the villa at Thruxton, in Hampshire, laid out by 'Quintus Natalius Natalinus and the Bodeni', seems to attest. Although slavery undoubtedly existed, most farm labour was probably provided by free peasants and perhaps by serfs tied to the land. The villas at Barnsley Park, near Cirencester, may have been engaged in fattening livestock for market in its surrounding paddocks.

Other villas too could have had a special function, such as that at Hambleden, in Buckinghamshire, which seems to have been industrial. Others, such as that at Combe Down, near Bath, and Kingscote, in Gloucestershire, appear to have been the official residences of minor officials.

Many houses in the countryside remained simple. In Western and Northern Britain, but also sometimes in the more settled parts of the province, circular houses, characteristic of the pre-Roman Iron Age, continued to be used well into the fourth century. Most Roman houses were rectangular, some quite small but others barn-like and containing accommodation for both people and animals. A number of such buildings are known to have existed in Hampshire, at North Warnborough and Meonstoke, for instance; an example from Meonstoke had a very impressive façade of patterned brickwork, part of which is now in the British Museum.

VII Trade and industry

Before the Roman Invasion, Britain had a reputation for producing fine quality products. The woollen garments exported as far as the Roman Empire were considered the best available and it was the height of fashion to have a garment made in Britain. Livestock, especially hunting dogs and basketry were also exported in great quantities, along with minerals excavated from the mines. However, little is known about British produce before the Romans.

As for the imported goods, Britain took mainly fruit and vegetables from Gaul. But the imports were not only goods. People also came to Britain and settled. The Atrebates, Druid, and Parisi tribes all began in Europe and immigrated to Britain over the years. Of these only the Atrebates retained a presence both sides of the channel.

There were fundamental drawbacks that prevented Britain from trading a wider variety of goods.

The first of these was the lack of an effective road system. Travel in Britain was had to be made either on foot, or with the aid of a horse. The road network consisted of a series of rough tracks from settlement to settlement, with no proper order or structure. To travel around the country, you just set off in the general direction until you eventually reached your destination. Even if the knowledge to build a road system in Britain had existed, there was one other obstacle. The country did not have a central administrative capital, as it consisted of a series of tribes, each with their own designated area. To build a road network would have meant co-operation between the tribes, an agreement on routes and overall costs. Since the tribes were always on guard against incursions by neighbouring tribes, the general mistrust alone would have prevented such a scheme.

The second reason was that the tribes in Britain all had their own unique currencies which were minted by hand in their own territories. At least some did, whereas others deeper inland did not have any currency at all and relied on bartering for goods as their method of trade. As Roman money was not yet legal tender in Britain, and the European countries would not accept individual tribe's currencies, this was one of the biggest barriers to effective trade.

On the continent, the Roman Empire, with its' single currency, was spreading and occupied countries all adopted the Roman monetary system as their standard. So, trade for goods and services became easier within Europe. Trade between Britain and Europe was good, although rather difficult as the British insisted on trading goods for goods, rather than goods for money. However, this was the accepted method of trade within Britain and it seemed to work well.

By the time of the Roman occupation, Britain's tin exports to the Mediterranean had been largely eclipsed by the more convenient supply from Iberia. Gold, iron, lead, silver, jet, marble and pearls were, however, 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, lava stone querns, glassware and fruit. One of the most important changes which the Romans brought was their monetary system, which was universal in the empire. Under this system, buying and selling goods could be done in hard cash, which could be used anywhere the Roman influence existed.

The Roman road network took the place of mud tracks; the long, straight, direct links between the cities determined fast growth of commercial centres. Goods could be transported in far less time.

Under Roman influence, the industrial standard rose considerably.

The quantity of minerals mined, notably lead, increased under the Romans. Britain was rich in base metals that were needed for the military's use and the minting of silver coins. Eventually the exports to Rome of minerals were at such a level that the Spanish, who had previously been the main supplier, complained about the damage the British were having on their economy.

One of the reasons why the Romans invaded Britain was the country's richness in mineral resources. The most important were lead and silver, often found together and extracted from mines in the Mendips, in Derbyshire, and in Flintshire. The lead was cast into large ingots, sometimes bearing the name of the emperor and sometimes those of private lessees (owners of mines on a leasehold basis). Such ingots have been found not only in Britain, but also in France, indicating a high export rate.

Tin was less widespread in the Roman Empire, but it was a vital component of bronze, and Cornish tin was thus of some importance. In Britain itself, tin was often alloyed with lead to make pewter; moulds have been found in various places, including Lansdown and Camerton, near Bath, and in Silchester. Services of pewter, like the large one from Appleford, near Oxford (now in the Ashmolean Museum), were used as convenient substitutes for silver and were especially popular in the fourth century. Iron was required in great quantities for everything from nails and tools to attractive wrought-iron chains with which to suspend cauldrons; it was mined on the Weald (in Kent and Sussex) and also in the Forest of Dean (Gloucestershire). Copper was mined in North Wales and gold at Dolaucothi, near Llandovery, Dyfed, and perhaps elsewhere.

Mineral extraction sites, such as the Dolaucothi gold mine, the Wealden ironworking zone and the lead and silver mines of the Mendip Hills 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 prospecting areas were in dangerous, upland country, and, although mineral exploitation was presumably 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 industry that has left most traces is the manufacture of terracotta for tiles and pottery. While some tile works were official concerns that, for example, served the needs of the procurators in London or the colonia in Cirencester, most were private concerns that might have supplied roofing tiles for villas. Some pottery, such as the black-burnished ware of Dorset, was produced in vast quantities and taken as far as Hadrian's Wall. Other areas of pottery manufacture were Brockley Hill, near Stanmore, Middlesex, notable for producing mortaria (mixing bowls), the New Forest, and Nene Valley, and, especially in the 4th century, the immediate vicinity of modern Oxford.

Excavations of the Roman waterfront in London have confirmed Tacitus in showing the significance of this port as a centre for import and export in the first and second centuries. Jet seems to have reached the Rhineland, while pewter vessels and certain products of British kilns (especially late Roman Oxford ware) are recorded in Gaul. More important exports were corn, wool, and textiles, including a special kind of coat known as the birrus Britannicus. Trade doubtless existed on the western side of Roman Britain, way beyond the frontier into Scotland and into Ireland; a trading port was recently discovered at Drumanagh, about 25 km (15 mi) north of Dublin. Doubtless various trinkets and other manufactured goods were exported to the barbarians in exchange for slaves and other products such as skins.

VIII Inscriptions, Literacy and Art

As might be expected, the fullest evidence for literacy in Britain comes from the forts and fortresses of the Roman army, which have not only yielded many official dedications of buildings, altars recording vows made to the gods, and the inscribed tombstones of soldiers, but even (at Vindolanda, in Northumberland, just south of Hadrian's Wall) files of correspondence written on wooden tablets.

However, reading and writing were also widespread among the civilian population of Britain, as is proved by graffiti scratched on walls, and on pieces of pottery and tiles. Occasionally (in waterlogged deposits of London) archaeologists discovered a letter written in ink or scratched too deeply through the wax of a wooden writing tablet. All are in the Latin language. It is easy to imagine that the Roman teacher, who perhaps taught under the shelter of the colonnade of the forum, would have had no difficulty in finding pupils. Tiles on which alphabets have been scratched are known from Cirencester and Wroxeter, and another including a phrase from Virgil's Aeneid from Silchester. Some of the evidence for a much wider appreciation of Classical literature among the leisured classes in their villas has been mentioned above.

Towns have yielded a few formal inscriptions, some of them very grand, such as the dedications of the forums at Verulamium and Wroxeter set up respectively by the civitates of the Catuvellauni and the Cornovii. There was also the statue which, as the inscription on its base indicates, was erected by the ordo or senate of the Silures at Caerwent in honour of the one-time legate of the Second Augusta legion which was based at Caerleon near by, probably because he was their patron representing the interests of the civitas to the far-away imperial government. Other inscriptions are religious in nature: among them are the dedication of the Temple of Neptune and Minerva at Chichester and various altars, including one to the genius (spirit) of the city of Cirencester and another to the mother goddesses at Winchester. Funerary inscriptions range from the grand lettering on the tomb of the procurator, Classicianus, from London to the touching epitaph of a little girl called Corellia Optata at York.

In the matter of material culture, Pre-Roman Britain was the home of a vigorous and refined native tradition in art and produced, during the Iron Age, masterpieces of Celtic bronze metalwork such as the 'Battersea shield' (British Museum), the 'Torrs chamfrein' (possibly a pony-cap; National Museums of Scotland, Edinburgh), the Bird lip mirror (Gloucester Museum), and the gold torcs (heavy neck rings) from the hoard unearthed as Snettisham, Norfolk.

The Roman conquest did not destroy this tradition, as was once thought, but transformed it. Under the Romans, British metalworkers turned their attention to a wider range of items, including figures that combine Roman classicism with the Celts' delight in texture and sinuous forms. Among the notable achievements of British metalworkers during the Roman occupation are a small statue of a muse ('Reading Museum'), from Silchester, and an image of the Roman god Mars (British Museum) from Foss Dyke, Lincolnshire. British artisans were probably involved in casting large statues. Even the head of Hadrian (British Museum), from London, appears to be local work, the convoluted hair certainly looks Celtic.

It is certain that many Britons more than mastered the carving of stone; fine examples include the celebrated male Gorgon from the pediment of the temple of Sulis Minerva at Bath and the great capital ,meant for a free-standing column, carved with the figures of Bacchus and his companions (Cirencester Museum).

The existence of a Cotswold school is attested by the fine representations of Mercury in relief (from Cirencester) and in the round (from Uley). A related school was located further North: high-quality sculptures are known from Ancaster and Lincoln. A striking female mask (British Museum) with curving S-scroll tresses from Towcester, Northamptonshire, is also be attributed to this school. A third school has been identified at Carlisle, where it produced a number of distinctive gravestones.

The mosaics are perhaps the most famous Roman artworks. In the 2nd century, mosaic workshops were set up in several major towns, including Colchester, Verulamium, and Cirencester, where fairly simple but attractive designs were produced, mainly geometric but some showing figural work.

Cirencester was again a major centre, with a brilliant series of floors featuring a concentric design in which Orpheus is depicted with animals and birds circling around him. The largest mosaic, found on the site of the palatial villa at Woodchester, near Cirencester, is currently on display in the Corinium Museum, Cirencester.

Other floors from the same school, one with a Bacchic theme, can be seen at Chedworth villa. Another workshop specializing in rather fleshy animals and plants was based at Dorchester, in Dorset. The great villa-like complex at Frampton included a large number of mythological scenes, such as Perseus and the sea monster, Aeneas plucking the golden bough, and Cadmus slaying the serpent of Mars.

The subjects of the Frampton mosaics have been thought to be derived from illustrations to the Metamorphoses of Ovid. It is certain that the story of Dido and Aeneas (Taunton Museum) from the floor of the bathhouse of a villa at Low Ham, Somerset, is based on an illuminated copy of The Aeneid of Virgil, while the triclinium (dining room) floor of Lullingstone villa, Kent (also probably laid by mosaicists from Dorset) shows Europa being abducted by Jupiter in the guise of a bull; it is accompanied by a verse alluding to the storm that wrecked Aeneas's fleet at Carthage but in a metre that imitates Ovid. Presumably the verse was written by the owner of the villa and, as such, attests to his education not only in the use of Latin, but in the enjoyment of literature.

IX Religion of the Romano-Britons

When the Romans invaded Britain in 43 AD, they found a country whose religion was based on local stories, superstitions and beliefs with no real order on consistency amongst the individual tribes. Their first port of call was the south east of England, which had a race that consisted of with their own beliefs and Belgic and Gallic people that had taken refuge in Britain. These immigrants had brought their own brand of worship with them.

The Romans were relaxed in their attitudes to the tribes, as they knew that their religion was fundamental to their existence. There was one tribe that the Romans despised because of their ways. This tribe was the Druids of Angelsey.

The Romans had become the sworn enemy of the Druids, claiming this was due to their barbaric sacrifices of humans at an altar. This attitude was, however, hypocritical in view of the legendary Roman gladiatorial battles and their treatment of early Christians.

Both Rome and Britain had polytheistic religions, in which a multiplicity of gods could be propitiated at many levels. At one end of the spectrum were the official cults of the emperor and the Capitoline Triad: Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, linked to other Olympian gods like Mars. At the other end, every spring, every river, every cross-roads, lake or wood had its own local spirit with its own local shrine. The Romans had no problem in combining these with their own gods, simply associating them with the deity which most resembled them.

The Imperial Cult

Until Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the Romans did not attempt to impose Roman religion on their subject peoples. The only exception was the imperial cult, one of the first acts that the new Roman government in Britain undertook. This religion was first introduced through the form of an altar, a massive temple and a provincial centre in Colchester. Temples were usually dedicated to an emperor after he died. What is unusual is that the temple at Colchester was dedicated to the Emperor Claudius while he was still alive. Why this happened is unclear, as Claudius had already spurned an attempt in Egypt to have him declared a god. But newer research has thrown light onto the matter and it is now generally agreed that the temple was not actually completed until after the death of Claudius.

The temple was destroyed during the Boudiccan rebellion, but it must have been rebuilt, both out of Roman pride in their religion, and also so avoid the remains becoming a focal point for those sympathetic to the Boudiccan cause. It was a grand structure and many in Rome were impressed by its magnificence

It was constructed in the best classical manner on a raised podium and with an octal-style portico approached by a flight of steps. In the courtyard was the sacrificial altar, which had statues on either side.

The temple would not have been just a religious place, but also a center for many public ceremonies that would have been held in full view of the oversized statue of Claudius.

The cult seems to have continued in Colchester, London, and elsewhere, while at native temples, even in the deep countryside, the 'numen' (spirit) of the reigning emperor was worshipped alongside the true gods.

Celtic and Roman Gods

Roman Britain illustrates the success that the Romans achieved in adapting native cults to their own. Celtic deities were merged with their Roman equivalents. At the great healing sanctuary of Bath (Aquae Sulis, 'the waters of Sulis'), a temple of Roman form was erected to the goddess Sulis Minerva.There are, however, images of other gods and goddesses in the temple, most especially Diana the Huntress, to whom an altar was dedicated. At Nettleton Shrub, near by, Apollo was venerated as Cunomaglos ("hound-prince"), while at Lydney Park, in Gloucestershire, there was a healing shrine to Mars Nodes. Even where the Celtic names of deities have not been preserved (as at Uley, in Gloucestershire, where, in Roman times, a temple was dedicated to Mercury), it seems that native Britons still brought their problems to be solved by the god.

Over 6,000 coins were cast as offerings into the waters of Bath, along with vast quantities of lead or bronze curse tablets, asking Sulis-Minerva to intercede on behalf of the worshipper. This did not just happen in Bath: two hundred curse tablets were recovered from Mercury's temple at Uley - approximately one third of all such tablets known in the empire. Here, as at Bath, tablets of lead inscribed in Latin bear inscriptions asking for redress against thieves, while altars and the bones of animals attest to sacrifices made as thanks-offerings for favours granted.

Right down to the end of Roman rule, belief in Roman gods remained vigorous among the native Britons. A cache of gold jewellery and silver spoons buried near Thetford (and now in the British Museum) was dedicated to the Italian god Faunus, here given several strange local epithets such as Ausecus ("prick-eared") and Medigenus ("mead-begotten").


Some cults came to Roman Britain from the East. One such was that of the Egyptian goddess Isis, to whom a temple was erected in London. The orgiastic worship of Attis and Cybele is also attested in London, as well as in Gloucester and Verulamium.

The Oriental deity best known today is Mithras. an Indo-Iranian god of light, was popular among certain elements in the Roman army, as archaeological finds from the Mithraeum ('temple of Mithras') in Carrawburgh and Housesteads, near Hadrian's Wall, show. By far the richest Mithraeum found in Britain was that discovered beside the Walbrook, in London; finds from the site include slabs of imported marble, one of which bears a dedication by a veteran of the Second Legion, pointing to the possibility that the devotees here were also mainly soldiers. However, Mithraism, with its high moral demands, would also have appealed to the merchant class, which was very important in London.


According to archaeological records, Christianity seems to have been slower to spread in Britain than in some other parts of the Roman Empire, although there were British martyrs in the periods of persecution: St Alban of Verulamium and Saints Aaron and Julius of Isca Silurum. By the fifth century, however, the new religion appears to have become established. The evidence for this process is complex, and described in Celtic Christianity. What evidence there is, is sketchy, however there is evidence to suggest that what Christian community that did exist in early Britain had already established some orthodoxy by 363, as evidenced by a letter found in Bath, Somerset from a Christian man, Vinisius, who writes from the Roman city of Wroxeter (near present-day Shrewsbury) to a Christian lady named Nigra, living in Bath

In addition to this evidence, Roman Britain is the place of origin of Saint Patrick and Pelagius, the former evangelizing Ireland, the latter leaving Britain to become the great adversary of St Augustine of Hippo in the debate on the efficacy of Divine Grace. Recent study of St Patrick's writings has revealed a remarkably complex and erudite use of Latin-evidence of an unexpectedly high level of education in fourth-century Britain.

The earliest evidence of Christianity in Roman Britain dates from the fourth century AD. A collection of silver vessels and other pieces found at Water Newton, Cambridgeshire, bear Christian dedications and appear to be church plate (items used in the celebration of the Eucharist). Other vestiges of Christianity include paintings featuring the Chi-Rho (a symbolic emblem of Christ made up of the first letters of his name in Greek), orates (figures with arms raised in the attitude of prayer), from the Roman villa at Lullingstone, Kent, a baptistery within the fort at Richborough, Kent, and a cemetery church excavated outside the walls at Colchester.

X The End of Roman Britain

The Roman legions began to withdraw from Britain at the end of the fourth century. Those who stayed behind were to become the Romanized Britons who organized local defences against the onslaught of the Saxon hordes. The famous letter of A.D.410 from the Emperor Honorius told the cities of Britain to look to their own defences from that time on. As part of the east coast defences, a command had been established under the Count of the Saxon Shore, and a fleet had been organized to control the Channel and the North Sea. All this showed a tremendous effort to hold the outlying province of Britain, but eventually, it was decided to abandon the whole project. In any case, the communication from Honorius was a little late: the Saxon influence had already begun By the early fifth century, with the gradual collapse of the Roman Empire already under way, Rome lost direct control of Britain, as well as its other provinces in Western Europe. The arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in the fifth and sixth centuries heralded the next stage in the history of Britain.

The continuity of towns in post-Roman Britain has been the subject of debate. Some, such as Dorchester (Dorset), Dorchester (Oxfordshire), and Lincoln, probably maintained some sort of urban cohesion through the early Middle Ages. In others, for instance Canterbury, there may have been a short break before occupation was resumed. Tellingly, the sites of most Roman towns lie directly beneath their medieval and modern successors. This was not only because the sites themselves were well chosen but because they continued to be regarded as seats of government and of ecclesiastical power. The short list of bishops attending the Council of Arles in 314 gives the names of the bishops of York, London, and Lincoln, then the capitals of three of the four late Roman provinces and the seat of bishops today.

As for the countryside, it is clear that it continued to be farmed. (Pollen analysis demonstrates that the wildwood cleared to make the villa estates did not regenerate.) Moreover, it is likely that many Anglo-Saxon estates, especially the estates which were held by the king, were descended from Roman estates.

It was in Eastern Britain, where the Anglo-Saxon presence was strongest, that cultural continuity from Roman times was correspondingly weakest, even though the population was made up largely of the descendants of Romano-Britons.

In Western Britain, continuity was much stronger, even though the Celtic tongue (rather than Latin, apart from a few loan-words) survived. Nevertheless, in upper-class and Christian circles, Latin continued to be read and spoken, and was spread to Ireland. The standard of Latin which was written by St Patrick, his forebears, and successors was remarkable.

Evidence for the persistence of Christianity is harder to identify in South-Eastern Britain. It certainly survived in Christian enclaves such as that which centred around Verulamium, and which shifted to the hill near by where Alban was martyred in 304; it was evidently a place of pilgrimage through the Dark Ages.

Nevertheless, many of the inhabitants of post-Roman Britain were still pagan. They held beliefs not so very different from those of the newcomers from North-Western Europe with whom they were to merge, adopting new styles of ornament but perhaps retaining their own traditions, such as metalworking and enamelling, and in burial rites. In one such rite, the head was removed from the body after death: this had been a common tradition in late Roman Britain (found, for instance, in the Roman cemetery at Lankhills, Winchester) and was still being practised in the seventh century at Winnall, near by.

Urban life had generally grown less intense by the last quarter of the fourth century, and coins minted between 378 and 388 are very rare, indicating a likely combination of economic decline, diminishing numbers of troops and problems with the payment of soldiers and officials.

Coinage circulation increased during the 390's, although it never attained the levels of earlier decades. Copper coins are very rare after 402, although minted silver and gold coins from hoards indicate they were still present in the province, even if they were not being spent. By 407 there were no new Roman coins going into circulation and by 430 it is likely that coinage as a medium of exchange had been abandoned. Pottery mass production probably ended a decade or two previously; the rich continued to use metal and glass vessels, while the poor probably adopted leather or wooden ones.

XI Conclusion

People are always tempted to view Britain under the Romans as a backwater province of Rome - of little importance to the empire and offering even less profit. Yet throughout its history, Roman Britain acted as a proving ground for aspiring politicians and a powerbase for usurping emperors. Setting aside arguments over whether Britain was 'profitable' or not, for such calculations never mattered to the empire, Britain was a frontier province, which contained three legions for most of its chequered history. As such, it was important.

Britain was invaded because it could further a Roman's career. It was conquered for similar reasons. Agricola founded a very respectable career, including a consulship in Rome, on subduing the rest of Britain. According to Tacitus, he was only prevented from conquering Scotland by the envy of the emperor Domitian. Thus, Scotland remained a holy grail for the Romans, and once the emperor Hadrian had marked out the boundaries with a prestige project of his own, it became a legitimate target for conquest.

Constantine proved what many Roman generals before him had realised - that Britain was an excellent base from which to mount a rebellion. When his father died at York in AD 301, the troops immediately acclaimed him as emperor, and he used the British army as the core of the force with which he finally conquered the empire.

In AD 410, the civitates of Britain sent a letter to the emperor Honorius, asking him to come to their aid against the Saxon invaders. He wrote back telling them to 'look to their own defences', and Roman influence in Britain was officially ended. The very fact that the citizens of Britain appealed to the Roman emperor for help says much about their self-perception as citizens of the empire, and the fact that the emperor could not oblige says much about the pressure he was under. Britain had already 'looked to her own defences' in AD 259 under the Gallic Empire and AD 284 under Carausius, and both times she had been brought back into the fold.

Britain had been conquered to satisfy the need of an individual Roman emperor. Once taken, the imperial image required that it should be held onto tenaciously.


Britannia: A History of Roman Britain

Hadrian's Wall and its People

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