What the Romans did for us
Caesar's initial incursion into Britain in late summer 55BC was a fiasco, seemingly an afterthought to his campaign in Gaul. He arrived in Kent without cavalry, his ships damaged by storms that shook the morale of his troops into the bargain. The force initially tried to land at Dover, but was faced with a waiting army of British warriors, so they sailed on to Walmer. The campaign was brief and of little consequence, curtailed by fears of being cornered by superior numbers and with winter approaching that would make campaigning difficult should they stay, and a sea crossing dangerous should they leave. Caesar opted for a prompt if controlled retreat to the mainland.
The following year Caesar returned, with a far larger army, said to have arrived - in Kent again - in a fleet of 800 ships. This time Caesar was more successful, his army reaching the River Stour at what is now Canterbury in a night march on their day of arrival, and soon driving the Britons back. The Romans advanced to what is now Westminster, and even attacked their enemies as far north as Wheathampstead near St Albans, though this left the beachhead in Kent open to an attack that was worrying for a time. But with trouble in Gaul diverting his attention, Caesar and his entire force departed once more before winter set in. Crucially, however, arrangements had been made for the payment of tribute to Rome. It is not known if these were honoured, but a client relationship had been established, giving a future pretext for return, exploited almost a century later by Claudius.
In AD39 Caligula failed to even depart Gaul with his planned invasion, but the far more capable Claudius in 43AD landed with at least one legion, probably as many as four, seemingly splitting his force between beachhead at Richborough in Kent, and Fishbourne in West Sussex - perhaps necessary with an army reportedly numbering 40,000. The Roman occupation of Britain had begun.
The force sent by Claudius, under the brilliant young general Vespasian, overran the south of England, superior technology in the form of siege weapons helping in the capture of Maiden Castle and Hod Hill. Vespasian's success was such that Claudius himself arrived to spend some 16 days in Britain, taking the surrender of various local kings while in Camulodunum - modern day Colchester, which for a time was the Roman capital of Britain, and where part of the Roman wall can be seen to this day.
Very soon the Romans pushed into Northern England, and took Wales. Faced with divided tribes and squabbling kings the Romans rapidly established control over the land, military might being supported by the building of fortifications and of course the road network that allowed them to move troops to flash points with great speed ˆ the first roads were designed solely for troop movement, rather than to enhance trade prospects.
It is indicative of Roman priorities that by about AD75 they had engineered the Dolaucothi Gold Mines near Pumsaint in Carmarthenshire, using hydraulic mining techniques to revolutionise gold extraction, and when surface mining became fruitless they switched to tunnelling to follow the productive veins.
This early rule was not without incident, the most serious being the uprising of the Iceni in AD 60 and 61. Prasutagus, their king, had died and willed half his land to Nero, hoping this would placate the Romans and allow his wife Boudicca to remain in power. The Romans took all of Prasutagus's lands and goods, and when Boudicca complained she was publicly flogged, and her daughters raped, treatment that united the Iceni and other tribes of East Anglia like the Trinovantes. Together they seized Camulodunum, Londinium, and Verulamium (Colchester, London, and St Albans, three of the greatest Roman settlements). Boudicca‚s revenge was brutal, some 60,000 Romans or pro-Roman Britons being butchered in her progress, many dying terrible and tormented deaths. The Ninth Legion was slaughtered by the tribes, a bitter blow to Roman prestige and morale.
Rome's reaction was equally brutal, the slaughter of rebels and their sympathisers only stopped when it was feared future imperial revenues were in danger. Boudicca‚s rebellion ended in defeat at the Battle of Watling Street, June 1 AD61, after which she took poison to avoid capture.
The advance of the Empire northwards continued until AD84, when the legions defeated the Caledonians at the Battle of Mons Graupius, thought to be around Kempstone Hill or Megray Hill in Kincardineshire, though sites like Bennachie in Aberdeenshire have also been mooted for the battle. In spite of this being a decisive victory, events and circumstances - the victorious leader Agricola returning to Rome, and the tribes remaining belligerent - led the Romans to retreat south, though there was as yet no impenetrable frontier on the Forth-Clyde isthmus which they fortified, trade continuing with the tribes beyond.
The Emperor Hadrian, famed for his grandiose building schemes, visited Britain in AD120, and ordered that a defensive wall stretching from what we know at the North Sea to the Irish Sea be constructed. Hadrian's Wall was completed within just 6 years of starting, and it has left us with many magnificent remains to visit and study: for example Housesteads Fort in Northumberland, and Vindolanda, the supply fort to the south of the wall proper, again in Northumberland.
Just two decades later Emperor Antoninus Pius ordered the line of control to move north, establishing by AD142 the short lived frontier at the so-called Antonine Wall, parts of which remain for visitors to contemplate - for example in Falkirk, Bearsden, and Kirkintilloch. A struggle continued in Scotland, and in Northern England, eventually forcing the Romans back from the Antonine line, though a major fort at Trimontium (Newstead near Melrose) was maintained as an outpost until AD180.
Britain remained a symbolically significant holding for the Empire, almost the edge of the known world, and the high-tide of Rome's conquest of the Barbarians.
In the early third century the Emperor Septimius Severus himself campaigned in Britain, resisting the resurgent northern tribes from 208AD to his death from illness in York in 211. Severus had Hadrian's Wall improved; perhaps acknowledging that Rome's advance had ended. His actions paid dividends for Roman Britain, however, as the land remained largely free of problems with Barbarian risings and incursions damaging other outposts of the Empire.
On July 25 AD306 Constantius Chlorus, part of the Tetrarchy for a time ruling the divided Empire, like Severus a century before him died in York while in Britain campaigning to move the frontier north. His son Constantine I assumed his father's role, and swiftly grew his power base from Britain to Rome itself, becoming the first Christian Emperor. Roman Britain fared worse in the fourth century and into the fifth, however, with the Picts' War in AD367 and 368, and Germanic tribes and Irish invaders making devastating inroads into the country. The Romans probably created the problem with the Saxons and other German tribes by using them as auxiliary troops centuries earlier.
Rome was failing by the early fifth century, and Britain was abandoned by the Imperial Power in AD410, troops in huge numbers already sucked back by Rome to defend the heartland, though the last coins put into circulation by the occupiers were issued in 407, just prior to a Saxon invasion of serious long term intent in 408.
Just as Britain had assumed the trappings of Roman civilisation very soon after the invasion of AD43, so it quickly lost them. The elite had spoken Latin and had their sons educated by Latin speakers, sent to Rome even. Wine and Olive oil had become marks of authority and prestige. When Emperor Honorius cut the ties with Britain, these things faded rapidly away.
In spite of this, the Romans left a huge legacy to Britain. Writing did not disappear altogether, monks in the Christian Church introduced late in the Roman era kept the skill alive.
The very landscape and flora and fauna had been altered beyond reversion by the occupiers: the Roman snail was introduced as a source of food; sweet chestnuts likewise; rabbits and chickens were also brought by the Romans. One study has shown that 50 new food plants were introduced to Britain by the Romans, altering the diet forever.
Our Road system even to this day owes much to the Romans, who tended to drive straight lines from strategic point to strategic point, their origin in the Roman trading centre of London dictating the future economic and political development of the country even now. This piece is being written not 100 yards from Watling Street; the Fosse Way from Exeter to Lincoln can still be traced, as can Icknield Street from Gloucester to York. The Stanegate Road running just beneath Hadrian's Wall is still a wonder to travel on. With their roads the Romans also gave us milestones and the concept of miles, still used today to measure road distances here.
Our network of cities is another legacy of the Roman time here: not only London was created by them as a natural trading centre, but also Manchester (Mamucium), Lincoln (Lindum), York (Eboracum) and Bath (Aquae Sulis) were founded or hugely expanded by the Romans.
Sadly some of the more civilised aspects of the Roman occupation took many centuries to return to these shores. The Romans developed the natural springs at Bath to an impressively complex and luxurious centre. And their baths were not of course limited to such grand places: Hardknott Castle high in the Cumbrian hills has a bath house of some size, built for the Dalmatian troops who served there; Bearsden in Scotland has remains of a Roman bathhouse too. Roman sewage systems, where they were installed, were more advanced than anything else here until at least Victorian times.
In the 20th century vineyards began to be planted in England, but their Roman equivalents predated them by 1600 years and more: there have been major vineyard finds at Wollaston in Northamptonshire, where more than 30 acres were covered by vines, part of a concentration in the Nene Valley; though others existed in Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire, and very possibly elsewhere too.
The Romans enjoyed sports and entertainments as well as wine, and at Chester in Northern England and Ffestiniog in Gwynedd in West Wales, amphitheatres can be visited to transport you back in time.
Many of us have Roman blood in our veins, or the blood of those brought by them to work or fight in the country.
Perhaps most of all the Romans left us with a linguistic heritage. Though the structure of our language is not Latinate, the Roman vocabulary added to the later Germanic and Scandinavian borrowings combine to create the unique richness of the English tongue.
There are hundreds of Roman sites around England and Wales, and many too in the southern part of Scotland. To stand near the ruins of a Roman fort in Cardiff, Reculver in Kent, Wallsend in Northumberland, Cramond in Scotland or Burgh Castle in Suffolk, just a few of dozens dotted around the countryside, is to be afforded a glimpse of a glorious aspect of our past. There is an excellent reconstruction of such a fort too at Baginton near Coventry, known as The Lunt Fort.
More peaceable habitations can be found too, one of the great ones at Chedworth Roman Villa in Gloucestershire; or try Piddington Roman Villa and Museum in Northamptonshire.
Our Roman past can of course be explored in greater detail at one of our many museums specialising in the era: don‚t just try the great metropolitan museums - the tiny town of Ribchester in Lancashire has a fine collection, for example, as does the Roman Army Museum at Haltwhistle in Northumberland.
The Roman epoch in Britain lasted for 367 years: far longer than the Tudors and Stuarts combined: no wonder then that they left their imprint on this land in a multitude of ways.
More British History here
2 Responses to Roman Britain
From VickyyBubaaay on 14th February 2011
Fab, though wish it had more info. on the legacy left by the ROmans i.e. culterally and politicallyy xxxx
From charlotte on 1st February 2010
It was really interesting but it could have said what objects they left behind and what we do with them as opposed to what the romans did with them