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
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
natural resources, such as slaves and skins, and especially metals: tin, lead,
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
trade routes were recalled across the Channel, and the city went into a decline
which lasted several centuries.
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
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
The ancient world marvelled at Minerva's great temple in
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
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
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
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
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
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
VII Trade and
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
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
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
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
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
(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.
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,
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),
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.
Religion of the Romano-Britons
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
Britannia: A History of Roman Britain
Hadrian's Wall and its People