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Roman Britain

Roman Britain


55 BC marked a dramatic change in the history of the island of Britain. The island was inhabited at the time by a collection of Celtic tribes, loosely connected culturally and ethnically but strongly independent of each other, perhaps joining together infrequently into small alliances but never as one nation. Before 55 BC, the island was regarded to the ‘civilised world’ as mysterious, wild, and almost mythical. Plutarch, Greek biographer and essayist, wrote that it “provided much dispute among many writers over whether its named and story had been made up, since it had not and did not now exist”. However, 55 BC was the year to end debate, as Caesar became the first Roman leader to launch an invasion of the island. Although Caesar’s invasions left no soldiers behind, and no territories occupied, the reach of the Roman empire had touched the island, and the attention of Rome would never be far away.

Hadrian's Wall, Walltown Crags, Martyn Wright, Flickr Creative Commons

Hadrian’s Wall, Walltown Crags, Martyn Wright, Flickr Creative Commons

Following the successful invasion of Britain by the Emperor Claudius in 43 AD, Rome steadily expanded her territories north, as far as Scotland, and into Wales. The general Agricola achieved some successes here, but unrest further south made true consolidation of the far north impossible. Therefore, a symbolic border was set at Hadrian’s Wall, although the Roman territory did encroach further north intermittently over the subsequent few centuries.

Control of Britain was always turbulent, and later in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD Britain became the perfect breeding ground for rebellions against Rome, and usurpers to the Emperor. With increased barbarian incursions occurring both in Britain and elsewhere within the Empire, there was a steady decline of Roman Britain. By the early 5th century AD, Roman imperial control of the province had been transferred to local municipalities and warlords, until the island began to fall gradually to Saxon rule. Nevertheless, distinct Roman cultural influences remained, including those on mythology, government and the economy. This Romano-British culture resisted Anglo-Saxon rule, and potentially provided a basis for the legend of King Arthur.

Invasions of Julius Caesar

Under Caesar’s governorship of Transalpine Gaul, which he had been allocated as one of three provinces to govern following his consulship in 59 BC, Roman control extended further north than ever before. At the time, Transalpine Gaul had consisted only of the area just beyond the Alps, in what is now South-East France. However, during the Gallic Wars Caesar had pressed north, fighting against the Belagae, a tribe who occupied modern Belgium. Following success here, and with little time remaining in the campaigning season, Caesar took the decision to make a small reconnaissance into Britain in 55 BC, in preparation for a later, and larger, punitive expedition. This was provoked by Briton aid being extended to Caesar’s Gallic enemies.

Caesar sent Gaius Volusenus to scout the coast, as even local traders were unable, or unwilling, to provide information about Britain. With an area near Dover chosen, Caesar rapidly mobilised two legions and launched an amphibious landing, leaving behind his cavalry to provide later reinforcement.  Fighting was fierce, with the Roman infantry, who were stalled by the deeper water, being attacked by Briton missiles and chariots. Whilst Caesar’s use of warships, which were novel and frightening to the Britons, as mobile batteries for his slingers and archers bought enough space for the infantry to group together on solid land, full pursuit of victory could not be achieved without the cavalry, who whose arrival was blocked by storms, which also destroyed many of Caesar’s ships. Acknowledging a potentially dire situation, Caesar withdrew to Gaul as soon as the weather allowed, demanding hostages to be sent to him there. Despite little tangible achievement, the landing in Britain earnt Caesar a thanksgiving (supplicatio) of twenty days in Rome.

Seven Wonders, Sandwich, Kent, Barry Marsh, Flickr Creative Commons

Seven Wonders, Sandwich, Kent, Barry Marsh, Flickr Creative Commons

A second invasion was planned for 52 BC, for which Caesar had newer, shallower shops designed, for easier disembarkation. Moreover, he gathered a much larger force of five legions, with two thousand cavalrymen, and a rear-guard of three legions, and two thousand cavalrymen, who were stationed in Gaul. Caesar’s landing between Deal and Sandwich in Kent was uncontested, and his men advanced immediately, achieving victory in a battle inland, probably on the River Stour.

Further advance was hindered by another storm, which caused great damage to the fleet. Having repaired his ships, Caesar marched again against the Briton forces, who were united under Cassievellaunus, one of the tribal chiefs. The Britons were defeated by heavy Roman infantry on two occasions, leading Cassievellaunus to resort to guerrilla tactics. These defeats caused several tribes, most notably the Trinobantes, to defect. Following another defeat at his stronghold, reckoned to be the hill fort at the Devil’s Dyke in Hertfordshire, Cassivellaunus was forced to sue for peace.

Whilst no Roman troops were retained in Britain to further Caesar’s interests, he did leave Commius, a Gallic chief who had been his loyal envoy to the Britons during the war and whom he made King of the Atrebates, the largest Briton tribe at the time, based in modern Hampshire.

The invasion of Claudius

Emperor Augustus had planned further invasions of Britain in 34, 27 and 25 BC, but circumstances had proved unfavourable, and instead a diplomatic relationship between Britain and the Roman empire followed. Augustus’ involvement is suggested in his Res Gestae¸ an inscribed list of his accomplishments, which note two individuals, an Artaxares of the Britons, and a Dumnobellaunus, also likely from Britain, as probable refugees who came to him. It is likely the Romans aimed to influence Britain by balancing the interests of the Atrebates and Cattuvelauni, the two major tribes In the South of England, so that neither became too powerful or dominant.

This diplomatic relationship changed in 43 AD when Emperor Claudius launched an invasion of Britain in support of Verica, the exiled King of the Atrebates. Aulus Plautius led the campaign for Claudius, likely with four legions – Legio II Augusta, Legio IX Hispana, Legio XIV Gemina, and Legio XX Valeria Victrix – totalling about 200,000 men, and a similar number of auxiliaries. This invasion consisted of two major battles, the first at a river crossing thought to be near Rochester, on the River Medway, and the second occurring at the Thames. The battle on the River Medway lasted for two days and was notable for the actions of Gnaeus Hosidius Geta who, after almost being captured, turned the battle decisively. For his work, he was awarded a triumph, an unusual honour for a man who had not yet been consul. At the second, on the Thames, the Romans either built or utilised an existing bridge successfully, despite incurring some losses when a Batavian (German tribe) auxiliary unit swam the river and further casualties in the marshes of Essex. Here, Plautius halted, sending messages for Claudius to join him. Upon arrival, Claudius led a victorious final assault upon the Cattuvelauni, capturing their capital Camulodunum (Colchester). With this victory, many kings surrendered. According to the inscriptions upon the arches of Claudius, which were commemoratively erected throughout the empire, eleven of the surrenders occurred without Roman losses.

Colchester Roman Ruins, Silent Penguin, Flickr Creative Commons

Colchester Roman Ruins, Silent Penguin, Flickr Creative Commons

The future emperor Vespasian was to lead the Legio II Augusta as far west as Exeter, fighting, according to the historian Suetonius, thirty battles. The Legio IX Hispania went north to Lincoln, establishing a northern border here, which loosely followed the Fosse Way, forming a lateral Roman road across Britain. Whilst several long, difficult and costly campaigns were launched in Wales, the more difficult terrain meant it was not until Vernaius’ and the Suetonius’ campaigns that victory was achieved in 60 AD. Most notorious was the massacre of the Druids on Anglesey, who dressed in all in black, allegedly to defend their alters of human sacrifice.


Further consolidation of Wales was prevented by the rebellion of Boudica. Her husband, Prasutagus, was king of the Iceni tribe, an independent ally of the Romans. However, upon his death the Romans annexed Iceni territory, flogging Boudica and raping her two daughters. This sparked a hatred and resentment that would provoke a revolt by the Iceni, supported by, amongst others, the Trinovantes tribe in 61/0 AD. Whilst the Roman governor, Suetonius, was in Wales, Boudica destroyed the Roman capital of Camulodunum (Colchester), before advancing onto Londinium (London) and Verulanium (St Albans). Boudica’s advance forced Seutonius to abandon both, following the defeat of a detachment of the Legio IX Hispania.

An estimated 70,000 – 80,000 soldiers were killed during this conflict, with Cassius Dio describing the slaughter by the Iceni: “they hung up naked the noblest and most distinguished women and then cut off their breasts and sewed them to their mouths, in order to make the victims appear to be eating them; afterwards they impaled the women on sharp skewers run lengthwise through the entire body.”

Boudica statue in London, Aldaron, Flickr Creative Commons

Boudica statue in London, Aldaron, Flickr Creative Commons

Boudica, the queen of the Iceni, was finally defeated by Suetonius in 61 AD, taking poison to avoid capture by the Romans. She has since become an iconic figure of Briton folk culture, with a status of her in her chariot, along with her two daughters, now standing by Westminster Bridge.


Northern Campaigns

Further campaigns extended Roman control northwards as far as Eburacum (York), before the governorship of Agricola. Finding that several previously defeated and subdued tribes had reclaimed independence, Agricola used military might to consolidate Roman rule throughout Britain, with campaigns in northern Wales and against the Brigantes of northern England consolidating previous territory. Agricola then moved further north, into Scotland. Archaeological remains show forts along the Gask Ridge, a line close to the Highland Ridge, which were built between 70 and 80 AD. How comprehensively Roman control was maintained before Agricola’s military interventions is unclear, but between 79 and 84 AD he consolidated power here, pushing increasingly far north with both an army and fleet, winning a significant battle at Mons Graupius, probably in Aberdeenshire.

Following Agricola’s recall to Rome in 84 AD, the Roman empire’s interest in the far north appears to have disappeared. The Gask Ridge was abandoned, with evidence of burnings of forts from around 105 AD indicating trouble from the northern tribes. Finally, in 117, an uprising in the North, which lasted for two years, resulted in the emperor Hadrian taking the decision to erect Hadrian’s Wall in 120. Following emperor Trajan’s great expansion of the Roman empire, especially to the East, his successor, Hadrian, adopted a policy of withdrawal and consolidation of Roman territory. The establishment of Hadrian’s Wall can be seen as evidence of this.

In 142, following northward expansion, Emperor Antoninus Pius commissioned a second, lesser-known, wall to be built built further north, slightly south of the Gask Ridge. However, this lasted for only two decades after revolts by the Brigantes, which forced the wall to be abandoned in 162 – 3.


Becoming part of the Roman Empire brought an influx of immigrants to Britain, and with them new culture, trade and religion. The most tangible indicator of Roman rule was the army, who, including their families and households, amounted to 125,000 people by the end of the 4th century, out of a total population of 3.6 million. The army camps became new focal points and urban centres, which is reflected in the etymology of many modern British cities, as the ending ‘-chester’ or ‘-cester’ comes from the Latin for camp, castra. Therefore, the development of urban centres was often derived from the security and economic benefits of close proximity to a Roman garrison.

Whilst the presence of the army was the most obvious indication of Roman power, it is perhaps the construction of Roman infrastructure that marked the most enduring legacy of Roman influence, as Britain became connected to an unprecedented degree by Roman roads. Additionally, within cities cultural landmarks of Roman life remain, with examples including the theatre at Verulanium, the amphitheatre at Caerleon, the palace at Fishbourne, and the baths at Aquae Sulis, now modern Bath.

Roman Fort Ruins in London, Dun.can, Flickr Creative Commons

Roman Fort Ruins in London, Dun.can, Flickr Creative Commons

The influences of the Roman empire can also be seen in trade and imports to Britain, such as pottery and wine from Gaul, preserved olives and olive oil from southern Spain and salted fish from the western Mediterranean and Brittany. To facilitate the transaction of imports, Roman coinage was used, and has been found in many excavations.

Furthermore, the reach of the Roman empire into Britain brought civic immigration, breaking down borders and the exclusivity of local cultures and identities. Whilst few Romans from the metropole emigrated to Britain, people from provinces within the empire did, such as the 5,500-string Sarmatian cavalry who were brought to Britain in 175. Such people would have had a strong presence, making centres such as Londinium ethnically diverse municipalities.

Exemplified in the site of Bath, Romanisation brought with it the merger of local Briton religions with Roman deities. ‘Aquae Sulis’ means the ‘Waters of Sulis’, an ancient Briton deity who was worshipped at the site. By constructing baths adjoining to a temple on the site, the Romans encouraged the worship of a goddess of their own, Minerva, and in doing so linked the two. The polytheistic pantheons of both cultures made religious assimilation far simpler for the Romans than in monotheistic cultures, such as Judaea. With civic immigration, foreign deities also became popular in Britain. An example is Mithras, adapted from Iranian Zoroastrian religion, whose worship involved secret, underground cavers used as temples. These are now preserved in the London Mithraeum.

Roman Baths, City of Bath, PapaPiper, Flickr Creative Commons

Roman Baths, City of Bath, PapaPiper, Flickr Creative Commons


Britain would later serve as an excellent base for potential usurpers to, and rebels from, the Roman empire. Due to its administration as a single province, and its separation from the main continent of the empire, Roman governors of Britain had a unique amount of autonomy. Furthermore, because of troubles posed by northern and western tribes in Britain, a large garrison, of three legions, was required to govern the island. The combination of relative administrative autonomy and the large military presence meant governors of Britain could pose a threat. Consequently, control over Britain was frequently wrought with difficulty.

The death of emperor Commodus in 192 provoked a civil war within the empire with multiple players, one of whom was Clodius Albinus, then governor of Britain. Whilst Septimius Severus successfully defeated Clodius Albinus, it highlighted the problem posed by Britain. Severus had witnessed the danger of such a large British garrison, and its presence was necessary due to barbarians “rebelling, over-running the land, taking loot and creating destruction” during his further campaigns in 208 – 209. As a result, Severus took the decision to split the province into Britannia Superior and Britannia Inferior.

This division proved successful for several decades, until further unrest within the Roman empire made it particularly vulnerable to rebellion. Therefore, in 259 the “Gallic empire” was established in Britain and parts of Gaul, after Postumus, the commander of the empire in the West, rebelled against emperor Gallienus. It was not until 274 that emperor Aurelian reunited the empire. Marcus Aurelius Probus, emperor from 276 to 282, spent most of his reign dealing with Britain, during which time Bosonus, a half-Briton, claimed himself emperor at Cologne and from 286 to 296 a Britannic empire was announced, led by Carausius.

So as to address the issue of British trouble, the province was transformed into a diocese under Diocletian’s reforms, to be headed by priests and praetorian prefects. It was subsequently split into four regions. Under this administration, roles were devolved, and governors stripped of military command, being allocated civic duties. However, this did not prevent Britain from being a breeding ground for rebellion. In 306, Constanine I used Britain as a springboard from which to successfully claim the throne of the Western empire, and later the usurpers Magnentius, in 350 – 353, and Magnus Maximus, in 383 – 388, both used the island as a successful base for rebellion.

Roman Withdrawal and Sub-Roman Britain

Unrest in Britain encouraged further incursions by the Saxons from Europe, Picts from Ireland and the Scots. A last punitive expedition was led in 399, but by 401 a withdrawal had been ordered, as troops were needed to defend against the threat of the king of the Visigoths, Alaric I, who would later sack Rome in 410. Nevertheless, a Romano-British culture continued to exist under the rule of warlords and local municipal administrations.

In 466, the ‘Groans of the Britons’ was issued, an appeal to Aetius and the Western empire for aid, and defeat at the Battle of Deorham (Durham) signalled the death-knell of the Roman empire’s influence, after which time the cities of Bath, Cirencester and Gloucester fell. This allowed Saxon influence to spread across the breadth of the island, to the Irish Sea.

Whilst our knowledge of the history of this period is limited, several traditional stories endure of the long struggle by the remaining Romano-British against the invading Saxons. One such tale is that of Vortigern, labelled by Bede as king of the Britons, who is alleged to have invited the Saxons, Angles and Jutes to form an allegiance against the Scots and Picts, only to be turned against by the Saxons, and is kingdom invaded. Another is the legend of Arthur, who is, in later sources, credited with victory at Mount Badon in 490, a victory which kept the Saxons at bay for several decades. Some historians believe this to have developed from a Welsh warlord who fought the Anglo-Saxons in the 5th century.

Nevertheless, the remaining Romano-British peoples were eventually occupied by the Angle and Saxon tribes, forced into Cornwall or Wales or chose to emigrate to Brittany or to Galicia, in northern Spain. Thus Roman rule over Britain ended and the majority of the island taken over by the new Saxon culture. However, Roman influence had still reigned for nearly four centuries and its place in British identity sealed even up until the modern day.

Main image: Roman Tower at Dover Castle, John K Thorne, Flickr Creative Commons

By Wilfred Sandwell