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What did the Romans ever do for Britain – apart from sanitation, medicine, education, wine, law, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, public health…
It is sometimes hard to believe that Britain was once part of the Roman world. The Romans conquered all of what is now England (though the extent of Roman rule in Cornwall is disputed) and Wales (sort of), but never conquered Ireland or Scotland – though their armies did penetrate as far north as Aberdeenshire. Back then, ‘Britannia’ was the northernmost civilised province of an enormous empire that extended across most of central and southern Europe to North Africa and modern day Iran.
It’s wrong to think of the Roman Empire as a sort of extended Italian state. For one thing, Italy as a nation state did not exist until 1870 and, for another, the concept of nationalism is a relatively modern one. Rome, the city, was the hub of a truly international empire, though ultimately an eastern capital was established in the Greek town of Byzantium – later renamed Constantinople – modern Istanbul. Rome was also an idea that had an almost mystical meaning to many of its citizens. It was not only an empire, but also a civilisation that could be thought of as a way of life, and which embraced people if they wanted to play by its rules, irrespective of their cultural or racial origins. It was undeniably hierarchical, and cruel, but people could – and did – rise and fall through its ranks.
The Romans were in Britain for a long time – the best part of 400 years – equivalent to the period from the Stuart kings of England to the present day. By the time Roman rule petered out in the early 5th century, Britain south of Hadrian’s Wall was a highly organised society with a strong urban base, used to the rule of law. Roman towns have ‘chester’ in their names – like Manchester, Winchester, Colchester, Bath and Chester – from the Latin castra meaning a camp or fortified place.
Although the ancient Romans knew about the island of Britain, and the tribes of Britain traded with mainland Europe, many in Rome believed that the land was beyond the limits of the known world. The first direct Roman contact is thought to have been when Julius Caesar attacked in 55 BC. This was probably a punitive expedition against tribes who had been aiding his enemies across the Channel in Gaul. On that occasion, he probably did not progress far beyond the boundaries of modern Kent, but Caesar returned the following year with thousands of troops in 800 ships. This time, he headed for the territory of the Catuvellauni north of the Thames, beat them and exacted a tribute. The Romans then left Britain alone for a hundred years, until 43 AD when the Emperor Claudius dispatched the General Aulus Plautius with around 40,000 troops to conquer Britain properly. The Romans set about their task with typically ruthless efficiency, dispatching armies north toward the Humber, north-west to the Trent and west through south-east and south-west England. Despite fierce resistance, within about 5 years the Romans had established themselves in southern and central England.
Of course, there was resistance, probably most famously from Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni, in around 60 AD. Brutal treatment, including the rape of Boudicca’s daughters, resulted in a furious uprising. The hated Roman colony at Colchester was burnt to the ground, its inhabitants massacred. London came next, followed by St Albans. The Roman Governor, Suetonius Paulinus, gathered his forces and, at an unknown site somewhere in the Midlands, the fate of Britain was decided. Though outnumbered, Roman discipline and weaponry prevailed and Britain continued as a province of the Empire. Boudicca committed suicide. By 80 AD, most of modern England and Wales had been pacified and the then Roman Governor, Agricola, decided to crush the wild tribes in what is now Scotland. He got as far as somewhere near Inverurie, fighting a pitched, victorious, battle against the Caledonians in c84 AD at a place history knows only as Mons Graupius.
Despite the briefly used Antonine Wall near the Clyde, traces of which remain, the border between Roman Britain and the warring tribes in the north was finally settled at Hadrian’s Wall, stretching more than 70 miles from west to east, between the Solway Firth on the Irish Sea to the River Tyne near the North Sea, with forts every 5 miles and watch-towers in between. South of that, the people of Britain learned to build towns in stone with public baths, shops, entertainment – and got used to Roman ways and law. The wealthy had country villas, or even palaces, with under floor heating and glass in the windows. Of course, most of the hard work was done by slaves, many of whom lived squalid, miserable lives – though some did gain their freedom.
From sometime in the 3rd century, the frontiers of Rome came under increasing threat from the tribes beyond the sea. Britain was raided by Germanic Saxons and Franks and a series of defensive forts was built from Norfolk to Hampshire, known as the Saxon Shore. However, in 367 AD, simultaneous attacks – whether by chance or organisation – took place: Scots and Attacotti (an elusive group of uncertain origin) swept east across the Irish Sea, Picts fell from the north upon the Wall and Saxons attacked the shore defences from the east. Deserters and escaped slaves joined in the anarchy, which lasted about a year until order was restored by the last of three generals, Theodosius, appointed by Rome to save the province.
Rural villas were particularly vulnerable to attack and there is grim evidence of this. There is further evidence that villas were gradually abandoned for safer life in towns. However, though Roman life went on, Roman rule in Britain was nearing its end. The Germanic tribes of Europe were on the move, themselves threatened by a violent Asiatic people, the Huns, who had appeared from the east. Early in the 5th century, Rome itself was under threat and troops were needed to preserve it; the Roman garrison in Britain departed. A last-ditch plea to the Emperor Honorius in 410 AD resulted in Britain being told to look to its own defence. Rome had its own problems; far away that same year, 410 AD, the imperial city itself fell to Alaric’s Goths.
Alas, the successors to the Romans in Britain lacked the skills, or desire, to build upon the civilisation they inherited. Moreover, they virtually eradicated the Romano-British way of life, such that the extent of the Roman legacy in these islands is debateable. Yet Roman towns lie beneath many modern British urban areas and their remains offer a tantalising glimpse of what must have been. Motorists and hikers may find themselves travelling on the same routes that legionaries tramped along almost two thousand years ago. Exotic mosaics lie on the floors of excavated villas, mainly in the south and west of England. The north and coastal areas offer the remains of forts, some of them very remote, and the ruins of Hadrian’s Wall provide spectacular scenery and walking as well as a dip into heritage and hints of the people that once lived and worked there. Roman artefacts, from treasure to everyday objects, can be found in museums the length of the land, from the British Museum to more humble collections in provincial towns.