Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 01:15 pm
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 was a truly international civilisation encircling the Mediterranean, which the Romans called Mare Nostrum – our sea. The city of Rome, from which the Empire had grown, was its hub – though ultimately an eastern capital was established too, in the Greek town of Byzantium, later renamed Constantinople – modern Istanbul. Rome was also the soul of the Empire and had an almost mystical meaning to many of its citizens. Overall, the Roman Empire was a huge economic trading zone and way of life that embraced people if they wanted to play by its rules, irrespective of racial origins. It was undeniably hierarchical, and cruel. Perhaps 25%, maybe 30%, of its population were slaves, captured in war, bred in captivity, bought and sold; numbers varied according to time and place. But people could – and did – rise and fall through Rome’s ranks and, sometimes, slaves were freed.
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 used to Roman ways and laws. Though predominantly agrarian, it had a strong urban base, home to perhaps 10% of the population. Towns were centres of trade, politics, religion and administration and many modern British towns are built on Roman foundations. They often, but not always, have ‘chester’ in their names – like Manchester, Winchester, Colchester, Bath and Chester – from the Latin castra meaning a camp or fortified place. While most native Brits continued to live on the land, as they always had, the Romans introduced the people of Britain to brick and stone buildings, public baths, shops and theatres. The wealthy had country villas, or even palaces, with under floor heating, mosaics in the floor and glass in the windows. Of course, most of the hard work was done by the ubiquitous slaves, many of whom lived squalid, miserable lives.
Although the ancient Romans knew about the island of Britain before it became part of their Empire, and the tribes of Britain traded with mainland Europe, many Romans believed that the land was beyond the limits of the known world. The first direct Roman contact with Britain 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 (modern France and Belgium). On that occasion, he probably did not progress far beyond the boundaries of the modern county of Kent, but Caesar returned the following year with a fleet of 800 ships carrying thousands of troops. 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.
Probably the most famous resistance came from Boudicca (also known as Boudica or Boadicea), Queen of the Iceni, in around 60 or 61 AD. Brutal treatment by the Romans, 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. By this time, London was already a city of perhaps 10,000 citizens; the evidence of its destruction by Boudicca’s army is revealed whenever archaeologists uncover a red and black layer of burnt material in the City. The Roman Governor, Suetonius Paulinus, gathered his forces and, at an unknown site somewhere in the English Midlands, the fate of Britain was decided. Though outnumbered by the Iceni and their allies, Roman discipline and weaponry prevailed and Britain continued as a province of the Empire. Boudicca committed suicide. The Romans also seem to have exterminated the Druids – the high priests of the Celts – most notably by destroying what was possibly a sacred centre on the island of Anglesey. 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 restless tribes in the north was finally settled at Hadrian’s Wall, stretching more than 70 miles 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. The Emperor Hadrian ordered the building of the Wall in 120 AD and it was finished by about 128. Outbreaks of violence were relatively frequent on both sides of the Wall. The northern British experience of Rome was generally more military in nature than in the south.
From sometime in the 3rd century, the frontiers of Rome came under increasing threat from the tribes beyond its borders. Britain itself was raided by Germanic Saxons and Franks and a series of defensive forts was built along the coast from Norfolk to Hampshire, known as the Saxon Shore. However, in 367 AD, simultaneous attacks – whether by chance or deliberate organisation is not known – took place: Scots and Attacotti (an elusive group of uncertain origin) swept east across the Irish Sea, Picts fell upon the Wall from the north 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 came 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. To some, it must have seemed like the end of the world.
Alas, the successors to the Romans in Britain lacked the skills, or motivation, to maintain 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 (apart from rabbits) 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 path that legionaries tramped along; indeed, stretches of modern roads follow routes mapped out by Roman engineers to facilitate military traffic, trade and communications almost two thousand years ago. Exotic mosaics lie on the floors of excavated villas, mainly in the south and west of England. In the city of Bath, which the Romans called Aquae Sulis, are the spectacular remains of the elegant Roman bath complex. The north and coastal areas of Britain offer the remains of forts, some of them very remote, like the one at Hardknott Pass in Cumbria; and the ruins of Hadrian’s Wall provide spectacular scenery and walking as well as a dip into ancient heritage and fascinating glimpses into the lives 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 in London to more humble collections in provincial towns.