Roman Britain

views updated May 23 2018

Roman Britain. Britain was the Roman province Britannia, ad 43–410. Although there had been increasing contact between Britain and the classical world during the late Iron Age, the first official Roman presence in Britain was that of Julius Caesar in 55–54 bc. In ad 43 Emperor Claudius invaded Britain on the pretext of dealing with troublesome tribal princes and druids. The island was subsequently occupied by the Romans who took advantage of Britain's mineral and agricultural wealth. The process of the incorporation of the province into the social and economic systems of the Roman empire is known as ‘romanization’, and the speed and manner with which the Britons became Romanized is currently the subject of academic debate.

Within a generation the British landscape had changed considerably. The Roman army built legionary fortresses, forts, camps, and roads, and assisted with the construction of buildings in towns. A number of important military installations, notably the legionary fortresses, were built close to pre-existing tribal centres (oppida) which then became the focus of important Romano-British towns, such as Colchester. The earliest phases of towns, dating to the mid-1st cent., reveal timber strip buildings—houses and shops—as well as stone public buildings such as Roman temples and administrative headquarters. The Romans also brought their particular style of architecture to the countryside in the form of villas. Some very large early villas are known, such as Eccles in Kent and Fishbourne in Sussex. The latter is often assumed to be the palace of the pro-Roman British king Cogidubnus, although this is impossible to prove.

Tacitus tells us that the Romans experienced a number of tribal revolts in the 1st cent. and used the long-established practice of combining treaties with decisive military action to quell unrest. Rome created three client kingdoms: the Iceni, the Brigantes, and the Atrebates. In ad 60 the Iceni rose up under the leadership of Boudicca, destroying the Roman towns of Colchester, London, and St Albans. The crushing of the Boudiccan revolt was followed by a period of expansion of the Roman province, including the subjugation of south Wales. Between ad 77 and 83 the new governor Agricola led a series of campaigns which enlarged the province significantly, taking in all Wales, Anglesey, northern England, and southern Scotland. Agricola was however recalled by the Emperor Domitian and subsequently Roman military attention was turned to the Danube; as a result Roman troops were withdrawn from Scotland. Rome thus lost its chance to conquer the whole of the island of Britain, and the ‘natural’ northern border of Roman Britain was apparently seen as the Tyne–Solway isthmus.

There has been much debate about the date of the introduction of a ‘true’ money economy into Roman Britain. It is now generally accepted that although the Roman troops brought their cash wages and purchasing power with them into Britain, they did not change the socially embedded economic structures of Britain overnight. However, by the late 1st/early 2nd cents. ad the imposition of taxation and the increasing availability of and desire for Roman consumer goods—such as imported fine ware pottery—led to a wide-scale use of coins as currency, even on the humbler farmsteads where the majority of the native population lived.

The 2nd cent. also saw important military and urban developments, particularly under the Emperor Hadrian. He visited Britain following military disturbances, and in ad 122 ordered the construction of Hadrian's Wall between the Tyne and the Solway. It was built ostensibly to separate the province from the barbarian north, but probably also acted as an effective customs barrier and a testament to the power of Rome. In ad 139–42 the Emperor Antoninus Pius abandoned Hadrian's Wall and constructed a new frontier defence system between the Forth and the Clyde—the Antonine Wall—but its use was short-lived and Hadrian's Wall was again the main northern frontier by ad 164.

Roman towns fell into one of three main types: coloniae, municipia, and civitates. The coloniae of Roman Britain were Colchester, Lincoln, Gloucester, York, and possibly London, and their inhabitants were Roman citizens. The only certain municipium was Verulamium (St Albans), a self-governing community with certain legal privileges. The civitates, towns of non-citizens, included the bulk of Britain's administrative centres, such as the tribal capitals of Silchester, Winchester, and Canterbury. Roman towns were grid-planned and their character created by a combination of official Roman involvement and acts of public munificence by wealthy locals desirous of increasing their chances of attaining public office. Towns usually contained temples, public baths, aqueducts, and an amphitheatre, most acquiring such a range of facilities by the mid-2nd cent.

On the evidence of the relative quantities of inscriptions associated with the construction of public buildings, it has been mooted that whereas towns flourished in 2nd-cent. Britain the 3rd cent. saw a decline. Such negative evidence must however be interpreted carefully. The 3rd cent. may well have been simply a period of consolidation after a long period of growth. During the 2nd and the 3rd cents. larger and more elaborate town houses appeared, probably inhabited by the indigenous urban élite. Urban earthworks of the 2nd and 3rd cents. were often adorned with elaborate stone gateways and external towers and represent a substantial investment of resources in the development of defences which would have been a symbol of civic pride.

By the 4th cent. the towns were dominated by stone-built ‘mansions’, and there were also profound changes in the countryside. Villas grew in size and became more enclosed, exemplified by ‘courtyard villas’ such as Chedworth. It was in the early 4th cent. that the majority of British villas were embellished with mosaics, an apparent investment in the agricultural basis of the province's wealth in this period.

The impression of the religious life of the province is one of complexity and harmony. Romans and incomers from other provinces introduced their own religious customs, such as the worship of Isis and Bacchus, without destroying indigenous Celtic beliefs. This religious integration was facilitated by fundamental similarities between Celtic and classical cults. The evidence for Christianity in Roman Britain reflects this amalgam of beliefs; the great 4th-cent. silver hoards from Mildenhall, Canterbury, Traprain Law, and Corbridge all combine pagan and Christian motifs.

Epigraphic and literary evidence suggests that the Britons adopted Latinized names (e.g. Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus) and that the élite (at least) spoke and wrote Latin. The indigenous Gaelic or ‘Celtic’ language of the Roman province Britannia also continued to be spoken; it survives today as Welsh and Cornish.

The end of Roman Britain followed barbarian raids and settlements in north-western Europe such as the ‘Picts’ War' of ad 367–8. In ad 401–2 troops were withdrawn from Britain by Stilicho to defend Italy, and in ad 408–9 Britain was attacked by Saxons. In ad 410 the Emperor Honorius told the cities of Britain to look to their own defence.

The year ad 410 does not however mark a sudden and dislocating end to Roman Britain. The reported accounts of contemporary figures such as St Patrick and St Germanus, coupled with archaeological evidence from sites such as the Roman town of Wroxeter, suggest strongly that Romanized life in Britain continued well into the 5th cent.

Eleanor Scott


Frere, S. , Britannia: A History of Roman Britain (3rd edn. 1987);
Millett, M. , Roman Britain (1995);
Potter, T. W., and and Johns, C. , Roman Britain (1992).

Roman Britain

views updated May 21 2018

Roman Britain Period of British history from the Roman invasion (ad 43) in the reign of Claudius I until c.410. The occupation included Wales but not Ireland nor most of Caledonia (Scotland). From c.130, Hadrian's Wall marked its northern frontier. Only the English lowlands were thoroughly Romanized, and Roman rule brought this region a period of prosperity unmatched for more than 1000 years. Britain was ruled as a province under Roman governors. Roman power disintegrated in the 3rd century. By 400, attacks from Ireland, Scotland, and the continental mainland were increasing and Roman troops were withdrawn to deal with enemies nearer home. In 410, Emperor Honorius warned the Britons to expect no further help. Local Romano-British kings held out for more than 100 years before the Anglo-Saxons overran lowland Britain.