The History of England

from Celts through 20th century


Category: 00 Roman Britain

Britainwas a Roman province from the first century A. D. until the beginning of the fifth century A. D. The area occupied covered south, east and midland Britain and stretched north to the lowlands of Scotland, west over the whole of Wales, but did not include Devon and Cornwall. Most of the evidence for reconstructing the life of Roman Britain consists of objects in museums, and of buildings and monuments still to be seen. But asBritainwas part of theRoman Empirewe can draw for the first time in Brit­ish History on written history as well.

The account of Julius Ceasar (102—44 В. C.) of his campaigns in Gaul (France) included that of his attempted invasions ofBritain, and in this book we can read the earliest descriptions of the people of the country. Tacitus (A. D. 55—117) in the biography of his father-in-law, Agricola, tells us of the campaigns to extend the Roman frontiers inWalesandScotland. Meanwhile, inRome, great writers were describing the kind of life these generals brought to Iron AgeBritain.

From all this material, both archaeological and literary, it is not difficult to build up a picture of Roman Britain.

The conquest was achieved by force of arms and until the end the Romans had to keep armies on the frontiers especially in the north. We shall find therefore that in the north ofBritainand inWalesthe relics are mostly military. It was mainly south and east of a line drawn from the Humber to theSevernestuary that a peaceful Romano-British civilisation was built up in the towns and in the villas or country estates.


Julius Caesar invadedBritainin 55 В. C. and 54 В. C. but he was not able to conquer the country. He landed inKentbut on both occasions his ships were badly damaged by storms. The Iron Age Britons whom he encountered were splendid fighters, and even the highly trained Roman armies were unnerved by their method of attack.

In A. D. 43 the Romans under the Emperor Claudius were able to invadeBritainand make it a province of the Empire. There are the remains of this Claudian invasion in the small eastern area that he subdued.

Britainwas conquered by four legions composed of Roman citizens and by cohorts of auxiliaries drawn from other provinces. Each legion normally consisted of 5600 heavily- armed infantry-men in the cohorts; the auxiliaries were divided into lighter armed infantry and cavalry.

AtColchester, one of the first places to be occupied, there are some interesting military relics. A tombstone gives us a portrait of a centurion, who was an officer com­manding a hundred men in a legion. His heavy woollen cloak, which he would have used as a blanket at night, hangs from his left shoulder, and round his waist is a fine ornamen­tal belt. He is armed with a dagger and a sword. Most Roman collections have parts of soldiers’ weapons such as swords and daggers.Colchestermuseum has also a tombstone bear­ing the portrait of a cavalry-man on horseback.

Roman soldiers carried not only weapons but also rations, cooking utensils, entrenching tools and stakes for making camp. Each evening when they halted for the night they made a rectangular earth rampart.

Some of the earth ramparts of Agricola’s marching camps which were built foi the invasion ofScotland, still remain.

As the conquest proceded, roads were built to enable the army to get from one place to another quickly and thus to keep the country under control. Roman roads can be recognised because they run straight from point to point on low ground only curving to avoid ravines. In the south they are usually made of compacted chalk, gravel or small stones but in the north they are sometimes paved. NearManchesterthere is a road sixteen feet wide with a paved surface and central sunk channel held between curbstones.

The culmination of Agricola’s great northern campaigns (A. D. 78—83) was the battle of Mons Graupius. Agricola’s victory at Mons Graupius in A. D. 83 could not be main­tained and by A. D. 120 the defensive frontier had to be drawn up further south. The line was drawn between theTyneand the Solway, and the Emperor Hadrian came him­self to see the fortifications.Hadrian’s wallwas finally about fifteen feet high and seven and a half to eight feet wide patrolled by sentries who lived in fortlets and turrets and operated signal stations. The garrison defending the frontier lived in forts placed at intervals along the wall.

Twenty years later the Romans made an advance and built a new wall across the Forth-Clyde valley.

Throughout the occupation the Romans had to defend their northern frontier against the Piets but by the third and fourth centuries they had also to secure the south and east coasts against Saxon raiders from the Continent. It was then that they built the fine series of Saxon shore forts such as Richborough, Pevensey and Porchester whose walls still stand. The stone walls at Richborough are still in some places twenty five feet in height and there are remains of circular bastions at each corner.

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