The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

The Roman Conquest and Occupation

Category: 00 Roman Britain

 It was the close relations of Britain to Gaul which first attracted the notice of the Romans. Julius Caesar was the first to carry the Roman banner to the British Isles. The Greeks called the island ‘Albion’, and the Romans said that this meant ‘whiteland’, because the first view for most visitors was the white cliffs near Dover. One of Caesar’s motives was to stop the Gauls from receiving British aid, a factor which had bothered him while he was conquering Gaul. In 55 BC he landed and engaged the Britons but soon withdrew because local opposition was strong. In the following year with an army of 25,000 he landed again and penetrated to where London now stands and defeated the Celtic tribesmen. He levied tribute upon them but again withdrew without making a permanent occupation.

It was not until AD 43, nearly a hundred years later, that the Roman Emperor Claudius sent an army to Britain which conquered the southern part of the island.

In the north and west the older social order remained much untouched, while in the south-eastern region of England, where the Romans built most of their towns and where the Roman type villas were concentrated, the slave-owning system developed. Otherwise the old way of life of the British Celts did not change very much.

A further important legacy of the Roman Empire was the network of military roads, Which the Romans according to their custom built throughout the occupied region. In some parts of the country these roads to this day form the basis of road communication. The routes of some of these roads, such as Watling Street from London to Chester; Icknield Way connecting London with Cirencester, Gloucester and Caerleon in South Wales, are still used today. The towns were fortified. Most British towns with names ending with ‘chester’ were, in Roman times, fortified camps. Many defensive walls were built to defend the country from the attacks of the barbarians living in the north and the west of the country. Most outstanding was the wall built on the orders of Emperor Hadrian, from Solway Firth to the Tyne river, which roughly divided England from Scotland and was to keep out the Picts.

The largest of the towns was called Londinium. It was on the river Thames, where London is today. It became the capital city.

The destruction of the Roman Empire was due to a unique combination of internal and external causes. The slave-owning system hampered the development of the productive forces. Unproductive slave labour led to the economic decline of the empire. The incessant revolts of the slaves weakened the empire too. They were coupled with the attacks of the barbarian tribes from outside. In the fifth century the barbarian Germanic tribes brought about the overthrow of the Roman Empire in Western Europe.

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