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The river near Natland and Sedgewick, Cumbria
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History Scroll

The History Of England

by Peter Williams Ph.D


Chapter Two: Roman Britain.


The first Roman invasion of the lands we now call the British Isles took place in 55 B.C. under war leader Julius Caesar, who returned one year later, but these probings did not lead to any significant or permanent occupation. He had some interesting, if biased comments concerning the natives: "All the Britons," he wrote, "paint themselves with woad, which gives their skin a bluish color and makes them look very dreadful in battle." It was not until a hundred years later that permanent settlement of the grain-rich eastern territories began in earnest. In the year 43.A.D. an expedition was ordered by the Emperor Claudius, who showed he meant business by sending his general Plautius and an army of 40,000 men. Only three months after Plautius's troops landed on Britain's shores, Claudius felt it was safe enough to visit his new province. He wasn't wrong. Establishing their bases in what is now Kent, through a series of battles involving greater discipline, a great element of luck, and general lack of co-ordination between the leaders of the various Celtic tribes, the Romans subdued much of Britain in the short space of forty years. They remained for nearly 400 years. The great number of prosperous villas that have been excavated in the southeast and southwest testify to the rapidity by which Britain became Romanized, for they functioned as centers of a settled, peaceful and urban life. The highlands and moorlands of the northern and western regions, present-day Scotland and Wales, were not as easily settled, nor did the Romans particularly wish to settle in these agriculturally poorer, harsh landscapes. They remained the frontier -- areas where military garrisons were strategically placed to guard the extremities of the Empire. The resistance of tribes in Wales meant that two out of three Roman legions in Britain were stationed on its borders, at Chester, in the north; and Caerwent, in the south.


For Imperial Rome, the island of Britain was a western breadbasket. Caesar had taken armies there to punish those who were aiding the Gauls on the Continent in their fight to stay free of Roman influence. Claudius invaded to give himself prestige; his subjugation of eleven British tribes gave him a splendid triumph. Agricola gave us the most notice of the heroic struggle of the native Britons through his biographer Tacitus. Agricola also won the decisive victory of Mons Graupius in present-day Scotland in 84 A.D. over Calgacus "the swordsman," that carried Roman arms farther west and north than they had ever before ventured. They called their newly conquered northern territory Caledonia. The Caledonians were not easily contained; they were quick to master the arts of guerilla warfare against the scattered, home-sick Roman legionaries, including those under their ageing commander Severus. By the end of the fourth century the Romans had had enough; the last remaining Roman outposts in Caledonia were abandoned. Further south, however, in what is now England, Roman life prospered. The native tribes integrated into a town-based governmental system. Agricola succeeded greatly in his aims to accustom the Britons "to a life of peace and quiet by the provision of amenities." He consequently gave private encouragement and official assistance to the building of "temples, public squares and good houses." Many of these were built in former military garrisons that became the coloniae, the Roman chartered towns such as Colchester, Gloucester, Lincoln, and York (where Constantine was declared Emperor by his troops in 306 A.D.). Other towns, called municipia, included such foundations as St. Albans (Verulamium). The complex of baths and temples in the present-day city of Bath show only too well the splendor of much of Roman life in southern Britain. Chartered towns were governed to a large extent like Rome. They were ruled by an Ordo of l00 councillors (decurion) who had to be local residents and own a certain amount of property. The Ordo was run by two magistrates, rotated annually. They were responsible for collecting taxes, administering justice and undertaking public works.


Outside the chartered towns, the inhabitants were referred to as peregrini, or non-citizens, organized into local government areas known as civitates, largely based on pre-existing chiefdom boundaries. Canterbury and Chelmsford were two capitals. In the countryside, away from the towns, with their purposely built, properly drained streets, their forums and other public buildings, bath houses, amphitheaters, and shops were the great villas, such as are found at Bignor, Chedworth and Lullingstone. Many of these seem to have been occupied by native Britons who had acquired land and who had adopted Roman culture and customs. Developing out of the native and relatively crude farmsteads, the villas gradually added features such as stone walls, multiple rooms, hypocausts (heating systems), mosaics and bath houses. The third and fourth centuries saw a golden age of villa building that further increased their numbers of rooms and added a central courtyard. The elaborate surviving mosaics found in some of these villas show a detailed construction and intensity of labor that only the rich could have afforded; in most cases their wealth came from the highly lucrative export of grain. Roman society in Britain was highly classified. At the top were those people associated with the legions, the provincial administration, the government of towns and the wealthy traders and commercial classes who enjoyed legal privileges not generally accorded to the majority of the population. In 2l2 AD, the Emperor Caracalla extended citizenship to all free born inhabitants of the empire, but social and legal distinctions remained rigidly set between the upper rank of citizens known as honestiores and the masses, known as humiliores. At the lowest end of the scale were the slaves, many of whom were able to gain their freedom, and many of whom might occupy important governmental posts. Women were not allowed to hold any public office and had severely limited property rights. One of the greatest achievements of the Roman Empire was its system of roads, in Britain no less than elsewhere. When the legions arrived in Britain, a country with virtually no roads at all, their first task was to build a system to link not only their military headquarters, but also their isolated forts. Vital for trade, the roads were also of paramount importance in the speedy movement of troops, munitions and supplies from one strategic center to another. They also allowed the movement of agricultural products from farm to market. London was the chief administrative center of Britain, and from it, roads spread out to all parts of the country. They included Ermine Street, to Lincoln; Watling Street, first to Wroxeter, and then to Chester, in the northwest on the Welsh frontier; and the Fosse Way, the first frontier of the province of Britain, from Exeter to Lincoln. The Romans built their roads carefully and they built them well. They followed proper surveying, they took account of contours in the land, they avoided wherever possible the fen, bog and marsh so typical in much of the land, and they stayed clear of the impenetrable forests. They also utilized bridges, an innovation that the Romans introduced to Britain in place of the hazardous fords at sriver crossings. An advantage of good roads was that communications with all parts of the country could be effected. Roads carried the cursus publicus, or imperial post. The Antonine Itinerary has survived: a road book used by messengers that lists all the main routes in Britain, the principal towns and forts they passed through, and the distances between them has survived. The same information, in map form, is found in the Peutinger Table. It tells us that resting places called mansiones were placed at various intervals along the road to change horses and take lodgings. Despite these great advances in administering a foreign land, the Roman armies did not have it all their own way in their battles with the native tribesmen. Though it is true that some of the natives, in their inter-tribal squabbles, saw the Romans as deliverers, not conquerors, heroic and often prolonged resistance came from such leaders as Caratacus of the Ordovices, betrayed by the Queen of the Brigantes.


The revolt of Queen Boudicca (Boadicea) of the Iceni, nearly succeeded in driving the Romans out of Britain. Her people, incensed by their brutal treatment at the hands of Roman officials, burned Colchester, London, and St. Albans, destroying many armies ranged against them. It took a determined effort and thousands of fresh troops sent from Italy to reinforce Governor Suetonius Paulinus in A.D. 6l to defeat the British Queen, who took poison rather than submit. Outside the villas and fortified settlements, the great mass of the British people did not seem to have become Romanized. The influence of Roman thought survived in Britain only through the Church. Christianity had replaced the old Celtic gods by the close of the 4th Century, as the history of Pelagius and St. Patrick testify, but Romanization was not successful in other areas. Latin did not replace Brittonic as the language of the general population. The break up of Roman Britain began with the revolt of Magnus Maximus in A.D. 383. After living in Britain as military commander for twelve years, he had been hailed as Emperor by his troops. He began his campaigns to dethrone Gratian as Emperor in the West, taking a large part of the Roman garrison in Britain with him to the Continent, and though he succeeded Gratian, he was killed by the Emperor Thedosius in 388. The legions began to withdraw at the end of the fourth century. Those who stayed behind were to become the Romanized Britons who organized local defenses against the onslaught of the Saxon invaders. The famous letter of A.D.410 from the Emperor Honorius told the cities of Britain to look to their own defenses from that time on. As part of the east-coast defenses, a command had been established under the Count of the Saxon Shore, and a fleet had been organized to control the Channel and the North Sea. All this showed a tremendous effort to hold the outlying province of Britain, but eventually, it was decided to abandon the whole project. In any case, the communication from Honorius was a little late: the Saxon influence had already begun in earnest.


Next Chapter >> The Saxon Invasions


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This History of England was written by Peter Williams Ph.D. Peter is the author of some fantastic history books which we will soon be recommending on the site. Peter also has a website which is well worth a visit -

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