The Romans in Britain: A Brief History

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Britain experienced almost four hundred years under the control of the Roman Empire. It grew from Celtic nation full of tribes who were often at war with each other1 to a (mostly) peaceful Roman province, populated by Romans, Britons, and foreigners. At its height, the Roman Empire encompassed hundreds of thousands of square miles and millions of people. Britain was only a small part of this, but the Roman period brought many changes and was one of the most influential in the history of Britain.

The Expeditions of Caesar

The First Expedition

Julius Caesar was the first Roman to come in force to Britain. In the late summer of 55 BC, while he was Governor of Gaul (modern-day France), he led an exploratory expedition with two legions2 and an unspecified number of auxiliary troops3. He gave his reason for the expedition as to stop the Britons sending military help to the Gauls4. The Britons had assembled to meet them and the two sides joined battle on the beach. The Romans eventually overcame a determined British resistance and the Britons asked for peace.

However, many of the Roman ships were wrecked in a storm and the Britons took advantage of this to return to open hostilities, attacking a legion collecting corn and even the Roman camp. They were defeated and again asked for peace. They accepted Caesar’s terms and he left again after only a few weeks in Britain.

The Second Expedition

Caesar returned in 54 BC, possibly because the British had to a large extent violated the terms of their agreement with him. Many of the tribes had not sent the hostages he demanded and had stopped paying tribute. This time he brought a considerable force, of five legions and two thousand cavalry. This second expedition was much the same. Caesar defeated several tribes but again left after a short time5.

The Invasion

Caesar’s successors as rulers of Rome (the Emperors) generally left Britain alone until the time of Emperor Claudius. His hold on the loyalty of the army was not strong and he may have felt that to conquer somewhere was the best way to win their fealty (and glory for himself), and settled on Britain as an easy place to achieve this.

The Romans invaded in 43 AD under the command of General Aulus Plautius, an experienced general and politician. He came with four legions, the second, ninth, fourteenth, and twentieth. Many of the Celtic tribes surrendered and made peace with the Romans. This was a great help to them, as it meant that they didn’t have to fight all of the tribes. Others fought, however, such as the Catevellauni, who were defeated in battle at the River Medway. Their leader, Caratacus, survived and led revolts against the Romans for many years but was eventually defeated in Wales.

Once most of southeast England was under control, Claudius himself arrived, bringing reinforcements. He supposedly led the Romans to victory against the Catevellauni at Colchester before returning to Rome. The four legions split up under their own commanders, to conquer different parts of the country. For instance, the future Emperor Vespasian (founder of the Flavian dynasty) led the second legion along the south coast, capturing hill forts such as Maiden Castle as well as the Isle of Wight. Eventually, the border of Roman territory ran from the mouth of the River Severn to the mouth of the River Humber.

Consolidation of the Conquest

Under later governors advances were made into Wales (though it was not fully conquered until the later first century) and northern England. Britain also began to develop as a recognisably Roman province, with towns, roads, army bases and other features of Roman control. By this time the south of the country was pacified.

Boudicca’s Revolt

Boudicca was the Queen of the Iceni tribe in East Anglia. After the death of her husband Prasutagus, the Roman procurator6 seized his property, which should have gone to Boudicca and her daughters, and that of the Iceni nobility. When Boudicca protested, she was flogged and her daughters were raped.

Unsurprisingly, this did not go down well with Boudicca or the Iceni. In 60 AD, she led a rebellion of the Iceni and the neighbouring Trinovantes against the Romans. They were very successful at first, sacking and razing London, Colchester and St Albans, all major Roman towns by this point, and killing thousands of Romans and Romanised Britons while the Governor, Suetonius Paulinus, was away attacking Anglesey.

Paulinus, receiving news of the revolt, hurried back and marshalled his forces somewhere in the Midlands (possibly near Mancetter). He had about 10,000 men, while the Britons reportedly had 100,000. You might think that this was certain to be an overwhelming victory for the Britons. You’d be wrong. They were defeated by the disciplined Roman army and Boudicca died7.

The Conquest of Scotland

By 79 AD, most, if not all, of northern England was under Roman control, and the new governor, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, was able to turn his attention to Scotland. Over a period of five years (79 AD to 84 AD) he occupied southern Scotland and pushed further north, defeating the locals and building forts as he went. The most conclusive Roman victory was a major battle at a place called Mons Graupius8. He won the battle and began to advance even further, but he was recalled to Rome the same year. The lack of troops meant that the Romans could not continue to hold Scotland permanently.

Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall

When the Emperor Hadrian visited the province of Britain in 122 AD, he ordered the building of a wall right across the border between Roman England and 'barbarian' Scotland. This wall was built by the legionaries but manned by the auxiliaries. It was a large stone wall which dominated the landscape, with a whitewashed front, gates (for trade and collection of taxes) and forts dotted along its length, with much smaller forts every mile. For many years it provided an effective border.

However, in 139 AD, the Romans reoccupied southern Scotland and began the building of the Antonine Wall (named after the then Emperor Antonius Pius). This stretched across a narrow part of Scotland and was built of turf. It was occupied and abandoned several times over a number of years but eventually the frontier was re-established at Hadrian’s Wall.

The End of Roman Britain

After this, we have little information about events in Britain. By 401 AD, troops were withdrawn from Britain to deal with growing invasions to the rest of the Empire by the likes of the Visigoths. Britain herself was under attack from the Saxons, but when they appealed to Rome for military aid in 410 AD, the emperor told them to arrange their own defence. This was the end of the Roman period in Britain, and the Western Empire itself fell a few years later.

1Though this may well be a somewhat shortsighted view. 2In total, a legion consisted of about 5, 000 men, though some were non-combatants such as cooks and engineers.3'Back-up' troops raised from conquered territories.4There is some debate as to whether they were actually helping the Gauls or whether Caeasr was using this as a pretext, because the expedition would enable him to keep control of his army and thus, of power.5Historians disagree over whether he actually intended to conquer Britain.6The official in charge of monetary matters including taxes.7Contemporary accounts differ over whether her death was the result of an illness or whether she took poison.8Though no-one knows where it was, it is thought that the site may have been near the Moray Firth.

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