The Romans in Britain: Trade and Travel

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A Brief History |
Minerals |
Trade and Travel |
Agriculture |
Towns and Villas |
The Army |
Forts and Fortresses

The Roman invasion led to a great increase in British trade with the outside world. They had traded internally using the barter method (as tribes had different coinage and some had no currency at all). After the invasion of Emperor Claudius in 43 AD, once Britain was becoming Romanised, trade increased massively. As all countries in the Empire used the same Roman currency, it was easier for the Britons to trade with other Roman countries than it had been before. Previously, the Britons had insisted on trade on a goods for goods basis rather than a goods for money basis. The Romans were also responsible for the famous Roman roads, which still criss-cross the country today and made trade a great deal faster.


Main Exports

Before the invasion, there was internal trade between the Celtic tribes of Britain, especially in metals and pottery. There was also external trade. Some of this was to the Roman world, and in later periods (after the invasion) to Scotland and Ireland. The Romans and Celts sent pottery, glass, bronze and iron objects and wine to Scotland. In return they received slaves, cattle, hides and furs, animals and possibly wool. The Romans increased production of minerals, particularly lead, but also silver, gold and tin. These were mainly purchased by the Empire rather than by private citizens. Also, British woollen products were considered the best in the Empire and were much sought after as fashionable goods.

Main Imports

Until the Britons learnt Roman techniques, and for some time after, one of the most imported products was pottery, whether cheap or high quality such as Samian ware. A great deal of wine was also imported, particularly from the Loire valley. Fine quality silverwork was imported as were high quality brass products and glass products. The glass came from Syria, Alexandria and later from the Rhineland and Gaul1.

Unknown foods also appeared once the road network was established. This made travel much faster and therefore it was possible for perishable foods such as figs to be imported, and British oysters were exported.

After the invasion, internal trade also increased, both locally and further afield. For example, crops from the agriculturally-superior South might be traded with other goods from the North or West.


Roman Roads

The famous Roman roads were one of the biggest innovations the conquest brought to the Britons. Previously, their 'roads' had been dirt tracks that had developed organically on the paths that people travelled. These roads wavered in their course, not taking the straightest route and had potholes and other hazards to injure the unsuspecting traveller or damage his cart. A countrywide, efficient network did not exist because this would have required engineering skill that the Britons did not possess, not to mention money and cooperation between the tribes, which was highly unlikely as they were so frequently at war with one another.

After the conquest in 43 AD, the Romans set about building roads between towns, linking them to regional capitals, legionary fortresses and harbours. They were often very long. For instance, Ermine Street went from York to London. Many roads today still follow the route of Roman roads, such as the A46, which follows part of the Fosse Way, a road running from Lincoln to Exeter.

Roman roads were always as straight as possible, except where they skirted around hills and other obstacles to avoid the difficulty of building over them, or a minor correction had to be made to the course of the road. The first stage of construction was to send out assistants to place markers along the approximate route of the road. Then surveyors would stand on a high point with a groma, an instrument that had plumb lines at either end, and would look through the plumb lines to ensure that they were in line with the markers both in front and behind him. If necessary, adjustments were made.

Once the line of the road was accurately marked out, teams began to build it. Originally the builders were the army. The new roads, once finished, made travelling times both for the army and for civilians much shorter. This was obviously of great benefit to trade, whether in Britain or on the continent – roads weren’t just built in the province of Britain but over the whole empire, again with the primary purpose of quick movement of troops. There were more than 53, 000 miles of road in the Empire.

Roman roads were built with great care. Roads often linked sites of about a day’s march apart (10-15 miles). While the Romans sometimes repaired or improved earlier roads, they usually built their own. If, for example, they wanted to build a 30 ft wide road, an area approximately 90 ft wide would be cleared. Along the length of the road, the edge of the cleared area would be marked by two parallel ditches. Then two more ditches would be dug in the centre of the cleared area, maybe 30ft apart, which would, mark the width of the actual road. An embankment called an agger was built between the two inner ditches. The actual composition of the roads varies because they were built using local materials, but generally, on top of the agger large local stones would be piled, packed with sand and gravel. The surface of the road was provided by compacted small stones or an early form of concrete. They would then be marked with milestones giving the distances and directions to the nearest towns.

As well as joining towns and forts, roads sometimes joined Roman posting stations known as mansions. These were almost like a hotel where Roman officials could stay overnight, although use had to be controlled by the issuing of travel warrants, as the service was very expensive to run. They had stables, kitchens, and bedrooms. The tired officials could rest and use a new horse in the morning. They were often used by messengers carrying the post! Sometimes taxes were stored there.

1Modern-day France.

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