Roman Britain: History, Major Facts & Impact
Ever wonder why Roman generals and emperors sailed up to the west of the Atlantic and invaded the island of Britain? Or why were Roman frontier walls like Hadrian’s Wall and the Antoinine Wall constructed in the first place?
In the comprehensive article below World History Edu explores the history, major facts and impact of Rome’s conquest and its close to four-century occupation of Britain. The article also looks at what the lives of people living in Roman Britain were like, particularly non-members of the imperial elite – women and children and less important soldiers.
The Romans’ strong fascination with oceans
Like their predecessors the Greeks and Macedonians, the Romans had a very strong awe of the oceans that surrounded them.
Aside from the economic and political advantages that accrued from Rome’s conquests of places around the Mediterranean Sea, North Africa, Syria and other regions, the Romans were driven by the need to see what lay in the far regions of the world’s oceans.
By venturing into those places, they probably held the belief that they were in a way conquering Oceanus, a powerful Titan god of the oceans.
Alexander the Great of Macedon and his military expeditions had explored what laid to the east, and for many centuries, Rome’s conquests and expansions had taken them to the west of mainland Europe, into modern-day places like Spain and Portugal.
However, what seemed to be lacking was a military expedition northward – an expedition that would extend Rome’s reach beyond the Alps into places like Gaul (in present day France) and even beyond into the English Channel, a water body the Romans believed at the time was an ocean.
What was Britain like before the Roman invasion?
Before answering the question – why Rome invaded Britain – we must first look at what life was like in Britain prior to Rome’s conquest of the region.
The inhabitants of Britain were said to comprise several groups of sparsely populated Iron Age communities that were mainly farmers. They weren’t united, and they most likely engaged in sporadic warfare against each other. They did however share a lot of culture, language and religious beliefs as well as trade among themselves.
Speaking of culture, the close proximity of inhabitants of northern Gaul and people living in the south of Britain meant that there was slight similarity between the Britons and the Gauls.
And since the Romans interacted with some tribes from northern Gaul, the Roman Republic did have a slight idea of how Britons lived before their invasion of the region. However, when it came to the topography and the fine details of Britain’s culture, Romans did not have an inkling of what laid in store for them prior to the invasion.
With that said, the Romans considered Britain as a barbaric and very primitive group of tribes, who even drank milk. Safe to say the Romans found drinking of milk very revolting.
Why did Julius Caesar cross the English Channel?
The first significant Roman expedition into Britain came when Roman general and later dictator Julius Caesar crossed the English Channel in 55 BC and 54 BC. The Roman general was campaigning in Gaul (modern day Belgium and France) when he decided to see for himself the lands that lay beyond the Channel, which as stated in the introduction, the Romans believed at the time was an ocean.
Some historians state that Julius Caesar was hoping to get a chunk of the immense trade that existed between inhabitants of northern Gaul and southern Britons for centuries.
Others say that the reason why Julius Caesar crossed the English Channel had to do with the typical driving forces of any power-hungry tyrannical ruler of the ancient world – i.e. ego and lots of ego.
It’s also been stated that Caesar’s motivation to go beyond the Channel – a kind of natural border that separated mainland Europe from Britons – had to do with his goal to stop southern Britons from aiding Gaul during the Gallic Wars (58-50 BC).
In his first expedition to Britain, Caesar, perhaps battle weary from his campaigns in Gaul, did not try to conquer any part of Britain. He simply had an unpleasant interaction with island’s inhabitants during a reconnaissance mission.
However, in his second expedition, Caesar marched about five legions and made his way beyond the Thames River and interacted with a local ruler called Cassivellaunus, with whom he signed a peace accord that would require tributes to flow from Cassivellaunus to Rome.
Once those agreements were reached, Caesar returned to his campaigns in Gaul in mainland Europe. It’s said that Caesar did not build any garrison in Britain. He did however capture hostages from Britain.
The 100-year hiatus
When news reached Rome about Julius Caesar’s crossing of the English Channel, Romans were very excited about the prospects of conquering another territory, which Caesar had told the Roman Senate abounded with silver and many unimaginable riches.
For the remainder of Caesar’s life, the Roman general would not attempt to make it back to Britain as he had more pressing issues in Gaul – chief of those issues being a Gallic rebellion that was picking up steam due to poor harvests.
And even long after the death (i.e. assassination) of Julius Caesar (in 44 BC), the Republic and its successor, the Roman Empire, would not make it back to Britannia until around the middle of the first century AD, i.e. during the reign of Emperor Claudius (reign: 41-54 AD).
Invasion of Britain under Emperor Claudius
Rome’s first emperor Augustus and two of his immediate successors – Tiberius and Caligula – did take some bit of interest in Britain. However, they could not get themselves into invading Britain as they appeared to have their plates full with many issues across the nascent empire. Perhaps the Roman emperors were waiting to first have a strong presence in Gaul, which would then serve as a launching pad for an invasion of Britain.
In any case, it was not until the reign of Claudius – the fourth Roman emperor – that concrete preparations were made to spread Rome’s tentacles into Britain. On the back of military incursions into provinces like Thrace, Lycia, Judea, and Mauretania, Claudius arranged a Roman army that comprised four legions and a significant number of auxiliaries to cross the English Channel in 43. The military commander of the invasion was the Roman general and politician Aulus Plautius, who would later serve as the governor of Roman Britain province from 43 to 46.
It’s said that an aggrieved tribal leader in Britain by the name of Verica of the Atrebates had appealed to Rome to help him take back his throne. Claudius had bigger goals than just helping a minor Briton chief get back his throne. The Roman emperor was eyeing all the riches that Britain possessed – i.e. minerals and slaves. Claudius, like Caesar, also wanted to get rid off the Gallic rebels and allies that used Britain as their safe haven.
Above all, Claudius wanted to make a name for himself. Throughout the reign of his predecessor Caligula, his reputation had been dragged through the mud. The conquest of Britain seemed like the best way to get that the personal glory that he so much desired.
First landing at Richborough, General Plautius had a relatively successful invasion of the Catuvellauni (a Celtic tribe in southeastern Britain) and their allies, which prompted Emperor Claudius to visit the island. The emperor came with vital reinforcements and provisions that enabled Rome to intensify its conquest of the island. The Roman army crossed the Thames River and went on to secure victory at Camulodunum, which ended up becoming the first capital of the Roman province of Britannia.
Read More: List of Roman Governors of Britannia
Rome’s expansion and the resistance it faced in Britain
By the reign of Emperor Nero, Claudius’ successor, the Roman army had conquered large parts of Wales. Also places in the south of Trent were conquered. Typical of an invading Roman army, the Romans established client kingdoms in Britain to help them maintain control over the island. Examples of those client rulers were in Iceni at Norfolk and the Brigantes.
During the reign of Emperor Vespasian (reigned from 69 to 79), the fourth and last emperor of the Year of the Four Emperors, many powerful Briton rulers were defeated. The Romans would then set up cities, mostly close to the Channel, as part of efforts to Romanize the island. London (Londinium) was one of those cities that the Romans set up.
As it was common with any conquered territories by Rome, the threat of rebellion remained something that Rome was fully aware as they expand into many places in Britain. Some Briton rulers were simply not going to go down without a fierce fight. One such ruler was Caratacus, a leading member of the Catuvellauni tribe, who raised a strong resistance in Wales to halt Rome’s advances in 51.
Emperor Claudius and his Roman legions prevailed over Caratacus and his guerilla warfare tactics. The Briton was ultimately apprehended by the Roman army. Surprisingly, Claudius chose not to kill Caratacus, instead, the British general and his family were allowed to spend the rest of their days living on a land given to him by Rome.
Queen Boudica’s revolt against the Romans in Britain
Perhaps the fiercest rebellion against Rome’s invasion of Britain came from the famous Queen Boudica, the female ruler of the British Iceni tribe. After suffering unimaginably at the hands of the invading Roman army, Boudica led a powerful uprising against Rome’s occupation of Britain around 60 AD.
Prior to Boudica’s uprising, the Iceni tribe had a cordial relationship with the Romans. The tribe was one of the most important client kingdoms of Rome in Britain. That all changed upon the death of Boudica’s husband King Prasutagus. The Celtic ruler had bequeathed his kingdom to his surviving daughters and the Roman emperor. However, Prasutagus’ will was set aside by the Romans, who decided to take the entire kingdom for themselves. To make matters worse, Boudica and her children were humiliated, with her two daughters beaten and raped by the Romans.
As a result, Boudica rallied her Iceni tribe and a number of other British tribes, including the Trinovantes, into a fierce revolt against the Romans. Initially, her revolt proved very successful, as she and her army laid waste to Camulodunum. Boudica tore down Roman temples that were built in honor of Emperor Claudius. The Iceni queen also sacked the Roman commercial settlement of Londinium (present day London) and the Roman town of Verulamium (modern city of St Albans in Hertfordshire, England).
Tens of thousands of soldiers on both sides died during Queen Boudica’s uprising. Boudica had so much wind in her sail, so to speak, that then Roman Emperor Nero contemplated removing all Roman troops from Britain. However, the Roman troops in Britain, under the command of the young Roman governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, came roaring back.
Although with a numerical disadvantage, Seutonius was able to defeat the warrior queen Boudica, crushing the Iceni Revolt in 61 AD (at the Battle of Watling Street). It is said (according to the Roman historian Tacitus) Queen Boudica committed suicide in order to avoid being captured by the Romans. According to Roman historian Cassius Dio, however, Boudica succumbed to a terrible illness.
Rome’s victory over Queen Boudica and the revolt in effect bolstered Rome’s control of Roman Britain.
Agricola’s military expansion that went as far as Caledonia
Many people often think of the Roman conquest of Britain as event that lasted for short period of time. However, in reality, the invasion spanned for a very long period, from the time Caesar first interacted with Celtic chiefs to time when the Hadrian’s Wall and Antoinine Wall were built to protect the Roman province from the Caledonians (inhabitants of what is now Scotland).
Rome’s conquest of Britain went a few notches up during the command of Roman general and governor Gnaeus Julius Agricola. The general, who initially served in the army of Suetonius, is credited with wrapping up Rome’s conquest of Britain. Agricola military expansion took him as far as Caledonia. He was able to do this because the changes he made in the Roman army that were stationed in Britain.
Prior to Agricola, the Romans had no love for the land and only sought to pillage and act in a self-indulgent manner. There wasn’t much unity among the Romans either. Agricola’s governorship (from 77 to 85) changed all that by injecting a lot of discipline into the army. This helped bring down the army’s abuse of power in the province.
When the time came for him to face a coalition of Caledonian armies at the Battle of Mons Graupius, Agricola did not disappoint. He defeated the Caledonians who were led by Calgacus. The distinguishing feature between Agricola’s military conquests and that of his predecessors is that Agricola often tried to rebuild the areas that came under his control. He is praised for promoting urbanization in the conquered territories. In addition to those infrastructural projects, he encouraged the study of Latin in Britain.
Rome’s defensive fortifications in Britain
The territories to the north (i.e. Scotland) of Rome’s province in Britain were generally perceived by the Romans as bunch of barbaric tribes. Roman general Agricola was in the process of marching into those territories but for his abrupt recall back to Rome. Agricola’s successors would find it very difficult dealing with incursions from those tribes in the north.
Therefore, Rome, during the reign of Emperor Hadrian, decided to put up a massive defensive wall that would keep the so-called barbarians from the north away from Roman Britain. The Hadrian Wall, which is generally considered one of Emperor Hadrian greatest achievements, required upward in the region of 14,000 soldiers to stand guard. The wall also helped Rome monitor events that transpired in the region beyond its control.
With the Romanization process of Britain in full throttle, Rome could afford to augment its forces in Britain by recruiting from the local tribes in the region.
With the extension of Rome’s frontier slightly further north during the reign of Emperor Antonius Pius, a defensive wall was built between the Firth of Forth and the River Clyde around 142. The Antonine Wall, which measured about 60 km (or 37 mile), was tricky to man and defend. As a result, the Romans abandoned the wall in 163. The frontier then reversed to Hadrian’s Wall.
Roman Britain in the third century
As Roman Britain expanded so did the challenges of administration in the territory become very difficult. The empire also had to contend with problems in mainland Europe, especially in its Danubian provinces. Attention slightly moved away from Roman Britain to those areas.
As a result, the province of Britain did not have enough personnel to ward off the threat of foes like the Picts, a group of tribes that lived in what is today northern and eastern Scotland. The Picts overran Rome’s frontier at the Hadrian Wall and killed many Roman soldiers and officers, including the governor. Then-Roman emperor Commodus also had to deal with fierce insubordination from some Roman army officers in Britannia. Not even the efforts of future emperor Pertinax could bring the insubordination down in the late 2nd century AD.
Power struggles in Rome and fight for the emperorship also compounded Rome’s ability to effectively manage its province of Britain in the third century. Revolts became the order of the day.
Britannia Superior and Britannia Inferior
Upon becoming co-emperor in 286, Diocletian set about to restore order in Roman Britain. Diocletian introduced a number of reforms termed Diocletian reforms that saw Roman Britain structured into a diocese with administration in the hands of a deputy (vicarius) in Londinium. Thus Roman Britain was divided in two – Britannia Superior and Britannia Inferior. London (Londinium) and York (Eboracum) served as the administrative capitals of the two regions, respectively. The governor of the Roman Britain no longer wielded military command. That position was held by the Dux Britanniarum.
Also during the reign of Emperor Diocletian, the two regions were further divided, forming four regions.
Why did Rome abandon Roman Britain?
Beginning around the early part of the fourth century, Emperor Constantius and his son Constantine (later Constantine the Great) embarked upon campaigns against the Picts.
In the fourth century, Rome had to fight off attacks against its province of Britain from not just the Picts of Scotland, but also the Saxons who came from the east, and the Scots from Ireland. Many cities in the province were sacked until Count Theodosius, a senior military officer of Valentinian I, helped restore order in the province by defeating the invaders. Theodosius’ efforts helped Rome retake Hadrian’s Wall.
Continental problems would again cause Rome’s troops to be stretched too thin, allowing incursions by the barbarians into Britain to grow.
With the local governments in Britain unable to handle the incessant attacks from Saxon, Ireland and Scotland, local officials sent out a distress call to Western Roman statesman and general Aetius (c. 391-454). However, the general, who is sometimes referred to as “Last of the Romans”, never came to the aid of Roman Britain.
The Roman Empire, particularly the western part of the empire, was bedeviled by economic challenges at the start of the 5th century. It got to a time when infighting over the Roman emperorship had taken so much center stage in the affairs of Rome that governors weren’t even sent to Britain.
Britain had the herculean task of fending for itself with little to no support from Rome. Roman emperors had their own set of problems that they could not be bothered by Saxon incursions into Britain. This was evident when in a letter sent by Roman emperor Honorius (reign – 393-423), the individual cities in Roman Britain were ordered to fend for themselves.
Steadily, the Rome’s presence in Roman Britain began to evaporate. Local authorities and warlords began to fill the gap left behind by Rome, who at the time was grappling with the sack of Rome in 410 by Alaric and other internal turmoil.
With Rome being a shadow of its former self, attention began to shift to the eastern part of the empire, where Constantinople became the cultural and political hub of the Roman world. In few centuries that followed, Rome would lose its territories in not just Britain but also Spain and Gaul. The Saxon occupation of Lowland Britain in the early part of the 7th century forced many Britons to flee to Brittany (west of today’s France) and Ireland.
Camulodunum – the first capital of Roman Britain
Claudius’ reign also witnessed the establishment of the Roman colonia of Colonia Claudia Victricensis (Colonia Victricensis), which is the official name and the Latinized name of the Brythonic name. The Romans set up colony to serve as an outpost or city in order to secure the conquered territory. In the province of Britannia, the colony was established at Camulodunum, which is located in present day Colchester in Essex. Also a number of massive temples were built in honor of Emperor Claudius.
For his spectacular accomplishment, Emperor Claudius was given the highest state honor – a triumph – by the Roman Senate in 44 AD. Claudius also received the honorific title “Britannicus” for conquering Britain.
Camulodonum is said to have been built as a garrison for the Roman legions that first invaded Britain. The city was built on the site of the Brythonic-Celtic fortress. But for the few years just before and during the Iceni rebellion, Camulodunum appeared to have thrived until around the third century AD.
The impact of Rome’s invasion of Britain
Rome’s goal with any conquered territory was always to initiate the Romanization of the territory in order to prevent the occurrence of rebellions in those regions. Britain was no different.
Following the demise of Boudica, Rome proceeded to remove possible threats that could hamper its Romanization effort. The Druids, a group of influential Celtic scholars and priests who served as the repositories of Celtic culture and history, were one of the first groups to be targeted by the Romans in the late first century AD. For example, the Romans regarded the Druid religion as big threat.
Steadily, the use of violence and force paved way for a much softer approach during the Romanization process. In his tenure from 61 to 63 AD, Governor Publius Petronius Turpilianus, successor of Paulinus, began rebuilding towns that were earlier torched by the Romans. In London for example, several infrastructural projects sprang up, including a bridge over the River Thames.
The Romans hoped to recoup their investment from mining of the rich minerals buried in Britain, which including gold and iron. Britain’s two million or so population at the time was eyed for the vast revenue that could be collected in the form of taxes. Those political and economic reforms, gradual as they might have been, helped turn Britain into a thriving Roman province. The Romanization of Britain in effect brought some bit of stability into a region that was rife with inter-tribal conflicts and bloodshed.
However, the conquest of Britain and the Romanization of Britain inflicted untold suffering and pain on Britons. It’s been estimated that between 100 and 250 thousand Britons died during Rome’s occupation of Britain. To put into perspective that number – the total population of Britain as at the the end of the second century AD was in the region of 3 million. The Romans also raped, enslaved and imprisoned tens of thousands of Britons.
Interesting facts about Roman Britain
- Due to the large number of Roman troops that were stationed in Roman Britain, Roman emperors took to the habit of appointing a high-ranking and trusted official to the province to serve as governors or legates. This explains why emperors Vespasian, Perinax and Gordian I all served as governors in Roman Britain before they became emperors of Rome.
- The major imports into Roman Britain included wine, pottery, coin, and olive oil. Those items primarily came from Gaul, Rome’s Rhine provinces and Spain. Regarding exports, Roman Britain mainly exported minerals such as gold, lead, iron, silver and copper. The Britons also exported agricultural products to mainland Europe.
- The population of Rome’s Britain province rose from around 3 million people by the end of the second century to close to 4 million people by the close of the fourth century. At its zenith, the Roman province of Britannia had an army presence of more than hundred thousand.
- The city of Londinium was said to be one of the most ethnically diverse cities on earth during Rome’s occupation of Britain. In addition to the natives, Londinium had inhabitants from all over the empire, including places in the Middle East and North Africa.
- Whenever a troop withdrawal was necessary, the Romans sometimes destroyed their own forts and outposts in order to prevent the enemy from taking possession of those fortifications.