A Brief History of Roman Britain: A Land Transformed
For the Romans, ancient Britain was the final frontier. Situated at the edge of the known world at the time, it was a symbol for the ultimate expansion of the Roman Empire. Conquering it meant solidifying the immortal glory of Rome - for generations to come. And once Britain finally fell, a new and distinct region developed, where the native cultures mixed with the cultures of classic Mediterranean Europe. What kind of character did Roman Britain have? And what was the course of its history?
The New and Emerging Roman Britain
Prior to a full-scale Roman invasion of Britain, the relationship between the two was strained and marginal. There is no doubt that the tribes of Britannia knew about the Romans and their advanced technologies, and that some cultural diffusion occurred. But there was never a strong and all-encompassing peace between the two. An invasion always seemed like an inevitable result, especially when the rising and ambitious Julius Caesar began his merciless conquest of Celtic Gaul, which shared many cultural links with Britain. It was only a matter of time until Caesar, bolstered by his victories in Europe, would sail across the Channel and plant the banner of Rome upon Britain’s soil.
Eventually, this did happen. Caesar made his move in 55 BC, probing the ground with only a small force. Nothing came of it, but he did return in 54 BC, this time fully prepared for brutal conquest. His force included 2,000 cavalrymen and 628 ships - a force so large that the British tribes at once buckled. From that point on began a long period of Roman rule over the Britons, and their gradual cultural disappearance.
All in all, Roman occupation of Britain lasted from the invasion of Julius Caesar in 55 BC until the withdrawal of the Roman legions in the early 5th century AD. During this lengthy period, Britain was transformed from a collection of independent, warring tribes into a prosperous province of the Roman Empire, with a thriving economy and a sophisticated infrastructure. But such a transformation came at a price.
Even though the first stages of Roman invasion of Britain were long and arduous, by the end of the 1st century AD, their rule had been firmly established throughout most of the country. Ultimately, Britain was divided into four provinces: Britannia Superior (northern England and Wales), Britannia Inferior (southern England), Maxima Caesariensis (eastern England), and Flavia Caesariensis (southeast England). The capital of Roman Britain was Londinium (London). It is important to note that the Romans never sucessfully ventured into the region that is modern Scotland, and eventually erected a large system of fortifications - Hadrian’s Wall - which kept the warlike tribes in what is modern-day Scotland at bay.
Ancient Britons oppose the Roman landings. (Public Domain)
A New Era for the Tribes of Britannia
Under Roman rule, Britain became an important part of the entire Empire - a center of trade and commerce, with the Romans building many new ports and establishing a network of roads throughout the country. They recognized the wealth of resources and men that Britain possessed, and quickly transformed the nation to reap these rewards. New towns emerged, new cultural centers, and a complete new face of the region. The Roman army was there to keep everything in order, and was stationed throughout Britain. It was their presence that helped prevent uprisings - which were a constant threat.
Many new innovations appeared, but even so, life for the ordinary Britons was not better. The poor, common folk seldom thrived - they were made to pay exorbitant taxes, and were compelled to serve in the Roman army, often dying far from their hearths and homes. And with the strong class differences that the newcomers introduced, it was always a grim situation for the common people. Still, changes kept rolling in.
The Romans brought with them a new legal system, which replaced the aged tribal laws of the Britons. The Roman system of justice was based on a set of written laws and was administered by trained judges from throughout the Empire. Their system of justice was fairer and more consistent than the tribal laws it replaced. What is more, the incorporation of Britannia into the Empire provided an influx of new settlers, giving the realm a more diverse character, with ethnicities all across the world flocking to newly built cities. This gave Britain a bigger genetic diversity.
The Praetorians Relief from the Arch of Claudius, once part of the Arch of Claudius erected in 51 AD to commemorate the conquest of Britain. Louvre Lens, France. Source: CC BY-SA 2.0
New Faiths Ensued
Needless to say, religion was transformed as well. At first, Roman paganism mixed with that of the Britons - and thriving heathen cults were quickly established. But as time passed, Christianity took root in the world, eventually becoming the major religion of the Empire. It swiftly arrived in Britain, and it became the dominant religion of the country.
Many of the existing pagan temples and shrines were converted to Christian use, and new churches were built throughout the country. Native pagan faith was rapidly supplanted and violently suppressed, until it gradually disappeared altogether. Centuries of culture came to a rapid and sudden end. Christianity became the dominant religion after the fall of Roman Britain. Many of the Christian practices and beliefs that exist in Britain today can be traced back to this period.
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Traditions Gone and New Identity Unfolded
Under Roman rule, Britain's economy grew rapidly, fueled by the increased trade and commerce and an influx of new settlers. The Romans built many strategic ports and harbors throughout the country, such as at London, Colchester, and Richborough, which allowed for the import and export of goods that were never before traded out of Britain. In no time, Britannia proved to be a lucrative “enterprise” for the ever-expanding Roman Empire.
Also established was a sophisticated road network throughout Britain, expertly crafted by Roman artisans, which facilitated the rapid movement of goods and people. Never before was such an efficient network seen in this part of the world. It was maintained by the Roman army, which had a large workforce of laborers and engineers who could repair and maintain the roads as needed.
Roman British beaker, decorated in the barbotine technique with a chariot-racing scene. British Museum, London. (AgTigress/CC BY-SA 3.0)
One of the most significant economic developments of Roman Britain was the growth of the pottery industry. The Romans introduced new pottery-making techniques, which allowed for the production of large quantities of high quality pottery. This pottery was used to transport and store food and other goods, and it became an important export for Britain.
The Roman army also played a significant role in the economy of Roman Britain. Whether engaged in action or not, it required a vast array of supplies, from food and clothing to weapons and building materials. This demand for supplies created a thriving market for local, native producers, who supplied the army with everything from grain to iron. Of course, Britain was always a fertile and thriving land, and was a large producer of grain. The Romans also introduced new agricultural techniques to Britain, such as crop rotation and the use of manure as fertilizer. These new techniques allowed for more efficient and productive farming, which helped to support the growing population of the country. Britain was being transformed in every possible way.
A New World in the Making
Roman influence on the developing English (Brythonic) language was also significant. Latin was widely spoken in Roman Britain, and many modern English words have Latin roots. Sadly, native Briton languages were rapidly supplanted and quickly went out of use as the populace gained a new Romano-British identity. And as we know, when a people lose their language, they lose their identity too. Native tongues persisted only in isolated communities and in villages, and disappeared with the passing centuries. The English language also directly adopted many Latin words which were never known before, particularly in fields such as law, medicine, and religion.
This major Roman legacy also had an impact on the country's social structure. The Romans introduced a class system, with a small aristocracy at the top and the rest of the population below. This class system persisted in Britain for many centuries after the fall of Roman Britain and would shape its society for countless generations. However, this class system was largely “unfair”, with the poor folk always lacking rights and possibilities for thriving. The occupation of Britain was thus a thoroughly transformative period in the country's history, touching upon all of its aspects.
But even so, despite the many benefits that this occupation brought to Britain, there were also significant costs. The Roman army required a constant supply of food, which often led to the brutal exploitation of local farmers. What is more, the new system of taxation was also a burden on the local population, who had to pay heavy taxes to support the army and the administration. Needless to say, this was met with plenty of anger from the native Britons. Thus, the Roman occupation was not without its share of conflicts and rebellions. The most famous of these was a revolt led by Queen Boudica, which happened in 60 AD. Although her rebellion was ultimately unsuccessful, it demonstrated the fierce resistance that the native population had towards the Roman invaders, and the oppression that they suffered over the centuries.
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Veni, Vidi, Vici
The Roman occupation of Britain came to an end in the early 5th century AD. As the Roman Empire began to decline and crumble, the troops stationed in Britain were recalled to defend Rome itself. With the withdrawal of the Roman army, Britain was left vulnerable to attack from Germanic tribes such as the Saxons and the Angles. The native population was unable to defend itself, and the country descended into a period of instability and chaos. But even with the Romans gone, the changes that they introduced could not be reversed. Long gone were the days of Pagan Britons and numerous warring tribes. What was left was a new Brythonic character, modern and civilized - and all too weak. The Germanic invaders were quick to exploit the situation and begin a new wave of changes - from scratch.
The Battle of Hastings, fought between the Anglo Saxons and the Normans on British soil. (Public Domain)
Still, the legacy of the Roman occupation continued to be felt long after the withdrawal of the Roman army. The Romans had introduced new technologies, such as the use of mortar and concrete in building, which greatly improved the country's infrastructure. They also left behind a system of law and order, which became the basis for the legal systems of many European countries, as well as sophisticated networks of roads. Left behind were countless new towns, rich and prosperous, and ripe for the taking.
One Era Ends, and a New One Begins
In conclusion, the Roman occupation of Britain was a truly transformative period in the country's long history. All of the changes and innovations that they introduced had a lasting impact on British society. Although there were significant costs associated with the Roman occupation, the benefits that it brought to Britain were many and lasting. On the other hand, the benefits that it brought to Rome are a matter of debate. Still, the legacy of the Roman occupation can still be seen in many aspects of British society today, from the country's architecture to its language and culture.
Either way, we can only imagine the fate of Britain if the Romans decided never to conquer it. How would the small and warlike British tribes develop on their own? And if not Romans, who then would try and oust them from their ancient hearths? Perhaps the flow of history would be entirely different for the whole of the world, if the Romans never brought their culture across the channel. But, for many reasons, we can be glad they did.
Top image: A Roman legion. Source: mehaniq41 / Adobe Stock.
Frere, S. S. 1987. Britannia: A History of Roman Britain. Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Ireland, S. 2008. Roman Britain: A Sourcebook. Routledge.
Jones, M. E. 1998. The End of Roman Britain. Cornell University Press.