2: The Roman Period
Changes in Empire and at Home
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
In the year 43.A.D.an expedition was ordered against Britain
by the Emperor Claudius, who showed he meant business by sending his general, Aulus Plautius, and an army of 40,000 men. Only
three months after Plautius's troops landed on Britain's shores, the Emperor Claudius felt it was safe enough to visit his
new province. 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 were to remain 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 stubborn resistance of tribes in Wales meant that two out of three Roman legions
in Britain were stationed on its borders, at Chester and Caerwent.
Major defensive works further north attest to the fierceness
of the Pictish and Celtic tribes, Hadrian's Wall in particular reminds us of the need for a peaceful and stable frontier.
Built when Hadrian had abandoned his plan of world conquest, settling for a permanent frontier to "divide Rome from the barbarians,"
the seventy-two mile long wall connecting the Tyne to the Solway was built and rebuilt, garrisoned and re-garrisoned many
times, strengthened by stone-built forts as one mile intervals.
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, and his subjugation of eleven British tribes gave him a splendid triumph.
Vespasian was a legion commander in Britain before he became Emperor, but it was Agricola who gave us most notice of the heroic
struggle of the native Britons through his biographer Tacitus. From him, we get the unforgettable picture of the druids, "ranged
in order, with their hands uplifted, invoking the gods and pouring forth horrible imprecations." 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.
When Rome had to withdraw one of its legions from Britain,
the thirty-seven mile long Antonine Wall, connecting the Firths of Forth and Clyde, served temporarily as the northern frontier,
beyond which lay Caledonia.. The Caledonians, however 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. The Romans
abandoned the Antonine Wall, withdrawing south of the better-built, more easily defended barrier of Hadrian, but by the end
of the fourth century, the last remaining outposts in Caledonia were abandoned.
Further south, however, in what is now England, Roman life
prospered. Essentially urban, it was able to integrate the native tribes 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).
Chartered towns were governed to a large extent on that
of Rome. They were ruled by an ordo of 100 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 town, the inhabitants were referred to as peregrini , or non-citizens.
they were organized into local government areas known as civitates , largely based on pre-existing chiefdom boundaries. Canterbury
and Chelmsford were two of the civitas capitals.
In the countryside, away from the towns, with their metalled,
properly drained streets, their forums and other public buildings, bath houses, shops and amphitheatres, 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; their wealth came from the highly lucrative export of grain.