Everything you wanted to know about Roman Britain – but were afraid to ask

In a recent podcast interview with Dr Miles Russell, we tackled the top questions about the four centuries of Roman rule in Britain…

Marble statue of a young Roman girl

How long were the Romans in Britain? How did they make their mark? And why did they leave? As part of our recent ‘Everything you need to know’ podcast series, we sat down with historian Dr Miles Russell to find out more about the popular historical period. Tackling questions submitted by our readers, and the top queries posed to the internet, Miles explored everything you ever wanted to know…

Listen to the full conversation on the HistoryExtra podcast

How long were the Romans in Britain? How did they make their mark? And why did they leave? As part of our recent ‘Everything you need to know’ podcast series, we sat down with historian Dr Miles Russell to find out more about the popular historical period. Tackling questions submitted by our readers, and the top queries posed to the internet, Miles explored everything you ever wanted to know…

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Listen to the full conversation on the HistoryExtra podcast


Q: How long were the Romans in Britain?

A: Britain was part of the Roman empire from AD43 to 410 so it functioned as part of the Roman empire for 367 years.

Q: What was the population of Britain when the Romans invaded?

A: Your guess is as good as mine. We haven’t excavated every single settlement, there’s no census data for the time. The best guess is somewhere between two and three million at the time the Romans arrived – and when you when you bear in mind that it’s around 66 million today, it gives you a sense of the landscape of Britain. Its settlements are far more dispersed; it’s a far more open landscape; it’s less organised, and less centralised than we’d expect today.

Q: Which Roman emperor first invaded Britain?

A: Emperor Claudius, who came to power in AD 41. He’s of the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, a person who had no great military experience and viewed the invasion of Britain as something ideal to bolster himself and the prestige of Rome. He brought an invasion in AD 43, with four legions coming across into Britain.

A statue of Emperor Claudius
Emperor Claudius viewed the invasion of Britain as an idea that would bolster the prestige of Rome. (Photo credit should read ROMAIN LAFABREGUE/AFP via Getty Images)

Julius Caesar was here in 55 and 54 BC, but he was a general at that stage, so the first emperor to invade is still Claudius in AD 43. Other emperors had thought about it before then, but he was the first to actually put it into practice. Julius Caesar really just came to Britain as a way of proving that he was the ‘superhero’ of Rome, that he could destroy and defeat any of the barbarians who were potentially menacing the Roman republic.

The very fact that he got troops on board a ship and across the English Channel was a first because, as far as the Romans were concerned at that stage, Britain was beyond the civilised world and on the other side of the ocean. So, Caesar’s invasion is more like an expedition; it’s done for propaganda reasons, it wasn’t intended as a full conquest.

Q: Did Claudius really bring elephants with him to Britain?

A: As far as we know, yes. Claudius wanted to make a big statement when it came to Britain. He liked to view himself perhaps as the new Hannibal. By bringing elephants to Britain, he’s doing something which people would think was impossible. They’re not bought as war machines; it’s all about making an entrance, showing off to the Britons who wouldn’t have seen elephants, and people could now start worshipping him as a god.

A Roman mosaic showing an elephant
By bringing elephants to Britain, Claudius was making an entrance. This mosaic is from modern-day Tunisia. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Q: Who was living in Britain before the Romans arrived?

It’s a whole collection of different tribes. The Roman histories of this time are quite fragmentary, but they give us some names. We know of the Durotriges in Dorset; the Cantiaci in Kent; we’ve got the Atrebates up in Berkshire. Their names are distinct and they’re different tribes, but beyond that it’s very difficult to then say what that means. What is the tribe? How is it organised? Do people in that tribe have different languages, different customs, different way of doing things?

We know there were certain ruling parties or aristocratic elites in Britain, and there were probably farmers and taxpayers, and other individuals being protected by them. But it’s a real patchwork of different tribes and there’s no central authority in Britain at all by the time the Romans arrived.

The major disadvantage of trying to understand Iron Age societies from the historical point of view is that they didn’t write things down. We’d love to get their perspective and what they thought about the Romans, but we don’t get that at all. We just get the very one-sided negative view of the Romans, trying to show the Britons as barbarian: they’re painted blue, they’ve got horse urine in their hair, and they marry their sisters, all that kind of information the Romans are telling us. It really demonises and stigmatises the enemy, but it’s not a very objective account about everyday life in Britain before they arrived.

A heritage project in Suffolk recreates an Iron Age hut house
A heritage project in Suffolk recreates an Iron Age hut house. The major disadvantage of trying to understand Iron Age societies from the historical point of view is that they didn’t write things down, says Dr Miles Russell. (Photo by: Geography Photos/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

 

Q: Why did the Romans leave Britain?

A: It’s a difficult question in the sense that, as far as we can see, the Romans didn’t leave voluntarily; they were ejected. When we look at the end of Roman Britain, which is traditionally seen to be in AD 410, the Roman administration was breaking down, there were barbarian tribes invading and lots of civil wars being enacted. The empire is basically tearing itself apart.

Britain, of course, is right on the margins of the empire, it’s essentially a peripheral interest. It produces money: there’s gold, there’s tin, there’s lead being dug up, and it’s contributing. But it’s a long way off, and it’s troublesome. It’s difficult to finance and at several stages Britain is electing its own leaders, and by AD 409, Britain is saying ‘enough, we do not want to be part of the Roman world anymore’. They’re effectively rejecting their Roman leaders. There’s a sense of isolation, that Britain wants to go it alone.

In 410 Emperor Honorius, in something often called the ‘Rescript of Honorius’, says, ‘fine, okay, do it your own way’. So, it’s more a case of the empire collapsing and Britain deciding to do its own thing, rather than the Romans actually deciding to leave.

 

Q: What did the Romans do for Britain?

A: Comparatively little. They exploited Britain beautifully, they managed to extract foodstuffs including grain to feed their armies, and mineral reserves such as lead mines, gold mines, iron mines. The Roman empire is a very exploitative one, so they are thinking of Britain in purely commercial terms.

Now you can argue that, yes, they created towns in southern Britain. We’ve got cities such as Winchester, Canterbury and Chichester, all Roman creations. But they weren’t very successful towns in the big scheme of things, and you could actually say at the end of Roman Britain things are pretty much the same as at the beginning. You’ve still got small tribal elites, you’ve got people fighting one another, you’ve got a disconnected and broken-down society. None of the Roman traditions, laws or language actually survives.

Floor mosaic, ruins of Chedworth Roman villa
Floor mosaic, ruins of Chedworth Roman villa in Gloucestershire, England. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

There are 367 years during which Britain is part of the Roman empire. But they don’t, for whatever reason, win the hearts and minds of the Britons; it’s not like we see in southern France or Spain, where the beginnings of the medieval state are based on the Roman predecessors.

In Britain, it begins and ends and actually, doesn’t have any significant impact on what follows. So, you could say that the answer to what the Romans did for Britain is not very much. But they did get a lot out of the relationship.

Q:  How much did the Romans change or influence Britain and can any of this still be seen today?

A: You could say, in terms of the physical infrastructure, that they created segments of roads, the basis of towns. You can obviously see mosaics and villas that have been excavated, so that their footprint is still here, but they didn’t really have any kind of impact on the societies that followed. So, the early British Saxon kingdoms that developed after the Romans had been and gone were completely unaffected by what went before, so the Romans’ legacy as such is more of an archaeological one. And it’s a legacy of memory rather than having any kind of impact on society. I don’t really think if the Romans hadn’t been to Britain, I’m sure things really wouldn’t have been that much different afterwards.

The Roman Baths, Bath, UK
The Romans’ legacy in Britain was more of an archaeological one. Pictured is the Roman Baths, Bath, UK. (Image by RF/Getty Images)

Architecturally and archaeologically, there are lots of places where you can still see stuff; we have got forts and towns and villas. But within a space of 10 or 20 years after the collapse of the administration in Britain, these buildings had been robbed of their stonework, they were no longer functioning, and those who took charge of Britain after the Romans didn’t base their society on the Roman one. It’s effectively quite well forgotten in the fifth and sixth centuries. Physically a lot remains, but socially there’s no real impact whatsoever.

Q: Are there any Roman roads left in Britain that can be seen today?

A: Before the arrival of motorways in Britain, most of our A-roads were based on the Roman layout. For instance, Stane Street, Ermine Street, the big Roman roads panning out of London, were followed in the medieval and the modern era. It’s only with the arrival of motorways that we had new roads and systems connecting up with new towns, causing the Roman network to fade away. Whenever you have nice straight sections of road on Ordnance Survey maps, those are the Roman originals, they’ve been overlaid. But significantly today, our network really isn’t based on the Roman system at all; it’s been largely forgotten.

Q: What written materials do we have from Roman Britain, and what do they say?

A: We’ve got lots of nice big inscriptions, of course, but they don’t really tell us very much because they are big, monumental propaganda statements that really just tell you about names of particular emperors, or when something was built.

As far as the actual population itself goes, we’ve got relatively little. Obviously, any Roman administrators in the country would have been literate, they would have been writing things down. But the circumstances of preservation are actually quite rare.

A Roman wood writing tablet from Vindolanda
A Roman wood writing tablet from Vindolanda, showing an invite to a birthday party. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)

At Vindolanda, just south of Hadrian’s Wall, you’ve got the so-called Vindolanda Tablets, which are sections of wooden and other tablets which survived because they were partially burnt and ended up in a bog. So we’ve got these texts – most of them are just lists, shopping lists and information about who’s on sentry duty – but every so often you get things like an invite between the wife of one of the fort commanders to another wife just down the road to invite her to a birthday party. There’s a soldier up there writing home for socks and underpants, and so you get that tiny little flash of light when you can see the real people. And that’s amazing, but it is so very rare.

At Bath, you’ve got a whole series of tablets which were written out to the goddess Sulis, basically saying ‘whoever stole my cloak, may you curse them, strike them down and fill their lungs with blood’ and all sorts of unpleasant things. And again, you can see real people and their real hopes and dreams and aspirations. But other than those two little areas, we know very little about what ordinary people are thinking, because their writings just haven’t survived.

Q: Did Romans bring the concept of the pub to Britain, as a place to meet friends and drink?

A: Yes. We know obviously that the Romans have got small bars and drinking establishments as you’re going into towns. There is evidence that that sort of thing was happening in Britain.

Of course, we don’t know what they were doing in the pre-Roman periods, and there’s lots of later literature about Celtic societies, about feasting and drinking, which then leads to fighting and killing. It seems to be that is there is also quite a lot of drinking in pre-Roman society. But there’s certainly evidence that the Romans had bars and small drinking establishments.

So, you could say that the invention of beer is in the Iron Age, if not earlier – but the invention of wine, and drinking bars and wine clubs comes in the Roman period.

Q: How much did the average Briton know about who was the emperor, and did power changes affect them at all?

A: I suspect the average person in the street would know very little. They would see names and faces changing on coins. In the third century, you’re getting a new emperor every six months to a year, due to civil infighting. They would certainly be aware that the economy was suffering from the civil war; they would see names and faces changing on coins, but they would have no real idea.

The army in the north would have a better idea as to who their leader was, and in some cases they were actually contributing to the change of command because we see a number of people in Britain actually being promoted to the rank of emperor, and then taking soldiers out to fight. So in the third and fourth centuries Britain is producing its own emperors.

But I think essentially the average person in a town, or in a villa in the countryside, would have absolutely no idea who was in charge of them, they were just aware that there was an emperor, but he was a very long way away. And I suppose that would have added to their god-like status. You’d have no idea what they looked like or how they sounded, they’re just a long way. You’re aware they’re there, but ultimately their name means nothing to you.

Q: How many people settled in Britain from Italy? And other than soldiers, what jobs did they have?

A: I’d love it if there was a full census list of the names and backgrounds of everybody. We have got the tombstone information, and sometimes we can tell that in the army, on the frontier in northern Britain, you’ve got a whole great cultural mix of people up there. There were Syrians, North Africans, and Iraqi boatmen.

The ruins of a watchtower on Hadrian's wall
There is evidence of a wide cultural mix of people at places such as Hadrian’s Wall. (Image by Getty)

I suspect in the south, the majority of administrators came from Italy, or the south of France or Spain, and probably quite a lot of the people living in villas are from other parts of the Roman empire as well. But the sad thing is that not everyone is recorded. So we ultimately don’t know.

We do know there’s a huge mix of people and when we do find tombstone evidence it’s often quite surprising to see how far people have come.

Q: What were the lives of women like in Roman Britain?

A: Again, it would be lovely if we knew. We have tombstones of some wealthy Romans, it’s only some of the wealthy that have survived to us, in a historical sense. You can see people sitting in all their finery and jewels, looking very nice at their dining table and so on.

As far as ordinary people, we’re really relying on skeletal evidence, and therefore you’re looking instead at evidence of how well-nourished people are, or what kind of traumas they’ve suffered in their life. And in terms of the general population, we are lacking as much for men as women. We need more skeletal information to be able to examine this, because the written text really just tells us about the generals, the kings, queens emperors.

Boudica stands on cart giving a speech
Boudica, queen of the British Iceni tribe, led an uprising against the occupying forces of the Roman Empire (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

So when we’re talking about women in Roman Britain, we know most about people like Boudica or Cartimandua, the queen of the Brigantes in the north, just because the Romans mentioned them.

Rome was a very patriarchal society, we know that it viewed Britain in rather low terms because men and women could hold office in Britain; women and men were of equal status, and the Romans thought that was very barbarian. They’ve got a very sort of demeaning look at the way of society within Britain. Because of this kind of equality, Boudica is strange to the Romans. That they have a female war leader who’s taking tribes into battle and organising campaigns, is seen by the Britons as perfectly normal. But the Romans find that deeply strange – it’s another thing that they add to their list of British weirdness.

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Miles Russell is a senior lecturer in prehistoric and Roman archaeology at Bournemouth University. He is co-author, with Stuart Laycock, of UnRoman Britain (out now in second edition paperback, 2019, History Press)