History explorer: Early Roman Britain

Charlotte Hodgman speaks to author and historian Pat Southern about the birth of Roman Britain, and visits seven associated places...

View towards Steel Rigg from Hadrian's Wall in Northumbria. (Photo by VisitBritain/Rod Edwards via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the November 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine 

 

This article was first published in the November 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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It is easy to assume that Britain on the eve of the Roman invasion was a remote island of warring tribes, unaware even of the existence of Rome and its people. Yet, according to Pat Southern, author of Roman Britain: A New History 55 BC–450 AD, the British Isles were familiar with Rome at the time of the invasion. “Britain had been the focus of an exploratory expedition by Julius Caesar in 55/54 BC,” says Southern. “What’s more, we have evidence that Britain’s tribes were already trading with Gaul for Roman goods such as wine and jewellery. The Romans were certainly no strangers to Britain.”

After Caesar’s two expeditions in 55 and 54 BC, the Romans settled in Britain in AD 43 under the orders of Emperor Claudius. Britain at the time was far from a united kingdom and instead comprised a number of tribes, some of which put up initial resistance to invading forces from Rome, with others yielding to Roman rule. Says Southern: “The Romans ‘bought off’ many of the tribes by cultivating their elite groups, fostering them through gifts and wealth so they would, in turn, keep their tribes under control. If you submitted and did what you were told the rewards could be great, but if you resisted, as many of the Welsh tribes did, you were eventually overcome.”

According to an inscription on a triumphal arch erected in Rome, 11 of Britain’s tribes surrendered to the invading forces soon after AD 43 and it seems the Romans were eventually able to pacify the south and south-east, with the exception of the Boudican revolt of AD 60/61, which prevented expansion for around ten years. Wales and the north took longer to subdue, while tribes in what is now Scotland never really fully submitted to Roman rule.

Roman forces gradually fanned out across the British Isles – setting up legionary fortresses in Lincoln, Wroxeter and Exeter – and eventually arrived at Chester, Caerleon and York. Throughout Britain, they took advantage of tribal animosities to subdue any potential resistance. “Tribal feelings were far stronger than any national sentiments,” says Southern, “and meant that Britons were unable to unite and drive back the Romans. By AD 70, the Romans had won over most of Britain’s tribes.

Yet, according to Southern, conditions in Britain under Roman rule were not as oppressive as one might imagine. “The Romans didn’t enforce their way of life on native Britons,” she says, “and the idea of soldiers from Rome shivering on Hadrian’s Wall is a misconception. Many serving in the Roman army had never seen Rome, as soldiers were recruited locally, as far as possible.”

Life in the legions was relatively comfortable for most, comments Southern; soldiers enjoyed three meals a day, a pension plan and a pay scheme that paid out three times a year. They also contributed to a burial club and had the option to pay into a savings account.

The legionaries were Roman citizens, while other non-Roman soldiers serving in the auxiliary units were awarded Roman citizenship after serving for 25 years. Roman citizenship was a set of legal privileges often granted to those living outside of Rome, and could be bestowed on individuals or whole communities. In theory, citizenship meant that an individual could travel to Rome to vote in elections, but was more a means of guaranteeing loyalty to the state and preventing rebellion.

Britons were allowed to worship as they wished, with the only real evidence of religious suppression being that of the druids. “It is unclear why the druids were targeted by the Romans,” says Southern. “One theory is that they held great power within the state and could unite the tribes, which obviously posed a threat to Roman rule. In general, though, religious tolerance was widespread, providing that religious practices were reconciled with state needs. The Romans would often equate local gods with their own and there is little evidence to suggest enforced conversion to the Roman form of worship.”

Housing was one area in which many Britons actively chose to adopt a Roman way of life. Excavations of many Roman villas have revealed Iron Age round houses underneath which, Southern believes, indicates that wealthy Britons were more than happy to adopt a ‘romanised’ way of life. What’s more, plough marks found beneath some villa sites, mainly in the south, indicate that these were wealthy farms modified in the Roman fashion.

“Elsewhere,” says Southern, “it seems that Britons lived much as they always had, particularly in the north, or mountainous areas where ‘romanisation’ was not as prominent. However, Roman villas have been found as far north as Durham, and Roman pottery and glass have been unearthed in roundhouses in North Yorkshire and beyond, signifying that Britons adopted what they wanted from the Romans, but continued to live as they had done, in roundhouses.”

‘Romanisation’ was left mainly to the initiative of a particular town or village. During times of peace, Roman soldiers were often called upon to assist locals in the building of a Roman town, but these towns were self-governed, and had their own senates. The wealthy were expected to contribute to the welfare of the town and it is probable that such projects did much for civic feeling during the early Roman period.

Southern concludes: “The Roman occupation of Britain spanned some 400 years and was a period of huge changes, much like the past 400 years have been for us. But life in Britain after the invasion was not the era of brutal suppression that many assume it was.

“The British Isles comprised a mix of people from all over the globe but, once the initial uprisings were quashed, it seems the Romans administered the land but allowed Britons to live as they always had, providing this did not interfere with affairs of state.”

Words: Charlotte Hodgman. Historical advisor: Pat Southern, author of Roman Britain: A New History 55 BC–450 AD (Amberley, 2011).

History explorer: seven places connected to early Roman Britain

 

1

Hadrian’s Wall (Northumberland, Cumbria and Tyne & Wear)

Where Emperor Hadrian built his famous frontier boundary

Hadrian’s Wall is probably the most famous monument left by the Romans in Britain and is one that still generates debate among historians. It was thought in the 19th century that it was a third-century structure, as Septimius Severus made substantial repairs to the wall during his reign. However, an inscribed stone from the wall, now on display in Newcastle Museum, dates the wall to the coming of Emperor Hadrian to Britain in AD 122.

“It was not only in Britain that Hadrian was building frontiers,” says Southern. “This was an imperial decision that can be seen across the Roman empire, including Germany where we have evidence of a similar frontier, albeit made of solid timber.”

On its completion in around AD 128, Hadrian’s Wall stretched 80 Roman miles (about 73 miles in modern-day terms), and marked the Roman boundary between England and Scotland. At some points the wall is tremendously thick – about 10 Roman feet, slightly smaller than the modern measure – but no one really knows how tall it was, and if it had a wall walk or crenellations. We do know that the wall had turrets, with a doorway, sited at every quarter mile. There was a fortlet, or milecastle, situated at every Roman mile, which would have housed around 80 men.

Seventeen larger forts are located at various points in the wall and all of these had access to the north. There were also designated crossing places and customs posts. Supervised by soldiers, these were intended to control what, and who, went across the wall.

South of Hadrian’s Wall is a huge ditch, known as a vallum, which is around 20 feet wide and 20 feet deep. The vallum runs the entire length of the wall, but no one knows for sure what its purpose was. “All the forts along the wall had fields and crops, so one theory for the vallum is that it stopped gangs getting close enough to steal animals and supplies”, says Southern. “Although the north was generally more restless than the south, the vallum and wall combined would have meant soldiers could ensure their safety from raids from the south while they kept an eye on the north.”

Parts of the wall can still be visited, as can many of its forts. Wallsend, east of Newcastle, is one of the most excavated of the wall’s forts and features a reconstructed Roman bathhouse, complete with under-floor heating. Chester’s fort is also open to the public and was once a cavalry fort built to guard the Roman bridge which carried Hadrian’s Wall and the military road over the river North Tyne. The site was occupied for more than three centuries and housed a garrison of around 500 troops. Today, visitors can still see the remains of the headquarters building with courtyard, hall and regimental shrine as well as the garrison’s bathhouse.

Elsewhere, Vindolanda – formerly a key military post on the northern frontier, although not belonging to Hadrian’s Wall – shows what it would have been like to have lived in a fort during the late third century. Among the items on display are letters from commanders’ wives, revealing what life would have been like around Roman forts for the women and children living there.

Visit hadrianswallcountry.co.uk

2

Wroxeter Roman City (Wroxeter, Shropshire)

Where a small settlement became a thriving Roman city

Founded in the first century AD, Wroxeter, or Viroconium as it was known, was once the fourth largest city in Roman Britain, almost the same size as Pompeii in Italy. The site was originally a military base after the Roman army first appeared in the region in around AD 47. A small garrison of about 500 men established a fort on the east side of the river Severn – inscriptions on tombstones of Roman soldiers buried at Wroxeter reveal that those serving at the Wroxeter fort came from France and Italy.

A small settlement developed near to the fortress while it was occupied, but a visit from Emperor Hadrian in AD 122 is thought to have increased its size substantially, providing it with one of the country’s largest civic centres, including an impressive forum, market place, temple and bathhouse.

Wroxeter’s large bath complex was completed in around AD 150, and was joined on the north side by a huge palaestra (exercise hall). Bathhouses during the early Roman period were an important social focus for any city, and were far more than merely places to get clean. Many boasted libraries of Greek and Latin texts – often endowed by a patron of the community – and such spaces were used as ‘leisure centres’ to relax, socialise and get fit.

Today, Wroxeter is one of the best-preserved examples of a Roman town in Britain, offering a greater understanding of how these communities operated and grew.

Visit www.english-heritage.org.uk

 

3

Portchester Castle (Portchester, Hampshire)

From where Roman forces defended the English Channel

Porchester Castle, known in Latin as Portus Adurni (port at the hill), was built in the late third/early fourth century. It formed part of a chain known as the Forts of the Saxon Shore – a defence system of nine forts situated along the south and east coast.

The site is located on the north shore of Portsmouth harbour, covering the entrance to the river and the coast, and is thought by some to have been a base from where the Roman fleet Classis Britannica defended the English Channel. It has seen many occupants and changes in its 1,700-year-history, not least the building of the Norman castle in one corner of the nine-acre site from 1086. The Roman part of the fort boasts walls of flint and limestone that stand around 20 feet high and are about 10 feet thick; they are said to be the most complete in northern Europe.

Visitors can also see the ditches dug by the Romans around most of the land-side of the castle.

Visit www.english-heritage.org.uk

4

Chedworth Roman Villa (Yanworth, Gloucestershire)

Where wealthy Romans enjoyed a life of luxury

Chedworth, discovered in 1864, was once one of the largest Roman villas in Britain and is an excellent example of a large country residence of the period. We don’t know who lived at Chedworth but recent theories suggest that the villa, which is thought to have been built in around AD 120, may have been used as a religious retreat. This idea is supported by the number of guest rooms uncovered at the site, as well as a shrine, and a stone altar dedicated to the Roman goddess of spring.

Although only Chedworth’s foundations remain, the villa demonstrates some of the ‘mod cons’ that could be enjoyed by wealthier members of Romano-British society. A wooden bench with a row of holes cut in it served as the building’s latrine, the flush was provided by running water carried through a stone water channel, while sponges on sticks stored in pots of salt water served as toilet paper! The dining room is divided into two parts: one used for eating and one for entertainment. Here, a number of elaborate mosaics still survive and there is also evidence of under-floor heating.

The villa also boasts two bathhouses, one hot and sauna-like and the other a cold plunge bath. The snails that roam the grounds are allegedly descended from the Roman snails once cooked and eaten as delicacies by the villa’s residents.

Visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk

5

Fishbourne Roman Palace (Chichester, West Sussex)

Where the beginnings of Roman influence in Britain can be seen

Discovered by accident in 1960, Fishbourne Roman Palace is unique among Roman villas in Britain. Extensive excavation of the site has revealed that it was initially built as a military base soon after the Roman invasion, its proximity to the sea making it ideal as a depot to support Roman campaigns in the south-west.

The palace was originally timber-framed but, in around AD 65–75, this structure was demolished in favour of a more elaborate stone building. This was built on four sides around a central garden – although today only parts of the north wing of the palace survive – and would have had around 100 rooms.

We don’t know for certain who resided at Fishbourne, but one theory is that the early phases of the palace were home to Tiberius Claudius Togidubnus, an existing tribal ruler who is thought to have assisted the Roman invasion and been richly rewarded for doing so.

The main entrance was situated in the eastern wing and would have been reached via a driveway through formal gardens. A bathhouse was situated in the south wing, while the west wing is believed to have housed the servants’ quarters. The palace was also sumptuously decorated with elaborate mosaics, a number of which remain; one of its most famous pieces is the near-complete second or third-century ‘Cupid on a Dolphin’, which contains 360,000 tesserae (tiles).

Some historians believe that Fishbourne Roman Palace was an administrative centre and it is certainly a site that demonstrates how Roman influence and way of life spread through Britain.

Visit www.sussexpast.co.uk

6

Chester (Cheshire)

Where Rome’s XXth Legion was based for some 200 years

Following the invasion, Roman forces set about subduing the south before expanding their influence northwards, so it wasn’t until between AD 71 and 79 that the Roman army arrived in Chester.

The city’s position on the river Dee, once an important trade route, made it an important strategic outpost for the Roman forces, and it soon became one of the army’s most important military bases.

A huge fortress was built at Chester in the AD 70s to house the XXth Legion (Valeria Victrix) as it marched further into northern England. Its size, which was some 20 per cent bigger than other Roman fortresses, has led some historians to speculate that it may have been intended as a base for a potential invasion of Ireland. The fortress, which probably held around 5,000–6,000 men, included a principia, a type of headquarters where most of the paperwork and day-to-day running of the legion would have been conducted.

“Roman soldiers were men with money,” says Southern, “so it is little surprise that civil settlements soon sprang up around the fortress offering services such as taverns and brothels to the soldiers.”

Chester is also home to Britain’s largest amphitheatre – more evidence of the city’s importance – which would have been used for military training and entertainment purposes. The stone circuit visible today probably belonged to a later rebuild of the structure, and it is possible that the upper seating was of timber, as suggested for the amphitheatre at Caerleon (see below).

Little remains of Roman Chester, but visitors can walk around the city’s medieval walls, which follow the lines of three of the original Roman walls, while the amphitheatre is situated on the edge of the city.

Go to www.visitchester.com

7

Caerleon Roman fortress (near Newport, Gwent)

Where Emperor Claudius built a prominent legionary base

Caerleon Roman fortress, or Isca as it was known in Roman times, was a legionary base and one of Britain’s three permanent Roman legionary fortresses, along with Chester and York.

The fort was home to the Second Legion Augusta, one of the four Roman legions that took part in the invasion of Britain. Initially based in south-west England, the legion built a camp at Exeter, named Isca, but was subsequently sent to Wales to deal with a problematic tribe known as the Silures. In AD 75 the first barracks were built at Caerleon, which, again, was named Isca. Sections of the Roman fortress wall still survive, as does Caerleon’s amphitheatre, which stands just outside the walled area. The amphitheatre could once seat up to 6,000 – an entire legion – and is still used for entertainment purposes.

Caerleon also boasts the remains of Roman barrack buildings, which once housed 80 men (known as a century). The larger rooms were for the centurion while the legionaries shared quarters with eight men to a room. Recent excavations have revealed a 2,000-year-old port at Caerleon along with buried structures, which may once have served as market places, administrative buildings, bathhouses and temples, revealing a suburb within the fortress.

Caerwent, a village located about ten miles outside Caerleon, is a great example of what a small provincial Roman market town would have looked like. The Roman walls remain to a considerable height on the south side, complete with towers, while an inscription on display in the parish church confirms that the Romans founded Caerwent in AD 75.

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Visit www.caerleon.net