Britain was an unknown land across the sea when Julius Caesar invaded but failed to conquer it in 55–54 BC. For almost a century afterwards the ‘client’ kingdoms of Britain were kept quiet with diplomacy and gifts. But when anti-Roman rulers came to power, in AD 43 the emperor Claudius launched another invasion, intent on regime change and military glory.

Housesteads Roman Fort at sunrise

Housesteads Roman Fort at sunrise


This time the Romans enjoyed rapid military success. But gradual advance through southern England and Wales was halted in AD 60 by the rebellion of Boudicca, queen of the Iceni of East Anglia, incensed by the brutality of the conquest. The revolt was suppressed, but not before three recently founded Roman cities, Camulodunum (Colchester), Verulamium (St Albans) and Londinium (London), had been burned to the ground.

The advance resumed in AD 70 with the conquest of Wales and the north. The governor Agricola (AD 77–83) even succeeded in defeating the Scottish tribes at the Battle of Mons Graupius in AD 83.

Immediately after this victory, though, troops were pulled out of Britain to deal with invasions on the Danube frontier. Consequently the far north could not be held and the army gradually fell back to the Tyne–Solway isthmus. It was here that the emperor Hadrian, visiting Britain in AD 122, ordered the building of his famous wall.

The emperor Antoninus Pius tried to reoccupy Scotland and built the short-lived Antonine Wall (AD 140–60). He was ultimately unsuccessful, however, and Hadrian's Wall became the northern frontier of the province once more.

Hadrian addresses the British army

This rare coin belongs to a series dedicated to the armies of the frontier provinces. Beneath the depiction of the emperor Hadrian (r.AD 117–38) and soldiers are the Latin words EXERC[ITUS] BRITANNICUS: ‘army of Britain’.
© By kind permission of Geoffrey Cope (Petition Crown Collection)


By now the three legions (army units of up to 6,000 men) remaining in Britain had settled in permanent bases. Auxiliary troops were scattered in smaller forts, mostly across northern England and on Hadrian’s Wall.

In the pacified parts of the province cities had been founded as capitals for each of the tribal areas (the civitates) into which the Britons had been organised. A network of roads had developed and landowners in the south began to build Roman-style villas.

Life for most ordinary Britons, who were farmers in the countryside, was slow to change. By degrees, however, they came into contact with villas, towns and markets. Here they could exchange their produce for Roman-style goods and see people dressing and behaving in Roman ways.

Intaglio from Lullingstone Roman Villa

This cornelian intaglio (engraved design) depicting winged Victory signing a shield is one of the finest ever found in Britain. Originally part of a signet ring, it was found at Lullingstone Villa in Kent. It may have been the personal seal of Pertinax, governor of Britain in AD 185–6 and later, briefly, Roman emperor.


Shortly after AD 180 there was an invasion by tribes from what is now Scotland, who overran Hadrian’s Wall. Around this time most of the cities of Britain were enclosed within earthen defensive walls, which may have been linked to the invasion.

The Roman Empire was ruled from Britain for a brief period in AD 208–11 when the emperor Septimius Severus came to campaign north of Hadrian’s Wall. Severus divided Britain into two provinces, Britannia Superior (south) and Inferior (north), with capitals at London and York respectively. This prevented too many troops from being concentrated in the hands of a single governor who might have attempted to usurp power.

Aerial view of Hardknott Roman Fort in Cumbria

One of Britain’s most remote and dramatically sited Roman forts, Hardknott in Cumbria was established in the reign of Hadrian (AD 117–38). After it was abandoned in the early 3rd century, the fort was used as a shelter by travellers and passing patrols.


Alongside the cities, which acquired stone walls at this time, the 3rd century saw increased numbers of small market towns, villages and villas. Roman objects were now more common in even the poorest rural settlements.

There were still threats to the province. In the north, beyond Hadrian’s Wall, the Picts had emerged as a formidable enemy, while the building of the ‘Saxon Shore’ forts around the south-east coast towards the end of the 3rd century was in response to seaborne raids from northern Europe.


Britain was part of the separatist ‘Gallic empire’ from AD 260 until AD 273 and again broke away from Rome under the usurpers Carausius and Allectus (AD 286–96). Emperor Constantius I recaptured the province in AD 296, and when he died in AD 306 after a campaign against the Picts, his son Constantine the Great was proclaimed emperor in York.

After Constantine’s conversion in AD 312, Christianity was adopted more widely across the empire, including Britain. In the 4th century Britain was reorganised as a ‘diocese’ consisting of four provinces, with military forces under the command of the Dux Britanniarumthe Duke of the Britains. Until the 360s this was a golden age of agricultural prosperity and villa building, especially in the south-west.

But the later 4th century saw chronic insecurity and the great invasion known as the ‘barbarian conspiracy’ of AD 367. Confident new building had ceased by the 370s. Repeated attempts to usurp the empire by generals based in Britain (the last being Constantine III in AD 407) drained the diocese of troops. By AD 410 Britain had slipped out of Roman control, its inhabitants left to fend for themselves.

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