Romans: Power & Politics

Britain was one of some 44 provinces which made up the Roman Empire at its height in the early 2nd century AD.

Wroxeter Roman City, Shropshire, one of Britain’s 17 ‘civitas’ capitals

Wroxeter Roman City, Shropshire, one of Britain’s 17 ‘civitas’ capitals


The province of Britannia was governed for the emperor by a legate, an ex-consul of the highest, senatorial rank who also commanded the armed forces in the island. He was supreme judge, hearing disputes involving Roman citizens and individuals of high social status. Another official, the procurator, handled the provincial finances.

The legate and procurator had little administrative back-up, and the detailed work of government and justice was devolved to local government in the cities.


This bust, found at Lullingstone Roman Villa, Kent, is thought to depict Publius Helvius Pertinax, who became governor of Britain in AD 185. He was forced to resign the following year, apparently because his harsh rule had made the legions hostile to him. Pertinax later became Roman emperor for three months in 193, before being assassinated by the Praetorian Guard.
© English Heritage (courtesy of the British Museum)


These civic units, run by loyal local aristocracies, were the basic instrument of Roman rule throughout the empire. Each was governed by a town council ( curia), led by elected magistrates. They were responsible for settling local disputes and collecting taxes from the population in the extensive surrounding territory, and passing them on to the state.

As long as they were outwardly Roman in their values and met the tax demands of Roman officials, the local aristocracies were left to get on with it.

Unsurprisingly, this sometimes meant that they had to make up a shortfall in the anticipated level of tax from their territory. The system was notoriously prone to abuse: the greed and corruption of tax collectors was a factor in the Boudiccan revolt of AD 60.

Tombstone depicting a Roman soldier trampling a barbarian

This tombstone of Flavinus, a cavalry officer, found near Corbridge and now at Hexham Abbey, near Hadrian’s Wall, dramatically illustrates the brutality of the Roman conquest of Britain.


There were 22 major towns in Britain. Seventeen of them were civitas capitals based on the tribal areas ( civitates) into which the Britons had been organised in the course of the conquest. Wroxeter (in Shropshire), for example, was known as civitas Viroconium Cornoviorum, ‘Viroconium, the city of the Cornovii’.

Four were coloniae (Colchester, Gloucester, Lincoln and York), originally citizen settlements for legionary veterans. The status of London, largest city of the province and seat of the governor, is unknown.

In the early empire there was a gulf between those privileged to hold Roman citizenship and the non-citizen majority ( peregrini). But citizenship gradually spread and in AD 212 it was granted to almost all free inhabitants of the empire – recognition that Rome was no longer a city but a world empire.

Roman eagle carving

This stone relief from Corbridge once depicted an eagle with a thunderbolt in its talons: today only a wing and part of the thunderbolt survive.


In the late empire the system of government and taxation changed drastically to meet the emergencies of the times. After AD 300 imperial government was much more authoritarian, with a large bureaucracy of officials where previously there had been very few.

Britain, in common with other provinces, was subdivided – so that in the 4th century it was a diocese (governed by a vicarius) consisting of four provinces, each with its own governor. London was now rivalled by provincial capitals at Cirencester, Lincoln and York. Their growth reflected both their political importance as seats of governors with their attendant officials, and the development of a self-sufficient economy in the province.


Tax collection was still organised through the cities but was now largely in kind, to enable supplies to be sent directly to the frontier army.

Town councillors were no longer motivated to compete for status by erecting public buildings and serving their town – the route to status and privilege was increasingly through connections with the imperial bureaucracy. Officials therefore poured their wealth not into public buildings, but into private country estates and villas, like those at North Leigh in Oxfordshire and Lullingstone in Kent.

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