An Introduction to Roman Britain (AD 43–C.410)
To the Roman world, Britain was an unknown and mysterious land across the sea when Julius Caesar invaded in 55–54 BC. Despite inflicting defeats on the British, Caesar soon made peace with his opponents and returned to Gaul.
For almost a century afterwards the kingdoms of Britain were kept quiet with gifts and diplomacy. But when anti-Roman rulers came to power, the emperor Claudius – in need of a boost to his domestic prestige – launched a full-scale invasion in AD 43, intent on regime change and military glory.
Invasion and Conquest
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. As a result, 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.
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 along 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.
DIVISION OF BRITAIN
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.
SAXON SHORE FORTS
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 to the south there was a growing threat from seaborne raiders. The so-called Saxon Shore forts around the south-east coast were built towards the end of the 3rd century in response, such as at Caister Roman Fort and Reculver.
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.
The end of Roman rule
After Constantine’s conversion in AD 312, Christianity was adopted more widely across the empire, including in Britain. In the 4th century Britain was reorganised as a ‘diocese’ consisting of four provinces, with military forces under the command of the Dux Britanniarum – the Duke of the Britains. The next 50 years or so were 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.
The Corbridge Lion and Changing Beliefs in Roman Britain
Lions were commonly used as sacred symbols in Roman memorials, but the Corbridge lion is different. Find out what this extraordinary sculpture tells us about changing beliefs in Roman Britain.
Uncovering the Secrets of Hadrian's Wall
The remains of Birdoswald Roman Fort have revealed more about Hadrian’s Wall than any other site along the Wall.
Mithras and Eastern Religion on Hadrian’s Wall
A remarkable sculpture of Mithras found on Hadrian’s Wall reveals religious and military connections with distant parts of the Roman Empire.
The Mysterious Absence of Stables at Roman Cavalry Forts
How recent archaeological excavations on Hadrian’s Wall have revealed why it has always been so difficult to discover where Roman soldiers kept their horses.
Domestic Violence on Hadrian's Wall
A pair of skeletons at Housesteads Fort reveal a brutal side of everyday life in Roman Britain.
Votive Body-Parts, Eye Infections and Roman Healing
How a unique collection of finds reveals that the Roman city of Wroxeter had a temple dedicated to a god with the power to cure eye diseases
The Mysteries of Corbridge
From strange heads on pots to missing temples, there are many things about Corbridge Roman Town that continue to puzzle us.
Country Estates in Roman Britain
An introduction to the design, development and purpose of Roman country villas, and the lifestyles of their owners.
More about Roman England
Rome's success was built on the organised and practical application of ideas long known to the ancient world.
Romans: Daily Life
The daily experiences of most people in Britain were inevitably touched by its incorporation into the Roman Empire.
Most people in Roman Britain made their livings from a mixture of subsistence farming and exchange of specialist goods.
Romans: Food and Health
How the Roman conquest changed how people in Britain ate, and how they looked after their health.
Discover how, where and why a vast network of roads was built over the length and breadth of Roman Britain.
The Romans were tolerant of other religions, and sought to equate their own gods with those of the local population.
What kind of landscape did the Romans find when they conquered Britain, and what changes did they make?
Romans: Power and Politics
Britain was one of some 44 provinces which made up the Roman Empire at its height in the early 2nd century AD.
Previous Era: Prehistory
Prehistory is the time before written records. It's the period of human history we know the least about, but it's also the longest by far.
Next Era: Early Medieval
The six and a half centuries between the end of Roman rule and the Norman Conquest are among the most important in English history. This long period is also one of the most challenging to understand – which is why it has traditionally been labelled the ‘Dark Ages’.