I was discussing French influence on English language with some other users and while on the topic of if the Latin influence on English language came exclusively from the Normans, it occurred to me that I have never given a thought to whether Roman Britannia left any lingering effects on the subsequent Old English of Anglo Saxons.
Now on cursory look it seems unlikely because Anglo Saxon migration to the British Isles only occurred when the Roman authority in the Isles had effectively ceased to exist. And the British subjects of the Roman Empire were mainly the Celtic people i.e. Britons, not the Anglo-Saxons.
But it is possible that Anglo-Saxons may have borrowed words from the Celtic British people which may have in turn be borrowed from Latin rulers. It is also possible that they may have borrowed some words while they were on the main continent Europe.
Is there any evidence for or against Roman influence on Language of the Anglo-Saxons?
There were certainly words that were borrowed from Latin when the Angles and Saxons were living in continental Europe; a handful of them survive into modern English. We know this because the words also appear in other Germanic languages. Examples of such words are wine, pound and chest.
Wikipedia has a list of Britannic loans into English. A few of them are noted as possibly of Latin extraction originally, but it seems like most of this is unclear. "Sark" is more likely Germanic, and "bannock" seems only a possibility.
- Etymology online: a search for "early borrowing form latin"
Migration in Roman Britain
How free movement in the Roman Empire resulted in a multicultural Britain.
After Britain became part of the Roman Empire in AD 43, the island and its inhabitants were integrated into the wider Roman world. This drastically increased the possibilities for migration to and from the newly minted province. Yet for the majority of Britons, little changed. Most chose to spend their lives in their local communities, remaining close to their place of birth. Some, however, emigrated from their homeland and travelled great distances across the Mediterranean, often as members of the Roman army. At the same time, people migrated to Britain from across the Empire. Although this usually happened as a result of military service, many also arrived as traders and slaves.
An interesting case is that of Barates of Palmyra, a Syrian who travelled to Britain, probably as a merchant. On arrival, he bought a slave named Regina, who had been born into the Catuvellauni tribe of southern Britain. Afterwards, Barates freed Regina and the two married. From the depiction of Regina on her tombstone, by the time of her death at 38 she had become quite wealthy. Barates himself lived to be 68, dying at Corbridge near Newcastle. It is amazing to think that Barates had left his home in the Levant to travel across the Empire, married a Briton and ended his life in northern England. Even Regina, while not travelling as far, had moved from southern Britain to the northern edge of the Roman world.
As a Roman province, Britain became a diverse, multicultural society. This has long been known from the textual sources and material remains, but now scientific analyses are also enhancing our knowledge of migration to the island. One recent study in particular, published in The Journal of Archaeological Science, used scientific techniques to shed light on the origins of some of London's earliest inhabitants. The researchers applied lead and strontium isotope analyses to the dental enamel of 20 people buried in the ancient settlement between the first and fifth centuries AD, the first large scale study of its kind for Roman Britain. They revealed that 12 of the individuals probably grew up around Londinium, while another four probably grew up elsewhere. The results for the remaining four were inconclusive.
Intriguingly, although one woman buried with ‘Germanic’ items was shown to be non-local, as one might expect, a man from the same burial ground, also interred with ‘Germanic’ items, was shown to be from Londinium, rather than abroad. From his burial alone, he might have been regarded as an immigrant, but the scientific data suggests otherwise. Of the three remaining migrants identified, one – thought to be only eight years old at death – appears to have come from near the Rhine Valley, despite being buried with typically British grave goods. The others were traced to the Mediterranean region, with one perhaps from Rome. This all adds to the increasing data, derived from scientific analyses, about migration to Britain in Roman times. It seems that most major Roman towns included large foreign populations – men, women and children – who brought their own cultural traditions, intermarried into the local population and over time acculturated.
But what about British emigrants? Surprisingly, as discussed in a recent article in the journal Britannia, although there is increasing evidence for migration to Britain during the Roman Empire, it's rare to find written evidence for British emigrants: in fact, only around 40 examples are known. These lived across the Mediterranean world, from Bordeaux, Rome and Solin in Croatia, to Lambaesis in Algeria. Some were quite important, such as Marcus Minicius Marcellinus, a senior centurion, originally from Lincoln and stationed in Mainz. The number of British emigrants, however, was certainly much higher than the evidence allows us to see, for many would not have left inscribed monuments for us to find.
The authors of the Britannia study also highlight an intriguing case of a Briton living abroad: a centurion named Titus Quintius Petrullus, who, after the above-mentioned Marcus Minicius Marcellinus, is only the second known centurion of British birth (although there are a few other potential possibilities). The only evidence for Petrullus' life is written on his tombstone, discovered in Bostra, Syria and dated to the second or third centuries AD this relates that Petrullus was a centurion of legio III Cyrenaica and died at the age of 30.
What else can we say about this man's life? The study's authors argue that his cognomen, Petrullus, suggests a Celtic background. And, because he was relatively young for a centurion, he was probably directly commissioned, as opposed to having risen up the ranks. For a man to be directly commissioned, he would normally have held municipal offices first, suggesting that Petrullus was someone of high importance – perhaps a member of the local British elite.
Through such studies, the extent of migration in the Roman world is becoming clearer. More than just a chance for sightseeing (holidays around the Empire were certainly enjoyed by the Roman elite), travel could provide new opportunities, such as a better life in a distant land. Migration and the benefits of free movement, though currently contentious topics, are nothing new. Just ask Barates.
Garry Shaw is the author of The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends and The Pharaoh: Life at Court and on Campaign. He also writes generally on heritage and travel.
View along Hadrians Wall towards Housesteads Roman Fort. Credit: VisitBritain/Alex Nail
Technology, architecture, language, government, town planning – even a sense of national identity. The depth of the Roman influence on the British Isles was such that it survives to this day, seemingly unmatched by that of any of the invading forces that followed them. But then, the majority of those invaders, and the subsequent ruling elites, wanted nothing better than to be Roman themselves.
These heirs to the Roman ideal – Saxons, Danes, Normans, Plantagenets, Tudors, Georgians and Victorians – all tried to establish Britain as part of a wider empire, drawing on the example set by those first imperial overlords.
Their efforts to regain the military glory and sheen of civilisation shaped the history of these islands, which took their first steps towards unity in 43AD. For more than anything else, the Romans left Britainnia with the sense of what it is to be British, in the oldest meaning of the word. Thus the Welsh claim direct decent from the original Britons, while the Scottish remain fiercely proud of the failure of Rome to subdue the Picts in the north.
“We don’t know what the tribes called themselves – we only know what the Romans called them,” says Christine Medlock, director of Fishbourne Roman Palace. “They created a Celtic empire by naming them. The Romans put an identity onto the locals. We only know about them through their writings.”
But the relationship was by no means all give and no take. Welsh tin and Cornish gold provided valuable trade opportunities, and British jet, pearls, wool and hunting dogs were all prized. The islands provided soldiers for the legions, slaves for the cities, an expansion of the Empire to the end of the known world, and a proving ground for future Emperors. Julius Caesar and Claudius both built their power bases on popular campaigns in the islands at the edge of the western sea. In many ways, Rome’s power was built on British soil.
Roman influence in Britain
Mosaic floor created in the first century at Fishbourne Roman Palace in the village of Fishbourne, Fishbourne in West Sussex.
Roman influence began in 55BC with Julius Caesar’s first, ineffectual invasion. After successes in Gaul, he pushed on for a final victory, ill prepared and undermanned. He came, he saw, and he departed, not even leaving a garrison behind him. The Senate was impressed, the natives were not. The following year he tried again, and succeeded in coercing some tribal leaders into owing tribute to Rome.
For the next century, the relationship was one largely based on trade and diplomacy. Britain did not become a part of the Empire until another man needed a military victory to shore up his power – Claudius sent Aulus Plautius to subdue Britain for him. Victories on the River Medway at Richborough and on the Thames, as far as Camulodunum (Colchester), brought the south of the islands into the Empire and, while the far north was never conquered, over the next 30 years, the rest of Britannia was brought under Roman control.
|Roman remains at Caerleon, Wales|
As the invaders marched through the kingdoms of the Celts, they founded forts, built roads, and established cities and palaces. The routes of the famously straight roads which cut their way across hills and valleys throughout Britain can still be traced today. The mighty north-south thoroughfare of Watling Street, now partly followed by the M1 motorway, was also used by Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni, to descend on Londinium (London) and Verulamium (St Albans) in 61AD.
“Roads were built by the army as a means of easing passage and were maintained by the local government,” says Emma Stuart, outreach officer at the Corinium Museum, Cirencester.
“In Cirencester, the second largest administrative centre in Britain, three major Roman roads converged – Ermine Street, Akeman Street and the Fosse Way.” At Pickering in Yorkshire you can still stand on the cobbles of Wheedale Roman Road.
The military legacy of the Romans is one of the most apparent. They brought with them new weapons, armour and tactics the like of which the native tribes had never seen. Hadrian’s Wall, begun in 122AD following the Emperor’s grand tour of Europe and finished just six years later, was raised to defend against the marauding Picts and Scots.
Although the Romans pushed farther north to Falkirk, where remains of the Antonine Wall can still be seen, Hadrian’s Wall became the effective border of the Empire, and one of the greatest pieces of military architecture in the Empire.
Heavily garrisoned as it was, Britain was a natural training ground for the Empire’s leading men. Its governors went on to become emperors, and it was a powerbase for a host of rebels. It also became home to a many of those who served there – Sarmatians, Thracians, Batavians. As men from the garrisons retired, they settled near to the forts, and cities grew up around their farmsteads. These can be identified today by their names – the suffixes ‘chester’, ‘caster’ and ‘ciester’ all signify Roman origins.
“Towns across Britain also ensured Roman culture was adopted by the indigenous British peoples,” says Emma Stuart. “Public buildings such as the amphitheatre and baths gave the locals place to spectate, exercise, relax and socialise.”
“If you lived in the Roman towns, you followed the Roman way of life, became Romanised and desired to become a Roman citizen,” says Jenny Hall, Department of Early London History and Collections at the Museum of London. ”There was a real mix of nationalities and religious beliefs all blending into a cultural melting pot.”
In their architecture, the Romans also brought their culture to bear in the native populace. The finest example of domestic living arrangements can be found at Bignor Roman Villa in West Sussex. Set on Stane Street, which once linked Novoimagnus Regnorum (Chichester) to London, it was composed of more than 70 buildings spread across four acres. Here you will find the most complete floor mosaics in Britain.
|A coin from the Corinium museum|
Fishbourne Roman Palace near Chichester reveals much about how the elite lived, with its underfloor heating system, baths, landscaped gardens and elegant decoration. “These were the first gardens in Britain,” says Christine Medlock. “The Romans introduced a different concept of the use of land. They’ve left behind a legacy in the beautiful mosaics and painted wall tiles.”
And with living conditions came lifestyle. Wooden tablets discovered in garbage pits at the fort of Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall – the oldest written record found in the country – show that the Romans established the lifestyle of the idle rich centuries before the Georgians made it their own.
Among the tablets are letters between the camp commander’s wife, Sulpicia Lepidnia and her friend Claudia Severa, wife of the commander at Housesteads. They reveal a level of boredom and loneliness that has been the lot of military wives down the centuries, along with descriptions of entertaining local dignitaries and travellers.
The Georgians also followed in Roman footsteps to Bath. The springs at Aquae Sulis were exploited for their healing powers 1,500 years before they became the favoured watering place of Regency bucks and belles. Our other waterworks also owe a debt to the Empire. Not until the Victorians was such an effective system of sewers again built in the country.
The Romans also gave Britain a new diet. “Their main legacy is in the foods they introduced and cultivated here,” says Jenny Hall. “They introduced such things as carrots, cucumbers, plums, cherries and better varieties of apples and pears, which have remained staple parts of the British diet.”
Their tastebuds demanded the flavours of home, and what they couldn’t find on the native shores they imported. Rabbits, chickens, sweet chestnuts and Roman snails were also brought in to grace their tables. Mediterranean herbs were planted and vineyards established, which are today producing very palatable vintages.
And while English is not a Latinate language, we have inherited much of those early invaders’ vocabulary – part of what makes English such a versatile, descriptive language is it absorption and effortless combination of occupying tongues. Scandinavian, Germanic and Norman roots blend with Latin in our speech.
Although the early Roman rulers did little to impose their religious beliefs on the native pagans, religion would later form an important part of their legacy. Pantheistic in structure, the Roman belief system merely absorbed the local deities, morphing them into their closest counterpart. All this changed, at least officially, when Constantine, crowned Emperor at York, adopted the Christian religion. Seeing the one god as a powerful force, he scrawled the Chi-Rho symbol on his soldiers’ shields at the battle of Milvian Bridge in 312AD, and won a massive victory. In thanks, he declared Christianity the central religion of the Empire, establishing the Nicene Creed of the Catholic Church – making Britain the birthplace of Roman Catholicism.
For 400 years, Britain played an important role as part of the Empire. However, Barbarian attacks on the capital had weakened the Empire, and troops were pulled out of the west to help defend it. Constantine III led the legions into Gaul, leaving the Britons to face Saxon attacks alone. In 410, the remaining Romanised elite appealed to the Emperor Honorius for help. He responded that they should “look to their own defences”. The era of Roman Britain had ended.
The fall of Roman Britain: how life changed for Britons after the empire
The end of Roman Britain in AD 409 is one of the landmark moments in British history. But for those who lived in the province, did it spell a mere bump in the road – or a disastrous descent into chaos? Historian Will Bowden investigates
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Published: May 5, 2021 at 7:07 am
It was the same rainy island off the north-west corner of continental Europe. But in many ways it was utterly different. In the fourth century AD, visitors to Britain from as far afield as north Africa could have reasonably expected to be able to converse with the locals in a common language, and spend the coins they had in their pockets. By the early fifth century, however, Roman life was apparently over. Towns had vanished, not to be revived for several centuries, while the everyday use of coins was abandoned, and dress, diets and buildings changed beyond all recognition.
What caused Britain to fall out of the orbit of the empire and lose the trappings of the Roman world so quickly? And what were the effects of these changes on the people of Britain? For the sixth-century British writer Gildas, the end of Roman Britain was sudden, dramatic and apocalyptic. He recounts the Britons pleading for help from the Roman commander in Gaul. “The barbarians drive us to the sea, the sea drives us to the barbarians,” they apparently wailed. “Between these two means of death, we are either killed or drowned.”
The traditional story of this period, based on fragmentary literary sources like Gildas, describes a province rocked by frequent political and military disturbance from the third century onwards. Trouble-makers and would-be usurpers of the imperial throne triggered unrest from as early as the 260s. St Jerome, writing around AD 415, famously notes that Britain was “a land fertile in tyrants”, most of whom rose from the ranks of the army stationed within the country.
The actions of such ‘tyrants’ certainly played a part in depleting the British garrison, which towards the end of the fourth century numbered between 12,000 and 30,000 men. In AD 367, a rebellion of the troops on Hadrian’s Wall was accompanied by raids from Scotland and Ireland, and from across the North Sea, in the so-called ‘barbarian conspiracy’. Later, in 383, Magnus Maximus, a commander in Britain, was proclaimed emperor by his troops and reportedly took most of them to Gaul to fight the unpopular reigning emperor. It is unlikely that these soldiers ever returned.
Matters, it appears, took a turn for the worse on New Year’s Eve 405, when large numbers of barbarians crossed the frozen Rhine into the empire. This seems to have precipitated a crisis in Britain, where three would-be emperors were proclaimed in rapid succession, in opposition to Honorius, the incumbent western emperor. The first two, Marcus and Gratian, did not last long enough to trouble the coin minters, but Constantine III survived to take the remaining troops with him to Gaul in 407 to combat the incursion and consolidate his power.
The pagan writer Zosimus tells us that in 409 the pressure of barbarian invaders obliged the British “to throw off Roman rule and live independently, no longer subject to Roman laws”. There has been considerable dispute about what he meant by this but, all the same, 409 is now generally regarded as the end of Roman rule in Britain. (Until recently, of course, most school history books had given the landmark date as 410, when the emperor Honorius famously told Britain to “look to its own defences”. But this is now normally seen as the result of a mistake by Zosimus, who was probably referring to Bruttium in southern Italy.)
An empire in retreat
Whatever the true date of the fall of Roman Britain, the idea that ‘the Romans left’ is now hardwired into the public consciousness. It’s regarded as a landmark moment in British history. But what did this ‘leaving’ mean? After all, it’s worth remembering that the soldiers who quit Britain to fight elsewhere comprised a mere fraction of the overall population. Those they left behind (numbering around 3–4 million people) had been part of the Roman world for 350 years, and would have felt every bit as ‘Roman’ as the soldiers setting sail for the continent.
The idea of a sudden, dramatic break between the pre and post-Roman eras has perhaps been reinforced by the archaeological evidence, which paints a picture of towns vanishing and coins and pottery disappearing. However, we need to apply a good level of caution to the evidence. First, we have to recognise that the things we think of as representative of ‘Roman Britain’ – such as mosaics and villas – were only present in significant quantities in about a third of mainland Britain, concentrated in the south and east.
Secondly, we are talking about the disappearance of a particular range of material, the importance of which may be overstated because of its archaeological visibility. Roman coins and pottery receive an enormous amount of attention because they constitute the main tools that Roman archaeologists use to date their sites. Their disappearance in the early fifth century is a significant problem for us, but it may have had less of an impact on people at the time.
The Roman empire minted coins primarily to pay the army and to provide a means by which people could pay tax. Their use in a wider market economy was an accidental byproduct of this and, in Britain at least, was short-lived.
The supply of bronze coins to Britain slowed down after 395 and ceased altogether after 402 – as was the case across the western empire. There is some debate as to how long coins remained in circulation, but the fact that there was no real attempt to produce local coins to replace the Roman supply suggests that there was little demand.
The end of the manufacture of fine pottery appears, on the face of it, to have been equally dramatic. Major pottery industries in places such as the Nene Valley (Cambridgeshire) and Oxfordshire ceased production in the early fifth century, possibly as a result of a collapse of distribution systems. However, pottery drinking vessels may well have been quickly replaced by ones fashioned from metal, wood and leather. And the presence of walnut wood cups in the Sutton Hoo ship burial (dating to c620) suggests that pottery’s demise may partially have been the result of a change in taste rather than economic decline.
If coinage and tableware disappeared rather suddenly, the same cannot be said for the towns of Roman Britain, which had already changed dramatically. These have been described as “a failed experiment”, one that was already largely over by AD 350. The end of Roman Britain may have hastened the collapse of urban life, but it only exacerbated a process that had begun decades before.
Towns were the means by which the Roman administration collected tax, but the social customs that shaped large population centres in the Mediterranean – where local grandees competed for status and public office through the construction of public buildings – never really took off in Britain.
In most Roman towns in Britain – even the provincial capital, London – the forum (main building of administration) had fallen into disuse as early as the third century. By the fourth century, a number of forums, such as the one at Silchester, had been put to an entirely different use: hosting small-scale industries.
However, we should be wary of judging these urban centres by the standards of what we believe Roman towns should have looked like. It’s clear that many remained active centres into the later fourth century. These were often defended by grand wall circuits and boasted luxurious townhouses – examples of which have been excavated at Dorchester and St Albans.
Despite the picture of political turbulence described by the literary sources, it is clear that some residents of Roman Britain were thriving in the fourth century. The most impressive villas in Britain all belong to this later period, as do the most spectacular figurative mosaics. None of these villas outlasted the early years of the fifth century as grand houses, but there’s evidence for continuing occupation at a number of them, suggested by the presence of cemeteries in and around some of the buildings.
Britain’s late Roman wealth is also demonstrated in the spectacular stockpiles of coins, plate and jewellery dating from the late fourth and early fifth centuries. In 1992, a Suffolk metal detectorist, searching for a farmer’s lost hammer, found what turned out to be the Hoxne hoard. This incredible discovery comprised 15,234 gold, silver and bronze coins and around 200 other precious metal items the 5.3kg of gold unearthed from the Sussex soil would have been enough to pay the annual tax bill of a major town. (The farmer’s hammer, incidentally, was also recovered and now sits in the British Museum along with the hoard.)
But, as remarkable as it undoubtedly was, the Hoxne hoard was far from unique. In fact, Britain has yielded more caches of precious metal from AD 300–500 than the rest of the Roman empire combined. The question, of course, is why? Hoards often indicate periods of unrest, when people felt compelled to bury their wealth for safe keeping – and there was certainly no shortage of that in early fifth-century Britain. But the same could be said for the entire western empire. Perhaps this anomaly was the product of particular concentrations of wealth in Roman Britain, or maybe there was some unknown factor preventing Britons from recovering their buried possessions as the Roman administration disintegrated.
Some of these owners of grand villas and beautiful silver plate would have been Christians, adherents of a faith that had taken root in Britain by the fourth century, at least among the upper classes. Bishops from York, London and possibly Lincoln attended the Council of Arles, which was the first representative meeting of Christian bishops in the western Roman empire, held in southern Gaul in 314. Christian symbols appear in remarkable murals at Lullingstone in Kent, as well as on personal ornaments, precious metal found in hoards, and a series of lead tanks possibly used for baptism. The Christian practice of covering heads may even explain the decline in finds of hairpins in late fourth-century Britain.
There are no confirmed late Roman churches in Britain, although reasonable arguments can be made for the presence of them at sites such as Lincoln and Vindolanda. In any case, Roman Christianity in all but the very west of Britain proved to be short-lived.
Hated by God and men
Other aspects of Roman Britain survived best in the west of the former province, too. Finds at places like Tintagel in Cornwall reveal a population importing wine, olive oil and fine pottery from the eastern Mediterranean during the fifth and sixth centuries. Curiously, these finds tend to turn up in areas that had previously shown relatively little interest in Roman life – which suggests that the conspicuous adoption of ‘Roman’ habits may have been regarded as a way of creating an identity distinct from the newcomers to the east.
According to some contemporary sources, these newcomers – referred to as Angli and Saxones – played a key role in this episode in British history. In this version of events, “impious Saxons, a race hated by both God and men” (as Gildas describes them) were initially employed to defend against other barbarians before turning against their paymasters and seizing territory. They were then reinforced by others from across the North Sea, a process that seems to have accelerated in the 440s.
On one level, this scenario is plausible. Barbarian troops had been part of the Roman army for centuries and were a mainstay of most late Roman forces. Their presence in Britain would have been entirely expected. It’s unlikely, however, that groups numbering in the thousands could have overwhelmed a population of a few million. The Anglo-Saxon ‘colonisation’ of eastern Britain doubtless involved blood and violence, but the widespread appearance of Germanic styles of dress, burial and building suggests that many natives adopted such things rapidly, perhaps viewing them as a new way of participating in a changing and fragmented cultural and political landscape. Evolution, then, not armageddon.
This last point can, I think, help us understand life on the ground at the start of the fifth century. Participation in the Roman world had offered Britons a wide range of ways in which they could express ideas about who they were – from hairstyles and diet to holding political office. This, however, was a constantly changing process, as it had been for the past 350 years of Roman rule. And so, while the new circumstances of the fifth century presented challenges, they may have also brought opportunities.
At the same time, many of the things that we prize most about Roman Britain simply appear to have become irrelevant. After all, we too live in a society where coins could soon be a thing of the past. And if that poses problems for future archaeologists, then so be it.
Will Bowden is associate professor in Roman archaeology at the University of Nottingham. LISTEN AGAIN: Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Roman Britain on BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time.
First roman contacts and the establishment of the fortress
The precise date of the first occupation of Chester by the Roman army remains uncertain, (fn. 1) but the potential uses to which the site could be put - a fine harbour at the highest navigable point on the Dee, a river crossing, and a defendable position - were doubtless well appreciated by Rome from an early date, perhaps even before Caesar's time. (fn. 2) The earliest Roman knowledge of the area was presumably through commerce: although proof is lacking, ships from the western Mediterranean and Gaul may occasionally have visited to engage in barter. Traces of cultivation on the site, (fn. 3) together with a few sherds of Iron Age pottery accidentally redeposited in the earliest Roman structures, (fn. 4) clearly attest to pre-Roman occupation, perhaps a small Cornovian fishing and farming settlement by the river bank, defended by a promontory enclosure on the site of the later castle. The place was potentially convenient for merchants trading with local people throughout the lower reaches of the Dee valley. (fn. 5) The river in time gave its name to the site in a Latinized form: Deva, 'the holy one'. (fn. 6)
Contacts with Rome presumably increased greatly after Claudius's successful invasion of south-eastern Britain in A.D. 43, and by the earlier 50s elements of the Roman army had probably arrived in the area during campaigns against the Ordovices and Deceangli in central and northern Wales and the Brigantes north and east of Cheshire. (fn. 7)
Further campaigns in Wales during the late 50s culminated in Suetonius Paulinus's attack on Anglesey in 60. Although there is no conclusive archaeological evidence, the Romans may well have used the harbour and crossing-point at Chester, defending them perhaps by a small fort. If so, their occupation then is likely to have been short-lived, since the Boudiccan uprising in 60 demanded the governor's immediate attention elsewhere and an abrupt cessation to his campaigns in north Wales. (fn. 8) It was only c. 70 that a new policy of total conquest of the British Isles led to the establishment of the first permanent military presence at Chester. (fn. 9)
As a prelude to implementing the new policy, the Ninth Legion was moved forward from Lincoln to York, and a new legion, the Second, called Adiutrix and recently raised by Vespasian from the marines of the Adriatic fleet, was sent to Britain with the new governor, Petillius Cerialis, and based initially at Lincoln. (fn. 10) It was soon moved west to construct a new legionary depot at Chester, probably under orders from Sextus Julius Frontinus as incoming provincial governor in or shortly after 74. (fn. 11)
During Frontinus's governorship (74-8) and in the first year of his successor, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, the Roman army completed the subjugation of the Silures and Ordovices in Wales by reconquering Anglesey in 78. Agricola was then free to complete the conquest of the Brigantes begun by Cerealis in the early 70s. The legionary depot and related installations at Chester were built during those years, with the finishing touches to the basic military requirements added by c. 80. (fn. 12)
Scarcely two years later Agricola had subdued Brigantia, occupied the Forth-Clyde isthmus, and was advancing towards the river Tay. Chester, with superb harbour facilities, played a key role in the seaborne support of the campaigns, and it was also adequately placed to keep watch on the Ordovices and southern Brigantes. At the same time the Roman army may have been preparing for the conquest of Ireland, (fn. 13) for which Chester was admirably situated to be the main embarkation point and supply base. Although never accomplished, the plan probably encouraged the development at Chester of a major military base. (fn. 14)
The idea that Chester's main role was naval is supported by the importance which the Roman army attached to seaborne operations, exemplified by the circumnavigation of northern Britain by its fleet in 84, and in particular by the positioning at Chester of the Second Legion, a unit with naval experience. (fn. 15) Other factors lend further support to the idea. First, the legionary depot at Wroxeter (Salop.) appears to have remained in commission, though perhaps merely under care-and-maintenance. (fn. 16) It was sufficiently well situated for campaigns in the Marches, central and north Wales, and probably southern Brigantia to make the relocation of a legionary depot to Chester merely to control the Ordovices and Brigantes unnecessary. Chester indeed may not have been well placed for campaigns in north Wales, since a direct overland route was made difficult by marshlands to its southwest. (fn. 17) Moreover it was located somewhat away from the existing main roads leading north on the west side of the Pennines. Probably the main advantage of the site was that it was the highest navigation point on the Dee. (fn. 18)
Roman Chester, with modern street plan superimposed
The second legion at chester, 74-90
Acting as an essential reserve force (the meaning of Adiutrix), (fn. 19) supplying the northward-moving army by sea, and perhaps preparing for the conquest of Ireland, the men of the Second Legion are unlikely to have been heavily used by Agricola in his northern campaigns.
They were, moreover, deeply committed to the building of their depot and related installations at Chester, involved in supervising lead-mining operations in north-east Wales, and incidentally (with the support of various auxiliary regiments) kept some kind of watch over the Ordovices and southern Brigantes. During its service at Chester the legion, styled Pia Fidelis (Loyal and Faithful) for supporting Vespasian in the civil war of 69, comprised mostly men of Mediterranean origins, recruited in such regions as the eastern shore of the Adriatic, Thrace, northern Italy, and Greece. (fn. 20)
The new legionary depot at Chester was constructed in the manner typical of the period in Britain, mainly of timber-framed, wattle-and-daubed buildings. The enceinte consisted of a double turfrevetted rampart and palisade some 20 Roman feet (c. 6 metres) wide at base and 10 Roman feet (c. 3 metres) high, topped with a palisade 5 Roman feet high, to which were added wooden gates and towers probably 25 Roman feet (c. 7.4 metres) high, and with at least one substantial ditch outside. (fn. 21) Although of simple materials, many of the buildings, particularly the houses of the senior centurions, were finished to a high standard, with elaborate interior wall decoration, tiled roofs, and glazed windows. (fn. 22) A permanent piped water supply was laid from springs a short distance to the east, with subsidiary lead pipes connecting the main supply to the more important buildings. (fn. 23) There was also a main sewage and waste-water disposal system via rock-cut culverts set below the main streets and no doubt connected to both communal and private latrines, such as those for the centurions at Abbey Green. (fn. 24) Some buildings were of stone and concrete from the outset, among them the bath building and leisure complex alongside the via praetoria (Bridge Street), whose functions and status demanded a tall and structurally complex building. Its technical sophistication was comparable with that of similar buildings at the heart of the Roman Empire. While building continued, and at least until work on the depot itself was far advanced, the legionaries probably lived in temporary construction camps near by. (fn. 25) Together with annexes for baggage trains and other surplus equipment, they appear to have been mainly east of the depot. (fn. 26)
Outside the ramparts the army probably gave priority to constructing harbour installations, a parade ground, a bridge (presumably at first entirely of timber), and various official establishments such as extramural baths, (fn. 27) posting houses, (fn. 28) and the amphitheatre. The amphitheatre was used for celebrating the many religious feasts in the legion's calendar, weapon training, drill, military parades and demonstrations, and, most important, public address. It was also designed for entertainment, initially largely for the soldiers, though the cavea (spectators' seating area) of the original wooden structure appears to have been too small for a full legion of c. 5,500 men. (fn. 29)
Attracted to Chester by the chance of a living from the large number of well-paid legionaries were local tribesmen, traders of all kinds from near and far, an army of servants and labourers (both slave and free), and officials employed to run the extramural posting houses, harbour facilities, and other official establishments. There were, too, retired soldiers, some probably from Wroxeter, who preferred to live close to their former comrades-in-arms in a lifestyle which retained a military flavour. (fn. 30) Many had wives and families. Thus, quite quickly, a sizeable settlement, known as the canabae, (fn. 31) grew up outside the walls of the fortress. It remained under direct military supervision, unlike the nearby independent and very large civil settlement at Heronbridge. (fn. 32)
In the early 80s part of the Second Legion was posted to the Rhine frontier. Although there was probably nothing new in the sending of detachments to other parts of the Empire while the main body of the legion remained in Britain, soon afterwards, in the late 80s, the remaining fighting strength of the legion was sent to the Danube. (fn. 33) Placed as it was in reserve at Chester, well south of the frontier zone, the Second was the legion which could most easily be spared. Its removal appears to have been related to the gradual abandonment of recent conquests in Scotland. (fn. 34)
Despite the withdrawal of the legion's fighting strength it is unlikely that the army altogether abandoned the depot, which probably remained for a time nominally under the legion's command, many of its empty buildings being retained on a care-andmaintenance basis. The soldiers who stayed behind were presumably non-combatants involved in the administrative and other tasks of military depot life. The training of recruits probably continued unchanged. (fn. 35)
The early years of the twentieth legion, 90-122
By c. 90 the Second Legion had no further need of its base at Chester and the depot's future had to be decided. It was quickly realized that, since much of Brigantia was controlled by the army, and Wales had been subjugated, Chester was more usefully placed than Wroxeter, which was effectively landlocked. Accordingly, the legionary depot at Wroxeter was abandoned c. 90, and the Twentieth Legion, Valeria Victrix, established itself instead at Chester, possibly after a short stay at Gloucester. (fn. 36)
The Twentieth had been in Britain since the Claudian invasion in 43, (fn. 37) and had served in Brigantia and Scotland. (fn. 38) The legion, which during its early years at Chester was still recruiting heavily from Spain, northern Italy, the Adriatic, and southern France, (fn. 39) took over a depot at Chester in full working order, and the daily routine of training and repairs clearly continued. Many of the buildings were nearly twenty years old and required much replacement of rotting timbers. The defences may also have been refurbished, (fn. 40) and minor internal alterations were made to many buildings, particularly the officers' quarters c. 100. (fn. 41) Some buildings were completely reconstructed. At Abbey Green, for instance, a new timber-lined main sewage culvert was inserted alongside the via sagularis (the road running round the depot inside the defences) and new timber-framed cookhouses and mess huts were inserted alongside the ramparts. (fn. 42) In the canabae some official buildings were still being completely renewed in timber in the early 2nd century. (fn. 43)
Soon after the arrival of the Twentieth Legion, however, it was decided, apparently, to rebuild the entire depot in stone. An unlimited supply of building sandstone lay in the immediate neighbourhood, and quarries were opened on both sides of the Dee, (fn. 44) but the main reason for such a major undertaking may have been a decision to make the Chester base permanent. Sound building in stone, or timber framing on stone sills, was potentially far more durable in a damp climate than timber framing alone. The scope of construction, the imposing major buildings, and the sophistication of even the barrack blocks, the verandas of which were supported on lathe-turned sandstone columns, suggest further that the legion was thinking on a grand scale in line with the general mood of confidence expressed in building and design throughout the Roman world at that time. (fn. 45)
Within the rebuilding programme some priority seems to have been given to the defences, which may still have been in their original form, though no doubt much repaired and patched during the previous 25 years or so. (fn. 46) In addition to the recutting of the ditch, the wooden interval towers and palisade appear to have been dismantled, though the turf-revetted rampart was retained. The gates were probably rebuilt then or soon after in stone on their original sites, and work began on an impressive stone revetment added to the front of the rampart. (fn. 47)
The extent and appearance of the defences c. 100 remain uncertain. If, as seems likely, (fn. 48) further work continued on them in the 3rd century, a hint of their intended strength is provided by the internal stone towers placed at regular intervals round the circuit. Although the towers were substantially rebuilt later, they probably originated in the late 1st or early 2nd century, and were fewer and more widely spaced than the original timber ones. It is perhaps more likely, however, that the walls under construction c. 100 were those which survived, albeit with later additions, on the north and east sides into modern times, constructed in opus quadratum (large dressed and squared blocks of stone), since there are striking similarities to the first wall at Gloucester and, to a lesser degree, the stone curtain wall at Inchtuthil (Perthshire), both built at about the same time at places associated with the Twentieth Legion. (fn. 49)
The rebuilding of the depot was conducted randomly rather than systematically, presumably because the cohorts made widely differing rates of progress. As previously, detachments would have been on duty elsewhere, and in their absence little building work may have been carried out in their parts of the depot. By the early 2nd century in the central area at least one large building and some barracks were rebuilt in stone, or with stone sills, (fn. 50) whereas in the rearward areas progress appears to have been far slower, only a few cookhouses and mess huts near the north gate having been completed. (fn. 51) Curiously, replacement of some of the larger buildings seems to have been delayed. Indeed, the intended site of one major building, perhaps a stores compound, stood vacant from the first occupation by the Second Legion, being used instead for refuse pits. (fn. 52) The most essential requirements were satisfied first, other buildings receiving attention later as time and opportunity permitted, but curiously the headquarters building (principia) may not have been rebuilt in stone at all at that time. (fn. 53)
In the canabae the rebuilding programme seems scarcely to have begun by the 120s. One of the earliest extramural buildings reconstructed in stone was the amphitheatre, the various official functions of which presumably demanded priority. On a much grander scale than its predecessor, with seating for at least 7,000 spectators, more than the full strength of the legion, it reflected the expansion of the canabae and perhaps also the requirements of an increasing population, both military and civilian, for entertainments. (fn. 54) Such a major construction project also showed confidence in the future of Chester and its canabae.
The Dee bridge may also have received attention early in the 2nd century. In 2000 its remains, including pier bases, massive stones, and cornice fragments, lay scattered across the river bed a few metres downstream of its medieval successor, evidence of a very solid bridge of Roman military design, perhaps with a timber superstructure. (fn. 55)
In the extramural settlement between the waterfront and the western ramparts, a short distance outside the west gate, what appear to have been luxurious and extensive baths in stone and concrete were also already in use early in the 2nd century. (fn. 56)
The 'military hiatus', 122-97
In 122 Emperor Hadrian may have visited Chester on his way north to organize the construction of his great frontier works from the Solway Firth to the Tyne, (fn. 57) a project in which the Chester legion played a large part. Work continued on the frontier for the rest of Hadrian's reign (117-38) and into that of Antoninus Pius (138-61), still involving men from the Twentieth, (fn. 58) so that in Chester the reconstruction of the depot and its canabae in stone had to be severely curtailed.
In all parts of the depot and its extramural settlement there is abundant evidence of a halt in building between c. 120 and c. 130. In the left retentura (the rearward part of the depot) scarcely had work on the defences been completed and two cookhouses nearest the north gate rebuilt in stone, when the whole operation was abandoned the remaining cookhouses, all the barracks, and even the main drains below the via sagularis were left in their original timber-framed form. (fn. 59) In the right retentura it seems that none of the cookhouses had yet been rebuilt, whereas work on the barracks had just started and at least one of the new centurions' houses was abandoned in a very incomplete state. (fn. 60) In the centre of the depot the barracks of one cohort, recently rebuilt in stone and reoccupied, seem to have been abandoned, and work on parts of a very large building immediately behind the headquarters may likewise have been cut short. (fn. 61) In the canabae just outside the south gate a second attempt at rebuilding a posting house in stone was abandoned incomplete by c. 130, (fn. 62) and other official establishments may have been similarly affected by the legion's preoccupations elsewhere. There is also circumstantial evidence that the amphitheatre may have fallen into neglect before c. 150. (fn. 63)
Events in northern Britain during the reign of Antoninus Pius continued to frustrate rebuilding at Chester. In particular, work was delayed by the lengthy involvement of the Twentieth Legion in a new campaign in Scotland and in building the Antonine Wall. (fn. 64) Legionaries from Chester manned some of the northern forts and at least one centurion from the Twentieth commanded an auxiliary regiment on the frontier. (fn. 65) Further trouble in the North in the 150s and 160s and the removal of troops from Britain to strengthen imperial armies elsewhere also probably affected Chester. (fn. 66) Certainly a detachment of the legion was employed in construction at Corbridge (Northumb.), (fn. 67) and deployment in the Danubian provinces is suggested by the fact that some of the 5,500 Iazygian cavalrymen drafted to Britain in the 170s found their way to Chester, where at least one was commemorated by a tombstone rediscovered in 1890. (fn. 68) A detachment from the legion was in Armorica in the reign of Commodus (180-92), (fn. 69) and the Twentieth may also have contributed to the token force sent to Rome to meet the emperor in 185. The legion was doubtless also involved, along with the rest of the provincial British army, in the succession struggles after Commodus's assassination in 192, in support of the British candidate for the purple, Clodius Albinus, defeated in 197 with heavy losses among the legions of Britain. (fn. 70)
Such commitments meant that the legion's base at Chester was run down for most of the 2nd century. The barracks in the left retentura appear to have fallen into a semi-derelict condition, and at least some were used for rubbish disposal. (fn. 71) In the right retentura the site of a centurion's house abandoned incomplete by c. 130 was also used as a rubbish tip for at least several decades. (fn. 72) A large building directly behind the headquarters had rubbish piled into one corner from c. 130 to as late as c. 240, (fn. 73) though other parts may have remained in use. Elsewhere in the retentura a very large open site was used for dumping refuse and metalworking waste. (fn. 74) A seemingly unique elliptical building appears also to have been abandoned incomplete and used as a rubbish tip until c. 230. (fn. 75)
The area housing the first cohort suffered similar neglect. (fn. 76) Three barracks in Crook Street and Goss Street had building activity in the early 2nd century, an accumulation of rubbish later in the century, and renewed building in the early 3rd. One was used for metalworking and another for a kiln or furnace. Stores or offices adjacent to the headquarters meanwhile became a makeshift latrine. In the extramural settlement the site of the posting house south of the depot was used as a rubbish dump, with urinal pits being dug through the floors in the period c. 130 to c. 180. (fn. 77) In parts of the amphitheatre, too, rubbish accumulated. (fn. 78) Other sites in the canabae, however, seem to have experienced gradual expansion and improvement in the earlier 2nd century, (fn. 79) and perhaps only official buildings were run down.
Changes in the character of occupation after c. 130 may be explained by an intention, perhaps implied in an incomplete inscription found reused behind the headquarters, to demilitarize the site and establish an independent civilian settlement. (fn. 80) Nevertheless at least one senior officer of the legion was present at Chester in 154, (fn. 81) and Sarmatian cavalry were stationed there after c. 175, (fn. 82) indications that the site remained under military control. The garrison may have been small throughout the 2nd and early 3rd century, parts of the depot in effect being abandoned as accommodation for troops on the other hand the extensive deposits of metalworking debris in the central parts of the depot, in at least one case associated with a building converted to workshops, imply intensive use. (fn. 83) The most likely explanation is that Chester was retained as a rearward works establishment, under the command of a senior officer, in which equipment was repaired and manufactured for the Roman army in the North.
The severan dynasty and after, 197-250
In 197 Emperor Septimius Severus dispatched a new governor, Virius Lupus, to restore order in Britain, and a few years later campaigned there himself. No doubt the Twentieth Legion, brought back up to strength after 197, took part in his campaigns in Scotland. Severus died at York in 211 and soon afterwards his sons Caracalla and Geta withdrew from Britain. (fn. 84) Severus's intervention prompted great building activity at Chester, and within a generation or so every part of the depot appears to have been systematically refurbished. (fn. 85) The works included the completion of buildings planned a century before, most clearly the elliptical building, a building to its north with a walled com pound, and possibly even the headquarters. In the canabae major reconstruction and restoration also took place. As a result the early 3rd century could well be termed Deva's heyday. (fn. 86) The stimulus may have been the Severan dynasty's support for the army, together with reforms designed to make military life more agreeable for recruits. (fn. 87) Soldiers' dependants, for example, may have been given access to buildings such as the baths which had previously been purely for military use. (fn. 88) Work at some sites, including the elliptical building, however, continued until the later 3rd century. (fn. 89)
The programme included at least the repair of the defences and perhaps even completion of the curtain wall. (fn. 90) Many of the barrack blocks appear to have been completely rebuilt, frequently on new foundations sometimes themselves set amid earlier debris. Most notably the headquarters and other major buildings around it, perhaps including the commander's house (praetorium) to the east, were systematically rebuilt. (fn. 91)
Men of the Twentieth Legion were involved in the work, (fn. 92) and the legion presumably still provided much of the garrison. In the early 3rd century there is also evidence for the presence of men of the Second (Augusta) Legion, (fn. 93) and Chester may thus have housed a mixed garrison, like those stationed elsewhere in Britain, which included detachments of both those legions brigaded together with auxiliaries. (fn. 94) At the same time the changes introduced or encouraged by the Antonine constitution in the early 3rd century probably blurred the divisions between military and civilian. (fn. 95)
The end of roman military occupation, 250-400
A unit called the Twentieth Legion was still at Chester in the middle of the 3rd century, (fn. 96) but it is not clear whether it comprised the fighting troops or merely the men maintaining the depot. Nevertheless the use of the legion's title implies some continuity in organization and structure, however superficial. As earlier, detachments were still active elsewhere both in northern Britain (fn. 97) and shortly after c. 250 on the Rhine and Danube. (fn. 98) Men of the legion were present on Hadrian's Wall in the 260s, (fn. 99) and the Twentieth, with its traditional style Valeria Victrix, was in the army of the usurper Carausius in the late 3rd century. (fn. 100) Furthermore, if the presence of Carausius's coinage in Chester derives from regular payments to his troops, then presumably elements of the legion were still at their old depot too. Thereafter, however, it is not clear what troops were stationed at Chester: the depot was certainly occupied, but not necessarily only by soldiers.
Detachments of the military units based at Chester (by then not necessarily a legion in the traditional sense) would presumably have been used in Constantius Chlorus's campaigns in the North against the Picts in 306. (fn. 101) It used to be thought that many of the barracks had been systematically dismantled by that date, (fn. 102) but by the 1990s it was apparent that all parts of the depot, not least the barrack blocks, continued to be occupied. The internal alterations to buildings and reroofing carried out in the early 4th century may have been merely routine repairs, but they imply continued widespread use, and at least some are likely to have been undertaken to house soldiers living with their families. (fn. 103)
Intensive occupation continued both within and outside the walls until the later 4th century, (fn. 104) though the status of the occupants and the position of Chester within the reorganized military structure of Britain are obscure. (fn. 105) Soldiers based at Chester were still being paid in coins from the imperial mints until, but not during, the time of Magnus Maximus (383- 8), (fn. 106) who perhaps removed the remaining regular troops from Chester when he invaded Gaul in 383. (fn. 107) The Notitia Dignitatum, a list of officials probably compiled c. 400, mentioned neither troops at Chester nor the Twentieth Legion elsewhere in Britain. The archaeological evidence available in 1996 was insufficiently clear to support definite conclusions, but probably a substantially civilian population continued to use the old legionary defences for security from raiders in the Irish Sea. (fn. 108)
Everything you wanted to know about Roman Britain – but were afraid to ask
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
The Romans and the Druids
The Romans had met the Druids before in conquered Western Europe. While the Romans were happy to make a peaceful settlement with most tribes/groups in England, they had no intention of doing the same with the Druids.
The Druids were priests. The Britons both respected and feared them. It was believed that a Druid could see into the future – they also acted as teachers and judges. They were considered to be very learned people. It could take up to twenty years of learning to become a Druid. However, we do not know a great deal about what they learned as Druids were not allowed to write any of their knowledge down.
In their own way, the Druids were very religious. It was this particular issue that angered the Romans as the Druids sacrificed people to their gods. Caesar, in particular, was horrified by the practice and his writings give us a good idea of what went on in Druid ceremonies -though from his perspective only. The Romans had once sacrificed people but they now saw it as a barbaric practice that they could not tolerate in one of their colonies. The Romans determined that they would stamp out the Druids.
However, they had to be careful. The Druids travelled freely throughout England as the Britons were too scared to stop them. Therefore, they were not simply in one place where the Romans could attack in force. In AD 54, the Emperor Claudius banned the Druids. In AD 60, the governor of England, Suetonius, decided that the only way to proceed was to attack the known heartland of the Druids – the island of Anglesey in the hope that if the centre of the Druids was destroyed, those Druids in outlying areas would die out.
Boats were built for the Roman foot soldiers while the Roman cavalry swam across with their horses. The Druids shouted abuse at the Romans and cursed them but they could not stop the Roman army from landing. Any ceremonial sites on Anglesey used by the Druids were also destroyed but many of them were in secret places and some survived.
The best thing the Romans did for Britain was leave, historian claims
The Romans brought aqueducts, wealth, security and hot baths to Britain but the best thing they did for the population was to leave, a historian has suggested.
Studies of graves in cemeteries from the 400AD to 650AD show that Britons, on average, lived for around two years longer following the fall of the Roman Empire.
Robin Fleming, professor of history from Boston College in the US, said that once Britons were no longer forced to pay taxes they were able to eat more nutritious food which increased longevity.
Asked if the fall of the Roman Empire was good for Britain, Prof Fleming added: “If you are a villa owner, no. But it you are part of the 97 per cent of the rest, then, yes, it might add a couple of years to your life which makes a difference.
“The people were living longer after Roman Britain because they weren’t being taxed. “
Despite the boost in lifespan, most women could still only expect to live until around 35 because of the dangers of childbirth, while men were usually dead by their early forties.
Prof Fleming has also discovered that the period was a time of great movement in Britain, when populations ventured across the Pennines and began to mingle with immigrants from Scandinavia, Germany and the Baltics.
Skeletons from a graveyard in West Heslerton, a small village near Pickering, North Yorkshire, showed that the locals had once eaten food from a far wetter climate, suggesting they had moved from the west of Britain.
Prof Fleming said the finding was surprising because most historians thought populations were migrating from east to west during the period.
The graves also revealed that British people were buried with goods from foreign cultures, such as wrist clasps usually found in the early medieval period in Norway, pointing to West Heslerton being a multicultural hub.
“We don’t like to use the term Dark Ages anymore, but there is no written evidence for the late fourth and fifth centuries after the period where Rome falls,” she said.
“It’s a period where lots of people were on the move.
“During the Roman period culture came from the Mediterranean world . But when Rome has fallen they appear to be experimenting a lot more than before. A lot of the skeletons in the graves were not local.
“It was long thought that people were trying to advertise their ethnicity, but what we see in the graves doesn’t match with who that person was genetically.”
In fact, there were so many different cultures coming into Britain after the fall of the Roman Empire that Prof Fleming believes Britons from the period should no longer be described as Anglo-Saxons.
“Anglo-Saxons really makes no sense. It was a name coined by Alfred The Great for political reasons. They should be called Early Medieval people.
“People are coming from all over, including Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man.”
The research was presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in San Jose, California.
Map of Early Independent Britain AD 400-425
Faced with an economic downturn in the second half of the fourth century and various barbarian raids and more serious incursions, Roman Britain exhibited a marked decline in fortunes. Various internal revolts meant that military units were greatly depleted, with two strong forces being taken onto the Continent never, it seems, to return in any great number.
Various client states were set up (or officially acknowledged) in the west and north. Renewed war flared up against the Picts of the far north, apparently lasting 'for many years'. Further Scotti (Irish) raids took place on the south coast of Britain in 404/405, just as a major force of imperial troops was being withdrawn. The British provinces were relatively isolated and lacking in support from Rome in their fight against barbarian incursions. In 409 the Britons expelled all Roman officials, breaking ties that were never renewed.
Following the break with Rome there came a period in which central administration apparently began to break down. And then Vortigern seemingly came to the fore, already powerful in the semi-independent Pagenses territories of the west.
All borders are conjectural, but rough territorial boundaries are known.
To select a territory for further information (usually in the accompanying feature if an entry is available), click anywhere within its borders.
Original text and map copyright © P L Kessler and the History Files. An original feature for the History Files. Go back or return home.
William the Conqueror invades England
Claiming his right to the English throne, William, duke of Normandy, invades England at Pevensey on Britain’s southeast coast. His subsequent defeat of King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings marked the beginning of a new era in British history.
William was the illegitimate son of Robert I, duke of Normandy, by his concubine Arlette, a tanner’s daughter from the town of Falaise. The duke, who had no other sons, designated William his heir, and with his death in 1035 William became duke of Normandy at age seven. Rebellions were epidemic during the early years of his reign, and on several occasions the young duke narrowly escaped death. Many of his advisers did not. By the time he was 20, William had become an able ruler and was backed by King Henry I of France. Henry later turned against him, but William survived the opposition and in 1063 expanded the borders of his duchy into the region of Maine.
In 1051, William is believed to have visited England and met with his cousin Edward the Confessor, the childless English king. According to Norman historians, Edward promised to make William his heir. On his deathbed, however, Edward granted the kingdom to Harold Godwinson, head of the leading noble family in England and more powerful than the king himself.
In January 1066, King Edward died, and Harold Godwinson was proclaimed King Harold II. William immediately disputed his claim. In addition, King Harald III Hardraade of Norway had designs on England, as did Tostig, brother of Harold. King Harold rallied his forces for an expected invasion by William, but Tostig launched a series of raids instead, forcing the king to leave the English Channel unprotected. In September, Tostig joined forces with King Harald III and invaded England from Scotland. On September 25, Harold met them at Stamford Bridge and defeated and killed them both. Three days later, William landed in England at Pevensey.