Roman Britain

Roman invasion

Following the aborted attempts to invade Britain by Julius Caesar in 55 and 54 BC, the British Isles remained largely undisturbed by the Roman Empire for nearly a century until the Emperor Claudius' Invasion of Britain in 43 AD. Claudius' invasion witnessed the defeat of the Catuvellauni tribe under the brothers Togodumnus and Caractacus, in battle on the river Medway and on the Thames, after which the Romans advanced on the Catuvellaunian capital of Camulodunum (Colchester). The future emperor Vespasian subdued the southwest and Cogidubnus, chief of the Regneses tribe, was set up to rule several territories as a vassal king of Rome.

Castra Deva Roman ChesterCastra Deva Roman Chester

Vespasian then marched west, and stormed the hill forts of Maiden Castle and Hod Hill defeating the Britons there with ruthless efficiency. Having gained control of the south of Britain, the Romans marched west into the area now known as Wales. There they encountered the Silures, Ordovices and Deceangli tribes, who opposed the invaders fiercely. The Silures were led by the renegade Caratacus, who had fled into Wales to continue a guerilla campaign against the Roman Governor Publius Ostorius Scapula.

Caractacus was finally defeated in battle in 51 AD and after being betrayed to the Romans by his fellow Briton Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes,with whom he had sought refuge, was taken to Rome as a prisoner, where he spent the rest of his years. Venutius of the Brigantes, the ex-spouse of Cartmandua, then led a further rebellion against Roman rule in the north of England.

Roman BritainRoman Britain

In 60-61, while Governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus was engaged in a campaign against the Silures of Wales, the Iceni tribe of Norfolk, led by their outraged Queen, Boudica rose in revolt. Allied to the Trinovantes destroyed the Roman town of Camulodunum (Colchester) many of the town's inhabitants were mercilessly slain. Londinium (London), became the next target of the exultant rebels, followed by Verulamium (St. Albans). Between seventy and eighty thousand people were reported to have been massacred in the three settlements before Boudica's forces were finally defeated in the Battle of Watling Street.

69 AD, the "Year of four emperors", when Emperor Nero had died and a struggle broke out in Rome to decide who would be his successor, witnessed further turmoil in Britain. A civil war was being fought in Rome, leading to an inability unable to control the legions in Britain, and Venutius of the Brigantes again raised the banner of revolt. After Vespasian was appointed Roman Emperor, Quintus Petillius Cerialis marched against the Brigantes while Sextus Julius Frontinus was dispatched to deal with the Silures.

Frontinus succeeded in extending Roman rule throughout South Wales. Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes and an ally of Rome was evacuated to the newly constructed Roman fort at Chester, leaving Venutius in control of a kingdom at war with Rome. Venutius ruled Brigantia as an independent kingdom briefly. Eventually, he was defeated by the Romans, after which they ruled the Brigantes directly.

Under Roman rule, the Britons adopted Roman customs, law and religion. During their occupation of Britain, the Romans built an extensive network of roads which continued to be used in later centuries, they also constructed water supply, sanitation and sewage systems. Urban settlements outside the Roman forts gradually grew into towns. Many of Britain's cities, such as London (Londinium), Manchester (Mamucium) Chester (Deva) and York (Eburacum), were founded by the Romans. The earliest phases of towns, dating to the mid-first century, reveal timber strip buildings, houses and shops, as well as stone public buildings such as temples and administrative headquarters.

Londinium was established in around 50 AD as a major commercial centre for the Roman Empire. The name is said to derive from pre-Roman, and possibly even pre-Celtic origins. At the time of its foundation, early Roman London occupied a relatively small area, roughly equivalent in size to Hyde Park at 350 acres (1.4 km2). Its length has been estimated as running from the Tower of London west to Ludgate at about one mile (1.6 km), and from London Wall in the north to the Thames bank, around half a mile.

Roman TombstoneRoman Tombstone

The main evidence for Boudicca's revolt in London is the presence of a charred archaeological layer dating to before 60 A.D. within the bounds of Roman Londinium. The layer, which is up to 30 cm thick in some areas, includes the remains of buildings burnt down by the rebels. In the 1860s, excavations uncovered a large number of blackened Roman skulls, and almost no other bones, in the bed of the Walbrook, a subterranean river in London. It was a common custom of the Celts at the time to decapitate the enemy and keep their heads. It is thought that the Walbrook Skulls, may be the heads of some of the Londoners massacred by Boudicca.

The London Wall, a defensive wall around the landward side of the city, was constructed between the years 190 and 225, it was one of the largest construction projects ever embarked on in Roman Britain. The wall measured around 5 km (3 miles) long, 6 metres (20 feet) high, and 2.5 metres (8 feet 2 inches) thick. The remains of an amphitheatre have been uncovered in north London, some of which is still visible beneath the Guildhall. Roman London also had several bathhouses or Thermae and several important temples.

The Catuvellaunian fortress at Camulodunum (Colchester) had been turned into a civilian settlement by 49 AD. The settlement was populated mainly by retired soldiers, large public buildings were erected, including a theatre and a senate house. The Temple of Claudius was built to worship the Emperor, probably after his death in 54 AD, when he was deified, it was totally destroyed during the rebellion of Boudica. The head of a life-size bronze statue of Claudius was discovered in the River Alde in 1907, at a site around 30 miles from Colchester and on the southern edge of Iceni territory, it could possibly have been broken from a statue in the temple by Boudica's forces and carried off as a trophy, although concrete evidence to support this theory is lacking. The town was later rebuilt and enclosed by a substantial defensive wall.

A thick layer of red soot has been unearthed in modern Colchester, a survival from the time when Boudicca set the city ablaze. The George Hotel, on High Street, has a glass pane in its basement which reveals the distinctive burnt red clay. An archaeological dig at Colchester found evidence to suggest every house had been carefully levelled, one by one, by the Iceni. This archaeological layer is known as Boudicca's Destruction Horizon, with burnt artefacts from the period, many of which are displayed at Colchester Castle Museum, which now occupies the site of the Roman Temple of Claudius.

An archaeological excavation at Gryme's Dyke, Colchester, a Roman-controlled earthwork, provided graphic evidence of the harsh treatment the Romans meted out to the native inhabitants of Colchester. Six humans skulls were unearthed, one of which displayed a deep gash, the result of a heavy sword blow to the head. Another of the skulls exhibited a severe fracture caused by a blunt instrument such as a sword pommel, in both cases the injuries that had been inflicted on these individuals had proved fatal. Further tests revealed that these were the remains of native Celts. It is believed that the heads had been impaled on stakes erected within the earthwork enclosure to act as a deterrent to others.

The city of Chester, known to the Romans by the name of Castra Deva, began life as a fort occupied by the 20th Legion (Valeria Victrix). The original fort on the River Dee was probably established during the early campaigns of the governor Publius Ostorius Scapula against the Deceangi in north-east Wales sometime around AD47/48, during the Roman advance northwards. For more than three centuries Chester was one of the most important military bases in the Roman Empire.

Chester Roman AmphitheatreChester Roman Amphitheatre

The Roman Amphitheatre at Chester dates from around 86 AD and is the largest yet excavated in the whole of the British Isles. It was constructed shortly after the establishment of the fort to provide an entertainment centre and training ground for the troops of the 20th Legion stationed there. It is semi circular in form as only half of the structure has been excavated. The structure consisted of a 40 feet (12 metre) high stone ellipse, 320 feet (98 metres) along the major axis by 286 feet (87 m) along the minor. The exits are positioned along the four points of the compass. Evidence of eight vaulted stairways, known as vomitoria, has been uncovered, which opened directly on to the street and served as entrances to the auditorium.

As was the fashion with most Roman forts of the era, the amphitheatre was placed at the southeast corner of the fort. Unlike other smaller, more basic amphitheatres in Britain, the one in Chester had proper seating for about 10,000 spectators on two storeys and about it stood a complex of dungeons, stables and food stands.

A stone block with iron fittings was discovered at the centre of the Chester amphitheatre, which dates back to about AD 100. It is similar to one depicted in a third-century mosaic found at a Roman villa at Bignor, West Sussex, which depicts two gladiators fighting. Gladiator fights were hugely popular and aroused deep passions. Gladiators were often prisoners of war or condemned slaves, reprieved and trained for the arena. Combat gave them a new chance to win a new life by showing skill and courage, even in defeat and reinforced the Roman military ethos.

At the Roman town of Aquae Sulis (Bath), an impressive bathhouse was built around natural hot springs, on a site that had been a shrine of the Celts, dedicated to their goddess, Sulis. The Romans identified the goddess with their goddess Minerva and encouraged her worship. The Roman Baths now house a museum collection of outstanding quality and international significance.

In the years which followed, the Romans subdued more of Britain, the Ordovice tribe was conquered in 78 AD by Gnaeus Julius Agricola, father-in-law of the historian Tacitus. The Romans referred to Scotland as Caledonia, a name derived from the Pictish tribe Caledonii. Agricola went on to defeat the Caledonians at the Battle of Mons Graupius, in Scotland, in 84 AD, but soon after was recalled to Rome. The Romans then withdrew to a more defensible line along the Forth-Clyde isthmus.

Housesteads Roman FortHousesteads Roman Fort

Hadrian's Wall was built as a defence against the warlike Pictish tribes of Scotland and marks the northern boundary of the Roman Empire, it was built following a visit to Britain by the emperor Hadrian in 122 A.D. and remains today a fitting memorial to an Emperor distinguished for his architectural ambitions. Construction probably commenced on the wall in 122 A.D. and was largely completed within eight years. The work was carried out by the Second, Sixth and Twentieth legions, normally based in York, Chester and Caerleon.

The wall was not patrolled by soldiers from Rome, but by second-line troops called auxiliaries, these soldiers were recruited from the continent and were well trained. They would have come from as far afield as Africa and Asia as well as Europe, with some British recruits also stationed there. Running for forty-five miles from the east, Hadrian's Wall was constructed of stone and turf. The stone wall had two outer faces of dressed stone, containing a centre of rubble. The remaining thirty-one miles of the Wall in the west was built of turf. The turf wall, constructed from turf blocks, was built either from the prepared ground or upon a bed of cobbles. There was a large ditch with attendant earthworks to the south, called the Vallum.

During the reign of Antoninus Pius (138-161) the border was extended north to the Forth-Clyde isthmus, where the Antonine Wall was constructed around the year 142. The first Antonine occupation of lowland Scotland was brought to an end as a result of the Brigantian revolt of 155-157, which forced the Romans to move their troops south. The rebellion was put down by Governor Cnaeus Julius Verus. The following year the Antonine Wall was recaptured, but by 163 or 164 it was abandoned.

By the end of the third century, Christianity was becoming a minority faith in Britain but pagan beliefs were still adhered to by the majority of the population. In 304 Emperor Diocletian rescinding the legal rights of Christians and demanded that they comply with traditional Roman religious practices. In 304, St. Alban, a Roman patrician, became the first British Christian Martyr. St Alban, a recent convert to Christianity, provided refuge for Amphibalus, a priest who was being pursued by the Romans, after refusing to make an offering to the Roman gods, he was executed at Verulamium (St Albans). Less than a decade later, Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and made the religion legal throughout the Roman Empire.

Between 388 and 400 AD, the Roman Empire came under attack from barbarian hordes of Goths, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals and Franks, soldiers stationed in Britain were recalled to Rome. In 410, the civitates of Britain sent a letter to the emperor Honorius, requesting aid against the invading Saxons. He replied advising them to 'look to their own defences', Roman influence in Britain was officially ended.