The Roman period
The Roman period (43 – 410)
The Roman conquest started in AD 43 and they were to remain for nearly 400 years. They wanted Britain's precious metals and they called the land ‘Britannia’, which meant 'land of tin'. But the Romans did not colonise the islands of Britain to any significant degree. To a population of around three million, their army, administration and carpet-baggers added only a few per cent. The Roman citizenship was more a political status than an ethnic identity. By AD 300, almost everyone in 'Britannia' was Roman, legally and culturally, even though of indigenous descent and still mostly speaking 'Celtic' dialects.
A major revolt broke out amongst the Iceni against Roman rule in 62 A.D. Led by the warrior-queen Queen Boudicca (Boadicea) of the Iceni, whose revolt nearly succeeded in driving the Romans out of Britain. Her people, incensed by their brutal treatment at the hands of Roman officials, destroyed the settlements at Londinium (London), Camulodunum (Colchester), and Verulamium (Saint Albans). It took a determined effort and thousands of fresh troops sent from Italy to reinforce governor Suetonius Paulinus in A..D. 6l to defeat the British Queen, who took poison rather than submit. Boudicca's revolt slowed the Romanization of Britain considerably.
Rome only ever conquered half the island. The future Scotland remained beyond Roman government, although the nearby presence of the empire had major effects. The highlands and moorlands of the northern and western regions, present-day Scotland and Wales, were not as easily settled, nor did the Romans particularly wish to settle in these agriculturally poorer, harsh landscapes. But in 84 A.D. Agricola won the decisive victory of Mons Graupius in present-day Scotland over Calgacus "the swordsman," that carried Roman arms farther west and north than they had ever before ventured. They called their newly-conquered northern territory Caledonia.
Major defensive works further north attest to the fierceness of the Pictish and Celtic tribes, Hadrian's Wall in particular reminds us of the need for a peaceful and stable frontier. Built when Hadrian had abandoned his plan of world conquest (in 122 A.D.), settling for a permanent frontier to "divide Rome from the barbarians," the seventy-two mile long wall connecting the Tyne to the Solway was built and rebuilt, garrisoned and re-garrisoned many times, strengthened by stone-built forts at one mile intervals. Hadrian's Wall was about 15 feet high, 10 feet wide and there were also deep ditches on both sides to make approach difficult.
One of the greatest achievements of the Roman Empire was its system of roads, in Britain no less than elsewhere. When the legions arrived in a country with virtually no roads at all, as Britain was in the first century A.D., their first task was to build a system to link not only their military headquarters but also their isolated forts. Vital for trade, the roads were also of paramount important in the speedy movement of troops, munitions and supplies from one strategic center to another. They also allowed the movement of agricultural products from farm to market. London was the chief administrative centre, and from it, roads spread out to all parts of the province. They included Ermine Street, to Lincoln; Watling Street, to Wroxeter and then to Chester, all the way in the northwest on the Welsh frontier; and the Fosse Way, from Exeter to Lincoln, the first frontier of the province of Britain.
The Romans built their roads carefully and they built them well. They followed proper surveying, they took account of contours in the land, avoided wherever possible the fen, bog and marsh so typical in much of the land, and stayed clear of the impenetrable forests. They also utilized bridges, an innovation that the Romans introduced to Britain in place of the hazardous fords at many river crossings. An advantage of good roads was that communications with all parts of the country could be effected. They carried the cursus publicus, or imperial post. A road book used by messengers that lists all the main routes in Britain, the principal towns and forts they pass through, and the distances between them has survived: the Antonine Itinerary. In addition, the same information, in map form, is found in the Peutinger Table. It tells us that mansiones were places at various intervals along the road to change horses and take lodgings.
Apart from the villas and fortified settlements, the great mass of the British people did not seem to have become Romanized. The influence of Roman thought survived in Britain only through the Church. Christianity had thoroughly replaced the old Celtic gods by the close of the 4th Century, as the history of Pelagius and St. Patrick testify, but Romanization was not successful in other areas. For example, the Latin tongue did not replace Brittonic as the language of the general population. Today's visitors to Wales, however, cannot fail to notice some of the Latin words that were borrowed into the British language, such as pysg (fish), braich (arm), caer (fort), foss (ditch), pont (bridge), eglwys (church), llyfr (book), ysgrif (writing), ffenestr (window), pared (wall or partition), and ystafell (room).
The Roman legions began to withdraw from Britain at the end of the fourth century. The famous letter of A.D.410 from the Emperor Honorius told the cities of Britain to look to their own defences from that time on.