Enter the Romans

Defining Britannia

The impact of the Roman invasion on the peoples of Iron Age Britain is hard to assess for the simple reason that they never told us. Apart from a few inscriptions, they wrote nothing down and kept no Homeric record of their past. For three and a half centuries we have only the limited documentation of their occupiers. That conquest, at least after the initial (and indubitable) invasion, appears not to have involved mass slaughter, enslavement or population replacement. Life for most Britons under the Romans must have continued much as before. In the century since Julius Caesar’s probing expeditions of 55 and 54 bc, there developed extensive trading contacts with Gaul. Cornish tin had made its way as far as Italy. Apart from that, Caesar had written, ‘no one goes to Britain except traders’. It had little strategic significance to the empire.

Resistance to Rome was short lived. In ad 43 the emperor Claudius’s troops under Aulus Plautius landed in Kent under the pretext of aiding pro-Roman tribes in the south-east against the aggression of the Catuvellauni. Possibly Belgic in origin, the Catuvellauni were located from around St Albans into the Midlands under their chief, Caratacus. His early defeat at the Battle of the Medway in 43 effectively secured the south-east of Britain for Rome.

Conquest did not lead, as so often in European conflict, to mere elite replacement and the payment of tribute. It saw the creation of an extraordinary infrastructure, of towns and roads, forts and markets, temples and villas, the defining lifestyle of this still new empire. Rome also created a new politics, the concept of civitas, an ordered society of settlements under delegated local government and civil law. In its train came writing, entertainment, design and religious faith, at first pagan and later Christian. Imperial culture was remarkably uniform. A tiled floor in a Cotswolds villa was the same as one in Libya.

What we do not know was who occupied this conquered territory. Soldiers and merchants came from across the empire and would have spoken ‘vulgar’ Latin. Colonists were regularly imported and even granted Roman citizenship to stabilise communities. Soon there emerged an assimilated ‘Romano-British’ population, benefiting from the new regime and its economy and loyal to Rome. There are few records of armed resistance to the empire, at least in the south-east, throughout the period of occupation.

Within two decades Roman authority had reached as far west as the River Exe at Exeter, the land of the Dumnonii people of Devon and Cornwall, while to the north, a headquarters was built in 71 at York in the territory of the extensive Brigantes tribe. So far only the Welsh offered serious resistance, notably the Silures in the south and the Ordovices in the centre and north. After the Battle of the Medway the Catuvellauni king Caratacus retreated to lead the Silures against the Romans, to be defeated in 50. He fled north but was betrayed to the Romans by the Brigantes.

The Ordovices in north Wales remained troublesome until in 60 a Roman army under Suetonius crossed Snowdonia and besieged them in Anglesey. Virtually the sole chronicler of the early empire, Tacitus, described scenes of Druids and ‘black-robed women with dishevelled hair like Furies brandishing torches’, who initially terrified the Roman soldiers. The Ordovices were defeated and the Romans went on to build two of their most impressive camps on the Welsh border, at Caerleon in Gwent and at Chester. Caerleon indicated extensive Romanisation in south-east Wales. Both bases boasted imposing amphitheatres that still survive.

During this Welsh uprising, the previously compliant Iceni of East Anglia revolted under their queen, Boudicca, protesting a broken treaty with her late husband, her flogging and the rape of her daughters. Before Suetonius could recall his troops from Wales, Boudicca attacked London, Colchester and St Albans, reputedly (and improbably) butchering 40,000 civilians. She was defeated and committed suicide in ad 61. Hers was the only serious insurgency of eastern Britons against the Romans and it had been sorely provoked. Britannia now hosted the Roman empire with little of the rebelliousness seen in Germany or France. London became probably the largest Roman city in northern Europe, but as a trading centre rather than a military base.

How far across the British Isles the empire should extend was not decided. In 80 the governor Agricola embarked on an expansion north out of the Brigantes’ territory to the line of the Forth and Clyde estuaries in Scotland. He sailed round the Orkneys and down Scotland’s west coast, where he settled a naval base with the intention of advancing on Ireland.

All did not go well. Hostility from the Highland tribes compelled Agricola to advance to a new base at Stirling, eventually defeating the Caledonians in a set battle in 83 or 84 at Mons Graupius near Forfar. The Caledonian king Calgacus was alleged by Tacitus to have addressed his troops before battle: ‘To robbery, slaughter and plunder they give the lying name of empire: they make a desolation and they call it peace.’ It was to be the motto of imperial resistance down the ages.

Agricola requested military reinforcements from Rome but did not get them. In 85 a sceptical emperor Domitian ordered him to retreat and any further conquest of Scotland, let alone of Ireland, was abandoned. Tacitus, Agricola’s son-in-law, described him as angry at being summoned home. Caledonia was ‘perdomita et statim omissa’, no sooner conquered than let go. Even Trajan, the most expansionist of emperors, had no interest in Scotland, declaring a boundary with what Rome regarded as unstable territory.

The Picts, as the Caledonians came to be called, were left alone, as were Ireland’s tribes, some confusingly named the Scotti. Agricola’s ventures marked the effective limit of the Roman empire in the British Isles, though northern raids into Roman territory became a frequent occurrence. A border wall was ordered from the Solway Firth to the Tyne that would rank among the most spectacular relics of Roman empire anywhere. It was named after Trajan’s successor, Hadrian, who personally walked its entire seventy-three-mile length on a visit in 121. The barrier comprised sixteen forts, a ditch and a twenty-foot wall. Where it still runs along the Whin Sill escarpment it remains a monument to the resistance of indigenous Britain to Europe’s greatest empire. It also scarred into the landscape an emotional boundary between the English and their northern neighbours.

Along the northern and western areas of Britannia, forts were steadily established and bases garrisoned with troops drawn from tribes friendly to Rome elsewhere in the empire, including from what is now Germany. These bases were linked by metalled roads along which soldiers, goods and messages could travel with unprecedented speed. It is said that not until the railways could news travel faster than by horseback on a Roman road. Order was maintained and trade prospered.

By the end of the second century the British colony had been divided into Britannia Superior, embracing most of the south, East Anglia and Wales with its capital in London, and Britannia Inferior, governing the north from York. The former developed the more sophisticated communities, populated with Latin-speaking officials and landowners. Villas and towns housed merchants, craftsmen, servants and slaves. When Gerald of Wales visited Caerleon in the twelfth century he was amazed at the ‘immense palaces formerly crowned with gilded roofs … a town of prodigious size, with hot baths, temples and amphitheatres’. Caerleon was probably the biggest town in Britannia outside London.

While Britannia Superior was mostly peaceful throughout the Roman period, the rest became less so. The Welsh tribes remained remarkably loyal, treated by Rome as a bulwark against Irish raiders. But to the north Hadrian’s Wall was a severe drain on imperial resources, estimated to consume two-thirds of the province’s military strength. In the 140s, within a dozen years of the wall’s completion, the governor of Britain, Quintus Lollius Urbicus, was faced with a Caledonian rising. He was ordered by the then emperor, Antoninus Pius, to build another wall to the north along the Forth–Clyde line. Neither wall proved effective. The Antonine Wall was gradually abandoned and even Hadrian’s Wall was partly destroyed. In 208 the emperor Severus ordered Hadrian’s Wall rebuilt and arrived personally to oversee it. It was clearly to the Romans a significant imperial boundary. There were no more Agricolas and the Scots were firmly left as ‘barbarians’.

We thus see under the Roman occupation a strengthened emergence of the two Britains, east and west, noted earlier. The peoples of the south-east, the Midlands and south Wales became known as Romano-Britons. They were politically stable, secure and loyal to a regime that had long ordered and blessed them. Their lingua franca was assumed to be a version of Latin, but as for what they spoke ‘at home’ we can only guess. I prefer to imagine it was a long-standing Old English tongue of their forebears. Meanwhile, to the north and west, tribes continued their Iron Age lifestyle communicating in their various Celtic tongues.

The decay of Roman Britain

The story of the British Isles under Roman rule was told by Tacitus and others as that of a mostly benign empire operating at the limit of its geographical authority. The bargain was Roman security and civilisation in return for tribal obedience and sometimes tribute. As the fourth century progressed, this bargain began to fray. Detached Britannia was dubbed ‘the cradle of usurpers’ for the frequency with which its commanders and armies mutinied. Some generals even declared themselves emperor on location, as did Constantine the Great in York in 306. Britain was no longer a secure colony. Garrisons along its frontiers were frequently depleted to serve elsewhere and its coasts fell vulnerable to raids from cross-border tribes, both from non-Roman Britain to the north and from Germanic tribes across the North Sea.

In 367 these raids saw a significant development. A grand alliance was formed to assault the Roman province between the Picts of the Scottish Highlands, the ‘North Welsh’ of Strathclyde and Cumbria, the Scotti of Ireland and an unidentified tribe known as the Attacotti. They were believed to have colluded with tribes across the North Sea. It was what the Romans termed the Great (or Barbarian) Conspiracy. Wales was not included and stayed loyal to Rome.

At the start of the uprising, the garrison on Hadrian’s Wall mutinied and joined the rebels. This left the eastern and western seaboards open to attack. Britannia was undefended and armed bands roamed as far south as the Thames, even threatening London. For the first time non-Roman Britain was uniting on the warpath against a weakening Roman empire, much as had Arminius’s Germans on the Rhine frontier. But there was no co-ordination within the alliance. No single rebel leader emerged to exploit the moment. The raiders returned home with such booty as they could collect.

We can assume that the Romano-British inhabitants of the south-east were horrified by the uprising, viewing the incursion as a barbarian menace. A year later, in 368, a Roman commander named Theodosius was sent to restore imperial authority, executing rebel leaders and re-garrisoning Hadrian’s Wall. A Spanish-born general accompanying him named Magnus Maximus briefly became Rome’s western emperor (r.383–8). Under the name of Macsen Wledig, he was reputed to have acquired a Welsh wife, Helen. His background in Celtic-speaking Spanish Galatia and his reputed garrisoning of Armorica (Brittany) with Welsh troops brought him heroic status in the world of Welsh mythology and legend.

Maximus’s celebrity indicates the confusion and obscurity that overcame all accounts of the state of Britain at the turn of the fifth century. We know that in 410 the occupants of the British civitates appealed to the emperor Honorius to send troops to protect them against persistent raids. Honorius faced Germans rebelling on the Rhine and Huns threatening Rome and refused all help. He told the Britons in a clear-cut letter that they were now a free country and should look to their own resources. Britannia was no longer defensible.

The British Isles after 410 disappear from official Roman records. History customarily depicts them as descending into a ‘dark age’ of anarchy, decline and foreign invasion. For many Romano-Britons, it must indeed have been traumatic. But commanders and magistrates are thought to have stayed in post, sometimes as local ‘tribunes’. Soldiers remained on Hadrian’s Wall. Many villas and settlements were gradually abandoned, for reasons that remain obscure. The familiar detritus of Roman occupation, weapons, inscriptions, coins and legionary relics, disappeared. But archaeology offers few signs of violence or destruction. There was no evident crisis, indeed the reverse.

A surviving church, a living faith

A significant sign of continuity came from Rome’s new faith, Christianity. Over the course of the fourth century this came to replace polytheism among the Roman population and Druidism among the Britons. Of the latter we know little. A lack of evidence left the Druids to be richly mined for myth and imitation by revivalists. A scholar of Druidism, Miranda Aldhouse-Green, judiciously places them somewhere between loveable nature-worshipping shamans and blood-sacrificing savages. Unlike the Romans, they built no surviving temples to their gods. Stone circles and henges are thought long to predate them, despite the theories of modern Druidical revivalists.

The Christian church was one institution to leave some record of its activities after the departure of Rome, and they extended well outside the boundaries of Britannia. As early as the third century a Roman scholar, Tertullian (c.155–220), was reporting on ‘the places among the Britons unpenetrated by the Romans that have come under the rule of Christ’. This is assumed to refer to Ireland. After the official recognition of Christianity by the emperor Constantine in 313, records show Britain already sending bishops from York, Lincoln and London to the Council of Arles held in 314. This must imply an already established religious community. It flourished alongside paganism in Britain into the seventh century, when Penda of Mercia (r.626–55) was said to be the last pagan British king. Though Druidism died out, what was later dubbed ‘Celtic Christianity’ saw peripatetic priests described in one text as ‘saints and Druids’.

In 380 a British priest named Pelagius visited Rome, where he publicly disputed with no less a figure than St Augustine. The bone of contention was Christianity’s proclaimed surrender of free will to a preordaining God. This, said Pelagius, stripped humans of choice and thus of moral responsibility. For challenging the interpretive authority of the Roman church – a foretaste of Luther – Pelagius was declared a heretic, at one point even a Druid. His ideas none the less were sufficiently popular in Britain for the Roman church to despatch Bishop Germanus of Auxerre in 429 to suppress what must have seemed a serious dissent. Britain was by then beyond the boundary of imperial authority and it is intriguing that the Roman church should already have been presuming to a similar outreach. It was, as Hobbes later wrote, ‘the ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned on the grave therof’.

Germanus proved effective, not only as a charismatic preacher but also as a former soldier. In the second role he diverted from his mission to head a so-called Christian army against Pictish and ‘Saxon’ raiders who had reached as far west as the Mold river on the Welsh border. His triumph there in c.430 was allegedly sealed by his adopting the Hebrew biblical call ‘Alleluia’ as a battle cry. Its echo round the hills terrified the enemy. When Germanus returned home to France, his biographer reports that ‘this very opulent island found peace and security on several fronts’.

Heresy or not, Christianity had taken hold among western Britons. While Germanus was struggling against Pelagianism, the church was growing in strength in Wales, Ireland and Scotland. An early figure was the son of a prosperous family in north-west England named Patrick (385–461). Kidnapped by Irish raiders and sold in Dublin as a slave, he eventually escaped and made his way to a monastery in Brittany. From there he returned, possibly via Wales, to arrive as a missionary in Ireland. Patrick’s energy and erudition came to define the Irish church. Though never formally canonised, he became and remains Ireland’s patron saint.

The concept of a Celtic Christianity remains controversial. Its following among western Britons when easterners were still consorting with Germanic paganism gave it a status almost independent of Rome. That is now considered dubious. What is certainly the case is that the Celtic-speaking territories of the western British Isles were visited by a missionary movement known as the ‘age of saints’. Contemporary with Patrick in Ireland was Scotland’s St Ninian (c.360–432), who founded Britain’s first known monastery at Whithorn in Galloway, begun in 397. He went on to lead a mission to the Picts.

The age of saints appears at its most vigorous, or at least lasting, in Cornwall and Wales. In Wales wandering priests travelled incessantly, setting up crosses and attracting worshippers to shelters of wattle and daub, sometimes founding ‘colleges’ or clasau for their followers. To the historian Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, ‘each with his bell, his well and his special powers over birds and beasts and nature, seem[s] to carry some faint trace of old pagan Celtic practices … of old Celtic magic’. The prefix llan for a holy site lives on in dozens of Welsh place names, and is even applied to earlier Druidical stone circles. A later missionary in the sixth century, St Columba, was known to call Christ ‘my Druid’.

Of secular rulers in this period we know of only one, Vortigern (c.394–455). His story is so enveloped in folklore as to be near-impenetrable. He clashed with Germanus – allegedly over his wish to marry his own daughter – but also featured in fighting off many raids round the British coast. He is believed to have sponsored the move of a chief named Cunedda in c.420 from the lands of the Welsh-speaking Gododdin in North Britain down to Gwynedd in Wales to guard against the Irish. Vortigern ended his life in Wales, where he dissolved into myth, supposedly founding a dynasty and bequeathing the nation his emblem of a red dragon.

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