An introduction to the 350 years history of Roman Britain with a timeline of major events.
Our Iron Age ancestors would have been aware of Rome long before Julius Caesar appeared on a Kentish beach one day in 54 BC. Roman coins, jewellery and manufactured goods were familiar to the traders and ruling class in Britain and, in the years before Caesar’s brief incursions, word of the mighty Roman legions would arrive with traders and refugees fleeing from the battles and massacres which marked his ruthless path of conquest through Gaul just across the stretch of sea we now call the English Channel.
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There can be little doubt that, as the province of Gaul was assimilated into what became the Roman Empire after Caesar’s death, Rome’s influence was increasingly felt in Britain during the next eighty years. There must have been regular trading, social and cultural contacts with the countries across the Channel and North Sea which were dominated by Rome.
Eventually the Emperor Claudius, recently elevated due to the murder of his unhinged predecessor Caligula and needing to earn the respect of potential rivals in Rome, decided to invade and conquer the misty and mysterious offshore island of Britannia for purposes of prestige. There were virtually no important economic or strategic reasons for bringing Britannia into the Roman Empire.
Once their disciplined and well-equipped legions had overcome opposition in southern Britannia, including the brief but bloody Iceni rebellion led by Boudicca, the Romans quickly set about integrating the country into the empire. As soon as possible, work began on surveying and building a network of roads which connected a scatter of military fortresses and garrison townships. Those roads still underlay major routes throughout the England we know today.
When the legions had achieved unquestioning allegiance, local governance was often left in the hands of British leaders or appointees and it was they who rigorously imposed taxation on the local tribes to help pay for the garrison troops and the modern Roman infrastructure. Substantial settlements soon sprang up, with public buildings built of stone and connected to one another by the new roads. Many of today’s place names still echo their original Roman names. Chester, Colchester, Cirencester, Brancaster, Gloucester were originally sites for a Roman castrum or fortified place. Lincoln was the colony by a lake. London started life as Londinium and York originally was the Roman city of Eboracum.
Latin was the language of the barracks and the cities but, throughout the imperial era, the farmers and herdsmen and fishermen etc. retained their British voice, of which we still hear echoes in the Welsh and Gaelic languages. Over time the population, at least in the towns and cities of southern and midland Britannia, probably became quite cosmopolitan as the descendants of soldiers, traders and bureaucrats from overseas mixed and interbred with Britons grown affluent as they shared the economic benefits bestowed by the Roman imperial system. Most of these urban people would be bi-lingual, speaking Latin and at least a smattering of the native Celtic language.
They and their wives and children would expect the comforts and support experienced in other parts of the empire and so every city and military post had its complex of bathing facilities and temples in which to worship their favoured deities, together with shops, markets, workshops, hostelries and trading emporia. The larger places had an amphitheatre, where games and gladiatorial contests were performed, and/or a theatre. Every household of any note would have a complement of slaves, some of whom would be of local British stock, but others might originate from some other part of the vast empire and beyond.
Out in the settled parts of the country, wealthy Romans and important British personalities began to build opulent villas on their estates. Eventually they contained all the refinements of luxurious Roman life, such as warm air central heating, beautiful mosaic floors and frescoes on walls and ceilings. Naturally, these privileged people lived the life of imperial citizens rather than that of humble Britons. They imported wine, olive oil, Samian pottery tableware, fine clothing, perfumes, spices and much more in large quantities. Wherever possible they began to produce some of their favourite foodstuffs on site. Vineyards in favoured climatic areas of Britannia produced acceptable wine which was also used to make vinegar and sauces in the kitchen. Huge amounts of fish sauce were made for culinary purposes. A wide range of vegetables including cabbage, celery, artichokes, asparagus and onions were introduced from overseas, together with such fruits as cherries, damsons, figs and mulberry. Edible dormouse fattened in a cage was a delicacy. Guinea fowl and pheasants were other edible animals introduced to Britannia by the Romans.
The Roman presence was generally beneficial for traditional native British farming. The legions and their auxiliary forces required regular supplies of grain from estates in the south and east for making bread and beer. Beef, pork and poultry were also important parts of their diet; the pastoralists of the north and west contributed to those needs: they also produced some horses for military use and the hides which were needed in large quantities to make leather boots, harnesses and other military equipment. As the Romanised population increased, heavier demands for fuel and building timber led to large clearances in the once densely-wooded landscape and opened up more land for agricultural production.
With the south pacified, the legions pushed into what they called Caledonia, but the northern limit of Imperial control was eventually defined by a wall built at the command of the Emperor Hadrian when he visited Britannia in 122 AD. Efforts to secure more territory further north with the Antonine Wall were soon abandoned and the country they knew as Caledonia remained beyond the Roman imperium. No doubt the Wall acted as a sort of trading control system but for many years it was also usually manned by a strong military presence, proving that Roman Britannia felt the need to be vigilant and prepared to resist Caledonian attacks and forays.
Ireland, known as Hibernia, apparently had little interest for the Romans and they made no attempt, as far as we know, to conquer or control it. The Scoti, as the Romans called the people of Hibernia, settled the Western Isles and coast of Caledonia and occasionally raided the far northwest coast of Britannia, whilst the Pictish tribes remained established in the rest of Caledonia. We are not sure when those Scoti settlements first took place but we do know that eventually their name (Scotland) was given to the whole country of Caledonia.
We should realise that Rome governed Britannia for more than three hundred years which put into a modern context is a period stretching back from us to a time before Queen Anne ruled Britain. Naturally, there were many changes throughout that period of time. Fashions, for one thing, would be continuously evolving; sometimes men were clean-shaven and at other times they grew beards. It is also doubtful that troops manning Hadrian’s Wall continued to wear the short-skirted uniform popularly used through the ages to depict the Roman soldiers’ attire; it would surely be more practical to cover their limbs with warmer clothing against the chill, wet winds of Cumbria and Northumberland? Women’s hairstyles and clothing would also be subject to constant change and there would be competition among them to display the latest fashions in ornament or jewellery emanating from Rome.
During those centuries, changes also occurred in the ethnic composition of Britannia. The original British racial characteristics, whatever they were, would still be dominant in the countryside but, in and around the towns and military garrisons, the populations were probably composed of a rich mixture of racial types from all area of the empire and beyond. The brown eyes and olive complexion of Mediterranean peoples became commonplace on the streets and they were accompanied by people of Semitic appearance from Asia and others with African features. Over time these people would marry and breed with each other and with the original British population until at the end of the Roman occupation a minor but diverse ethnic mixture had been added to Britannia’s population.
Over the years, people’s religious or spiritual practices were also subject to change. We know the Romans strongly opposed the Druids whom they found exercising spiritual authority in Gaul and Britannia, but they seemed to be tolerant of the local nature deities which the native Britons continued to revere for many years.
New religions occasionally crept in from the eastern reaches of the empire. For a time legionaires were strongly attracted to the cult of Mithras which originated in Persia; that cult faded away when Constantine the Great, who was proclaimed Emperor at York in 306, became a Christian convert and ordained Christianity as the official religion in the Empire. By 314 three British bishops were recorded in attendance at the Council of Arles. Thereafter, Christianity in one form or another, never completely died out in the British Isles.
We tend to think Roman rule in Britannia was one continuous period of peace and stability but the accompanying timeline reveals that echoes of imperial rivalry and eruptions of local ambition and aggression provoked several periods of crisis and discontent, particularly in the second half of the third century. Each crisis was overcome by the authorities, and excavation of villas demonstrate that Romano-British prosperity reached its zenith in the fourth century. Thereafter a decline set in and the times of disruption became more frequent. Coastal forts were built to repel sea-born invaders, but Scoti and Picts from Caledonia, and Saxon raiders from over the North Sea became bolder and tested the defences more frequently.
Professional military units were withdrawn and were often replaced by inferior local militia or none at all. By about 370 AD it is likely that some Romanised Britons were beginning to sell up and seek greater safety elsewhere. Bands of unpaid soldiers and escaped slaves added to the fear and lawlessness sweeping through Britannia, which began to sink into a Dark Age.
54 BC Julius Caesar mounts a full scale raid on Britannia.
~ Cassivellaunus leader of the local Britons surrenders, but Caesar returns to Gaul and suffers eventual assassination in Rome (15 March 44BC).
43 AD Roman legions again land in Kent. The Emperor Claudius arrives and captures Colchester, the first Roman capital of Britannia, which becomes a Roman province under the governorship of Aulus Plautius. Vespasian, legate of the Augusta Legion II, leads the assault on the west.
47-50 AD A bridge is built across the Thames at Londinium (London) which becomes a leading commercial and government centre.
51 AD Caratacus, leader of British resistance, is defeated and, after being betrayed into Roman hands, is taken to Rome where he is pardoned.
61 AD Boudicca leads the Iceni rebellion. Colchester is burnt and Londinium is sacked. She is eventually defeated by the governor G Suetonius Paulinus. She supposedly dies by taking poison.
68 AD Most of the essential paved roads in Southern Britannia are completed, including the Fosse Way from Exeter to Lindum Colonia (Lincoln) which marks the probable boundary of Roman control at this date.
75-77 AD British resistance in the north is ended by an offensive initiated by the emperor Vespasian. The whole of Britannia falls under Roman rule. Eboracum (York) is the northern command post. Caerleon in South Wales is also garrisoned.
79 AD The garrison fortress at Chester is completed.
82-84 AD Gnaeus Julius Agricola advances into Caledonia (Scotland) beyond the Forth but, although he wins a battle with the Picts at Mons Gropius, he returns south having failed to pacify all the tribes.
96 AD All of Cambria (Wales) is brought under Roman control.
122 AD The Emperor Hadrian builds a wall as a frontier between Britannia and the Picts of Caledonia.
142 AD The Romans advance once more into Caledonia and build the Antonine Wall between the Clyde and Forth rivers.
160 AD The Antonine Wall in Caledonia is abandoned.
162 AD Hadrian’s Wall is refortified by the Governor Calpurnius Agricola.
185 AD Ulpius Marcellus defeats and makes peace with the Picts in Caledonia.
~ Several mutinies occur within the Roman army in Britannia against the appointment of lower-ranking commanders for the legions.
192 AD Clodius Albinus, commander of the legions in Britannia, is proclaimed emperor but accepts the deputy title of Caesar.
196 AD Clodius Albinus, declares himself Emperor but is defeated and killed in Gaul by Septimius Severus the following year.
Circa 200 Temples of Mithras are established in forts on Hadrian’s Wall.
209 AD Early Christians are persecuted by the Emperor Septimius Severus- execution of St Alban, Britain’s first Christian martyr?
211 AD Emperor Septimius Severus campaigns against the Caledonian tribes beyond the old Antonine wall but becomes sick and dies at Eboracum (York).
212 AD The new Emperor Caracalla, Severus’s son, grants Roman citizenship to all subjects of the Empire.
Circa 215 AD Britannia is reorganised into two provinces by the Emperor Caracalla with capitals at Londinium and Eboracum (York).
270 AD Forts begin to be constructed along the Saxon Shore (Eastern and Southern Britannia) as a defence against continental raiders. Stone walls begin to be built around towns.
284 The Emperor Diocletian divides the empire into two (eastern and Western) each ruled by an Augustus deputised by a Caesar.
286-296 AD Britannia is held by rebel Roman forces led by Mausaeus Carausius.
296 AD The Caesar Julius Constantius defeats rebels and their Frankish allies in Britannia and saves Londinium from destruction.
306 AD Constantius, now Augustus of the western empire returns to Britannia and defeats the Picts. He dies at York.- Constantine the Great is proclaimed Emperor at York in succession to his father. Constantine later embraces and legitimises Christianity and moves the Imperial capital from Rome to Constantinople (Byzantium).
314 AD Three British bishops (York, London and Lincoln?) attend the Council of Arles.
343 AD The Western Emperor Constans comes to Britannia to supervise the re-organised defences in the north and along the Saxon Shore.
359 AD The Caesar Julian arranges for Britain to become the granary of the Roman army in Western Europe.
367 AD An insurrection by Roman troops on Hadrian’s Wall, assisted by Picts and the Scoti of Hibernia (Ireland) and possibly Saxon invaders takes over all western and northern Britannia.
369 AD Flavius Theodosius restores order and refortifies the frontiers of Britannia.
382 AD Magnus Maximus defeats the Picts and Scoti then goes on to usurp the western empire, in the process of which he removes troops from Britannia and abandons some forts.
388 AD The last Roman coinage is minted in Britannia in the reign of the Emperor Maximus.
396-398 AD An expedition sent by Rome defeats the Picts and Scoti at sea.
407 Flavius Claudius Constantinus is proclaimed emperor by his troops in Britannia. Recognised as co-ruler by the Emperor Honorius, he attempts to wrest complete control and is defeated and killed in 411.
410 AD The Legions are withdrawn; Britannia, abandoned by Honorius, faces hostile raids by Picts and Hibernian Scoti in the north and Germanic tribes from the continent.
Circa 429 AD Bishop Germanus of Auxerre is sent to combat the Pelagian heresy among British Christians. Pelagius, a British-born monk taught that human nature was essentially good and that men chose to do evil. He denied the doctrine of Original Sin and the need for infant baptism. Germanus also promotes the cult of St Alban.