Roman Britain – An Introduction

Britain prior to the Roman conquest Britain was a country peopled by Celtic tribes, often at war with each other which left the country in a permanent state of unrest.

First Invasion of Roman Britain

Julius Caesar had of course paid visits to Britain in 55 and 54 BC which may have been a move intended to gain prestige back home in Rome, although the Celts in Gaul had been receiving aid from their allies in southern Britain. Julius Caesar left after two summers fighting exacting a promise of tribute from the defeated tribes and returned to Gaul. More about Julius Caesar’s Campaigns.

Second Invasion of Roman Britain

In 43 AD the Emperor Claudius in need of a boost to his domestic prestige ordered the invasion of Britain under the command of Aulus Plautius. Despite a mutinous army, once the Romans landed they enjoyed rapid military success.

The slow advance through southern England and Wales that occurred was halted in AD 60 by the rebellion of the queen of the Iceni, Boudicca, incensed by having her lands taken from her and the rape of her two daughters. The revolt was suppressed, but not before three recently founded Roman cities, Camulodunum (Colchester)Verulamium (St Albans) and Londinium (London), had been burned to the ground.

The advance resumed in AD 70 with the conquest of Wales and the north. The governor Agricola (AD 77–83) even succeeded in defeating the Scottish tribes at the Battle of Mons Graupius in AD 83, somewhere in the Grampian highlands.

The far north could not be held, as troops were pulled back to deal with invasions on the Danube frontier, and the army gradually fell back to the Tyne–Solway frontier. It was here that the emperor Hadrian, visiting Britain in AD 122, ordered the building of his frontier wall. The emperor Antoninus Pius tried to reoccupy Scotland and built the short-lived Antonine Wall (AD 140–60). He was ultimately unsuccessful, however, and Hadrian’s Wall became the northern frontier of the province once more. Read about the frontier system of Roman Britain.

Invasion from the North

The Brigantes were still not subdued and shortly after AD 180 during the reign of Commodus there was an invasion by the northern tribes, who overran the wall. Commodus sent the general Ulpius Marcellus to quell the uprising. Around this time most of the cities of Britain were enclosed within earthen defensive walls, which may have been linked to the invasion.

The Roman Empire was ruled from Britain for a brief period in AD 208–11, when the emperor Septimius Severus came to campaign north of Hadrian’s Wall. Severus divided Britain into two provinces, Britannia Superior (south) and Inferior (north), with capitals at London and York respectively. This prevented too many troops from being concentrated in the hands of a single governor who might have attempted to usurp power.

The End of Roman Britain

After Constantine’s conversion in AD 312, Christianity was adopted more widely across the empire, including in Britain. In the 4th century Britain was reorganised as a ‘diocese’ consisting of four provinces, with military forces under the command of the Dux Britanniarum – the Duke of the Britains. The next 50 years or so were a golden age of agricultural prosperity and villa building, especially in the south-west.

Repeated attempts to usurp the empire by generals based in Britain (the last being Constantine III in AD 407) drained the diocese of troops. By AD 410 Britain had slipped out of Roman control, its inhabitants left to fend for themselves.