How did the Romans Rule Britain?

Before the Romans conquered Britain, the Island was a patchwork of tribal Kingdoms, confederacies and local chiefdoms. The Romans formed the conquered territories into a province, known as Britannia, which was ruled on behalf of the Emperor by a governor or Legatus Augusti pro praetore.

Clients Kingdoms of Roman Britain

Initially some tribal kingdoms, such as those of the Brigantes, the Iceni, the Catuvellauni, the Atrebates and the Regnenses tribes, were allowed to keep their local independence and their rulers became client­ kings. The palace at Fishbourne was probably the home of the client-king of the Regni, Tiberius Claudius Cogidumnus.

As these rulers died, however, their kingdoms were incorporated into the province. At the same time, local self-government was gradually extended to the settlements of army veterans known as colonies, to privileged towns which were given the status of municipium, and to the population of much larger areas, usually based on existing tribal regions, which were organised into civitates – Iocal authorities.

The Provinces of Britannia

Map of Roman Britain

About the beginning of the third century Sextus Julius Severus divided Britain into two provinces – Britannia Superior and Britannia Inferior – which split the area south of Hadrian’s Wall in two with the boundary line drawn roughly from the Wash to the Mersey. A century later Diocletian further divided Britain, to make a total of four provinces, and in the middle of the fourth century a fifth province, named Valentia, was created in northern Britain.

Provincial Capitals of Roman Britain

The administration of the provinces was based on a provincial capital, which until the revolt of Boudicca seems to have been the colony at Colchester. Apart from the offices and residence of the governor and the other administrative staff, the provincial capital also housed the principal temple of the imperial cult and was used once a year for the meeting of the provincial council – a largely advisory body comprised of delegates from the various local authorities.

After 60 AD the capital of the province appears to have been London, where remains of a large palace thought to belong to the governor and built about 75 AD have been recognised. London has also yielded a building thought to be used by the Procurator of the province and inscriptions which clearly indicate that the seat of government was there. A large fort in one corner of the city probably housed troops serving on the governor’s staff and those needed for ceremonial purposes in the capital.

When the province was divided then of course further capitals were needed. York was the capital of Inferior before it became capital of Britannia Secunda in the fourth century. At this time Cirencester was probably made capital of Britannia Prima, whilst Lincoln may have become capital of Flavia Caesariensis. The last of the provinces, Valentia, may have had its capital at Carlisle.

The Governors of Britannia

The Governors of Britania

Newly-acquired areas usually came under the rule of the Emperor. The Roman Empire was divided into provinces ruled by the Senate in Rome or by the Emperor on the Senate’s behalf. e would then entrust these areas to the power of a Governor, or legatus Augusti pro praetore, who was both commander-in-chief of the army in the province and head of the civilian administration.

Provincial governors were chosen from men who had served in the Roman senate, and in provinces with more than two legions (including Britain), from men who had held the consulship in Rome. We know the names of many of the governors of Britain, the most famous of whom is Agricola. His career is broadly similar to that of many other governors.

Read more about the Governors of Roman Britain.

The Work of the Governor of Britannia

As the province became more settled, campaigning became a less important part of the governor’s role. The governor also oversaw law and order in the province, and was directly concerned with criminal law and the Court of Appeal. Legal matters took up so much of the governor’s time, in fact, that from the 70’s a deputy, known as a legatus iuridicus, was appointed to ease this burden.

The governor was also responsible for communications in the province, including road and bridge-building and the running of the imperial post. Additionally, he was expected to receive deputations and petitions, and to make periodic visits to different parts of the province. To help him the governor had a large staff. Some of these were unofficial – friends and advisors – but the official staff were overseen by a centurion and included ten soldiers seconded from each of the legions who carried dispatches and helped in the administration of law and order (speculators). Other soldiers served as beneficiarii, and inscriptions referring to them occur as widely spread as Winchester, Wroxeter and Catterick.

We believe their duties included control of the supply routes in the province. Clerical staff included secretaries, clerks and accountants, and these, like the speculators and advisors, used offices attached to the governor’s residence in London.

Tribal Capitals of Roman Britain

Tribal capitals were set up around Britain to oversee the regional government of the area. The colonies, municipia, and the civitates (of which there were eventually more than twenty in Britain) were all governed by a council (or ordo or ‘civitas’) of nominally one hundred members. The council members were at first chosen from the ranks of the tribal leaders but later they were elected from wealthy and prominent citizens who had to meet certain property qualifications. From amongst them four magistrates were elected each year. To lead the council two of its members were elected to serve in the office of duumviri, mainly concerned themselves with administering the law, whilst their junior colleagues (aediles) supervised public works -repairs to roads, aqueducts, sewers, and so on. There might also be quaestors who would see to matters of local finance.

Between them, these officials would take on much of the local responsibility for the work of the governor and the Procurator. Civil law cases would be tried, taxes and the corn levy collected, roads and the staging places of the Imperial post would be maintained. Every five years the census returns would be revised to ensure that everyone was paying the correct amount of tax.

All of this work was administered from the basilica building in most towns, which included not only the aisled hall where assemblies took place and legal cases were heard, but also the council chamber and office for the magistrates and their clerks. Although small towns which were not civitas capitals appear to have lacked basilicas, we know that they too – if they had the status of a vicus also had their own council.

Law and Order in Roman Britain

We have seen that justice was administered both by the Governor and by the local councils, the latter concerning themselves mainly with civil law cases. Roman law, like modern law, was complex. There were several sets of laws existing alongside one another, including laws applying to Roman citizens and those applying to both citizens and non citizens. In Britain it is likely that Celtic law also operated.

Crime and Punishment in Roman Britain

Punishments varied not only according to the crime but also in relation to one’s class. A serious crime would rarely mean death for a member of the upper classes; they might be deprived of their citizenship and some of their property. A poorer man might receive the death penalty for a similar crime, or be sent to the mines.

Imprisonment was not used as a punishment, although suspects could be held in custody until their guilt or punishment was determined. Much of the time spent on administering justice was taken up with wills and the problems of inheritance.

The Procurator

One aspect of the province which was no concern of the governor was its financial organisation. This was controlled by a Procurator, assisted by junior officials. His central office was in the provincial capital, and in London we believe we can identify the building used by the procurator Ciassicianus shortly after the Boudiccan revolt.

Apart from paying the army, the procurators office was responsible for collecting taxes and overseeing imperial estates. An estate (saltus) might be a farm, but often it was a quary, an iron works, or a lead mine. A junior procurator, usually with a small number of troops, would see to the day-to-day running of a saltus.

The main taxes to be collected were those on land and on moveable property. In addition, there were death duties, customs dues, and other minor truces. Taxes were paid partly in money and partly in produce. Grain and hides were always needed by the army, and there was a corn levy (annona) which provided corn for the garrison of the province.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of both the financial and legal administration of a province was the small number of staff needed to make it work efficiently. The total employed by both procurator and governor may have numbered no more than two hundred. The secret of the system was, of course, the degree to which the Romans delegated responsibilities to local authorities.

Local Government

The earliest grants of local self-government were often made to colonies (coloniae) which were towns of Roman citizens, frequently retired legionaries. The citizens of course possessed all the rights and privileges of the Roman citizen, and they were responsible for the administration of both the town and its surrounding area or territorium.

Similar responsibilities fell to the citizens of a municipium. This was a status, carrying Roman or Latin citizenship with it, granted to important towns. Tacitus calls St Albans a municipium, and other British towns no doubt achieved the status later, perhaps including Leicester.

Most of the larger towns of Roman Britain acted as the administrative centres of local authorities called civitates. These were based, where possible, on existing tribal territories and as legal units they were usually much larger than a colony or municipium and its territories.

Towns which did not rank as colonies or municipia, and this included many civitas capitals, normally had the status of a vicus, and they too had their own council. Finally, a civitas was broken down into a number of administrative areas, each of which was known as pagus. These various legal units could of course overlap. For example, St Albans was a municipium but it was also the capital of the civitas of the Catuvellauni.