Roman Britain: A Summary

I’m leading a new course on Roman Britain archaeology and thought the summary of our first session – setting the scene for the history of Roman Britain – might be of interest to many of you.  So here it is …

Britain was known about and recorded by ancient sources from at least c.320 BC when Pythias, a Greek explorer from Massilia (Marseilles) is noted to have sailed to Britain and beyond. Britain was called the Prettanic island but became the Brittanides by the Roman era. In the 1st century AD, Pliny the Elder also referred to it as Albion.

Julius Caesar invaded in 55 BC and again in 54 BC. He recorded that the Britons lived in the old ways, in tribes and in roundhouses and that they used chariots in war. Despite his sniffy approach to their antiquated ways, the Roman army could not succeed against them easily.

Iron Age Britons used bronze & gold coins, were skilled metalworkers and lived their large population lived in farmsteads, not towns, with defensive hillforts.

Butser c Helen Hovell

Roundhouse at Butser Farm (c) Helen Hovell with permission


Culturally, they were depicted by the Romans as odd and uncivilised; when facing the druid stronghold of Anglesey, the Roman soldiers were reported to be petrified with fear by the screaming harpy-like women …

As the poetry of the time shows, Augustus was expected to invade Britain but he even advised his successor, Tiberius, to ‘keep the empire within its boundaries’. Caligula began an expedition but it ended in farce. The legion he had raised for this, though, was used by Claudius when he invaded in AD 43.


Emperor Claudius (c) The Muddy Archaeologist, Gillian Hovell   (Naples Museum)

Wales and the north were resistant to the Romans. The Iceni revolted in AD 61 after excessive brutality and seizing of the Iceni kingdom after the king died; this was beyond the governor’s orders, it was not regular Roman behaviour. The new towns of London, St.Albans and Colchester, built by the Romans to be centres of Roman government, were destroyed by fire in the revolt.
In the decades that followed, the south flourished as Roman towns created prosperous centres for trade and local chieftains became client kings for Rome.

Fishbourne mosaics Hovell

Fishbourne mosaics (c) Hovell



Agricola led the Romans into the north of Scotland. In AD 83 he defeated the Caledonians at Mons Graupius (site unknown) but Emperor Domitian called him back (due to jealousy or to use the army on the Rhine?). The frontier was marked by the Stonegate road (just south of the later Hadrian’s Wall) & stone forts were now built here to replace the turf and timber forts that had supported the campaign northwards.

AD 122 Hadrian’s Wall was built. In AD 140 Antonine’s turf Wall was begun but it lasted as a frontier for only a couple of decades; the Romans soon retreated back to Hadrian’s Wall.


Hadrian’s Wall dominates the landscape

In AD 184 barbarians crossed the wall, causing destruction and wiping out a legate’s troops. Commodus (of Gladiator film fame) was emperor and by AD 193 no fewer than 5 emperors ruled successively within the year. One of them, Clodius Albinus, was the governor of Britain and he remained ruling Britain as a rebel emperor until Emperor Septimius Severus defeated him in AD 197.

Severus’ punitive expedition to Britain from AD 208 spawned a vast rebuilding programme in the north of Britain. Vindolanda’s visible stone fort is from this time as are many other ruins.


Vindolanda Fort  (c) The Muddy Archaeologist Gillian Hovell

Severus invaded Scotland, reaching northern Scotland but in AD 211 he died in York, exhausted by the difficult campaign against guerrilla warfare. His sons were with him; Caracalla, succeeded, killed his brother, Geta, and left Britain.

P1013785 Caracalla Muddy Archaeologist Gillian Hovell Naples.JPG

Emperor Caracalla  (c) The Muddy Archaeologist, Gillian Hovell  (Naples Museum)


Britain was divided into two provinces in the early AD 200s, to weaken the governors; commanding such a large proportion of the Empire’s army in one area had been a major cause for delusions of imperial power.


However, while Emperor Diocletian (AD 284-305) stabilised the Empire, Carausius, the commander of the British fleet, proclaimed himself Emperor of Britain and Northern Gaul in AD 286. He championed Roman values, though; this was no barbarian uprising and he ruled until his death in AD 293.


Southern Britain prospered and rich villas were built. But barbarian invaders prompted the building of the ‘Saxon Shore Forts’ from the Wash to Portsmouth.

In AD 307 Constantius (one of Diocletian’s four rulers in his imperial Tetrarchy) died while at York and his son, Constantine, was declared Sole Emperor by his troops. He left immediately to claim his rule but civil war raged for the nigh on 20 years it took him to achieve sole imperial power.

Constantine York cr Muddy archaeologist

Constantine in York  (c) The Muddy Archaeologist, Gillian Hovell


Britain remained calm, villas prospered and even supplied grain for the troops in northern Europe on the Rhine. But in the AD 360s the ‘Barbarian Conspiracy’ caused ‘uninterrupted hardships’ in their hit and run tactics into Roman Britain. Theodosius was sent to restore order (London’s city wall bastions may have been built in this time).


From AD 401, the Visigoths were invading Italy, desperate for land to live on as they fled the Huns.  Constantine III was proclaimed Emperor in Britain in AD 406 and, pressured by military force, the Emperor in Rome, Honorius, yielded joint consulship of Rome to Constantine III in AD 409. Britain was struggling,  without help from Rome and the Britons threw out the imperial officials. This broke the ‘deal’ with Rome. By the time they sought help from Honorius against the barbarian invasions (AD 410), Honorius wrote back to ‘look to their own defences’. As Roman citizens, the Britons had a right to military protection, but the deal was broken. Roman Britain had ended.

But a Roman way of life continued, with some persistence. Ambrosius Aurelianus was probably a Roman aristocrat and may be the origin of King Arthur and his legends, as he fought to maintain law and order in a crumbling world. He defeated the Saxons at Mt. Badon in c.AD 493 but in AD 577 the Saxons won a battle at Durham, near Bath. They took Gloucester, Cirencester than Bath. The centres of Roman-style government had fallen. Roman Britain had truly ended.


Source: muddyarchaeologistcouk

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