Roman Britain


Eburacum (or Eboracum) =York; Deva = Chester; Lindum = Lincoln; Camulodunum = Colchester; Londinium = London. [Lugdunum Batavorum = Leiden].


 The Roman invasions

bulletThe Romans first invaded Britain in 55-54 BC.


The Roman Republic had been expanding
 its territory by conquest for two centuries.

Military commanders and provincial governors amassed fortunes from the conquered peoples and then used their wealth and power to influence the political process back at Rome.
Julius Caesar acquired extraordinary resources by his conquest of Gaul; with these, he guaranteed the loyalty of his troops and bribed important Romans.

His actions were key to transforming the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire.

bullet When some Gauls fled to Britain from Rome's armies, Caesar feared that they might use it as a base for a counterattack. He mounted two brief expeditions to Britain - in August 55BC and May 54BC. He defeated a small British army, and returned to Gaul.
bullet Julius Caesar's great-nephew, the Emperor Augustus (27BC - 14AD) expanded Rome's boundaries in both Europe and Asia but then stopped for a period of consolidation [See Map].

Britain remained a possible target for conquest because of its wealth. An occasion arose when one of the candidates for the throne of the important Catuvellauni kingdom appealed to the Emperor Caligula (37-41 AD) for help.


Caligula was murdered in a military coup before the invasion could take place. His successor the Emperor Claudius (41-54 AD) - eager for military prestige - perhaps adopted Caligula's invasion plans as his own; he sent an army to Britain in 43 AD.
bullet Claudius placed Aulus Plautius and Vespasian in charge of an army of c. 40,000 men. Claudius paid a brief visit to Britain (16 days), and - taking all the credit for the conquest - minted coins celebrating his victory, and named his son Britannicus.

A Roman sword Britain's part-time warriors were no match for the better trained and equipped Roman soldiers. British soldiers possessed no armor that was proof against the Roman pilum or javelin, nor had they an appropriate tactical response to the Roman legionaries' disciplined, close-order use of the short thrusting sword (gladius).

bullet Initially, Rome occupied only the South-East, but soon expanded North and West. Caratacus organized resistance in Wales, but this was suppressed by 60 AD.

In 61 AD, the western stronghold of Mona (today the Isle of Anglesey) was overcome.



"On the shore stood the opposing army with its dense array of armed warriors, while between the ranks dashed women, in black attire like the Furies, with hair dishevelled, waving brands. All around, the Druids, lifting up their hands to heaven, and pouring forth dreadful imprecations, scared our soldiers by the unfamiliar sight "

[Cassius Dio, Roman History]


bullet A major revolt broke out amongst the Iceni against Roman rule in 62. Led by the warrior-queen Boudica, the rebels destroyed the settlements at Londinium (London), Camulodunum (Colchester), and Verulamium (Saint Albans), before being defeated by the Roman Governor, Suetonius Paulinus.
About 70,000 civilians - mostly Britons - died in the revolt.

Boudica's revolt slowed the Romanization of Britain considerably.

Mosaic from Romano-British villa

Gnaeus Julius Agricola (40-93) became governor of Britain in 78. Under his rule, towns were expanded, fortresses built, and the road system started.

Roman expansion

bullet Under Agricola, Roman influence was extended northwards. In 78 he defeated the Brigantes of Yorkshire -- who under their Queen Cartimandua had earlier been independent allies of Rome.

bullet Agricola marched as far north as the Grampians in (what is today) northern Scotland, and somewhere near them defeated the Caledonians (who outnumbered the Romans 3 to 1) at the Battle of Mons Graupius (83 AD) (Much later, "Graupius" was mis-read as "Grampius" - erroneously giving rise to the term "Grampian mountains" or "Grampians").

bullet Too successful for the tastes of the proud and suspicious Emperor Domitian (51-96), Agricola was suddenly recalled in 85.

Pari arrogantia, cum procuratorum suorum nomine formalem dictaret epistulam, sic coepit: "Dominus et deus noster hoc fieri iubet. Unde institutum posthac, ut ne scripto quidem ac sermone cuiusquam appellaretur aliter."

With no less arrogance he [the emperor Domitian] began as follows in dictating a circular letter in the name of his procurators, "Our Lord and God bids that this be done." And so the custom arose of henceforth addressing him in no other way, even in writing or in conversation.

[Suetonius: Lives of the Caesars]


Domitian (51-96)


bullet The need to station troops in other parts of the Empire led to the abandonment of the far north, and the northern limit of Roman Britain was established roughly where England now borders Scotland.
bullet In 122, the Emperor Hadrian visited Britain, and at about the same time the construction of Hadrian's Wall began.

Hadrian's Wall was about 15 feet high, 10 feet wide and stretched for 73 miles. Built mainly of stone, there were also deep ditches on both sides to make approach difficult.

Soldiers were positioned in turrets and castles along the length of the Wall,

Hadrian's Wall



Hadrian's policies aimed at consolidating the Empire within existing borders, but his successor, Antoninus Pius was more expansionist. Rome reoccupied the Scottish lowlands and a new wall was built in 140-143. It was constructed largely of turf and extended about 37 miles from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Clyde.

The Romans soon retreated and within half a century, Hadrian's Wall once again marked the northern limit of Empire.

Not far from Hadrian's Wall was the fort of Vindolanda, where excavations have unearthed many important discoveries, including wooden leaf-tablets with writing by members of the Roman garrison, their families, and others. See index of the Vindolanda tablets.


Sources are poor, but evidence suggests that there was invasion from the North during the early 180's. In its aftermath, many Northern British cities built walls for their protection.


Clodius Albinus

In 195, civil war erupted between two candidates for the job of emperor, Clodius Albinus and Septimius Severus.
The British legions fought for Clodius Albinus, but were defeated in Gaul by Septimius Severus.

Septimius Severus


bullet The Caledonii and Maeatae tribes gave so much trouble in the North that Septimius Severus came to Britain to direct their suppression.
Severus brought with him his wife, Julia Domna and his two refractory sons, Caracalla and Geta.
bullet Severus died at York in 211, and his elder son, Caracalla, promptly set about trying to seize sole power. (Both returned to Rome, and Caracalla had Geta murdered there in December 211).
bullet The written evidence for third century Britain is very poor, but archaeological evidence suggests that the country was prosperous and peaceful - for example, new villas were being built and elaborately decorated.


From 260 until 274, Britain was part of the breakaway "Gallic Empire" established by the usurper Postumus (?-269).
As well as Britain, the Gallic Empire included Spain and much of Gaul and Germany.

Britain under Rome

Rome invested considerable resources in the invasion and protection of Britain - its occupation required about 10% of the Roman army.

Permanent forts were linked by a network of level straight roads that allowed for easy redeployment of troops.

These roads also encouraged trade.


bullet The substantial investment in garrisons and infrastructure was worthwhile because of Britain's agricultural and mineral wealth.
bullet The Romans were mining silver in Britain as early as the 40s AD, and lead production was so plentiful that the Roman government limited British output to protect mines in Spain and Gaul. (Lead was used for plumbing fixtures and coffins).
bullet Peace and trade led to the growth of cities:

  Deva was founded in about 60 AD; it was a military base or castra and was later called Chester by the locals.
(Colchester and Gloucester carry the same reference to a camp/ castra in their names).

Eburacum (or Eboracum) was a fortress of the Ninth Legion; it was established about 78 AD. It later became the home of the Sixth Legion.
The Saxons corrupted the name to "Eoforwic", and the Vikings turned this into "Jorvik" which eventually became "York".



In the late 50s the Romans established another base at "Lindon," which they pronounced "Lindum." When a colony of veterans was established here, it became known as "Lindum Colonia," and eventually as Lincoln.

bullet During the last quarter of the first century AD (75-100), cities expanded considerably - theatres, amphitheatres, public monuments, baths & market places were constructed. The Romans were efficient engineers who provided cities with good water supplies.
Urbanization went alongside Romanization. Public policy consciously aimed at persuading  Britons to adopt the customs, dress and habits of Romans.
bullet Another sign of wealth and Romanization was the construction of county villas. These comfortable, heated houses were usually within ten miles of a town.
bullet The Second and Third Centuries AD were a time of general prosperity and the population of Roman Britain reached about 3.5 million by 400 AD.
The ocean protected Britain from the barbarian invasions that ravaged the Roman provinces of Gaul during the 3rd Century.

The Government of Britain

Publius Helvius Pertinax (126-193)
Governor of Britain,185-187, and Roman Emperor, 192-193.


bullet The head of civil and military government in Britain was a legatus or governor, but his actions were monitored by a procurator, who collected taxes and managed the emperors' personal assets.
bullet During the 3rd Century, Britain was divided into two provinces - Superior (Upper) and Inferior (Lower) Britannia.
bullet The army was important as an engine of social mobility and often intervened in politics. Emperors had to be very careful to keep the army occupied and satisfied. (It is possible that Hadrian's Wall was partly constructed in order to keep the army from making mischief). However, during the 3rd Century the army came to dominate disputes about the imperial succession.

For more information about Roman Britain, try romans. An award-winning podcast on the History of Rome is here: thehistoryofrome.typepad.com


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