Roman Britain

Roman Britain

Roman Britain

Although it had long been known to the Mediterranean peoples as a source of tin, Britain did not enter the Roman world until Julius Caesar’s arrival in 55 BC, a sort of afterthought to his conquest of Gaul. Caesar’s contact, however, was temporary; permanent occupation had to wait until Rome had solved more pressing problems at home.

Emperor Claudius I invaded Britain in force in AD 43, but nearly two decades passed before the Romans had captured Anglesey, headquarters of the feared Druids, and put down the revolt of Boudicca, queen of the Iceni. The Roman governor Gnaeus Julius Agricola won the Battle of Mons Graupius (AD 84), somewhere in Scotland, but the northern tribes proved hard to subdue. In 123, Hadrian’s Wall, stretching 117 km (73 mi) from Solway Firth to the Tyne River, became the northern frontier.

Britain was a military outpost, taking a tenth of the Roman army to hold it. Several towns attained a degree of Roman urban civilization, boasting baths and amphitheaters, as well as people who spoke Latin and wore togas. Numerous villas and vast estates worked by slaves and featuring sumptuous noble dwellings were also established. Beyond these, the countryside remained Celtic.

Britain in the 3d and 4th centuries felt the decline of the Roman Empire. An official known as the count of the Saxon Shore oversaw defenses against raids by Saxons and others along the North Sea coast. Would-be emperors stripped Britain of its occupying forces, moving the legions elsewhere to serve their own political ambitions. In 410 Rome abandoned Britain. After nearly four centuries of occupation, it left little that was permanent: a superb network of roads, the best Britain would have for 1400 years; the sites of a number of towns: London, York, and others bearing names that end in the suffix -cester; and Christianity.

The Anglo-Saxons, who occupied the country after the Romans left, ignored the towns, chased Christianity into Wales, and gave their own names, such as Watling Street, to the Roman roads.

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Roman Britain: Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrians Wall

Hadrian’s Wall

Julius Caesar’s invasion force landed on Britain’s south-coast in 55 BC, and found it inhabited by Celtic tribes.  In 56 BC Caesar returned to Britain, and came face to face with the Catevellauni, whom he defeated in battle.  Caesar set up treaties and alliances before withdrawing his forces, and so the Roman occupation of Britain had begun.

In AD43, Emperor Claudius sent Aulus Plautius with a force of some 24,000 Roman soldiers to Britain, with orders to establish a military presence.  By AD79 England and Wales were under Roman control.

Emperor Vespasian believed Scotland should also become part of the Roman Empire, but they resisted the Romans.

Julius Agricola, Governor of Britain was faced with a formidable task.  By AD81 he had subdued southern Scottish tribal clans of Selgovae, Novantae and Votadini.  Roman forces headed northwards, intent on provoking the Caledonians into battle against hardened Roman warriors.  They met at Mons Graupius, where Romans were victorious, as 10,000 Caledonians were slain in battle, at the cost of only 360 Romans.  The following day, surviving clansmen fled into the hills, remaining resistant to Roman rule.

Hadrian became Emperor of the Roman Empire in AD117, and under his orders, the Roman Empire no longer expanded.  In AD122 upon his visit to Britain in, ordered the construction of a wall from the North Sea to the Irish Sea; Solway Firth in the West to the River Tyne in the East.  If he couldn’t rule or control these Scottish barbarians, he built a wall; “Hadrian’s Wall” some 73 miles in length, 10 feet in width, and 15 feet in height, across open country, keeping them out of Britain.

The Roman’s built mile castles (small forts) which housed garrisons of some sixty men, every mile with towers every third of a mile.  Sixteen larger forts, holding 500-1,000 soldiers were built along the length of the wall, with large gates on the walls north face, and a wide ditch, with six foot high earth banks on the south side of the wall…

This massive structure, stretching across northern Britain was constructed by legionaries, taking six years to complete.

Much of the wall remains to this day, despite parts being used for road building and houses over the centuries.  This wall is nearly 1900 years old, a testament of Roman construction.

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Roman Britain: Antonine’s Wall

Antonines Wall

Antonine’s Wall

Antonine’s Wall, located in Scotland, measuring some 37 miles in length, built out of earth and timber around AD142.  It stretches from the Firth it the Clyde, crossing the narrowest part of Britain (Bowness on the Firth of Forth to Old Kilpatrick on the Clyde) with ramparts and ditches protected by small forts.

By AD163, the wall had been abandoned in favour of the larger Hadrian’s Wall.

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Battle of Mons Graupius

Roman Navy at war

Roman Navy Ships

The Romans landed in Britain in 43AD, and conquered this land, defeating the uprising led by Boudicca.  Britain was now under Roman rule.  Scotland’s inhabitants new they be at risk, from Roman forces, but had no intention of bowing down to the will of Rome.

In the year 79AD, a Roman fleet surveyed Scotland’s coastline, looking for weak points.  By 83AD, Roman forces had conquered parts of southern Scotland.  Scotland’s Caledonian forces faced an imminent invasion.  The Caledonian went on the attack against Roman forts and legions.  One surprise night attack by the Caledonian’s against the Roman’s nearly wiped out the 9th legion, but was saved by Agricola’s cavalry.

In the summer of 84AD, Agricola advanced into Caledonian territory in the north-east, hoping to force a battle.

Battle of Mons Graupius

Battle of Mons Graupius

Everything depended on this encounter.  Some 30,000 Caledonian’s faced a Roman army half its size, and they had the advantage of holding higher ground, it looked a foregone conclusion, it should have been a victory to the Caledonian’s.  What the Caledonian’s lacked was organisation and military tactics, as used by the Roman’s.

The Romans were tightly disciplined and relied on a short stabbing sword for combat.  Their front line was made up of Germanic auxiliary troops from Holland and Belgium, with the Roman legionaries following up at the rear.  At one point the Caledonians, using their greater numbers, outflanked the Romans only to meet hidden Roman cavalry suddenly closing on them.

Any hopes of a Caledonian victory soon vanished.  In a merciless bloodbath 10,000 were slaughtered.  Many fought valiantly to the end, others fled into the surrounding woods and hills, burning their houses in fear of Roman reprisals.

The following day… an awful silence reigned; the hills were deserted, houses smoking in the distance…

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