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Roman Britain: Britannia and the Long Arm of Rome

February 19, 2012 | Comments: 0 | Views: 170

The Roman historian Tacitus described it as pretium victoriae or "worth the conquest." It was the "largest island known to the Romans" and populated with people who "produce gold and silver and other metals." Imperial Rome, it seemed, was only interested in the wealth and resources with which Britannia could provide it. Rome, however, could not have obtained these highly crafted wares from a rudimentary, disjointed society of cave dwellers. Some historians have presented Iron Age Britain as just such a place, but the historical evidence exists to show that pre-Roman Britannia contained a dynamic, growing society of artisans, even though it had not equaled the splendor of Rome.

Society in the Iron Age One evidence that supports a view of a burgeoning Britannia is the discovery of towns and villages from the period and even from years before. A prime example of just such a village can be seen in the seaside ruins at Skara Brae, Scotland. These ruins were discovered in the mid-19th century after a storm stripped off the grass that had overgrown the submerged ruins. What was uncovered was a small but complex housing system, estimated to have been inhabited during the years between 3000 and 2500 B.C. The ruins attest to a people who had established a fully functioning culture and had incorporated new innovations into their houses and daily lives. The ruins bear evidence of an indoor plumbing system, and they also show that the inhabitants placed their valued possessions (i.e. jewelry, carved weapons, pottery) on display in their homes on the large central "dressers" which are so prominent.

Evidence of later society can be seen in the Jarlshof ruins in Shetland, Scotland. It contains ruins dating from as early as 2500 B.C., but ruins dating up to the 17th century can be seen scattered throughout the area. The most obvious Iron Age ruin is that of a wheelhouse, a type of structure unique to Iron Age Scotland.

Religion in the Iron Age Some of the most famous landmarks of the British Isles are the stone ring ruins such as those at Brodgar in Scotland or the most famous at Stonehenge. Although the exact function of these ruins is not perfectly known, most scholars agree that they served some religious function to the inhabitants of Britannia, both before and during the Iron Age. Most of these stone rings were constructed before the official dates of the Iron Age in Britain, but the monumental size of the various ruins attest to the manpower and ingenuity of the Britons, before they came to encounter the emissaries of Rome.

Another evidence of the religious culture of the period can be seen in the large number of tombs and mausoleums scattered throughout the country. Though not strictly religious sites, tombs and burial grounds bear a direct connection to a people's beliefs and religious convictions. A prime example of an ancient British burial mound is the West Kennet Long Barrow, a burial mound that was used around 2000 B.C. The burial mounds were constructed using stones walls and foundations but most were grown over with earth, so that an observer today might only see the tomb as a grassy mound on the British landscape. Inside the mound, however, intricate passageways and rooms held the bodies and treasure of the ancient Britons. Many of these tombs were targeted by Viking raiders in the 8th and 9th centuries, but some of the tombs remained untouched and have been invaluable resources to historians studying ancient Britain.

Weapons and Wares in the Iron Age A third evidence of the sophistication and development of Iron Age British society is found in the weaponry which they produced. This is a quite convincing evidence of the skill and craftsmanship which the early Britons possessed. Simply seeing the beautiful ornamentation of the Battersea Shield is enough to convince anyone of the skill needed to create such a work. The shield itself was probably not made to serve as a serious instrument of war, but it could serve as a showpiece for a king, and that is probably what it was used for. It was found in the river Thames, as many weapons and shields were thrown into the river as sacrifices during the Iron Age. Another example of an Iron Age artifact is the horned helmet which was also dredged from the Thames River. This helmet is the only example of an Iron Age helmet that contains horns, as horns during that time period were a symbol of the gods.

Hill Forts in the Iron Age Many historians point to the rising population in the Iron Age as the cause for the spike in the construction of fortifications during the time period. With the population base growing, and the food sources not rising to the increased demand, many local lords began to build strong, hilltop fortifications in which to defend the local people and their food store. Some historians also point out that the forts would have served as a perfect means with which to coral livestock, particularly cattle and sheep, and they contend that livestock keeping was the main purpose for these constructions, and not defense. Regardless of the builders intent, however, these hill forts are visible to this very day and they are another testament to the ingenuity and building skill of the Iron Age Britons. Maiden Castle is the largest example of a hill fort in England, and many of the forts, such as Cadbury Castle, were reoccupied after the Romans left the isles.

Iron Age Britain Meets Rome The superior quality of the British weaponry and jewelry was a large factor in causing the Roman empire to take notice of the islands to Rome's northwest. In the period prior to the Roman invasions, a substantial trade had been established between the empire and the British isle peoples. Rome traded luxury items such as wine and oil to the Britons in exchange for the gold of the isles. Tacitus made comment about the Britons weapons and jewelry in his work Agricola when he referred to their gold and silver work, a comment whereby he concluded that "conquest is worth the while." Had the Britons themselves known that Rome held them in such a view, they would have had just cause for disquiet.

Caesar's Invasions (55 - 54 B.C.) In an attempt to bolster his status among the citizens of Rome, Julius Caesar initiated an invasion of the British isles in 55 B.C. Caesar's first attempt at invasion was not meant to be, however, as the Roman fleet was turned back by foul weather. He returned again the following year and had a somewhat successful campaign, establishing relations with several regions in southwestern England. This is seen as the first establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries, and the diplomatic establishment was the only true result of the British invasions led by Caesar.

Claudius' Invasion (A.D. 43) The Roman Emperor Claudius saw Britain as an ideal opportunity by which he could expand the empire, take possession of the resources in the British isles, and also gain the prestige associated with the conquest of a new land. He launched an invasion force 40,000 strong in A.D 43, and with such a large invasion force, nothing could stand in the way of the Romans. They met fierce resistance from the British inhabitants at some places, but Rome actively sought to gain willing followers, rather than force them into submission. This policy of peace before war was largely practiced by bribing the residents into cooperation, as most Britons had never seen the level of splendor with which the Romans could lavish them. A prime example of the splendor Rome bestowed on cooperative Britons is the Fishbourne Palace in West Sussex. Such beautiful architecture and workmanship could only be seen in Rome itself, but in order to extend the empire, Roman officials would go to any length.

Rome spent an extended period of enlarging their control over the British isles, through whatever means necessary, and by and large they were successful. The most remembered misstep is evidenced in the story of Queen Boudica and the revolt against Roman control. Boudica's husband had ruled a region of Britain and was a loyal ally of Rome during his life. At his death though, Rome took control of the land rather than let it pass to his wife, Boudica. The Romans flogged and raped her two daughters and in a vengeful rage, Boudica raised an army to revolt against the Romans. They won a few victories initially, but were no match for the disciplined legions in the long run. Though Rome maintained control, they could have avoided a major incident had they only followed their own practice of valuing a peaceful ally over a conquered foe.

Agricola and Hadrian in Britain In A.D. 78, Agricola was appointed governor of Brittania, and he continued the conquests there. Rome's most difficult encounter in Britain occurred in A.D. 79 when the legions face Calgacus on the slopes on Mons Graupius in Northern Britain. Rome quickly learned that the peoples of northern Britannia were much stronger willed than their southern counterparts, for the battles waged in the north of the isles proved to be the limit of Rome's conquest in Britain. By the time Hadrian came to power in A.D. 117, Rome had essentially withdrawn to an unmarked line in northern England and not advanced any further. Emperor Hadrian placed a strong emphasis on construction and building during his reign, and he was largely responsible for the construction of a wall at the line where the legions had halted their conquest. The wall ended up being approximately 80 miles long, and it served as a control point for movement and commerce in the northern regions Britain.

During the Roman occupation of Britain, the two cultures merged to a substantial degree and evidence of that remains to this day. A physical evidence of the cultural combination is seen at the Roman bathhouse, for which the town of Bath was named. Rome also contributed to the English culture in areas such as law and literature. Eventually, the British isles began to come under threat of incursion by barbarian forces, mainly from Germany and Northern Europe. While Rome still occupied the islands, they built fortification to protect themselves from the invaders. An example of these types of Roman forts is seen in the modern-day city of Portchester.

The Empire Weakens and Rome Takes It's Leave Rome first arrived in A.D.43 and built their control in Britain gradually over the years. Things in Britain became quite acceptable, both to the Romans and to the Britons. Rome gained the natural resources of the British isles, another region to add to it's vast empire, and more subjects to add to the tax base. The Britons in return reaped the gains of urban establishment, in cities such as London and Richborough, and they had gained the protection of the Roman legions from the growing barbarian threat from the North and the West. All good things must come to an end, as the saying goes, and this case did not contradict the trend. Rome itself was feeling the pressure of the growing barbarian presence in the West and it was eventually forced to recall it's legions to Italy in order to defend the Mother City. Although not completely defenseless, the Britons had grown used to the protection of Rome. It is apparent that Rome withdrew almost all of it's legions in the early to mid-5th century. Here we will leave our examination of Roman Britannia. The Britons are left as a people to face the mounting pressure of the barbarian hordes, and they are forced to do without the aid of Rome. Until next time, thanks for reading!

The author is a student of history, and will be embarking upon the study of law in the near future. He has a blog at Be sure to stop by for in-depth analysis of British history.

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British Isles


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Skara Brae

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