To the north of Gaul was a strange land occupied by a strange people called Britons. It lay on the other side of the ocean which was the boundary of the known world. Was it an island, or was it perhaps another continent as big as Europe? Julius Caesar had explored it briefly in 55 BC, and more extensively in 54 BC when he did battle with the local king who agreed to pay tribute. But they were an odd sort of people who fought from chariots, which had gone out of fashion centuries ago in the civilized world. But were they a threat? Could they be civilized? Should we try to rule Britannia?
From our modern point of view in the 21st century, looking at the difference between barbarism and civilization, Roman Britain presents a very interesting problem. The trouble with Britain was that it was divided into two. To the south and east it was relatively civilized. To the north and west however they were still barbarians.
The difference can be seen in the use of coins. To the South and East, coins had been used for over a century: Leo Rivet produced two distribution maps comparing the Iron Age coins with the much later distribution of Roman Villas, showing that Romanisation spread in the footprint of Celtic coins. But it was not just coins: it was also the spread of wheel-made pottery, and the larger and looser defended sites known as oppida; Christopher Hawkes called it the Iron Age C.
Of course, the Romans did not know all this. Britain was a source of metals and hunting dogs, and Britons made good slaves, but they were a threat on the northern side of Gaul, so it was a marginal question whether it would be worth taking Britain into the empire.
Eventually they were taken into the Roman Empire — for all the wrong reasons. The conquest came from the Emperor Claudius. Claudius was weedy. He was already fifty years old when he was dragged out from behind the curtain where he was hiding, and made Emperor. But emperors were supposed to be tough military men, so Claudius looked around to find something to conquer, and it was decided that he should conquer Britain, so a distinguished general, Aulus Plautius was sent off to conquer Britain. By this time the Romans had learnt not to land at the White Cliffs of Dover, but to go round the corner and make a much easier landing at Richborough, or possibly Chichester.
He made his way inland, fought battles at two rivers (the Medway and the Thames?) and then moved on to Colchester, the seat of the leading ruler. There was then a pause while Claudius was summoned from Rome. He crossed over, spent 16 days in Britain, received the submission of 11 kings and returned to Rome to celebrate a triumph. Hurrah! The weedy scholar was now a great conqueror and therefore fit to be a real emperor.
The conquest of Britain then went on apace, and whether by accident or design, a rough border was soon established. This is called ‘the Fosse Way Frontier’. The Fosse Way is one of the great Roman roads running diagonally from Exeter in the south west to Lincoln, half way up the north eastern side of England, a road that still exists in one form or another, for part of its way.
However the Roman method of conquest was far more sophisticated than simple war. The Romans always made use of client kings, and in Britain there were two main client kings: a good client king and a bad client king, or rather a bad client queen. The good client king in the south was Cogobubnus, the King of the Atrebates stretching from Chichester on the south coast up to Silchester near modern Reading. And the bad client queen was Boudica, or Boadicea, Queen of the Iceni in East Anglia.
Boudica (the name is Celtic for the Queen) famously revolted. It was her father Prasutagus who was the original client King and on his death the Romans somewhat brusquely decided to take the kingdom into direct rule, but Boudica objected and she was flogged and her daughters raped – so Tacitus tells us – and the tribes rallied behind her. The Romans were unprepared and Boudica captured and burnt Colchester, the capital of Roman Britain. They then went on to capture and burn St Albans, and then London, the newly established imperial town, which in ten years had grown to become the biggest town in Britain: the layers of ashes from the burning are still visible in deep excavations. It looked as if the Romans were going to be thrown out of Britain. The governor was campaigning in North Wales which was a hotbed of the Druids, but he hurried back and eventually after a hard-fought battle defeated Boudica — and Britain was saved for civilisation.
Was Boudica right?
It is difficult to know whose side to take in this episode. It is always tempting to see Boudica as a British hero, attempting to save Britain from the Roman invaders. But Romanisation was already proceeding fast: Tacitus says that 70,000 Roman citizens and allies were killed in the towns. Interestingly, Suetonius Paulinus, the governor who won the battle, wanted to punish the natives, but the new procurator, the emperor’s agent, reported back to Rome, and the governor was replaced by a new governor, who was more inclined to lenity.
What would the average British middle-class citizen – if one may use two inappropriate terms – have felt about the Roman conquest? On the one hand, there is always the distaste for being conquered by foreigners, and no doubt the Romans often behaved harshly; but was there not also the suspicion that Rome meant civilisation and progress, and they wanted to be on the side of progress? I suspect that as so often, both beliefs were held simultaneously, and judging by the spread of Roman material in Britain, their suspicions that Rome meant progress, were not altogether unjustified.
The difference between the two client kings can perhaps be seen by their architecture. In Norfolk, an interesting site near Thetford was excavated by Tony Gregory, who sadly died very soon after he had completed the excavation. But he believed that the site was the headquarters, if not of Boudica herself then of one of the leading princes of the Iceni. Here a rectilinear enclosure enclosed five rather grand roundhouses which he suggested formed the palace of one of the nobles of the Iceni — still using round-houses.
fThe other client kingdom were the goodies – the Atrebates –probably ruled over by the great king Cogidubnus. They appeared to have had two centres, each of which has been excavated by one of the leading archaeologists. One is at Fishbourne, just outside the Roman and modern town of Chichester, where a magnificent Roman palace was excavated in 1960s by Barry Cunliffe. This can only be described as a palace, one of the grandest Roman buildings north of the Alps. True, it was built after the Boudica rebellion, perhaps as a reward for Cogidubnus’s fidelity during the rebellion and his help in stabilising southern Britain after the rebellion, but a large building under the later palace is rectangular and very much in the Roman style. Here was a client king who built in the Roman style – rectangular buildings not roundhouses.
There also seems to have been a second centre at the town of Silchester, 50 miles to the north near modern Reading, where Michael Fulford, Professor of Archaeology at Reading has been excavating for many years. This is our best known Roman town because it was deserted after the Romans and was therefore extensively excavated by the Society of Antiquaries in the 1890s. Mike Fulford has spent many years extending their excavations and demonstrating that there were already the beginnings of a town there before the Romans.
At the two leading towns too, at Colchester and St Albans, very rich burials of the first phase have been found suggesting that the locals had collaborated with the Romans and were appropriately rewarded.
But Romanisation was already proceeding fast, and went faster after the rebellion. The process continued along the pattern that Augustus had already established in Gaul, where the tribes were turned into what modern archaeologists call cantons, each with a town which is called the cantonal capital, which was the centre of local government. In pre-Roman Britain the native tribes had tended to be fluid, rising and falling with the success of the chieftain. The Romans however froze this situation, sometimes inventing new tribes. Winchester for instance became Venta Belgarum or the marketplace of the Belgae, which confuses the archaeologists because according to Caesar, the Belgae had come over from Belgium, so they should have been in the south-east, but somehow the name was given to Winchester. But henceforth Roman Britain was organized around the tribal ‘cantons’.
How far they were self-governing is uncertain: the best evidence comes from Spain where in the small town of Urso, a foundation charter has survived with details of a town council (ordo) of 100 leading citizens, each of whom must have the qualification of owning a property with a minimum of 600 roof tiles, and there were provisions for the duumviri, or mayors, complete with their staff which included a flautist. If there was a similar provision for towns in Britain, local government could have indulged in a certain swag.
A dozen or more such towns soon sprang up, but they were mostly confined to the south and east of the Fosse Way ‘frontier’. The far side became a military zone, where three legions had their fortress, one at Caerleon in South Wales, one at Chester, and one at York. But beyond the Fosse Way, the situation was not altogether satisfactory: Wales was eventually conquered, but remained more-or-less barbarian under loose Roman control. Cornwall was left to its own idiosyncratic devices, while to the North was a great tribal conglomeration known as Brigantes, who were centred in Yorkshire but stretched right up into southern Scotland. The Brigantes led the Romans a merry dance. In the AD 50s, they were ruled by a Queen, Cartimandua who wisely took the side of the Romans, and when Caratacus, the hero of British resistance in South Wales, was finally defeated and fled north, Cartimandua handed him over to the Romans. She then divorced her husband Venutius and married his armour bearer. However her ex-husband then rebelled against Rome and Cartimandua and her new husband had to be rescued by the Romans. The great Iron Age hill fort at Stanwick near Scotch Corner is assumed to be her headquarters.
The north of Britain was clearly a problem so the Romans decided to make one last effort to conquer it all. A top general, Agricola was appointed to do the job. Normally governors were sent out to provinces for three years, but Agricola’s appointment was extended until eventually he served eight years in all – time to finish the job. He began by finishing the Roman conquest of Wales. Wales was almost as big a problem as Scotland, but Wales is smaller and it proved just about possible to hold down Wales with a series of forts.
Agricola then turned his attention to the North; a major legionary fortress was set up at Inchtuthill, 10 miles north of modern Perth. His progress can be tracked from the numerous forts established along the east coast of Scotland, nearly to modern Aberdeen. The Scots eventually came together and a major battle was fought at the unknown site of Mons Graupius. Agricola won a great victory, but then the Romans decided to call it a day and Agricola was called back to Rome. Tacitus gave a damning judgement: Britannia perdomita et statim omissa – Britain was conquered and immediately lost was his famous phrase.
This may perhaps be slightly biased: we know about Agricola in considerable detail, because his son-in-law was Tacitus, the greatest of all Roman historians, and he wrote a biography of his father-in-law. But one suspects that troops were wanted elsewhere: Agricola had four legions, and one could be withdrawn. And perhaps it was beginning to be realized that the north of Britain was one of those areas where it was not going to be possible to establish towns and villas, and the Roman way of life, and was therefore not really worth conquering. And for thirty seven years, Rome dithered. The emperor for much of this time was Trajan who was a great soldier, but he was busy conquering Dacia, and Scotland was simply too far away.
In the north of England, forts were established and a road called the Stanegate grew up across the neck of land between Newcastle and Carlisle with a couple of forts along it. The most notable of these was Vindolanda which has been extensively excavated over many years by the Birley family – Eric, Robin and Andrew. Here fourteen successive forts have been identified, spread over 400 years, and it seems that around AD 105 a new fort was set up, and the commander of the old fort burnt all his records and dumped them in a ditch, where the tattered remnants survived to provide a feast for the archaeologists, so we know more about Vindolanda in AD 105 than we do for most parts of the Roman Empire, ranging from the iconic early discovery of the plea “please send more underpants” to the wife of the commander of the fort inviting her friends to her birthday party.
But in AD 117 the emperor Trajan died and was succeeded by Hadrian, and Hadrian tidied everything up. In Germany, he had decided that a boundary should be formed along the long defensive line between the Rhine and the Danube, and it should be marked by a bank and ditch. But in Britain, the dividing line was shorter, so in AD 122 he came to Britain in person and decided to build a wall 80 miles long from sea to sea, to separate the Romans from the Barbarians, and that this should be a proper wall, built of stone.
Hadrian’s Wall is one of the great triumphs of Roman engineering. Although at either end the actual wall has been lost, the foundations of the central part through the uplands has largely survived and has been the training ground for generations of archaeologists. Although it began on the eastern side with the wall 12 ft wide, the wall was soon reduced to 10ft and then 8 ft, and indeed at the western end, near Carlisle, it was originally built of turf and only subsequently replaced in stone.
Then there was the question of the forts: originally the wall was built with a milecastle every mile and two small turrets between the milecastles, while a row of forts remained along the Stanegate road in the valley behind the Wall.
But while the wall was still being built, it was decided to move the forts from the valley up onto the wall itself. In several forts, notably at Housesteads, the remains of one of the turrets of the original line of the wall were discovered underlying the later fort.
The wall appears to have been complete when Hadrian died in AD 138, but then his successor Antoninus Pius had a bright idea: if you move eighty miles north of Hadrian’s Wall, there is a narrower neck of land between modern Glasgow and Edinburgh, where it would be possible to build a wall only 37 miles long.
So a new wall, the Antonine Wall was constructed, and the spanking new Hadrian’s Wall was abandoned. The new wall was built far more efficiently of turf, and thus it has not survived as well as Hadrian’s Wall and is less well known.
But the Antonine Wall was not a success: in AD 158 – 60 there are signs of destruction along it, and there are also signs that the forts behind it were also destroyed. They were rebuilt, but less strongly, and then the same thing happened again twenty years later: it looked as if the advance to the Antonine Wall was an advance too far, and that Hadrian’s Wall should be reinstated as the frontier of the Empire.
Roman Britain can be seen in three zones. To the south was the success, where Britannia became Roman. In the middle, the North of England became a military zone. But in the north, the modern day Scotland remained barbarian. The North of England was a half-and-half zone. The two great legionary fortresses at York and Chester mark the northernmost limit of civilian Britain, but north of this was a military zone, where the forts formed the backbone of Roman control. True, attempts were made to introduce the normal Roman pattern. Aldborough, 20 miles north-west of York, was made the cantonal capital of the Brigantes: it was a proper town with a forum and an amphitheatre, though there was a military compound just outside the northern gate. Similarly in the later period, Carlisle was made the capital of the Carvetii, while Piercebridge and Catterick both became minor towns grown out of forts, and there were a few would-be villas. But essentially, control of the area is dominated by the forts, while the majority of the population lived in small villages of round houses.
But in the area between Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall, there is no sign of Roman urbanism or civilisation as we know it, but instead a network of forts. The two walls were linked by two main roads, the main one being that on the East, the Dere Street. Halfway along was Newstead which came to be the biggest settlement in southern Scotland. The Romans called it Trimontium after the three peaks of the Eildon Hills, which form a very obvious landmark.
Here a fort was constructed by Agricola around AD 80 which was strengthened and enlarged twenty years later with annexes on three sides where a civilian population could be settled. It became a major supply base and logistics centre with a large civilian force in the annexes. There may even have been an amphitheatre, if that is how a scoop in the ground is to be interpreted.
In around 160, Newstead was wrecked, but was rebuilt, in a reduced form. But this rebuilding was itself wrecked 20 years later, and this time it was not replaced. The Romans dithered. Psychologically it is always difficult to give up territory you had intended to conquer, and 30 years later, Rome once again had a powerful emperor in Septimius Severus, who came to Britannia, and made one last attempt at conquest.
Following in the tracks of Agricola, he marched along the east coast of Scotland nearly to the Moray Firth beyond Aberdeen, where again the archaeologists can trace the line of forts. But Septimius was an old man, all of 60 years old, and had to be carried in a litter, and in 210 he died at York. His successor Caracalla had to hurry back to Rome to consolidate his power – and that was the end of the Roman story in Scotland
However Septimius was canny, and while this was going on, Plan B was also in operation and Hadrian’s Wall was being rebuilt. Indeed so extensive was the rebuilding that for long the wall was attributed to Severus and not to Hadrian. Indeed when five centuries later the Venerable Bede came to write his History, he attributed the wall to Severus, following the lead of his predecessor, the mad monk Gildas. It was only in the 19th century that scholars finally realised that the wall was indeed built by Hadrian.
The Antonine Wall had failed: as Matthew Symonds concluded “ultimately the answer must boil down to a lack of interest among enough of the local population of southern Scotland in what the army – and the Roman State – had to offer”.
Hadrian’s Wall however was clearly a big success, and for two further centuries it remained the boundary of the Roman Empire. In the 1930s when scholars began to have the knowledge of pottery-dating to attempt to write a history of the wall, they divided it up into four wall periods, but in the 1970s a new generation of young Turks argued that the Wall as such did not have a history, only the individual forts, which were occasionally attacked or fell into disuse. But by and large, the Wall held firm and formed the boundary between civilised Rome and the barbarians to the north. Eventually Roman rule collapsed, and the individual forts were taken over by local chieftains. At Birdoswald the granaries were turned into a feasting hall, while at Vindolanda, hints of a couple of churches appear to indicate that part of the fort became an ecclesiastical compound.
Scotland however continued very much as in the Iron Age, though the finding of Roman material suggests that the Romans were constantly paying bribes to the local chieftains to keep them happy. The most remarkable of the local strongholds was that of Traprain Law, south-east of Edinburgh where a long-established Iron Age hillfort grew rich in the late Roman period, with numerous roundhouses.
Here in 1919 a rich treasure was discovered, consisting mostly of Roman silver dishes which had been cut up to form small lumps of silver. This is known by the German name of Hacksilber, and it seems that a silver dinner service had been cut up into small pieces of equal weight, which could be used as a sort of primitive money to be distributed by the big chiefs to smaller chiefs.
How did these barbarian peoples fare after the Romans? Undoubtedly the most interesting are the Irish. The Romans sniffed around Ireland but made no lasting impact and the Roman period in Ireland is one of little activity. However after the Romans left Britain, the Irish were converted to Christianity by Saint Patrick and Christian Ireland flourished. In particular, Celtic art that had been dormant for half a millennium suddenly revived in a very splendid form, and the Irish Celtic jewellery is one of the world’s great artistic treasures. The finest achievements are the illuminated Christian manuscripts as in the Book of Kells. A group of Irish known as Scots emigrated to Scotland, and took over Scotland and gave it its name. But it is fascinating to note how the Celtic art form which had lain dormant for so long, had such a remarkable renaissance in Ireland.
In the Middle Ages Hadrian’s Wall became the haunt of the reivers, the lawless robbers who fought each for themselves, and it was only in the 19th century that it began to be accessible. John Clayton, a successful Newcastle solicitor inherited a farm that occupied the Roman fort at Chesters and became enamoured of Roman studies and bought up two more forts and long stretches of the wall which he rebuilt 3ft high so that the ‘Clayton wall‘ forms the finest stretches of the wall for the wall walker.
Then in 1849 two young men, frustrated the previous year in their attempt to make a grand tour of Europe which was revolting at the time, decided to make a pilgrimage along the wall. The pilgrimage was repeated thirty years later and since then has been repeated every ten years. I have been fortunate to go on four of the pilgrimages.
In recent years, English Heritage and The National Trust have taken over the wall and sanitized it, encouraging ever more walkers to walk the wall and then trying to preserve the wall from the walkers. It is still one of the finest achievements of the Romans.
So how far was Roman Britain a success? Britain is fascinating because we can see three responses to the advent of what I like to call civilisation. In the South and East, Romanisation was a success. Towns, villas, the market economy dominated life, and produced a society where I would have felt at home.
The Roman story in the North of England was less happy. The Romans offered their version of the good life but the Britons were on the whole not convinced and though some tried to adapt, the majority preferred the old way of life. But in Scotland, the Roman way of life was on offer, but the locals said no. The Romans were twice given a bloody nose and eventually they accepted their failure.
The lesson must be that where the underlying culture is ready for civilisation, civilization can be a great success. But where the underlying culture enjoys a simpler way of life, it is no use trying to push the benefits of civilisation. Civilisation is an acquired taste: we should be chary of pushing our version of civilisation on those whose simpler way of life functions well. The Romans were not great warriors who imposed their way of life everywhere. In Scotland, they failed.
Here our excursus to see how these Romans set about civilising the barbarians – if that is the right way of looking at it – comes to an end. The story now returns to Rome to see how the golden age continues – with many problems. Onto Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius.
On to Trajan and Hadrian
Header: The header shows what is perhaps the finest piece of Romano-British art, the image of Sulis Minerva from the great temple at Bath. Sulis Minerva was a composite god, Sulis being the Celtic god of the hot baths at Bath, who was conflated with the Roman Minerva. And the art is a conflation of the formalisisng and realisitic Roman style with the more abstract art of the Celts.