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Roman Britain - what we really know

Unlike the ages before the Romans and the 500 plus years after them, documents exist that provides a lot of information about the developments, and even a large number of individual letters by the soldiers and civilians of the time exist. Most of the information in relation to place names comes from 5 main written sources, but some names like Hadrian's Wall and road names are more modern labels.

The practice of the Romans was to keep the areas of the existing tribes, and use these as administrative areas, with the largest centre being the administrative capital of the area. The area was know as a civitates. The civitates was then divided into sub areas known as  pagi, based on existing major settlements.

The Roman spa towns of Aquae Arnemetiae (Buxton, Derbyshire) and Aquae Sulis (Bath, Somerset) are  named after local Celtic water deities, and placed on top of Celtic temples.

This practice of wrapping or over weaving Roman aspects to existing  practices was widely undertaken. It happened to early Christianity that developed a 4 part being god, son, holy ghost and Mary, in effect renaming existing Roman gods, and when the Roman church arrived it used the same practice of putting its churches/shrines on top of existing ones and modifying the practices only slightly. The god of the Celtic shrine being the saint the church was dedicated to, and aligned to point to the sunrise of the day that lines up with this saints day. To the Celts it was little more than a name change, at least to start.

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In addition there were Colonia, Roman Colonies places for the planned settlement of retired veteran soldiers who became citizens of Rome upon discharge, with all the privileges and social freedom of Roman citizenship. Four Roman Coloniae were established in Britain by imperial decree;

  • Camulodunum (Colchester, Essex) in AD49  by Claudius Full name is COLONIA CLAVDIA VICTRICENSIS CAMVLODVNENSIVM

  • Lindum (Lincoln, Lincolnshire) in AD95 By Domitian Full name COLONIA DOMITIANA LINDENSIVM

  • Glevum (Gloucester, Gloucestershire) in AD97 by Nerva full name  COLONIA NERVIA GLEVENSIVM

  • Eburacum (York, North Yorkshire) in AD200  by Caracall full name COLONIA EBORACENSIVM

In popular legend, we have ideas of the Romans coming and fighting major battles, enforcing Rome's rule by force, however in practice it was far easier, in that many tribes welcomed them, it represented peace, security and prosperity, and the growth  or expansion took place over a very long time.  There major invasion in 42AD was to help an exiled tribal leader, therefore it can be assumed that his supporters were aiding the Romans.

Rome and other countries had been aware of the British Isles for many centuries and trading had been going on for a long time.

Their first arrival was in 55BC, this was brought about by the desire to stop the support being given to those they were fighting at the time in Gaul. They did not stay long. There were planned invasions for 34, 27 and 25 BC but conditions were never favourable, in 34 and 25 BC there were other demands elsewhere that took away the available forces and in 27BC they appear to have come to an agreement. A combination of trade and diplomacy seemed to smooth things for some time. In 39 or 40AD a conquest was launched but fell apart before it crossed the channel.  Claudius successfully invaded in 43, going to the aid of the British ruler Verica of the Atrebates tribe who had been exiled by actions by another tribe. The records on who he had with him is unclear but its assumed from later units mentioned that he had 4 legions of about 20,000 men plus around the same number of auxiliaries.  The legions were Legio II Augusta, Legio IX Hispana, Legio XIV Gemina, Legio XX Valeria Victrix. Exactly where they landed is uncertain, and some accounts have a series of battles. But it could not have been too great a challenge for by 47 AD they were already in Wales. The legions went in a variety of directions, had there been any serious resistance, they would have stayed together.

They had some problems, the best known is the  Boudica uprising (also spelled Boudicca, formerly better known as Boadicea) (60 or 61AD) she was a queen of the Iceni tribe of East Anglia who led an uprising of the tribes. Her husband, Prasutagus, an Icenian king who had ruled as a nominally independent ally of Rome, left his kingdom jointly to his daughters and the Roman Emperor in his will, but when he died his will was ignored, possibly because the Romans, unlike the Britons, did not recognise daughters as heirs, and it was also against the understanding they had. It was a normal practice for Rome to leave an existing king ruling as long as payments were made, on condition that all was left to the Roman Emperor in his will. Wives, daughters, and their entire household would be left to Rome. Under Roman law the will was invalid. 

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Boudica was flogged and her daughters raped, and Roman financiers called in their loans. In AD 60 or 61, while the Roman governor, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, was leading a campaign on the island of Anglesey in North Wales, Boudica led the Iceni, along with the Trinovantes and others, in revolt. They destroyed Camulodunum (Colchester), formerly the capital of the Trinovantes, but now a colonia (a settlement for discharged Roman soldiers) and the site of a temple to the former emperor Claudius, built and maintained at local expense, and they destroyed a Roman legion, the IX Hispana, sent to relieve the settlement. On hearing the news of the revolt, Suetonius hurried to Londinium (London), the twenty-year-old commercial settlement which was the rebels' next target, but concluding he did not have the numbers to defend it, evacuated and abandoned it. It was burnt to the ground, as was Verulamium (St Albans). An estimated 70,000-80,000 people were killed in the three cities. Suetonius, meanwhile, regrouped his forces in the West Midlands, and despite being heavily outnumbered, defeated Boudica in the Battle of Watling Street. The crisis had led the emperor Nero to consider withdrawing all Roman forces from the island, but Suetonius's eventual victory over Boudica secured Roman control of the province.

The first capital of Roman Britain was Camulodunum (Colchester) but after 23 years this was relocated to a more convenient port and  Londinium (London) came into being.  Much later, around 293, some accounts say 296, Britain was split into two regions with two capitals The southern region, Britannia Superior, still had Londinium as its capital, but the northern part Britannia Inferior had as its capital Eburacum (York). The inferior title was just indicating it was further from Rome. Around a hundred years later, these two were again sub divided to form 4 regions each with their own capitals. Britannia Superior was split into Maxima Caesariensis with its capital of Londinium, and Britannia Prima with its capital as Corinium (Cirencester), while Britannia Inferior, was split into Britannia Secunda, with its capital  as Eburacum (York) and Flavia Caesariensis with its capital as  Lindum Colonia (Lincoln.) In part these changes came about as a means of splitting up the administrative and military rule, so as to make it more difficult for those plotting in any way.

We have a more in depth article on Roman Roads in Britain, these were wide, paved, had bridges and a structure to allow rapid and organised movement. The first roads were between ports and major towns, later some more for military use were added.   These were in effect toll roads. Two postal systems existed one for the military and a second for wider civilian use and many of the letters from some areas have survived.

The  better homes of the time, roman villas, were large, had heated floors, fine mosaics and a variety of baths. Water was a major feature in roman life, from the baths, that was a social activity through, water fed through delivery systems not only for bathing, and household use but for cleaning toilets, sponges used instead of toilet paper and a wide range of other uses. Often a spring was also a shrine dedicated to their sprit or local god. In many cases the villas were also the centre of a farming complex,  being similar to the estate houses that was to follow many centuries later. They had wine and food, and  a very pleasant life. This however in any such society was supported by the use of slaves and others who would have been of lower rank and not enjoyed the same privileges.

We can assume that many of the military posted to Britain come to enjoy their stay here, as when they reached retirement they chose to stay and take land here, they also had the option of a large sum and to return to their original place.

Officially only officers could marry, but the general practice was for many to have unofficial wives and families that formed towns next to forts. From Rome's perspective this was an ideal arrangement as there were no descendents, dependents or pensions to be concerned about. This same model was chosen by the Roman church which even today do not allow its clergy to marry.


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