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Britannia - Roman Britain

Click to a larger version of The Devil’s Dyke, Hertfordshire

The Devil’s Dyke, Hertfordshire

Julius Caesar led military expeditions into southern England in 55 and 54 BC. Despite initial victories, partly brought about by divisions between the British tribes and more recent Belgic settlers, the results were inconclusive. On both occasions his ships were badly damaged by storms and he had to return urgently from his second visit to quell unrest nearer home. The Catuvellauni tribe were leading resistance from their large territory north of the Thames. Informers guided Caesar to their fortified settlement, or oppidum, defended by a system of massive banks and ditches. Their chieftain, Cassivellaunus, appealed to other tribes for help but this was refused and he was eventually forced to surrender. Caesar took hostages, arranged treaties with several British chieftains and exacted promises of regular tribute in return for help against rival tribes. Long-standing trade contacts increased and some tribal leaders grew rich and Romanized: ‘hides, slaves, and clever hunting dogs’ were exported from Britain along with gold, silver, iron, corn and cattle. In AD 42 the recently proclaimed Emperor Claudius named his new son Britannicus. In the following year, partly at the urging of some of the weaker British chieftains, Claudius sent four legions with supporting auxiliaries to finally make Britannia a Roman province and bring her in ‘from beyond the inhabited world’.

Click to a larger version of Maiden Castle Hillfort, Dorset (English Heritage): photo © Jean Williamson

Maiden Castle Hillfort, Dorset (English Heritage): photo © Jean Williamson

In 700BC an Iron Age rampart defended the eastern (R) end of the hill which had been used in Neolithic times for a ceremonial causewayed camp and a very long burial mound. By around 400BC the fort took in the whole hill and a foundation burial of a young man was used to ‘glue’ the old and new ramparts together. The bank was soon heightened and a second bank and ditch added. By 100BC the fort had three sets of ramparts with elaborate entrances at east and west. Further ditches and banks were added at the time of Caesar’s expeditions. In AD 43-4, under smoke from burning buildings and covering fire from their siege engines, Future emperor Vespasian’s troops stormed the east gate and cut down men and women, young and old, alike. Skeletons in the cemetery outside the east gate bear multiple injuries including sword wounds, smashed skulls and penetration by ballista bolts and arrowheads. Limited occupation of the fort continued, but the population was eventually moved to the newly established tribal towns of Ilchester and Dorchester. At Dorchester a Neolithic henge monument was converted to an amphitheatre to keep them entertained. In the fourth century, when Christianity was the official Roman religion, a pagan Romano-Celtic temple was built within the east end of the abandoned hillfort - a pagan sacred area dating back to Neolithic times.

Click to a larger version of Hexham Abbey, Northumberland: photo © Mick Sharp

Hexham Abbey, Northumberland: photo © Mick Sharp

The British had some initial success against Roman armies with their rush and run tactics and use of war chariots. The light, swift, manoeuvrable, two-wheeled fighting platforms caused chaos amongst Caesar’s cavalry while he was trying to build a base camp near Bigbury hillfort in Kent. There was a good deal of bravado, display and ritual in Celtic fighting, they tended to raid and skirmish and sometimes use champions to settle disputes. The Roman army was well equipped, disciplined and professional; they soon devised new tactics to see off the ‘gifted amateurs’. Roman cavalry units were known as ‘alae’, or wings, because they mainly operated on the flanks of a battle array. Some of the horses were supplied with armour including studded leather masks and metal eye guards. This first century AD tombstone of Flavinus, standard bearer of the cavalry regiment Petriana, shows him riding down a Celtic warrior who has had his hair, if not his resolve, stiffened by lime.

Click to a larger version of Silchester Roman Town, Hampshire (English Heritage): photo © Mick Sharp

Silchester Roman Town, Hampshire (English Heritage): photo © Mick Sharp

Claudius established the capital of his new province at Colchester (Essex), the former Catuvellaunian tribal centre of Camulodunum. The Romans were largely urbanites; as the hillforts and oppida were depopulated they set up new towns, such as Silchester (Hampshire), Caerwent (Monmouthshire), Wroxeter (Shropshire) and Caistor St Edmund (Norfolk), to gather the tribes, and to administer and tax their former territories. Silchester was Calleva Atrebatum - the woody place of the Atrebates. Stout walls, initially of earth and timber, later of stone, enclosed a grid system of streets filled in with public buildings, shops and housing. The forum was a large square, for public meetings and markets, surrounded by shops and offices; the basilica an aisled hall used for law and administration; the theatre for performances and ritual ceremonies; the public latrines and baths for hygiene, exercise and socialising. An amphitheatre was built outside the town walls at Silchester - an elliptical arena with an earthen bank and tiered seating for over 4000 spectators of such amusements as gladiatorial combats, blood sports with dogs, bulls and bears, executions, and military displays and training. St Mary the Virgin’s church and graveyard within the walls are sited on two Romano-Celtic pagan temples.

Click to a larger version of Newstead Roman Fort, Scottish Borders: photo © Mick Sharp

Newstead Roman Fort, Scottish Borders: photo © Mick Sharp

Governor Julius Agricola founded a major fort and supply depot on the south bank of the Tweed around AD 81. Commanding the ford and vital N-S route, for 100 years it was the communications centre and heart of the Roman occupation network in southern Scotland. Named Trimontium after the three-peaked Eildon Hills to the SW, it neutralized the hillfort capital of the Selgovae on the northern summit containing over 300 huts. The Romans used the hilltop to site a wooden signal tower capable of sending and receiving messages from up to 20 miles away. The flat ground occupied by the Roman fort between hill and river may have been used before the conquest as a Celtic sacred precinct. Over 100 shafts and pits contained a mass of objects open to various interpretations. Some may be seen as rubbish pits, others as stashes or dumps of surplus equipment buried when the Romans had to abandon the fort. Some are pre-Roman, used for votive and ritual purposes, which probably continued during the life of the fort. One pit had only a human skeleton standing upright on the bottom. Another contained nine complete horses, one human female adult buried with a dog skull, a crow skull, pottery-shards, oyster shell and hazelnuts, and an iron hammer, stylus, ring and saw. The contents of a pit lined with red sandstone blocks included an altar to Jupiter, a complete human skeleton and two skulls, iron tools, armour and coins, cattle bones, deer antlers and numerous horse skulls. The quantity of horse remains in the pits, especially skulls and whole skeletons, suggests cult use.

Click to a larger version of Black Carts Centurial Stone, Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland (English Heritage): photo © Jean William

Black Carts Centurial Stone, Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland (English Heritage): photo © Jean William

The Romans never fully occupied Scotland. In AD 163 they abandoned their northern frontier - the Antonine Wall running between the Forth and the Clyde estuaries - to pull back to Hadrian’s Wall. Stretching 80 Roman miles of 1.481 metres (1.620yd), from the Solway in the west to the Tyne in the east, Hadrian’s Wall initially took 3-4 years to construct after the eponymous Emperor’s visit to Britain in 122. The wall underwent many changes but essentially consisted of a stone or turf wall with fortlets to house patrol troops. Two look-out towers were placed between these milecastles and larger forts added at 7-mile intervals. It was probably never envisaged as a total exclusion barrier, more a dramatic statement and aid to influencing and monitoring activity at the northern edge of the empire. The wall was finally abandoned in the fourth century AD. Centurial stones record the erection of stretches of wall by working-parties of legionary centuries. COH I/NAS BA: from the first cohort, the century of Nas....Ba (ssus built this). A legion consisted of 4800 men divided into 10 cohorts of 480 divided into 3 maniples of 160; a ‘century’ being 80 men, half a maniple.

Click to a larger version of Ermine Street Guard at Loggerheads Country Park, Denbighshire: photo © Jean Williamson

Ermine Street Guard at Loggerheads Country Park, Denbighshire: photo © Jean Williamson

Experienced professional infantry made up the hard core of the Roman army. They were recruited for 25 years’ service from volunteers who had to be full Roman citizens. On retirement they received a generous payment which often included a house and smallholding; a welcome change from making roads, marching along them, building forts and temporary camps and sleeping in a leather tent. Colonia settlements, such as those at Colchester, Lincoln, Gloucester and York, were set up especially for army veterans who could be counted on to act as reservists in troubled times. Auxiliary units were conscripted or recruited from the provinces and most of the survivors were given full citizenship after 25 years’ service. These two legionaries chatting outside their goatskin tent are wearing Imperial-Gallic helmets, lorica segmenta and lorica hamata (mail) armour, and are armed with pilum throwing spears and scutum shields. The volunteers of the Ermine Street Guard travel the country delighting and informing the modern population about Roman ways.

Click to a larger version of Stanegate Roman Milestone, Vindolanda, Northumberland: photo © Mick Sharp

Stanegate Roman Milestone, Vindolanda, Northumberland: photo © Mick Sharp

One of the first tasks for the Roman army in Britain was to create an efficient road system to enable their fast movement around the country, and to ensure the ease of supply, trade and tax collection. The military engineers mainly created new drained and metalled roads in straight stretches rather than adopt existing tracks for their primary routes. A widespread network was eventually created of ‘well over 6000 miles’ of side roads and highway. Some of their names will sound familiar: Akeman Street, Foss Way, Stane Street, Watling Street, Deer Street and Stanegate. Hadrian’s Wall partly followed the course of Stanegate from Carlisle to Corbridge. Beside Stanegate, and close to Vindolanda fort and civilian settlement, stands a Roman milestone in its original position and retaining its full height of just over 5ft (1.52m).

Click to a larger version of Roman Baths Museum, Bath, Somerset: photo © Mick Sharp

Roman Baths Museum, Bath, Somerset: photo © Mick Sharp

The Romans were adept at incorporating other cultures and ideas into the Roman ideal, using a mixture of military might and ‘civilized’ living to Romanize native populations. The Roman baths, temple and spa complex at Aquae Sulis was begun in the 1st century AD around a thermal spring held sacred to the native Celtic goddess Sulis. The Romans equated her with their Minerva and the goddess Sulis-Minerva was created. The Medusa head, from the centre of the classical temple pediment, combines the snaky-haired female from Minerva’s shield with a male Celtic face of luxuriant moustaches and penetrating gaze - a typical classical/Celtic fusion. As well as pleas and votives, curses were written onto lead tablets and thrown into the healing, sacred waters. Prior to the adoption of Christianity as the official Roman religion under Constantine in the early 4th century, it vied with many other religions practised in Roman Britain and was initially considered to be just another Near Eastern mystery religion, similar to, but not as popular as, Mithraism. Much Roman hostility to Christians came from their refusal to swear an oath of loyalty to the divine emperor as head of the official imperial cult: Christians insisted on acknowledging only one god, but to the normally tolerant and pragmatic Romans refusal to take part in the state religion was treason.

Click to a larger version of Din Lligwy Enclosed Hut Group, Isle of Anglesey (Cadw): photo © Mick Sharp

Din Lligwy Enclosed Hut Group, Isle of Anglesey (Cadw): photo © Mick Sharp

Roman influence spread far and wide - luxury goods became everyday necessities and Roman ways and styles were adopted by the native aristocracy as signs of their continuing or improving status. The layout of Roman farms or ‘villas’ in the south seems to have influenced a Celtic chieftain in north-west Wales. A native British Iron Age ‘village’ of round huts was remodelled as an enclosed settlement in the late Roman period with seven rectangular barns and workshops plus an entrance gatehouse with barn above. Traditional house forms were not entirely abandoned: two round houses were massive slab walls were included, the main house (illustrated) having a stone ‘seat of honour’ opposite the entrance.

Click to a larger version of Fishbourne Roman Palace, West Sussex (Sussex Archaeological Society): photo © Jean Williamson

Fishbourne Roman Palace, West Sussex (Sussex Archaeological Society): photo © Jean Williamson

Starting as a villa around AD 60, Fishbourne was converted to a sumptuous palace after AD 75 when it occupied 5.6 acres (2.27ha) with some 100 rooms in four wings arranged around a formal garden. This may have been the home and reward of Cogidubnus, a British client king who rose to become a ‘legate of the Emperor’. It was subdivided after his death and finally destroyed by fire at the end of the third century. This ‘Romano-Celtic country house’ had colonnades, halls, rooms, pools and fountains, statues, stucco, plasterwork and mosaics constructed by an army of craftsmen from Gaul and Italy. Original bedding trenches and espaliers discovered by excavation have been replanted with box hedges and fruit trees, and a demonstration garden created using period plants and cultivation methods recommended by the Roman naturalist Pliny.

Click to a larger version of Portchester Roman Fort, Hampshire (English Heritage): photo © Mick Sharp

Portchester Roman Fort, Hampshire (English Heritage): photo © Mick Sharp

Britain’s time in the reflected Mediterranean sunshine was dramatic but relatively brief. At the same time as Christianity was being accepted, the Roman hold on Britannia was being weakened by political struggles inside the empire and by new and numerous’ barbarian’ threats from outside. The west coast of Britain was prey to Irish raiders, Picts swarmed over Hadrian’s Wall and Germanic peoples pressed against the south- and east-coast forts of the ‘Saxon Shore’. The forts were part of a system of defences and signal towers built from the mid 3rd century onwards to counter the growing threat from sea-raiders. Portchester, one of the best preserved and impressive Roman structures in Britain, was later refortified by the Normans who defeated some of the English descendants of those Germanic pirates. It was abandoned around 370 by the Romans for a better harbour at Bitterne. As Alaric and his Visigoths advanced to sack Rome itself in AD 410, the Romano-British were instructed by Emperor Honorius to look to their own defence; and the rest is History!

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