The Roman conquest of Britain

Through Jennifer Paxton, The Catholic University of America

Before the Romans, Britain was inhabited by a variety of tribes speaking dialects of the Celtic language family. These dialects are called by Breton linguists. Brittonic is the ancestor of the later Celtic languages ​​that we know today in Britain as Welsh and Cornish and in Britain as Breton.

Statue of Claudius
Emperor Claudius invaded Britain to improve his military reputation. (Image: urban/public domain)

Britain before the Roman conquest

Before the conquest of Britain by the Romans, the Brittonic peoples, or Bretons, practiced agriculture and trade with each other and with the Roman world, especially in the south-east, which had always been open to contact with the mainland.

This opening onto the continent foreshadowed the essential divide between the trade-oriented south and east and the more pastorally oriented north and west of Britain.

Some of the tribal groupings in Britain were large and powerful, and their leaders sometimes lived in large hills, particularly in the south and west, although these were not as well developed as the hills of the Celtic speakers continentals that Julius Caesar faced during his campaigns in Gaul in the 50s BC.

The tribes of Britain in some cases had close ties with the tribes of Gaul, and it was partly in an effort to prevent military aid to the Gallic tribes that Caesar conducted exploration campaigns in Britain. Brittany in 55 and 54 BC.

However, neither campaign was worth much and it was another century before the Romans decided to take the conquest of Britain seriously.

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When the Romans conquered Britain

In AD 44, Emperor Claudius was looking for a way to restore his lackluster military reputation, so he ordered a great expedition to Britain and he accompanied the invasion himself, although he was not a soldier and did not not participate in combat.

The Romans fairly quickly conquered the various tribes of southern Britain, who were unable to unite, especially since many tribes differed on whether to collaborate with the Romans or resist them. After asserting control, the Romans then established a villa-based agriculture in the fertile, arable plains of southern and eastern Britain which flourished for centuries.

The hillier north and west of Britain were better suited to grazing and pastoral farming, but the Romans were also forced to install extensive military infrastructure in these areas to contain their more rebellious inhabitants. This geographical divide is still a feature of life in Britain today, although it has been a long time since agriculture dominated the British economy.

A border representing the northern limit

An image of Hadrian's Wall
Hadrian’s Wall was built to represent the northern limits of the Roman Empire. (Image: Velella/Public Domain)

The Lowland Britons to the south and east were fairly quickly converted to a Roman way of life, with periodic bouts of resistance, but the north and west required a constant military presence.

To the north, the Romans were facing off against the hostile Caledonians, and they saw less benefit in investing in the troops needed to hold the rugged lands of what is now northern England and Scotland, so they decided to draw a kind of stone line in the sand by building what we call Hadrian’s Wall.

A less formidable barrier, known as the Antonine Wall, was built a few decades later, a few hundred miles to the north, but quickly abandoned. Hadrian’s Wall represented the northern limit of the Roman Empire. The wall did not act as an impermeable barrier; it was more of a point of contact, and commerce and people flowed freely through the wall.

Yet it was a heavily militarized area. Archaeologists have found plenty of evidence of the legions’ long settlement along the wall. Hadrian’s Wall is the most visible reminder of Roman presence in Britain, but it didn’t really create a significant boundary beyond the Roman period.

The great development of the Romans in Britain

Roman towns and cities quickly developed in the territory south of the Wall. As in many other Roman provinces, these cities were built on a grid pattern with many amenities that the Romans might have expected in their Italian homeland.

An image of Roman ruins in Britain
The Romans developed towns and cities with many amenities they expected in their Italian homeland. (Image: Francis Bedford/Public Domain)

There were temples, of course, but also a forum area for the conduct of public affairs and commerce, and an arena for public games. The public baths were a must. There were also small manufacturing businesses that emerged in the cities, taking advantage of Roman trading networks.

The Roman road network connected all settlements, but in some cases the roads were built on existing native tracks.

In the prosperous south and east, Italian-style villa life, with estates supported by slave labor, flourished for several centuries. These villas could be quite large, but they varied considerably in size, and many of their owners were probably members of the existing native elite who had simply adopted a Roman way of life.

In addition to agriculture and small manufacturing, Britain was also renowned for its extractive industries, particularly tin mining in the South West. Cornwall had been a source of tin for the Mediterranean as early as the second millennium BCE, and the Romans developed the potential for tin mining. The remains of Roman mining operations are still clearly visible in the landscape of this part of Brittany.

Economically, Roman Britain fared well for the first two centuries or so. It was obviously on the outskirts of the Roman Empire, but it was very much integrated into it by commercial networks, by the army and by imperial taxation.

Common questions about the Roman conquest of Britain

Q: Who was Claudius?

Claudius was a roman emperor who succeeded in conquering Britain in 44 AD. He had decided to invade Britain because he had wanted to bolster his weak military reputation.

Q: What is Hadrian’s Wall?

While the Romans were able to easily conquer and convert the Britons to the south and east, they or they against hostile Caledonians in the north. As they saw little benefit in investing in the troops needed to hold the rugged northern lands, they decided to build a stone wall, now known as the Hadrian’s Wallto mark the northern limit of the Roman Empire.

Q:Wwhat made Britain famous in addition to agriculture and small industry?

In addition to agriculture and small industry, Britain was also renowned for its extractive industries, particularly tin mining in the southwest.

keep reading
Roman conquest: how did life in Britain change?
Roman Britain: British tribal rebellion against Roman rule
Roman Conquest of Britain: Caesar’s Expedition to Hadrian’s Wall

David C. Barham