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date: 25 February 2020

Roman Britainfree

  • Peter Salway

The Victorians were deeply interested in the Roman empire, which they saw as a precursor and model for their own. It seemed natural in 1911 for the biographer of the colonial governor Sir George Grey to call his book The Romance of a Proconsul. Yet the first edition of the DNB contained only thirteen subjects associated with Britain before the middle of the fifth century, despite Rome's involvement with British history spanning five eventful centuries. A hundred years on, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has adopted a very different policy. Increases in knowledge, and a far more inclusive attitude towards people who were not British by birth, have led to a near-sixfold increase, to seventy-five, in the number of subjects associated with Roman Britain.

Conquest and settlement

Sir (Robert Eric) Mortimer Wheeler (1890–1976)

by Bassano, 1939

It is in the Roman era that identifiable, named individuals of recognizable importance in the story of Britain first appear. Indeed, before the middle of the first century bc we do not have any personal names—the raw material for a biographical dictionary—from Britain. Thereafter we have many hundreds. As knowledge has grown there has also been a change in notions of what is relevant to ‘Roman Britain’ as a subject of study. Older textbooks conventionally started with the two expeditions led by Julius Caesar (100–44 bc) in 55 and 54 bc, skimmed over the next hundred-odd years, and began their main account with the Romans arriving as an occupying force in the invasion of the Emperor Claudius (10 bc–ad 54) in ad 43. The ‘Roman occupation of Britain’ in this view of history ended with ‘the Romans leaving Britain’ in 410, a belief that has had a remarkable persistence in popular historical writing.

But it is now clear that at least from the beginning of the first century bc Britain was interacting with Rome and being drawn ever more strongly into the orbit of expanding Roman political, cultural, and economic influence. Some of the tribal states of southern and eastern Britain came to resemble the ‘client kingdoms’ common elsewhere along the frontiers of the empire, in which Rome considered herself entitled to intervene at will. After the initial conquest, too, similar relationships existed beyond the areas of direct rule, changing as they expanded. Some of these tribal rulers, for instance Cunobelinus (Cymbeline) (d. c. ad 40) and Caratacus (Caractacus) (ad 40–51), appeared in the original DNB. To them have now been added friends of Rome like Cartimandua (d. after ad 69), queen of the Brigantes, and as such the likely ruler of the great fortress at Stanwick, and Cogidubnus (c. ad 47–70), the conjectured occupant of the splendid palace revealed by archaeology at Fishbourne in Sussex. Coverage of Rome's enemies includes lives of Venutius (ad 51–c. 71), Calgacus (c. ad 83/4), and—most famous of all—Boudicca (Boadicea) (d. ad 60/61), who turned from friend into foe.

No less important has been an understanding of Britain's position within the Roman empire, one arguably unparalleled in its history. It became a small part of a much larger state, in which major decisions directly affecting it were very often taken in the light of considerations external to Britain and by people whose authority derived from elsewhere. However, it is now understood that Britain held a very special place in the Roman mind. Because of its position on the fringe of the Roman world—and most of all because it lay across the dreaded ‘Ocean’—successes in Britain were extremely prestigious. Indeed, it retained a mythic quality even after centuries of incorporation within the Roman empire. It is not, therefore, surprising to find military interventions led in person from the top, beginning with Julius Caesar. He was followed by emperors who, as well as Claudius (whose conquests in Britain led to, among other things, the first known visual representation of Britannia, in a sculpture which shows her being struck down by the victorious emperor), included Hadrian (ad 76–138), Septimius Severus (145/6–211), and Constantius I (250?–306).

Britain's perceived worth in imperial eyes was such that up to an eighth of the entire Roman army was devoted to its garrison. The biography by the historian Tacitus (b. ad 56/7, d. in or after 113) of his father-in-law Julius Agricola (ad 40–93) was made all the more powerful because his successful campaigns as a provincial governor took place in Britain. It added great weight to the allegation Tacitus was then able to make, that the hated Emperor Domitian had thrown away the conquest of the whole island that had been handed to him by Agricola.

It was not just military victory in Britain that was prized as part of the personal image. The Emperor Constantine I (Constantine the Great) (272/3–337) did not forget that he had been raised to the imperial throne by his late father's troops at York. On the occasion of an event in the eastern Mediterranean, he addressed the Christian church that he had transformed from persecuted sect to state religion with the proud observation that he had personally carried the supreme benefit of his rule from farthest Britain right across the Roman world. There was prestige, too, in commissioning public and private works. Despite the fact that Britain was not in other ways one of the richest provinces, it is not surprising to find in Britain extraordinary examples of personal and imperial patronage, such as the largest mosaic (at Woodchester in Gloucestershire) and the largest city hall (London) yet discovered north of the Alps, and in Hadrian's Wall the most elaborate frontier work along the whole perimeter of the empire.

In the past, historians tended to underestimate the importance of Roman Britain partly because it was seen as a relatively thinly settled country, with perhaps only a million inhabitants. That view has been overturned by archaeology since the Second World War. It is now clear that in general terms Britain (and specifically England) had a population and a density of settlement comparable with those of the high middle ages. The composition of that population is also important. There were very few ‘Romans’ (in the sense of Italians) in Roman Britain, but the social, political, economic, and cultural influence of persons from other parts of the empire was very considerable.

To the end,

Caesar (100– bc44)


© Copyright The British Museum

Rome maintained a core practice of the imperial system—the posting of military and civil officers on relatively short tours of duty not only in the central offices of state but also to the provinces. These officers, however, were by no means all drawn from Rome and Italy, but increasingly originated elsewhere in the empire. Thus Quintus Lollius Urbicus (d. after 150), north African by birth, served in Germany, Hungary, Asia Minor, and Judaea before, in ad 139, becoming governor of Britain. He was chosen to be in command during the advance into Scotland that resulted in the only conquest claimed by Antoninus Pius (ad 86–161), and oversaw the commencement of the Antonine Wall. For some 350 years this policy on appointments meant a regular succession of persons in positions of influence in Britain with wide experience of the imperial system and of other parts of the Roman world. The practice extended down to quite junior positions, so that the effects must have been felt at local level as well as among the provincial élite.

The system of provincial government directed by men like Lollius Urbicus changed over time. At first the empire depended heavily on local élites—some of whose members had been granted Roman citizenship and all of whom enjoyed privileged positions—to an extent that makes the notion of ‘Britons’ being ruled by ‘Romans’ quite misleading. By the third century the proportion of Roman citizens within the British population had risen substantially, but it must still have been an important change when in 212 the Emperor Caracalla (188–217) effectively granted full citizenship to every free inhabitant of the empire, so that henceforward all were Romans. But this was not a change that strengthened local interests at the expense of the central government. On the contrary, provincial administration itself became that of an increasingly centralized state, with power and individual influence operating through an elaborate structure of inter-linked civil bureaucracies and military hierarchies, the whole balanced on detailed rules and procedures and kept in motion by constant flows of paperwork.

Decline and fall

By the beginning of the fifth century the population of Britain within the Roman frontiers had been wholly Roman for a couple of centuries. They had no reason to imagine anything different. But though the British leaders like Caratacus and Boudicca who fought against the Romans for independence had no successors, there was instead a series of attempts to seize imperial authority by Romans whose power was based on Britain. Hence, for instance, the late third-century ‘empire’ of Carausius (d. 293), which has even been portrayed as a forerunner of British sea power. There is no evidence that any of these attempts aimed at independence for Britain from Rome; all were aimed at the imperial throne itself, and almost all were in the end unsuccessful. Clodius Albinus (d. 197), Allectus (d. 296), Magnus Maximus (d. 388), and Constantine III (d. 411) were all defeated in battle and Carausius was murdered in a palace coup. Constantine I provides the single, supremely successful, exception that proves the rule. But all of them illustrate a central fault, in Roman society at large, that proved in the end fatal to Roman Britain: the deadly rivalry at the top that descended time and time again into civil war. The end of Roman Britain, contrary to popular belief, seems to have had very little to do with withdrawal of Roman troops by the central Roman government in Italy to face barbarian attacks. On the contrary, Constantine III followed the example of previous usurpers in attempting to consolidate elevation in Britain by military adventure across the channel. But the action of the frustrated provincials in Britain, who expelled his officials and failed to replace them, was not only highly unusual in itself, it also coincided with a time of unprecedented weakness in central government, which found itself unable to regain control of Britain. The abrupt dissolution of the administrative network consequently led swiftly and inexorably to the collapse of the infrastructure on which the ordinary everyday life of Romano-British society had long rested.

The Christian church had started to become established in Britain long before the end of Roman rule, though exactly when is uncertain (King Lucius, who allegedly converted in the late second century, is mythical). Despite the martyrdom of Alban (d. c. 303?) there is comparatively little evidence of persecution. Bishops like Eborius (314) appear very soon after Constantine's reversal of the prohibition on membership of the church, though the nature and strength of the religion in Britain in its first hundred years of legality remains debated. Towards the end it certainly produced the missionary force that evangelized Ireland, led by men like Patrick (5th cent.) and Palladius (429–c. 433). But pagan religious practices survived, and do not seem to have succumbed immediately, even to being completely banned under savage penalties at the end of the fourth century. There is some evidence, too, that (at least in upper-class circles) unorthodox versions of the Christian faith circulated, including syncretism with pagan cults. Perhaps significantly, Pelagius (c. 390–418), the first known British writer, is also the first named British heretic. Divergence from the approved version of the faith in Britain continued to worry the church authorities in Rome after the end of Roman rule, and evidence for a semblance of Roman lifestyle surviving in some locations is the dramatic literary description of the visit of the papal envoy Germanus of Auxerre (d. c. 437/48) to restore orthodoxy in 429. It was from the Romano-British church that the Celtic church in Wales and the west directly emerged, while the Irish offshoot produced the Celtic missionaries to Scotland and the north.

There is other evidence that, despite the undoubted disasters, the end of Roman rule in ad 409 or 410 did not mean that Britain entirely ceased to be part of the Roman world. In some parts of Britain, local rulers may have retained elements of the social organization of the Roman provinces, especially at places like the Roman cities of Verulamium (St Albans) and Viroconium (Wroxeter). Unfortunately, such rulers also seem to have retained the Roman propensity for civil war: Vortigern (5th cent.), for example, is accused of calling in Germanic forces under the perhaps mythical Hengist (d. 488?) and Horsa (d. 455?). Against a background of conflict, the way of life recognizable to an inhabitant of the Roman provinces before 410 may have largely disappeared by the middle of the fifth century. Even so, there are signs that the idea of being Roman, or of relating in some way to the empire, remained for long of real political and cultural importance, and influenced the mindset of Anglo-Saxon incomers as well as of those surviving Romano-Britons who, under leaders like Ambrosius Aurelianus (5th cent.), retained a precarious independence into the sixth century. But the fact that Ambrosius is sometimes thought of as identical with the even more elusive Arthur underlines the way in which knowledge of Roman Britain was being lost to myth, even before it was finally buried under the twelfth-century fictions of Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Recovering Roman Britain

Myths about the Roman past in Britain outlived the middle ages. Thus in the years after 1485 legends telling how Brutus and his band of exiled Trojans defeated giants and founded an independent British race were circulated to promote the Tudor dynasty's claims to an ancient British lineage, in ways that echoed Aeneas and the other foundation myths of Augustan Rome, and like them lent useful legitimacy to a new regime. Coincidentally they formed popular elements in developing ideas of Britishness as the modern state began to emerge—not to mention providing local colour and civic pride, as in the Gog and Magog giants of the City of London's Guildhall.

However, interest in Roman Britain as history rather than legend also started to revive in the sixteenth century, primarily through the study of classical literature. Polydore Vergil refuted Geoffrey of Monmouth's fantasy, while Caesar was translated into English by Arthur Golding (1565) and Tacitus by Sir Henry Savile (1591) and by Richard Greenway (1598). Moreover, the serious recording of field monuments in Britain—including those of the Roman period—effectively started in 1519 with the publication by John Leland of his great journey of enquiry round England. By 1586 William Camden (1551–1623) had commenced the tradition of publishing the archaeology of Britain county by county in his Britannia, which became a standard work, edited and re-edited to the end of the eighteenth century.

By the Jacobean period Roman Britain had penetrated popular entertainment, for example in William Shakespeare's Cymbeline (1609, about Cunobelinus), or Bonduca (about Boudicca) by John Fletcher (written in 1610/11, revived in 1695 with music by Henry Purcell), and it now became customary for histories of England or Britain to start with the Romans. In 1732 came the first book specifically devoted to Roman Britain as such, Britannia Romana, by John Horsley (1685/6–1732), a book which presented archaeological observation—above all accounts of Roman sculptures and inscriptions—with the surviving classical texts. The grand tour, not to mention the rise of landscape gardening, aroused the interest of the aristocracy and gentry of Georgian Britain in discoveries in their local countryside, especially mosaics—perhaps most splendidly encapsulated in the Reliquiae Romano-Britannicae (1813–17) of Samuel Lysons (bap. 1763, d. 1819).

In the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, perceived similarities between the Roman and British empires made generations—brought up on the classics that dominated the grammar and public school curriculum—identify with, or reject, the Roman world. The idealized energy, work ethic, and discipline of Victorian Britain is specifically paralleled with the building of Hadrian's Wall in the paintings of W. B. Scott for Wallington Hall. Rudyard Kipling's sympathetic portrayal for children of his fictional centurion Parnesius in Britain under Magnus Maximus is heavily influenced by what he knew personally of British officers' experience of serving in the empire of his own day. But native British resistance to Rome also remained a popular theme. Designs for the new Houses of Parliament in the 1840s included representations of Boudicca by W. C. T. Dobson and Thomas Woolner, and of Caratacus by George Scharf and G. F. Watts. At the end of the century the cantata Caractacus by Edward Elgar and the statue of Boudicca on the Embankment in London by Thomas Thornycroft constituted overt expressions of national pride.

Constantine I (272/33–337)


photograph: AKG London

Knowledge of Roman Britain expanded and deepened with the growing importance of archaeology in the nineteenth century. The work of people like John Collingwood Bruce (1805–1892) on Hadrian's Wall and Roman inscriptions, for example, or General Augustus Pitt-Rivers (1827–1900) in his excavations in Dorset, set new standards of method and publication. Early in the twentieth century Romano-British studies were effectively professionalized by F. J. Haverfield (1860–1919) at Oxford. From the 1920s onwards many major figures advanced and systematized the subject, including—on a broad front—R. G. Collingwood (1889–1943) and Sir Ian Richmond (1902–1965), and in specialist studies Richmond again, Eric Birley (1906–1995) and F. G. Simpson (Roman army), R. P. Wright (inscriptions), J. P. Gillam (pottery), Ivan Margary (roads), Sir George Macdonald (1862–1940) (Scotland), V. E. Nash-Williams (Wales), and Sir Mortimer Wheeler (1890–1976) (Wales, Verulamium, and Maiden Castle).

Of these, Wheeler had perhaps the greatest influence on archaeology in general, both in setting new and rigorous standards of excavation and in popularizing the subject through television. A substantial number of women figured among the leading Roman archaeologists of the time, such as Tessa Wheeler (1893–1936), Dame Kathleen Kenyon (1906–1978) (Roman Leicester), Lady Aileen Fox (Roman Exeter), and Jocelyn Toynbee (1897–1985) (Roman art), establishing a continuing tradition. The number of known sites was greatly increased by advances in aerial photography, by Kenneth St Joseph and others; by rescue excavation in areas affected by wartime activities and post-war reconstruction, notably by W. F. Grimes (1905–1988) on defence sites in 1939–45 and, after the war, in bombed areas of the City of London, with spectacular discoveries such as the Roman fort and the Temple of Mithras; and by mapping and place name studies on a national and regional scale by A. L. F. Rivet (1915–1993) and others (for example in the fenlands), as interest began to shift from single sites or categories of object to settlement in the landscape.

Research excavation focused on specific questions or sites continues, though the bulk of discoveries in recent decades have been a consequence of planning legislation requiring archaeological investigation before development, whether on single plots for new houses or prior to huge construction projects like Terminal 5 at Heathrow airport or the Channel Tunnel rail link: the latter had the unintended consequence of providing a complete archaeological transect from the Kentish coast to central London. Public interest in Roman Britain, demonstrated by the enduring popularity of novels such as those of Rosemary Sutcliff (1920–1992), has been enormously stimulated by television, where a large audience is ensured by 'Roman' in a programme title (for example the series presented by Adam Hart-Davis in 2000) or Time Team digs on Roman sites. Responding to these changes, the nature of the archaeological profession and the life of the average archaeologist in the early twenty-first century are substantially different from those of preceding generations, but practitioners important enough to deserve places in future updates of the Oxford DNB continue to emerge.

Click here for more about the Oxford DNB subjects mentioned, but not highlighted, in this article: [Dobson, William Charles Thomas (1817–1898)]; [Elgar, Sir Edward William baronet (1857–1934)]; [Fletcher, John (1579–1625)]; [Golding, Arthur (1535/6–1606)]; [Greenway, Richard (1598)]; [Grey, Sir George (1812–1898)]; [Kipling, Joseph Rudyard (1865–1936)]; [Leland, John (c. 1503–1552)]; [Monmouth, Geoffrey of (d. 1154/5)]; [Purcell, Henry (1659–1695)]; [Savile, Sir Henry (1549–1622)]; [Scharf, Sir George (1820–1895)]; [Scott, William Bell (1811–1890)]; [Thornycroft, Thomas (1815–1885)]; [Vergil, Polydore (c. 1470–1555)]; [Watts, George Frederic (1817–1904)]; [Woolner, Thomas (1825–1892)].


British Museum, London