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date: 29 November 2020

Britain, Romanfree

  • Martin Millett

The province of Britannia. The oldest name of the island known to us is Albion; the earliest form of the present name, Πρεττανία‎, was used by the Greeks. The Latin Britannia was in use by the 1st cent. bce. It has no direct Celtic origin and is probably a Latin abstraction from an earlier form.

The iron age communities of Britain showed a variety of social organization, although all were agrarian peoples organized into tribal territories dominated by a range of enclosed settlement sites. Many were agriculturally sophisticated and had developed an impressive Celtic art style (see celts). The peoples of the south-east had a long history of shared culture with northern Gaul. The islands were known to the Mediterranean world from at least the 3rd cent. bce. After 120 bce, as trading contacts between Transalpine Gaul and areas to the north intensified, Britain began to receive goods such as wine amphorae, and Gallo-Belgic coinage was introduced. Close political contacts with northern Gaul provided the pretext for Caesar's expeditions in 55 and 54 bce and the context for the migration of the Belgae to Britain which he mentions (B Gall. 5. 12). His campaigns did not result in conquest although he imposed tribute on Cassivellaunus before withdrawing. Contacts with the continent intensified with the Romanization of Gaul from Augustus onwards, and Rome maintained an interest in British affairs. Several burials of this period include luxury Roman goods probably sent as diplomatic gifts. Enhanced external contact stimulated internal political change culminating in the expansion of the Catuvellauni who, under Cunobelinus, obtained territorial dominance in the south-east.

Annexation had apparently been contemplated by Augustus and Gaius (1) but was only achieved by Claudius in ce 43. The army of four legions, with auxilia, quickly overran the territory of the Catuvellauni, with a set-piece battle at Camulodunum (Colchester). The army then moved west and north so that by the time of the Boudiccan revolt (ce 60/1 ) the lowlands south of the Trent and much of Wales were held. Romanization was under way and towns were well established at Londinium (London), Verulamium (St Albans), and Colchester. The revolt was crushed but territorial expansion slowed for perhaps a decade. A succession of able Flavian governors enlarged the province by completing the conquest of Wales and pushing into Scotland (see caledonia). The last of these, Cn. Iulius Agricola (c.ce 77/8 –83/4), advanced far into Scotland and defeated the Caledonians in a great battle at mons Graupius. Its location is unknown but camps associated with his campaigns have been identified as far north as the Moray Firth. After his withdrawal the rest of Scotland remained unconquered and there began a gradual retreat, eventually to the Tyne–Solway line (by the period of Trajan). The Stanegate road which marked this line became a de facto frontier until the construction of the wall of Hadrian from c.ce 122. Although Scotland was again occupied first in the period c.139–64, when the wall of Antoninus was the frontier, and then during Septimius Severus' campaigns of 208–11, it was never successfully incorporated, and Hadrian's Wall remained the effective permanent frontier of the province.

Britain was an imperial province which contained a very substantial military garrison throughout the Principate. In the 2nd cent. the army comprised three legions—II Augusta at Isca (2) (Caerleon), XX Valeria Victrix at Deva (Chester), and VI Victrix at Eburacum (York)—and perhaps 75 auxiliary units. These were predominantly based in the north and Wales and brought considerable wealth to these regions, which nevertheless remained less Romanized than areas to the south and east.

Local government was based on the Gallic cantonal system, with the following sixteen civitates known: the Brigantes (capital at Aldborough), Parisi (Brough-on-Humber), Silures (Caerwent), Iceni (Caistor-by-Norwich), Cantiaci (Canterbury), Carvetii (Carlisle ?), Demetae (Carmarthen), Reg(i)ni (Chichester), Dobunni (Cirencester), Durotriges (Dorchester, Dorset, and also later Ilchester), Dumnonii (Exeter), Corieltauvi (Leicester), Catuvellauni (Verulamium/St Albans), Atrebates (2) (Silchester), Belgae (Winchester), and Cornovii (Wroxeter). In addition there were four coloniae at Colchester (founded ce 49), Lindum (Lincoln, 90–6), Glevum (Gloucester, 96–8), and York (early 3rd cent.), together with Londinium which, although the provincial capital, is of uncertain status. The civitates were large and as many as seventy lesser urban centres served the countryside away from the principal towns. Although relatively large, none of the towns was well provided with public buildings. Most of those known are of later 1st- and 2nd-cent. date. During the 2nd and 3rd cents. most towns (including the lesser centres) were provided with defences, although there is debate over why these were built. In the 4th cent. the principal towns continued to be occupied but they became characteristically residential rather than productive centres. Although important as defended locations, none of them survived with urban characteristics for long into the 5th cent.

The single province of the Principate, governed from London, was divided in the early third century into Upper (with its capital at London) and Lower (capital York). A further subdivision into four provinces (Maxima Caesariensis, capital London; Flavia Caesariensis, capital Lincoln; Britannia Prima, capital Cirencester; and Secunda, capital York) took place under Diocletian. Valentia, known in northern Britain in the 4th cent., was probably the result of a further division of Secunda, although its location remains obscure.

The countryside was already extensively farmed before the conquest and agriculture remained the mainstay of the province with perhaps 90 per cent of the late Roman population of about 3.6 million living rurally. Most of these people continued to inhabit traditional farmsteads with only about one in a hundred sites becoming a villa. Villa-building began soon after the conquest and continued steadily through the 2nd and 3rd cents. with a peak in both numbers and opulence during the 4th cent. The villas were generally modest by Mediterranean standards and most developed piecemeal through the aggrandizement of existing houses. Mosaics were common by the 4th cent. and there is abundant evidence for the existence of a wealthy, rurally based aristocracy in southern Britain.

Other economic activities known from archaeology show growth to a peak of prosperity during the 4th cent. Metal extraction (for gold, silver, and lead) began very soon after the conquest but did not become dominant. Local craft-based production was widespread, its success attested by the very abundant collections of objects found on most settlements. In the early empire there was great dependence on other provinces for the supply of consumer goods, imported initially through the military supply networks. Later local production grew to sustain the bulk of the province's needs and very substantial manufacturies for items like pottery developed, especially in rural locations in the south and east (see pottery, roman). None of these, however, became major exporters to other provinces.

Art and culture in Britain developed as a hybrid of Celtic and classical features. The religions of the Mediterranean spread to Britain with the army and administrators, but the Celtic gods were worshipped across most of the province (see religion, celtic). However, they took on new forms, with the increased use of Romano-Celtic styles of temple architecture (first found at the end of the iron age) and the adoption of Latin epigraphy on altars and dedications. Particular gods are associated with certain regions and civitates. Many soldiers also adopted Celtic gods whom they identified with gods of the Roman pantheon (see syncretism). Christianity is found throughout the province in the 4th cent., although the extent of its acceptance is disputed. In art new materials (especially stone sculpture and mosaic) supplanted the metalwork used in the iron age La Tène styles. Not all the results are aesthetically pleasing today but some mosaics show an innovatory blend of ideas. Latin was widely adopted, although a study of the graffiti illustrates that writing was most used on military and urban sites (see vindolanda tablets).

During the later empire Britain enjoyed relative peace compared with other provinces. A series of usurpers emerged from the province, D. Clodius Septimius Albinus (193–6), Carausius (286–93), Allectus (293–7), Magnus Maximus (383–8), and Constantine III (407). Problems with raiders from across the North Sea may have led to the piecemeal construction of the Saxon Shore forts from the middle of the 3rd cent. onwards. These and other coastal installations in the north and in Wales hint at increasing military threats, although the continued use of the traditional style of garrisons on Hadrian's Wall, combined with the general absence of the late Roman field army, implies that there were few serious military problems. In 367 there were concerted barbarian attacks from the north, which necessitated a military campaign, although the account by Ammianus Marcellinus probably exaggerated these events. There is little else to suggest any serious military threats until early in the 5th cent. By then the depleted British garrison could not cope and the more pressing threats to Rome herself prevented aid from being sent. Britain, left to defend herself, gradually fell to the Saxons.


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  • S. S. Frere, Britannia4 (1999).
  • A. R. Birley, The Roman Government of Britain (2005).
  • R. G. Collingwood and R. P. Wright, The Roman Inscriptions of Britain 1 (1965).
  • R. G. Collingwood and R. P. Wright, The Roman Inscriptions of Britain 2 (1990–1995).
  • R. Tomlin, R. P. Wright, and M. W. C. Hassall, The Roman Inscriptions of Britain 3 (2009).
  • M. J. Millett, The Romanization of Britain (1990).
  • D. J. Mattingly, An Imperial Possession (2006).
  • M. Henig, Religion in Roman Britain (1984).
  • D. S. Neal and S. Cosh, Roman Mosaics of Britain 1 (2002).
  • D. S. Neal and S. Cosh, Roman Mosaics of Britain 2 (2005).
  • D. S. Neal and S. Cosh, Roman Mosaics of Britain 3 (2009).