The inland part of Britain is inhabited by tribes declared in their own tradition to be indigenous to the island, the maritime part by tribes that migrated at an earlier time from Belgium to seek booty by invasion. Nearly all of these latter are called after the names of the states from which they sprang when they went to Britain; and after the invasion they abode there and began to till the fields. The population is innumerable; the farm-buildings are found very close together, being very like those of the Gauls; and there is great store of cattle. (..) There is timber of every kind, as in Gaul, save beech and pine. (..) The climate is more temperate than in Gaul, the cold seasons more moderate. (..) They clothe themselves in skins. All the Britons, indeed, dye themselves with woad, which produces a blue colour, and makes their appearance in battle more terrible. They wear long hair, and shave every part of the body save the head and the upper lip.
Julius Caesar - The Gallic Wars - Book V - Loeb Classical Library 1917
Opposite to this coast is the island called Britannia, so celebrated in the records of Greece and of our own country. It is situate to the north-west, and, with a large tract of intervening sea, lies opposite to Germany, Gaul, and Spain, by far the greater part of Europe. Its former name was Albion; but at a later period, all the islands, of which we shall just now briefly make mention, were included under the name of "Britanniae".
Pliny the Elder - The Natural History - Book IV - Translation by John Bostock and H.T. Riley
Caesar's description of Britain is the first written account of the country which can be regarded as reliable. We know that Pytheas, a Greek geographer from Massilia (Marseille), wrote about the island in ca 300 BC, but his works are known only by references to them by later authors. He reported the Celtic name of Britain as Pretannike which was eventually Latinized by Caesar and which is thought to have meant "land of the shapes/pictures" because of the painted bodies of its warriors.
Aurochs were huge bull-like creatures that came to Britain over the land bridge from Europe about 400,000 years ago. Aurochs were one of the few giant animals to persist in Britain after the end of the last icy period about 11,000 years ago, but they were extinct by the time the Romans invaded Britain. It is assumed that until 6,000 BC a land bridge connected Great Britain to Europe. The sea channel which later on separated them was not an obstacle to the migration of people from the continent.
British Museum: Snettisham Hoard from Norfolk (ca 100 BC) (see a similar jewel in Pre-Roman Gaul)
They are practically naked and do not mind the mud because they are unfamiliar with the use of clothing, and they adorn their waists and necks with iron, valuing this metal as an ornament and a token of wealth in the way that other barbarians value gold. They also tattoo their bodies with various patterns and pictures of all sorts of animals. Hence the reason why they do not wear clothes, so as not to cover the pictures on their bodies. They are very fierce and dangerous fighters, protected only by a narrow shield and a spear, with a sword slung from their naked bodies. They are not familiar with the use of breast-plates and helmets, considering them to be an impediment to crossing the marshes.
Herodian - History - Book III - translation by C. R. Whittaker.
Herodian, a Greek historian, wrote this description of the inhabitants of today's Scotland as part of his coverage of Emperor Septimius Severus' campaign in Britain in 208-211 AD, but he followed traditional Roman accounts which emphasized the savage nature of the inhabitants of the island. The reference to iron necklaces was consistent with the Greek iconography of the Galatians who were depicted naked and wearing a neck torc (see the statue of the Dying Galatian). Eventually torcs became awards for distinguished Roman soldiers. Today the Galatians, who lived in north-western Turkey, are regarded as a branch of the Celts, a broadly defined ethnolinguistic group which is made up of the peoples who lived in Europe and Anatolia, away from the Mediterranean Sea. The term Keltoi was first used by the Greek inhabitants of Marseille to indicate the indigenous tribes living near their city.
The Celts of Britain, notwithstanding some unflattering accounts by Roman writers, possessed advanced metalworking techniques. They knew some classical decorative patterns through contacts with their brethren in Gaul. Evidence of these links can be found in the motives for Caesar's expedition to Britain: Caesar understood that in almost all the Gallic campaigns succours had been furnished for our enemy from that quarter (Britain). (..) In fact, nobody except traders journeys thither without good guard. Book IV
Some of the exhibits of pre-Roman Britain at the British Museum were most likely deposited in rivers or lakes or pits on dry land with a votive purpose. The horned helmet was dredged from the River Thames at Waterloo Bridge in the early 1860s. It was probably the ceremonial headdress of a priest, rather than a helmet to be used in battle.
Colchester (ancient Camulodunum) Museum: coins of local kings: (left) Addeddomarus, King of the Trinovantes in 25 BC; (right) Cunobeline, King of the Catuvellauni 10-40 AD (see similar coins in Belgium)
Britain is flat, huge, fertile, but more generously so for what feeds sheep than for what sustains humans. It supports groves and meadows and colossal rivers that sometimes flow to the sea, sometimes back again, with alternating currents, and certain other rivers that produce gems and pearls. It supports peoples and their kings, but all are uncivilized. The farther from the sea, the more ignorant they are of other kinds of wealth, being wealthy only in sheep and land. (..) They produce, nevertheless, the causes of war and actual wars, and they take turns harassing one another constantly, mainly because they have a strong desire to rule and a strong drive to expand their holdings.
Pomponius Mela - Description of the World - translated by F. E. Romer
After Caesar's expedition in 54 BC the tribes in south-western England had increased contacts with the Roman provinces in Gaul and Germany. Some of the local chiefs established peaceful relations with Roman authorities beyond the Channel. Eventually they sought Roman help in their conflicts with other tribes. One of these strifes offered Emperor Claudius the opportunity for intervening in Britain in 43 AD.
Colchester Museum: Roman tombstones: (left) Marcus Favonius Facilis who served in the XXth Legion; (right) Longinus Sdapeze from Thracia who died during the conquest of Britain; his armour resembles that of the Sarmatians and a sphinx protects the tombstone; see other tombstones of "Thracian horsemen"
(Claudius) desiring the glory of a legitimate triumph, he chose Britain as the best place for gaining it, a land that had been attempted by no one since the Deified Julius and was just at that time in a state of rebellion because of the refusal to return certain deserters. (..) He made the journey from Massilia (Marseille) all the way to Gesoriacum (today's Boulogne-sur-Mer) by land, crossed from there, and without any battle or bloodshed received the submission of a part of the island, returned to Rome within six months after leaving the city, and celebrated a triumph of great splendour.
Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus - The Life of Claudius - translated by J. C. Rolfe
Suetonius wrote this account in ca 120 AD and his criticism of Claudius' handling of the conquest of Britain is due to the widespread revolt which in 60 AD almost succeeded in ousting the Romans from the island.
Boudicca and her Daughters by Thomas Thornycroft, which was erected in 1902 facing the Big Ben; the statue is incorrect in adding scythe blades to the wheels, which were typical of Persian chariots (see a statue which was erected at Tongeren in Belgium to Ambiorix, a local chieftain who in 54 BC slew a Roman legion)
Their manner of fighting from chariots is as follows. First of all they drive in all directions and hurl missiles, and so by the mere terror that the teams inspire and by the noise of the wheels they generally throw ranks into confusion. When they have worked their way in between the troops of cavalry, they leap down from the chariots and fight on foot. Meanwhile the charioteers retire gradually from the combat, and dispose the chariots in such fashion that, if the warriors are hard pressed by the host of the enemy, they may have a ready means of retirement to their own side. Thus they show in action the mobile of cavalry and the stability of infantry; and by daily use and practice they become so accomplished that they are ready to gallop their teams down the steepest of slopes without loss of control, to check and turn them in a moment, to run along the pole, stand on the yoke, and then, quick as lightning, to dart back into the chariot. Caesar
The Icenian king Prasutagus, celebrated for his long prosperity, had named the emperor his heir, together with his two daughters; an act of deference which he thought would place his kingdom (in today's Norfolk) and household beyond the risk of injury. The result was contrary - so much so that his kingdom was pillaged by centurions, his household by slaves; as though they had been prizes of war. As a beginning, his wife Boudicca was subjected to the lash and his daughters violated: all the chief men of the Icenians were stripped of their family estates, and the relatives of the king were treated as slaves. (..) Boudicca, mounted in a chariot with her daughters before her, rode up to clan after clan and delivered her protest: "It was customary, she knew, with Britons to fight under female captaincy; but now she was avenging, not, as a queen of glorious ancestry, her ravished realm and power, but, as a woman of the people, her liberty lost, her body tortured by the lash, the tarnished honour of her daughters. Roman cupidity had progressed so far that not their very persons, not age itself, nor maidenhood, were left unpolluted. Yet Heaven was on the side of their just revenge: one legion, which ventured battle, had perished; the rest were skulking in their camps, or looking around them for a way of escape. They would never face even the din and roar of those many thousands, far less their onslaught and their swords! - If they considered in their own hearts the forces under arms and the motives of the war, on that field they must conquer or fall. Such was the settled purpose of a woman - the men might live and be slaves!"
Cornelius Tacitus - Annals - Book XIV - Loeb Edition
Roman walls of Camulodunum near Balkerne Gate showing 5 courses of stone alternating with 4 courses of brick and tile; they were built after Boudicca's revolt
The bitterest animosity was felt against the veterans; who, fresh from their settlement in the colony of Camulodunum, were acting as though they had received a free gift of the entire country, driving the natives from their homes, ejecting them from their lands, - they styled them "captives" and "slaves," - and abetted in their fury by the troops, with their similar mode of life and their hopes of equal indulgence. Nor did there seem any great difficulty in the demolition of a colony unprotected by fortifications - a point too little regarded by our commanders, whose thoughts had run more on the agreeable than on the useful. (..) Meanwhile, for no apparent reason, the statue of Victory at Camulodunum fell, with its back turned as if in retreat from the enemy. Women, converted into maniacs by excitement, cried that destruction was at hand and that alien cries had been heard in the invaders' senate-house: the theatre had rung with shrieks, and in the estuary of the Thames had been seen a vision of the ruined colony. Again, that the Ocean had appeared blood-red and that the ebbing tide had left behind it what looked to be human corpses, were indications read by the Britons with hope and by the veterans with corresponding alarm. Tacitus
After storming Camulodunum the rebels seized Londinium (London) and Verulamium (St. Albans).
Caerleon (Isca Augusta), Wales: Barracks
Suetonius (the Roman governor of Britain) prepared to attack the island of Mona (Anglesey), which had a considerable population of its own, while serving as a haven for refugees; and, in view of the shallow and variable channel, constructed a flotilla of boats with flat bottoms. By this method the infantry crossed; the cavalry, who followed, did so by fording or, in deeper water, by swimming at the side of their horses.
On the beach stood the adverse array, a serried mass of arms and men, with women flitting between the ranks. In the style of Furies, in robes of deathly black and with dishevelled hair, they brandished their torches; while a circle of Druids, lifting their hands to heaven and showering imprecations, struck the troops with such an awe at the extraordinary spectacle that, as though their limbs were paralysed, they exposed their bodies to wounds without an attempt at movement. Then, reassured by their general, and inciting each other never to flinch before a band of females and fanatics, they charged behind the standards, cut down all who met them, and enveloped the enemy in his own flames. The next step was to install a garrison among the conquered population, and to demolish the groves consecrated to their savage cults: for they considered it a duty to consult their deities by means of human entrails. Tacitus
The initial victories by Boudicca were partly due to the Roman legions being busy in conquering Anglesey, an island off the north coast of Wales in the Irish Sea which was a religious sanctuary from where rebellions could be launched. In ca 75 the Romans founded and garrisoned Isca Augusta, a large fortress near the mouth of the River Severn which allowed them to rapidly reach the inner valleys of Wales and quell revolts.
British Museum: detail of a bronze parade helmet found at Ribchester, Lancashire in 1796; (see another parade helmet which was found at Xanten on the Rhine frontier in Germany)
The Romans could rely on the neutrality/help of many British tribes and when Boudicca engaged them in open battle she was defeated. Reinforcements were sent from Germany and the Roman control over southern England was consolidated also by a conciliatory policy towards those who had surrendered, in line with the vision of Roman greatness which Virgil put in the mouth of Anchises, the dead father of Aeneas: Parcere subiectis et debellare superbos (To show mercy to the conquered and to subdue the proud).
The large number of English towns ending with the suffix chester or cester is due to their having been a Roman castrum, a military camp or fort.
British Museum: Howe Hoard found at Howe in South Norfolk; it consisted of 12 Roman Imperial (gold) "aurei" and 102 Republican and Imperial (silver) "denarii"
This hoard was hidden at the time of Emperor Domitian when Gnaeus Julius Agricola, governor of Britain, completed the conquest of the island in 84 by winning the Battle of Mount Graupius at its northern end, most likely in Aberdeenshire. Cornelius Tacitus was the son-in-law of Agricola and he wrote a book to narrate the victorious campaign of his father-in-law. He put in the mouths of the local tribal leaders harsh statements on the Romans and their policies, e.g. the harangue by Calgacus, a chieftain of the Caledonians, on the eve of the final battle: We, at the farthest limits both of land and liberty, have been defended to this day by the remoteness of our situation and of our fame. The extremity of Britain is now disclosed; and whatever is unknown becomes an object of magnitude. But there is no nation beyond us; nothing but waves and rocks, and the still more hostile Romans, whose arrogance we can not escape by obsequiousness and submission. These plunderers of the world, after exhausting the land by their devastations, are rifling the ocean: stimulated by avarice, if their enemy be rich; by ambition, if poor: unsatiated by the East and by the West: the only people who behold wealth and indigence with equal avidity. To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.
This military discharge diploma was issued by Emperor Trajan to Reburrus, son of Severus, a Spanish officer in the 1st Pannonian (today's Hungary) cavalry regiment, granting him Roman citizenship and the right of legal marriage with a present or future wife. The diploma sheds light on the composition of the legions. The Roman recruiting policy offered a military career to all the peoples of the Empire as auxiliary troops, especially when they possessed specific skills (e.g. archery). Many of the legionaries who fought and established themselves in Britain were of Celtic origin, so they were not entirely extraneous to the culture, religion and usages of the country.
British Museum: (left) tombstone found at Lincoln of Titus Valerius Pudens, a soldier of the Second Legion Adiutrix Pia Fidelis of the Claudian voting tribe from Savaria (Szombathely-Hungary); the relief depicting an axe can be noticed also on tombstones and sarcophagi at Lyon and Arles: (right) inscription dedicated to Emperor Hadrian by the XXth Legion Valeria Victrix, from the Fort of Moresby, Cumbria
Emperor Hadrian pursued a policy of strengthening the Roman Empire by halting its indiscriminate expansion. He negotiated with the Parthians a peace treaty which had lasting effects, even though it meant abandoning some territories. He travelled through all the provinces to monitor their defences, rather than to launch new conquest campaigns.
The Romans did not meet in Britain a natural limit to their conquests, such as the deserts of Africa and Arabia, or a powerful hostile empire such as the Parthian one. The tribes who lived in the mountains of Scotland had been defeated by Agricola and had accepted Roman suzerainty, but in 122 Hadrian chose to limit the territory under direct Roman rule to that south of a vallum, a line of forts and ditches he ordered to build along today's Anglo-Scottish border (with a major difference on the North Sea side).
Roman Villa of Lullingstone, Kent: "oecus", main hall
Far from the clangs of swords and the clashes of spears, a small Romanized elite enjoyed the economic advantages which being part of a large Empire brought to the English regions which were best placed to exploit them (e.g. Kent). The villa of Lullingstone was founded in ca 80 and enlarged in ca 150. The wet English climate did not encourage outdoor living and its architect did not follow the traditional pattern of a Roman house which was structured around a courtyard. The oecus of Lullingstone has a sort of apse at one end, most likely the location of the couches of the landlords during a formal dinner; this feature can be noticed in Roman villas in France (e.g. at Vienne) and Germany (e.g. at Bad Kreuznach).
Bath (Aquae Sulis): circular "frigidarium" (cold pool) in the western part of the Roman baths
The Romans introduced their way of living to England. Large bath establishments played a major role as a place where citizens gathered for socializing, in addition to taking baths and exercising. Bath establishments have been found also at legionary towns (e.g. Isca Augusta) and countryside villas had private baths too (e.g. at Bignor). The town of Bath is named after the bath establishment built by the Romans on the site of a Celtic sacred spring; the layout and floors of the halls are still clearly visible, while their upper parts are lost because they were built using wooden vaults.
Chichester (Noviomagus Reginorum) - Fishbourne Palace: floor mosaic (late Ist century)
Floor mosaics in Britain, similar to what occurs in most other provinces of the Empire, are indicative of the taste of the local elites and provide some information on them. Fishbourne Palace was built in ca 75 near an important town which was the capital of a Roman client state. Its first landlord is likely to have been of British descent, but he was very familiar with Roman usages because floor mosaics were made in the fashion prevailing at Rome, i.e. black and white with geometric patterns having an optical effect, similar to those which can be seen at Villa dei Volusii in the outskirts of Rome.
Corinium Museum at Cirencester: Mosaic of Orpheus (IVth century)
Art historians have identified a number of centres of mosaic making in Britain which were active from the IInd to the IVth century. They were in contact with workshops in Gaul and the latter in turn were in contact with those of Algeria and Tunisia, which excelled in this art. It is likely that the mosaic at Corinium was designed on the basis of cartoons from abroad (see a mosaic at Merida in Spain which has the same layout). The use of colour and the depiction of complex scenes characterized this type of mosaics. The subject of Orpheus taming the beasts was very popular because it allowed the portrayal of many animals, especially exotic ones.
Mosaic makers showed their prospective customers a catalogue of subjects for decorating their houses, but occasionally they were asked to depict something very new to meet a specific request. The landlord of the Low Ham villa most likely owned an illustrated copy of Virgil's Aeneid and the mosaic maker based on it the design of a complex floor mosaic: it is composed by four scenes of the love between Aeneas and Dido which surround a medallion portraying Venus, goddess of love and mother of Aeneas; it is dated IVth century. The Trojan hero, notwithstanding the role attributed to him in the foundation of Rome by Virgil and Livy was not portrayed very often in reliefs, frescoes and mosaics, so that at Low Ham is rather unique.
British Museum: Corbridge Lanx found in Northumberland near Hadrian's Wall (see another silver dish which was found near Camulodunum)
Very few ancient marble statues and sarcophagi have been found in Britain. Their transportation was very difficult and expensive whereas small luxury objects could easily reach the remotest part of the country. The Corbridge Lanx portrays Apollo to the right and Diana and Minerva to the left with two other goddesses in the centre. Its dating and the site where it was made are difficult to assess. Similar silver objects have been found in many parts of the Roman Empire and even beyond its borders, e.g. in Afghanistan.
Museum of London: relief portraying Mithra slaying the bull which was found in 1889
After the initial period of the Roman conquest in which the local religious practices and feelings were regarded with suspicion, there was a gradual merging of Celtic deities with those of the Greek and Roman pantheon, similar to what occurred in Gaul and Germany. The relocation of soldiers from the legions stationed in Germany favoured the spreading to Britain of the worship of Mithra and other gods who were popular in the military.
Very few works of art or just artefacts with a clear Christian connotation were found in Britain. There are records of English bishops having participated to councils (e.g. that of Arles in 314) or having expressed their opinions in theological disputes, but the elites, both military/political and economic continued to be loyal to the traditional beliefs.
Colchester Museum: Coins of the Late Roman Empire: in the lower row two Emperors of Britannia: (left) Carausius 286-293; (right) Allectus 293-296; (inset) British Museum: glass medallion found at Colchester, a military decoration (Ist century AD)
In 259-274 Britain was part of a Gallic Empire founded by Postumus, commander of the legions on the Rhine border which included also Gaul and parts of Spain. This tendency towards splits of the Empire surfaced again in 286 when Carausius, commander of the fleet in charge of protecting the Roman towns on both sides of the Channel from raids by Frankish and Saxon pirates, established an Imperium Britanniarum which included Britain and Northern Gaul. In 293 Constantius Chlorus, one of the Tetrarchs, regained control over Gaul; Carausius was killed by Allectus, his treasurer, who ruled over Britain until Constantius Chlorus managed to assemble a fleet large enough to invade the island and restore Roman rule.
Valentinian (in 367) was alarmed by serious news which showed that Britain was brought into a state of extreme need by a conspiracy of the savages, that Nectaridus, the commanding general of the seacoast region, had been killed, and that another general had been ambushed by the enemy and taken prisoner. This report aroused great horror, and (..) Theodosius (father of Emperor Theodosius), a man most favourably known for his services in war, was chosen to be sent there with all speed, and having enrolled legions and cohorts of courageous young men, he hastened to depart, preceded by brilliant expectations. (..)
At that time the Picts (..), as well as the Attacotti, a warlike race of men, and the Scots, were ranging widely and causing great devastation; while the Gallic regions, wherever anyone could break in by land or by sea, were harassed by the Franks and their neighbours, the Saxons, with cruel robbery, fire, and the murder of all who were taken prisoners.
(..) When the Batavi, Heruli, Jovii, and Victores, who followed him, had arrived, troops confident in their strength, he began his march and came to the old town of Lundinium, which later times called Augusta. There he divided his troops into many parts and attacked the predatory bands of the enemy, which were ranging about and were laden with heavy packs; quickly routing those who were driving along prisoners and cattle, he wrested from them the booty which the wretched tribute-paying people had lost. And when all this had been restored to them, except for a small part which was allotted to the wearied soldiers, he entered the city, which had previously been plunged into the greatest difficulties, but had been restored more quickly than rescue could have been expected, rejoicing and as if celebrating an ovation. (..) Finally, he issued proclamations, and under promise of pardon summoned the deserters to return to service, as well as many others who were wandering about in various places on furlough. In consequence of this demand and strongly moved by his offer, most returned, and Theodosius, relieved of his anxious cares, asked that Civilis be sent to him to govern Britain as deputy-prefect, a man of somewhat fiery temper, but steadfast in justice and uprightness, and also Dulcitius, a general distinguished for his knowledge of the art of war.
Ammianus Marcellinus - Roman Antiquities - Book XXVII - Loeb Edition
The account by Ammianus Marcellinus shows that until the defeat of Emperor Valens at Adrianople in 378, the Roman Empire was still able to restore order and quell revolts. It is possible that the Capheaton Treasure and other hoards which have been found in Northern England were hidden during the events narrated by Ammianus Marcellinus.
In 406 bands of Vandals, Suebi and Alani crossed the Rhine and invaded Gaul. A commander of the Roman legions stationed in Britain made an attempt to establish himself as Constantine III, Emperor of Gaul, Britain and Spain. He clashed in France with the German tribes and with Roman troops loyal to Emperor Honorius. This chaotic situation deprived Britain of military protection. According to Zosimus, a Byzantine historian of the early VIth century, Honorius wrote to the British cities that they had to defend themselves with their own troops. The interpretation of the Greek text is debated, but notwithstanding this, it can be said that for some thirty/forty years Roman laws and practices continued to be applied in Britain by autonomous municipalities. It is likely that the Saxons moved to the island in large numbers in ca 440 with the consent of the local authorities who looked for help against the raids of Scottish tribes. This because Saxon soldiers had previously been employed by the Romans as auxiliary troops in Britain.
Canterbury (Durovernum): (left) St. Peter's; (right) detail of its wall showing some Roman bricks
The Romans introduced the use of fired bricks to Britain. After the end of the Roman rule the process for manufacturing them was lost and for many centuries the ancient buildings were dismantled to use their bricks in new constructions, e.g. at St. Botolph's Priory in Colchester or in the Lantern Tower of St. Albans Cathedral. This fact explains in part the lack of monumental remains of the Roman period.
The image used as background for this page shows a copy of the bronze statue of a head of Emperor Hadrian at the Museum of London which was found in the Thames.
Plan of this section:
Aquae Sulis (Bath Spa)
Isca Augusta (Caerleon)
Noviomagus Reginorum (Chichester) and nearby Fishbourne Palace
Portus Adurni (Portchester)
Venta Belgarum (Winchester)
Verulamium (St. Albans)
Roman Villas on Vectis (Isle of Wight)
Roman Villa of Lullingstone
Roman Villa of Bignor
Roman Villas in Dorset/Somerset