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Glimpses of Roman Britain


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The present chapter offers a general sketch of Britain during the Roman occupation. Subsequent chapters deal with Roman London, the Walls of Hadrian and Antonine, Roman Roads and Roman York in greater detail.

The period during which Britain was directly controlled by the central authority of Rome was roughly equal to that which extends back from the present time to the middle of the reign of Henry VIII. If, however, one includes the beginnings of Romanisation from the time of Julius Caesar to that of Claudius, and also the last phase, when the Romano-British people were fighting strenuously with the English invaders, the four centuries becomes lengthened by roughly another 150 years, and it may be possible, as our knowledge of the Dark Age increases, to extend this by a generation or two more. Taking the shortest time which can be considered as reliable, we have to add 136 years to about 367, and the total of 503 is equal to the gap which separates us from the reign of Henry VI, when the Age of Chivalry and the Feudal System were still in being.

In the light of these facts it becomes abundantly clear that the comparatively small population of Britain had ample time to absorb the higher level of civilization brought over the Channel by its conquerors. There was time for far-reaching changes in manners, customs, speech, thought, religion, art and architecture, if not quite as great as those which have transformed the present population of Great Britain from its predecessors in the early part of the fifteenth century, certainly in a very decisive manner. By the time of Constantine the Great buildings erected during the governorship of Agricola had become of archaeological interest, and even as early as the death of Septimius Severus at York in a.d. 211 there was scarcely a soul alive who could remember the building of Hadrian's Wall.

The adding of Britain to the Empire was not originally planned in Rome as part of a great methodically worked out expansion; its very existence was but vaguely apprehended during Julius Caesar's conquest of Gaul, and the only geographical knowledge of the island available in the first century b.c. was that put on paper by Pytheas, the Greek voyager, some three centuries earlier. Caesar's first expedition in 55 b.c. was a reconnaissance in force. The following year, however, witnessed a more serious effort with a large force - Caesar's successful advance to the stronghold of Cassivelaunus near St. Albans and the capitulation of that chief of the confederacy of Southern tribes. Having agreed to pay annual tribute to Rome, Cassivelaunus saw with relief the departure of Caesar's forces, and Britain wa? left alone for eighty-nine years.

In this interval of time, approaching a century, the tribute-paying British came more and more in touch with the civilizing influences of Rome. There seems little doubt that the British of this period were good craftsmen, working skilfully in wood and metal. If their architecture was primitive and restricted to timber and thatch, their shipbuilding and wheel-making revealed a high level of brain-power. In a.d. 43 the Emperor Claudius wished for an opportunity to show the seriate and people of Rome that he was as worthy of the purple as his predecess ors, and asked himself the question: - "Why not add tribute-paying Britain to his empire?

Accordingly he organized a great expeditionary force consisting of four legions and their auxiliaries, together with a number of elephants which, in the summer of a.d. 43, landed probably on the same part of the Kentish coast as that chosen by Caesar.

The first serious contact with the British appears to have been on the Med-way, and the second battle was on the Thames, where it was bridged, and this seems very clearly to indicate London. Claudius had given the command to Aulus Plautius, but probably after the passage of the Thames he arrived in person, bringing much-needed reinforcements with him. The great army then marched on Colchester, and in a third battle somewhere in Essex the confederacy of tribes was defeated and its resistance was at an end. Caractacus (more correctly Caratacus, the Latinised form of the Welsh "Caradoc"), the British leader, fled, and Colchester, his capital, was occupied. Regarding Britain as conquered, Claudius wasted little time before returning to Rome in order that he might enjoy the high emotions of a Triumph. At the end of four years Aulus Plautius had pushed forward so that by a.d. 47 the legions were extended diagonally across the island from Devon to Lincoln. In a.d. 61 Paulinus, the governor, was engaged in the reduction of the tribes of North Wales and was pressing home his victorious advance upon the island of Mona (now Anglesey), one of the great strongholds of Druidism, when the disastrous news reached him that the Iceni of Norfolk had broken out into open revolt under their queen Boudicca (wrongly Boadicea) How the Roman general by a remarkable success brought victory out of defeat is well known. Boudicca took poison and the rebellion collapsed. From this time forward Lower Britain was peaceful and gradually became a contented and extremely prosperous province of the Roman Empire, its citizens being proud to call themselves Romans. Londinium, which had been burnt by the insurgent Britons, had already begun to assume that ascendancy which it retained until the last. It was not, however, upon the predestined capital of the province of Britannia that Claudius bestowed that honour, for Caratacus had retreated to Carnulodunum (now Colchester), which appears to have been his chief or perhaps his most secure stronghold, and in his hurry to get back to Rome the Emperor chose the Trino-bantian town. It was soon found that the position was geographically inconvenient, and after its sack by Boudicca's maddened tribesmen it is not mentioned again by Roman historians, although it was rebuilt and grew into a thriving town with the distinctive rank of "colonia."

Londinium, on the other hand, became the chief centre of commerce and administration. Its area, by the time that it built itself a defensive girdle, was the same as that of the London of the Middle Ages, and that bastioned wall, repaired and patched for a thousand years, was still standing complete on the landward sides as late as Elizabethan times.

After the capital, with its area of 350 acres, excluding its suburb of Southwark, the next town in size was Corinium Dobunorum, now Cirencester. Its walls enclosed an irregular oval of 240 acres, and outside them to the west was an amphitheatre (only its earthen mounds now remain), 148 feet by 134. Verulamium, close to St. Albans, which is still an open site and consequently offers a great opportunity to the modern archaeologist, had an area of 203 acres within its walls. It must have possessed very important remains of buildings constructed of brick and flint rubble, for from them the great Norman cathedral of St. Albans was to a great extent constructed. This was the only town in Britain known to have been granted the title of "municipium." It was probably one of the chief, possibly quite the most important of the towns of Southern Britain, and was with very little doubt the stronghold to which Cassivelaunus retreated before Caesar's legions. Excavations made during the last century resulted in the production of a conjectural plan of the streets and the positions of some of the public buildings.

On the Welsh border stood the town of Viroconium, now Wroxeter, having a very roughly oval form like the other places mentioned, and an area of about 170 acres. Here the baths are among the best preserved in Britain, and recent excavations have laid bare a considerable portion of the forum with its shops, in one of which were found great quantities of a pottery merchant's stock.

More completely explored than any other town site in Britain is Calleva Atrebatum, the present Silchester, the lay-out of whose streets is now fully recorded, although the 102 acres are once more restored to agriculture. It is in a sense unfortunate that this was only a comparatively unimportant place, for although having some consequence as a centre of local government and, being at a point where five roads met, was no doubt a considerable market, yet it was a second rate town incapable of revealing one quarter of the information which might have been forthcoming had Verulamium been excavated in like manner. The portable discoveries at Silchester are to be seen in Reading Museum, where they are well displayed, and among the smaller objects is a Roman screw, the use of which had been so completely forgotten that it had to be re-invented in our own time. Those who visit the site itself are rewarded by seeing the earthen amphitheatre and the remains of the gateways in the wall of the town. The plan of Venta Belgarum, a name now converted into Winchester, has not been recovered, and very little has been done to piece together such information as exists concerning the town in the Roman epoch. The "Notitia" (a kind of "Army List") mentions a military clothing factory as existing there in the fourth century, its presence no doubt due to the proximity of the sheep-grazing downlands.

Of Durovernum, which has become Canterbury, the Roman plan exists in part. It appears to have been at first a very strongly walled but quite small place, a centre of defence on the river Stour, at the point in the eastern half of Kent from which the roads to the forts of Regulbium (Reculver), Rutupiae (Richborough), Dubris (Dover) and Lemanis (Lympne) radiated. At a later time it would seem that the town which grew around this citadel was enclosed with a wall, portions of which are incorporated in that which exists to-day. A double gateway of typical Roman form was destroyed about a century and a half ago and a fragment of another is still extant.

At Durobrivae (Rochester) and Regnum (Chi-chester) there are remains of the defensive walls, and at Camulodunum and Lindum (Lincoln), where the walls are more extensive, each place has a gateway - the latter the best preserved in Britain. In the west there were two or three towns of importance besides Corinium, already mentioned. Glevum (Gloucester) was a "colonia," an honour which it shared with Eburacum (York), Lindum and Camulodunum. These "coloniae" were towns where veterans of the army were settled under very favourable conditions.

The hot springs which gush forth to-day at Bath poured their steaming waters into the baths of Aquae Sulis some 1,800 years ago, and still do so. Their healing powers were known probably long before the Roman occupation, for the name of the British god Sul is preserved in the Roman appellation. To-day there is perhaps nothing so breathlessly convincing concerning the Romanisation of Britain as that which one finds in the skilfully restored Roman baths by the Avon.

The development of these and at least half a dozen other towns and a number of villages went on without interuption for three centuries. Protected by the Wall of Hadrian between Tyne and Solway, and for a time by the turf wall across the narrow isthmus between Forth and Clyde, and in addition by chains of forts garrisoned by auxiliary troops, the Midlands and the South remained secure.

The Brigantes of what is now Yorkshire broke out again, but they were finally so vigorously punished by Julius Verus; the Imperial legate of the time (c. 155), that they do not again appear in the pages of history. Thereafter the northern warfare was restricted to the frontier walls and the no man's land - the Scottish Lowlands - lying between them.

At last, however, in about 367 a double disaster occurred, land and sea forces being overwhelmed at the same time, leaving the prosperous midlands and south a prey to numerous marauding bands which swept up and down the country burning, plundering and killing. Owing to the usual security of the frontiers, there were few defences elsewhere, and much hurried walling of towns took place at this time or soon afterwards. The situation was restored by Count Theodosius, who afterwards became emperor, but there seems little doubt that rural Britain was never able to recover completely from this blow.

What had been the condition of Britain behind the shield of the legionaries and the large bodies of auxiliaries? How far had the process of Romanisation changed a somewhat primitive people? Certainly their own art was not destroyed, for it can be seen in the designs on their pottery and in sculptured stone. Climate and local conditions and prejudices undoubtedly affected the Roman ideas of domestic architecture, for the Romano-British house did not follow at all closely the Mediterranean type, instead there was a marked tendency to build round a large open courtyard instead of a small shady one. The plans which have been recovered by excavation are of two types, those having a large sunny courtyard, with the main buildings to the north and east in order to catch as much direct sunshine as possible, and the other a smaller type in which the apartments are all connected by one corridor. The latter are generally smaller than the type with the spacious court. The houses of any pretensions whose foundations have been brought to light contain a certain number of rooms whose floors are covered with more or less intricate mosaic pavements, some of them heated by the hot air of a charcoal furnace carried beneath them and up a number of flues built into the walls. All the larger houses had their private baths, with elaborate heating by the same hypocaust method. Precisely who were the occupants of these houses cannot be stated, but that a proportion of them were the homes of Romanised Britons cannot be doubted, the wealthier natives of the island having been encouraged from the earliest years of the occupation to adopt the Roman forms of luxurious living in order that they might find more pleasure in developing their home life than in warlike enterprises.

The basilicas, baths, amphitheatres, temples and other public buildings of Britain, so far as their remains exist or their foundations have been unearthed, indicate that they were well built of brick or local stone. Unfortunately, the search for building material has been so prolonged and so thorough that a very large number of important structures have entirely vanished, and where excavations have brought scanty foundations to light the eye is not easily able to visualise the building which they supported. The amphitheatres at Caerleon.

Caerwent, Silchester, Cirencester, Dorchester and Richborough, although to some extent unsatisfying, are, however, by their dimensions able to impress upon the mind the importance of some of the structures which have vanished.

Town life and country life were two very different things in the Roman period, as they are to-day. In many of the essential matters of life the ordinary conditions would resemble those of the smaller country towns of to-day. To the markets came the native farmers anxious to dispose of their produce, and in return for their sales ready to purchase the much needed manufactured goods. In the shops were displayed the finer qualities of earthenware manufactured in the Gaulish potteries, and it would seem that no house was content to exist entirely without the well-glazed imported red ware for the table. In addition purchases of glass and metal goods from the Continental factories, supplemented perhaps with the products of a few centres in Britain, would be freely made. There were the shops which sold tools and implements of native and foreign provenance, others for woven fabrics, including imported silk goods as well as those of mixed silk and cotton. The British-made woollen goods of the heavier type seem to have been of the best obtainable, and were exported to other parts of the Roman Empire, especially the finely woven British cloaks, very popular abroad. The organized amusements of Roman Britain, no doubt restricted to a great extent to the towns and cities, took place very extensively in theatre and amphitheatre. Four centuries after the break-up of the Romano-British civilization, King Alfred mentions the innumerable amphitheatres scattered over the face of the country, and it was these, no doubt, that provided the Romano-British people with everything in the way of spectacle. How far gladiatorial displays figured in the programme provided it is impossible to ascertain, although a memorial to a gladiator has been found in London. It may be that captured enemies taken in northern skirmishes or in the periods of more extensive warfare provided the human material for savage displays of this character, but it is questionable whether anything extensive in the way of professional gladiatorial fighting was common in Roman Britain. There were plenty of other spectacles of an amusing, picturesque or sensational character, and apart from the arena, football, racing and all sorts of games of chance in which dice and counters played a prominent part filled up the leisure hours of many.

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Pictures for Glimpses of Roman Britain

EXCAVATING THE GREAT AMPHITHEATRE OF CAERLEON, WHICH ONCE SAW ROMAN GAMES
EXCAVATING THE GREAT AMPHITHEATRE OF CAERLEON, WHICH ONCE SAW ROMAN GAMES >>>>
WROXETER'S ROMAN FORUM
WROXETER'S ROMAN FORUM >>>>
AUTHENTIC SURVEY OF HIGHWAY AND CITY IN ROMAN BRITAIN
AUTHENTIC SURVEY OF HIGHWAY AND CITY IN ROMAN BRITAIN >>>>
ROMAN VILLAS AT COLCHESTER AND DARENTH AND THE RECULVER PILLARS AT CANTERBURY
ROMAN VILLAS AT COLCHESTER AND DARENTH AND THE RECULVER PILLARS AT CANTERBURY >>>>
REMINISCENCES OF ROMAN DAYS AT LINCOLN, SILCHESTER, DEAL AND RICHBOROUGH CASTLE
REMINISCENCES OF ROMAN DAYS AT LINCOLN, SILCHESTER, DEAL AND RICHBOROUGH CASTLE >>>>
VILLA NEAR CHEDWORTH, THE FINEST IN THE LAND, AND THE ROMAN BATH AT BATH
VILLA NEAR CHEDWORTH, THE FINEST IN THE LAND, AND THE ROMAN BATH AT BATH >>>>
INTIMATE REMNANTS OF ROMAN LIFE TO BE FOUND IN THE MUSEUMS OF BRITAIN
INTIMATE REMNANTS OF ROMAN LIFE TO BE FOUND IN THE MUSEUMS OF BRITAIN >>>>
FOUNDATIONS OF A ROMAN BRIDGE WHICH CROSSED WHAT ONCE WAS THE COURSE OF THE TYNE
FOUNDATIONS OF A ROMAN BRIDGE WHICH CROSSED WHAT ONCE WAS THE COURSE OF THE TYNE >>>>
REMAINS OF BASILICA AND BATHS AT WROXETER
REMAINS OF BASILICA AND BATHS AT WROXETER >>>>

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