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Roman Britain


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Claudius (10 bc — 54 ad) Roman emperor

Hadrian's Wall

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Boudicca (62 ad) queen of the Iceni

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Britain was the Roman province Britannia, ad 43–410. Although there had been increasing contact between Britain and the classical world during the late Iron Age, the first official Roman presence in Britain was that of Julius Caesar in 55–54bc. In ad 43 Emperor Claudius invaded Britain on the pretext of dealing with troublesome tribal princes and druids. The island was subsequently occupied by the Romans, who took advantage of Britain's mineral and agricultural wealth.

Within a generation the British landscape had changed considerably. The Roman army built legionary fortresses, forts, camps, and roads, and assisted with the construction of buildings in towns. A number of important military installations, notably the legionary fortresses, were built close to pre‐existing tribal centres (oppida) which then became the focus of important Romano‐British towns, such as Colchester. The Romans also brought their particular style of architecture to the countryside in the form of villas.

*Tacitus tells us that the Romans experienced a number of tribal revolts in the 1st cent. and used the long‐established practice of combining treaties with decisive military action to quell unrest. Rome created three client kingdoms: the Iceni, the Brigantes, and the Atrebates. In ad 60 the Iceni rose up under the leadership of Boudicca, destroying the Roman towns of Colchester, London, and St Albans. The crushing of the Boudiccan revolt was followed by a period of expansion of the Roman province, including the subjugation of south Wales. Between ad 77 and 83 the new governor Agricola led a series of campaigns which enlarged the province significantly, taking in all Wales, Anglesey, northern England, and southern Scotland.

The 2nd cent. also saw important military and urban developments, particularly under the Emperor Hadrian. He visited Britain following military disturbances, and in ad 122 ordered the construction of Hadrian's Wall between the Tyne and the Solway. It was built ostensibly to separate the province from the barbarian north, but probably also acted as an effective customs barrier and a testament to the power of Rome. In ad 139–42 the Emperor Antoninus Pius abandoned Hadrian's Wall and constructed a new frontier defence system between the Forth and the Clyde—the Antonine Wall—but its use was short‐lived and Hadrian's Wall was again the main northern frontier by ad 164.

Roman towns fell into one of three main types: coloniae, municipia, and civitates. The coloniae of Roman Britain were Colchester, Lincoln, Gloucester, York, and possibly London, and their inhabitants were Roman citizens. The only certain municipium was Verulamium (St Albans), a self‐governing community with certain legal privileges. The civitates, towns of non‐citizens, included the bulk of Britain's administrative centres, such as the tribal capitals of Silchester, Winchester, and Canterbury. Towns usually contained temples, public baths, aqueducts, and an amphitheatre, most acquiring such a range of facilities by the mid‐2nd cent.

By the 4th cent. the towns were dominated by stone‐built ‘mansions’, and there were also profound changes in the countryside. Villas grew in size and became more enclosed, exemplified by ‘courtyard villas’ such as Chedworth. In the early 4th cent. most British villas were embellished with mosaics, an apparent investment in the agricultural basis of the province's wealth in this period. Epigraphic and literary evidence suggests that the Britons adopted Latinized names (e.g. Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus) and that the élite (at least) spoke and wrote Latin. The indigenous Gaelic or ‘Celtic’ language of the Roman province Britannia also continued to be spoken; it survives today as Welsh and Cornish.

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Subjects: British History.


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