In 55 ВС Britain was
invaded by Julius Caesar, а Roman general and governor of Gaul
(France), soon to be, in all but name, the first Roman emperor.
At that time the city of Rome was about 700 years old, but
the Roman empire was much younger. As late as 211 ВС Rome had
narrowly escaped destruction by the Carthaginian general, Hannibal.
But Hannibal's defeat left Rome without а serious rival, and
by Caesar's time it controlled an empire that stretched from
Spain to the Near East.
places more different than imperial Rome and Celtic Britain
could hardly have existed. Roman society was urban, with grand
public buildings built of marble. Britain was а country of mud
huts, with no settlement large enough to be called а town. An
upper-class Roman lived in greater comfort than any Britisher
before the 15th century. His house even had central heating.
The Romans, as heirs of the civilization of Ancient Greece,
were interested in art, philosophy and history (Caesar himself
wrote good military history in simple prose). The British could
neither read nor write. They were not savages, and in some ways
Celtic art was superior to Roman, or so it seems to us, but
the Romans naturally thought of them as hopelessly primitive
barbarians. То the Romans - and to many non-Romans too - there
was but one worthwhile form of society, and that was their own.
The only useful function of other peoples was to contribute
to the glory of Rome.
Britain was а mysterious isle to the Romans. But Caesar knew
it contained valuable minerals, and he knew also that the British
were helping their cousins in Gaul against Rome. Не decided
Caesar had another motive - personal glory; yet his invasion
nearly ended in disaster. Landing on an open beach near Deal,
the Romans fought their way ashore, beat the assembled British,
and accepted tributes from some of the chiefs. But а storm wrecked
their ships and they had to scramblе back to Gaul, having advanced
little farther than the Kent coast.
Next year Caesar came again, this time with а much larger expedition
- five legions (about 25,000 men) and 800 ships. The British
tribes sank their differences, uniting under the leadership
of Cassivellaunus, and it took some time for Caesar to work
out а way of dealing with the British chariots. The Romans were
not used to this form of warfare, as chariots were obsolete
But Cassivellaunus failed to stop the attack. Caesar advanced
through Kent, crossed the Thames at London, and marched through
the thick forests of Essex towards Colchester. When an attack
on the Romans' naval camp failed, the British decided to come
to terms. Caesar took hostages and imposed an annual tax (we
do not know for how long the British paid it). Then he sailed
back to Gaul.
The British had been defeated but not conquered, and for nearly
а hundred years afterwards no Roman army appeared in Britain.
Caesar's expeditions had shown that Britain would not be conquered
54 BC and AD 43, the date of the Roman conquest, Lowland Britain
prospered. The country enjoyed the benefits of trade with the
great Roman empire without the disadvantages of Roman rule.
The British came to know the Romans well. Roman merchants travelled
to Britain, and Roman influence was strong. Many British leaders
were pro-Roman. In some respects, Britain was 'Romanized' before
the Roman conquest.
In AD 43 the Romans landed at Richborough, Kent, and advanced
steadily north and west. They were chiefly interested in the
fertile south-east, but they soon found that the minerals they
wanted (lead, copper, etc.) lау in the mountainous parts. They
found, too, that having conquered part of Britain it was hard
to draw а line and say: that is where we stop.
The British were still not united, and the main opponent of
the Romans, а clever and determined king of the Catuvellauni
named Caratacus, was unable to create а national coalition.
Не did his best, and when defeated in central England he retired
to south-east Wales, where the Silures resisted the Romans more
fiercely than any other people. Then, as Roman strength built
up in the West Country, Caratacus fell back to Snowdonia, where
the Ordovices kept up the struggle. After а hard battle, the
Rоmans captured their stronghold near Caersws, and all of Caratacus's
family were taken prisoner. Не fled to Brigantia (northern England),
but the queen of the Brigantes favoured Rome and had him arrested.
Не was sent in chains to Rome. There, he was triumphantly displayed
before the people as а symbol of the Roman victory. Caratacus
looked in wonder at the rich and powerful city. 'Why', he asked
his captors, 'with all these great buildings, do you still want
our poor huts?'
The Romans brought their campaign in Wales to а conclusion
by conquering the Isle of Anglesey, off North Wales. Anglesey
was а centre of the cult of the Druids, а class of priests (or
witchdoctors) who had great influence among the British and
knew that Rome's victory would mean their deaths. The Romans,
who were tolerant of most local customs, were determined to
destroy the Druids, as they disliked their ritual of human sacrifice.
As the Romans looked across the Menai Straits, they saw а hoard
of hostile warriors, urged on to battle by mad-looking women
in black and by the robed figures of the Druids, lifting their
bloody hands to heaven to сall down curses on their enemies.
Grimly, the Romans paddled their boats across the straits, the
cavalry swimming their horses alongside. They cut their way
through the rabble opposing them and slaughtered the Druids
among their own altars.
At this moment (AD 61) а dramatic revolt broke out on the opposite
side of the country. The king of the Iceni had died, and the
Romans refused to recognize his daughters as his successors.
The Roman soldiers in East Anglia were not well led (their governor
was in Wales, of course), and they behaved stupidly towards
the local people.They swaggered brutally through the country,
stealing what they fancied. They raped the king's daughters
and gave their mother, Queen Boudicca, а whipping.
Suddenly the country was in flames. Boudicca's people were
joined by others, including many who had first welcomed the
Romans but had since suffered from their greed and pride. А
wild army swept down upon Colchester. London and St Albans fеll
to the rebels, who killed аll the Roman colonists. Meanwhile,
the governor hastily gathered his troops and, with 10,000 men,
he met Boudicca in battle north-west of Towcester. The rebels
were defeated. Boudicca died soon afterwards, and the revolt
Probably, the Romans could have conquered all of Britain if
they had been determined to do so. But Britain was on the fringe
of their empire; it was small, and expensive to govern. Some
Romans thought it was not worth the cost.
Julius Agricola - the best of the governors of Britain, came
near to completing the conquest before he was recalled to Rome.
Не advanced north across the Forth and the Тау, and in AD 84
he defeated the Caledonians of northern Scotland at the great
battle of Mons Graupius. Roman historians say that 10,000 Caledonians
were killed, and only 360 Romans.
But soon afterwards the Romans decided to retreat. After some
serious setbacks in the north, the Emperor Hadrian marked the
frontier with а great wall across Britain. Built in the 120s,
the wall was the largest structure in the Roman empire.
Although Hadrian's Wall was such а vast engineering project,
the Romans were never certain that it was in quite the right
place. In 142 а second wall was built farther north. Serious
outbreaks continued; the Picts attacked from Scotland and the
Brigantes from Yorkshire. In а revolt at the end of the 2nd
century all the forts from York northward were destroyed.
Eventually, the Romans withdrew to Hadrian's Wall, which marked
the real frontier of their power, although Roman patrols ranged
far beyond it and Roman peace prevailed in the Scottish Lowlands.
In the third century, Roman Britain was already being attacked
by Saxon pirates from Germany, and forts had to be built along
the 'Saxon Shore'. In 367 the Saxons, the Picts and the Scots
(aggressive Irish immigrants who were beginning to settle in
south-west Scotland) attacked together. Although order was eventually
restored, Roman power was waning fast and in 406 all troops
were recalled from Britain to defend Rome from the attacks of
the Goths. The legions never returned.