Britain in Roman times

from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Roads, cities and fortifications of the Romans in Great Britain, map from 1910

The island of Britain , now known as Great Britain , was partly under Roman rule from 43 to about 440 AD . This extended to what is now England as far as Hadrian's Wall and Wales .

This article is mainly devoted to the Roman occupied areas of the British Isles. For the history of the northern areas not controlled by the Roman Empire, see the articles on the history of Scotland and the Picts .


Pre-Roman Britain

When the Romans came into contact with the island, it was largely inhabited by Celtic- speaking tribes who had close ties with Gaul , but are no longer considered to be Celts in the narrower sense due to their independent material culture . Even before them there had been megalithic cultures in Britain that erected imposing stone monuments, for example in Wiltshire . Otherwise, little is known about the time of pre-Roman Britain. Gaius Iulius Caesar reports in De bello Gallico that before his own (more or less failed) campaigns to Britain, allegedly only a few merchants dared to cross the English Channel from Gaul to Britain .

Campaigns of Caesar 55/54 BC Chr.

During Caesar's conquest of Gaul ( Gallic War ) it had become apparent that the Gauls were also receiving support from related tribes from Britain in their battle against the Romans. It is unclear whether the Roman general had any other motives for starting the war in Britain. It was assumed that this extension of the fighting should serve to maintain his domestic political power. In order to obtain reliable information about the political conditions on the island, he sent in 55 BC. BC the officer Gaius Volusenus with a warship ahead to explore the British Channel coast. In the meantime, Caesar himself put together an invasion fleet. As a result, British ambassadors came before him, who promised to take hostages and support the Romans. He received them benevolently and sent them back with the Atrebate Commius , who he assumed had a certain influence with the British.

A little later Caesar set sail with two legions . The fleet squadron consisted of around 80 troop transports, 18 transport ships for the cavalry and some warships. Most of the fleet crossed the English Channel without any problems, but was initially unable to land because British warriors blocked the beaches from the hills on the coast. She then sailed a few miles to find a better place to land. The ships with the cavalry on board, however, had to return to the Gallic ports because of a storm. The British, led by Cassivellaunus, followed the fleet along the coast with their horsemen and chariots and attacked the Romans while they were landing. Despite the initially precarious situation, the legionaries finally managed to drive the British off the coast with the help of incendiary bullets, among other things . Then they set up a field camp . Caesar received ambassadors again, from whom he demanded the transfer of hostages. Commius, who had been captured immediately after his arrival in Britain, soon arrived.

Meanwhile, however, the ships of the Romans were badly damaged by surprising spring tides , so that the return journey to Gaul was delayed. Therefore, British horsemen surprised some legionnaires when they tried to get food near the camp. However, the soldiers could soon be replaced by Roman forces. After a few days of break in the fight (due to a storm), the British received reinforcements and rallied again, but were repulsed once more when attacking the well-drilled Romans and suffered great losses. Again the British sent parliamentarians to see Caesar. This doubled the number of hostages requested, but only two tribes responded. Just before the equinox , Caesar's army re-embarked and returned to Gaul.

In 54 BC Caesar returned to Britain with a larger army. This campaign was more successful than the previous one, but intended more as a punishment than a campaign of conquest. At the end of the summer, after paying tributes and holding hostages, the army withdrew to the continent - especially since Caesar is now concentrating on the emerging conflict within the First Triumvirate and the final conquest and submission of Gaul will be completed beforehand had to.

The Roman invasion of the British Isles was thus postponed for almost a century. In Tacitus ' work Agricola , Caesar's campaigns in Britain are sometimes sharply criticized.

Conquest of Britain in 43 AD

Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus

Caesar's heir Augustus , the founder of the principate , is said to have planned an invasion of Britain; one of his successors, Caligula (37-41 AD), gathered troops on the canal, but broke off the operation and had a lighthouse built to facilitate the transfer of Roman troops later. The conquest of Britain was finally set in motion in 43 under Caligula's uncle and successor Claudius . Claudius had little reputation with the troops and therefore urgently had to adorn himself with military laurels in order to secure his rule permanently. It therefore made sense to resume the long-planned project of the conquest of Britain. The reason for this was the call for help from the British leader Verica , who was a friend of the Romans, felt harassed by other princes and had therefore personally appeared in Rome. Under the pretext of having to help this ally, Claudius decided to invade. Aulus Plautius was entrusted with the organization and implementation . For this he received the command of a total of four legions:

His armed force thus comprised around 20,000 legionaries, plus about the same number of auxiliary troops .

For a long time, the landing point of the invaders was only Richborough in what is now Kent in south-east England ; however, some archaeologists have questioned this and assume that some of the Roman forces also landed at other points on the island , for example on the Solent Strait . Most evidence, however, continues to indicate that Richborough was very important for the invasion, especially since traces of a large camp from the Claudian era were discovered there. Even Cassius Dio description of the landing zone matches the topography of the eastern Kent. Nevertheless, a second army probably landed in Hampshire to support the allied British Vericas . As archaeological finds in recent years have shown, these had already adopted the Roman way of life and are likely to have welcomed the invaders and helped them land.

The British resistance was organized by the sons of rex Cunobelin (of Cymbeline in the play of the same name by William Shakespeare ), Togodumnus and Caratacus . A larger British contingent met the Romans at an unspecified ford that is now believed to be in the Medway near Rochester . This was followed by a two-day battle ( Battle of Medway ) in which the British were pushed back as far as the Thames . The Romans then pursued them across the river, causing the British to lose more men in the Essex Marshes . It is uncertain whether the Romans used an existing bridge or built one themselves. All that is known is that a detachment of Batavian auxiliaries swam through the river.

At this meeting, one of the British leaders, Togodumnus, fell, which only made them even more angry with the Romans. Because of this, Aulus Plautius was finally compelled to request more troops from Rome. After a series of more fruitless battles that dragged on for two months, Claudius himself finally arrived in Britain to put himself personally at the head of the army. In the meantime Plautius had managed to maneuver the Roman troops into a very favorable attack position. It is reported that Claudius also brought war elephants and heavy weapons with him that were supposed to nip the British resistance in the bud. Under the nominal leadership of Claudius, the legionaries finally besieged and stormed Cunobelinus' residence Camulodunum ( Colchester ), but this was strategically subordinate and only served to raise the morale of the troops. In addition, the subsequent clearance of the city for sacking was of course suitable to increase Claudius' fame and reputation among his soldiers.

After another devastating defeat, Caratacus had to flee west to the Welsh mountains, from where he continued the fight against the Romans for some time. Eleven tribes were subdued in the southeast, and the Roman army was preparing to occupy further areas in the west and north of the island. The administrative center of the new province, which was officially established in AD 49, was initially Camulodunum, where a temple was built in honor of Claudius. The city was raised to a Roman Colonia . Claudius himself stayed only briefly on the island and soon returned to Rome to hold a triumphal procession there. With this he had achieved his main goal and could be celebrated as a victorious general in his capital; in addition, however, he also gave appropriate honors to Plautius, the true architect of the victory over the southeastern British.

Completion of the conquest

Ancient map of Britain

Vespasian moved with an army further west, subjugating other tribes and conquering some of their hillforts on his way. He got as far as Exeter , perhaps even as far as the Bodmin area . The Legio IX was meanwhile marched north towards Lincoln . It is possible that the entire area south of the Humber line to the Severn could be brought under Roman control within four years. A Roman road , the so-called Fosse Way , also corresponds exactly to this line. This leads some historians to assume that it served as a Limes in the first years of the Roman occupation . However, it is more likely that the border ( Limes Britannicus ) between Roman and Celtic Britain was subject to strong fluctuations during this period.

Towards the end of 47, the new governor of Britain, Publius Ostorius Scapula , campaigned against the tribes in Cambria (now Wales) and the Cheshire Gap . However, the Silurians in south-east Wales fiercely defended the Welsh frontier and caused great problems for Ostorius. Caratacus was defeated again in a battle and fled to the highlands of the Pennines to the tribe of the brigands , who were already among Roman patrons . Their queen Cartimandua was unable (or unwilling) to protect Caratacus in view of the armistice with the Romans, and immediately handed him over to his enemies. Ostorius, however, soon died and was replaced by Aulus Didius Gallus , who brought the Welsh border areas under control, but then did not advance further to the west and north, perhaps also because Rome was not able to speak of a protracted guerrilla war in the inaccessible highlands Promised profit.

Nero , who succeeded Claudius Roman emperor in 54 AD, nevertheless continued the conquests in Britain. He appointed Quintus Veranius as the new governor, a man who had already gained experience in Asia in dealing with unruly mountain tribes. Veranius and his successor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus led a successful campaign in Wales, in which in the year 60 the religious center of the British Druids , who had repeatedly played an important role in the resistance against the Romans, was stormed and destroyed on the island of Mona . Many of the druids were also killed or committed suicide .

However, the full occupation of Wales had to be postponed for the time being, as a much more dangerous uprising of the Iceni and Trinovants broke out under the leadership of the charismatic Queen Boudicca , which forced the Romans to devote themselves more to the already pacified southeast of the island. The historian Suetonius reports that the dramatic events of the Boudicca uprising even led Nero to seriously consider withdrawing completely from Britain, but that he failed to do so for reasons of prestige. Thanks to the discipline of his troops, Paulinus succeeded in defeating the outnumbered British in a bloody decisive battle. The policy of the subsequent governors was then primarily aimed at reconciliation with the tribes hostile to Rome. A calming of the situation was mainly due to the compensatory policy of the governor Marcus Trebellius Maximus (63-69).

After the bloody suppression of the rebellion of Boudiccas and her allies, the conquest of further regions in the north was continued after long military reluctance by the Romans after Vespasian had asserted himself as the new ruler of the empire in the year of the Four Emperors 69. The Silurians were finally subdued in 76 only after a long campaign led by Sextus Julius Frontinus . Cartimandua felt compelled to request Roman help in order to counter a rebellion of her husband Venutius . Quintus Petilius Cerialis then marched with his legions from Lincoln to Eboracum (York) and defeated the rebels around Venutius near Stanwick in AD 70 , which bound the already strongly Romanized tribes of the Brigantes and Parisians even closer to the empire.

The new governor was Gnaeus Iulius Agricola , father-in-law of the historian Tacitus . He described Agricola's life in a biography that contains valuable information about Roman Britain. Agricola thus completed the subjugation of the Ordovieans in Wales and then led his troops north along the Pennines. By building new roads, he further secured the terrain he had gained; in addition to these measures, he had the legionary camp of Chester built. His tactics also included terrorizing local tribes first before offering them negotiations. In the year 80 he had reached the River Tay , where he built the Inchtuthil fort. From here he advanced to Moray , where he won a crushing victory over Caledonian tribes in the so-called Battle of Mons Graupius (whether Tacitus exaggerates the meaning of victory is disputed). He also ordered the fleet to circumnavigate the northern tip of Scotland in order to finally prove that Britain was an island and to claim the Orkney archipelago for the empire.

Britain around 150 AD

Agricola was finally ordered back to Rome by Domitian and seems to have been replaced (at least according to Tacitus) by a number of incompetent successors who were unable to advance the subjugation of the north, especially since the legions are now elsewhere, especially on the Danube. The Romans certainly had to ask themselves whether the costs of a protracted war in this inhospitable region outweighed the economic or political advantages, or whether it was not wiser to be content with de-iure submission to the Caledonians.

Strengthening the northern border

Septimius Severus
Munich Glyptothek

During a stay on the island, Emperor Hadrian 122 gave the order to mark the border between the Roman province and the north of the island with an elaborate fortification. It is possible that the project had already started under his predecessor Trajan , but it has remained associated with Hadrian's name to this day: This was Hadrian's Wall , which followed the Tyne - Solway Firth line . Nevertheless, after the occupation of the Scottish Lowlands under Hadrian's successor Antoninus Pius, the Romans tried in 142 to stabilize the border behind the rivers Clyde and Forth by building the Antonine Wall . Like all Roman border installations ( limites ) of this time, this new wall system was neither intended nor suitable to repel larger attacks. But it made it easier to control border crossings and trade with the areas beyond, and deter looters. In addition, Antoninus was able to present himself as an enlarger of the empire without risk. As early as 162, however, many troops were relocated from Antoninus Wall to Hadrian's Wall. Under Emperor Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus , violent attacks by the Picts had to be fended off around 180, with the officer Lucius Artorius Castus particularly distinguished. Commodus renounced a counter-offensive, which led to unrest and mutinies of the Roman troops, and shortly after 180 years finally took the border back to Hadrian's Wall. This resulted in a temporary calming down.

Templeborough Roman Military Camp (Yorkshire)

In 193 the British governor Clodius Albinus was apparently acclaimed as emperor by his troops in the course of the chaotic events after the second year of the four emperors; he was initially able to come to an understanding with his rival Septimius Severus , but in 196 there was an open conflict in which Albinus was defeated in 197. These events were evidently the occasion to divide the province so that from now on there would no longer be three legions under the command of a single governor. Roman troops then advanced several times into the north of what is now Scotland, including in the year 209, when Septimius Severus , who also had Hadrian's Wall reinforced, defeated a Caledonian confederation in a costly campaign and accepted its formal submission without this affecting the border would have; the emperor died in Eboracum (York) in 211. After the usurpation of Postumus in 260, Britain belonged to the so-called Imperium Galliarum for a few years before Emperor Aurelian again subjected it to central power in Rome in 274.

Late antiquity

Towards the end of the 3rd century Britain had once again become a militarily power factor within the Roman Empire. In 287 General Carausius , a Romanized Gaul from the province of Belgica , succeeded in having his army in Britain proclaim himself the counter-emperor against Diocletian . Carausius claimed a special empire consisting of Britain and the part of Gaul adjacent to the canal. Britain was difficult to conquer from the continent, especially since attempts had been made to master the threat from looters who had been invading from sea since around 250 with partly newly built, heavily fortified forts on the Saxon coast . These strategically important fortresses and naval stations, well manned by Carausius' most loyal officers and soldiers, were now just as good at repelling Roman invaders from the continent. Constantius Chlorus , who had become Caesar (lower emperor) and adoptive son of the western emperor Maximian after the division of the empire by Diocletian , was assigned to Britain and Gaul as an area of ​​responsibility as part of the tetrarchy in 293 . He immediately set out to win back the northern Gaulish and British provinces with the help of a new fleet. After the reconquest of Bononia , today's Boulogne , where the headquarters of the Roman canal fleet was, by Constantius Carausius was murdered by Allectus . He made himself the successor of the usurper and withdrew with his Frankish and Saxon troops to Britain, where he was immediately pinned and crushed by Constantius Chlorus and his general, the Praetorian prefect Asclepiodotus , after their landing in 296. Constantius then moved into Londinium ( London ), the capital of the Britannia superior , whose population, who finally wanted peace, submitted to him without resistance. The recovery of Britain was celebrated on coins.

Gold coin of Constantius I, found in Arras in northern France, minted in Trier (297–298). Depiction of the liberation of Londinium ( London ) (inscribed as LON) and the Roman province of Britain after the victory over Allectus (296) with the inscription "REDDITOR LVCIS AETERNAE - LONDINIVM" "Restorer of Eternal Light - London".

The subsequent administrative reform of the Emperor Diocletian brought a further division of the provinces in the territory of Britain with it, which was probably initiated by Constantius Chlorus during his stay in Britain. It is possible that the province of Britannia superior was first divided into Britannia prima and Maxima Caesariensis , and Britannia inferior became Britannia secunda . Soon afterwards, however, the province of Britannia Caesariensis , which had received its nickname from Caesar Constantius Chlorus himself, was divided again. In any case, later lists show, in addition to Britannia prima and Britannia secunda, from 314 at the latest, the provinces of Maxima Caesariensis and Flavia Caesariensis , which were perhaps named after Diocletian's colleague Maximian and undoubtedly after his Caesar Constantius Chlorus, who was actually called Flavius ​​Valerius Constantius. The British provinces were administratively combined in the new Dioecesis Britanniae .

In the summer of 306 another usurpation occurred in Eburacum / York with far-reaching consequences: Constantine the Great , the son of Constantius, had his troops illegally proclaim himself emperor after the death of his father. However, he succeeded in subsequently being recognized as Caesar by the new Augustus Galerius . In the other fourth-century Britain, now with Gaul and Hispania a praetorian shelter, which in late Roman , haunted high time civil servant of further usurpations. The reason for this was on the one hand the exposed location of the provinces, far from any headquarters, and on the other hand the still high concentration of troops. As the archaeological findings are contradictory, there is some debate about the economic situation on the island during these years. Flavius ​​Theodosius in particular successfully restored order in Britain in the 360s, and in 367/68 he was faced with a "barbaric conspiracy" of Picts, Scots and Anglo-Saxons, which the two military leaders of the Roman troops on the The island.

In late antiquity , the military administration was separated from the civil administration throughout the empire and the army was divided into a mobile field army ( Comitatenses ) and a stationary border force ( Limitanei ). The Comitatenses are not reliably detectable in Britain before the year 395. The command of the garrisons on the northern border ( Hadrian's Wall ) was now held by a Dux Britanniarum . The border troops on the heavily fortified southern Saxony coast initially commanded a Comes Maritimi Tractus , which also commanded the troops on the north coast of Gaul. At the end of the 4th century, the military districts on both sides of the English Channel were reorganized and a Comes litoris Saxonici per Britanniam was given command of the forts on the south-east coast of Britain. In the 4th century AD, a Comes Britanniarum held the supreme command of the entire British army (border troops and field army) . Supported by the mobile elite units stationed on the island, he had a prominent position in the hierarchy of the late ancient Roman military.

A large mosaic from a Roman villa in Dorset, which also contains one of the oldest known depictions of Christ from the Imperium Romanum , testifies to the prosperity of the British provinces in the 4th century .

The Comes Britanniarum Magnus Maximus took a large part of his troops with him to Gaul in 383 as part of his usurpation , many of which were no longer to return - according to some historians (for example Guy Halsall) it was he who previously established the first Anglo-Saxon federates on the Island, but this is controversial. Some time later, a large contingent of Roman troops was transferred to Britain for the last time. The poet Claudian testifies that the Western Roman magister militum Stilicho carried out an offensive against Picts and Scots north of Hadrian's Wall in 398/99. Stilicho apparently subordinated nine units of the Comitatenses to the Comes Britanniarum before numerous units of the British army were withdrawn again in 402 to secure the heartland of the western part of the empire, Italy, against the Visigoths under Alaric . It was around this time that a praepositus named Justinian had a fortress tower renewed in Ravenscar and on this occasion put the last known Roman building inscription in Britain: Iustinianus p (rae) p (ositus) Vindicianus magister turr [e] m castrum fecit a so (lo) ( AE 1954, 15 = CIL VII 268).

The departure of Rome

The archaeological evidence from the last years of Roman rule shows signs of decline or a return to pre-Roman ways of life, which had never completely disappeared on the island anyway. Life in the Roman cities and villas , which had shown considerable prosperity around 350 (at that time, among other things, London got a new city wall, which enclosed a significantly larger area than the older one), has developed less strongly since the last quarter of the 4th century , Pottery shards from the period after 400 are hardly found, Roman coins from the period after 402 are also rare on the island and practically nonexistent after 407. Since the crossing of the Rhine in 406 , which led to a devastating invasion of barbaric groups for Gaul, the connection between Britain and the imperial government in Ravenna had been severed. According to the late antique historian Olympiodorus of Thebes , the troops in Britain first raised a soldier named Marcus to Augustus . However, this was eliminated after a while. Instead, a civil servant, Gratian , was proclaimed emperor , but was also murdered after four months. Finally, in the autumn of 406, the British troops raised a previously unknown soldier (probably the Comes Britanniarum ) named Constantinus to emperor, whose name was perhaps his only asset, since Constantine the Great had also started his way to power in Britain and was finally been victorious.

Shortly thereafter, Constantine crossed the English Channel with all available British troops. With this the Roman military presence in Britain had effectively come to an end. The army, which was withdrawn from Britain on the orders of the usurper, was probably a troubled mercenary force, which felt abandoned by the central Western Roman government, was only sworn in to Constantine's person and remained loyal to him as long as his men and their families were with him was able to provide the essentials. Nevertheless, the usurper who went into civil war will undoubtedly have taken the most loyal and strongest units with him to Gaul. However, it is difficult to imagine that at least a minimum of garrison troops was not left behind, since the island as a whole was not abandoned in 407/8. The few remaining associations are likely to have disbanded later, when the island was in fact left to its own devices, which is why there was an uprising in Britain in 409. Now the British provinces also said of Constantine III. and thus from Westrom. In older research, the year 410 is considered to be the "end" of Roman Britain. Only recently has this date been given less importance than it used to be, as members of the Roman administration and the garrison troops still remained on the island, although their further fate remains in the dark due to the extremely poor sources.

The reason for these usurpations is very probably not only due to the fact that the imperial government saw oneself neglected by the imperial government on the island, which is far from the western Roman court in Ravenna . A note from the historian Zosimos (who, however, is not always reliable) suggests that the cause is to be found on the continent, where the movements of barbaric gentes in the border area probably also caused unrest in Britain (for details see Migration ). After Zosimos the British troops wanted to protect the empire in Gaul. That Constantine III. Translated to Gaul with his army offers a certain confirmation of this. Zosimos reports that then most of the cities of Gaul fell away from Honorius and overflowed to Constantine.

"Dark Age"

Very few literary sources are available for the period after 410, which is why it is often referred to as the "dark age". The educated Romano-British cleric Gildas wrote a report about the conquest of Britain by the Anglo-Saxons sometime in the 6th century , but even this is not always reliable and only partially informative. The anonymous Chronica Gallica of 452 only briefly states that in 441 the island, which had been ravaged by calamity for a while, was lost to the Romans and fell to the Saxons: Britanniae usque ad hoc tempus variis cladibus eventibusque latae in dicionem Saxonum rediguntur (Chron. Gall. A CCCCLII, ad ann. 441). In 511 another nameless chronicler reports that Britain was abandoned by the Romans in 440 and came under Saxon rule ( Britanniae a Romanis amissae in dicionem Saxonum cedunt ; Chron. Gall. A DXI, ad ann. 440).

The next sources are only passed down from the early Middle Ages and the High Middle Ages , such as Beda Venerabilis in the early 8th century, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Historia Britonum from the 9th century as well as the Historia Regum Britanniae written by Geoffrey von Monmouth around 1136 . The content of these sources on the 5th and 6th centuries in Britain, which goes beyond what is reported by Gildas, is today assessed as largely unhistorical or legendary.

In the opinion of most researchers, the archaeological and literary sources only permit a rough reconstruction: soon after the withdrawal of the Roman troops, the defense of the northern border apparently collapsed. The British cities were plundered and burned by the Scots and Picts, allegedly the population of entire localities murdered. According to Zosimos, Emperor Honorius instructed the civitates of Britannia seeking help in 410 to take their defense into their own hands, although most of the civitates were probably only small towns. (According to researchers such as David Mattingly , Zosimos, who lived about a hundred years after the events, made a mistake here - the emperor did not address Britannia , but rather the Grossium region in Italy, which at the time was from the Visigoths Most historians also assume that Roman society and culture 410 did not dissolve in one fell swoop, but one speaks of a "sub-Roman Britain" in which one has tried the familiar way of life for about 30 years to protect. During the first generation after the withdrawal of the imperial troops, the Roman civitates on the island were apparently still able to maintain their position with the help of Germanic federates (see below). There is also archaeological evidence that the Roman coastal fortresses in the south-east of the island slowly turned into fortified settlements, but remained manned and defended for some time after 410. In addition, Roman and Celtic warlords formed local rulers. Apparently one of them, a local Celto-Roman aristocrat, rose to rulership of the provincials at the time. Gildas calls this man a tyrannus , which in late ancient Latin was the term for a usurper .

But soon afterwards the Angles, Saxons and Frisians attacked the British provinces, marking the decisive turning point. The exact processes are in the dark, but the written and archaeological findings at least reveal the rough framework. Probably the Roman-British inhabitants of Britain had initially recruited most of the Anglo-Saxons themselves as foederati , who were to take over the defense of the northern border against Picts and Skots after the withdrawal or dissolution of the regular imperial associations. Individual Germanic groups may have come to the island as settlers or regular units of the Roman army. Gildas blames the above-mentioned tyrannus for recruiting the Anglo-Saxons, and Beda Venerabilis calls this man the Vortigern for the first time . Possibly the Celtic title Gwrtheyrn , which could be translated as “overlord”, is hidden behind the “name” Vortigern . It is unclear whether Vortigern - like the usurpers in Britain before - also claimed imperial dignity for himself and how far his rule extended.

According to the Historia Brittonum , the Anglo-Saxon mercenaries were recruited in 428, but whether this date is correct is also uncertain. Remarkably, there are indications that Bishop Germanus of Auxerre is said to have led Roman troops in a successful campaign against Picts and Scots in 429 ( Prosper Tiro ad ann 429 ); the bishop had been an imperial official before joining the clergy and was therefore prepared to lead such a command. What exactly is behind this message is unclear. Other sources speak of a purely ecclesiastical mission of Germanus, who acted against the spread of Pelagianism among the Christians of Britain.

Tremissis of Anthemius

Around 440/441 there were revolutionary events that marked the end of Roman Britain for their contemporaries, as the Gallic chronicles mentioned above show. It was likely that this was when the Anglo-Saxons (for whatever reason) rose and began to pillage the province. The provincials, especially in the east of the island, could do little to counter the rebellion of the foederati . Many probably went over to the Germanic tribes or submitted to them, while others withdrew to the north and west. It is noteworthy, however, that the majority of the modern villages in southern England and in the Thames Valley can be traced back to Roman times; So there was no break in settlement continuity. DNA analyzes of "Anglo-Saxon" buried people from these years have shown some time ago that they were often Celto novels that had apparently adopted the way of life and culture of the winners. The number of Germanic immigrants from the continent, however, could have been comparatively low, but this is controversial. It was probably the case that most of the Germanic tribes came to the island in smaller groups of warriors even after the start of the uprising.

Gildas reports that the Romanized British called for help to the Western Roman army master Aëtius around 446 (which would fit the information in the two Gallic chronicles), but Westrom had long since faced major problems; Britain had become a peripheral (and only formal) part of the empire, from which no tax revenue flowed to Rome for a long time. Nevertheless, there is evidence of continuing contacts between southern Britain and northern Gaul, which was then still under Roman control. There was also a wave of British emigrants to what is now known as Brittany .

Around 470 a Roman-British warlord called Riothamus supported the Western Roman Emperor Anthemius in Gaul in vain against the rebellious Visigoths, as reported by several contemporary Gallic sources. The later Celtic tradition also knows a leader with the Roman name Coelius / Coel , who went down in popular tradition as the Old King Cole. As Gildas reported the British managed under the leadership of Ambrosius Aurelianus around the year 500, the advance of the Anglo-Saxons for some decades to stop . It was not until the 570s that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that King Ceawlin was able to connect the territories of the Anglo-Saxons and push the Roman-British domains back to Wales and Cornwall.

The "Roman" British were able to stay there for a long time, but the Roman character of their civilization, along with the Latin language, was soon lost for good. This meant the end of late antiquity for Britain (in the rest of Europe it was to last even longer) and was associated with a considerable material decline, even if archaeologists have recently come to more favorable assessments than before. The subrömische culture disappeared apparently to about 600 almost without a trace (although in Wales still in the 6th century Latin inscriptions with correct Consulatsdatierung were set and imported pottery from Ostrom to have been used), and Christianity seems forced back into the dominated by Anglo-Saxons areas . The fact that Christianity, as the Catholic tradition teaches, completely disappeared and only came back to the island under Gregory the Great in 597, is now doubted by several researchers. Meanwhile, the position is even taken that the Romano-Celtic culture was in the 5th / 6th Century experienced a real boom. The Romans never gave up their claim to Britain, at least de iure - around the year 540, Emperor Justinian still seems to have considered the island to belong in principle to the empire.

Social structure


Britain on the Tabula Peutingeriana (reconstructed section)

Pragmatic as the Romans were, they built a highly efficient infrastructure in Britain in a relatively short period of time in order to further secure their military conquests and, most importantly, to increase tax revenues considerably. In the end, they opened up their domain in Britain (with a few exceptions in the west of the island) quite well, although the degree of Romanization in the individual regions was very different. The Roman influence had its greatest impact in the south and east, where the continent's cultural influence was most noticeable and where urbanization was most advanced. Here the Latin language asserted itself down to the lower classes of the population. From the 2nd century on, Christian proselytizing made its first progress in these regions .

The exact mechanisms of Romanization are controversial in recent research. On the one hand, Tacitus claims in his work Agricola (Chapter 21) that the Romans consciously accustomed the British to their way of life in order to bring them under control; On the other hand, it is generally assumed today that the assimilation of the provincial residents in Britain, as elsewhere, was more likely to have come from the local elites.

To what extent the Romans influenced the political or economic processes in neighboring Ireland ( Hibernia ) has not yet been clarified.


Economically, the Romans were primarily interested in tin and gold from Britain. In addition, they made a new breed of sheep from Asia Minor with better wool yields at home on the island, thereby laying an important foundation stone for British wool production. Even then, Londinium was the economic center of Britain. As already indicated, there is no consensus in research about the economic strength of the island, especially since some authors of the 2nd century complained that Britain cost the empire more than it earned it. In the 3rd and 4th centuries the island was probably responsible for supplying the Roman troops on the Rhine and should therefore have prospered at least in the south, but in view of contradicting findings - for example with regard to the Roman civitates of Britain - there are different positions in research.


The provincial division of Britain around AD 410; however, the naming of the provinces in the map contains confusion.

Britain was initially organized in a single province, the capital of which was Camulodunum . After the events of the Boudicca uprising in this city, this function was transferred to Londinium .

Soon after AD 197 - after the victory over Clodius Albinus - the province was divided into two under Emperor Septimius Severus :

Another division of the provinces took place in the course of the imperial reform under Diocletian :

In 369, after the island was pacified again by Flavius ​​Theodosius , a fifth province, Valentia , was added to the north of Hadrian's Wall under Emperor Valentinian I ; their capital became Luguvalium (Carlisle).

Britain, like most provinces, was usually administered from the civitates under the provincial administration of the governor . There were also the border regions, which were organized and monitored directly by the military, and at least until 212 there were also the areas that were under one of the veteran colonies of Britain.

Well-known civitates

Cities were among the citizen colonies

Areas under military administration were large parts of what is now Wales and the north-west of the province (Hadrian's Wall).


  • 55 BC - Caesar's 1st campaign to Britain
  • 54 BC BC - Caesar's 2nd campaign to Britain
  • 43 AD - Aulus Plautius' campaign in Britain : On behalf of the Roman Emperor Claudius , a good 20,000 legionaries crossed to Britain together with an unknown number of auxiliary troops . Britain became a Roman province. Camulodunum ( Colchester ) was founded and the seat of the administration, but had to give it to London ( Londinium ) a few years later .
  • 44 - Aulus Plautius tried to subdue the rest of the island . (He only had a vague idea of ​​the size of the island.)
  • 47 - Publius Ostorius Scapula succeeded Aulus Plautius as governor.
  • 60 - Gnaeus Iulius Agricola received his first command in Britain.
  • 60/61 - Boudicca , the widow of the Celtic client king of the Iceni, took the lead in a revolt against the Romans by several tribes after they had tried, contrary to the treaty, to incorporate the Iceni tribal territory. After a coalition victory over Legio IX , they destroyed and sacked Camulodunum, Londinium and Verulamium , according to Tacitus , over 70,000 Romans were slain in the process. However, when she lost the decisive battle at Mancetter, she committed suicide.
  • 62–69 - Progress in the Romanization of South Britain under the governors Petronius Turpilianus and Trebellius Maximus.
  • between 78 and 84, governor of Agricola; Campaigns in the north.
  • 122 - During a visit to the island , Hadrian ordered the construction of the vallum Hadriani , "... to separate the barbarians from the Romans" ( Historia Augusta , vita Hadriani 11.2). Under his successor Antoninus Pius , the border was moved 150 further north and fortified with a wood-earth wall ( Antoninuswall ). However, this was gradually abandoned after only a few years and the border was moved back to Hadrian's Wall by 180 at the latest (this time for good) .
  • 193 - the British governor Clodius Albinus laid claim to the imperial throne, but was defeated by the legions of Septimius Severus at the Battle of Lugdunum in 197 and killed while fleeing.
  • 211 - Emperor Septimius Severus died during a campaign against the northern tribes in Eboracum.
  • around 211 - The Roman garrisons on Hadrian's Wall now largely consisted of local soldiers; however, most of the legionaries were stationed in the south of the island.
  • from 250 - Saxon pirates visited Britain's coasts for the first time.
  • 260 - Britain fell temporarily to the usurper Postumus . In 272, Rome's authority over the island was restored.
  • 287 - General Carausius revolted against Augustus of the West, Maximian, and proclaimed himself ruler of Britain with the help of the Classis Britannica and Frankish auxiliaries. The Caesar Constantius Chlorus succeeded in retaking the island in 296 or 297.
  • 306 - Constantius Chlorus, Augustus of the West since 305 , died in Eboracum (York); his son Constantine was illegally proclaimed his successor by his army and was able to assert himself as sole ruler in the Roman Empire in the following civil wars .
  • 367 - Riots on the island were suppressed by Flavius ​​Theodosius .
  • 383 - Usurpation of Magnus Maximus
  • 399 - The Stilicho campaign north of Hadrian's Wall
  • 407 - Withdrawal of most of the Comitatenses under the usurper Constantine III.
  • 409 - Britain rebelled against Constantine III. and renounced him.
  • 410 - The Western Roman Emperor Honorius refused (at least according to the traditional reading) military aid and informed the British magistrates in a letter that the province would have to defend itself in the future. During the following decades, the Roman administrative organization on the island slowly disintegrated, and the circulation of coins also came to a standstill. Irish pirates and attacks by the Picts caused unrest.
  • around 440 - The Western Roman magister militum Aëtius was still in contact with the magistrates of the cities in Britain, but also refused any military aid. Around this time Anglo-Saxons , who had called the remaining Roman civitates into the country as foederati, rebelled and gradually brought what is now England under their rule over the next two centuries .
  • around 500 (?) - Battle of Mons Badonicus : The advance of the Anglo-Saxons was halted for several decades by the victory of Roman-British forces under the leadership of Ambrosius Aurelianus .
  • 577 (?) - Battle of Deorham : After the victory of the Anglo-Saxons, the British were essentially pushed back into Wales and Cornwall.

See also


(in selection)

Relevant extracts from various sources are compiled in German translation at:

English translations of the relevant literary sources on Roman Britain offer:

  • Yvette Rathbone, DW Rathbone (ed.): Literary Sources for Roman Britain (= LACTOR Original Records. Volume 11). 4th edition, The London Association of Classical Teachers, London 2012, ISBN 978-0-903625-35-7 .

The Roman inscriptions from Great Britain are edited in the multi-volume work Roman Inscriptions of Britain , which is the standard work for dealing with epigraphic sources on the subject. Newly found inscriptions are published annually in a separate article in the specialist journal Britannia . An extensive selection of ancient inscriptions on the history of Roman Britain, including an English translation and explanatory comments, can be found in the following works:

  • CW Grocock (Ed.): Inscriptions of Roman Britain (= LACTOR Original Records. Volume 4). 5th, completely revised edition, The London Association of Classical Teachers, London 2017, ISBN 978-0-903625-39-5 .
  • Roger SO Tomlin: Britannia Romana. Roman Inscriptions & Roman Britain. Oxbow Books, Oxford / Philadelphia 2018, ISBN 978-1-78570-700-1 .


Important articles can also be found in the specialist journal Britannia, which is only devoted to this topic . Most of the individuals treated are listed in the authoritative Oxford Dictionary of National Biography .

  • Anthony R. Birley : The Roman Government of Britain . Oxford 2005, ISBN 0-19-925237-8 (with numerous source excerpts).
  • Leonard Cottrell: The Great Invasion . New York 1962, ISBN 0-330-13037-4
  • John Creighton: Britannia. The Creation of a Roman Province . Oxford 2005.
  • Ken Dark: Britain and the End of the Roman Empire . Stroud 2002, ISBN 0-7524-2532-3
  • Sheppard Frere: Britannia. A History of Roman Britain. London 1974.
  • Mark Hassall: Roman Britain: The Frontier Province. Collected papers. Studies in the history of Roman Britain based on the documentary sources. The Hobnob Press, Warminster 2017, ISBN 978-1-906978-42-6 (collection of essays on various aspects of Roman Britain).
  • Richard Hobbs, Ralph Jackson: Roman Britain . Darmstadt 2011, ISBN 978-3-8062-2525-9
  • Michael E. Jones: The End of Roman Britain . London et al. 1996, ISBN 0-8014-8530-4
  • Andreas Kakoschke: The personal names in Roman Britain, Alpha - Omega. (Concordances on Classical Philology 259.) Hildesheim 2011, ISBN 978-3-487-14628-7
  • John Manley: AD 43. The Roman Invasion of Britain . Chicago 2002, ISBN 0-7524-1959-5
  • David Mattingly : To Imperial Possession. Britain in the Roman Empire. London 2006, ISBN 978-0-14-014822-0
  • Peter Salway: Roman Britain (The Oxford History of England). Oxford 1981.
  • Peter Salway: A History of Roman Britain. Oxford 2001.
  • Peter Salway: Roman Britain. A very short introduction. 2nd edition Oxford 2015.
  • Peter Salway: Roman Britain . In: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Online
  • Pat Southern : Britain . In: Claude Lepelley (Ed.): Rome and the Empire. The regions of the empire . Munich / Leipzig 2001, pp. 211–245 (good, concise overview with further literature).

Web links


  1. Caesar, De bello Gallico 4.20.
  2. Kai Brodersen : The Roman Britain. Scientific Book Society, Darmstadt 1998, p. 11.
  3. Work on the Via Belgica is in full swing. In: Aachener Zeitung , June 11, 2013, accessed on June 12, 2017.
  4. Olympiodoros, fragment 12 [fragment 13.1 in the edition by R. Blockley].
  5. See Orosius , Adversum Paganos 7,40,4. See also Drinkwater (1998), p. 272.
  6. See Peter Salway: A History of Roman Britain. Oxford 2001, p. 323 ff.
  7. ^ Zosimos 6,3.
  8. Currently the best representation of the "Dark Ages" of Britain is Guy Halsall: Worlds of Arthur. Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages. Oxford 2014. See also Stuart Laycock: Warlords. The struggle for power in Post-Roman Britain. Stroud 2009.
  9. ^ For a more recent overview, see Nicholas J. Higham, Martin J. Ryan: The Anglo-Saxon World. New Haven 2013, p. 103 ff.
  10. See the overview in Henning Börm : Westrom. From Honorius to Justinian . Stuttgart 2013, p. 75 f.
  11. See also Southern 2001, p. 237 f.

Coordinates: 52 °  N , 1 °  W