Roman Britannia

English Language Study for Russian Orthodox Learners

Roman Britannia:  Shaping Civilization in Times of Strife and Accord
М. В. Панина

“It (the British Island) is very accessible to the invader, whether he comes in peace or war, as pirate or merchant, conqueror or missionary.  Those who dwell there are not insensitive to any shift of power, any change of faith, or even fashion, on the mainland, but they give to every practice, every doctrine that comes to it from abroad, its own peculiar turn and imprint.” - Winston Churchill, The Birth of Britain.2

Long before Caesar’s legionaries set foot on the British soil, Rome had already known about Britannia, a foggy distant land, inhabited by warlike barbarian tribes.  The knowledge came primarily from the writings of Phytheas, a Greek explorer and geographer who, sometime in the fourth century B.C., travelled over a large part of the island.  Phytheas describes vast forests and marshes, open spaces for pastures, and long coastlines.  He also notes that the natives grow wheat and make intoxicating drinks out of corn and honey.  Of the particular characteristics of the islanders, the explorer mentions their hospitality to visiting merchants and resilience to hardships.7

The peoples who populated the island were called Celts, from the Greek keltoi (“barbarians”); the name first surfaces in the works of Ephorus (400-330 B.C.).  In the centuries preceding the growth of the Roman Empire, Celtic tribesmen controlled an extensive area that included much of Central Europe and went as far as Italy in the south and Anatolia in the east.11  Celts spoke different dialects which, although based on the common Proto-Celtic language, varied enough that the tribes did not understand each other and did not consider themselves part of the same ethnic family.  Each tribal society had its own religious cult and political aims; therefore, frequent military confrontation among diverse Celtic groups was inevitable.  Occasionally, however, they united into a confederacy.  The Celts confronted Roman troops throughout Europe and presented a major threat to Rome’s territorial ambitions.  Julius Caesar referred to the Celts as Gauls (in Latin galli means “foreigners, strangers”) – and, following his example, the Romans replaced the name keltoi with galli.

The British Celts were tall and fair-skinned in appearance, blond or red-headed, with blue or green eyes.7  Strength and physical endurance was pivotal to Celtic culture: male babies were regularly submersed in cold water and never wrapped in warm blankets; if adult men gained fat above their belts, they were punished by whipping.4  Strabo, a Greek historian, in his Geographica describes the nature of the Celtic race as very combative, fearless and impulsive, yet, straightforward, hospitable and not revengeful.12  The Celts did not have a writing system, thus all the knowledge of their way of life comes only from the accounts of early Greeks and Romans.

Julius Caesar tried to conquer Britannia two times, in 55 and 54 B.C.  Both attempts were unsuccessful; the unorganized barbarians put up such resistance that the experienced Roman soldiers had to retreat, unable to leave a single garrison on the island.  Caesar could not repeat his famous Veni, vidi, vici in reference to the Britons.  And such was the reputation of the fierce Celts, that no one in Rome rebuked the distinguished general for his failure to subjugate Britain:  on the contrary, upon the return of the legions, the countrymen greeted their leader with praise and festivities.  In his memoirs, Caesar presents the purpose of his British campaign as merely a scouting expedition.  “Caesar thought it would be of great advantage to visit the island, to see what the dwellers were like, and to get acquainted with the lie of the land, the harbours, and the landing places.” 8  Much of what is now known about the ancient Celts we owe to Caesar’s writings.  “The population is exceedingly large; the ground thickly studded with homesteads … and the cattle is very numerous.  For money they use either bronze, or gold coins, or iron ingots of fixed weights.  Tin is found inland and small quantities of iron near the coast; the copper that they use is imported ...  All the Britons dye their bodies with woad, which produces a blue colour, and this gives them a terrifying appearance in battle.  They wear their hair long, and shave the whole of their bodies except the head and the upper lip.” 8

In spite of fruitless initial campaigns, Rome did not give up hope of conquering Britannia.  Emperor Claudius, in order to secure his shaky position on the throne, needed a new military achievement.  The island – which had been independent for too long – became the focus of his attention.  In 43 A.D, an army of over 40 thousand legionaries, led by the famed general Aulus Plautius, was sent to Britain.  This time, the results of the campaign were rewarding, and the conquest of the island was almost complete13, although Rome never succeeded in defeating Scotland.  A jubilant Claudius arrived in Britannia and, to the astonishment of the natives, celebrated the victory with an elephant procession through Colchester, the British capital at the time.7  Aulus Plautius was appointed governor, and by the end of the first century, Britain became a province of Rome.  The Roman garrisons, however, did not feel completely at ease in their newly conquered land.  After they crushed one uprising, another followed.  The rebellions were spontaneous, random and poorly planned – just the kind that exhausted the legions the most:  Romans were used to structured, well-prepared battles.  The professional soldiers had little skill in fighting guerrilla wars with no rules.  The islanders took refuge in the marshes and forests, and hoped to wear out the invaders with chaotic but consistent attacks.  “They can bear hunger and cold and all manner of hardship; they will retire into their marshes and hold out for days with only their heads above water, and in the forests they will subsist on bark and roots.” 5  The courageous Britons, however, weakened all their efforts by lack of unity.  “Nothing helped the Romans as much as the inability of the islanders to stay united in a fight against the intruder.” 3  Tribal leaders did not trust each other; they often conspired against their neighbours and even made treaties with the enemy – much to the advantage to the conquerors.  Caesar’s principle “divide and rule” – which was so skilfully used in other subjugated territories – worked for the Romans in Britain as well.

Among the most notable rebellions which caused much trouble for Rome was Boudicca’s revolt.  Emperor Nero even considered recalling the legions from the island.9  “In this year A.D. 61, a severe disaster was sustained in Britain.” 3  The king of the Iceni tribe, Prasutagus, had died.  Trying to save his family from Roman injustice, Prasutagus appointed his two daughters and the Roman Emperor as joint heirs of the kingdom.  But events turned out differently.  “His kingdom was plundered by centurions … his wife Boudicca was flogged, and his daughters outraged; the chiefs of the Iceni were robbed of their ancestral properties … and the king’s own relatives were reduced to slavery.” 3  The infuriated Iceni flew to arms, and Queen Boudicca found herself at the head of a large and unruly army.  Queen BoudicaSome details of the queen’s appearance were preserved in the writings of Cassius Dio, a Roman historian.  “She was huge of frame, terrifying of aspect, and with a harsh voice.  A great mass of bright red hair fell to her knees; she wore a great twisted golden necklace, and a tunic of many colours, over which was a thick mantle, fastened by a brooch.” 5  The first target of the revolt was the town of Colchester.  Unwalled and unprotected, with only a handful of Roman soldiers to fight off the multitude of rebels, Colchester quickly fell.  The town was burned to ashes; all residents massacred.  Boudicca’s suit for a righteous war and just revenge was soon lost, and her army, roused by the victory, turned into a marauding crowd. By sheer number, the Britons were able to overcome the Roman infantry and slaughter them to a man.9  Next fell London, or Londinium, as the Romans called it.  Most people did not have time to flee, and neither man, woman, nor child was spared.  It was vengeance for the oppression of years.  The rebels did not show mercy on their fellow Britons who lived in London:  they were considered traitors lulled by the invaders into submission, and, therefore, deserved to die.  According to some accounts, eighty thousand victims perished.1

The whole province might have been lost but for the courage of the governor, Gaius Suetonius, who, with the Fourteenth Legion, marched towards the rebels.  Suetonius carefully chose the place for the decisive battle, with hills on either side and a forest behind.  In order to get to the battlefield, the Britons had to enter a narrow passage between the hills, thus leaving no option for a quick retreat.6  If Dio is to be believed, Boudicca’s army numbered a hundred and twenty thousand.5  So confident were the Britons of victory that they let their women stand on wagons behind the army to observe the battle.  But, this time, the fight was on the Romans’ terms; again their discipline and superior arms proved unsurpassed.  First, the legion launched javelins against the crowded ranks of the enemy, and then the cavalry charged from either wing.  The rebels’ line was broken; they panicked, turned and tried to flee, but the wagons blocked the way.  A terrible massacre followed; it is said that as many as eighty thousand Celts were killed, while the victors had less than a thousand killed and wounded.5  Boudicca took her own life: not willing to fall into enemy hands, the warrior-queen and her daughters poisoned themselves.

Even after defeat, bands of rebels still continued to fight, seeing no truce or mercy, hiding and starving in the forests.  Making peace with the desperate tribesmen was a difficult and lengthy process for the Romans.  Just when both sides needed to find a way out of destruction and hostility, hope came with the arrival of a new governor.  In 78 A.D., Agricola – a great soldier, wise administrator and gracious man – was sent to take charge of the troublesome Roman province.  While keeping his army employed and pursuing the completion of the conquest, Agricola focused his main efforts on pacifying the nation.  “The experience of his predecessors had taught him that little could be done by war.” 3  The new governor was sympathetic to the grievances of the natives and severe with the corrupt Roman officials; no promotion was given either to civilian or soldier except for merit.  Under Agricola, international trade flourished:  tin and lead, abundant on the island, sold very well on the continent.  The Britons were encouraged to adopt the values of Roman civilization.  Many roads, dwelling-houses and even Roman-style baths were built; schools for the sons of noble Britons opened.  Education was gradually becoming esteemed by the native inhabitants.  In school, British boys studied the trivium – grammar, rhetoric and logic, and quadrivium – arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music.  Learning Latin was an important part of cultural integration:  the younger generation was able to better connect with the Romans, no longer considering them an enemy.7  Roman men married British maidens, grew accustomed to the ways of the natives, and regarded Britain as their home.

The governor served the province for only ten years:  Emperor Domitian, jealous of Agricola’s success and leadership talent, recalled him to the continent.  But the seed of constructive transformation had been planted on the island, and, for the next three hundred years, Britain in many respects enjoyed a comfortable, peaceful and enlightened life.  In this period, well-to-do Britons dwelt in heated houses that had running water; the walls and floors of their homes were decorated with mosaics.  Most urban citizens – not just the ones from the noble class – could read and write.  Among the many relics of Roman London preserved to the present day, there is an interesting writing scribbled on a roofing tile before it hardened.  A workman complains about his fellow-labourers’ slackness:  “Austalis goes off on his own for a day every week.” 10

Each town was complete with its forum, temples, markets, baths and courts of justice.  London, an extensive and well-planned city, took a lead in the life of the Roman province.  Money was coined in the London mint; the city was a commercial centre and headquarters of financial administration.2

At the end of the third and beginning of the fourth century, Britain became a refuge for many Christians fleeing from persecution on the continent.  Interacting with them and learning about their religion, the pagan islanders – who earlier worshipped blood-thirsty Celtic deities, then numerous Roman gods – were drawn to the unusual notion of everlasting love and forgiveness.  Many Britons converted; churches were built; bishops were appointed in York and London.  In 283 Alban, a Celt, died for his faith, becoming the first British saint-martyr.7, 13

The interaction of two nations – dramatic at times, but mostly peaceful – continued for the better part of four centuries.  Rome suffered greatly from relentless raids of Germanic barbarians, and, no longer able to sustain troops in far-away territories, started withdrawing its forces from the island.  The last Roman legion departed from Britannia in 410, leaving the Britons to fend for themselves.  Tragic times were in store for the country:  brutal Anglo-Saxon tribes destroyed nearly all what the Romans had built, and then, as the land was beginning to heal, another upheaval tested the resilience of the nation – the Vikings.    

The ancient Roman presence is evident in Britain today.  Some signs of it are obvious – Hadrian’s Wall, Roman roads and archaeological finds; some are subtle, such as the multiple Latin borrowings in the English language.  More importantly, the unique imprints of history shaped a unique culture and nation – which is true for any country.


1.   Church, Alfred J. Early Britain. London: T. Fisher Unwin, New York: G.P. Putman’s Sons, 1889.

2.   Churchill, Winston. S. The Birth of Britain. Barnes and Noble, 1956.

3.   Cornelius Tacitus. Historiae. Société D’ Édition, Paris, 1959.

4.   Cunliffe, Barry. The Celts: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2003.

5.   Dio Cassius. Roman History (Translated by Earnest Cary), Vol. VII & VIII, Loeb Classical Library, 1925.

6.   Dudley, Donald R. and Webster, Graham. The Rebellion of Boudicca. New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1962.

7.   Fraser, Rebecca. The Story of Britain from the Romans to the Present: A Narrative History. New York, London: W. Norton & Company, 2005.

8.   Gai Iuli Caeseris. De bello Gallico.  London: Macmillan & Co LTD, 1964.

9.   Guy de la Bedoyere. Defying Rome. The Rebels of Roman Britain. Tempus, 2003.

10.  Home, Gordon. Roman London. New York: George H. Doran Company, 1925.

11.  James, Simon. The World of the Celts. Thames and Hudson, 1993.

12.  Strabo. Geographica (English translation by Horace Leonard Jones). London: Heinemann, 1917.

13.  Swanton, Michael, editor. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.  New York: Routledge, 1998.