Monty Python’s The Life of Brian begins with a radical Jewish insurgent named Reg, (John Cleese), who asks a rhetorical question of his fellow conspirators, ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’
They built the roads, Reg!’ they answer him.
John Cleese’s character responds, ‘Well, that goes without saying!’
He’s then inundated by a litany of the benefits the Romans brought to Palestine until finally, one person utters in a quiet voice, ‘Peace?’
This article – the first in a two part series – explores ‘what the Romans did for’ author Michael Durnan’s native Britain. Part One tells the fascinating story of ancient Rome’s enduring legacy, influencing Britain’s development until Christianity was legalized in the 4th century.
When the Romans arrived in “Britannia,” the inhabitants were Late Iron Age Celtic tribes. Centuries before, they had migrated from the Danube Basin, a tribal warrior people always seeking to expand their territory. The Romans found the Celtic Britons a well-organised society with strict laws, a relatively advanced bronze and iron technology and skilled craftsmen who made fine jewellery and weapons. Celts lived in round houses of wood, wattle and daub — with roofs made of thatch, or dry stone. Their houses were enclosed in huge, impressive hill forts, behind ramparts and ditches, all surrounded by wooden fences to keep out intruders or wild animals. Celtic Britons had a priestly caste known as the Druids, custodians of knowledge who allowed no written language in order to protect the secrecy of their sacred rites and their position as keepers of tribal law and history.
After Julius Caesar had conquered TransAlpine Gaul (France) he set his sights on the conquest of Britannia. (Mediterranean explorers had earlier named them ‘the Pritani,’ which Latin speakers mispronounced as ‘Britanni.’) Caesar knew there was mineral wealth to be had as well as an abundance of wheat for his hungry Legions. Caesar had good military and political reasons for launching an invasion, too, as the British Celts were assisting the Gauls in their ongoing resistance to Roman conquest and occupation. Alas, both this effort and an invasion the next year were ultimately in vain, as Caesar was again forced to withdraw back to France to subdue the fractious Gauls.
Nearly 100 years passed before the Romans once again attempted to conquer Britannia. This time it would be the Emperor Claudius who would lead the invasion, seeking prestige and support from the Senate and the citizens of Rome since being proclaimed Emperor by The Army. What also helped persuade Claudius to invade was the arrival in Rome of Verica, a Celtic British tribal King who sought Claudius’s help in restoring him to his throne after he was ousted by King Caratacus. In 43 AD, an invasion force of nearly 40,000 landed on the Kent Coast and then advanced on the Celtic tribal capital of Camulodunum (modern day Colchester). Claudius arrived with elephants (guaranteed to strike fear into the Celts) and the city was soon captured.
One of the most famous and ambitious building projects undertaken by the Romans was the construction of Hadrian’s Wall. Remains of Hadrian’s Wall can be seen to this day; it has been designated a
UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Emperor Hadrian ordered the building of his Wall, ‘To separate the barbarians rom The Romans and allow occupation to be consolidated in peace’. The Romans were constantly being attacked by the Picts from Caledonia (Scotland) and in 122 AD Hadrian visited Britannia, decided on a policy of damage limitation and ordered the building of a defensive Wall , constructed by Roman Legionaries who were as skilled as civil engineers as they were at warfare. It was a massive undertaking requiring huge amounts of labour, materials and money as well as logistical support. The wall was built 7 ft. wide and 15 ft. high with a deep ditch in front of it to entrap any would be attackers. Troops were garrisoned every mile in small castles with turrets in between each milecastle and behind the wall larger cavalry and infantry forts were constructed to house more troops to relieve or reinforce the guards in the milecastles and turrets. The whole project, including the quarrying of 27 million cubic feet of stone, took only seven years and a force of between 11,000 to 12,000 troops were needed to man the 156 turrets, 79 milecastles and 16 forts.
Today, even after 1,600 years of decay and purloining of stone for other building purposes, large stretches of the original wall and forts remain which follow the outlines of the bleak undulating landscape of present day northern England. What remains is a great monument to the ambition, skill and enterprise of one of the greatest civil engineering projects ever undertaken in ancient Britain. Excavation work at some of the forts on the Wall has unearthed examples of letters written on slivers of wood which provide valuable insights to daily life on the Wall. As Roman rule consolidated, many Celtic British monarchs and their more affluent subjects adopted Roman ways in dress, food and houses.
In 1960, the remains of an extensive Roman palace, named Fishbourne, were discovered in southern England. It is thought the palace belonged to a British Celtic leader, named Cogidubnus who was appointed by the Emperor Claudius as a client King to help rule the local Celtic Britons on his behalf. It is thought Cogidubnus was possibly the son, or related to King Verica who sought Claudius’s help as mentioned earlier. The palace at Fishbourne extended over 10 acres and was very opulent, boasting fine marble imported from Greece and Italy.
The legacy of the Romans in Britain includes that of religion. Although Christianity did not become the official religion of the Empire until the reign of Constantine, in the 4th C. AD, it did arrive in Britain secretly as Christianity was persecuted throughout the Roman Empire.
The Emperor, Septimus Severus, campaigned in Britain in 209-11 AD and to discourage the Christian faith prescribed the death penalty for anyone converting to the new religion.
A Romano-British soldier, named Albanus, was stationed at Verulamium and here he sheltered a Catholic priest during this period and was eventually converted by him. Alban was discovered and refused to renounce his new faith and so was put to death. He is the Christian proto-martyr of Britain. The Roman city of Verulamium is now named St. Albans and its cathedral, a former abbey church, which is partly constructed out of re-used Roman bricks, is also named after him. Two other Romano-British saints, Julius and Aaron, were also martyred for their faith during the persecution of Christians under the Emperor Diocletian in 304 AD. (Part Two of this article in the Summer issue of Regina Magazine.)