As dawn broke on a summer's day in 43 A.D.,
the history of Britain was about to be changed forever. An army of 40,000 men waded ashore
near Richborough in Kent and started fighting their way through the dense forests. That
army was led by Claudius, Emperor of Rome. The Romans had landed.
At that time much of Britain was inhabited by fierce Celtic tribes--the Dumnonii
(Cornwall), the Coritani (Yorkshire), the Catuvellauni (London), and the Iceni
(Lincolnshire), to name a few. The peaceful tribes of southern England were beginning to
tire of Celtic oppression and welcomed the Romans as their liberators. For the next four
centuries, Britain was the Wild West of an empire that stretched from the Mersey to the
The Roman army was an ethnic melting pot. Not one soldier in a hundred came from Italy,
let alone Rome. The army's backbone was the legion, heavy infantry who could fight and
build a road, raise a fortress or even bridge a river. Legionaries hailed from Syria,
Spain or South Wales. A unit may have served in the same place for centuries.
Ex-soldiers settled where they had served and their native wives bore sons who followed
their fathers into the regiment, generation after generation.
Less than 20 years after the invasion, Queen Boudicca of the Iceni tribe, outraged by
Roman arrogance and greed, led a bloody revolt that left London in ashes. Rome's revenge
was horrible. Its legions slew 80,000 men, women and children without mercy.
After that, the Pax Romana lasted for the next three centuries. The great legionary
bases at Chester and York were the pillars of Roman power. A third at
Caerleon, in South
Wales, guarded the road to Wales.
And then there was Hadrian's Wall...
The Romans never completely pacified the turbulent tribes of the north. To keep the
conquered ones penned in and their unconquered brothers fenced out, the Emperor Hadrian,
79 years after the invasion, built a solid stone wall clean across the Cumbrian Hills from
sea to sea.
Seventy miles long, over 20 feet high in places, backed by a deep military zone, scores
of forts and guard towers and a war garrison of 13,000 men, the Wall wasn't only the
largest fortification in Europe, it was the greatest feat of civil
engineering the western world had seen. It was also the supreme demonstration of the
secret of Roman power, the ability to organize.
History buffs will delight in the Roman remains and excellent museums at
Chester and Vindolanda. For those who aren't so inclined, walking at least a few hundred
yards of the wall at Housesteads, with the wind snapping in their faces and the grazing
sheep for company, is a must. For Hadrian's Wall was for 300 years the battlements of
Roman roads helped keep the Roman peace. Except for motorways, any English road that
runs for more than a mile without bending is probably one of the military roads that
linked the cities of Britain. The A14, formerly the Roman Ermine Street Road, the A5
across half of England, the A46 from Leicester to Lincoln, or the A140 from Ipswich to
Norwich are all roads laid out by Roman surveyors.
Before the Roman conquest, Britain had no cities and towns. Chief among the new
communities of Roman Britain were the coloniae, settlements of retired legionnaires
who were granted a praemia militae (an area of land) when they left the legions.
The first colonia was founded at Colchester (Camulodunum), then known officially
as Colonia Claudia Victricensis. Others followed at Gloucester (Glevum) and Lincoln
Safe beneath the iron hand of the Roman army, these coloniae became prosperous
towns, with all the petty pomp and circumstance of a miniature Rome, complete with temples
and altars, forums and bathhouses. If a modern town is called Caer, or Car, or Caster, or
Chester, or Cester, or Xeter, it was Roman.
Verulamium, the most important town in Roman Britain and a trading center on the site
of the present-day town of St. Albans 20 minutes from London, was one such town.
Today, a small, but unique museum displays a huge variety of jewelry, coins, tableware and
cooking pots from Roman times. Besides colorful sections of painted walls and
demonstrations by local Roman re-enactment groups, the body of a Roman, found in the
Spring of 1989, lying in his original metal coffin is on display. Nearby, the remains of a
Roman theater used for bear baiting and cock fighting as well as musical and dramatic
performances gives meaning to the museum's exhibits. The outlines of shops, that once
lined Watling Street, connecting Verulamium with Londinium, line the perimeter of the
Hundreds of Roman sites have been discovered. A gamekeeper digging for a ferret in 1864
found the villa at Chedworth in the Cotswolds, one of more than a dozen in the area. More
recently in 1960, a man laying drains discovered Fishbourne Palace near
greatest Roman edifice north of the Alps.
Chedworth Roman Villa, built around 120 A.D. and extended and occupied until 400 A.D.,
offers good 4th-century mosaics in its bath suites and dining room (triclinium),
and its water shrine is still filled by an ancient spring.
The Roman Baths
In Bath, the steaming waters of Aquae Sulis still flow. The natural hot springs
attracted Romans from the mid to late first century and the town soon developed as a spa,
with the waters dedicated to Sulis-Minerva, a blending of Roman and native deities. Of the
public buildings so far discovered, the chief are the baths. Their focal point is the
Sacred Spring, with its surrounding reservoir, from which the waters emerge at 46.5'C.
Into this spring, the Romans cast votive offerings. Those since recovered are displayed
in the Roman Baths Museum. The Roman Baths of Bath are probably Britain's greatest
collection of Roman relics.
Britain has over 250 Roman sites, a few elaborate, most simple foundations. Can these
dry stones speak? They can, but visitors shouldn't expect them to shout out loud. In order
to hear them, visitors should take plenty of imagination with them
and all the knowledge they can, for four hundred years of Roman rule has, nevertheless,
left their mark.