Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Roman Occupation of Britain, Part I

This is a nice, little, simplified version of the Roman occupation of Britain that I lately have been reading about. It's shorter than Roman Occupation of Britain for Dummies, available at a store near you (probably).

Up until the first century B.C., Britain seemed to hide under the radar of strong European powers. We know there was a reconnaissance trip to Britain in 300 B.C. by Pytheas of Greece, and we know of the 'Beaker People' who built Stonehenge. The Beaker People were challenged by the more powerful civilization, the Celts of Eastern Europe, as they brought the Iron Age with them to Britain. It is only in Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic War that we read the first written description of Britain.

Britain started attracting attention from Caesar in the 1st Century, as it was being used as a sanctuary by the leaders of Gaul (the country roughly covering the territory of modern France). The Gauls were rebelling against Rome at the time and if Caesar made Britannia (Rome's name for the island) a province of the Roman Empire, he could break the Gaul's power.

Caesar sent two expeditions to Britain but they did not produce results. He failed to land enough soldiers to secure the country and in 54 B.C., he had to rush to Gaul to end a rebellion. He never believed he really conquered Britain, as he never ordered a Triumph, the traditional way of showing off new acquisitions by parading the natives around like slaves around Rome. The only trophy he is said to have had, was a corselet made of British freshwater pearls. Cute.

However, British lives were slowly changing as they increased contact with Rome in both diplomatic and trade levels. They were selling grain to the Empire, and buying olive oil and wine in exchange. They developed their own mints and began producing coins inscribed in Latin.

Because of Caesar putting Britain on the map for Rome and the stigma of Britain having resisted Caesar, Emperor Caligula wanted it for himself. But the high Dover cliffs he faced on the coast of Britannia scared him off. Nine years later in 43 A.D., Emperor Claudius wanted to secure his shaky throne with a military conquest of Britain. This time Rome was successful and would remain in control for four centuries. By the end of the 1st century, Britannia had completely integrated into the empire.

As a method of pacifying Britain, Rome began immigrating Italians to Britain to start a new life as a reward for their years of service to the Empire. This was a traditional Roman way of turning a country into a Roman province.  

Resentment soon began when Claudius took a step back and the first Roman governor of Britain, Ostorius Scapula, began treating the locals like slaves. As mentioned in previous posts, Caratacus and Queen Boudicca were some natives who refused to be treated as such.

Regardless, by 68 A.D., successful campaigns by appointed governors were establishing Britain as a Roman territory. Agricola created a sturdy system of roads and forts. He educated the sons of British chiefs in Roman curriculum.  

People began delighting in the new Roman way of life. Public baths, amphitheaters, and courts were established. Britain saw an increase in wealth because of their exportation of lead and tin. Latin became the official written and spoken language, magnificent towns were built, and water was brought to them by pipes and aqueducts. They became so skilled at warfare that at times their tribes made up ten percent of the empire's army. 

But the tribes of the north and west were a constant threat. Hadrian's wall was constructed to possibly subdue these northern tribes. Agricola was only in Britain for 10 years, and was beloved by many inhabitants of Britain, as he was improving the land and community. He was recalled by emperor Domitian who feared that the governor would make a bid for the throne.  

Religion plays a big part in how Britain developed as a country. It was the Romans' policy to allow the countries they conquered to worship their own deities, although they would not tolerate Britain's practice of human sacrifice. The Celt's religion was pantheistic - that is, they saw gods or spirits everywhere, in streams, trees, etc. Christianity will play a large role in the establishment of Britain and go through many incarnations.

Fun Fact:

Many of the English names of the months date from the Roman occupation of England.

  • January - derives from Janis, two-faced deity who looks both backwards and forwards to the past and coming year and who was adopted by the Romans from the Egyptians
  • March - Mars, God of War
  • July - Julius Caesar
  • August - Julius Caesar's nephew, Augustus

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