Roman Britain

Lecture Three—The Great Tours: England, Scotland, and Wales

The next era in Britain’s history is the Roman conquest. In the first century B.C.E., the Romans invaded and spread their territory to the Anglo-Scottish border. There, Hadrian’s Wall marks the edge of the empire. Consider the Roman impact on Great Britain, from the city of Bath to the island’s long, straight roads.

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The Romans Enter Britain

Julius Caesar visited Britain in 55 and again in 54 BC in the course of conquering Gaul. He fought against the local tribes there, exacted tribute from some and offered protection to others, but then withdrew. About 90 years later, in AD 43, the Romans returned under the Emperor Claudius, and conquered Britain. For Claudius, who had recently succeeded Caligulait was a way of gaining the prestige of a successful warrior and strengthening his grip on power. Trade over the preceding centuries had demonstrated that Britain was a prosperous place and a source of valuable copper, iron, and grain.

The History of Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian's Wall in Britain
Hadrian’s Wall also called the Roman Wall, Picts’ Wall, was a defensive fortification in the Roman province of Britannia, begun in AD 122 in the reign of the emperor Hadrian. It ran from the banks of the River Tyne near the North Sea to the Solway Firth on the Irish Sea, and was the northern limit of the Roman Empire.

Hadrian’s Wall, near the current Anglo-Scottish border, is the best-preserved sign of their presence, and one of the outstanding places to visit in contemporary Britain. It stretched from coast to coast, 73 miles, from Bowness in the west to the place now aptly named Wallsend in the east. Even today, after nearly two millennia, large parts of it remain. It has nearly disappeared at each end because towns have grown up over its path, and even many of the high central sections have been pilfered through the ages.

As with prehistoric Avebury and the Ridgeway in Dorset and Wiltshire, the same holds for Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland and Cumbria. If you possibly can, you should walk at least some of it, to get away from the modern roads and recreate for yourself the sensation of being in the wilds of the far north.

Vindolanda, part of Hadrian’s Wall, is a grand archaeological site. It was a Roman garrison. A reconstruction of a section of the wall and one of the towers, as they would have been when in use, gives visitors an accurate sense of their height and solidity.

We know that women, as well as men, lived in Vindolanda and similar forts—plenty of their combs and hairpins have been found, and even written notes, shopping lists, and a birthday invitation from one lady to another.

Archaeologists have found that it’s possible, by carefully unfolding the tablets and shining an infrared light on them, to read the handwriting. At first, experts in Latin epigraphy were baffled by it—it is a previously unfamiliar style of cursive script.

Another fort along Hadrian’s Wall, at Chesters, was excavated in the early 19th century by the local landowner, John Clayton, who realized the historical importance of his estates. His house stood at the point where the wall crossed the River Tyne.

After excavating Chesters itself, Clayton went on to acquire several other fortresses and to buy lands that included lengths of the wall—it is in large part due to him that so much of Hadrian’s Wall still exists.

Clayton himself gathered together hundreds of stones bearing inscriptions and other items of interest that his workmen turned up. A museum at Chesters was built in 1895 to house the whole lot, and it presents a crowded, jumbled appearance. Curators recently made the decision to leave it like that rather than rearrange it according to contemporary museological standards.

At another museum, Arbeia, in South Shields on the East Coast, part of a Roman fortress has been reconstructed. The replica includes a Roman gateway, which provides a sense of the fort’s original scale and grandeur.

Among the best items in the Arbeia museum are monuments recalling the lives of two Britons who began life as slaves and were freed.

Antoninus Pius Moves through Scotland

Antoninus Pius, Roman Emperor in Britain
Antoninus Pius, Roman Emperor from AD 138 to AD 161

Under Hadrian’s successor, Antoninus Pius, in the year AD 142, the Romans advanced 100 miles further into Scotland and built a second wall, the Antonine Wall, at the narrowest crossing point of Scotland from west to east, about 39 miles.

The Antonine Wall fell into disuse in the later second century, was briefly reoccupied in the early 200s, but then abandoned once and for all, apparently because the Caledonians were just too difficult to subdue.

In addition to Hadrian’s Wall, the second greatest site of Roman Britain that is still visible, and with lots to see, is the Roman baths at the city of Bath in the southwest. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Romans called it Aquae Sulis.

An extensive and well-curated tour at Bath takes you through the main Roman sections, including the spring itself—running hot just as it did 2000 years ago—the swimming pool, the temple, and a museum containing the best finds from the site.

Bath is one of only a handful of Roman baths in which it was actually possible to swim, rather than merely soak. There was a similar arrangement at two other Roman sites we know of, Buxton in Derbyshire and Wroxeter in Shropshire.

Further Evidence of Roman Presence in Britain

Roman Villa in Britain
The expansive remains of Roman Villa walls discovered during an excavation at Chedworth.

Evidence of the Roman presence is scattered throughout Britain, though more in England than in Wales or Scotland, where the Roman presence was more temporary. Villas, all in various states of ruin, are among the best of them.   Villas, all in various states of ruin, are among the best of them.  Chedworth, in the Cotswolds of Gloucestershire, is an extensive site and well worth a visit.

The villa was discovered by accident in 1864 by a gamekeeper when his hunting dogs rooted up a few mosaic tiles. They were on the land of the Earl of Eldon. The Earl’s uncle, James Farrer, an enthusiastic antiquarian, excavated it over the next few years. It features well-preserved mosaic floors and enough of the walls to give you a sense of how magnificent it must have been once. It had underfloor heating too. A spring, providing fresh water to the villa, is also preserved—its elaborate stonework shows it to have been a shrine, not just a well.

Another villa, at Woodchester, also in Gloucestershire, was excavated in 1793 by Samuel Lysons, a local enthusiast. There was nothing visible above ground but he dug down to disclose a magnificent mosaic, more than 2000 square feet in area, which made it one of the biggest and best-preserved Roman mosaics still in existence.

Roman Sites in Wales

Roman Sites in Wales
Caerleon was the location for a Roman legionary fortress. Substantial archaeological remains can be seen there, including this military amphitheater.

The best Roman site in Wales is the amphitheater at Caerleon, just north of Newport. As for the amphitheater itself, it is oval in shape, with eight great entrances. Prior to the 20th century, it was known to the local folk as “King Arthur’s Round Table.” But excavations in 1926 confirmed its Roman origins. It was built about AD 80 for audiences of up to 6,000 and was twice rebuilt during the Roman occupation.

The highest, still-standing Roman building in Britain, incidentally, is the shell of a lighthouse at Dover Castle. It’s a great, thick, lumpy cylinder, right next to a church, originally Anglo-Saxon, that has been extensively renovated and modernized.

One way you sometimes become aware of the Roman mark on Britain is by driving on long, straight roads. The greatest of the Roman roads are the Fosse Way, marking a very straight line between Bath and Lincoln; Ermine Street from London to York; and Watling Street, a Roman adaptation of an even earlier road that made a continuous line between Richborough in Kent, across the Thames, and on to Wroxeter near the Welsh border.

Very few stretches of unchanged Roman road are still visible. One is Wade’s Causeway, on high moorland in the North York Moors National Park. It has a high-quality surface made from sandstone slabs closely fitted together, is elevated, and has the characteristic drainage ditches on each side.


Interactive Map of All Britain Locations Mentioned in This Lecture


Suggested Online Reading About Romans in Britain

Antoninus Pius
Hadrian’s Wall
Roman Sites and Roman Remains in Britain


Images courtesy of:
Wade’s Causeway, Paul Allison [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons