Roman Conquest: How Did Life in Britain Change?

From the Lecture Series: The Celtic World

By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., The Catholic University of America

The main thrust of the Roman conquest of Britain was completed by A.D. 87. The southern part of Britain, and within that region the areas in the south and east were developed the most by the Romans. A lot of new construction happened over the next few decades, which changed the face of Britain. The British tribes were also exposed to Roman art, culture, lifestyle and much more. So, how did all of this affect Britain?

Land's End in Cornwall in South West England.
Cornwall, in South West England, was a heavily militarized area in Roman Britain. The hilly and rocky terrain was unsuitable for agriculture and establishment of Roman settlements. (Image: Keven Law/CC BY-SA 2.0/Public domain)

Urban Centers Came Up in Southern Britain

Britain was divided into a larger southern portion that the Romans were willing to defend and a smaller northern portion that they were not interested in defending. This geographic distinction roughly foreshadows the later division on the island of Britain between England in the south and Scotland in the north.

Map showing Romans roads in Roman Britain in A.D. 150.
Roads built by the Romans in Britain. Some of the Roman roads continue to crisscross Britain and have become the modern motorways. (Image: Andrei Nacu/Public domain)

Even in the colonized south, the Roman province of Britain fell into two broad zones. The first zone comprised the southern and eastern part of the province. This was the area with the most fertile agricultural land, largely in the form of broad plains. It was the easiest for the Romans to conquer.

By the 2nd century, there were about forty major urban centers established in this part of Britain, including the forerunners of the modern cities of Leeds, Lincoln, Newcastle, Exeter, and many others, all connected by roads built by the Roman.

This area was certainly ‘Romanized’ to the extent that the towns had the usual Roman buildings and other trappings, such as a forum, an amphitheater, etc. There were also quite a few large Roman villas in the south. These were huge estates that probably employed many slaves.

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North and West Britain Remained Underdeveloped and Militarized

The second zone, to the north and west, looked quite different. Here the landscape was hilly and rocky, and it was much harder to set up the kinds of settlements the Romans were used to. Also, the local tribes were less cooperative. So the Roman military presence in these areas, especially in present-day Wales, Cornwall, and the northwest, had to be much stronger.

Here there were more fortresses staffed by Roman legions. They were mostly pretty successful at preventing serious revolts, but there was certainly no chance that they would be able to hold the province if the soldiers weren’t there.

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Romans Brought Christianity to Britain

When we examine the impact on the native British, who had been conquered by the Romans, we see that some things remained the same, while other things changed. The degree of change varied from region to region.

In the cities, the language of daily life, certainly of commerce, was Latin. All the main cultural trends in the life of the Roman Empire eventually made their way to Britain as well, including artistic styles, styles of dress, and even religion.

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From about the 3rd century, Christianity appeared in Britain and got a secure foothold in the towns. Of course, it had plenty of competition. There were dozens of other cults being practiced in the British towns, just like in all the other Roman cities.

In fact, Roman Britain could boast a ritual center that was famous enough to draw pilgrims from other parts of the empire, namely Aquae Sulis. This was a town in the west of Britain that had wonderful hot springs. The native British population had used the site to venerate their goddess Sulis. The Romans were known to take over and adopt the gods of the people they conquered.

So, the Romans figured that this goddess Sulis was close enough to their own goddess of wisdom, Minerva, and began worshipping a composite goddess, Sulis Minerva. This, of course, allowed them to take advantage of the fantastic hot springs at the shrine of Sulis, which were located in present-day Bath.

Interestingly, some of the best ruins in Britain today can be found at Bath, where the elaborate pools and temple complexes have been beautifully excavated. They are well worth a visit.

The people who left ritual offerings at Bath present a good cross-section of the Romanized British population. There were some very rich objects, doubtless left by people who lived in the very fancy villas. There were also some very humble objects, like coins of small value, that were clearly left by the poorer inhabitants.

The vast majority of the people who lived in Roman Britain were, of course, farmers, who lived on very simple farms, raising crops to consume themselves with maybe a little leftover for the market.

In the countryside, the penetration of Latin language was limited. We have several surviving place names that come from the British language, so it’s clear that British continued to be spoken. Far fewer of these country-dwellers would have adopted Christianity; many would have continued to follow their pagan gods throughout the period of Roman occupation.

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Roman Coinage Spread across Britain

One of the most significant changes to everyday life in Britain was the introduction of Roman coinage. Lots and lots of Roman coins in small denominations were found across Britain, even on quiet rural sites. The economy was becoming more monetized, so even very low-level exchanges were now taking place by means of money rather than barter.

There was a very specific reason behind this increase in monetary circulation other than pure market forces, namely, taxation. The Roman state needed huge amounts of money to pay for its military infrastructure, a large portion of which was spent in Britain. These taxes were collected throughout the empire and then in many cases spent locally to pay the Roman military garrisons and provide them with food and other supplies. So ironically, the Roman occupation was a huge stimulus to the British economy.

Thus, Rome changed life in Britain in some important ways, especially with regard to the economy and material life in general. British inhabitants were also Romanized in the sense that they started using a lot of Roman stuff. Archeologists have found evidence of lots of very basic Roman-style goods among these native inhabitants, such as pottery that had been mass-produced, glassware, and iron nails for building.

The diet of the native British people also changed as a result of the Roman presence in Britain. They began growing and eating fruits originally brought in from Italy, such as apples. However, the people of Britain maintained many aspects of their native traditions as well, including their language.

Common Questions about Roman Britain

Q: What was life like in Roman Britain?

Only a handful of places in the south and east of Britain were developed into urban centers in Roman Britain. The rest of Britain remained quite similar to what it was during the Pre-Roman period. Most people in Britain continued to be farmers, who led a simple life. There were quite a few significant changes to everyday life. Firstly, Latin became the official language of commerce, and Roman coinage spread through Britain. Christianity entered Britain during this period as well.

Q: What did the Romans do for the British?

Following the Roman conquest of Britain, a significant amount of engineering development was brought to Britain. One of the biggest contributions of the Romans to Britain was the road network they built. In fact, some of the modern Motorways in present-day Britain, such as the A2 and A5 Motorways, can be traced back to road networks originally built by the Romans. They also established more than 40 urban centers in Britain, which eventually became the modern cities of Leeds, Lincoln, Newcastle, Exeter, and many others.

Q: What did Roman Britain look like?

The large southern region, south of Hadrian’s Wall, was Roman Britain. Within this region, the south and east witnessed the establishment of several urban centers. The majority of the area, however, continued to be agricultural land. The north and west remained hilly and rocky, and very few Roman settlements were set up here. This area was heavily militarized, because of the threat of attacks from the northern tribes.

Q: What language did the Romans speak?

The official languages of the Roman Empire were Latin and Greek. The Romans brought Latin with them to Britain and it became the language of commerce in Roman Britain. The people Britain continued to speak British among themselves, but for official work knowledge of Latin was required.

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