The Roman Conquest of Britain


By Jennifer Paxton, The Catholic University of America

Prior to the Romans, Britain was inhabited by a variety of tribes speaking dialects of the Celtic family of languages. These dialects are referred to by linguists as Brittonic. Brittonic is the ancestor of the later Celtic languages we know of surviving today in Britain as Welsh and Cornish and in Brittany as Breton.

Statue of Claudius
Emperor Claudius invaded Britain to improve his military reputation. (Image: Urban/Public domain)

Britain Before the Roman Conquest

Before Britain was conquered by the Romans, the Brittonic peoples, or Britons, practiced agriculture and engaged in trade with each other and with the Roman world, particularly in the southeast, which had always been open to contacts with the continent. 

This openness to the continent foreshadowed the essential divide between the trade-oriented south and east, and the more pastorally oriented north and west of Britain. 

Some of the tribal groupings in Britain were large and powerful, and their leaders sometimes lived in large hillforts, particularly in the south and west, though these were not nearly as well developed as the hillforts of the continental Celtic-speakers whom Julius Caesar confronted during his campaigns in Gaul in the 50s BC. 

The tribes in Britain in some cases had close ties to the tribes in Gaul, and it was partly in an effort to forestall military aid to the Gaulish tribes that Caesar conducted exploratory campaigns in Britain in 55 and 54 BC.

Neither campaign amounted to much, however, and it was another century before the Romans decided to get serious about conquering Britain.

This article comes directly from content in the video series England: From the Fall of Rome to the Norman Conquest. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

When the Romans Conquered Britain

In 44 AD, Emperor Claudius was seeking a way to burnish his lackluster military reputation, so he ordered a major expedition to Britain and he accompanied the invasion himself, though he was no soldier and took no part in the actual fighting.  

The Romans rather rapidly conquered the various tribes of southern Britain, who were not able to unite, particularly as many tribes differed on whether to collaborate with the Romans or resist them. Having asserted control, the Romans then established villa-based agriculture in the fertile and arable plains of the south and east of Britain which prospered for centuries. 

The hillier north and west of Britain were better suited to grazing and pastoral farming, but the Romans were also forced to install an extensive military infrastructure in these regions to hold down their more rebellious inhabitants. This geographical divide is still a feature of life in Britain today, even though it has been a long time since agriculture dominated the British economy.

A Border Representing the Northern Limit

An image of Hadrian's Wall
Hadrian’s Wall was built to represent the northern limits of the Roman Empire. (Image: Velella/Public domain)

The Britons of the lowland south and east were rather quickly converted to a Roman way of life, with bouts of periodic resistance, but the north and west required a constant military presence.

In the north, the Romans faced the hostile Caledonians, and they saw less of an advantage in investing in the troops required to hold the rugged lands of what is now northern England and Scotland, so they decided to draw a kind of stone line in the sand by building what we know as Hadrian’s Wall. 

A less formidable barrier, known as the Antonine Wall, was built a few decades later, some hundred miles to the north, but swiftly abandoned. Hadrian’s Wall represented the northern limit of the Roman Empire. The wall did not act as an impermeable barrier; it was more of a point of contact, and trade and people flowed freely back and forth across the wall. 

Still, this was a heavily militarized zone. Archeologists have found extensive evidence of the long settlement of the legions along the wall. Hadrian’s Wall is the most visible reminder of the Roman presence in Britain, but it really didn’t create a meaningful border beyond the Roman period.

The Great Development of the Romans in Britain

Roman towns and cities quickly developed in the territory south of the Wall. As in many other Roman provinces, these towns were constructed on a grid pattern with many of the amenities that Romans would have come to expect in their Italian homeland.

An image of Roman ruins in Britain
The Romans developed towns and cities with many of the amenities that they had come to expect in their Italian homeland. (Image: Francis Bedford/Public domain)

There were temples, of course, but also a forum area for conducting public business and trade, and an arena for public games. Public bathhouses were a must. There were also small manufacturing businesses that emerged in the towns, taking advantage of the Roman trade networks.

The Roman road system connected all the settlements, but in some cases, the roads were built on existing native trackways.   

In the prosperous south and east, villa life on the Italian model, with estates supported by slave labor, flourished for several centuries. These villas could be quite large, but they varied considerably in size, and many of their owners were probably members of the existing native elite who had simply adopted a Roman lifestyle.

In addition to agriculture and small manufacturing, Britain was also renowned for its extractive industries, particularly the tin mining of the southwest. Cornwall had been a source of tin for the Mediterranean as far back as the second millennium BC, and the Romans further developed the potential of the tin mines. The remains of Roman mining operations are still quite visible in the landscape of this part of Britain.

Economically then, Roman Britain did well for the first two centuries or so. It was obviously on the periphery of the Roman Empire, but it was very much integrated within it through networks of trade, through the military, and through imperial taxation.

Common Questions about the Roman Conquest of Britain

Q: Who was Claudius?

Claudius was a Roman emperor who managed to conquer Britain in 44 AD. He had decided to invade Britain as he had wanted to strengthen his weak military reputation.

Q: What is Hadrian’s Wall?

While the Romans were able to easily conquer and convert the Britons in the south and east, they faced the hostile Caledonians in the north. Since they didn’t see much of an advantage in investing in the troops required to hold the rugged lands of the north, they decided to build a stone wall, now known as the Hadrian’s Wall, to mark the northern limit of the Roman Empire.

Q: What was Britain renowned for in addition to agriculture and small manufacturing?

In addition to agriculture and small manufacturing, Britain was also renowned for its extractive industries, particularly the tin mining of the southwest.

Keep Reading
Roman Conquest: How Did Life in Britain Change?
Roman Britain: British Tribal Rebellion to Roman Rule
Roman Conquest of Britain: Caesar’s Expedition to Hadrian’s Wall