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Roman Britain

Roman Spa at Bath

The Roman Palace of Fishbourne, near Chichester in West Sussex is a good place to start exploring Roman history in Britain. Long before Rome actually invaded Britain, the area of Chichester with its excellent natural harbours, was closely associated with the Roman Empire through trade. Rulers of southern central England were based here, and the first of these rulers whose name survives is Commius, who ruled until about 20BC. Commius was succeeded by his son Tincommius, who had coins minted that closely resembled Roman models. Tincommius' successors, Epillus and Verica also had important links with Rome. Around AD41 Verica travelled to Rome to ask for for help in dealing with his enemies in Britain. This was a crucial event, since in Rome Claudius had just become emperor and was looking for a military triumph to consolidate his position. Britain was an obvious choice, and the arrival of Verica seems to have been the deciding factor in making Britain the scene of the new emperor's first conquest. This invasion could now be presented as a response to a request for help. By 43AD preparations were complete and the invasion began. A large force landed at Richborough in Kent, and then made its way through Kent to the Medway. Here the massed armies of British tribes hostile to Rome were waiting, led by Togodubnus and Caractacus. After a two day battle Togodubnus was killed and Caractacus was forced to flee north. With hostile British tribes defeated, the Romans needed a leader acceptable to native Britons and to Rome. Verica was probably elderly by now and wasn't chosen. Instead Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus took over, and a grand palace was built for him, the remains of which can still be seen at Fishbourne. (See Fishbourne by Barry Cunliffe)




Garden at the Palace of Fishbourne

Initially things went well for Roman Britain. Following initial resistance, the native Britain's soon accepted Roman rule, and many in the new province of Britannia even began to do well from it. But when Nero succeeded Claudius in AD54 the early fortunes of Roman Britain took a turn for the worse. In the Iceni kingdom, in what is now East Anglia, the respect and conventions which had allowed British tribes to accept Roman rule, were abandoned. King Prasutagus had died and his wife Boudicca, wanting to head off trouble, had already offered to share her kingdom with Nero. Nero saw himself as an absolute ruler and was uninterested in sharing power with anyone. In response to Boudicca's offer, he had her flogged and her daughters raped. The result was a massive rebellion that engulfed eastern and south east England. In AD60 Boudicca marched on Colchester, burning any Roman settlement she came to on the way. Colchester then suffered the same fate, a bowl of carbonised dates surviving to this day as evidence of Boudicca's revenge. Then London was destroyed, an event so violent that it has left its mark in a red layer of soil half a meter thick, lying about four meters below street level. Eventually the Roman army, which had been busy suppressing rebellion in Wales, reached eastern England. Boudicca's now large and unwieldy army was quickly defeated. Boudicca killed herself rather than fall into Roman hands. Following this rebellion Julius Agricola tried to avoid further trouble by ruling more fairly, or so his son-in-law Tactitus tells us (see The Isles by Norman Davies).






Remains of the Monumental Arch at Richborough

Roman occupation continued for the next four hundred years. A highpoint for Roman Britain came in the second and third centuries. At Richborough where Claudius had landed, a huge Monumental Arch was built. This was the symbolic entrance to a prosperous and peaceful province. But late in the third century conditions became more difficult, with Saxon raids beginning on coastal towns. Emperor Maximian appointed Carausius to suppress the bands of Saxon pirates terrorising the Channel. When Carausius was suspected of being in league with the pirates, Maximian ordered his execution. Carausius fled to Britain in 286AD and established himself as an independent emperor. He founded Britannia's first mint, and successfully ruled the islands for six years. He might, therefore, be considered as Britain's first independent ruler. Carausius was eventually murdered by one of his ministers, Allectus. Allectus was probably responsible for building the great Roman fort at Pevensey, much of which remains today. In 296AD, after a period of confusion, direct Roman rule was re-established.









The Cult Room at Lullingstone Roman Villa

If Fishbourne Palace is a good place to explore the history of early Roman Britain, Lullingstone Roman Villa in Kent, and Chedworth Roman Villa in Gloucestershire are good places to explore its decline and fall. At Lullingstone Villa there is a Cult Room which tells the story of religious conflicts which heralded problems which were to finally destroy Britannia's Roman system of government. Roman Emperors had always been worshipped as gods. Other religious beliefs were permitted as long as they did not conflict with belief in the Emperor. In Lullingstone's Cult Room it is clear that initially these Emperor centred beliefs were duly followed. While water spirits associated with the nearby river Derwent were also worshipped - little pictures representing them survive in the Cult Room - these watery spirits weren't a threat to mighty Roman leaders. The real problems began around 300AD when Christianity started becoming increasingly popular. As Christians believed in a single god their belief did indeed threaten the Emperor cult. Efforts to stamp out Christianity were unsuccessful. By 380AD the Cult Room at Lullingstone had been converted to a Christian chapel, although there is evidence that people played it safe and worshipped the old gods as well. This change reflects a religious confusion which heralded the breakdown of Roman Britain. Meanwhile at Chedworth Roman Villa in Gloucestershire, a huge palace owned by some of the most powerful rulers in late Roman Britain, the same changes were taking place. According to literature produced at Chedworth, archeological evidence suggests that the fourth century saw the building of a few very large villas, while renewal of town buildings seemed to decline. Perhaps a weakening of central government allowed concentration of wealth and power in fewer hands. In a sense perhaps we see a growing "decadence" at Chedworth. Certainly it was not long after Chedworth reached the peak of its luxury that Roman Britain began to collapse. And, as at Lullingstone, there is evidence of religious factors in this change. At Chedworth there are remains of the usual, acceptable, household gods, and of a water shrine built around a local spring. But it was at the water shrine that several small Christian graffiti were found, inscriptions of the first two letters of Christ's name in Greek, found on a number of different stones once standing in the wall of the shrine. As at Lullingstone it seems that Chedworth's occupants were playing safe, worshipping the old and the new gods. But whereas Lullingstone had been the house of well-to-do farmers, Chedworth was the palace of rulers. The confusion of religious symbols at Chedworth's water shrine suggests that religious instability had reached the highest levels in society. By 410AD problems for the Romans in Europe were so serious that Roman troops in Britannia were withdrawn to reinforce positions elsewhere. Withdrawal was only supposed to be temporary, but the soldiers never returned.




Verulamium Park

The Romans were in Britain for over four hundred years, but when they left their civilisation disappeared with them, and left remarkably little impact on the country that followed. This vanishing of a civilisation is particularly poignant at St Albans. You stand in front of the Verulamium Museum at St Albans, and look out over playing fields where the great Roman town of Verulamium once stood. The town simply vanished into the ground - although the foundations of one building have been excavated, and are on display in Verulamium Park.








Roman walls of London at Tower Hill

What is left of the Roman legacy can be explored at a number of locations around the country. Colchester Castle - which stands on the site of the vast temple of Claudius - has an important display of Roman items. In Cirencester, known as Corinium in Roman times, Roman Britain's second largest town, there is the Corinium Museum. In St Albans there is the Verulamium Museum and a well preserved Roman theatre. The most complete remains of a Roman town can be seen at Silchester in Hampshire, with many items excavated here on display at Reading Museum. A complete Roman Bath house has been excavated and rebuilt in Bath. The courses of many Roman Roads can still be followed, and walks can be taken along Hadrian's Wall, the seventy three mile wall built to mark the northern boundary of the Roman Empire. In London, a city founded by the Romans, the British Museum has a wonderful collection of Roman artifacts. Here you will be able to see a spectacular set of silverware, known as the Mildenhall Treasure, discovered in Suffolk during World War Two. The Roman collection also includes objects ranging from oculist stamps for marking sticks of eye ointment to penknives and cosmetic sets. Short sections of the walls which once surrounded the Roman City of Londinium can be seen beside the Museum of London, and at Tower Hill just outside Tower Hill Underground Station. Varieties of Roman apple can be tasted at the National Fruit Collections, at Brogdale in Kent. See the Visits menu for a more comprehensive list of sites of Roman interest.





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