Encyclopedia of History
Home > Encyclopedia of History

life in Roman Britain



Roamn villa at Chedworth
A view of some of the rooms at the Roman villa at Chedworth, one of the largest Roman villas to be found in Britain

Part of a mosaic 
      floor from Chedworth depicting Spring
Part of a mosaic floor from Chedworth depicting Spring
The Battersea Shield. This enameled bronze shield, found in the Thames at Battersea, is one of the masterpieces of Celtic art
The Battersea Shield. This enameled bronze shield, found in the Thames at Battersea, is one of the masterpieces of Celtic art
Mildenhall Dish, the chief item in the treasure found at Mildenhall (in Suffolk). It shows a Bacchic dance and sea nymphs
The Mildenhall Dish, the chief item in the treasure found at Mildenhall (in Suffolk). It shows a Bacchic dance and sea nymphs
For nearly 400 years, from AD 43 to 410, most of Britain was occupied by the Romans. In the Dark Ages which followed the capture of Rome by Alaric and the Goths in 410 and the invasion of Britain by waves of northern European peoples, most traces of the Roman occupation of Britain were swept away. The Romans had not needed to build in Britain huge aqueducts like those in their other conquered provinces, and only Hadrian's Wall was too large to be utterly destroyed by invaders from other lands. Most of the Roman towns and villas, and the way of life they had stood for, disappeared. Nevertheless, the Roman occupation has left a lasting impression on the English language and on the roads of the island, as well as in other less easily definable ways. and these 400 years of English history deserve to be studied by anyone interested in the growth of Britain. The object of this article is to describe the ways in which the Roman occupation affected the life of the average Britain.


Government

Like the other provinces of the Roman Empire, Britain was governed by a propraetor, who held office for a period of about five years. He was usually a distinguished soldier, and during the first two centuries it was rare for a governor not to have to deal with at least one rising by the conquered Britons, or an invasion from the north of England, which the Romans never succeeded in subduing completely. Next to the propraetor came the procurator, an independent official responsible for the financial administration, and answerable only to the government in Rome.

The Roman policy was to encourage the inhabitants of the lands they conquered to run their own affairs as far as possible, but to do so on Roman lines. So a Britain living in the heart of the country would have had little to do with any Roman official; his district would have been run by the Senate in the local town. This body consisted of important local Britons and was run on the same lines as the Senate in Rome – much in the same way as many countries in the British Commonwealth have their parliaments modeled on the British parliament.


Towns

As part of their policy of spreading Roman civilization in Britain the Romans encouraged the building of towns. These were laid out on the Roman pattern, with straight streets; public buildings, particularly baths, were built, also schools where British boys might learn the language of their conquerors.

The countryside By modern standards these towns were small and thinly populated. Even London, the largest and most important of them, had fewer inhabitants than the average county town of today, and the bulk of the British population lived in the countryside. We know very little about the life these people lived in their villages and how far they were influenced by Roman civilization; most of the evidence which would answer our questions about this has been destroyed. However, a number of villages have been excavated on Salisbury Plain, and we can learn a good deal from them. Some houses had adopted the Roman method of central heating, though in a rather simple form, and tiles with Latin words scratched on them show that Latin was at any rate understood, though the villagers continued to talk among themselves in a Celtic language.

But there was another more advanced style of country life in Roman Britain – the Roman villa. About 500 of these have been found all over the parts of Britain which the Romans occupied, though they were largely owned by Britons, not by Romans. The elaborate buildings with their central heating, the beautiful mosaics, and large farms, show how much the wealthier Britons were influenced by Roman civilization.


Industry

The Romans were naturally anxious to make the province pay, and they encouraged every sort of industry that might bring in money. Very soon after their conquest of the country, lead was being mined in the Mendips. Silver and gold were mined in small quantities, and so were tin and iron. The wealthy villa-owners bred sheep on their large farms and there was a large-scale export of wool. Among lesser exports, British hunting dogs were in great demand.

Art When the Romans first came to Britain there was a flourishing Celtic art, one of the most striking examples of which is the so-called Battersea Shield. The influence of Roman art on native craftsmen was not entirely beneficial, as a great deal of the freedom and movement of Celtic art was lost. Only in pottery were their arts successfully combined with those from abroad. The most famous Roman pottery was the Samian ware – smooth, glowing red pottery, decorated with molded figures. Such pottery was naturally very expensive, and the Castor ware, which the British potters made in imitation of it, has a vigor and life which is all its own.

But, generally speaking, there were no great British artists during the Roman occupation, and all the most important works of art that have been discovered were made by foreign craftsmen. The mosaic floors of the villas were laid by Greek artists who came especially for the purpose, though they may have been assisted by British craftsmen.

One find in particular deserves to be mentioned, though here again it was the product of foreign artists, and that is the great Mildenhall treasure of silverware, dating from about AD 380, just before Britain lost to Rome. This magnificent silver gives us some idea of the standards of wealthy Britons.


Various Roman artefacts found in Britain
Various Roman artefacts found in Britain

Religion

Head of the Persian god Mithras found in a temple excavated in London
Head of the Persian god Mithras found in a temple excavated in London. The cap he is wearing is known as a Phrygian cap
The Romans made little effort to impose their own religion on the countries they conquered, and seldom interfered with the religions they found; the only exception to this rule was the Druid religion, which they destroyed because it involved human sacrifice. Nevertheless, some of the Roman gods and goddesses were adopted by the Britons and gave their names to local deities. The worship of Mithras, which was originally Persian, was very popular with the Roman army, and shrines showing Mithras slaying the bull (which represented the powers of darkness) have been found in many places. There is no evidence that this religion was ever widely adopted by the Britons.

The only religion that the Romans tried to introduce was the worship of the reigning emperor; immediately after the conquest a large temple was built to the Emperor Claudius at Colchester, and the taxes charged for building it were partly responsible for Boadicea's revolt. Christianity seems to have taken some time to establish itself in Britain. St Alban, the first British martyr, was put to death during the persecution of Diocletian in 290, but the earliest Christian church (at Silchester) is not earlier than the end of the 4th century.