Britain’s prehistory: The Romans

Britain’s prehistory: The Romans

The name “Britain” comes from the word “Pretani”, the Greco-Roman word for the inhabitants of Britain. The Romans mispronounced the word and called the island “Britannia”. The Roman province of Britannia covered most of present-day England and Wales.

The Romans had invaded because the Celts of Britain were working with the Celts of Gaul against them. The British Celts were giving them food, and allowing them to hide in Britain. There was another reason. The Celts used cattle to pull their ploughs and this meant that richer, heavier land could be farmed. Under the Celts Britain had become an important food producer because of its mild climate. The Romans could make use of British food for their own army fighting the Gauls.

The Romans brought the skills of reading and writing to Britain. The written word was important for spreading ideas and also for establishing power. While the Celtic peasantry remained illiterate and only Celtic-speaking, a number of town dwellers spoke Latin and Greek with ease, and the richer landowners of the country almost certainly used Latin. The Romans imposed their own way of life and culture, making use of the existing Celtic aristocracy to govern and encouraging this ruling class to adopt Roman dress and the Roman language (language). Britain was probably more literate under the Romans than it was to be again until the 15 century.

Julius Caeser first came to Britain in 55 BC, but it was not until almost a century later, in AD 43, that a roman army actually occupied Britain. The Romans were determined to conquer the whole island, they had a better trained army and the Celtic tribes fought among themselves. The Roman considered the Celts as war-mad, “high spirited and quick for battle”, a description some would still give to Scots, Irish and Welsh today.

The Romans established a Romano-British culture across the southern half of Britain. They could not conquer “Caledonia”, as they called Scotland, although they spent over a century trying to do so.Roman control of Britain came to an end as the empire began to collapse.

The remarkable thing about the Romans is that, despite their long occupation of Britain, they left very little behind. To many other parts of Europe they bequeathed a system of law and administration which forms the basis of the modern system and a language which developed into the modern Romance family of languages. In Britain, they left neither. Moreover, most of their villas, baths and temples, their impressive network of roads, and the cities they founded, including Londinium (London), were soon destroyed or fell into disrepair. Almost the only lasting reminder of their presence are place-names like Chester, Lancaster and Gloucester, which include variants of the Roman word castra (a military camp). But, of course, we cannot neglect the Roman’s innovations. They built the towns with stone and wood, had planned streets, markets and shops. Some buildings had central heating. They were connected by roads, which were so well built that they survived when the later roads broke up. These roads continued to be used long after the Romans left, and became the main roads of modern Britain. Six of these roads met in London. London was twice the size of Paris and possibly the most important trading center of northern Europe.

In some ways life in Roman Britain seems very civilized, but it was also hard for all except the richest. The bodies buried in a Roman graveyard at York show that life expectancy was low. Half entire population died between the ages of twenty and forty, while 15 % died before reaching the age of twenty. It is very difficult to be sure how many people were living in Britain when the Romans left. Probably it was as many as 5 million, partly because of the peace and the increased economic life which the Romans had brought to the country. The new wave of invaders changed all that.