The Rise and Fall of Roman Britain

A section of Hadrian’s Wall. English Heritage

The Romanization of Britain

If Rome had any intention of conquering the entire island, resistance to their rule elsewhere in the Empire put paid to that notion. Troops were removed from Britain to reinforce other parts of Europe. The lack of Roman troops in the north of England was evident by the 120s AD, and it was at this time that construction began on Hadrian’s Wall. By now, the Romans were drawing symbolic lines on the map of Britain and perceived those north of the wall as barbarians.

The 73-mile wall stretched across Britain and was fortified with forts, spikes, and observation turrets to keep the barbarians out; there were probably 8,000 permanent troops on the wall. The rest of the Roman army was stationed in locations such as York, Chester, and modern Scotland’s Southern Uplands. The so-called Romanization of Britain was quite limited in many parts of the island. Outside of the lowland zone (Lincoln to Exeter), settlements were sparsely populated and living off the land was incredibly difficult.

Things were a lot more pleasant in the lowland zone as one-time tribal zones were transformed into bustling cities with theaters, basilicas, temples, forums, amphitheaters and much more. The conquered elites mainly fell in line and embraced the new Roman lifestyle which includes lots of Gaulish wine. The fact that the native elite did not rock the boat meant it was a smooth transition in the Romanized areas.

By the middle of the second century AD, probably 70 years after the Romans had some semblance of control in Britannia, there were approximately 20 towns. Each of them had a full set of public buildings and major towns such as Cirencester and St. Albans had up to 50 grand houses and dozens of villas. It was a golden era for craftsmen that specialized in luxury goods as the demand for frescoes and pottery increased dramatically.

It would be incorrect to suggest that the Romans had everything their own way in the second century. They still had to deal with uprisings and setbacks. For example, the Picts destroyed several Roman forts in Scotland in around 105 AD. There was also a rising in the north in 117 AD which was eventually dealt with by Quintus Pompeius Falco.

There were further problems during the reign of Antoninus Pius when he tried to occupy Scotland once again. This included a revolt by the Brigantes in 155 AD which lasted two years. Approximately 5,500 Sarmatian troops arrived in 175 AD to reinforce the Romans, so there were clearly numerous uprisings we have no record of. There was further chaos in the first half of the third century, but Roman control endured. However, the Empire was starting to creak under the strain of multiple invasions and ultimately, the Romans were unable to keep hold of Britannia.