Roman Impact on Britain

Roman Britain (43 B.C. to 442 A.D.).
Some impacts of man on the environment by 500 AD.
Anglo-Saxon and Norse Invasions (fifth to ninth centuries AD).
Bibliography for all segments (opens in separate page)

Roman Britain (43 B.C. to 442 A.D.)

In 54 BC, Caesar landed five legions and two thousand cavalry on the shores of Kent. Caesar repulsed the British counterattacks, crossed the Thames, and captured the king’s stronghold – the British were forced to sue for peace, to supply hostages, and to pay tribute to Rome. Almost one hundred years later, the emperor Claudius sent an expeditionary force to Britain. In 43 AD, fifty thousand men under the command of Claudius’ general, Aulus Platius, landed in Kent to begin the conquest of Britain. Within eight years Britain, from the borders of Wales to York (Eburacum), had been converted to a Roman province. The Romans showed no interest in the tin mines of Cornwall and never penetrated far into Devon or Cornwall.

Roman conquest of Britain, 43-84 CE.
The Romans built wide, durable roads and constructed fortresses (Latin: castrum, castellum; Welsh: caer) around which sprang cities (civitas). Only London, St. Albans, and Colchester had populations above 5,000.

Roman roads, centres, walls; British tribes
Roman occupation introduced slave-manned plantations of 400 to 650 acres, centered upon stone villas. Similar plantations were worked by peasants, or serfs, who cultivated their own plots and those of their lord.
Reconstructed Roman villa, Wroxeter, Shropshire.
The rich farmlands bordering the Fens provided grain for the Roman legions of the North. The grain was transported along the Fen’s natural waterways and on canals constructed by the Romans.

fen canal
The Romans did not revolutionize the organization of the rural population – throughout Britain, Gaul, and the Roman Empire the populace continued to live and work in villages, hamlets, and isolated homesteads. The population has been estimated at three to five million by the third century AD. The people of Roman Britain remained quite mobile and predominantly agricultural. Population density was very low, with only two to five persons per square kilometer. With so much land and so few people, there is ample evidence that new land was found and cleared when cultivated soils were partly or completely exhausted. The main obstacles to food production continued to be loss of soil fertility, the vagaries of weather, and losses due to weeds, animal pests, and diseases of plants and animals. Fields that had been under prolonged tillage must lie uncultivated for one or more years to recover their fertility. The principle of allowing fields to lie fallow was practiced by the Roman Age. Early farmers discovered that cultivation decreases fertility, and learned that soil must ‘rest’ to recover its fertility. Although the Romans practiced crop rotation and left fields fallow, it is not clear how the British open field village system evolved.

Sarculum - Roman hoe
The Romans introduced both agricultural engineering techniques and improved tools to Britain. Agriculture benefited from Roman irrigation systems, wells, scythes and large sickles, and the more scientific application of fertilizer. The Romans improved the primitive scratch-plough, the ard. Addition of vertical iron coulters in front of the ploughshare, and of soil-turning wooden mouldboards, rendered the new plough better suited to turning the heavy, wet soils of Britain. The Romans also introduced fruits and vegetables to British agriculture: these including peas, cabbages, turnips, and parsnips. Roman vegetables and fruits supplemented the Iron Age crops of barley, wheat, flax, and vetch.

Roman plough
Roman military action was episodic after the initial Claudian conquest. Nero sent his general to Britain in 60 AD. Paulinus suppressed a rebellion by the Iceni and Trinovantes. The Romans confiscated conquered farm lands and reduced the former owners to serfdom. The conquering Romans enraged the widow and tribesmen of the defeated king of the Iceni. They robbed Queen Boudicca (Boadicea) of her lands, had her flogged, and raped her daughters. A rebellious army, raised by Boadicea, captured Camulodenum, destroyed a Roman legion, and marched upon Londinium (London.) Seventy thousand Romans were massacred in Londinium. Suetonius Paulinus eventually defeated Boadicea’s army. With the “suicide” of the vanquished Boadicea, British resistance to Rome became confined to border raids.

To prevent marauding tribesmen from raiding farms south of the Scottish border, the emperor Hadrian ordered a wall to be constructed from Solway Firth to the Tyne. A section of Hadrian’s Wall took strategic advantage of a the Whin Sill. Antonius Pius (138-161 AD) continued Hadrian’s policies against cattle rustling incursions at the northern border. Antonius pushed the frontier 75 miles northward, and ordered the construction of 37 miles of turf-clay wall between the firths of Forth and Clyde. The Antonine Wall had nineteen forts at two-mile intervals. Around 210 AD, the emperor Septimius ordered Hadrian’s wall reconstructed and led a military expedition into Scotland. Attempts to engage the Scots in battle were thwarted by the natives’ guerilla tactics.

By 400 AD, the weakening Western Roman Empire was under widespread attack by “barbarians.” North Sea tribes, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, raided Britain. In 408 AD, the Saxons made a devastating raid on Britain. By 428 AD, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes were establishing permanent settlements along the British coast. The legions were permanently withdrawn from Britain around 442 AD, as the Western Roman Empire continued to collapse. In the hiatus created by their departure trade diminished, towns declined or disappeared, and roads fell into disrepair. Later settlement covered the traces of Roman field systems.

Roman Britain (43 B.C. to 442 A.D.).
Anglo-Saxon and Norse Invasions (fifth to ninth centuries AD).

Some impacts of man on the environment by 500 AD

Areas of present day moorland were previously cultivated, suggesting that the soil was so degraded by agriculture that it is no longer arable. Fossil soils reveal evidence of degradation by erosional loss of physical constituents, and by their lost capacity to support a protective forest cover.

The inability to support a natural forest succession implies a concomitant decrease in the soil’s potential to produce food. The practice of manuring began in the second millennium, presumably in an attempt to maintain arable production. Some soils were abandoned quickly and did revert to woodland – this is seen particularly in some soils on limestone. Examples can be found in the Lowland zones, with the exception of the Wessex chalklands and the lowland heaths. However, soils were exploited excessively in some areas and never reverted to supporting the original flora – they became moorlands. Examples are to be found in the Highland zones, the Cumbrian Lakeland, and the Moors of the south-west. The Wessex chalklands have remained stripped of forest since the third millennium. The lowland heaths result from the agriculture-related podzolizing of Brown Earth into Gley soils, beginning in the third and second millennia BC.

Roman Britain (43 B.C. to 442 A.D.).
Some impacts of man on the environment by 500 AD.

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