Roman Empire Influence on Britain

Roman Empire Influence on Britain

Britain’s New Reality with Rome

In less than five years since Julius Caesar first entered Gaul in 58 BC, western Europe was transformed. Gaul (modern day France) was under Roman control after he finished his conquest in the winter of 51-50 BC. Civil war in Rome slowed the progress of converting Gaul into a province and there were occasional local uprisings to be brought under control. But by 27 BC, the situation was sufficiently stable for a national census to be instituted. In 12 BC the process of incorporation was marked by the dedication of an altar to Rome and Emperor Augustus at Lugdunum (Lyon, France) in the presence of representatives from sixty tribes of Gaul.

Roman Amphitheater from Lugdunum Gaul (Modern Day Lyon, France)

Roman Amphitheater from Lugdunum Gaul (Modern Day Lyon, France)

The integration of Gaul into the political and economic sphere of Rome had a significant effect on Britain, particularly the southeastern region. One of the major changes was the trade routes between continental Europe and Britain. The networks that had linked the north coast of Armorica with the port of Hengistbury Head in southern Britain came to an abrupt end and were replaced by new routes between northern Gaul and the Thames estuary. One plausible explanation for the shift in the trading axis was Caesar’s devastating attack on the rebel Armoricans in 56 BC totally disrupted the traditional networks. His negotiated treaties with the Trinovantes may have offered them a trading monopoly, or at least preferential treatment. He established Pro-Roman dynasties in the two most powerful tribes (Catuvellauni and Trinovantes).

Peoples of Southern Britain According to Ptolemy's Map

Peoples of Southern Britain According to Ptolemy’s Map

At the time Strabo was writing, late in the first century BC, there were four major routes in operation for ships wishing to cross to Britain, starting from the mouths of the four great rivers—the Rhine, the Seine, the Loire, and the Gironde. Those setting out from the Rhine usually sailed down the coast to Gesoriacum (Boulogne) before making the crossing.

Roman Lighthouse Dover

Ancient Roman Lighthouse on Dover Cliffs


Strabo lists the principal exports of Britain as ‘grain, cattle, gold, silver and iron…also hides and slaves and dogs that are by nature suited to the purpose of the chase’. In return the Britons received ‘ivory chains and necklaces and amber gems and glass vessels and other pretty wares of that sort’. Thus, Britain provided raw materials and manpower in return for manufactured luxuries.

Celtic Brooch

Celtic Brooch

Slave Trade

The major effect in trading with Rome was to satisfy their demand for slaves. In British society there was little need for slaves, but the Roman world was an avid consumer and by the mid-first century BC, slaves were in short supply. Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul more than met the need, some writers saying he enslaved a third of the Gaulish population. But once Gaul was transformed from a war zone to a province, the supply of slaves rapidly diminished and other sources had to be found.

Celtic Shield British Museum

Celtic Shield La Tène Style

Britain met the demands of Rome’s need for slaves. The less developed parts of the west and north provided profitable hunting grounds. The demand of the southeastern elites for marketable slaves likely encouraged their warfare and raiding on the peripheral regions. Tribes living around the periphery were willing to export people, presumably captives taken in local disputes for the slave grade. Thus, conflict became profitable. How extensive slave-trading was we can only guess.

Celtic Village of Roundhouses

Replication of Ancient Celtic Village of Roundhouses in Wales

There have been archaeological finds of gain-chains, or sets of slave neck-irons. Slave trade appeared to be centered in the Catuvellauni kingdom. The exotic British slaves commanded a premium price in the slave market. Strabo described the British slaves as taller than the Celts in Gauls and not so yellow-haired, although their bodies are of lower build. He goes on to say that he himself in Rome ‘saw mere lads towering as much as half a foot above the tallest people in the city, although they were bandy-legged (bow legged) and presented no fair lines anywhere else in their figure’.

Roman and Celtic Shields Used in Ancient Britain

Roman and Celtic Shields Used in Ancient Britain

Acculturation of British Rulers

Not only were Britons enslaved, hostages were taken from the families of the British elite. Many of the subsequent British rulers after Caesar’s invasion spent their youth in Rome, growing up in aristocratic circles and conceivably gaining experience in the Roman army before returning to Britain to assume leadership roles.

Celtic Child in Roma Ara Pacis Procession Nord Particolare

Celtic Child with Roman Noblemen on Frieze of Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace)

Minted coins proclaimed the identities of indigenous rulers loyal to Rome. The practice of establishing client-kings outside the boundaries of direct control of Rome was a standard device of their diplomacy. During this period, evidence suggested shifts in political powers of rulers in the most powerful tribal kingdoms as manifested where the minted coins were found. There was adoption of specific Roman rituals, use of orthogonal street systems in settlements, use of rectangular building, and construction of large dyke systems to mark out areas of territory.

Celtic Gold Stater Catuvellauni Tasciovanus

Celtic Gold Stater Catuvellauni Tasciovanus

Mobility of people between Britain and the Roman world increased over time. There was a tacit acceptance, at least by some of the major tribes of the southeast, that Britain was subservient to Rome. In an ode written about 15 BC the poet Horace would list the Britons among those who ‘admired’ or ‘heard’ the Emperor Augustus and a little later Strabo noted that ‘certain of the British dynasts have obtained the friendship of Caesar Augustus by embassies and courtesies and have set up offering to the Capitol.’ Acts of this kind helped to maintain the pretense that Britain had been conquered.

Augustus of Prima Porta

Statue of Emperor Augustus Caesar

In Britain, support for Rome was a powerful diplomatic weapon in the constant power struggles that engaged the British elite. It probably became custom and practice for rulers in southeast Britain to consult formally with Rome about who should succeed the ruler of a client-kingdom. For some, Rome provided a safe haven when they were forced to flee. About 10 AD two British leaders, Tincomarus and Dubnovellaunus from the southern kingdoms, were obviously on the losing side in a British political dispute, as they were put under the emperor’s protection in Rome. This event was considered significant enough to be recorded on an imperial monument in Ankara.

Ancient Ruins of Verulamium Wall near St. Albans

Ancient Ruins of Verulamium near St. Albans Tribal Center of the Catuvellauni Tribe

The ousting of pro-Roman leaders provided Rome with the opportunity to invade Britain. In 39 AD, Adminius, a son of the powerful king Cunobelin, deserted to the Romans with a small force. The Roman historians recorded the surrender of Adminius to Caligula as a farce. The Emperor told his troops to pick-up seashells as spoils of war to give to the Senate. The more likely scenario is Adminius persuaded Caligula that Britain was vulnerable to attack and that an invasion would construe a great victory for him. The troops probably refused to follow Caligula into the channel to invade Britain. Nonetheless, the planning and movement of troops benefited Claudius in 43 AD when Rome finally invaded Britain.

Young Roman on Horseback

Statue of Caligula on Horseback


To be Continued

The next posts will provide an overview of the powerful tribes and rulers in Britain between Caesar’s invasion in 54-55 BC to the time of Claudius’ invasion in 43 AD.


Barry Cunliffe, Britain Begins; Oxford University Press, 2013.

Graham Webster, The Roman Invasion of Britain, Reprinted 1999 by Routledge (Imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group), NY.

John Manley, AD 43 The Roman Invasion of Britain: A Reassessment; Tempus Publishing, Inc., Charleston, SC.

Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 2005.