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The Impact the Romans Made on British Isles Essay

Although there had been increasing contact between the British Isles and the classical world during the Late Iron Age, the first real Roman presence here was that of Julius Caesar. In 55BC a Roman army of around ten thousand men crossed the channel and invaded Britain, yet were defeated and had to return to Gaul. Then in the following year; 54BC, Caesar came to Britain again. This time with a much larger army, although on this occasion he won the majority of battles and was victorious, he still returned to Gaul. It wasn’t until 43AD that the real invasion took place and the real ‘Romanisation’ of the British Isles began.

Romanisation is commonly seen as the coming of civilisation to the British Isles, but was this really the case? Or was it just a military imposition of a new culture, which changed Britain? Not Necessarily for the better. My aim is to examine the impact the Romans made on the British Isles. In order to do this I am going to evaluate the different contributions they made, to decide whether their presence really had a significant impact. Would our world be different if it wasn’t for the Roman invasion? Would advances such as architecture and agriculture have been made so quickly? These are some examples of the questions I will be answering within this essay.

The British Isles consists of; England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Although by 78AD all of England and Wales was under roman control, they never fully conquered the highland areas of Scotland. Although they did try, the terrain made it far more difficult for an invading power. The Romans never even attempted to invade Ireland, the only real impact they made in Ireland was the increase of wealth due to trade. They didn’t make a significant impact on Scotland either, they only really inherited two main features from the Roman period; the use of the Latin script for its languages, and the emergence of Christianity as the predominant religion.

In my opinion, William Hanson concludes the roman impact of Scotland perfectly, ‘The Roman presence in Scotland was little more than a series of brief interludes within a longer continuum of indigenous development’. [1] Therefore when discussing the impact the Romans made on the British Isles we can automatically rule out Ireland and the majority of Scotland, as the Romans didn’t have any control of these countries, thus had no real impact. Other than Scotland and Ireland, the other areas of the British Isles, referred to by the Romans as ‘Britannia’ were affected immensely by the Romans arrival. Firstly and arguably one of the most significant, was the economic changes the Romans made.

The civilised Romans were city-dwellers and as soon as they got the chance they began urbanising Britain by creating towns and building villas just like those in Rome. Some Roman towns are still towns today, such as the city of York. They choose their spots wisely, to allow good communications, as well as plenty of farmland and water supply. Although it is believed the Romans were to first to create towns, there is new archaeological evidence to argue otherwise.[2] The remains of a pre Roman town were discovered unearthed beneath the Roman town of Silchester, near modern Reading. The people of Iron Age Silchester appear to have adopted an urbanised ‘Roman’ way of life, long before the Romans arrived.[3] This archaeological find makes people now question whether the Romans really did make such a significant impact on the British Isles in terms of urbanisation, or were pre-Romans already beginning to urbanise Britain before the invasion? The Romans may have possibly just sped up the processes. It certainly shows that the Britons were actually more sophisticated and not as barbaric as originally thought.

Meanwhile the upper class Celts adopted the roman way of life, and were significantly affected by their arrival. The Roman rule made little impact on the lives of the poorer Celts, especially in the north and south west of England. When we hear about all the amazing new changes the Romans made for the British Isles we assume that everyone enjoyed this new urban life style, of villas and Roman baths, but in fact, this was not true. Those from the lower social class still lived in Iron Age houses within poor rural communities. They still relied on Pre-Roman farming technology to live and trade from. This was shown when archaeologist discovered a settlement in Devon dating back to the Roman period. The remains show inhabitants were still living in native roundhouses, as Britons had done for centuries before, despite the presence of Roman pottery and coins.[4] One of the most visible changes in landscape was the construction of Roman roads. Prior to this, Britain used unpaved track ways for their communications.

The Roman created straight, paved roads which could be used in all weather conditions. The development of Over 9,000kilometres of roads meant communication and travel from one area of Britain to another was made substantially easier. Although they were mainly designed for a military purpose, it had a positive impact on trade as it became easier to transport goods. Speaking of trade, the Romans made vast improvements in agriculture. They introduced to Britain a range of new crops, as well as better farming equipment. Iron equipment created by the Romans allowed farmers to work on much larger and tougher areas of land which would have proved too difficult during the pre-roman era. Along with this, livestock was also improved; this was down to the Romans being more educated and creating better quality breeds thus making better quality meat and dairy to trade.

The Romans also made a great contribution to imposing an organised and efficient form of a government to Britain; Roman government was seen as a hallmark of civilisation. They also developed a legal and administrative system which had full military control. The decision making process was assisted by a provincial council composed of delegates representing the main tribal groups. The Romans ran their government in a way which is similar to the current British government. They created the concept of electing officials; this is a very democratic method which we still have in place today. Although the law of the Roman Empire is not used today, modern law in many jurisdictions is based on principles of law used and developed during the Roman Empire. It was difficult for Romans to use the English language, this was due to there being no English translation for a wide range of sophisticate intellectual words that educated Romans wanted to use.

This is why they introduced Latin to Britain; Latin was the standard language for the majority of the Roman Empire. Although the Romans did introduce a new language to Britain, we are currently the largest European region of the former Roman Empire whose majority language has not descended from the Romans. This shows that in terms of language, they had no real lasting impact. They brought their state gods to Britain and the imperial cult. But it was Roman tradition to worship the gods of the conquered. For example at Bath, the invaders worshipped British Sul at her “miraculous” hot spring. They identified her with their own goddess Minerva. There were many similarities of Roman and British religions; they were both polytheistic, with gods of places, nature, peoples, war, etc. But prior to Roman rule Britain did not have temples in which to worship their gods. This all changed once to Romans arrived.

The native gods came to be worshipped in Roman style, in masonry temples, forming hybrid “Romano-Celtic” cults. The Romans had no intention of forcing Britain to change their religion or beliefs. In fact they were happy to make a peaceful settlement with most tribes/groups in England, but they had no intention of doing the same with the Druids as they used human sacrifice. ‘They believe that the execution of those who have been caught in the act of theft or robbery or some crime is more pleasing to the immortal gods; but when the supply of such fails they resort to the execution even of the innocent.’ [5]This was seen as a barbaric practice and the Romans did not intend to tolerate it in one of their colonies. The Romans stamped out the druids in 60AD, when the governor of England, Suetonius attacked the druid’s heartland; Anglesey.

This was seen as a positive attack by the Britons as for years they had lived in fear of the Druids. Prior to the Roman invasion the majority of Britons were non-literate, but the Romans were keen on education in order to develop well educated children for military or government purposes. Although education was focused around male members of wealthier families, there is evidence to show even those from a lower social class were beginning to learn to read and write during Roman rule. From this is could be argued that the Romans were much cleverer than the Britons but maybe the Pre-Roman era simply found no purposes for writing, therefore focused on farming and agriculture as that was there money maker. After the decline of the Roman Empire, the Romans left no real lasting impact. The British didn’t maintain the ‘Roman’ lifestyle once the empire collapsed in 410. A.D. Citizens moved away from their urban setting and back into a more agrarian society and worked simply to survive.

Even the villas that had been built all around the British countryside began to be abandoned during this period. Once the Roman era ended, Britain was left with nothing. They simply left Britain ‘wholly exposed to plunders and the more so because the people were utterly ignorant of the practice of warfare’[6] When evaluating the impact the Romans made on Britain, we should consider Martin Millett’s theory. His theory is that Britain had an equal amount of impact on Rome, as Rome did on Britain. Millet believes Romanisation was not the process in which the British adopted the roman culture. “We must thus see Romanization as a process of dialectical change, rather than influence of one ‘pure’ culture upon others. Roman culture interacted with native cultures to produce the synthesis that we call Romanized.” [7]Millet therefore believes that the British impacted the Romans just as much as they did us. What we do have to remember is the Romans did not colonise Britain.

This shows how a small quantity of people can have such a profound cultural and political impact. Imagine if a larger quantity of Romans did settle in Britain, they would have made an even bigger impact which may have actually resulted in them conquering the whole of the British Isles. The province of Britannia was not so much “Rome-in-Britain” as “Britons interpreting Rome”. [8] This is because Roman Britain was largely built by Britons, not incomers, of whom there were relatively few. Along with this we also need to remember how difficult it would have been for the Romans to control the British Isles as part of the Roman Empire compared to other provinces. Britain was separated from the mainland of Europe by the channel and North Sea. Overall, despite the growth of towns and bureaucracy and all the other essentials of civilization that came with the Roman conquest. I don’t think they really made as much impact as everyone first believes.

Prior to the Roman invasion Britain was an agricultural society dependant on farming. Once the empire collapsed Britain went back to relying simply on agriculture in order to make a living. This clearly shows that the Romans didn’t make a significant impact, because as soon as they left Britain, life returned to how it was prior to their invasion. The Romans simply improved the lives of the higher social class during their time in Britain. They introduced them to education, urbanisation as well as improving their diet and hygiene. But as I’ve already discussed no significant impact was made on the poorer members of society, whose lives remained the same. I also believe and have archaeological evidence to show that the pre Romans were beginning to make improvements within Britain. They were just progressing much slower; the Roman invasion just sped up the process of making Britain a more modern urbanised country.

JOHN CANNON. “Roman Britain.” The Oxford Companion to British History. 2002. 16 Nov. 2012 . Hanson, William S. “The Roman Presence: Brief Interludes”, in Edwards, Kevin J. & Ralston, Ian B.M. (Eds) (2003) Scotland After the Ice Age: Environment, Archaeology and History, 8000 BC – AD 1000. Edinburgh. Edinburgh University Press. Martin Millett, The Romanization of Britain, Cambridge University Press, 1990

[ 1 ]. . Hanson, William S. “The Roman Presence: Brief Interludes”, in Edwards, Kevin J. & Ralston, Ian B.M. (Eds) (2003) Scotland After the Ice Age: Environment, Archaeology and History, 8000 BC – AD 1000. Edinburgh. Edinburgh University Press. [ 2 ]. Article By Louise Ord- ‘Britain’s first pre roman town’ – 11/11/2012 [ 3 ]. . Article By Louise Ord- Prof Mike Fulford’s opinion, line7. 11/11/2012 [ 4 ]. . – Archaeological dig in Devon unearths Roman influence 11/11/2012 [ 5 ]. . Julius Caesar’s writings on Celtic sacrifices- line 8 – 9/11/2012 [ 6 ]. Paragraph 8, line 3; Bede’s opinion. 9/11/2012 [ 7 ]. Martin Millett, The Romanization of Britain, Cambridge University Press, 1990, page

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