At the time of the Roman arrival, Britain was mostly composed of small Iron Age communities, primarily agrarian with enclosed settlement. The invasion of Julius Caesar in 55/54 BC brought the island into close contact with the Roman world. His description of Britain in the time of his invasion is the first coherent description of the island. At this period there were two powers present in Britain: the Catuvellauni north of the Thames led by Tasciovanus, successor of Caesar’s adversary Cassivellaunus, and, south of the river, the kingdom of the Atrebatesruled by Commius and his sons Tincommius, Eppillus, and Verica. Cunobelinus succeeded his father Tasciovanus around 5 AD. During his long reign, he established power all over the southeast region. Beyond these kingdoms lay the Iceni or today known as Norfolk, the Corieltavi in the Midlands, and the Dobuni in the area of Gloucestershire and Durotriges in Dorset.

Roman invasion of Britain

Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain didn’t result in conquest, but he established client relationships with some British tribes. This relationship was extended by Augustus. Caligula led an army to Britain but ordered them to stab the sea and collect seashells. The actual annexation fell to the most unlikely of emperors, Claudius (41–54 AD). In 43 AD, Emperor Claudius with an army of four legions with a number of auxiliary regiments consisting of cavalry and infantry raised among warlike tribes subject to the empire under the command of Aulus Plautius who crossed the English Channel, landing at Richborough. The reason for this conquest was believed to be Claudius’ personal glory. The British under Togodumnus and Caratacus, sons and successors of Cunobelinus, were taken by surprise and defeated. They retired to defend the Medway crossing near Rochester but were again defeated in a hard battle. Plautius stoped at the river Thames to wait for the arrival of the emperor. Although he had only been there sixteen days, Claudius took credit for the conquest with a glorious triumphant return to Rome in 44 CE. By 60 AD much of Wales and the areas to the south of Trent were occupied. Client kingdoms were soon established including the Iceni at Norfolk and the Brigantes to the north. The future emperor Vespasian led Legion II southwest where he captured 20 tribal strongholds, such as the city Londinium (London) and Verulamium (St. Albans).

But the Britons didn’t take this conquest quietly. Caratacus, a member of the Catuvellauni, rallied a considerable support in Wales only to be captured in 51 CE. After his defeat, he escaped and made his way to a region controlled by Brigantes whose queen quickly turned him over to the Romans. He was brought to Rome together with his family but their lives were spared by Claudius. This was not the end of the revolts. After the death of Prasutagus in 60/61 AD, his kingdom was divided and torn apart. Rome did not get the entire kingdome, so decided to plunder it instead. The wife of Prasutagus, Boudicam, gathered an army and with the neighboring Trinovantes went on the offensive. She was defeated and instead of surrendering to the Romans, she committed suicide.

From 77 to 83 CE the military commander Gnaeus Julius Agricola, the father-in-law of Tacitus, served as governor. With his army, he marched northward to Caledonia (Scotland) conquering much of northern England along the way. He managed to achieve victory. He even saw the island of Ireland and claimed it could be taken with one legion only. He was forced to withdraw from Scotland when one of his legions was recalled by Emperor Domitian to confront intruders along the Danube.


The Battle of Watling Street was the last serious threat to Roman authority in the lowlands. Aside from his victory against Boudicca, in his desire to strengthen Roman presence, Paulinus also eliminated the Druid stronghold at Anglesey, which has always been considered as a threat to the Romans and their imperial cult. After the defeat of Boudicca, Britons were starting to adopt the Roman ways. Soon significant changes were made. Burned towns were rebuilt and Londinium started serving as the administrative capital. Soon it had a basilica, a forum, a governor’s palace and a bridge crossing the Themes.

Britain was important to Rome, not just for its tax revenue but also for its mineral resources of tin, iron and gold. Hunting was developed for trade with animal furs. In addition, there were grain, cattle and most important for Rome, slaves. New roads were built like Watling Street, which linked Canterbury to Wroxeter on the Welsh border and Ermine Street which ran between London and York. In the campaign of Agricola many fortresses were built to the north. Romanization of the Britons occurred, urbanization was encouraged, same as moving in to towns that were equipped with theaters, forums and baths.

Hadrians wall and Antonine wall, Britain in 3rd century

In jealousy, Domitian recalled Agricola, leaving Scotland not fully conquered for years to come. Eventually a 118km (73 mile) long stone wall would be build between the province of Britain and barbarian territories under Emperor Hadrian. He visited Britain in 121 and 122 AD and believed that in order to maintain peace the frontier had to be secure. The wall took years to build. 15 000 soldiers participated in the construction. In 139 AD another wall was build, the 60km (37mile) Antonine wall, named after the Emperor Antonius Pius. This wall was around 100 km to the north. It was too difficult to defend it, so it was abandoned in 163 AD.

In the 3rd century the island was divided in half. Britannia Superior governed from London, and Britannia Inferior governed from York (Eboracum) in for a better efficiency. Emperor Diocletian would later divide the province into four separate regions. Because of Diocletian’s tetrarchy, Britain was then placed under the watchful eye of the emperor in the west. In this period the island had been under constant attack by the Picts, Scots and Saxons. Carausius led a rebellion and Britain temporarily became a separate kingdom. The Roman Emperor of the west Constantius regained control again in 296 AD.

Abandoning Britain

At the end of 4th century AD, Rome was having trouble controlling Britain. After Alaric’s conquest of Rome in 410 AD, the western half of the empire began to undergo significant changes. Spain, Britain and most of Gaul soon were lost, making the eastern half of the empire the economical and cultural center. Emperor Valentinian I (364-375 AD) started to withdraw troops. In 410 AD Honorius, one of the last emperors of the west pulled out all the legions from Britain. He even sent letters to individual British cities informing them that they were to defend themselves. Roman magistrates were expelled and local governments were established. Britain was no longer a province of Rome, but the years that fallowed could not erase all Roman impact. There was still occasional contact with Rome. Missionaries helped Christians battle the heretics and pagans. In the 5th century as attacks from Saxons increased, an appeal went out to the Roman commander general Aetius for help. He never replied. Britain broke to small kingdoms and later on was raided by Vikings until one man defeated them and became king of England.