What Did the Romans Bring to Britain?

History Hit Podcast with Simon Elliott

3 mins

02 Aug 2019

If you look at Britain before the Romans, and then in the Roman Period, and then after the Romans, it’s very clear what the Romans brought to Britain. The Romans brought to Britain every aspect of their world.

So what have the Romans ever done for us?

They brought a stone-built urban environment, which wasn’t present before. Interestingly, because of the lengthy campaigns of conquest in Britain, you can trace the origins of many of the towns and cities of Britain today to Roman fortifications from that conquest.

Also, most of the main pre-motorway roads, like the A road network, can also be traced back to the Roman Period.

Who was the greatest European ever? Dan talks to Lindsay Powell to find out.Listen Now

For example, we can look at former legionary fortresses, which later became towns, and which today are cities. Think Exeter, think Gloucester, think York, think Lincoln, these are all places which were originally legionary fortresses. For Roman forts, consider places like Manchester and Leicester. Carlisle and Newcastle were also originally Roman fortifications.

All of these forts became part of the original fabric of Roman Britain, which is still the urban fabric of Britain today. If you had to think about the capital of Britain today, it’s the Roman capital. It’s London, Londinium, which became the capital after Boudicca’s Revolt. So, the urban landscape of Britain can be directly traced back to the Roman period.

In terms of the Roman road network, let’s consider Watling Street. So Watling Street is the line of the A2 and the M2 in Kent, which becomes the line of the A5 after it leaves London. Also, think of the A1: the Roman Ermine Street, which for much of its length links London to Lincoln to York.

Who was the greatest European ever? Dan talks to Lindsay Powell to find out.Listen Now

Roman culture

The Romans brought many other aspects of Roman life to Britain. For example, they brought Latin as the official language. One of the ways that the Romans encouraged people, especially at an elite level to start engaging with the Roman experience, was to get the aristocrats, the elites, to start behaving in Roman ways. And many of them did.

So local elites would start funding the construction of public buildings, which was a very Roman aristocratic thing to do. They would also send their sons to Rome to learn Latin, and they would wear togas.

Cupid on a Dolphin Mosaic, Fishbourne Roman Palace.

Cultural oppression?

Interestingly though, the Romans ruled their provinces with a very light touch providing that there was no trouble, and providing that money was coming out of the province into the Imperial Fiscus Treasury.

So the Romans actually were fairly relaxed about members in society, especially at a middle-ranking or an elite level, who didn’t want to buy into the Roman experience providing they behave.

Consider many curse scrolls, which are scrolls where somebody who’s cursing somebody writes their names on them and then throws it away in a religious context. Many of their names are Latin, but often many of the names are also Brythonic, the native British language.

Dan talks to Simon Elliott about Septimius Severus, about his Northern Campaigns and the true story of this savage 3rd century invasion of Scotland.Listen Now

So these are people choosing specifically to style themselves as either Roman, or choosing to style themselves as not Roman. So the Romans ruled their province with a fairly light touch, but, certainly, they brought every aspect of their culture to Britain.

A cosmopolitan empire

If you travelled from Antioch, from Syria, from Alexandria, from Leptis Magna, if you travel from Rome to Britain, you would experience the same manifestations of Roman culture here as you would have done from the places you came from.

Bear in mind that Roman society was very cosmopolitan. So if you’re a Roman citizen, you could travel freely provided that you could afford it.

The Arch of Severus in Leptis Magna.

As a result, there are many skilled workers like stone-workers, originating perhaps in Anatolia, who would find their way to work in Britain. You would find similarly merchants from North Africa, from Gaul, and from Spain, all finding their way to Britain.

If you took Londinium as an example, it’s a very cosmopolitan city.

Let’s face it, London is the Italian colonial city on the banks of the River Thames.

From the period of its founding around AD 50 through to the Boudiccan Revolt AD 61, it’s my belief that only about 10% of Londinium’s population would have been British.

Most of the population would have been from elsewhere in the empire. Even after it becomes a provincial capital, it is still this very cosmopolitan place with a very mixed population from across the empire.

Featured Image: Mosaic from Bignor Roman Villa. Credit: mattbuck / Commons.