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Iron Age to Roman

800BC - 410AD

Iron Age History

The Iron Age of Britain covers the period from about 800 BC to the Roman invasion of 43 AD, and follows on from the Bronze Age. It saw the gradual introduction of iron working technology, although the general adoption of iron tools did not become widespread until after 500-400 BC.

As the Iron Age progressed, strong regional groupings emerged, reflected in styles of pottery, metal objects and settlement types. In some areas, ‘tribal’ states and kingdoms developed by the end of the first century BC. The best known and most visible remains of the Iron Age are hill forts. The usual Iron Age building was the roundhouse the remaining postholes are indication of location. These could be made of timber or stone, with a roof covering of thatch or turf, depending upon locally available building materials.

Coinage first appeared in Britain at the end of the second century BC, and by 20 BC coins were found across much of south eastern England possibly due to Roman influence. The use of coins never extended into northern and western Britain or Ireland during this period.

Towards the end of the second century BC, Roman influence began to extend into the western Mediterranean and southern France. This led to growing contact between Britain and the Roman world across the English Channel. Initially this contact was confined to the trading of limited quantities of Roman luxury goods such as wine, probably exchanged for slaves, minerals and grain.

New types of large settlements called ‘oppida’ appeared in southern Britain. These appear to have acted as political, economic and religious centres. Many also appear to have been the production centres for Iron Age coins, which often gave the names of rulers, some styling themselves ‘Rex’, Latin for ‘king’.

Roman History

After 50 BC and the conquest of Gaul (modern France) by Julius Caesar, this trade intensified and focused on south east England. Julius Caesar had paid earlier visits to Britain in 55 and 54 BC however these had only been to please the public back home in Rome rather than conquer Britain. He had links from Gaul with Commius who aided Julius Caesar in his partial invasion. Commius and his sons Tincomarus, Eppillus  and Verica ruled the Atrebates and it was the exiling and take over from Verica that was one reason for the Roman invasion in 43AD. Opposing Julius Caesar was Cassivellaunus  a British tribal chief together with another tribe the  Cantiaci  who led the defence against Julius Caesar’s second expedition to Britain in 54 BC. He led an alliance of tribes against Roman forces, but eventually surrendered after his location was revealed to Julius Caesar by defeated Britons. In addition to intensive trade links, Rome appears to have established diplomatic relations with a number of tribes and may have exerted considerable political influence before the Roman conquest of England in AD 43.

The Roman conquest of Britain was a gradual process, beginning effectively in AD 43 under Emperor Claudius, whose general Aulus Plautius served as first governor of Roman Britain. He had a client King Cogidubnus (Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus renamed and given Roman citizenship) who may have been a son of Verica and resided at Fishbourne Palace. This is regarded as the largest Roman residence at that time and close to Noviomagus Reginorum (Chichester). Noviomagus Reginorum was the New Market of the Regini tribe the Southern branch of the Atrebates a large Iron Age tribe with links to Julius Caesar through Verica. The Atrebates capital was Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester).

This time the Romans enjoyed rapid military success. But gradual advance through southern England and Wales was halted in AD 60 by the rebellion of Boudicca, queen of the Iceni of East Anglia, incensed by the brutality of the conquest. The revolt was suppressed, but not before four recently founded Roman cities, Camulodunum (Colchester), Verulamium (St Albans), and Londinium (London), had been burned to the ground.

The advance resumed in AD 70 with the conquest of Wales and the north. The governor Agricola (AD 77–83) even succeeded in defeating the Scottish tribes at the Battle of Mons Graupius in AD 83.

Immediately after this victory, though, troops were pulled out of Britain to deal with invasions on the Danube frontier. As a result, the far north could not be held, and the army gradually fell back to the Tyne–Solway isthmus. It was here that the emperor Hadrian, visiting Britain in AD 122, ordered the building of his famous wall.

The emperor Antoninus Pius tried to reoccupy Scotland and built the short-lived Antonine Wall (AD 140–60). He was ultimately unsuccessful, however, and Hadrian’s Wall became the northern frontier of the province once more.

By now the three legions (army units of up to 6,000 men) remaining in Britain had settled in permanent bases. Auxiliary troops were scattered in smaller forts, mostly across northern England and along Hadrian’s Wall.

In the pacified parts of the province, cities had been founded as capitals for each of the tribal areas (the civitates) into which the Britons had been organised. A network of roads had developed, and landowners in the south began to build Roman-style villas.

Life for most ordinary Britons, who were farmers in the countryside, was slow to change. By degrees, however, they came into contact with villas, towns and markets. Here they could exchange their produce for Roman-style goods and see people dressing and behaving in Roman ways.

Shortly after AD 180 there was an invasion by tribes from what is now Scotland, who overran Hadrian’s Wall. Around this time most of the cities of Britain were enclosed within earthen defensive walls, which may have been linked to the invasion.

The Roman Empire was ruled from Britain for a brief period in AD 208–11, when the emperor Septimius Severus came to campaign north of Hadrian’s Wall. Severus divided Britain into two provinces, Britannia Superior (south) and Inferior (north), with capitals at London and York respectively. This prevented too many troops from being concentrated in the hands of a single governor who might have attempted to usurp power.

Alongside the cities, which acquired stone walls at this time, the 3rd century saw increased numbers of small market towns, villages and villas. Roman objects were now more common in even the poorest rural settlements.

There were still threats to the province. In the north, beyond Hadrian’s Wall, the Picts had emerged as a formidable enemy, while to the south there was a growing threat from seaborne raiders. The so-called Saxon Shore forts around the south-east coast were built towards the end of the 3rd century in response, such as at Caister Roman Fort and Reculver.

Britain was part of the separatist ‘Gallic empire’ from AD 260 until AD 273, and again broke away from Rome under the usurpers Carausius and Allectus (AD 286–96). Emperor Constantius I recaptured the province in AD 296, and when he died in AD 306 after a campaign against the Picts, his son Constantine the Great was proclaimed emperor in York.

After Constantine’s conversion in AD 312, Christianity was adopted more widely across the empire, including in Britain. In the 4th century Britain was reorganised as a ‘diocese’ consisting of four provinces, with military forces under the command of the Dux Britanniarum – the Duke of the Britains. The next 50 years or so were a golden age of agricultural prosperity and villa building, especially in the south-west.

Following the conquest of the Britons, a distinctive Romano-British culture emerged as the Romans introduced improved agriculture, urban planning, industrial production, and architecture. The Roman goddess Britannia became the female personification of Britain. After the initial invasions, Roman historians generally only mention Britain in passing. Thus, most present knowledge derives from archaeological investigations and occasional epigraphic evidence lauding the Britannic achievements of an emperor. Roman citizens settled in Britain from many parts of the Empire.

In the early-4th-century onwards there were four provinces by some variation of the names Britannia I, Britannia II, Maxima Caesariensis, and Flavia Caesariensis; all of these seem to have initially been directed by a governor.

As the 4th century progressed, there were increasing attacks from the Saxons in the east and the Scoti (Irish) in the west. By the late 4th century chronic insecurity and the great invasion known as the Barbarian Conspiracy of AD 367. Confident new building had ceased by the 370s. Repeated attempts to usurp the empire by generals based in Britain (the last being Constantine III in AD 407) drained the diocese of troops. By AD 410 Britain had slipped out of Roman control as legion recalled to defend Rome and its inhabitants were left to fend for themselves.

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