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Roman Conquest

The earliest known name given to this island was Albin, out of which sprang the later Albion. It is not a Celtic word, and is probably of Iberian origin. The still later name Britain is derived from a second swarm of Celts called Brythons or Britons, who after a long interval followed the first Celtic immigration. Though there were other states in Britain, the tribes situated on the south-eastern part of the island were in commercial communication with the continental Gauls of their own race and language. The Celtic races worshipped many gods. In Gaul, the Druids, who were the ministers of religion, taught the doctrine of the transmigration of souls, and even gave moral instruction to the young. In Ireland, and perhaps in Britain, they were mere conjurers and wizards.

In the year 55 BC the Celts of south-eastern Britain first came in contact with a Roman army. The Romans were a civilised people, and had been engaged for some centuries in conquering the peoples living round the Mediterranean. They possessed disciplined armies, and a regular government. By the beginning of the year the Roman general, Gaius Julius Cresar, had made himself master of Gaul. This march into Germany seems to have suggested to Caesar the idea of invading Britain. It is most unlikely that he thought of conquering the island, as he had quite enough to do in Gaul What he really wanted was to prevent the Britons from coming to the help of their kindred whom he had just subdued, and he would accomplish this object best by landing on their shores and showing them how formidable a Roman army was.

Accordingly, towards the end of August in 55 BC, Caesar crossed the straits with about 10,000 men. He made his way by sea to the site of the modern Deal and he managed to reach the shore with his army. He soon found, however, that the season was too advanced to enable him to accomplish anything. A storm having damaged his shipping and driven on the transports on which was embarked his cavalry, he returned to Gaul. Caesar had hitherto failed to strike terror into the Britons. In 54 BC he started in July, so as to have many weeks of fine weather before him. taking with him as many as 25,000 foot and 2,000 horse. After effecting a landing he pushed inland to the Kentish Stour, where he defeated the natives and captured one of their stockades.

Though the tribute was never paid, he had gained his object. He had sufficiently frightened the British tribes to make it unlikely that they would give him any annoyance in Gaul. For nearly a century after Caesar's departure Britain was left to itself.

There had consequently for many years been no thought of again invading Britain. At last the Emperor Claudius reversed this policy. There is reason to suppose that some of the British chiefs had made an attack upon the coasts of Gaul. However this may have been, Claudius in 43 sent Aulus Plautius against Togidumnus and Caractacus, the sons of Cunobelin, who were now ruling in their father's stead. Where one tribe has gained supremacy over others, it is always easy for a civilised power to gain allies amongst the tribes which have been subdued. Claudius himself came for a brief visit to receive the congratulations of the army on the victory which his lieutenant bad won.

In 47 Aulus Plautius was succeeded by Ostorius Scapula. He would gladly have been content with the territory occupied by his predecessor, as it contained the most fertile and wealth-producing part of the island, and at first he aimed simply at defending what had been won. Nothing is more difficult for a civilised power than to guard a frontier against barbarous tribes. Such tribes are accustomed to plunder one another, and they are quick to perceive that the order and peace which a civilised power establishes offers them a richer booty than is to be found elsewhere. The tribes beyond the line which Ostorius held were constantly breaking through to plunder the Roman territory, and he soon found that he must either allow the lands of Roman subjects to be plundered, or must carry war amongst the hostile tribes. He naturally chose the latter alternative, and the last years of his government were spent in wars with the Ordovices of Central Wales, and with the Silures of Southern Wales.

When Suetonius Paullinus arrived in 58 AD to take up the government, he resolved to complete the conquest of the west by an attack on Mona (Anglesey). In Mona was a sacred place of the Druids, who gave encouragement to the still independent Britons by their murderous sacrifices and their soothsayings. Roman officers and traders had misused the power which had been given them by the valour of Roman soldiers. Queen Boadicea called upon the whole Celtic population to rise against the foreign tyrants. Thousands answered to her call, and the angry host rushed to take vengeance. The massacre spread wherever Romans were to be found. A Roman legion was routed, and every one of the foot soldiers was slaughtered on the spot. It is said that 70,000 Ramans perished in the course of a few days. Suetonius was no mean 'tneral, and he hastened back to the scene of destruction. He won a decisive victory, and 80,000 Britons are reported to have been slain. Boadicea committed suicide by poison. Suetonius restored the Roman authority in Britain, but it was to his failure to control his subordinates that the insurrection had been due, and he was therefore promptly recalled by the Emperor Nero. From that time no more is heard of the injustice of the Roman government.

Agricola, who arrived as governor in 78, took care to deal fairly with all sorts of men, and to make the natives thoroughly satisfied with his rule. He completed the conquest of the country afterwards known as Wales, and thereby pushed the western frontier of Roman Britain to the sea. Yet from the fact that he found it necessary still to leave garrisons at Deva and Isca Silurum, it may be gathered that the tribes occupying the hill country were not so thoroughly subdued as to cease to be dangerous. Although the idea entertained by Ostorius of making a frontier on land towards the west had thus been abandoned, it was still necessary to provide a frontier towards the north. Even before Agricola arrived it had been shown to be impossible to stop at the line between the Mersey and the Humber. Agricola finished the work of conquest. He now governed the whole of the country as far north as to the Sol way and the Tyne, and he made Eboracum, the name of which changed in course of time into York, the center of Roman power in the northern districts.

Agricola thought that there would be no real peace unless the whole island was subdued. For seven years he carried on warfare with this object before him. He had comparatively little difficulty in reducing to obedience the country south of the narrow isthmus which separates the estuary of the Clyde from the estuary of the Forth. Before proceeding further he drew a line of forts across that isthmus to guard the conquered country from attack during his absence. He then made his way to the Tay, but he had not marched far up the valley of that river before he reached the edge of the Highlands.

The Caledonians, as the Romans then called those who inhabited those northern regions, were a savage race, and the mountains in the recesses of which they dwelt were rugged and inaccessible, offering but little means of support to a Roman army. In 84 the Caledonians, who, like all barbarians hen they first come in contact with a civilised people, were ignorant of the strength of a disciplined army, came down from their fortresses in the mountains into the lower ground. A battle was fought near the Graupian Hill, which seems to have been situated at the junction of the Isla and the Tay. Agricola gained a complete victory, but he was unable to follow the fugitives into their narrow glens.

At the very time when Domitian, confined to his palace, felt the terrors which he inspired, his legions, under the command of the virtuous Agricola, defeated the collected force of the Caledonians at the foot of the Grampian hills; and his fleets, venturing to explore an unknown and dangerous navigation, displayed the Roman arms round every part of the island. The conquest of Britain was considered as already achieved; and it was the design of Agricola to complete and ensure his success by the easy reduction of Ireland, for which, in his opinion, one legion and a few auxiliaries were sufficient. The western isle might be improved into a valuable possession, and the Britons would wear their chains with the less reluctance, if the prospect and example of freedom was on every side removed from before their eyes. But the superior merit of Agricola soon occasioned his removal from the government of Britain; and for ever disappointed this rational, though extensive, scheme of conquest.

The various tribes of Britons possessed valor without conduct, and the love of freedom without the spirit of union. They took up arms with savage fierceness; they laid them down, or turned them against each other, with wild inconstancy ; and while they fought singly, they were successively subdued. Neither the fortitude of Caractacus, nor the despair of Boadicea, nor the fanaticism of the Druids, could avert the slavery of their country, or resist the steady progress of the Imperial generals, who maintained the national glory, when the throne was disgraced by the weakest or the most vicious of mankind.

Very little is known of iht history of the Roman province of Britain, but there is no doubt that it made considerable progress in civilisation. The Romans were great road-makers, and though they established their lines of communication in the first place with the object of enabling their solders to march easily from one part of the country to another, the result of what they did was to encourage commercial intercourse.

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Page last modified: 28-06-2016 14:01:30 ZULU