What the Romans did to Us
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What the Romans did to usSep 21 2006
Our interest in ancient Rome shows no sign of abating, as a major
new programme starring Michael Sheen as the Emperor Nero begins
tonight. Here Duncan Higgitt looks back at the Romans' influence in
Wales - and how this country played a large part in bringing their
wrath down upon the Britons
IT was 42AD and a tribesman who would soon become a Welsh hero was
sitting uncomfortably in the thoughts of the Roman emperor.
Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, better known just as
Claudius, was stuttering and spluttering his way through his
indignation, the disabled administrator - whom many had
underestimated to their cost - apoplectic with rage, an anger
directed at the head of relatively unremarkable Essex tribe dwellers
known as the Catuvellaunis.
Their chieftain, Caratacus, whom some have since said most closely
resembles legendary Welsh warrior Caradog in history, had set his
face against Roman rule. His campaigning in southern England had
forced the Roman vassal Verica to flee to Rome, and had thrown the
British Isles into anarchy.
To Claudius, who was succeeded by his adoptive son Nero, there was
only one answer to this upstart: invasion. He dispatched four battle-
hardened legions - II Augusta, IX Hispana, XIV Gemina and XX Valeria
Victrix - totalling some 20,000 men, to bring the rebellious isle
back under boot.
The legions, who included commanders such as future emperor
Vespasian, landed in 43AD, probably in Kent, and won a memorable
victory near Rochester, pursuing the remnants of the British army to
the Thames and the Essex marches, where it was destroyed. Claudius
subsequently took the surrender of 11 British tribal chiefs.
Vespasian pushed west into England, and the task of capturing
Caratacus and subduing Wales was handed to the new governor of
Britain, Ostorius Scapula, who began his campaign in 47AD.
Despite the relative ease with which successive invaders have pushed
into Wales, owing to the direction in which rivers flow, with the
exception of the Severn, the Romans found stiff opposition in the
At the time, there were five tribal groupings in Wales, all of them
speaking Brythonic, which would later develop into Welsh. There were
the Ordovices in the north-west, the Demetians in the south-west,
the Silurians in the south-east, the Cornovii in the central
borderlands, and the Deceangli in the north-east.
It was the Deceangli that would meet them first. In a successful
attempt to divide the mountains of Wales from the highlands of
England, the first Roman set foot in Wales after crossing the River
Dee. It did not take the legionnaires long to win the submission of
The following year, they attempted the same in the south, dividing
the Silurians, whom Caratacus had joined with, from tribes in south
western England, by establishing a major fortress in Gloucester. But
it wasn't plain sailing. The South Walians' hit-and-run tactics
caused immense problems for the Romans and led to the defeat of a
legion in 52AD.
It was already all over for Caratacus. In AD50, at a place near the
Severn which historians now believe is the Iron Age fort of British
Camp, at Herefordshire Beacon in the Malvern Hills, he was defeated
handing all of southern Britain to the invaders.
Caratacus fled to the Brigantes in the Pennines. Their queen,
Cartimandua, already had a truce with the Romans and handed him over
in chains (this action would later lead to a revolt against her rule
by her own tribesmen).
Caratacus was sent to Rome, with plans that he would be executed.
However, he was allowed to address the Roman senate. Senators were
so impressed that they pardoned him.
Ostorius died in 52AD, and his successor Aulus Gallus eventually
subdued the Welsh borders. He made no further move into Wales
because, it is thought, the country was not considered to be a prize
worthy of the effort of taking it.
However, that all changed in AD54 when Nero succeeded Claudius. He
appointed Quintus Veranius, a man with experience in subjugating the
warlike hill tribes of Asia Minor. He was dead within a year, but
both he and his successor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus mounted a new
campaign against the Silurians and their Welsh allies, using, it is
claimed, up to 30,000 troops.
Legionnaires infamously destroyed the renowned druidic centre at
Mona on Anglesey. But they were unable to conquer the Silurians
until 76AD, more than 30 years after landing on British soil. This
is partly because the legions were called away to deal with Boudica
and her rebellion.
New governor Sextus Julius Frontinus was credited with the
successful campaign, and it was he who established Isca Silurum
beside the River Usk at Caerleon, near Newport, for Legio II Augusta.
Caerleon was one of three major garrisons, each capable of housing a
legion of 6,000 men. The others were situated at York and Chester.
Outposts included sites at Abergavenny, Usk and Monmouth in
Monmouthshire, Loughor in Glamorgan, and Castle Collen near
It did not take long for the Silurians to get used to Roman rule,
and many of the forts based around South Wales were soon
unnecessary. The Silurians were rewarded with Venta Silurum now
known as Caerwent, a provincial capital close to Caerleon and the
first ever town in Wales.
But the Romans never settled in North Wales. The spirited Ordovices
put up such a fight that, if you visit the Forum in Rome today, the
vast mosaic map of the Roman Empire there does not show what is now
Gwynedd as part of the territories.
Tiring of attacks and the disruption of supplies, the Romans built
Segontium fort in Caernarfon in AD78, and it would remain in use
The Romans also built a tribal capital for the Demetae at Maridunum,
or Carmarthen. In fact, it had more in common with the
fortifications at Segontium than the country villas around Caerwent,
as well as those found at Llantwit Major and Ely, in Cardiff.
Despite over a dozen villas across Wales, there were far more forts
here, at places like Llandovery and Y Gaer, near Brecon. The Romans
also exploited the country's gold reserves such as those at Dolau
Cothi Gold Mine near Pumsaint in Carmarthenshire.
The Romans also had a go at persuading the Welsh to follow their
gods instead of the Celtic deities. But they had much more success
in converting heathens here after Christianity was adopted as the
official religion of the empire in the 4th century.
Rome's grip on Britain began to dissolve as early as 192 when,
following the death of the tyrant Commodus, a civil war ensued.
British governor Clodius Albinus became a front runner for the
purple and his rival Septimius Severus offered to support him if he
helped him deal with a third claimant, Pescennius Niger. However,
once Niger was out of the way, Severus reneged on the deal and won a
battle over Albinus in Gaul in 196, leading to the latter's suicide.
A number of militarily-skilled governors tried and failed to bring
order to the isles, with one, Lucius Alfenus Senecio, reporting in
207 that barbarians were "rebelling, over-running the land, taking
booty and creating destruction".
Severus led an imperial expedition, but his presence ultimately led
to the loss of Scotland. However, his dividing of the rest of the
country into Upper and Lower Britain led to a century of what was
called the Long Peace.
But by 250, the entire empire was being picked apart by barbarian
invasions, rebellions and breakaway countries that Britannia, on the
edge, could not fail to become caught up in.
It was briefly part of the Gallic Empire, and was invaded by Vandals
and Burgundians on the orders of the emperor Probus after half-
Brythonic usurper named Bononus led a rebellion here.
Then a naval commander called Carausius established himself as
emperor in Britain and northern Gaul, and remained in power until he
There was a further imperial mission here in 306, again aimed at the
north. A successful campaign would put Constantine I on the throne
in Rome, but the country faced increasing attacks from the Saxons
and the Irish. It led to the building of large defence walls around
Another usurper, Magnus Maximus, began his revolt in Segontium in
383, and took much of the western empire. But he drew troops away
from Britain, which allowed the Irish to settle in North Wales.
Some 30 years later, and the Britons were fighting by themselves
against the Saxons, as much of the higher levels of government
within the empire had disappeared. Saxons took an invitation from
Brython chieftain Vortigern to help him fight the Picts and Irish as
an excuse to revolt once they arrived, establishing a firm foothold
once and for all. And, while many leaders may have once been loyal
to Roman rule, there were no longer any legions capable of throwing
out the North Germans. It was the beginning of modern Britain.
Ancient Rome - The Rise and Fall of an Empire is on BBC1 tonight at