History of England

Lecture: Roman and Anglo-Saxon Britain

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Lecture Outline

The Rise of Rome

So what about these Romans who invaded in 55 BC and changed British history? They were the product of a long story of Roman rise and domination of the Mediterranean and Europe. In their first expansion, the city of Rome took over the Italian peninsula, absorbing aspects of the Etruscan culture to the north (engineering and mythology) and the Greek city-states of the south (literacy and science). Expansion beyond Italy was the result of contact with Celtic people. The Gauls sacked Rome in 390 BC and left, causing the Romans to respond with a desire to conquer Gaul and a need to spruce up their military. The latter response resulted in a change from the phalanx formation to the Roman legion. The phalanx, probably a Greek idea, consisted of the entire army being massed as a group, with shields to the outside and spears for offense (it was also called "the turtle"). The legion was much more maneuverable, consisting of units of 120 soldiers, each with an independent commander. This change made possible the victories over Mediterranean arch-rival Carthage in the Punic Wars of the 3rd century BC. Roman legion facing Hannibal's elephants

As the Romans created their empire, a pattern became evident which was later to extend to Britain. The Romans tended to expand into areas of economic worth, such as Sicily, where grain was cheap. They provided an opportunity for local rulers to become part of the Roman infrastructure, respecting local traditions and not requiring tribute if the population became Roman citizens. These citizens and the city of Rome benefitted from a guaranteed free trade relationship. The empire was controlled by the Senate, which was made up of the major landholding patricians of Rome. Over the years, the Senators succumbed to bribes from commercial interests, particularly in the area of army procurement. As the Senate lost control of the army, it began losing battles on the frontiers of the Empire. Control of army contigents became personal; instead of the Senate determining deployment and strategy, private commanders (often with private armies) became the order of the day around the 2nd century BC. These private armies gave their loyalty to their commander, who paid them in conquered land, rather than to Rome. Julius Caesar: head of the Roman world

Julius Caesar was one of these commanders. He held high office, then left to conquer Gaul, his popularity increasing as reports of his military successes came back to Rome. Eventually he took over Rome itself, becoming a dictator (which was legal under the republican constitution). He enlarged the Roman concept of empire, and established Roman colonies to ease overpopulation, allowing many more "foreigners" to become citizens. But what's important to our story is that he invaded Britain in 55 BC, establishing a beachhead but withdrawing upon meeting resistance. He came again in 54 BC with a greater force, but when Gaul rebelled he had to return to the continent. Caesar's motives for invading Britain were three: punishment for Britons who had given refuge to retreating Gauls in previous campaigns, the wealth of Britain (primarily in gold, silver, lead, tin, and grain), and his own ego and desire for prestige. Queen BoudiccaSee the Athena Review for more on Caesar's landings in Britain.

The next attempt was made in AD 43, an invasion ordered by emperor Claudius. The reason was to go after the Druids, who seemed to be providing leadership for rebellious Druids and Celts in Gaul. By 47, the Romans had conquered the lowlands and built a road. But they faced two centers of resistance. The first was the Island of Anglesey (north Wales), a center of Druid culture; the Romans massacred the Druids there in 61, ending resistance. The second was Iceni (East Anglia), where Queen Boudicca rebelled after she had been flogged by the Romans, who had also raped her daughters. She led her tribe and others, killing thousands of Roman soldiers. Ultimately, Boudicca's rebellion was put down by 10,000 legionnaires, and Roman rule was established. The battle was a good example of how the Roman legion was superior to other methods of war. The Celts used chariots and frontal assault, "fury and speed" it's been called; they were loud and terrifying.

In Search of History: The Celts

Watch another brief clip from "In Search of History: The Celts". Here historians discuss the Roman perception of the Celts.


Despite this, the Romans held formation, protected by shields and flexible armor, moving in a wedge and throwing 7-foot javelins while heavy cavalry surrounded the enemy.

Roman Rule of Britain

The Roman "rule" of Britain was basically a military occupation. There was no mainstream migration of Romans, only 60,000 soldiers and officials. After AD 100 the Romans ruled from three garrisons: Caerleon in South Wales, Chester (where wall reconstruction is underway) in the northwest, and York in the North. These garrisons were connected to Londinium (London) with 7000 miles of roads. The Romans were unable to conquer Scotland, which would have required another legion and another garrison. Since by the 2nd century it was apparent that Rome was in trouble and could not afford such an expenditure, two walls were built to keep out the Scots: Hadrian's Wall (built 122-128) and the Antonine Wall (built 143), which was abandoned after 20 years.

The Romans were an urban people, and the towns they built in Britain were a tool for rule, civilization, and the tempting of Celtic chieftains into Roman cooperation. The first four towns were Colchester, Gloucester ("cester" is from the Latin "castra", meaning camp or fortified town), Lincoln, and York. These towns introduced Britain to the idea of a grid layout, the concept that towns ruled over the countryside, public baths, forums and shops, magistrates to enforce the law, Latin literacy, and Roman masonry (including tiled roofs and mosaics). The last great town was Londinium itself, built not as a military outpost but as an economic entity. The name "London" is Celtic, and the city was sited where the River Thames was easiest to bridge, providing an inland port where the river was still wide enough for ocean-going ships. Roman villa: this is the life

The countryside of Britain changed little during the Roman period, except for the great villas build by the wealthy landholders. These landholders included both superior Roman officials, and Briton chieftains. About 620 of these "Romanized" villas were build, some with 30-40 rooms, a courtyard, warm-water heating, glazed windows, and bathrooms. Such a standard of domestic life was not achieved again until the 18th century! The estates were worked by tenants and slaves. But outside these enclaves, the Celtic farm survived. The Romans added little to agricultural techniques but many crops: grapes, cherries, peas, parsnips and turnips. The towns did provide a better market for agricultural goods, but the government took about half the grain crop as taxes. Because of this, some landholders turned to raising wool instead. Most of the villas were located in the Cotswolds, the prime area for raising sheep. The rest of Britain's history will, in many ways, be determined from this point on by wool.

Fall of Rome and Legacy

Reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire are hotly debated among historians. So many theories have been promoted that I once took a final examination for a Western Civ class that had one question on it: "Why did Rome fall?". The basic causes are simple. First, Rome overexpanded. When the empire reached its limit, the flow of tribute into Rome and the supply of slaves also ended. The army was spread too thin, and since recruits were drafted from small landholders, agricutural productivity declined. Second, the tax distribution was unfair, since patricians were exempt, putting the burden on the middle class in the towns and the tenant farmers. Third, the government was corrupt, with the army increasingly involved in politics. Emperors-to-be pulled troops from the frontier to help them gain the throne, then the same troops would kill the emperor and put in someone they liked better. In Britain, troops were pulled to the continent for every Gallic rebellion. Last, the frontiers of the empire were continually threatenedd by the mass migrations of people from the east, who the Romans called "barbarians". Beginning in China, and probably the result of a global climate change, groups were migrating from east to west along the Eurasian continent, each group pushing the next westward. The result in Britain was a migration of Picts and Scots from the north, and Saxons from the east. During these migrations, the wealthy Britons took advantage of the absence of Roman legions to push out the remains of the Roman army. They organized their own defense, wanting to be rid of the burdensome taxes of Rome, and kicked the Romans out. Celtic Cross showing Viking influence

In Britain, then, the legacy of the Romans was minimal. They only really impacted the Romanized elite in the towns and villas, where the rich wore Roman clothes, spoke Latin, took baths, and worshipped Roman gods. But unless their markets were significant, the Roman towns didn't last, and over two-thirds of the population still lived in a Celtic world, where the word "Rome" meant only "taxation". The only lasting legacy was Christianity. The Romans had persecuted Christianity until the 4th century, when emperor Constantine converted on his deathbed after developing a new capital far to the east. Both Celts and Romans in Britain converted due to the efforts of numerous missionaries from the Roman Church, and Christianity became engrained in British culture. When the Anglo-Saxons invaded in the 5th century, they met a Christian Celtic Britain.

Anglo-Saxon Britain

The information I'm about to relay derives from The Story of English by Robert McCrum, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil (New York: Viking Penguin, 1986). This is because one of the most important contribution the Germanic peoples made to Britain was in the area of language. After the Romans left, branches of the Germanic people whose migration had led to the fall of Rome's empire began to invade England. You have already read about Germanic people in the first document I assigned, small bookThe Germania by Tacitus, a Roman writer. (I will be highlighting your documents within the lecture, so you can refer to them as you read.) So we can now tie together the impression of the Germans left us by Tacitus with the flow of British history.

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Before we proceed, however, I'd like to side-track into Arthurian legend. King Arthur was a medieval hero whose history is supposed to derive from this period, after the Romans had left and as the Germanic peoples were invading. Arthur, if he existed, would have lived between 450 and 650. He may have fought at the seige of Badon, where the Germanic tribes (Angles, Saxons and Jutes) were held back by defending Britons. Arthur is a Celtic hero fighting against the invaders, although he may also have been a remaining Roman, since the name Arthur is not Celtic.

The Germanic invaders later called Anglo-Saxons had the Germanic love of freedom, and other virtues (such as chaste women and military prowess) that Tacitus emphasized because he felt Rome was failing in these areas. Tacitus mentioned that the Germans worshipped Mother Earth, so this was a pagan invasion against a partly Christianized country (a situation which can make Arthur a Christian Celtic hero and thus acceptable to the later Church for use as a chivalric symbol of Christianity -- but I digress). The Anglo-Saxon language became the root for English, and even today English has strong similarities to the German, Dutch and Danish which evolved in the other regions occupied by the Germanic tribes. The Anglo-Saxons defeated the Britons in the area now called, because of them, England. The Celtic Britons they called wealas, or foreigners, the foundation for the word Welsh. These people and their language remained in Wales, Ireland, and Scotland.

Despite the fact that these Celts lived next to the English (derived from Anglii for one of the Germanic tribes), the evolution of the English language was not much affected by Celtic tongues. Old English contains only a few Celtic words, mostly to refer to geographic features (like combe for deep valley, as in High Wycombe) with which the invaders were unfamiliar. The Story of English discusses place names to show the regions of various cultural influence. Avon (river) is Celtic, London comes from the Old Irish lond for wild and the Roman Londinium. The town of Cheetwood in Lancashire is particularly telling, since cheet already means wood in Celtic. "It is as though the English could not be bothered to learn the language of the island they had conquered." Chronology: 410 Romans depart, 449 Angles, Saxons, Jutes arrive, 597 Roman Church missions, 664 Synod of Whitby, 735 St Boniface dies, 793 Viking Norse arrive, 880 Alfred the Great, 1066 Norman Conquest

Anglo-Saxon words remain at the core of our vocabulary. Almost all agricultural words (sheep, shepherd, ox, earth, plough, swine, field, work) and fun words (glee, laughter, mirth, merry) are Anglo-Saxon. Recall that this was an oral language at first; the Germanic people's inability to write was one of the things the Romans deplored. But the lack of writing can be an advantage, and it was here. For one thing, preliterate peoples have far better memories than literate people. Because nothing is written, memory is trained to a level that is no longer seen today. Germanic tribal people could remember, word for word, a ten-hour poem (such as Beowulf) that they had only heard once. They could remember their own history and pass it down. They could also have more fun with words, since definitions could be fluid and meanings could be freely adapted. Even today the English are famous for their word-play, and verbal humour.

Reworking Christianity and Designing English

Since the Anglo-Saxons arrived as pagans, the conversion of England to Christianity had to take place a second time. Their pagan gods appear in four of our day names (Tiw in Tuesday, Woden in Wednesday, Thor in Thursday, and Frig in Friday). Beginning in the 7th century, the Roman Church began missionary expeditions to England in the south, while at the same time the Celtic Christians in the north began conversions there. This era is documented in small bookBede and in small bookSt Boniface's Martyrdom, documents assigned in your reading. The two Christian traditions ultimately came into conflict. Celtic Christianity was loose and individual; Roman Christianity strict and dogmatic. Roman Christianity won out at the Synod of Whitby in 664, and England became "orthodox". Roman Christianity also brought the Latin language, which added new words to the English vocabulary: disciple, shrine, monk (all original Latin); camel, orange, phoenix (from Asia, but used in the Bible in Latin).

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 Click here to open document in new window

Alfred, the only English king great enough to be called The GreatAlso assigned in your documents is small bookAlfred the Great, whose greatness is an aspect of the next era of invasions, those of the "Vikings" or Norsemen. The Vikings were the people of Scandinavia, raiding and migrating in the 9th and 10th centuries. More pagans! You can see a battle described in the small bookSong of Maldon. The English now had to face the same kind of attack that they had brought onto the Celts. Alfred not only saved England from the Danes (a generic term for Vikings or Norsemen, guys from the North Countries), and established law and order in Wessex, he also saved the English language. His Saxon English-speaking fortification at Wessex had support from leaders throughout England, even despite the Danelaw. Alfred used the English language to keep this coalition together, and encouraged it to be written and spread.

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 Click here to open document in new window

However, unlike the Celtic-English language division, the English-Norse contact led to changes in the language. The English traded with the "Danes", and in the interest of communicating clearly the complexity of Anglo-Saxon was simplified, for example by putting an "s" on the ends of words to signify plural. Norse language also appears in place names. Here's how you can tell something about the origin of towns by place name:

  word ending meaning example
Saxon -ham "settlement" Clapham
  -ing   Worthing
  -stowe   Hawkstowe
  -ton   Brighton
Viking -by "farm or village" Thorseby
  -wick   Keswick
  -thorpe   Grainthorpe
  -brooke   Skidbrooke
Also, compare some synonyms that we still use in English and Norse:
Norse English
raise (as in a child) rear
want wish
skill craft
skin hide

Isn't it strange that most Americans prefer the Norse version to Anglo-Saxon? Why might this be the case? But in the next lecture, I'll confuse it even more by adding those French Norman words. . . .

Check your Knowledge

Choose the best answer, then Submit.
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You can take the assessment as many times as you wish, but you need to reclick ALL your answers, even the ones you got right!

1. The most long-standing contribution of the Romans to England was:
a) baths.
b) roads.
c) Christianity.
d) the great villas.

2. Boudicca was:
a) an ineffective leader.
b) abandoned by her tribe because she was female.
c) successful against the Romans until they finally put down her rebellion.
d) Roman.

3. New words related to farming and recreation came with:
a) the Anglo-Saxons.
b) the Romans.
c) Afred the Great.
d) the Latin Church.

4. The Celtic tribes, the Romans, and the Anglo-Saxons:
a) had in common traditions of hospitality and greatness in war.
b) all allowed women substantial freedom.
c) were all conquered by the Iceni.
d) all emphasized farming and artistic achievement.

5. Which of the following was NOT a Roman town?
a) Londinium.
b) York.
c) Cardiff.
d) Gloucester.

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All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.