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The Rise and Fall of Roman Britain: a (very) brief introduction.

Click for a map of the Celtic tribes of Britain

The initial conquest

In 55 BC, Julius Caesar raided south-east England. He was forced back to the Continent by bad weather, but returned in 54 BC and successfully brought much of the island within the Roman sphere of influence. The Roman presence was strengthened after 43 AD, when the Emperor Claudius re-invaded, on the pretext of aiding the king of the Atrebates to regain his throne. Despite British resistance, the Romans took the capital, Camulodunum (Chester), and received the submission of eleven British kings. The commander of the invasion force, Aulus Plautius, was appointed the first Roman governor of Britain. Rebellions and revolts against Roman rule were not uncommon; one of the most notable of these was the revolt of the Iceni, led by Boudicca, in the year 61. However, native aristocrats were encouraged to Romanise, and Gnaeus Julius Agricola, governor from the year 78 onwards, undertook a programme to convince them to adopt the toga, learn Latin, and give financial support to the growing towns of Roman Britain. The late first century saw a rapid expansion in Roman-style buildings and towns, especially in the southern parts of the island. The north proved difficult to subdue, and finally, in the year 122, the Emperor Hadrian ordered the construction of a wall from modern-day Newcastle to Carlisle, effectively marking the northernmost boundary of the Roman Empire.

External threats

From the middle of the third century AD onward, a number of new external threats towards Britain developed. In particular, members of the continental Germanic tribes began to attack the eastern coast. In the year 367, a number of near-simultaneous attacks were launched by Picts from Scotland, Attacotti from the Western Isles, Scots from Ireland and Franks and Saxons from Germany. Within two years, Britain's defences had been restored, but around the Summer of 400 Stilicho, the commander of the western Roman forces, withdrew troops from Britain to defend Italy against the invasion of Alaric the Goth. Britain was left substantially weakened, and by 410 had apparently expelled the Roman administration in favour of native governance. There was persistent military disorder as more and more Roman troops were withdrawn to serve elsewhere in the Empire. Britain appealed to emperor Honorius for help against the constant incursions, but Honorius replied by telling them to 'look to their own defences'. This act is often seen as marking the end of Roman Britain, although Roman institutions and their way of life continued.

The Germanic takeover

Around 449, Angles and Saxons arrived in south east Britain. The traditional date of 449 AD for the arrival of the Germanic invaders of Britain is taken from Bede's Ecclesiastical History. It is almost certainly wrong, and other sources suggest that the arrival of Angles and Saxons was part of a process of conquest and settlement that began earlier, and continued until later. In around 540, the British monk Gildas wrote 'The Ruin of Britain', the only near-contemporary source for the collapse of Roman Britain and the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons. Gildas saw these events as God's punishment for the sins of the Britons.