The modern-day British Isles has an ancient history very similar to other European nations on the continent. The prehistoric continents as we are now aware were linked as single land masses during the times of the early homo-sapien communities or more directly the Homo - antecessor as one known group of the more common Homo-Sapiens/Erectus identified as inhabitants in Britain and Europe.
The Ancient Landscape of the British Isles
Also Read: Sparta: The Land of the Warriors (Ancient History, Society and Army)
Oceans and seas covered much of the planet at a much higher or lower level than we currently experience today, depending on locations north or south of the equator on the planet. The basis of the continents and islands common physical definition today are because of changes in oceanic displacements over long periods.
Timelines of Ancient Britain
Britain has a recorded historical series of timelines spanning 1 million years. This period covers geological and early anthropological phenomena established during certain time periods. Britain was inhabited during certain phases of this 1-million-year period, sporadically. An example of this is a high period of about 900,000 years ago, where recorded human existence of the homo antecessor humans existed in Norfolk, England, for example. Fundamentally stone age human existence.
The discovery of footprints and stone tools confirms their existence on the British Isles. These are what we now call the early hunter gatherer humans. Their traces are have been discovered in other parts of Europe. Britain’s only known physical link to any mainland, was an attachment of a single permanent chalk channel from Southeastern England to Northern France. The Weald-Artois Anticline, Weald being the English Norfolk landmark and Artois the French one. A further claim of the existence of another natural sea attachment between Britain and Ireland has been conclusively disproven by Marine Archaeologists in the 20th Century.
The Ice Ages
Glaziers formed and moved in across parts of ancient Britain during a period of between 400,000 - 900,000 years. These glaziers or glaciations as they have been named by geologists, have no connection to a particular geographical starting point on the island. The Direct link with France – Weald-Artois Anticline. The Anglian Glaciation swept away the chalk Weald-Artois Anticline, between Britain and France, which turned Britain into an Island permanently. The other glaciations and Interglaciations, Hoxnian Interglacial and Cromerian stages, came after the Anglian Glaciation stage, being the oldest of all of the stages.
The severe ice ages over time, produced these Glaciations and Inter-Glaciations which are also called ‘stages’. Anglian being the great ancestor of all the stages, has been linked with Glaciation in the Alps Mountains, primarily one can estimate, when it formed 2 million years ago. Glazier formations in many parts of Northern Europe were and still are a common phenomenon, they differ only in terms of age.
The Iberian Link
Britain was inhabited by the same ancient prehistoric inhabitants as those found in Germany, France, and other parts of Eastern and Western Europe. Fossilized remains in Britain, of the early Neanderthals have been unearthed in Kent England and in Wales, dating to some 400,000 years ago. There are two phases of the Neanderthals that inhabited Britain, the early and the classic Neanderthal of 250,000 years ago.
The unsuitable weather patterns on the island from 180,000 to the 60,000th year periods, left Britain uninhabited. The Neanderthals did return around the 60,000-year period but lasted only another 20,000 years before becoming extinct at the 40,000-year period. Other prehistoric peoples inhabited the Island for periods of time but did not leave a lasting mark, as Britain was affected by low temperatures and severe ice ages for thousands of years. The understanding that prehistoric man would not have been direct ancestors or have links to the later Picts or Celtic communities for instance in Britain and elsewhere is distinct.
The early Celtic Picts, and Iberian inhabitants of Britain
Britain’s first community of more modern man were the Iberian nomadic people. The early Iberians of Britain from approximately the 3rd century ADE, can be traced in origin to the Iberian Peninsula of Spain. They were a dark-haired people who existed during the Bronze and Iron age. They are considered a Pre-Indo-European culture as there have been many subgroups of the Iberians identified all over the Middle East and parts of Europe. They were described by the Greek and Roman historians, geographers and philosophers, Herodotus and Strabos. The Romans called the Iberians Hispani.
The Picts were an early ethnic Celtic people in Britain. They were very capable hunter gatherers and enjoyed a strength in their population groups through their strong Chieftains. They were also known for their piracy along the coastline of Roman Britain. A fine line existed though between pirates and the early traders.
The Iberians were weak and susceptible to attacks by the Picts and Celts who used metal tipped spears. Many Iberians were killed by the Celtic Picts during forays into Iberian habitations, so they simply scattered and moved further north in Britain and Scotland. These conflicts destroyed the core of the Iberian people and their leaders, the survivors being absorbed into the Pict clans, even marrying within them.
The Celtic Peoples
It is important for the purposes of this project to note that many cultures found in Ireland, the British mainland, France and central Europe, Magna Germania, and parts of Eastern Europe, were inhabited by the Celtic group of people, as a family of the same culture, the Gallic, Germanic, British (Scotland and Wales) and Irish peoples were all classed as part of the Celtic Nations covering areas of Europe, West to East. The Picts as a Celtic nation lasted until the 10th Century ADE at which time they faded away, especially in what is today, Scotland. With it, leaving very little trace of their existence in the North.
The Roman Empire and the Indigenous British people
Interest in Britain by the Roman Empire occurred with the first invasions of the Island in 55 - 50 BCE. Rome had been trading with Britain very extensively, mostly in metals which were a vital commodity in the Roman economy. Cunobaline (6 – 40 ADE), the ‘King of the Britons’, as he was called, controlled a greater part of Southeastern Britain, a Chieftain of the Celtic Catuvellauni and Trevantes’ peoples who were pre-Roman tribes in Britain.
The Catuvellauni were in what is today, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, and Cambridgeshire. They occupied the modern town of St. Albans (Verlamion as it was named at the time). The Trevantes themselves were a powerful tribe during the pre-Roman times and inhabited Essex, also parts of Hertfordshire and the Thames estuary (part of Essex) near London.
Roman historians, like Dio Cassius make note of Cunobaline during the first Roman incursion of Britain in 43ADE. The Roman Emperor Augustus knew him as a client king. He held great importance amongst the Celtic tribes, coins have been found in recent times with his image, that were minted in tribute to him. Changes came quickly after the death of Cunobaline in 43ADE. The lineage was split between his two sons, which changed the power structure enormously. This change would coincide with the third successful Roman expedition of Britain in the same year.
The Roman Empire was the most powerful in Europe, Julius Caesar as did Caesar Augustus, his nephew, both annexed many territories along the Mediterranean coast and parts of central Europe. The principal of Roman Empirical conquest was based on subservient peoples, and the defeating of their armies and leaders. These kingdoms were lined up and annexed, very simply in that order. Kingdoms had no alliances in their regions, being small and autonomous, they had to meet the Roman Armies alone.
The Ottoman Empire used the same principal of conquest as the Roman Empire had during the height of its power, using large armies capable of conquering and annexing territories in the Mediterranean and parts of Southern Europe. The Romans had realized the importance of Britain through its trading ties with the island, this would in terms of Roman thinking, become the motivation to conquer the island for many reasons, chiefly the interest in controlling the islands natural resources.
Roman Emperors during the time of empire, had always to deal with the Central European Celtic raids into Northern Italy and the greater coastline of Italy, during the 1st to 9th centuries. Rome itself had been sacked by the tribes on two occasions, during the 300 BCE period. The Roman people and its leaders thought very little of the Celts as a people, seeing them as barbaric, violent, and unstructured societies, different to Rome's.
They viewed their existence and lands as an opportunity for expansion of the Empire, fertile ground for farming and the availability of other sources of metal ores for military use and general commerce. They respected the fighting prowess of the Celts during the wars they fought against them, but the general impression in Roman views remained.
The British Isles were treated in the same manner. Subdue a subservient people by destroying their leadership hierarchy and replace with the Roman autocratic structure, cruelly administered with an iron fist. The Celts of Britain, Catuvellauni, Trevantes and the Iceni, amongst several tribal warrior groups, put up stiff resistance against the attacking Roman Legions.
Roman Commanders and Legions respected the fighting spirit of the Celtic tribes, but Roman military incursions persisted, eventually breaking down the will of the indigenous people. The resistance of the Celts to Julius Caesar's two attacking legions in 55 BCE on the Kent coastline prevented Caesar from gaining access to Britain.
The years following 55 – 50 BCE were brief periods of Roman conflict with the Celts in Britain. Julius Caesar was notorious for his ability to regroup and attempt a second campaign, though he was not successful. Roman attempts at conquering Britain became like no other they had experienced. The passages across the sea channel between Gaul and Britain were notoriously difficult for fleets and armies to attack.
The second attempt by Julius Caesar to annex Britain, was made a year later in 54BC. Five legions with 2000 Roman Cavalry attacked, a large-scale battle ensued. Julius Caesar was not able to advance on any objectives quite curiously, but instead accepted a promised Celtic ‘payment of tribute’ to Rome instead. Caesar acquiesced in return and accepted a condition of peace.
The British Celts would meet the Roman Empire on its shores again for another 100 years. In 43 ADE the unpopular Roman Emperor Claudius drew up a fleet and Roman Army to attack Britain. Claudius’s reign in Rome had become troubled. A common practice of roman Emperors, under these circumstances was to draw up a large army and conduct triumphant campaigns of conquest in a new territory, an effort as a last resort to restore confidence amongst the Roman people.
The battle was conducted on Britain’s Southern Eastern coastline using four legions and an equal number of Roman Cavalry, the force was divided into three divisions. The Celts fought bravely for two days on the river Medway but could not prevail and retreated. It took the Roman Armies another 4 years to control all Southern England, making it part of the Roman Empire.
The new Roman province of Britannia was created in what is today Malto and York in the north, Gloucester in the Southwest and Caerwent in modern Wales. Caister-by-Norwich in the east, including London, Norwich, and Chichester on the Southeast and the greater southern British coastline. The first Roman Governor Aulus Plautius, agreed that some friendly Celtic kingdoms in the South, would retain their status, on agreement that they accepted Roman law and paid taxes to the governing Roman authority. Their leaders were referred to by the Romans as ‘client kings’.
The center and base of the new province was Camulodunum, modern day Colchester in Essex. Conflict still reigned, as the Northern region of England and Scotland, not occupied by the Romans, remained untethered from Roman influence. The Celtic communities that were not part of Britannia province, resisted efforts by successive Roman governors, to campaign further North. Their resistance dampened Roman expansionist will, the losses experienced proved unworthy of further effort.
The Romans built key citadels and stone forts for the purpose of keeping legions available and alert against Celtic forages into Britannia. These were a better option and were constructed along the lines of European castles of the Middle Ages, as we know them today, with strong walls, guard towers and anti-siege ditches. Centurions within the Legions created a standard of living in the forts, had money banking facilities, places for eating and praying and relaxation.
The Romans built a number of these forts into a village structure, a Vicus, essentially a fortified town equipped with many siege weapons and Centurions. Remains of some of these forts have been excavated. An archaeological dig is currently being conducted at Vindolanda North Yorkshire. The excavations consist of remains of Roman defensive fortifications and community buildings alike. Leather clothing, footwear and other items of daily Roman life are many of the artifacts that have been found.
The Incursions from Scotland were not met with Roman military campaigns to annex or expand Britannia Province with the North. The Romans found the mountainous conditions and the battle capabilities of the early Scottish Celts in defending them, to be too great to risk to the Roman Legions. To prevent the risk of military defeat and the heavy losses that came with it, it was decided to build a physical barrier with a strong defensive system.
To achieve this, the Roman Governor decided to erect a barrier wall between Britannia and the Northern regions. The Romans built the world-famous Hadrian’s Wall to keep the Celtic Scottish tribes out, which still stands today, although not as complete as it had been. The Wall was named after the sitting Roman Emperor Hadrian. Hadrian’s Wall was built entirely within England and extends from the East and West, of the British Ilse.
Life in Roman Britain
The Romans settled in Britannia in the traditional Roman way. Towns were controlled by the Roman Governor from Camulodunum and the military authority in the Province. Traditional Roman Villas were built for senior Roman figures in the province and have been found in many parts of Southern England.
Large towns were built close to Bath and other places such as Colchester, Wroxeter, Silchester etc. Baths with under floor heating, atrium gardens, theatres, forums, and other Roman facilities were built as part of the status of Roman community life. Mosaic floors and walls in homes became common, excavations constantly include such fittings in located areas today.
The Roman occupation was not a complete one, as many Celtic splinter groups did not accept Roman totalitarian authority. The Iceni Celtics in county Essex for example, resisted in military terms, constantly remaining a thorn in the side of the Romans close to Camulodunum, and were later led by a female warrior, Boudicca, who had lost her husband.
She was a very intelligent woman who very quickly became efficient in leading the Iceni to victory the small garrison at Camulodunum, moving further West towards Wales, and sweeping the Legio IX Hispana aside. Roman defenses under Paullinus, having left London for Wales, set up a strong defense with a fortified bottle neck during the Battle of Watling Street.
Boudicca overextended her capabilities when trying to attack Roman Centurions defending the position. Her attack failed and she and was defeated. Boudicca is believed to have committed suicide after this failure or may have died from an illness later. The Romans were not always humanitarian occupiers and were often guilty of cruelty to the local populace, it was a common Roman practice for controlling conquered peoples.
The local populace already taxed by Rome, and services rendered by the indigenous population to the occupiers, expected by the Roman Governor and the restrictions placed on general population and movement, all of which created resentment and even hatred towards the occupiers.
A Roman Governors tenure in Britain was relatively short in the Empire. Succeeding governors were different in their own way, some, such as the first governor Aulus Plautius were very capable of controlling dissent and dispatching Centurions to quell armed and organized revolts by the Celts. The Celtic leader Caratacus was one of the more formidable leaders of the Britons who stood up to Roman power. He was very capable of bringing large Celtic tribes together and used his Celtic alliances to attack the Roman occupation.
A new Roman Governor, Publius Ostorius Scapula was appointed the new governor after Aulus Plaulius. A very able Roman commander, he attacked Caratacus’s army and forced the Celt into retreat. After fierce fighting, Caratacus moved into the Welsh mountains. Caratacus’s warriors were not well trained and equipped, nevertheless the Celts kept Scapula’s forces from overrunning their lines.
Caratacus’s men defended the heights they occupied above a river, Scapula’s force had to cross the river and scale the heights to reach Caratacus’s positions, where fierce battles ensued, Scapula prevailed, eventually capturing Cratacus’s force, the leader escaped but left his wife and children behind. He was soon captured in 51 ADE and sent to Rome being presented to Emperor Claudius. Surprisingly Claudius having listened to Caratacus’s accounts of equality in battle and his defeat, received an amnesty and pension from him. Caratacus and his family disappeared into obscurity.
The Antonine Wall
A lesser-known stone foundation and turf wall located entirely in Scotland, was built further up from Hadrian’s Wall by the Romans on the narrow Central Scottish land belt between the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Clyde. The Romans named this Valum Antonin, it was built twenty years after Hadrian’s Wall. The wall was constructed at the northern most end of the Roman Empire in Britain and was 39 miles in length. It was meant to supersede Hadrian’s Wall and may well have been intended as a forward defensive position against an invasion.
The Romans would man the physical barriers at Hadrian’s Wall for 300 years of their involvement in Britain. Several inconclusive Scottish incursions occurred at Antonine over time. The Scots did succumb once, but the Romans were not confident in pursuing any campaigns into Scotland.
Roman governors had many roads, bridges, viaducts, and aqueducts built in Britannia, as they had in other territories they annexed. This was a normal modus operandi of the Roman Empire during occupation, much of which is evident today throughout the Mediterranean. The resources and trading from such territories, was a lucrative commercial practice for Rome’s economy. Roman architectural influences remain today as a part of their occupation of mainland Britain.
Agriculture in fertile grounds was one of their activities, but ultimately this was conducted for the benefit of the Roman occupying authority and the economy of the Italian mainland, as was taxing the local population of Britannia. The town of modern-day Bath has original Roman baths that remain from Roman dwellings during occupation, and the world-famous tourist attraction of the forts they left behind at Vindolanda Northumberland (the far Northeast part of Britannia), which is today a UNESCO heritage site.
The conquest had eventual financial repercussions on Rome as it was thought too costly for Rome to remain administering their presence in Britain. Rome’s occupation of Britain lasted for 400 years until the fall of the Roman Empire. The Romans eventually left Britain in the 6th Century ADE, leaving the Britons on their own. Many cities and towns today that have ‘chester’ in their names are all Roman occupation towns.