In Roman times, Britain—or Britannia as it was known by the Romans—was the northernmost province* of the empire. Today, this large island off the coast of northwestern Europe contains the countries of England, Scotland, and Wales.
Roman Invasion and Conquest. Julius Caesar led Roman forces in an invasion of Britain in 55 B.C. and again the next year. Each time, Caesar’s armies faced fierce resistance from local tribes of Celts. The Romans accomplished little by their invasions, and the Celts remained in control of their land. Over the next century, the Celts established strong kingdoms in southern Britain, which discouraged further Roman attempts to invade and conquer.
* province overseas area controlled by Rome
Years of internal conflict eventually weakened the power of the Celtic kingdoms. In A.D. 43, the emperor Claudius launched another campaign against Britain. This time the Romans landed unopposed. Over the next four years, they gained control of much of southern Britain and established Roman settlements, including Londinium (present-day London). The region was organized as an imperial* province of Rome.
* imperial pertaining to an emperor or empire
The Roman conquest of northern Britain continued for many years. During this time, the Romans had to put down several revolts by native peoples, including one led by Queen Boudicca, a tribal ruler. Boudicca’s forces destroyed and burned several Roman settlements before the Romans brought the revolt under control. By A.D. 85, the Roman occupation of Britain extended almost to the border of present-day England and Scotland. Wild, hostile tribes to the north stopped advances beyond this frontier, and their presence threatened the security of Roman settlements in the region. The Romans erected a series of walls to protect the northern frontier from invasion. The first and most important of these was Hadrian’s Wall, built between A.D. 122 and 126. It eventually marked the northernmost border of Roman Britain.
Roman Britain. Like other Roman provinces, Britain was ruled by a provincial governor and organized by local units of self-government known as civitates. The Romans established military camps throughout the island. They also built towns that were enclosed by walls and constructed a network of roads to tie the different parts of Britain closer together.
The towns followed the Roman model in layout and architecture. Many included Roman-style amphitheaters, temples, and baths. The Roman town of Aquae Solis, built on the site of natural hot springs, featured a huge pool and a system of water channels that still exist in the modern-day city of Bath in southern England.
Roman Britain enjoyed a degree of prosperity, and its population may have reached around 2 million. The Romans tapped the province’s mineral wealth and improved its agricultural practices, exporting surpluses to Rome. To govern more efficiently, the Romans divided the province into Upper and Lower Britain. Although Britain became very Roman in character, elements of Celtic culture remained strong, especially among people without education and those living in rural areas.
In the late A.D. 200s, the Saxons, a Germanic tribe of northern Europe, began attacking the coasts of Britain. As these assaults continued, the Romans found it increasingly difficult to defend the province. In the late A.D. 300s and early 400s, political instability in Rome led to a withdrawal of Roman troops from Britain. The weakened Roman position encouraged Saxons and other hostile tribes to increase their attacks. Finally in A.D. 407, Emperor Constantine III pulled the remaining troops out of Britain, effectively ending Roman rule in the region. With no army to defend it, the province quickly fell to Germanic invaders and Roman civilization in Britain collapsed. (See also Migrations, Late Roman; Provinces, Roman; Rome, History of.)