The Romans in Britain
When Christ was born, about nineteen hundred years ago, the Roman Empire was the greatest government in the world.
Through seven centuries of struggle the Romans had slowly increased their strength. In the early days, when Rome stood alone as a small city on the seven hills by the river Tiber, it had more than once been in danger of destruction, from civil war within or from enemies without. But gradually it extended in power, until all Italy was under Rome's rule. Then Sicily was gained; then Spain, Macedonia, Greece, and many other countries—until Roman governors and Roman armies were found in all the lands bordering on the Mediterranean Sea, and Rome was mistress of the civilized world.
Wherever the Roman power went, peace and good order went also, and for many years the Roman Empire remained a blessing to the world. But Rome was not able to stop her conquests. The barbarians of the north—the Germans and the Gauls—threatened her borders, and she defended herself by sending armies into their countries also.
The commander of one of these armies was Julius Caesar—the greatest of Roman generals and also a great statesman. He was in charge of the war against the Gauls. In three years he conquered their whole country, from the Pyrenees Mountains to the English Channel. In the next seven years he succeeded in bringing Gaul so thoroughly under Roman control, and making the Gallic people so well satisfied with their condition, that his province became in later days one of the most civilized and peaceful parts of the Empire.
During his work in Gaul, Caesar twice led an army into Britain. His object was to show to the Britons the Roman power, and to warn them not to help their kinsmen across the Channel.
Caesar's first visit was in the year 55 before Christ. On this occasion the Britons met the Romans at the shore, and tried to prevent their landing. Here a Roman soldier showed the value of Roman training. While the Romans were hesitating to leap into the sea, a standard bearer, who carried the brazen eagle, cried out:
"Follow me, fellow soldiers, unless you will betray the Roman eagle into the hands of the enemy. For my part, I am resolved to do my duty to Caesar and to the commonwealth."
He then leaped from the ship, and the other soldiers followed. The Britons were driven back, after a fierce conflict.
That year Caesar remained only a short time in Britain. Next summer he came again, remained a little longer, and made the Britons promise to pay tribute. He did not conquer any part of Britain, and the tribute was never paid. But he showed the Britons the power of Rome, and they did not afterward interfere with his work in Gaul. When Caesar wrote a history of his wars, a few years later, he gave the Romans their first real knowledge of Britain. From that time on, they looked upon it as a land worth having.
About a hundred years afterward, the Romans began their first conquest of the island. Large armies were sent over, and the conquest was made, little by little, from the south toward the north and west. In about forty years, all that we now know as England was conquered.
At one time Boadicea, the queen of a tribe in eastern Britain, led the people in a great revolt against the unjust and cruel acts of a Roman governor. For a time the British swept victoriously over the country. They captured and burned the Roman settlement where London now is and killed thousands of the Romans. But the Romans were better organized, and in the end they defeated the queen's army. Boadicea then took poison, and the revolt was over.
Some years later, the Roman governor Agricola came to Britain to finish the conquest. He was a man of energy and courage, and he extended the Roman power from the Humber river northward to the river Clyde. He built a line of forts across the country, to hold back the wild tribes of Picts, in the north. He was a just governor, and his fair treatment caused many of the Britons to like the Roman rule.
Later, the Emperor Hadrian came in person to Britain. While there, he ordered that a continuous earthen wall and ditch should built about eighty miles south of Agricola's forts. These defenses extended right across the island, over hills and valleys, from the river Tyne on the east to the Solway Firth on the west. At the same time, or later, a stone wall was added, which was seventeen feet high, and from six to eight feet thick. A well-paved road ran along the south side, from sea to sea, a distance of seventy-three miles. Seventeen stone forts guarded the wall, with a watch tower every mile. Some parts of the wall and of these forts still remain. For many years, this wall was the northern boundary of the Roman province, and it proved a strong barrier against the warlike Picts.
South of the wall the Romans proceeded, as was their custom, to civilize the country. They gave the Britons peace, but the Roman peace was oppressive. Taxes were very heavy. Roman officers were often greedy and cruel. The common people were reduced almost to slavery. The Britons lost their skill in the use of weapons. What was worse, they lost their spirit of independence.
In Britain, as in other provinces of the Roman Empire, the Romans built well-paved roads, in order that they might march their troops rapidly from place to place. There were four principal roads, reaching out from London to all parts of the country. The one best known is called Watling Street, and ran from Dover to London, and then northwest to Chester. These roads were built on a foundation of broken stone, a foot or more deep, with a pavement of hard blocks of stone, fitted together. Some portions of these roads remained in use for more than a thousand years.
The Romans also introduced better methods of agriculture. They brought in new kinds of trees, such as the chestnut, the walnut, and the elm. They introduced new vegetables, such as the radish and the pea, and new animals, among them the rabbit. All of these are now familiar in English country life.
Some towns sprang up in Britain, during the three and a half centuries that Rome ruled the land; and remains are found of handsome country residences called "villas." In the towns and villas, Latin was the recognized language. But in the country districts, away from the roads, the Britons retained their own language and their own customs.
One thing which the Romans brought to the Britons was the Christian religion. In some unknown way, but probably through the influence of humble soldiers, the Christian religion was introduced into Britain. From there it was carried into the still free and barbarous island of Ireland.
The man who carried Christianity to Ireland was Saint Patrick. While still a young man, in Britain, he was taken captive by a roving band and carried into Ireland. There he was kept, for a number of years, as a slave. He was encouraged to escape to Gaul by a dream, in which a voice said: "Thy ship is ready." Later he returned to Ireland, and preached the Gospel there. For more than thirty years he traveled up and down the island, baptizing converts, and establishing churches and monasteries. The Christian church has continued in Ireland without interruption ever since. Once every year, on Saint Patrick's day, even we Americans are reminded of the unselfish life of Ireland's most famous saint.
Britain remained a part of the Roman Empire until about the year 410 after Christ. In the latter part of this time, the power of Rome was steadily growing weaker. Great pestilences came. The population of Italy increased. The armies were composed of barbarians from outside the Empire. Farmers became "serfs," who were obliged to give part of their produce to some one above them. A few great men were rich, but all the rest were poor. Civil war arose, and the Empire was ready to go to pieces.
Then the German barbarians crossed the Danube and the Rhine rivers, which formed the frontiers of the Empire, and began to roam about at pleasure. They came with their families and their goods, and province after province was overrun by them. Even Italy was not free from attack. Twice during the fifth century Rome itself was captured and given up to fire and pillage.
Britain, meanwhile, passed out of Roman hands. About the time that the first attack was made on Italy (410 A.D.) the Roman troops were withdrawn from Britain for use elsewhere, and the inhabitants were notified that they must protect themselves.
The Britons were in despair. They had almost forgotten how to fight, and they were unwilling to unite under one leader. Their old enemies, the Picts and Scots (wild tribes from Scotland and Ireland), began to attack them. The Britons resisted, but at first with little spirit. A last despairing letter, called "The Groans of the Britons," was sent to the chief general of Rome, in which they said:
"The barbarians drive us to the sea; the sea throws us back on the barbarians. Thus two modes of death await us: we are either slain or drowned."
Britain lay as a rich prize, ready to be taken by the strongest. And soon there came, from over the eastern sea, conquering bands of wandering Germans who settled in Britain and made it their own.