The Legacy of Rome in Britain

by frankbeswick

The Romans stayed in Britain from 43 AD to 407, but the impact of their presence is still with us.

The Romans occupied parts of Britain, some parts for three hundred years, others for less, others not at all. It was a political and military conquest which has left its traces in the physical landscape, which still possesses remnants of military installations, but also it has left its trace in places across England mainly. But the physical traces are only part of the story, for the political structure of the British Isles still is influenced by the presence or absence of Rome.

Photo of Hadrian's Wall, courtesy of Markusspiske, of Pixabay

What's In a Name

I can think of no better place to start than my own name. Beswick is Anglo-Saxon, but -wick is a loan word from Latin, very common in England.  Roman forts often had a vicus [pronounced wicus] near them. This was an economic area. When the Romans left the word wicus remained and came to denote an area used for economic purposes, often for sheep or dairy. That wick is a very common place name ending is a sign of the impact of the Roman presence. However,  people with wick  in their surname are not more likely to be of Roman descent than anyone else in the population.  

Furthermore, I live in the district of Stretford, in Greater Manchester, near to Chester Road, and there is Roman influence in these place names.  Roman roads were sometimes known as streets. Stretford means Street Ford, where a street, in Latin strada, fords the river Mersey. The street in question is the old Roman road, which runs underneath the long, straight road to Chester. Watling Street is the name of  long Roman road which extended  from Dover for 276 miles to Wroxeter in the West Midlands

Chester is an English place name ending derived from the Latin castra, military camp. It always denotes a site once occupied by a Roman military unit. Chester, thirty miles from where I live was known as the city of the legions, as it was a legionary base for several hundred years,    home of the twentieth legion. Manchester was a mere fort, but its remains have been excavated and can be visited. Variants of the word chester are cester or caster. Examples are Cirencester in Sussex and Lancaster in Lancashire. Furthermore, in South Wales we have the city of Caerleon [ pronounced Carleon. ] This name is composed of the Welsh caer, meaning castle and leon, a word that is a shortened form of legion. City of the Legion, it was the base of the Second Legion. There are Roman remains there, as you will  see  in the next section. Eboracum is York, home of the sixth legion, and the city is rich in Roman archaeology.

Other place names signify Roman influence. London is a Celtic word, but the Roman name Londinium survived the departure of the Romans, and this is indicative of cultural and ethnic continuity between the Roman period and the subsequent Saxon age. Faversham, in Kent, has a  name that includes the Saxon ham [home] with the Latin faber, meaning maker, and is indicative of the survival of a group of smiths from the Roman period into the Saxon age. Nearby, the town of Dover has a name little changed from the Latin Dubris [v and b  are phonetically closely related.]

 

Archaeology

Roman remains are found in Britain. Two cities still have walls around their historic centres, these being Chester and York. The walls have been repaired over many centuries and while York walls have hardly any of the Roman wall left, Chester still retains a noticeable element of the Roman walls along with its mediaeval elements.

Hadrian's Wall spans the narrow seventy mile border between the Roman province of Britain and the unconquered land of Caledonia, and while modern England extends beyond the wall in the North East, the border between England and Scotland still follows its path for part of its distance. The wall has lost some of its height as stones have fallen off at places, but to compensate archaeologists have uncovered the remains of Roman forts along much of its length.  But not many people know that there was a wall further north running across the narrow line between southern and highland Scotland, this was a turf wall known as the Antonine Wall, but very little of this remains.  it dates from a short-lived Roman presence in Southern Scotland.

A series of ruined forts runs along the South East coast of Britain from the coast of East Anglia down to Kent. This was known as the Saxon Shore and it was governed by an official known  as the Count of the Saxon Shore, [Comites Litoris Saxonorum] whose job was to defend Roman Britain  from Saxon and Frankish raiders. Inland security during this period in the third and fourth centuries was the responsibility of the Dux Britanniae [Duke of Britain.] Dux means leader Some of these forts still have substantial stretches of masonry still standing.

Caerleon in South Wales still has large stretches of Roman remains, including the remnants of an amphitheatre and the foundations of a Roman legionary barracks.  There is also the excavated remains of a Roman bath house used by the Roman legionaries. it was capable of holding 80, 000 gallons of water. 

There are plenty of smaller Roman forts and stretches of Roman road in Britain, along with the excavated remains of Roman villas, inhabited by Romans or powerful Britons. These are mainly in the south and east, for North West England north of Chester was never a zone where Romans settled comfortably. It was always a military occupation. Sometimes the villas reveal mosaic floors, like the magnificent mosaic  floor of Fishbourne, home to probably a client king friendly with Rome. it is now the centrepiece of a Roman museum on the site. Also still in use are the waters of the hot spring at Bath, but the building is much later and the site  was used by the Britons long before Rome arrived.

A short stretch of Roman road is still used as a footpath in the hills of North Wales leading from the Conwy Valley to Aber. Walking the road was a thought-provoking experience, as it made me conscious of my place in the relentless flow of time. Don't, however, be fooled by the "Roman Steps" at Bala in North Wales, for they are a mediaeval pack horse trail.

A Broad View

The  history of the British Isles is a tale of conflict between the four constituent nations and also within them, as kings and nobles strove for dominance. But one fault line that runs throughout the story is the tension between Saxon and "Celt." I say Celt  advisedly, as the native Britons never called themselves Celts, the word was first applied to them in the nineteenth century. But it referred to a real division between Britons and Germanic and South Scandinavian incomers. The incoming Angles, Saxons and Jutes were not a replacement of Rome, as the Romans had been using German troops for two hundred years or more, and after Rome left the native kings of the newly independent British kingdoms continued to import Germans to support them in their fights with the marauding Picts from Highland Scotland and also with each other. The Anglo-Saxons originally settled in the south  and east of the country, but spread north and west to form the political entity that became England. They were aided in this by the strife among northern Welsh kingdoms which culminated at the fratricidal battle of Arderydd, pronounced arderith, and by the military   superiority of the English. But it remains to be  said that the presence of Saxons in the British Isles is part of the legacy of Rome.

Without the Roman importation of Saxons to Britain the English language as we know it would not exist. The language that would have been spoken in England cannot be known, but it would probably have been closer to modern Welsh, which is a Celtic tongue with a significant inclusion of vocabulary derived from Latin. There have been many influences on English over the course of its history,  but its existence owes something to Rome.

 The political structure of Britain owes much to the situation that existed when the Romans departed. When Rome left the old Roman province of Britain covered all of modern England and Wales. The legions had been withdrawn for some time, leaving garrisons of foederrati [non-legionary troops from allied peoples] to guard the province. A large group of Angles from North Germany were present in Yorkshire, along with other German troops. Other garrisons manned the forts on Hadrian's wall, forming a barrier between the areas which came to be known as England and Scotland, which each developed their own distinct, though interlocking histories. Interestingly, England and Wales did not retain a politically significant clan structure [ though there were some English clans on the Scottish borders, known as the Highlanders]  

England was the area of  Anglo-Saxon political dominance; Wales was the area of the Roman province in which there was insignificant Saxon presence; Scotland was the area in which Roman power never got a long term foothold. The Romans never conquered any of Ireland. Rome left over sixteen hundred years ago, but its footprint remains.

 

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Updated: 11/20/2021, frankbeswick
 
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Veronica 2 days ago

YES..... no charge there in North west England !

frankbeswick 2 days ago

Yes indeed. However, you and I live in an area where there were very few villas. Villas are found in areas where there were peaceful conditions suitable for investing in expensive projects, but our area was almost certainly tribal territories held down by a military presence.

Veronica 2 days ago

Frank,
I was so thrilled to see that this week. The farmer and his family uncovered possibly the best Roman mosaics in Britain. They have been covered over again for protection but it makes me wonder what is beneath our feet as we walk around.

frankbeswick 2 days ago

A landowner in Rutland, England's smallest county, has just discovered a marvellous mosaic of scenes from the Illiad. It is a Roman villa's floor.

frankbeswick 7 days ago

True,but the old road was incorporated into the foundation's of the modern road constructed in the late eighteenth century.

blackspanielgallery 7 days ago

I believe old roads were of stones, not concrete nor asphalt, and designed for feet, people and animals, not tires, which would have provided a bumpy ride.

frankbeswick 7 days ago

Henry, artefacts in the vicinity of forts have almost all been discovered, but in Britain the occasional trove of deliberately concealed coin is found. This is coin whose owners never returned to collect it after a time of stress.

frankbeswick 7 days ago

Derdriu, the condition of the old Roman road before it was covered over is not recorded, but as the modern road is much wider than any Roman road was I suspect that it was too narrow for the volume of traffic using it.

I suppose that the Romans took water from the river.

blackspanielgallery 8 days ago

I would think the old forts if allowed and alongside the ancient roads are good places for artifact hunting. Small things like coins tend to fall and become buried, but a metal detector can uncover them. I am aware of the British Treasure Law and how finds have to be reported if they meet certain requirements.

Veronica 8 days ago

Derdriu
It's the way of things here in England. Several Roman roads have been built on because they were so straight, leading to a town and well laid. It made sense at the time to build on top of them.


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