This is the winning essay in the under 18 category of the Harry Gration History Prize, 2022-3, by Jamie White (14).
The Romans first took control of Yorkshire at around A.D. 70 and didn’t leave until the early fifth century, what exactly did they do during this long, sometimes forgotten, period of over three centuries? How did the quality of life change? How did infrastructure improve? What was left behind? What have the Romans ever done for Yorkshire? These are all questions which are all going to be answered in this essay.
It is important to understand how the natives of Britain lived before the Roman conquest so we can see how life changed for these people. The Celts at this time were “divided into warring factions of rival chiefs” (1), in Yorkshire this was no different, there were two main Celtic tribes; the Briganti who occupied most of modern Yorkshire and the Parisi who occupied East Yorkshire.
The people of Britain in this time were Celtic, the word originating from a 16th century borrowing of the French word Celte, which is from the Latin Celta, which is what these people were called by the Romans. Alternatively, it could come from the Greek word ‘Keltoi’ meaning barbarian. This culture was not at all unique to Britain, it probably originated in central Europe as early as 1200 BC. At the peak of Celtic culture in roughly 300 BC, Celts were present to the west in Ireland and in the east as far as Asia Minor. It is though that the Celts came to Britain around 1,000 BC. These Celtic people shared a mostly similar language, religion and way of life but there was no centralised state or empire. Most British Celts were farmers who grew their own food, foraged for nuts and berries and raised livestock. They lived in round houses with thatched roofs in usually small villages but communities of over 150 round houses have been uncovered such as in East Dorset at Duropolis. Often houses in the north were made of large stones held together with clay. While this lifestyle would not see many leave their local communities, it is important not to assume these Celts lived in complete isolation and ignorance. Trade with Celtic Europe and (after contact) the Romans was common, copper, tin, iron, lead, wool, cloth, skins and grain were exported from Britain. Luxury goods such as precious metals and pottery were imported from Europe. By 50 BC Celts were using gold coins as a form of currency. Celtic societies highly valued craftsmen and there were many blacksmiths, leather workers and carpenters in Celtic communities. Of these craftsmen, blacksmiths who made swords and spears were respected the most showing the importance of war in Celtic culture.
Iron swords were first used in Britain around 650 BC and they were put to good use by frequent raids which offered individuals the chance to improve their social standing and acquire wealth (whether it be treasure or cattle, which were equally important in Celtic culture). Some raids occurred with the aim of conquering other peoples to increase prestige and gain access to slaves. Falling in battle was seen as the most honourable way to die in Celtic culture. A good reflection of the importance of war and raiding is the many burial sites of Celtic people. Weapons, armour and even larger objects like chariots have been found throughout Europe in Celtic tombs. Tacitus wrote “Their strength is in infantry; certain tribes also fight battles in the chariot. The more noble person drives the chariot and his dependant fights for him.” (2)
Not much is known about Celtic religion since Celtic writing was incredibly rare, much of what we know is either based off Roman observations who were looking for parallels to their own pantheon or from archaeology. However, it is thought that they believed in many gods and goddesses, the names of over 200 Celtic deities have survived. These gods weren’t like Greek or Roman gods, they did not serve clear roles, in fact their roles seem to differ in different stories and sources. These Gods were worshipped through sacrifice of valuable materials and animals and perhaps – on a small scale – humans. Nature was an important part of Celtic religion too, with worship taking place in natural places Celts considered sacred, they believed that there were supernatural forces within everything around them. Celts would throw weapons into bodies of water they viewed as special as a form of sacrifice. There is evidence that the Celtic Gauls (the branch of Celts that inhabited modern day France) believed in life after death, “The Pythagorean doctrine prevails among them [Gauls], teaching that the souls of men are immortal and live again for a fixed number of years inhabited in another body”. (3) It is not unreasonable to imagine that similar ideas prevailed among Britons too.
An important part of Celtic religion and society is the role of Druids, the word Druid is popularly believed to originate from the old Irish-Gaelic word “doire” meaning oak tree (a symbol of knowledge). Druids were, in a way, the Celts’ equivalent to priests, they performed a variety of different religious ceremonies, but the role was varied, and Druids acted as teachers, scientists, judges and philosophers on top of their religious duties. They were very highly respected within Celtic society and held a lot of power, they could banish people from society for breaking laws (usually linked to kinship) and didn’t have to pay taxes or serve in battle. There were also female druids who were considered equal to men and even held the power to divorce their husbands. Julius Caesar wrote about Druids in 54 BC while serving as governor of the Roman province of Gaul “The Druids are in charge of all religious matters, superintending public and private sacrifices, and explaining superstitions. A large crowd of young men, who flock to them for schooling, hold the Druids in great respect. For they have opinions to give on almost all disputes involving tribes or individuals, and if any crime is committed, any murder done, or if there is contention about a will or the boundaries of some property, they are the people who investigate the matter and establish rewards and punishments. Any individual or community that refuses to abide by their decision is excluded from the sacrifices, which is held to be the most serious punishment possible. Those thus excommunicated are viewed as impious criminals, they are deserted by their friends and no one will visit them or talk to them to avoid the risk of contagion from them. They are deprived of all rights in court, and they forfeit all claim to honours.” Druids were very important and influential figures in Celtic societies and were a threat to future Roman rule.
Now we have gained an insight into the life of Britons before the Romans, we should move onto the focus of this essay, how the Romans developed Yorkshire which for much of history was, on the whole, a rural backwater. However, we must briefly leave the rolling hills of the dales with its small communities of burly Celtic people to wander through the labyrinth of ornate marble columns that was Rome in AD 41. The Roman Empire, a vast dominion stretching between Iberia and the Levant, was just emerging from a period of chaos after emperor Caligula was assassinated in a conspiracy involving several senators. Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, grandson of Augustus’ sister Octavia, ascended to the imperial throne with the support of the praetorian guard (personal bodyguard and intelligence agents to the emperor). Emerging from the instability of Caligula’s bloody and tyrannical rule of Rome, Claudius had to consolidate his power lest usurpers rise using Claudius’ limp and drool to question his legitimacy. The Romans had attempted several invasions of Britain before 41 AD, all had failed to establish a strong Roman presence in Britain. In fact, Suetonius (a Roman historian) claims that during Caligula’s invasion (40 AD) “Caligula ordered them [soldiers] to collect seashells and to fill their helmets and laps of their tunics”, (4)a successful invasion would prove Claudius to be much more worthy than his predecessor. In Britain, a pro-Roman puppet king in Britain had just been deposed and anti-Roman sentiment was growing in Southern Britain. This was a prime opportunity for Claudius to gain popularity, prestige, wealth and grant satisfaction to the army. Roman influence over the past century since Caesar’s initial conquest meant “The Britons themselves actively submit to the levy, tributes, and the other obligations of government” (5) but the Romans believed the gods had given to them the right to rule all the world and therefore the right to conquer non-Roman people. Seizing this opportunity, Claudius gathered an army of four Roman legions numbering 20,000 soldiers and a similar number of multipurpose auxiliary troops including cavalry. Approximately 1,000 transport ships were needed to move this large force of troops. The disorganised, divided and ill-equipped Celtic army proved no match for the war machine of Rome. Tacitus (a historian) wrote “in fact nothing has been more useful for us against the most powerful tribes than the fact that they cannot agree!” (6). By 47 AD Roman control stretched across the south of England (excluding Cornwall) and up the east coast to the Humber mouth.
It wasn’t for another 20 years that the Romans began to invade deep into Yorkshire, the initial invasion force stopped at the river Don near today’s Rotherham, this was around the southern boundary of the Briganti people we mentioned earlier. In 55 AD the Romans built an initially wooden fort in this area which is where the Templeborough area of Rotherham takes its name from.
Around 51 AD, a dispute arose between the pro-Roman queen of the Brigantes- Queen Cartimandua- and her husband Ventius. “Britons plucked up courage under the leadership of Venutius who, in addition to his feisty spirit and hatred of the mention of “Roman”, was fired by his personal resentment toward Queen Cartimandua” (7). Cartimandua, perhaps wishing to remain loyal to Rome and planted firmly on her throne, discarded her husband and elevated his armour bearer to kingship. Venutius then sought to overthrow his wife and later turned his eyes to her Roman puppet master. Venutius’ revolt was quelled and Cartimandua firmly held power. In 69 AD, capitalising on the chaos of the year of four emperors, Venutius revolted once again this time more successfully as the Romans could not offer as much support to Cartimandua. Cartimandua was evacuated and Venutius took her place of ruler of the Brigantes. Not long after this, Vespasian – an accomplished general – stabilised the empire and established himself as emperor. Seeing it an embarrassment to lose control over Britain so soon after its conquest, he finally pushed into Yorkshire ending Brittonic rule in England. The reason the Romans invaded Yorkshire was less to exploit its natural resources and more to provide a buffer zone to protect the more established civil settlements in the lowlands of the south from the marauding tribes of the North.
Briganti groups would continue to exist in defiance to Roman rule on hillforts across the rugged landscape such as at Ingleborough hillfort at the top of Ingleborough mountain. The Romans would struggle to subjugate these groups and it is thought that pitched battles such as the Battle of Stanwick (c.AD 71) occurred with Roman victories.
The Romans left Yorkshire in the early 5th century due to turmoil within the empire, my intention now is to look at the extent at which life, the landscape and ideas changed in this time. We understand that the Celts lived lives of farming, warfare and craftsmanship. Using archaeological and written sources, we are going to see how that changed starting with infrastructure.
Roman roads are an enduring symbol of the developing ability of the Romans, motorways all across the country still follow the same routes such as the A1 in North Yorkshire. A great web of these roads once spread through Yorkshire, parts of it can still be seen today. Many of these roads were built on the highlands of the Chalk Wolds, the North York Moors and the Pennines because there was no need to drain marshes, cut down forests or displace as many people as in the valleys and plains. The open hills gave armies plenty of warning of incoming enemies and the hills were easier to defend. There have even been roads found stretching between Ingleton and forts nearby today’s Darlington solely travelling through steep and challenging terrain. Roman roads were very durable and long lasting but also relatively cost-efficient and could be built quickly (most of the known network in Britain was completed by 180 AD). Before these roads were built, “gromatici” would use surveyor poles to find the best places to build with the shortest travel times. Builders would start by digging a shallow three-foot trench and would build short walls on either side of the road. The roads were built in layers, the bottom layer was made of earth and mortar or sand with stones. The next, layers of gravel cemented with more mortar. The final surface layer was constructed with geometric blocks of pebbles, gravel or even iron ore. There were adjacent ditches built on either side of the road to prevent flooding. In particularly wet areas, roads were built upon artificial mounds. This multi layered system ensured a strong foundation, the impermeable surface prevented the creation of quagmires whenever it rained and the materials for these roads were readily available throughout the empire. Bridges made of stone or wood were erected to pass over rivers too. However, it wasn’t just the roads themselves that made transport through Britain significantly faster. There was a system of milestones across the roads stating the distance to the nearest towns and places to stop and stay as well as information on the road such as when it was built and who the emperor was and even who last repaired it. For example, a stone in Castleford was found giving the distance to Eboracum (York) as 22 miles. Roads were policed by small detachments of the army called “stationarii” or “beneficiarii”, these soldiers manned look out posts in rural and urban areas to ensure safety, look out for runaway slaves, relay messages and help vulnerable travellers. They also collected tariffs to fund these roads. In addition to all this, state-run hotels and way stations lined the razor straight roads. The most common facility along these roads were stables where envoys or official travellers could trade their fatigued mount for a fresh one – these stops were known as “mutationes”. They were often located every ten miles; they seem simple but imperial couriers carrying messages and tax could travel as far as 60 miles a day. Roughly every 20 miles travellers could rest their weary heads at “mansiones” which offered lodgings for man and horse alike as well as food, a bath, a place to repair wagons and a complementary brothel. Overall, it is very clear to see that these hastily built yet extremely endurant Roman roads figuratively shrunk Britain. Suddenly travel between the sheer mountains of Swaledale and the busy streets of Eboracum was safe, fast, dare I say comfortable? Compared to the ancient earth paths that meandered between the mountains and followed rivers until a convenient spot was found to cross, the Roman roads were like giving an F1 car to a skateboarder. They were also the backbone of the imperial army. Yorkshire is roughly 80 miles long, let’s add 20 miles on for the rare detours in the roads around natural features even Romans can’t move, a full legion could cross Yorkshire in 5 days if they travel 20 miles a day. An envoy could cross it in less than 2 travelling at 60 miles a day. Even the most rural and least populous areas could receive swift support in any situation that may occur from the legion stationed at Eboracum or the garrisons of the strategically placed forts. A testament to the sheer brilliance of these roads is not just how long they lasted but how long they were used. After the Roman withdrawal, the lack of maintenance saw large areas of roads fall quite quickly into disrepair. However, many roads were still used daily for trade and communication and remained the highest quality roads used throughout the middle ages. The large-scale production of paved pathways was not witnessed again in Britain until the early 18th century, an absence for over 1300 years. The Roman road network was the sole nationally managed, state-built highway system in Britain until 1919 with the establishment of the Department for Transport. I think it is incredibly clear that the Romans did indeed do a great deal for Yorkshire’s development but there is still much more to understand.
It will be remembered that the initial reason the Romans wanted control and influence within Yorkshire was to defend the flat southern lands from the ravaging hill tribes. To strengthen their rule, defend settlements and house troops, forts (or ‘castrum’) were built in locations throughout Yorkshire. An early example of a small Roman fort like many others throughout the country is that of Ilkley’s – an ancient town on the Wharfe called Olicana by the Romans. The first fort was built around 80 AD only a decade after Roman occupation began in Yorkshire and was constructed largely out of wood. It was founded by Gnaeus Julius Agricola, a prominent general and politician within Roman Britain who became governor of the province. However, only forty years after its construction it was burnt down in a suspected rebellion that spread throughout northern Britain which may have wiped out a whole legion (Legio IX Hispania). Within the next few decades, a stone fortress was built. This fort was reorganised and partly rebuilt sometime around 300 AD and occupied until the end of Roman rule – the fort itself may even have been inhabited for some time after by Anglo-Saxons. The fort provided safety and connection via roads and as a result a ‘vicus’ (village) grew in the area which led to an established settlement and post for trade and commerce. Throughout Yorkshire, most civil settlement occurred after the construction of Hadrian’s wall in the early 2nd century as there was less need for forts and less danger. Another more significant example of urbanisation can be seen in Eboracum in what would become York. Eboracum is a Brittonic word for “yew tree place”. Eboracum was founded in 71 AD when the ninth legion led by Quintus Petillius Cerialis began construction of a fortress covering 50 acres on flat land by the River Ouse near its confluence with the Foss. The fortress’ construction attracted people to settle hoping to make money providing for the needs of some 5,500 legionaries.
Urbanisation occurred quickly around the fortress, across the river and along the road towards Calcaria (Tadcaster). The fortress developed with the town going from turf defences to clay, wood and eventually limestone in 107 to 108, approximately a decade later the fortress was garrisoned by the Sixth Legion. This strong military presence is an important reminder of the resistance so ardently held by northerners and other Celts too – think of Boadicea’s revolt. It is also a reminder of the strategic importance of Eboracum in its proximity to Scotland where the Romans would conduct frequent campaigns. Only 3 legions were stationed within Britain around this time, so Eboracum was clearly an important city. By the late 2nd century Eboracum followed the typical design of a Roman city with grid-like roads, public buildings such as baths and a forum and private housing along the river. It was the capital of northern Britannia.
Emperor Septimius Severus stayed in York between 208 and 211 when he died, there has been evidence to suggest that there was an imperial palace within Eboracum. If this is true, it shows that Yorkshire, only 150 years before a backwater breeding ground for rebellious hill tribes and Druids, was now a suitable residence for the imperator himself and perhaps the imperial court too. Severus was cremated in Eboracum, a politician-biographer Cassius Dio wrote “His body arrayed in military garb was placed upon a pyre, and as a mark of honour the soldiers and his sons ran about it and as for the soldier’s gifts, those who had things at hand to offer put them upon it and his sons applied the fire”. This extract clearly shows Severus was a military man so perhaps his stay in Eboracum was purely for convenience in its strategic positioning to the border with the Picts in the north. Regardless, the frequent visits by emperors (Hadrian, Constantinus I etc) show the importance Eboracum once held to the empire, and it became a wealthy and prosperous city as result of it. Eboracum was even the place where Constantine the Great (the man who would become the first Christian emperor of Rome and found Constantinople- one of the most influential men in history) was proclaimed emperor after his father’s unexpected death during a visit to celebrate reclaiming Britannia from usurpers. While Eboracum obviously saw great success in developing to such a size and becoming a place of such economic and military importance, examples like the fort at Ilkley (of which were in their tens throughout Yorkshire and over 100 in the rest of Britain) show the importance of these forts in providing a stimulation for the growth of settlements most of which have been continually inhabited to this day. Indirectly, the Romans even gave Yorkshire its name; the city that the Vikings would later call Jorvik, from which Yorkshire gets its name, was the same continually inhabited site as Eboracum-though far from the decadence of antiquity when the Vikings got their blood-stained hands onto it. In the next section we will explore the industry of Yorkshire. After all, how was all this growth and development paid for?
Soon after the Romans had stabilised the Pennines, they discovered the highly valuable deposits of lead ore. Quickly they put to work the Briganti slaves captured in rebellions and battles in mining this valuable material. Lead had many uses in the empire from pipes, to paint, to dishes and the Romans established mines throughout Nidderdale and Wharfedale. Two pigs of lead weighing over 70 kg have been found near Greenhow, a village in Nidderdale, inscribed with information about the consul and emperor at the time. We don’t know very much about these mines as the sites were destroyed by intensive mining in the 19th century. The Romans also exploited iron, timber and minerals in Yorkshire.
An exciting new development of the knowledge of Roman Yorkshire occurred recently when a Roman villa was discovered close to the Roman settlement of Aldborough (itself home to two ornate mosaics). While much has yet to be uncovered, a bath house with a central heating system, concrete floors and glazed windows have been excavated. It is thought that the inhabitants had a rich and varied diet with clay amphoras found present that carried fish sauce from Tunisia and olive oil from Spain. This was the probably the home of some local elite with connections to the empire and local businesses and it is thought to be one of the best-preserved Roman villas in the country. Villas like these with central heating (that isn’t just an open fire), multiple stories and piped connections are an eternity away from the round clay houses that even the leaders of Celts lived in. This is a constantly developing front in our understanding of life in Roman Britain and one that shows the incredibly luxury present in even the furthest frontier of the empire. There are many other aspects of Roman development that I haven’t mentioned such as the signal posts along the east coast for communication and defence and the temples where the worship of Greco-Roman gods took place, but I am aware I am running out of words, and I wish to talk about the change in culture and religion and conclude this piece.
There was a certain amount of cultural blending in Britain after the Roman conquest. In Yorkshire this occurred more with the Parisi of East Yorkshire than with the militantly defiant Brigantes which is why there were less forts and more civil settlements in East Yorkshire. The hybrid culture that emerged from Roman presence is known as Romano-British or Celto-Roman. It was seen more in the south around London but there were some in the north who preferred the lavish customs of the Romans to the tough Celtic life. One way provincials became more Roman was in their pursuit of Roman citizenship, a status which allowed for greater rights and privileges. This was at first granted very prudently to certain important individuals, soon soldiers who served in the army were granted citizenship and in 212 AD everyone (unless they were a slave or freed slave) living within the Roman empire was granted citizenship. This meant that an ethnically Roman person living in Rome had the same rights and legitimacy within the empire as a Celtic person in Eboracum, this contributed greatly to the syncretism of Brittonic and Roman culture and to the betterment of people’s quality of life.
Earlier we mentioned Druids, the priest-philosopher-scientists that once dominated Celtic culture. In 54 AD, Claudius introduced some legislation that banned Druidic practices. If the Romans wanted to remain in control of the violent populace of Britannia, then the Druids were an obstacle in their pursuit of authoritarianism. After a massacre of Druids in Anglesey, Druidic culture was essentially wiped out of England and the Romans established themselves as supreme overlords of the province of Britannia. Tacitus describes the Druids at the massacre: “With hands raised to the sky, pouring out their dreadful prayers, struck our soldiers with consternation by the novelty of the sight, so that just as if paralyzed they offered their immovable bodies to wounds”. (8)
Since the complex pantheon of Celtic gods and deities could be seen through a Roman lens – as it conformed to the belief there were many gods that were all unique – the Romans tolerated it. Still, there was an increase in the worship of Roman gods due to the founding of temples and immigration from across the empire. By the 4th century, Christianity had gained a strong following in Britain, but pagan ideas did persist through to the end of Roman rule.
I would like to return to the main question this essay and address it having shown all the evidence. On one hand, the Romans granted to the people of Yorkshire citizenship which allowed them to marry and own property and they could gain the power to vote and run for political office too. They provided a common currency and entered Britons into a common market which allowed for the influx of goods from all across the Roman Empire, allowing enterprising merchants to build great fortunes on improving standards of living from the increased luxuries and amenities. Literacy and numeracy increased which offered opportunities for well paying jobs within the administration of the empire. A system of direct, high quality, weather-resistant roads was evenly spread throughout Britain which allowed connection to the rest of the province and greater empire, a safe way to transport goods and employment through caring for travellers. Established settlements and sprawling cities with sewers, public spaces and lively, multi-cultural, markets built up around forts and provided a haven of opportunity and comfort. I could go on, but it is clear that Roman presence improved lives and from the simplest perspective provided peace (after the natives were quelled), food and stability. But was it worth it? Almost immediately after the Romans gave up on Britain to try and sustain the rest of their collapsing empire sometime in the early 5th century, Britain was plunged back into ignorance and war. Germanic tribes from modern-day Denmark and Germany capitalised on the chaos and migrated to the east coast of England ravaging Yorkshire and establishing petty kingdoms upon the scorched soil. This sets the scene for Arthurian conflicts between Britons and the Germanic tribes. The Celts were pushed back into the corners of Britain where to this day some try to retain their culture and language. These were the “Dark Ages” which is an unfair term to use globally since they also coincide with the Golden Ages of Islam and Byzantium. However, compared to the prosperity Britain had witnessed under Roman presence, this was a Dark Age. For the next 500 years, Britain looked remarkably similar to its state before Claudius’ invasion, a battle royal of warring tribes – only this time Anglo-Saxon. The only reminder of the forgotten time before is the crumbled Roman battlements the Saxons hid behind and the marble busts of faces with no names.
The Romans gave the people of Yorkshire three centuries of prosperity and enlightenment that wasn’t seen again until the 19th century, but it was their ability to “level-up” and provide opportunities that is so remarkable since it has never been seen within this country since. Bear in mind, Britain – and certainly Yorkshire – was nowhere near the top of the list of the Roman’s priorities, after all, they had 4 million square kilometres to administer and maintain. Their work in this region is a testament to the industriousness and general brilliance of the Romans.
- Tacitus, Agricola 12
- Tacitus, Agricola 12
- Diodorus Siculus- Bibliotheca historica
- Suetonius, Caligula 46.1
- Tacitus, Agricola 13
- Tacitus Agricola 12
- Tacitus, Histories 3.4
- Tacitus, Annals
Roman Roads and settlements- https://roadsofromanbritain.org/yorkshire.html