Thursday, December 24, 2015

Rome brought Christianity and Rabbits to Britain

Stuart Laycock, me and Trajan
 Tower Hill, London
Merry Christmas 2015!

In the United Kingdom chapter of our new book, Italy Invades: How Italians Conquered the World, we noted the profound impact that Rome had on Britain.  They may have come for the pearls but their legacy was Christianity, literacy, rabbits and much more...
Julius Caesar
Archaeological Museum, Arles, France
The Romans had long been aware of the presence of Britain, but they finally arrived in force in 55 BC. According to Suetonius, they came in search of pearls that were much prized by the women of Rome. Colchester became a significant town in Roman Britain, and remains a center of oyster production to this day. Julius Caesar, on the lookout for new victories after rampaging across Gaul, took Roman troops onto British soil for the first time. It wasn’t a great success for Caesar, as storms in the English Channel threw his plans into disarray. He withdrew to Gaul fairly rapidly.
He returned in 54 BC and made a rather more determined invasion of the island. This time, he managed to penetrate some distance inland and achieve a kind of victory over local British leader Cassivellaunus. However, in the end, once again, the Romans withdrew.
Emperor Claudius
Uffizi Gallery, Florence, IT
It was not until almost a century later, in AD 43, that the Romans, during the reign of Emperor Claudius, invaded Britain and managed to impose long-term occupation on most of what is now the United Kingdom.

The British tribes were not united in opposition to Rome. Roman forces advanced in the east and fairly soon took Colchester, and then expanded control across other parts of Britain. The future emperor Vespasian campaigned in the southwest; and soon Roman forces entered what is now Wales, where they encountered fierce fighting.

And all was not well for Rome in the east of the island. In AD 60 or 61, the mighty Iceni tribe under their queen Boudicca rose in revolt. The rebels enjoyed some success against Roman forces before eventually being crushed, with much attendant slaughter.

Emperor Hadrian
Uffizi Gallery, Florence, IT
Eventually, the Roman invaders focused on the drive north, which would take them into what is now Scotland. However, despite repeated pushes into the area, Rome would never firmly control much of what that territory. Agricola, for instance, thrust north before Hadrian built his seventy-three-mile wall to establish the long-term frontier. Hadrian’s Wall, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was mainly constructed by three Roman legions (about 15,000 men) with around two million tons of stone over at least six years. Hadrian’s Wall is a tangible reminder of the impact of Italian invasions on Britain; it may also have provided inspiration for George R. R. Martin’s dividing wall in A Game of Thrones.

Hadrian's Wall
Ran for 73 miles across Northern Britain

Under Antoninus Pius, the Antonine Wall was built farther north, temporarily sealing a large chunk of what is now Scotland within the empire, but then that was abandoned. In another example, Septimius Severus campaigned in the north, but again, his temporary conquests achieved little. Constantius and his son Constantine both campaigned in the north.

No Italian Invasion = No Watership Down
Christianity became widespread in Roman Britain especially after the conversion of Constantine, who was acclaimed emperor in York in 306. The Romans also introduced rabbits to Britain. No Roman invasion, therefore, would have meant no Watership Down.

However, as Roman power in Britain weakened in the late fourth and early fifth centuries AD, peoples from north of Hadrian’s Wall and peoples from across the North Sea began raiding inside Roman-controlled Britain. Eventually, Roman power in Britain ended entirely as much of the army left for Gaul to pursue Constantine III’s ambitions there. Britons probably started fighting other Britons then, as Britain fragmented."  Source: Italy Invades: How Italians Conquered the World, Kelly / Laycock, 2015.

For more on the collapse of Roman Britain that followed the fall of Rome see our earlier post Was King Arthur Italian? (

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