9 : Bronze and Iron
At this stage of the later Iron Age, thanks mainly to literate Romans, the picture comes into marginally sharper focus. We can start to identify the various tribes who were here when they turned up. Around North and West London, the two major players hereabouts were supposedly 'Belgic', They had arrived from....you guessed it....maybe a hundred years before the Romans turned up, probably chattering away in a Germanic language. (Maybe when the Romans used the label 'Briton' they were referring to the current inhabitants of our island rather than where they originated).
The major players north of the Thames were the Catuvallauni who were centred on St Albans (Verulanium). They also eventually controlled the land of the Trinovantes, later centred on Colchester (Camolodunum). To the South were the Atrebates, focused on Silchester (Calleva), near Reading. (You can visit it on my 'Calleva' bike route. Link: Calleva). Both later became Roman 'Civitas', with a degree of local self-government. Both have visible Roman remains and some rather indistinct pre-Roman ones as well. I believe that the 'border' between the two was the Thames which perhaps explains the fortifications at Dyke Hills by the river at Dorchester on Thames.
It would be wrong to assume that these were all primitive savages compared to the Romans. Evidence from Calleva suggests that they shared the relatively sophisticated lifestyles of their Romanised cousins across the water in Gaul. Some at least ate well, with a variety of meats and fishes flavoured with spices and herbs, served on plates and accompanied with wine drunk from a glass. They had well-crafted tools and ornaments, some sourced by trade across Europe. Their 'oppida' were planned, their houses were substantial and their streets surfaced, even if not as well built as the Roman efforts. More limited evidence from Braughing in Herts paints a similar picture.
I am not going to go on about the Romans here. I am sure you know the story. As Jules' said, they came, they saw, they conquered. Three cheers for Jules. Except that he didn't really, his effort was more of a recce than a takeover and probably aimed at winning him some political brownie points in Rome. To this end, he wrote his own promotional material. No doubt it was self-serving, but I choose to believe the story that he biffed the Catuvallauni and their King Caratacus at their stronghold near Wheathampstead. This 'oppida', now marked by a large ditch & embankment, is on my 'Giro de Lilley Valley cycle route. (Link) Lilley Valley Route. The real 'hard yards' in the Roman imperial conquest of Britain were covered a century later by Emperor Claudius.
Incidentally, Caratacus' son was the model for Shakespeare's Cymbeline. And thanks to the Bard and Hollywood we know exactly what he and his Queen looked like.
The Romans certainly left us a few mementoes of their visit. Even apart from St Albans and Silchester, some of the Romans lived quite well and the traces of a few of their 'villas' can still be seen, but the pillaging of useful stone perhaps explains the lack of much apart from the outlines and some flooring. That, allied to the English habit of tidying the rubble and mowing the grass, disinfects the experience. But if you are interested (and I am not) take a look at these three examples from our area.
I am more impressed by the immense network of allegedly Roman Roads which are often marked on the OS Maps. These go way beyond the well known trunk roads like Watling and Ermine Street and include many created to facilitate the development of places that they were interested in exploiting.
Don't assume that every straight road is Roman or that every Roman Road is straight! Often, in flatter arable countryside, the straight roads you find were built when farmland was enclosed in the 16th-19th centuries. Elsewhere the Romans were not so daft as to ignore existing routes and used the best fords or valley routes to avoid wet feet or a climb if they could.
The year 409 is generally seen as being the end of Roman rule in Britain but by that time the place was in a sorry state. Their influence and impact rapidly decayed into oblivion in the century that followed. Governance became fragmented and localised. There was a switch away from an economy based on trade and all the things that underpinned it, like crafts and coins, and towards a more hand-to-mouth existence. Their stone buildings were already falling into disrepair, the villas shrinking into farms, the towns squatted rather than lived in and marginal farmland reverting to scrub or woodland.
|Roman walls at Silchester
Once again, the population was changing. There were never that many Romans, as in 'from Rome', or even from Italy. Rather, there were people from all over their empire and beyond its 'Limes', or limits, employed as mercenary soldiers, traders or migrants, many of whom had settled. There were more arriving. The land had for some time been suffering from the raids and depredations of the neighbours, the Irish, Scots and the Germanic and Frankish tribes from across the North Sea. All of them were quick to take advantage of the departure of the Roman legions.
Sometime after 400 A.D. looking down from a hill at the Roman legions leaving with their families, hangers-on and wretched grammar with them, the landscape might have looked emptier than when they arrived. And in the distance, you can see more dinghies full of Germanic speaking immigrants sneaking in through the back door. They were coming to stay and would have the most profound and long-lasting effect on the countryside we see today.
The Next Post in the Series : Link Britons & Saxons