The Roman invasion of Wales

48-120 AD

Roman forces reached the borders of Wales in AD 48, five years after they had begun their conquest of Britain.

Photo: The Pantheon in Rome (James McLaren)

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Image: Pentre Ifan. Crown Copyright: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales

225000 BC

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The Roman occupation of Wales

More information about: The Roman invasion of Wales

Wales on the eve of the Roman invasion

At the time the Romans reached the Welsh borders in AD 48, Wales did not exist in any meaningful sense. It had at least five tribal groupings: the Deceangli in the north east; the Ordovices in the north west; the Demetae in the south west; the Silures in the south east; and the Cornovii in the central borderlands.

The early attacks

Among the earliest attacks by the Romans upon what would become Wales took place across the River Dee and was aimed at dividing the people of the highlands of Wales from the highlands of the north of what would later be England. The campaign of AD 48 brought about the submission of the Deceangli. In the following year, the Romans sought to divide the people of Wales from those of south western Britain by establishing a major fortress at Gloucester.

The conquest

The Roman advance was hindered by the resistance of the Silures under the leadership of Caratacus (the Caradog of Welsh tradition), a prince of the Catuvellauni of Essex who had been driven from his tribal lands by the Romans. In AD 52 they defeated a Roman legion. However, Caratacus was captured and died in Rome in about AD 54.

Six years later the Romans attacked Anglesey, the stronghold of the druids, the inspirers of British resistance. By 75 the Silures had been conquered and, by the 80s AD, with the defeat of the Ordovices, the whole of what would be England and Wales had come under Roman control.

The military frontier

The Romans divided their new province Britannia into a civilian lowland zone and a highland military zone. Fortresses, each capable of housing a legion of 5,600 men, were established at York, Chester and Caerleon. In Wales, part of the military zone, there were at least 30 auxiliary forts linked by straight roads and situated a day's march from each other.

Acceptance and rejection

The forts were not all fully manned for long, as most of the inhabitants of Wales came to accept Roman rule. The exception seems to have been the Ordovices of the centre and the north west. In the Forum in Rome today, there is a vast mosaic map of the Roman Empire; the territory of the Ordovices is not shown as part of it.

The Silures, despite their challenge to Roman authority, came to accept the rule of Rome. Caerleon, perhaps the best place in Europe in which to appreciate the layout of a Roman legionary fort, ceased to be fully garrisoned after about AD 120.

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