History

The Roman occupation of Wales

48-410 AD

As the Romans consolidated their base in Wales, the way of life began to change for the native people.


Image: reconstruction of Julius Caesar's army camp in the 2005 BBC series Ancient Rome: The Rise And Fall Of An Empire (BBC)

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More information about: The Roman occupation of Wales

Towns and villas

Twelve miles east of Caerleon, the Romans established the town of Venta Silurum (Caerwent) as the provincial capital of the Silures. The first town in Wales, it came to have a population of about 3,000. With its basilica, forum, baths, temples and town houses with their central heating, murals and mosaic floors, it was a miniature version of Rome itself.

Moridunum (Carmarthen) may also have been a tribal capital - that of the Demetae. Equally Roman were the villas, the country mansions of the Romanised British gentry. There was one at Llantwit Major, another at Ely near Cardiff and at least three in the neighbourhood of Caerwent.

Romanisation

Wales was part of the Roman Empire for over 300 years. During that era Roman habits and culture won widespread acceptance in much of the country. Yet, unlike in most of Western Europe, the Latin of the Romans did not replace the native language of the people. It did, however, have an impact upon it, for Brythonic absorbed Latin words for things like forts, windows, rooms and books, words which were passed on to Welsh.

Roman art had an impact too, for it replaced the Celtic art of the Britons. Among members of the upper classes at least, there was a readiness to accept that they themselves were Roman, especially after AD 214 when the emperor, Caracalla, granted Roman citizenship to all free men throughout the Empire.

The degree of contact

Yet, in much of the country Roman influence was slight. In hill villages such as Tre'r Ceiri, the inhabitants were probably only in contact with the Empire on their rare visits to the vicus at Caernarfon, the market and civil settlement which lay outside the walls of the Caernarfon fort of Segontium. Elsewhere, contact could well have been closer. Britons no doubt found employment at the gold mines of Dolaucothi, the tile manufactury at Holt and the ironworks at Ariconium.

The coming of Christianity

To the Britons, the entire natural world was sacred and they, like the Romans, had a wide array of gods. As the centuries passed, there was a tendency to identify the gods of the Britons with those of the Romans. By about AD 300, however, a new religious movement, Christianity, was making itself felt. From 313 it could be freely practiced throughout the Empire.

It is difficult to discover to what extent Wales became Christianised while under the sway of Rome. There were bishops in Britain by 313, one perhaps at Caerwent, but the in-depth Christianisation of Wales did not take place until after the fall of the Empire.

The ambitions of generals

The fall of the Romans was the result of a complexity of reasons. Important among them was the ambition of army leaders who sought to usurp the title of emperor. In 383, Magnus Maximus (the Macsen Wledig of Welsh tradition) denuded Britain of most of its garrison in his campaign to win the title.

Wales slips from the Empire

Equally significant is the challenge represented by peoples living beyond the imperial frontier. In 410, Rome itself was occupied by the Gothic forces of Alaric and the emperor had no alternative but to urge the men of Britain to organise their own defence. They were hard pressed, for they faced the attacks of the Picts from the north, the Irish from the west and the Saxons from the east.

Their efforts to maintain a self-governing Britannia were not without their successes, which included the almost mythical campaigns of King Arthur. But eventually the tide turned and the nations of the Welsh, the English and the Scots were born.

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