History of Great Britain and Ireland - Conquest by the Romans

PREVIOUSLY to the year 55 before Christ, the British Islands, in com mon with the whole of northern and western Europe, were occupied by barbarous tribes, who bore nearly the same relation to the civilized nations of Greece and Italy, which the North American Indians of the present day bear to the inhabitants of Great Britain and the United States. The Romans, who for ages had been extending their power over their rude neighbors, had concluded the conquest of Gaul, now called France, when, in the year just mentioned, their celebrated commander, Julius Caesar, learning from the merchants of that country that there was another fertile land on the opposite side of the narrow , sea now termed the British Channel, resolved to proceed thither, and subject it also to the Roman arms. Disembarking at the place since called Deal, he soon overawed the savage natives, though they were naturally warlike, and averse to a foreign yoke. He did not, however, gain a firm footing in Britain till the succeeding year, when he employed no fewer than 800 vessels to convey his troops from Gaul. Except along the coasts, where some tillage prevailed, the British tribes lived exactly as the Indians now do, upon animals caught in hunting, and fruits which grew spontaneously. They stained and tattooed their bodies, and had no religion but a bloody idolatry called Druidism. The people of Ireland were in much the same condition.

Little was done on this occasion to establish the Roman power in Britain; but about a century afterwards - namely, in the year of Christ 43, when the emperor Claudius was reigning at Rome - another large army invaded the island, and reduced a considerable part of it. A British prince called Caradoc, or Caractacus, who had made a noble defense against their arms, was finally taken and sent prisoner to Rome, where he was regarded with the same wonder as we should bestow upon a North American chief who had greatly obstructed the progress of settlements in this quarter of the world. In the year 61, an officer named Suetonius did much to reduce the Britons, by destroying the numerous Druidical temples in the Isle of An&sea; religion having in this case, as in many others since, been a great support to the patriotic cause. He soon after overthrew the celebrated British princess Boadicea, who had raised an almost general insurrection against the Roman power.

In the year 79, Agricola, a still greater general, extended the influence of Rome to the Firths of Forth and Clyde, which he formed into a frontier, by connecting them with a chain of forts. It was his policy, after he had subdued part of the country, to render it permanently attached to Rome, by introducing the pleasures and luxuries of the Capital. He was the first to sail round the island. In the year 84, having gone beyond the Forth, he was opposed by a great concourse of the rude inhabitants of the north, under a chief name Galgacus, whom he completely overthrew at Mons Grampius, or the Grampian Mountain; a spot about which there are many disputes, but which was probably at Ardoch in Perthshire, where there are still magnificent remains of a Roman camp. Tacitus, a writer related to Agricola, gives a very impressive account of this great conflict, and exhibits the bravery of the native forces as very remarkable; but the correctness of his details cannot be much relied on.

It appears that Agricola, while on the western coast of Scotland, was desirous of making the conquest of Ireland, which he thought would be useful, both as a medium of communication with Spain, and as a position whence he could overawe Britain. He formed an acquaintance with an Irish chief, who, having been driven from his country by civil commotions, was ready to join in invading it. By him Agricola was informed that the island might be conquered by one legion and a few auxiliaries. The inhabitants, ac cording to Tacitus, bore a close resemblance to the Britons.

It is generally allowed that the Romans experienced an unusual degree of difficulty in subduing the Britons; and it is certain that they were baffled in all their attempts upon the northern part of Scotland, which was then called Caledonia. The utmost they could do with the inhabitants of that country, was to build walls across the island to keep them by themselves. The first wall was built in the year 121, by the Emperor Hadrian, between Newcastle and the Solway Firth. The second was built by the Emperor Antoninus, about the year 140, as a connection of the line of forts which Agricola had formed between the Firths of Forth and Clyde. This boundary was not long kept, for in 210 we find the Emperor Severus for tifying the rampart between the Tyne and Solway. Roman armies, however, probably under the command of Lollius Urbicus, had penetrated far beyond the more northerly wall, although, unfortunately, no accounts of their reception are preserved. From comparing Roman remains lately discovered with ancient geographies, it is held as established that the Romans reached the north-east end of Loch Ness, near the modern town of Inverness. The number of roads and camps which they made, and the regularity with which the country was divided into stations, prove their desire to preserve these conquests. When the conquest was thus so far completed, the country was governed in the usual manner of a Roman province; and towns began to rise in the course of time - being generally those whose names are found to end in chester, a termination derived from castra, the Latin word for camp. The Christian religion was also introduced, and Roman literature made some progress in the country.