Today is the first day U.S. viewers will have a chance to see Anglo favorite David Morrissey in Britannia, strutting his stuff as Roman leader Aulus Plautius, as he leads his troops into battle during the Roman invasion of Britain, in AD 43. The show is streaming on Amazon Prime Video as of today, and is a co-production with the U.K.’s Sky Atlantic.
The show covers events leading up to the invasion, depicting Britain as “a mysterious land ruled by wild warrior women and powerful druids who can channel the powerful forces of the underworld,” which is handy, because they’ll need as much help as they can get to fight off the Roman army.
Not to overdo the spoilers, but history tells us the Romans won, and stayed put for over 370 years. That’s not all it tells us though, oh no. Here are a few other things to bear in mind, including some idea of what the Romans did for the people of Britain, once they’d taken over, subjugated the natives and and commenced building cities, that is:
1. The Roman Invasion was largely for show
Having lost three legions in the battle of Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD, the Roman need to conquer the world had died down somewhat by 43 AD. And as their empire spread from the Channel coast to the Caucasus, and from the northern Rhineland to the Sahara, few would have argued that the Britons were much of a threat in any case. But Emperor Claudius needed a show of strength to consolidate his power, having taken over the throne from the assassinated Caligula. He had to show his authority to the Senate, and in order to do that, the Romans had to invade somewhere.
2. And it wasn’t their first attempt
Julius Caesar had had a decent stab at invading Britain in 55 and 54 BC, even going so far as to install a suitably Rome-friendly king, Mandubracius, but he had to turn back to quell a revolt in Gaul, and his army was facing strong resistance from British guerrilla forces, so it was left to Claudius to come back a century later to finish the job with an army of 40,000 soldiers. In between those two attempts, Caligula had sent some 200,000 men to the channel in 40 AD, but insisted they gather seashells instead of making the crossing. Historians are not sure why he did this.
3. They brought stinging nettles with them
Of all the Roman imports to the British Isles, the humble stinging nettle — scourge of schoolchildren’s shins ever since — is surely the least welcome. That said, they also introduced rabbits, thereby ensuring a growing population of low status farm workers a ready supply of cheap protein for the next two thousand years.
4. Not all of their roads were straight
In the 350 years of Roman occupation of Britain, some 10,000 miles of road were constructed, using clay, chalk and gravel.The routes drawn were so usefully unbendy they’re still in operation as British motorways, but while popular myth suggests they just drew a straight line across the landscape and made the road follow it, the truth is they were smart enough to aim for the high ground (to increase drainage and reduce ambushes) and work their way around large obstacles, particularly mountains and rivers, while maintaining straight sections, to be as efficient as possible.
5. And no one knows what they called them
All the best-known Roman roads in the U.K. have names that derive from the Anglo Saxon and Viking populations that used them in the centuries after the Romans left. Watling Street, to the west of London, comes from Waclinga Stræte, meaning “the road that leads to Waclinga’s land.” Stane Gate is Norse for “Stone Road.” Most likely they will have named the roads after Roman dignitaries, as in Italy’s Via Appia, the road named after the politician Appius Claudius Caecus.
6. They built the wall
Hadrian’s Wall, to be accurate. Better known at the time as Vallum Hadriani, the build began in 122 AD. And what is now ranked, even in ruined form, as the world’s largest Roman artifact, ran (in some sections still runs) for 73 miles across the neck of northern England, in some parts just below what is now the Scottish border, from the Solway Firth to the banks of the Tyne. It was heavily fortified with garrisons every five Roman miles. The intention isn’t entirely clear, with historians arguing whether the wall was a chance to enforce taxation on people leaving and entering the Roman Empire, a way of keeping out cattle thieves and bandits, or as a statement of Roman superiority, given that the wall is thought to have been plastered and whitewashed on completion.
7. They invented Cockney rhyming slang
OK, that’s not strictly true, but the Romans did introduce both apples and pears to British horticulture, and as any student of Cockney rhyming slang knows, apples & pears means stairs. They also introduced carrots, celery, asparagus and turnips, but they have, as yet, not been given a Cockney synonym.
8. And pound coins
Actually, all British coins are based on Roman design, as it was the Romans who introduced coins in the first place. There’s a cameo portrait of the monarch of the moment, just like the Romans had, and a Latin inscription. Some modern pound coins currently have the inscription ‘decus et tutamen’ around the edge, which means ‘glory and protection.’
9. If you can’t say Leicester properly, blame a Roman
Any British place name that ends with the suffix -caster (Lancaster), -chester (Manchester) or -cester (Leicester, Gloucester) comes from the Latin castrum, which means a military camp or fort. This is also true of places that begin with the prefix Car- (Carlisle) or Caer- (Caerphilly). Oh, and it’s pronounced “lester.”
10. By being truly awful, the Romans accidentally created a British icon
Boudicca, or Boadicea, is a totemic figure of British grit and cunning. She was married to Prasutagus, ruler of the Iceni in East Anglia, who had brokered a peaceful coexistence with the Romans after the invasion and left his kingdom to his daughters and the Roman Emporer in his will. But when he died, his will was ignored, Boudicca was stripped and flogged, her daughters raped, and the kingdom seized for Rome. This inflamed local tensions, and in 60/61 AD, the Iceni called other tribes to join them in rising up against their invaders.
Boudicca led the charge, and her army defeated the Ninth Legion, destroying Camulodunum (modern Colchester, the then capital of Britannia), Londinium (London) and Verulamium (St Albans). An estimated 70–80,000 Romans and British died in the skirmishes, but Boudicca’s forces were eventually overcome by a Roman army lead by Paulinus. Contemporary reports differ as to how she died, either through illness or self-administered poison to avoid capture. She is far and away the most famous Briton of the First Century AD.
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