Monday, 16 May 2011

How did the Roman Military Occupation of Northern Britain Impact Upon Local British Society and Economy?

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The Roman Army was extremely important in explaining the success of the Romans and the expansion of the Roman Empire. The army that invaded Britain in 43AD at the command of Emperor Claudius differed in structure from the one that gradually slipped under local control as the province became independent in the 5th Century.

The army was not completely shut away in permanent camps, and doubtless soldiers had the opportunity to exploit their superior power and status against civilians. Individual soldiers journeyed through a province on official business or as couriers on the public post or on their way to and from leave regularly. Soldiers when on the move and far from their base must have continually helped themselves to the basic needs of life, and the terrified civilians gave in, hoping at least to escape more serious injury. Requisitions of animals and provisions, usually carried out by soldiers were a major source of grievance to the civilian population. When soldiers exceeded their authority and added violent aggression to illegality, the burden became intolerable (J.B. Campbell).

In frontier provinces the army was the main agent for introducing romanisation into the barbarian areas. This was especially necessary in those territories which lacked the native infrastructure to support an urban society (Webster, 1998). Roman societies were further developed by small civilian towns called Vicus, which grew up around the Roman forts. These were inhabited by women, children, craftsmen, traders, and retired soldiers who brought garrisons such as Hadrian’s Wall to life. Military camps ordinarily were planted for strategic reasons, near centers of travel-bridgeheads, crossroads, mountain passes or other natural focuses of trade and traffic; or they appeared in desolate regions where settled life had been impossible before, and now under the protection of legionary walls, could flourish for the first time. The soldiers wanted a variety of food, wine or beer beyond the army ration, women, and a change from army routine. That meant that inns, shops & brothels for immediate needs. The army was also a voracious customer for meat, corn and leather and some traders would be paid above the quotas supplied as a tribute. The army forts and settlements were therefore a lure for men and women who had anything to sell. The army presence in the settlements helped them to prosper and develop economically from the trade that the soldiers were consuming. It may have been true in Britain that some of the tribes in South East under the influence of Roman trade introduced by Caesar had reached the degree of social integration suggested by Professor Cunliffe (1976), but it is very doubtful if this applied to the people of the Midlands and the North (Webster, 1998).

The relationship of the Roman soldier to the civilian was very different. For the most part the armies were stationed in the less developed regions of the empire, and to some degree they could legitimately be considered to be the torchbearers of civilization (Watson, 1969). Roman governors and high ranking officials, military and civil, spread the Roman way of life, not through any sense of duty, but because this was the only acceptable way, and they would fail to understand people who had the means yet rejected the concept. Soldiers always had words to lend, technical or slang. In areas little Romanized, inscriptions became more often Latin, and better Latin, as one approaches a legionary camp from which radiated the chief forces of Romanization (R. MacMullen, 1963).

The coming of the Romans in Northern Britain saw a radical change to the economy. As the Roman army moved further and further outwards from the South-East of Britain, they introduced the standard Roman currency into the tribal areas that they conquered. The Romans brought their own method of taxation which meant each tribe had to pay a levy to a central government based on the yield of crops and consumable items they produced. If a community showed undue reluctance to pay it’s taxes the military may be posted there as an exactor tributorum’s (Special tax collectors) (Webster, 1998). The distribution of silver between between the inner and frontier provinces was never even. Up until the Severan era there was always far more bronze coin lost in Britain than silver, especially in comparison with France and Italy. But then when the army pay raises, the picture on the frontiers radically changed (J.Creighton 1996). More silver coinage was being paid to the army in the North, but appears that the amount of trade to return money back to the provinces to the heart of the empire was no longer sufficient to repatriate a lot of that silver. In the Severan period the picture changed. Hoards near the army in the North all have a far higher proportion of freshly minted coin of the Severan dynasty in comparison to those anywhere else in the country. It may be that the army on the wall had more silver than it could deal with. Soldiers didn’t spend it on luxuries from abroad, or even from Southern Britain, otherwise the coin would have moved. Either they simply had more money than they could spend and they just sat on it, or else locally prices went up to such a degree that the money never left the area. Their large pay increases stimulated Northern Britain, however, didn’t stimulate the economy of Britain, as it didn’t trickle down elsewhere (J.Creighton, 1996).

The Roman complex of Trimontium was built in 79AD in the village of Newstead, one mile east of Melrose in Scotland. Trimontium consists of a large fort, surrounded by four settlements, a military amphitheatre, and a field system. Settlements grew all round the fort to house trading and industrial activities for their workers. In the East annex evidence has been found of the public house end entertainment area for the troops; large residential houses for the stallholders trying to make their fortune on the frontier. The South Annex had both an industrial estate and agricultural buildings attached to the outlying fields. When the Antonine Wall was built in the early 140s AD, Trimontium gave up its role as a forward post and became a support fort in the rear. Military built complexes such as Trimontium, encouraged trade and helped the local settlements economies flourish.

The army was responsible for law and order in the provinces as well as their defense and in effect acted as a police force. Settlements benefited from this law and authority and anarchy and disorder was reduced. The Roman armies went to a large extent in possession of skills and technical expertise which was uncommon in the surrounding population and the application of which in civilian contexts aroused admiration even more than the resentment. It was therefore comparatively easy for them to carry out tasks which would be of immediate practical value to the local community as well as to the empire as a whole. The most obvious of these tasks is road building. The army became more static with the accession of Hadrian, and this encouraged the building of permanent camps and fortifications. When these were completed it was a natural step for the men to turn their building skills upon the provinces with in which they were stationed, both to embellish them with fine buildings and to protect them with fortifications.

The emperor Hadrian came to the imperial throne in 117A.D. He decided that the Empire in Britain needed securing, not expanding and in 122A.D. he gave to order to build a wall across the Northern frontier. Build it they did; eighty miles worth, following the Northern escarpment of the Valleys of the Tyne, Irthing and Eden between Newcastle and Carlisle. The wall seemed to encourage the growth of civilian settlements close to the major legendary forts, to the south of the ditch. These settlements, or vici, sprawled in unplanned confusion, in contrast to the regulation army forts. South of the wall the army cultivated friendships and developed trade to the general benefit of the population, to the north of the wall they applied the cruel strategies of subjugation and domination. At the time of building Hadrian’s Wall the Roman army was perhaps at the peak of it’s efficiency. The native settlements are no nearer than five miles to Hadrian’s Wall on the North, and in the area of the wall itself there is only one, the second century site at Milking gap near housesteads. However, the army seems to have ended forcibly the occupation of this settlement and roads were built for military purposes which also opened up communications (Breeze and Dobson, 1976). In the later years of the Empire, when the wall was allowed to lapse, it appears that some of the civilians moved into the forts. Finds have been made of Women’s rings inside the barracks area.

In 138AD Antonius Pius succeeded Hadrian as Emperor of Rome. To mark the Northernmost extent of Roman territory in Britain he decided to build a wall to rival that of his predecessor. The Antonine Wall spans the narrowest portion of lowland Scotland. Unlike it’s more solid southern counterpart, the Antonine Wall was built of turf fronted by a ditch 12 feet deep. The wall was 10 feet high and 14 feet wide and dotted with 28 small military forts linked by a road. As a defensive barrier the Antonine wall did not fulfill it’s role for long. In 181 the Northern tribes poured over the wall and pushed the Romans back to Hadrian’s wall. The Roman’s finally abandoned any hope of regaining the territory between the two walls in 196 AD.

The Roman military occupation of Northern Britain made a heavy impact on the local British society and economy. The presence and the wealth of the army in small settlements help trade to prosper and to grow. The military also provided protection from invading tribes, Hadrian’s wall for example, which allowed societies to grow and develop their economy and society without the fear of invasion. However, the heavy military presence, especially in the North around Hadrian’s wall, would have prevented the growth of an administrative elite and it’s urban development and associated institutions. As soon as the army withdrew from Britain, all vestiges of ‘Romanization’ went with it (Eck, W, 1999).


Blagg, Thomas. (1990) The Early Roman Empire, Oxbow Books

Breeze, J. and Dobson, B (1976) Hadrians Wall, Penguin Books

Campbell, J.B. (1984) The Emperor and the Roman Army, Clarendon Press

Crieghton, John (1996) Tight-fisted soldiers of Roman Britain, British Archaeology, No.18

De La Bedoyere, Guy. (1999) The Golden Age of Roman Britain, Tempus

Goldsworthy, A.K. (1996) The Roman Army at War, 100BC – AD200, Clarendon Paperbacks

Potter, T.W. (1979) Romans in Northwest England, Titus Wilson and Son ltd.

Watson, G.R. (1969) The Roman Soldier, Thames and Hudson

1 comment:

  1. Great essay. Many thanks for sharing!