Classics Roman Britain
Louise Revell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 October 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0206


Both geographically and culturally, the province of Britain was a long way from the city of Rome and has often been characterized as a “failed province.” First invaded by Julius Caesar, its conquest by Claudius in 43 CE brought most of the island under the control of Rome. This instigated a series of social, cultural, and economic transformations, which have been the source of much academic debate over the centuries. A key feature of this has been the absence of cultural unity; this was the case in the Late Pre-Roman Iron Age and continued into the Roman period. Most visible was the contrast between the conquered and the nonconquered areas, with Scotland only partly conquered for a short period. This cultural variability goes further, with important differences between the various regions and between town and country. An important characteristic of the province was its role as a frontier province, with the construction of the Hadrianic and the Antonine Walls and the garrisoning of, generally, three legions and a vast quantity of auxiliary troops. This created military zones to the north and the west of the province. In contrast, the south and the east saw the development of a more familiar Roman settlement structure, with urban centers and villas. There were also temporal differences, with the 3rd century arguably a time of prosperity in contrast to crises elsewhere. This prosperity continued into the first half of the 4th century. However, from the second half of the 4th century, the evidence is contradictory, with the perception of a decline until the withdrawal of Roman forces in the early 5th century. The province has lived on in academic and popular imagination, and the romantic image of Roman Britain has largely withstood developments in academic debates.

Overviews and Histories

Writing a history of Britain as such is problematic because the province flits in and out of the textual sources (leaving aside issues of source generation, bias, etc., as discussed in Braund 1994). Consequently, overviews tend to represent a combination of processes of change over the 400 years from conquest to abandonment, punctuated by key moments for which we have some form of narrative, such as the conquest and the Boudican revolt. This causes a somewhat fraught relationship among history and archaeology, dramatic events, and a long-term anonymous process. Nevertheless, this has not stopped the flow of a prodigious number of histories of the province. The best chronological overviews are Frere 1999 and Southern 2011. Other books deal with specific historical points, such as Creighton 2006 and Casey 1994, and a specialist literature focuses on the final century of the province (see the section the End of Roman Britain). The alternative type of overview takes a thematic approach, often beginning with an account of the conquest, and then developing around topics such as towns, the countryside, religion, art, trade, etc. (see Potter and Johns 1992, Todd 2004, and Mattingly 2006) or the very personal view of the archaeology of the province (see Reece 1988). A completely thematic agenda is developed in James and Millett 2001.

  • Braund, D. 1994. Ruling Roman Britain: Kings, queens, governors and emperors from Julius Caesar to Agricola. London: Routledge.

    Sets the textual sources for early Roman Britain into their Roman literary context; provides examples of a detailed deconstruction of narrative topoi. Argues that it is important to understand the Roman ideological context and the political motivation of the author in order to understand the text.

  • Casey, P. J. 1994. Carausius and Allectus: The British usurpers. London: Batsford.

    Explores the often-neglected period of the split of Britain from the Roman Empire under Carausius and Allectus (argued to be mid-286 to 296 CE). Integrates the textual, numismatic, and archaeological evidence.

  • Creighton, J. 2006. Britannia: The creation of a Roman province. London: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203412749

    Argues that the Roman impact on Britain starts with the Caesarian invasion and develops through a group of client kings; also that different processes are at play in the development of Romano-British towns, including the memorialization of the late Iron Age kings.

  • Frere, S. S. 1999. Britannia: A history of Roman Britain. 3d ed. London: Pimlico.

    Probably still the classic narrative history of the province, interspersed with chapters dealing with thematic topics.

  • James, S., and M. Millett, eds. 2001. Britons and Romans: Advancing an archaeological agenda. Council for British Archaeology Research Report 125. York, UK: Council for British Archaeology.

    A series of papers looking in depth at the state of play within specific topics such as urbanism, material culture, gender, and identity.

  • Mattingly, D. 2006. Britain: An imperial possession. London: Allen Lane.

    Part of the Penguin History of Britain series, this takes a thematic approach of exploring the impact of occupation through themes of military, urban, and countryside. These are bookended with narrative sections outlining the events at the beginning and the end of the provincial history.

  • Potter, T. W., and C. Johns. 1992. Roman Britain. London: British Museum Press.

    Overview of the archaeology of Roman Britain through a series of themes.

  • Reece, R. 1988. My Roman Britain. Cirencester, UK: Cotswolds Studies.

    A highly individual view of the archaeology of Roman Britain from one of the most influential specialists on the topic.

  • Southern, P. 2011. Roman Britain. Stroud, UK: Amberley.

    Uses textual and archaeological evidence to produce a chronological narrative of the conquest and development of the province from 55 BCE to 450 CE.

  • Todd, M., ed. 2004. A companion to Roman Britain. Oxford: Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470998861

    A selection of papers by established specialists arranged into thematic chapters.

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