Introduction to the Roman Period

THE inland part of Britain says Cæsar, “is inhabited by those who, according to the existing tradition, were the aborigines of the island; the sea-coast, by those who, for the sake of plunder or in order to make war, had crossed over from among the Belgæ, and in almost every case retained the names of their native states from which they emigrated to this island in which they made war and settled, and began to till the land. The population is very great, and the buildings very numerous, closely resembling those of the Gauls: the quantity of cattle is considerable.....


Figure 81
81.—Captive wearing the Torque

The island is of a triangular form, one side of the triangle being opposite Gaul. One of the angles of this side, which is in Cantium (Kent), to which nearly all vessels from Gaul come, looks toward the rising sun; the lower angle looks toward the south.....Of all the natives those who inhabit Cantium, a district the whole of which is near the coast, are by far the most civilized, and do not differ much in their customs from the Gauls. “With these more civilized people Cæsar negotiated. They had sent him ambassadors and hostages to avert the invasion which they apprehended; but their submission was fruitless. In the latter part of the summer of the year 55 B. C. (Halley, the astronomer, has gone far to prove that the exact day was the 26th of August), a Roman fleet crossed the Channel, bearing the infantry of two legions, about ten thousand men. This army was collected at the Portus Itius (Witsand), between Calais and Boulogne. Eighty galleys (Fig. 86) bore the invaders across the narrow seas. As they neared the white cliffs, which frowned upon their enterprise (Figs. 87, 88, 90), Cæsar beheld them covered with armed natives, ready to dispute his landing. The laurelled conqueror (Figs. 83, 84), who, according to Suetonius, only experienced three reverses during nine years’ command in Gaul, would not risk the Roman discipline against the British courage, on a coast thus girt with natural defences. It is held that the proper interpretation of his own narrative is, that he proceeded towards the north; and it is considered by most authorities that the flat beach between Walmer Castle and Sandwich was the place of his disembarkation. It was here, then, that the British and Roman weapons first came into conflict (Fig. 80). But the captains and the standard-bearers marched not deliberately to the shore, as they are represented on the Column of Trajan (Fig. 82). The cavalry and the war-chariots of the active Britons met the invader on the beach; and whilst the soldiers hesitated to leave the ships, the standard-bearer of the tenth legion leaped into the water, exclaiming, as Cæsar has recorded, “Follow me, my fellow-soldiers, unless you will give up your eagle to the enemy! I, at least, will do my duty to the republic and to our general!” (Fig. 85.) The Romans made good their landing. The
symbols of the great republic were henceforward to become more familiar to the skin-clothed and painted Britons (Fig. 79); but not as yet were they to be bound with the chain of the captive (Fig. 81). The galleys in which the cavalry of Cæsar were approaching the British shores were scattered by a storm. This calamity, and his imperfect acquaintance with the country and with the coast, determined the invader to winter in Gaul. It is a remarkable fact that Cæsar was ignorant of the height to which the tide rises in these narrow seas. A heavy spring-tide came, and his transports, which lay at anchor, were dashed to pieces, and his lighter galleys (Figs. 93, 94, 95) drawn up on the beach, were swamped with the rising waves. This second disaster occurred within a few hours of the conclusion of a peace between the invader and the invaded. That very night, according to Cæsar, it happened to be full moon, when the tides always rise highest,—“a fact at the time wholly unknown to the Romans.” The Britons, with a breach of confidence that may almost be justified in the case of the irruption of a foreign power into a peaceful land, broke the treaty. Cæsar writes that they were signally defeated. But the invader hastily repaired his ships; and set sail, even without his hostages, for the opposite shores, where his power was better established.

Cæsar, early in the next year, returned to a conflict with the people whose coast “looks towards the rising sun.” He came in a fleet of eight hundred vessels; and the natives, either in terror or in policy, left him to land without opposition. The flat shores of Kent again received his legions; and he marched rapidly into the country, till he met a formidable enemy in those whom he had described as “the inland people,” who “for the most part do not sow corn, but live on milk and flesh, and have their clothing of skins.” Cæsar himself bears the most unequivocal testimony to the indomitable courage of this people. The tribes with whom Cæsar came into conflict were, as described by him, the people of Cantium, inhabitants of Kent; the Trinobantes, inhabitants of Essex; the Cenimagni, inhabitants of Norfolk, Suffolk, and Cambridge; the Segontiaci, inhabitants of parts of Hants and Berks; the Ancalites, inhabitants of parts of Berks and Wilts; the Bibroci, inhabitants of parts of Berks and the adjacent counties; the Cassi, conjectured to be the inhabitants of Cassio hundred, Herts. * Cæsar, after various fortune, carried back his soldiers in the same year to Gaul. He set sail by night, in fear, he says, of the equinoctial gales. He left no body of men behind him; he erected no fortress. It is probable that he took back captives to adorn his triumph. But the Romans, with all their national pride, did not in a succeeding age hold Cæsar’s expedition to be a conquest. Tacitus says that he did not conquer Britain, but only showed it to the Romans. Horace, calling upon Augustus to achieve the conquest, speaks of Britain as. “intactus” (untouched); and Propertius, in the same spirit, describes her as “invictus” (unconquered). There is perhaps, therefore, little of exaggeration in the lines which Shakspere puts into the mouth of the Queen in ‘Cymbeline:’

“Remember, Sir, my liege,

The kings your ancestors; together with

The natural bravery of your isle, which stands

As Neptune’s park, ribbed and paled in

With rocks unscaleable, and roaring waters;

With sands that will not bear your enemies’ boats,

But suck them up to the top-mast.

A kind of conquest Cæsar made here; but made not here his brag

Of came, and saw, and overcame: with shame

(The first that ever touch’d him) he was carried

From off our coast, twice beaten; and his shipping

(Poor ignorant baubles!) on our terrible seas,

Like egg-shells mov’d upon their surges, crack’d

As easily ’gainst our rocks.”

We have thus narrated very briefly the two descents of Cæsar upon Britain; because, from the nature of his inroad into the country, no monuments exist or could have existed to attest his progress. But it is not so with the subsequent periods of Roman dominion. The great military power of the ancient world may be here traced by what is left of its arms and its arts. Camden has well described the durable memorials of the Roman sway: “The Romans, by planting their colonies here, and reducing the natives under the rules of civil government—by instructing them in the liberal arts, and sending them into Gaul to learn the laws of the Roman Empire, did at last so reform and civilize them by introducing their laws and customs, that for the modes of their dress and living they were not inferior to the other provinces. The buildings and other works were so very magnificent, that we view the remains of them to this day with the greatest admiration; and the common people will have these Roman fabrics to be the works of giants.” We proceed to a rapid notice of the more important of these monuments.

* See Maps of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.

In that curious record, in old French, of the foundation of the Castle of Dover, which we find in Dugdale’s ‘Monasticon,’ we are told that when Arviragus reigned in Britain, he refused to be subject to Rome, and withheld the tribute; making the Castle of Dover strong with ditch and wall against the Romans, if they should come. The old British hill-forts and cities were not works of regular form, like the camps and castles of the Romans; and thus the earliest remains of the labours of man in Dover Castle exhibit a ditch and a mound of irregular form, a parallelogram with the corners rounded off, approaching to something like an oval. Yet within this ditch are the unquestionable fragments of Roman architecture, still standing up against the storms which have beaten against them for nearly eighteen centuries (Fig. 89). We may well believe, therefore, that the statement of the chronicler is not wholly fabulous when he said that a British King strengthened Dover Castle; and that the Romans, as in other cases, planted their soldiers in the strongholds where the Britons had defied them. Be this as it may, the Roman works of Dover Castle are amongst the most interesting in the island, remarkable in themselves, suggestive of high and solemn remembrances. Toil up the steep hill, tourist, and mount the tedious steps which place you on the heights where stands this far-famed castle. Look landward, and you have a prospect of surpassing beauty, not unmixed with grandeur; look seaward, and you may descry the cliffs of France, with many a steamboat bringing in reality those lands together which dim traditions say were once unsevered by the sea. Look not now upon the Norman keep, for after a little space we will ask you to return thither; but wind round the slight ascent which is still before you, till you are at the foot of the grassy mound upon which stand the ruined walls which attest that here the Romans trod. That octagonal building, some thirty or forty feet high, and which probably mounted to a much greater height, was a Roman pharos, or lighthouse. Mark the thickness of its walls, at least ten feet; see the peculiarity of its construction, wherever the modern casing, far more perishable than the original structure, will permit you. The beacon-fires of that tower have long been burnt out. They were succeeded by bells, which rung their merry peals when kings and lord-wardens came here in their cumbrous pageantry. The bells were removed to Portsmouth, and the old tower was unroofed. Man has taken no care of it; man has assisted the elements in its destruction. But its builders worked not for their own age alone, as the moderns work. Its foundations are laid in clay, and not upon the chalk. The thin flat bricks, which are known as Roman tiles, are laid in even courses, amidst intermediate courses of blocks of hard stalactitical concretions which must have been brought by sea from a considerable distance. Some of the tiles are of a peculiar construction, having knobs and ledges as if to bind them fast with the other materials. In the true Roman buildings the uniformity of the courses, especially where tiles are used, is most remarkable. Such is the case in this building: “With alternate courses formed of these and other Roman tiles, and then of small blocks of the stalactitical incrustations, was this edifice constructed, from the bottom to the top:—each course of tiles consisting of two rows; and each course of stalactites, of seven rows of blocks, generally about seven inches deep, and about one foot in length. Five of these alternate courses, in one part, like so many stages or stories, were discernible a few years ago very clearly.”—(King.) When the poor fisherman of Rutupiæ (Richborough) steered his oyster-laden bark to Gesoriacum (Boulogne), the pharos of Dover lent its light to make his path across the Channel less perilous and lonely. At Boulogne there was a corresponding lighthouse of Roman work; an octagonal tower, with twelve stages of floors, rising to the height of one hundred and twenty-five feet. This tower is said to have been the work of Caligula. It once stood a bowshot from the sea; but in the course of sixteen centuries the cliff was undermined, and it fell in 1644. The pharos of Dover has had a somewhat longer date, from the nature of its position. No reverence for the past has assisted to preserve what remains of one of the most interesting memorials of that dominion which had such important influences in the civilization of England. The mixed race in our country has, in fact, sprung from these old Romans; and the poetical antiquary thus carries us back to the great progenitors of Rome herself: “Whilst,” says Camden, “I treat of the Roman Empire in Britain (which lasted, as I said, about four hundred and seventy-six years), it comes into my mind how many colonies of Romans must have been transplanted hither in so long a time; what numbers of soldiers were continually sent from Rome, for garrisons; how many persons were despatched hither, to negotiate affairs, public or private; and that these, intermarrying with the Britons, seated themselves here, and multiplied into families: for, ‘Wherever’ (says Seneca) ‘the Roman conquers, he inhabits.’ So that I have ofttimes concluded that the Britons might derive themselves from the Trojans by these Romans (who doubtless descended from the Trojans), with greater probability than either the Arverni, who from Trojan blood styled themselves brethren to the Romans, or the Mamertini, Hedui, and others, who upon fabulous grounds grafted themselves into the Trojan stock. For Rome, that common mother (as one calls her), challenges all such as citizens

“Quos domuit, nexuque pio longinqua revinxit.”

(“Whom conquer’d, she in sacred bonds hath tied.”)

The old traditions connected with Dover Castle, absurd as they are, are founded upon the popular disposition to venerate ancient things. The destruction of ancient things in this country, during the last three centuries, was consummated when a sceptical, sneering, unimaginative philosophy was enabled, in its pride of reason, to despise what was old, and to give us nothing that was beautiful and venerable in the place of what had perished. Lambarde thus writes: “The Castle of Dover, say Lydgate and Rosse, was first builded by Julius Cæsar, the Roman emperor, in memory of whom they of the Castle keep till this day certain vessels of old wine and salt which they affirm to be the remain of such provision as he brought into it.” The honest topographer adds, with a beautiful simplicity, “As touching the which, if they be natural and not sophisticate, I suppose them more likely to have been of that store which Hubert de Burgh laid in there.” Now Hubert de Burgh lived three hundred and fifty years before Lambarde; and we are inclined to think that even his vessels of old wine might have stood a fair chance of being tapped and drunk out during the troublesome times which elapsed between the reign of John and the reign of Elizabeth. But yet it were vain of us to despise this confiding spirit of the old writers. We have gained nothing in literature or in art, perhaps very little in morals, by calling for absolute proof in all matters of history; and by fancying that, if we cannot have a clear microscopic bird’s-eye view of the past, we are to turn from its dimly lighted plains, and its misty hills losing themselves in the clouds, as if there were nothing soothing and elevating in their shadowy perspective. There must be doubt and difficulty and uncertainty in all that belongs to very remote antiquity:—

“Darkness surrounds us; seeking, we are lost

On Snowdon’s wilds, amid Brigantian coves,

Or where the solitary shepherd roves

Along the Plain of Sarum, by the Ghost

Of Time and Shadows of Tradition crost;

And where the boatman of the Western Isles

Slackens his course, to mark those holy piles

Which yet survive on bleak Iona’s coast.

Nor these, nor monuments of eldest fame,

Nor Taliesin’s unforgotten lays,

Nor characters of Greek or Roman fame,

To an unquestionable Source have led;

Enough—if eyes that sought the Fountain-head,

In vain, upon the growing Rill may graze.”


This is wisdom—a poet’s wisdom, which has sprung and ripened in an uncongenial age. But if we seek the “growing Rill,” we shall not gaze upon it with less pleasure if we have endeavoured, however imperfectly and erringly, to trace it to “the Fountain-head.”

Close by the pharos are the ruins of an ancient church (Fig. 89). This church, which was in the form of a cross, was unquestionably constructed of Roman materials, if it was not of Roman work. The tiles present themselves in the same regular courses as in the pharos. The later antiquarians are inclined to the belief that this church was constructed of the materials of a former Roman building. It appears exceedingly difficult to reconcile such a belief with the fact that Roman walls, wherever we find them in this country, are almost indestructible. The red and yellow tiles at Richborough, for example, of which we shall have presently to speak, are embedded as firmly in the concrete as the layers of flint in a cliff of chalk. The flints may be removed with much greater ease from the chalk than the tiles from the concrete. The whole forms a solid mass which tool can hardly touch. It would have been no economy, we believe, of labour or of material to have pulled down such a Roman building, to erect another out of its ruins; although, indeed, the building may have been destroyed, and another building of new materials may have been put together upon the principles of Roman construction. Such considerations ought to induce us not lightly to reject the traditions, which have come down to us through the old ecclesiastical annalists, of a very early Christian church, some say the first Christian church, having been erected within the original Roman, or earlier than Roman, hill-fort in Dover Castle. Little is left of this interesting ruin of some Christian church; and that little has been defaced by the alterations of successive centuries (Fig 91). But here is a religious edifice of Roman workmanship, or built after the model of Roman workmanship, in the form dear to the Christian worship, the primitive and lasting symbol of the Christian faith. It is held by some, and perhaps not unreasonably, that here stood the Prætorium of the Roman Castle—the elevated spot for state display and religious ceremonial, the place of command and of sacrifice. It is held, too, that upon such a platform was erected the Sacellum, the low building where the eagles which led the Roman soldiers to victory were guarded with reverential care. Such buildings, it is contended, might grow into Christian churches. It is difficult to establish or to disprove these theories; but the fact is certain that in several of the undoubted Roman castles, or camps, is a small building of cruciform shape, placed not far from the centre of the enclosure. At Porchester (Fig. 104) and at Dover these buildings have become churches. The chronicler of Dover Castle says (See Appendix, No. 1, to Dugdale’s Account of the Nunnery of St. Martin), “In the year of grace 180 reigned in Britain Lucius. He became a Christian under Pope Eleutherius, and served God, and advanced Holy Church as much as he could. Amongst other benefits he made a church in the said castle where the people of the town might receive the Sacraments.” The chronicler then goes on to tell us of “Arthur the Glorious,” and the hall which he made in Dover Castle; and then he comes to the dreary period of the Saxon invasion under Hengist, when “the Pagan people destroyed the churches throughout the land, and thrust out the Christians.” The remaining part of this history which pertains to the old church in the castle is told with an impressive quaintness: “In the year of grace 596, St. Gregory, the Pope, sent into England his cousin St. Augustine, and many other monks with him, to preach the Christian faith to the English. There then reigned in Kent Adelbert (Ethelbert), who, through the doctrine of St. Augustine, became a Christian with all his people; and all the other people in the land so became through the teachers which St. Augustine sent to them. This Adelbert had a son whose name was Adelbold (Eadbald), who after the death of his father reigned; and he became a Pagan, and banished the people of Holy Church out of his kingdom. Then the Archbishop of Canterbury, Laurence, who was preacher after St. Augustine, fled with others out of the land. But St. Peter appeared to him, and commanded that he should go boldly to the king and reprove him for his misdeeds. He did so, and by the grace of God the king repented and became devout to God and religious. This Adelbold ordained twenty-two secular canons in the castle to serve his chapel, and gave them twenty and two provenders (means of support). The said canons dwelt in the castle a hundred and five years, and maintained a great and fine house there, and went in and out of the castle night and day, according to their will, so that the Serjeants of the king which guarded the castle could not restrain them.” The canons, it would appear from this record, conducted themselves somewhat turbulently and irregularly during these hundred and five years, till they were finally ejected by King Withred, who removed them to the Church of St. Martin in the town of Dover, which he built for them. A fragment of the ruins of the town priory is to be seen near the market-place in Dover. This ejectment is held to have happened in the year 696. If the story be correct, the church within the castle must have been erected previous to the end of the seventh century. It might have been erected at a much earlier period, when many of the Roman soldiers of Britain were converts to the Roman faith; and here, upon that commanding rock which Matthew Paris called “Clavis et Repagulum totius Regni,” the very key and barrier of the whole kingdom, might the eagles have vailed before the emblems of the religion of peace (Figs. 92, 96), and the mailed soldiers have laid down their shields and javelins (Fig. 97) to mingle in that common worship which made the Roman and the Barbarian equals.