Romano-British Kent

Romano-British Kent

When Caesar withdrew at the end of the campaigning season in 54 B.C. it is very probable that he meant to return the following year, or soon after, to undertake the conquest of Britain in earnest. However, matters elsewhere in the Empire then engaged his attention, especially a series of rebellions in Gaul, and neither Caesar nor his immediate successors could find time or opportunity to return to the British affair begun in 55 and 54 B.C.

This did not mean that contact between Britain and the Continent was broken off. Of direct contact with Rome there was little or none; the defeated Cassivellaunus had promised to pay a stated annual tribute to Rome and perhaps may have done so for a few years, although that is uncertain. It was not directly with distant Rome but with the highly civilised Belgae of Romanised Gaul that south-east Britain was in close contact. Some Belgic chieftains held sway over tribes on both sides of the English Channel; there was a steady trade across the Strait of Dover, Britain exporting corn, cattle, gold, silver, iron, hides, slaves and hunting-dogs, and importing such luxury goods as wine and oil, bronze furniture, finer pottery than the Britons themselves could make, jewellery, silver table-ware and glass-ware. The coins of the British kings at is period show how much they were under the influence of Gaul, and so, directly, of Rome.

Although it was almost a hundred years before the Romans returned to these shores the conquest of Britain was a project that had merely been postponed, not abandoned. At last, in A.D.43 the Emperor Claudius, mistrusting the increasingly anti-Roman attitude of the British leaders and judging that conditions in other parts of the Empire, and especially in Gaul, were now quiet enough for him to embark safely upon a large military expedition, despatched Aulus Plautius with some 40,000 men to undertake the conquest of Britain. They sailed from Boulogne in three divisions, made for the Kentish coast, and landed at Richborough, with perhaps diversionary landings elsewhere. The earthen banks which they threw up to protect their base-camp at Richborough can still be seen within the great masonry walls of the later Roman fort.

At this point it is necessary to digress for a moment to give some description of the Kentish coast as it existed 2,000 years ago. To say that the ‘Romans landed at Richborough’, that is at a point which is now two miles from the sea, obviously calls for some explanation. The map on page 25 gives some idea of the changes

that have taken place in the coastline since the time of Caesar and Claudius. Thanet was an island, cut off from the mainland by an arm of the sea which slowly silted up, but which remained navigable until the Middle Ages, and was known as the River Wantsum; the coastline of the Thames estuary near Reculver was some distance farther north of its present position; Richborough (Rutupiae to give it its old name) was an island in the Wantsum; the great triangle of Romney Marsh and Walland Marsh had not yet been formed (Ebony, meaning Ebba i island; Oxney, the isle of oxen; and Midley, middle island, perpetuate in. their names the conditions that existed before the Marsh became firm land); Hytbe was a coastal harbour; below the hill at Lympne was a harbour on an inlet of the sea; the haven of Dover was inland from the present sea­front on the site of the modern Market Square; and the River Swale was probably twice its present width.

The Roman landing at Richborough was unopposed. The Britons were anything but a homogeneous, united nation and although Cunobelinus (Shakespeare’s Cymbeline) had enlarged his Belgic kingdom, which was originally limited to the area north of the Thames, by bringing south-east Britain under his sway, the Kentish tribes were still semi-independent. To organise an effective resistance to the invaders was beyond the capacity of Cunobelinus’s less able sons, Caractacus and Togodumnus, who succeeded him. Separately they raised armies and hastened into east Kent, but they hastened only to their own defeat, and Plautius became master of Kent east of the Medway. A more serious attempt to stem the Roman advance was made on the line of the Medway, somewhere about Rochester. The fact that the battle lasted two days, most unusual in warfare of that period, shows how fierce a resistance was offered, but by the end of the second day the Britons were streaming westward in defeat. Plautius, in pursuit of the retreating Britons, crossed the Thames at London, and Kent saw no more of the fighting. Within a few years the Romans had brought all the lowland part of Britain under their control, but the attempt to subjugate the northern and western highlands was a long-drawn-out and never entirely successful operation. Thus the army’s main pre-occupation was not in the south-east but in the west and north, where it has left such memorials of its power as Hadrian’s Wall, and the great legionary forts of Caerleon, Chester and York.

The Roman occupation lasted for a long time, not far short of 400 years. Looking at the period in retrospect we may, unless we are on our guard, endow it with a uniformity which it did not possess. The fortunes of the Roman Empire fluctuated and the province of Britain had its ups and downs no less than the rest. What was true of one century was not necessarily true of the next, and what held good for one part of the country did not necessarily apply to the remainder. The British occupation of India lasted only half as long as the Roman occupation of these islands; if we remember how great were the dif­ferences which divided the India of Clive from the India of Gandhi and Lord Mountbatten, we shall be less likely to make the mistake of thinking of the Roman era in Britain as possessing a greater homogeneity than it really had.

Into part of Britain the Romans introduced their own system of provincial government, but elsewhere they followed their customary practice of using native chieftains through and by whom the business of government was performed. Near or on the site of the old tribal capitals new Roman cities were built. Thus Roman Canterbury came into existence, possibly supplanting a former tribal capital at nearby Bigbury. Canterbury became an important settlement because it was the junction of the roads which led from the ports of Rutupiae (Richborough), Dubris (Dover) and Lemanis (Lympne) to London and beyond. The modern roads from Canterbury to Sandwich, Dover and Lympne follow over much of their length the lines of the Roman roads, and are still remarkable for their straightness. It was only where there was some serious obstacle, such as the scarp of the Downs above Stanford, that the Roman road deviated from the most direct route. Westward from Canterbury ran the road which much later came to be known as Watling Street, climbing up over the edge of Blean Forest and thence making its way to Rochester in an almost perfectly straight line. Across the Medway at Rochester the Romans built a bridge, supported on wooden piles which were rediscovered in the 19th century, and on the west side of the river the road was carried on a causeway across the marsh to the foot of Strood hill (the name Strood is significant, for it means marshy land overgrown with brushwood). From there the road runs in an almost direct line to London, except for slight changes of direction at Cobham woods and at Swanscombe hill.

These were the main roads that the Romans made. They were solid, hard roads, 12 ft. or more in width, and so strongly constructed that they remained in use as the main routes for hundreds of years after the Romans had departed, and were such conspicuous features of the landscape that later they were often adopted as parish boundaries and still serve as such. The purpose of these roads is obvious, to provide communication between London, already a great town and the centre of the road system in Britain, and the ports which were the link with the Continent and distant Rome. Without such a system of communications and roads along which, if the need arose, military forces could speedily be moved, the Empire would never have held together. And besides armies, through these Kentish ports and along these arterial highways travelled merchants and traders engaged in the extensive and profitable import and export business.

Map Showing Roman Occupation in Kent
Map Showing Roman Occupation in Kent

Other less important roads also existed, of more commercial than military significance. Some of these roads were constructed to link thickly-settled areas, such as the Medway Valley, with Watling Street. One road, running southward from Rochester and Maidstone, crossed the Weald to Hastings and the Sussex iron-working district; another left that road at a point south of Maidstone and passed eastward along the line of the greensand hills to Lympne; another ran south-westward from Canterbury, over Godmersham Downs, through Ashford, Tenterden and Benenden to the iron-working district; shorter roads connected Reculver with Canterbury, Lympne with Dover, and Dover with Richborough. And, in addition to the Roman roads, the prehistoric trackways, such as the so-called Pilgrims’ Way, no doubt continued in use at least in part, following as they did the most favourable contour line and avoiding the heavy-clays.

Canterbury, Rochester and Dover were Roman towns, of which Canterbury was the largest, yet not to be compared in size with such towns as London, Verulamium, Cirencester, Silchester or Colchester. Canterbury and Rochester, some parts of the Roman walls of which are still visible, mark prominent river-crossings. Dover was a port, and opportunities for excavation in the course of new road construction near the centre of the town during 1971 revealed the existence of a Roman fort of remarkable size and strength. Some of its rooms reached the same high standard of civilised decoration as houses in Italy itself, and there is little doubt that this important fort was the headquarters of the Roman fleet based in Britain. In other parts of Kent, notably along the line of Wailing Street at Ospringe and Milton Regis, and, west of the Medway, at Springhead and Dartford; in the Medway Valley from Burham to Wateringbury; and in the Darent Valley, Romanised settlements were numerous and close together, but none of these areas—apart from Springhead, perhaps—could properly be called a town.

Country life in Romano-British Kent, as elsewhere in Britain, was organised on a different basis from town life. The characteristic feature of the countryside was the villa, of which more than fifty examples are known in Kent; four of the finest are those at Lullingstone, Eccles, Folkestone and Darenth. Villa is apt to be a misleading term; these Roman country houses must be thought of more in terms of the medieval manor house, surrounded by its estate of farm-lands than as comparable with a Renaissance Italian villa, or still less with the sort of building that now goes by that name. Not all villas, in fact, were farm­houses. The large villa on the East Cliff at Folkestone may or may not have been an official residence of the admiral in command of the Roman fleet in Britain, but it can scarcely have been the centre of an agricultural estate. The even larger villa at Darenth was apparently used for fulling cloth, an indication that the weaving of local wool into cloth was an active industry in Kent. Other industries were the making of tiles at Plaxtol, of pottery at many places. including Upchurch which has given its name to a widely found variety of pottery, the quarrying of stone near Maidstone and Lympne, and, near the Sussex border, the smelting and forging of iron-ore. Agriculture, however, as throughout Kent’s history, was the most important industry, especially the growing of corn and even as far back as the first century A.D. Kent farmers had learnt sufficient of the art of agriculture to know the advantages of dressing the heavier clay-lands with marl or chalk which was dug for that purpose.

Throughout Britain, and indeed throughout the Empire, town-life was in decay by the end of the third century. The reasons for the decline are obscure, and it is the more puzzling that this was the period when the villa system was at its zenith. Whatever the explanation, there is no gainsaying the evidence.

The fourth century saw the beginning of Britain’s time of troubles. Through internal dissension and the aggressions of barbarians from without, the Empire had been so weakened that it was no longer in a position to control events in its outermost provinces. The Picts of North Britain and the Irish, two people., who had never submitted to Roman dominion, resumed their raids, and even came as far south as Kent. Meanwhile the barbarians from across the North Sea began to harry the maritime countryside and it was against the menace of the Saxon and Frankish pirates that about the year 300 a series of 11 great forts were built at strategic points along the coast from the Wash to the Isle of Wight. No fewer than four of them were in Kent—Reculver, Richborough Dover and Lympne. A fleet to guard Britain had been in existence from the first century A.D., as we know from the many tiles that have been discovered at Folkestone, Dover, Lympne and elsewhere stamped with the letters CL BR i.e. Classis Britannica, the Britannic fleet. In the fourth century the forts were associated with the fleet and an officer called the Count of the Saxon Shore was appointed to take charge of coastal defence by land and by sea.


Jupiter abducting Europa
Lullingstone Roman villa. This part of the mosaic floor depicts Jupiter, in the form of a bull, abducting Europa while accompanied by two cupids. This floor is dated to about the middle of the fourth century.

Of the four Kentish forts the northern part of Reculver has been washed away by the sea, but the south, and parts of the east and west walls remain now enclosing the ruins of a Saxon church founded in the seventh century Stutfall Castle at Lympne has collapsed down the hillside, and is represented only by scattered blocks of fallen masonry; the remains of the great fort at Dover, which stood on the floor of the valley, not on the site of the existing Dover Castle, have only recently been rediscovered; Richborough survives as an impressive ruin, with huge walls 10 to 12 ft. thick and in places 25 ft. high which stand up above the level of the marsh as a startling visual reminder of the might of Rome.

Nevertheless these defences could not, in the end, protect Britain from invasion by the Saxons and the Franks. By the beginning of the fifth century the Empire was under attack on many fronts, and Rome herself was in danger. Some troops were withdrawn from Britain and the chain of military command broke down. The Emperor could only advise the Britons to shift for themselves, and although there may have been a partial Roman re-occupation for a few years the link with Rome, by about A.D. 425, had finally been severed.

What were the effects of the Roman occupation on Britain, and especially it this south-eastern corner of the province, Cantium? Judging from the number of coins, from the quality of the pottery which has been discovered, from the excellent glassware which was imported, and from the number of great amphorae for wine and oil, brought from the Mediterranean, it was a time of material prosperity based partly on agriculture, partly on Kent’s position across the main route from London to Gaul and Rome. The roads which the Romans built left a permanent mark on the face of the countryside. The larger farmers inhabiting their villas, centrally heated and with a sometimes elaborate system of bath-houses, lived a life of considerable comfort. In Canterbury there was a theatre as well as public baths for the delectation of the citizens. Industry was scattered; in a few centres it attained a level of some importance. The upper classes spoke Latin, and so also to some extent did the artisans, as we know from the comments which builders sometimes scrawled, in Latin, on the buildings on which they were working, and from the tiles from the Plaxtol villa which bear the maker’s advertising slogan, spelled out in Latin.

In matters of art the Romans contributed little. In religion it was otherwise. The worship of the British local gods was not forbidden—Romano-Celtic temples at Richborough and Worth are evidence of such toleration, but the army introduced the cults of Jupiter, Mars and Mercury, and eastern religions from Egypt, Syria and Asia. Christianity seems to have reached Britain not later than the year A.D. 200, and made steady progress during the third century. If Christian churches were built in this period, none has survived. However, within the last few years the excavation of the Roman villa at Lullingstone has revealed that the walls of one room were once painted with Christian symbols and pictures, and probably what was true of one villa was true also of some of the others.

We must now turn to the question of what happened to this civilisation when the Romans finally left these islands.