The Romans

The Romans

When Julius Caesar landed on the south coast near Deal in 55 BC it is uncertain whether he came to conquer the Celtic tribes or simply to reconnoitre for the future. In the event, a number of circumstances, including gale damage to his fleet, meant that his first foray was a short one. Not deterred, he returned the following year with a larger and better equipped army, intent upon conquest. Britain had become a safe haven for the warring Belgic tribes of Gaul and it had even supplied troops fighting against the Roman legions on the mainland. Caesar was anxious to remove this threat to the north-western flank of his Gaulish conquests.

He found the tribes of southern Britain at war with each other. The most powerful tribe was the Catuvellauni, recent arrivals from Gaul, who had quickly carved out a substantial territory for themselves in an area to the north of the Thames, in what is now mainly Hertfordshire. Caesar’s arrival soon had the effect of rallying the tribes behind Cassivellaunus, the leader of the Catuvellauni, who fought an initially successful but doomed campaign to destroy the Roman legions.

The route that Caesar took in order to seek out and destroy the centre of Cassivellaunus’s operations, a hillfort beside the present settlement of Wheathampstead, has always been a source of argument and conjecture. On the route from Kent his army would have marched through northeastern Surrey, but whether he turned his troops south to attack the occupants of Anstlebury, Holmbury and Hascombe is a matter of conjecture. The evidence of archaeologists certainly points to these forts having been abandoned at this time. Caesar’s route north was blocked by the river Thames, wider but shallower in those days, but where did he cross in order to reach the heartland of the enemy?

It was the 16th century antiquarian and historian, William Camden, who thought he had found the answer:

“Tis impossible I should be mistaken in the place because here the river

is scarce six foot deep, and the place at this day, from those stakes, is call’d Coway-stakes; I am the first that I know of, who has mention’d and settl’d it in its proper place.’

Camden was referring to the bend in the river upstream of the present Walton Bridge towards Oatlands, where there were once supposed to be lines of stakes across the river marking a ford. His ideas were accepted without question for more than 300 years.

The poet John Milton, writing in the mid 17th century, applied his fertile imagination to Camden’s certainty:

‘Whereof advertised, Caesar marches onward to the frontiers of Cassibelan, which on this side were bounded by the Thames; not passable except in one place and that difficult, about Coway Stakes near Oatlands, as is conjectured. Hither coming he descries on the other side great forces of the enemy, placed in good array; the bank sett all with sharp stakes, others in the bottom covered with water. . .’

This certainty as to Caesar’s crossing point continued until well into the last century – the site even being marked on early Ordnance Survey maps. The truth is that there is no solid evidence that this famous crossing of the Thames took place near Walton. All that can be said is that the Roman army crossed somewhere, and it could just as well have been here as anywhere else.

Once across the Thames, Caesar’s legions quickly stormed the citadel of Cassivellaunus, who soon after made his peace with the Roman leader. However, despite Caesar’s successes in battle, Britain was not at this time to be absorbed. Further trouble in Gaul forced Caesar to abandon his campaign and return across the Channel. He left a southern Britain firmly in Rome’s sphere of influence but not yet entirely subdued.

During the next 90 years or so the Surrey area of Britain was the subject of a power struggle between the Celtic tribes. Eventually either the Trinovantes or the Catuvellauni drove out the Atrebates in the west whilst in the east it is unclear whose rule held sway.

Caesar’s invasions of Britain had in the main failed not because of the fighting skills of the Britons nor because of his lack of success in finding a safe haven for his fleet. The failure was due to the lack of stability in Gaul. Once the tribes there had been subdued and the efficiency of Roman administration applied, it was inevitable that Rome would turn again to invasion of Britain.

When the invasion came in AD 43, under Emperor Claudius, the Roman legions led by Aulus Plautius did not face the same problems as Julius Caesar had. Their landing place was carefully chosen to avoid any danger to the fleet. The current theory is that the legions came ashore in Chichester Harbour. They then made their way north through Sussex and Surrey with the local inhabitants offering little resistance. The local tribes quickly submitted to Roman rule. Indeed, many of them may have welcomed the Romans as allies. The lack of any significant evidence for a military presence at this time or, unlike Maiden Castle in Dorset, of any defence of Surrey’s hillforts, supports this view.

Once the invaders were established the Romanisation of southern Britain began. The founding of London took place within seven years of the invasion and soon the task of linking settlements with a network of roads began. This process was to establish the main pattern of communication which has controlled the development of the Surrey area ever since. The major roads passing through the area ran from London to Silchester, crossing the Thames at Staines, and from London to Chichester, which crossed the river at Southwark. Long after the Roman civilisation in Britain had collapsed a superstitious population gave the former the name ‘The Devil’s Highway’, whilst the latter was called Stane Street. Another road from the capital crossed the east side of the county and headed towards a port at Lewes. A further road diverged from Stane Street at Alfoldean, just over the present border with Sussex, and headed north-west towards Farley Heath. It almost certainly continued on through the Wey gap at Guildford to link up with the London to Silchester road. There is much research still to be done concerning this road, for its course has been traced with certainty for only the first few miles from Alfoldean. There must also have been a number of minor roads linking known Roman settlement sites, whose routes still await discovery.

Roman roads were constructed to follow the shortest possible route, deviating only to avoid impossibly steep hills or marshy ground. In Surrey they were mainly constructed of flint with gravel surfacing and today the best preserved sections are on Stane Street. From the B2033 road to Headley the Roman road is still used as a bridleway as it heads towards Mickleham Downs. The original metalling has survived in many places, particularly where it has been protected by overhanging bushes. Further along the route to Chichester the A29 through Ockley runs on the original Roman raised causeway, or aggar, for over two miles.

The Romans divided up the administration of their conquest upon Celtic tribal lines. Although it is unclear how this system worked in the Surrey area, it is likely that it was split between the Regni in the south, whose capital was Chichester, the Atrebates in the west, based on Silchester, and the Cantiaci in the east, with Canterbury as their centre. Much of the administration was carried out by Celtic leaders who readily adopted the Roman way of life. It is important to emphasize that many ‘Romans’ were not born and bred in Rome. For example, most of the men of the legions which had spearheaded the invasion of Britain came from Gaul and the Iberian Peninsula. Hence, archaeologists and historians refer to people of Britain during the Roman period as ‘Romano-Britons’ as most of the population still consisted of the native Celts. It is also important to realise that their administrative areas bore no relationship to the area of Surrey, which did not exist until Saxon times.

The Surrey area was, therefore, very much on the boundaries of these territories and, as a result, lacks any major Roman town. However, a number of fairly extensive settlements have been identified. These include Staines, known as ‘Pontibus’, meaning ‘at the bridges’, from the two bridges adjacent to the settlement. One carried the London to Silchester road over the Thames, and a second probably crossed the river Come. Despite its strategic position Staines was only a small town, covering four or five hectares at most. It may have developed simply as a stopping place at the river crossings, although it is possible that a fort may have been built here soon after the invasion, around which a settlement developed.

At Ewell a straggling development grew up along Stane Street, adjacent to the natural springs. At Merton and at Dorking there may have been posting stations on the London to Chichester road. In the Dorking area scatters of Roman material have been found at three different sites – Burford Bridge, where Stane Street would have crossed the river Mole, in Dorking town centre itself and at Pixham, where the Pippbrook joins the river Mole. The evidence for Roman settlements at Croydon and Burpham, north of Guildford, is also based on a scatter of material, but enough to suggest that at these places there was substantially more than just a single habitation.

The majority of the population of Roman Britain lived and worked in the countryside. Until recently there has been very little opportunity for archaeologists to investigate sites which could illustrate how the native population lived, the nature of their homes or how they were affected by a new administration and, perhaps, new masters. Now farmsteads have been discovered at Thorpe Lea near Egham and a rural settlement at Lightwater. Gradually some evidence, mainly in the form of pottery and simple iron tools, is being obtained, particularly from the contents of rubbish pits. These finds suggest that their everyday lives were probably little altered from what was experienced before the invasion.

It was the more successful Romano-Britons who occupied the villas. These buildings represented the controlling centre of working estates. Nearly 20 villa sites have so far been discovered in Surrey and they are fairly evenly distributed throughout the county, apart from an absence on the sandy heathlands of the north-west. The villa owners, whether incomers or Romano-Britons, wholeheartedly embraced the new culture and the Roman way of life. They warmed their homes with underfloor heating or hypocausts, such as the example found at Ashtead. They built elaborate baths like that discovered at Chatley Heath, near Cobham, and they also paved the rooms of their villas with mosaics – the best Surrey example coming from the villa on Walton Heath.

Practically all of Surrey’s villas were in existence by the middle of the 2nd century and they remained in use, sometimes with interruptions, until the 4th century, when most of them appear to have been abandoned for good. However, it has been suggested that some sites in south-west Surrey may have continued to be occupied well into the 5th century, long after the normally accepted end of the Roman period in Britain.

Surviving evidence supports the view that Surrey had only a few industries during the Roman period and most of the prosperity of its inhabitants was based on agriculture. At Ashtead there was a tileworks attached to a villa, which may have come into operation shortly after the conquest. Here a large variety of tiles were manufactured, not only for roofing, but also for the construction of hypocausts. Products from the tile kilns here may well have been distributed over much of south-eastern England. Tiles were also made at the villa at Rapsley near Ewhurst, Horton near Epsom and probably at a site near Reigate.

Alice Holt Forest, just across the border into Hampshire, was a major centre for the manufacture of pottery. The industry has also been found in the adjacent parts of Surrey, at Farnham and also near Tilford. Here utilitarian, fairly coarse grey pottery, sometimes decorated with white slip and incised decoration, was made. Pottery kilns have also been discovered at Farley Heath and near Wisley, and it is postulated that a pottery industry must have existed near Leatherhead. The kilns in the Farnham area started early in the period but were at their height of production in the 4th century.

The Romans appear to have tolerated the religious beliefs of the native population, who, in return, had no trouble in accommodating some of the Roman gods, such as Mars, Jupiter, Apollo and Minerva. The sites of three Romano-Celtic temples are known in Surrey – at Titsey, Farley Heath and Wanborough. At the last two important discoveries of objects and offerings, mainly in the form of coins, have been made. The temple at Wanborough on the northern side of the Hog’s Back has only recently been excavated. Finds made by archaeologists included hundreds of Celtic and Roman gold and silver coins and chain head-dresses decorated with standing wheels. Unfortunately, nationally important artefacts and information were lost on this site because of the attentions of illegal metal detector users, who ransacked some areas of the site before the archaeologists arrived. The temples at Wanborough and Farley Heath may have survived as important religious places until well into the 5th century.

For 250 years after Aulus Plautius’s invasion, the Roman province of Britannia prospered. Then, during the 4th century, the threats to the stability of the Roman Empire, both from within and without, began to mount. Internal strife and civil war, barbarian incursions across its long frontiers, all contributed to the increasing strain which brought the Empire to breaking point. It is significant that the majority of Surrey’s villas seem to have been abandoned by the end of the 4th century. Town settlements such as Staines experienced a revival during the 4th century following a period of stagnation, but they too had collapsed by AD 410. In that year the Emperor Honorius, with his western dominion on the verge of collapse, is said to have told the peoples of Britannia that they must, from now on, look to their own defence – in other words, Rome could no longer guarantee to supply troops to protect the province. They were needed elsewhere to defend the Empire in the west from barbarian raiders who were, at that very moment, at the gates of Rome.