To what extent was Britain romanised?


Britain was under continuous Roman control from 43 - 410 CE, and there is evidence of contact, particularly in the form of trade, before this. The effects of this occupation have long been debated by historians. However, before we explore the degree to which roads can be considered as romanisation, and how much influence Latin has on the English language, we need to evaluate what 'romanisation' actually is.

If you consider the Roman Empire as a whole, it becomes obvious that there was no specific policy of 'romanisation'. What was far more usual was the amalgamation of aspects of Roman and indigenous culture. For example, the goddess worshipped at Bath was Sulis Minerva: a conglomeration of the Celtic goddess Sulis and the Roman goddess of wisdom, Minerva. Sulis Minerva was specific to Britain, but combinations of Roman deities with local gods and goddesses were not unusual throughout the empire.

Certain Roman ideals were 'imported' into the provinces, for example the idea of the forum, the basilica, the baths, and the amphitheatre. Generally, these were to enable efficient government and give the Roman officials some form of comfort and familiarity. For members of the local communities who wished to advance in Roman civic life, these tools of government and amenities would become pivotal to their lives.

So, 'romanisation' is actually a very loose term that varied from province to province. It was about convincing the locals that they were 'Roman' by converting them — to whatever extent was feasible — to Roman customs and manners. The most obvious aspects of Roman life that were customarily stamped on provinces were associated with the elite, who would generally but not exclusively have been from Roman stock.

Town and Country

Towns were very much a Roman introduction to Britain. Camulodunum (Colchester), Eboracum (York), and Londinium (London) were Roman developments. The town served a variety of purposes for the Romans, most of which are also recognisable in modern society. It acted as a centre for administration, trade, religion, and entertainment. It was also where the elite conspiciously consumed goods and services in competition with each other.

The physical presence of the town remained following the Roman withdrawal, and although long-term it can be seen that towns have returned to something similar to the Roman lines on which they were originally modelled, in the short-term the Roman impact was minimal as towns went into decline. There was no state level administration owing to the loss of the administrative hierarchy. The elite no longer competed with each other for social recognition. Markets became a peripatetic affair, rather than a fixed institution. At the time of the Norman Conquest, over 90 percent of England was a rural economy.

The country estate was another Roman introduction that fell from use after their withdrawal. There is archaeological evidence to suggest that when the Romans moved out of their villas, several families and their animals moved in. The villa was another elite idea; after the loss of the administrative hierarchy, the elite faded from view, along with their trappings.


At the time of the Boudiccan Rebellion in 61 CE, there were four standing legions in Britain. Throughout the second century, Britain supported three legions. What was it that necessitated such a strong military presence on such a small island? Not only that, but these were legions commanded by crack generals. When rebellion stirred in Judaea in 135 CE, a general from Britain was brought over to lead its suppression. If the island was restless enough to warrant that degree of army involvement, how far could 'romanisation' have penetrated? Furthermore, the heavy military presence, especially in the north around Hadrian's Wall, would have prevented the growth of an administrative elite and its urban development and associated institutions. As soon as the army withdrew from Britain, all vestiges of 'romanisation' went with it.

Roman veterans who had served in Britain would probably have settled there in their retirement and married into local families, which could possibly have brought a degree of 'romanisation'. However, just as they brought Roman values and practices with them, it is also likely that they would have adopted local customs, too. Therefore, rather than bringing 'romanisation' what emerged was a cultural amalgam.


Religion is perhaps the hardest aspect of romanisation to determine. We know that Sulis and Minerva were amalgamated in the Bath area. We know that the Druid priests resident on Mona (Anglesey) were annihilated by Suetonius Paulinus in 61 CE. We know that there were some churches by the time of the withdrawal, at which point the official religion of the empire was Christianity. However, we do not know to what extent Christianity had spread throughout Britain and to what degree the old pagan rites continued to be practised.

All Roads lead to Rome?

Well, in Roman Britain, the majority of roads led to London. There is a strong legacy of 'romanisation' in the form of roads throughout Britain. What used to be known as Watling Street is now known as the A5, running through central London and heading north to St Albans (Roman Verulanium) and Chester (Roman Deva). What is now the A1 used to be known as Ermine Street and linked York to London.


Britain was geographically remote and isolated from the empire, meaning that it received fewer cultural influences to draw it into the empire, but actually needed more of them to give it a sense of belonging. The experiences needed for 'romanisation' were always going to be weaker in Britain. This weakness would have been compounded by the invasions that Britain suffered following the Roman withdrawal. Britain was invaded by groups of people that were also culturally removed from Rome, thereby Britain was distanced yet further from Roman influence.


English is a hybrid language: lots of Germanic influences, some Latin, and even a bit of Greek. The evidence suggests that at the time of the Roman invasion, various forms of Celtic language were spoken in Britain, and Old English, that was spoken upto the Norman invasion, was predominatly a Germanic language. This Old English was a language found previously in areas of what is now Germany that the Romans never conquered. The Latin influences that can be found in modern English are mostly derived from Norman French that was amalgamated with Old English after 1066. Rome's linguistic influence did not take root in Britain for 500 years after its withdrawal. Given that language was key to the principle of cultural assimilation and thus that Latin was essential to romanisation, this suggests limitations to the romanisation of Britain.


It seems to me that 'romanisation' in Britain was a rather superficial affair, as opposed to a deeply ingrained cultural superiority or amalgam. Without a directed policy from Rome, there was no homogenous provincial ideal. When the major aspects of 'romanisation' were aimed at the administrative layer of society, these would only last as long as the hierarchy demanded organisation. Yes, Rome did leave a legacy, but aside from the roads, it seems to have been somewhat retrospective. The attitude towards empire in the 18th and 19th centuries drew a great deal from the Roman version. Latin was incorporated into English as the result of another invasion. Britain — or Albion — seems very much to have maintained an individuality, throughout and beyond Roman occupation. Perhaps occupation is the key word.

Building blocks:

  • Osborn, G: Hadrian's Wall and its People (forthcoming).
  • Oxford Classical Dictionary.
  • Eck, W: 'The Bar Kokhba Revolt: The Roman Point of View', Journal of Roman Studies LXXXIX 1999, pp.76-89.

Many thanks due to aneurin.

Auduster points out that prior to the Roman invasion there was a flourishing cottage industry in Britain, producing metal and ceramics. The Romans wiped this out by importing their own cheaper and better-quality products. However, the industry revived and self-sufficiency returned after Roman withdrawal.