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Romans Invade and Occupy

Darlun 19eg, "Y Rhufeiniaid yn glanio ym Mhrydain" / 19th-century illustration, "Landing of the Romans in Britain"; © Eon Images

An island called "Mona Insula"

In AD 60 the Romans launched a fierce assault on Anglesey, the island they called Mona Insula. This fateful day had been a long time coming.

It was the Roman emperor Claudius who had first ordered a full-scale invasion of Britain, back in AD 43. His disciplined, professional legions won control of southern Britain within four years - but it took much longer to subdue the west.

Anglesey becomes a centre of resistance

As the Romans advanced, Britons such as the rebellious leader Caratacus withdrew westwards to the Welsh mountains, where they stiffened resistance. Tribes such as the Silures of South Wales and the Ordovices and Deceangli of the North fought a long war of attrition.

© Cadw, Welsh Government (Crown Copyright)A recently appointed Roman governor led the first attack on Anglesey. He was a ruthless general named Suetonius Paulinus, a veteran of campaigns in North Africa.

The route of his attack is unknown. Some historians suggest that his troops crossed the Lafan sands, at the northeastern approaches to the Menai Strait. Others believe they tackled the narrower southwestern section of the Strait, nearer Caernarfon. We know that the cavalry swam their horses over, while flat-bottomed boats carried the infantry.

Hardened soldiers frightened by Druids and women in black

Let the Roman historian Tacitus set the scene:

© Fotograf77 | Dreamstime.com"On the beach stood the adverse array, a serried mass of arms and men, with women flitting between the ranks. In the style of Furies, in robes of deathly black and with dishevelled hair, they brandished their torches; while a circle of Druids, lifting their hands to heaven and showering imprecations, struck the troops with such an awe at the extraordinary spectacle that [it was] as though their limbs were paralysed, they exposed their bodies to wounds without an attempt at movement."

Reassured by their general, and inciting each other never to flinch before a band of females and fanatics, the Romans then charged behind the standards, cut down all who met them, and enveloped the enemy in his own flames.

A savage attack

© Kevin Fourie | Dreamstime.comThe savagery of the Roman attack and its focus on sacred sites suggests that Anglesey may have been especially sacred to the Druids, and that it had become a major centre of resistance.

Anglesey was conquered . . . or was it? Desperate news arrived for Suetonius from eastern and southern Britain. A major revolt had broken out, led by Boudicca, queen of the Iceni tribe. London was in flames. Suetonius had to march his troops south at speed and put down the insurrection. 

It was 78 AD before another Roman general, Agricola, returned to the Menai Strait. He captured the island in a single, sudden attack. His troops swam through the shallows and waded ashore, without even preparing an invasion fleet.  This time the islanders were taken by surprise and had no choice but to surrender.

Life under occupation

Anglesey was now on the western limits of the vast Roman empire. The military governed the island from the mainland. Segontium, their impressive fort, can still to be seen on the outskirts of Caernarfon.  A new road linked this to the fort of Deva Victrix, at Chester.

© Cadw, Welsh Government (Crown Copyright)The larger native farmsteads of the Iron Age now supplied grain, wool and hides to the new masters. Fortified farms such as Bryn Eryr (near Rhoscefnhir), Caer Lêb (near Brynsiencyn) and Din Lligwy (near Moelfre) seem to have prospered, judging by finds of Roman coins and high quality pottery.

It may have been during the Roman occupation that mouldboards (ploughshares which could turn the soil over and bury weeds) first appeared on Anglesey.

Historians describe the society after the conquest as Romano-British. But for the islanders of Anglesey, everyday life was probably not so different from life before their traumatic defeat. People still lived in communities of roundhouses or within the old walls of hillforts, harvesting wheat and shearing sheep. 

Archaeological finds also highlight Roman shipping and trade - a stone anchor from the Menai Strait, or the copper ingots weighing up to 19 kg, bearing official stamps, found in various locations. The Romans were probably mining copper at Parys mountain, near Amlwch, although no direct evidence survives on site.

A major Roman-era settlement at Tai Cochion

This was frontier country, an unlikely spot perhaps for a wealthy Roman to settle down and build a luxury villa. However recent excavations at Tai Cochion, near the village of Dwyran and the Menai Strait, do show that an urban centre existed opposite Segontium in the second and third centuries AD.  This was probably a centre for trade between local people and the Roman garrison across the Strait. Some 25 Roman buildings have been discovered at the site so far, as well as a section of road 8 metres wide, a lime kiln and much pottery.

British slaves build a road for the Romans;© 2012 MILES KELLY / fotoLibraThe Romans had broken the political power of the Druids, but for a time islanders still made votive offerings at Anglesey's sacred lake, Llyn Cerrig Bach. Roman soldiers soon associated British gods with their own, and they themselves increasingly took up new religious cults, such as worship of the god Mithras.

Christian worship became legal throughout the Roman empire in AD 313 and spread through Britain in the years that followed.       

Keeping the Irish at bay

The chief threat to Roman power in Wales did not come from the defeated Britons but from pirates and raiders who sailed across the Irish Sea. Ireland was never a part of the Roman empire, although the many Roman goods discovered at Irish sites prove there was contact and trade. 

Roman fort at Caergybi; © Cadw, Welsh Government (Crown Copyright)In the 290s or early 300s AD the Romans decided to improve Anglesey's defences. They built a naval base and small fort at Caergybi (Holyhead), as well as a watchtower or beacon on top of Holyhead mountain. Herring-boned late Roman masonry can still be seen in parts of the wall surrounding the church of St Cybi.

By the end of the fourth century AD the Roman legions had been withdrawn from Wales, and in the 400s they left Britain for good. Germanic tribes were pouring through the empire's continental frontiers, and the great city of Rome was at risk.

Some believe that the Red Dragon emblem of Wales may have its origins in the draco - a  flying red dragon standard first used in Asia and adopted by the Roman cavalry. Nobody really knows - but we do know that when walking in Anglesey, we are walking in the footsteps of the legions.

-- by  Philip Steele