Darlun 19eg, "Y Rhufeiniaid yn glanio ym Mhrydain" / 19th-century illustration, "Landing of the Romans in Britain"; © Eon Images
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.
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.
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
Let the Roman historian Tacitus set the scene:
"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
The 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
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
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.
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
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
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.
The 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
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.
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