Legions of Britain

Legions of Britain

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After the Roman emperor Claudius (r. 41-54 CE) successfully conquered Britain in 43 CE, four legions were left there to maintain the peace: XIV Gemina, II Augusta, IX Hispana, and XX Valeria Victrix. However, by the end of the decade, XIV Gemina was replaced by II Adiutrix.

Gradually, the legions expanded Roman control west into Wales and northward to Scotland, but despite the continued presence of legionaries, Britain never fully accepted Rome's authority. A clear indication of this was the Boudicca Revolt of 60 CE where four cohorts of IX Hispana were ambushed and wiped out.

Under the command of Petilius Cerialis, II Adiutrix took part in his campaign against the Celtic Brigantes and in Agricola’s 79-84 CE campaign in Scotland before being recalled to the Danube in 87 CE. Temporarily, only three legions remained in Roman Britain until VI Victrix arrived in 122 CE. Attempts to conquer Scotland led to the building of Hadrian's Wall (122 CE) and the Antonine Wall (140s CE). As a result of the Crisis of the Third Century, invasions, and various other problems that plagued the Western Roman Empire in the 3rd and 4th centuries CE, the ability to control the island waned. By the end of Roman occupation, only one legion, VI Victrix remained, and the province was abandoned in 410 CE.

Legion Names & Emblems

There is little consistency in the naming and numbering of the legions. Some legions were named after a successful campaign, others, in the case of Vespasian and Trajan, after the imperial family. Prior to the Marian Reforms, each legion carried five standards. Marius (157-86 BCE) changed that, giving each legion one common standard, the silver (later gold) eagle. Later, each legion would adopt its own standard and emblem, which generated a sense of identity, unity, and pride.

The emblem that adored a Roman legionary’s shield varied but was often either an animal (bull and boar) or a bird (eagle). However, there were a number of unique emblems such as Legio II Augusta's Pegasus or II Parthica's Centaur. A legion’s birth sign represented the month in which it was organized. Since many of the legions were founded in the winter months, Capricorn was a common birth sign.

Legio II Augusta

Legio II Augusta was assigned to a new fortress at Isca Silurum where it would maintain as a base for the next 200 years.

The founding of Legio II Augusta (emblem: Pegasus; birth sign: Capricorn) is a point of contention. It was may have been founded either by Caesar (l. 100-44 BCE) around 48 BCE and used in Mark Antony’s Battle of Mutina in 43 BCE or by Pompey the Great (l. 106-48 BCE) for his campaigns in Spain. Some sources suggest it was formed by Augustus (r. 27 BCE - 14 CE) - hence the name Augusta - and was one of the seven legions that joined him in his Cantabrian campaign. The legion would remain in Spain until after the disastrous Battle of Teutoburg Forest in 9 CE when Publius Quinctilius Varus lost three legions, and then it was relocated to Upper Germany with a base camp at Moguntiacum (modern-day Mainz). Like other legions, the II Augusta would serve with Germanicus (l. 15 BCE - 19 CE) against the Chatti. Afterwards, the legion was moved to Argentoratum (modern-day Strasbourg) and, in 21 CE, helped suppress a rebellion in Gaul led by Julius Sacrovir.

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In 43 CE, the legion participated in the invasion of Britain under the leadership of future emperor Vespasian (r. 69-79 CE). In the next four years, it partook in 30 battles, capturing at least 20 towns. Although the legion had success in its early campaigns, even occupying the Isle of Wright, it did not participate in the suppression of Boudicca's rebels. Supposedly, the camp prefect ignored orders to support the provincial governor Suetonius Paulinus; the camp prefect later committed suicide.

In 69 CE, cohorts of the II Augusta fought with Otho and later Vitellius against Vespasian during the Year of the Four Emperors. With Vitellius’ defeat eminent, the legion wisely chose to support their former commander Vespasian. After the cohorts returned to Britain, governor Julius Frontinus (74-78 CE) saw the need to pacify Wales and lodged a series of campaigns. Legio II Augusta was assigned to a new fortress at Isca Silurum where it would maintain as a base for the next 200 years. From 77 to 84 ce cohorts of the legion would move northward and campaign with the new governor Gnaeus Julius Agricola. Although it was present at the Battle of Mons Graupius in 83 CE, it did not participate.

After 122 CE, the legion participated in the construction of Hadrian's Wall and later the Antonine Wall. In 192 CE, Emperor Commodus (r. 180-192 CE) died bringing about a civil war among possible contenders, and Britain’s governor, Clodius Albinus, took several cohorts with him to battle Septimius Severus (r. 193-211), only to be defeated. Later, Severus led an expedition into Scotland; however, his sons Caracalla and Geta abandoned the incursion. Around 290 CE, the legion returned to fight in Scotland against the Picts and Scots, but little is known about it after the 3rd century CE.

Legio VI Victrix

Although Legio VI Victrix (emblem: bull; birth sign: Gemini) was possibly part of Pompey’s army, most agree it was founded by Octavian during the civil war, taking part in his siege at Perusia in 41 BCE and in the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE. After being stationed in Hispania Terraconensis, it participated in Augustus’ campaign in the Cantabrian War and afterwards was given the cognomen of Hispaniensis.

In 68 CE, the legion proclaimed the governor of Spain, Servius Sulpicius Galba, the "legate of the Senate and the Roman people". With the newly formed VII Gemina, Galba marched to Rome, leaving VI Victrix behind. With the death of Nero (r. 54-68 CE), the Roman Senate named Galba emperor. However, he could not hold onto the throne and was assassinated in January 69 CE, initiating the Year of the Four Emperors. Legio VI Victrix remained in Spain until 70 CE when Vespasian sent it, along with other legions, to assist Petillius Cerialis in suppressing the Batavian Revolt.

Under Vespasian, the legion remained in Lower Germany and helped rebuild the fortress at Novaesium (modern Neuss) which had been destroyed by the Batavians. In 89 CE, they joined I Minervia, X Gemina, and XXII Primigenia to defeat the governor of Upper Germany who had rebelled against Emperor Domitian (r. 81-96 CE), receiving the cognomen Pia Fidelis Domitiana; the Domitiana would be removed after the emperor’s assassination. Later, Novaesium was abandoned, and the legion was transferred to Xanten, replacing XXII Primigenia. Part of the legion may have participated in Trajan’s campaign in the Dacian Wars (101-106 CE).

VI Victrix was the last legion to leave Britain.

In 122 CE Emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138 CE) went to Britain, taking with him the governor of Lower Germany, Aulus Platorius Nepos, and VI Victrix to work on Hadrian’s Wall but also to construct a bridge across the River Tyne and later build the Antonine Wall.

In 191 CE, Clodius Albinus became governor of Britain. In 193 CE, declaring himself emperor, he took the legion into Gaul to do battle against Septimius Severus. After Albinus’ defeat, the legion returned to Britain. When Severus arrived in Britain to battle the rebelling Scottish tribes, the legion moved northward with him, eventually earning the title Britannicus Pia Fidelis. In the end, the legion was the last to leave Britain. Little is known after the legion left Britain although historian Stephen Dando-Collins writes that the legion fought with Stilicho in 401 CE and met its demise against Alaric in 410 CE.

Legio IX Hispana

Like many other legions, Legio IX Hispana’s origin (emblem: bull; birth sign: Capricorn) is unclear. Caesar had a Ninth legion while campaigning in Gaul, but it was disbanded around 45 BCE. Later, Octavian founded a legion from veterans of the old Ninth. This new legion may have served with him in Macedonia at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BCE, earning the title Macedonica. Legio IX Hispana campaigned with Augustus in the Cantabrian wars, earning the title Hispaniensis (stationed in Spain), which was later modified to Hispana (Spanish). After a short time in Spain, the legion was transferred to the Balkans, and by 14 CE, it was in Pannonia where, along with other legions, mutinied, protesting poor conditions. Six years later the legion was sent to Africa where they fought Numidian rebels alongside the III Augusta, returning to Pannonia in 22 CE.

In 42 CE, the Ninth accompanied the Pannonia governor Aulus Plautius on the invasion of Britain, crossing the channel in 43 CE. Little is known of its first two decades in Britain, but in 61 CE, the legion under the command of Petillius Cerialis confronted Boudicca's rebels. Although Cerialis and some cavalry escaped, the infantry was routed. Cohorts from XXI Rapax replaced the lost legionaries.

During the Year of the Four Emperors, cohorts of the Ninth supported Vitellius, serving with him on his march to Rome and at the second Battle of Bedriacum. In 71 CE, Cerialis returned to Britain as its governor where he campaigned against the Brigantes. When Cerialis was replaced by Agricola, the Ninth went with the new governor on his campaigns in Scotland (77-84 CE) where the legion was attacked and defeated by Caledonian tribes. Historian Tacitus wrote of the legion’s defeat at the hands of the Caledonians:

….they suddenly changed their plans, and with their whole force attacked by night the ninth legion, as being the weakest, and cutting down the sentries, who were asleep or panic-stricken, they broke into the camp. (692)

Cohorts of the Ninth, along with other legions, campaigned under the command of Lucius Aelianus against the Chatti, and in 83 CE, under the command of Gaius Rufus fought in the Dacian Wars. The following years are unclear for the legion. It may have been destroyed in either 119 CE or later – possibly the Jewish Revolt of 131-135 CE. Historian Duncan Campbell claims the legion was destroyed in Armenia in 161 CE.

XX Valeria Victrix

The founding of Legio XX Valeria Victrix (emblem: boar; birth sign: Capricorn) is unclear. Historian Stephen Dando-Collins claims it originally came from Caesar’s enlistments in the civil wars, but there is indication that it served under both Octavian and Mark Antony. In 6 CE, the legion was transferred from its base in Illyricum to Carnuntum on the Danube, preparing for Tiberius’ (r. 14-37 CE) battle against the Marcomanni. Although the campaign was abandoned, cohorts of the Valeria Victrix did engage some of the rebels, winning its commander Valerius Messalinus triumphal honors. From 6 to 9 CE, the legion fought with Germanicus in the Pannonian Wars. After the Varian disaster, the legion was transferred to the Rhine where, along with other legions of the Rhine frontier, it secured the borders of the empire against any potential German intrusion. It was one of the four legions in 14 CE that protested poor conditions, pay, and treatment. In 15 CE, the legion was with Germanicus when he fought the Chatti.

While some believe the Twentieth may have been with Caligula in his “invasion” of Britain, it did cross the channel under Claudius in 43 CE. However, until its engagement against Boudicca's rebels, little is known of the legion’s activities. Like other legions in Britain, the Twentieth supported Vitellius during the Year of Four Emperors and sent cohorts to assist him. In 70 CE, Vespasian sent Gnaeus Agricola to command the legion and impose discipline – the legion under Marcus Coelius had been disloyal and possibly mutinous. On Agricola’s solution, Tacitus wrote that the legion "had been slow to take the new oath of allegiance, and the retiring officer of which was reported to be acting disloyally" (681). He added that Agricola hoped that "…he had found rather than made an obedient soldiery" (681). Troublemakers were transferred to II Adiutrix.

In 77 CE, Agricola returned to Britain as governor and took part of the Twentieth northward to build forts and camps, and in 84 CE, the legion fought against the Caledonians in the Battle of Mons Graupius. Evidence shows that the legion participated in the construction of both Hadrian's Wall and the Antonine Wall. The legion sided with Clodius Albinus in his claim to be the emperor against Septimius Severus. XX Valeria Victrix withdrew from Britain near the end of the fourth century, but little else is clear except it may have been destroyed by either the Franks or Vandals.

British Legions

The British Legion (Spanish: legión británica) or British Legions were foreign volunteer units that fought under Simón Bolívar against Spain for the independence of Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and José de San Martín for the independence of Peru in the Spanish American wars of independence. [4] : 217–220 Venezuelans generally called them the Albion Legion. They were composed of over seven thousand volunteers, mainly Napoleonic War veterans from Great Britain and Ireland, as well as some German veterans and some locals recruited after arriving in South America. Volunteers in the British Legion were motivated by a combination of both genuine political motives and mercenary motives. [3]

Their greatest achievements were at the Boyacá (1819), Carabobo (1821), Pichincha (1822) and Battle of Ayacucho (1824) which secured independence for Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru from Spanish rule respectively.

Was The Ninth Obliterated Outside Britain?

Some modern historians dispute the notion that the Ninth died in Britain. One suggestion is that the group was transferred to the Rhine valley before drifting into obscurity. Certainly, this outcome would not be unusual for Roman legions at the time.

Archaeologists found inscriptions relating to the Ninth Legion in Nijmegen, Netherlands. The discovery included tile stamps dated to AD 120 and a bronze pendant with silver plating with the inscription ‘LEG HISP IX&rsquo at the back. This suggests that the Ninth did leave Britain, but historians can&rsquot agree on whether it was the entire unit or just a detachment. Those who oppose the idea of the Ninth leaving Britain say the Nijmegen evidence dated to the 80s AD when squads were fighting Germanic tribes on the Rhine.

There is no mention of Legio IX Hispania in two lists of Roman legions dated from AD 197. We can, therefore, deduce that the group vanished between AD 108 and AD 197. Those who believe the Nijmegen evidence offer a couple of theories which are discussed on the next page.

The Withdrawal of Roman Legions from Britannia Results in the End of Literacy in the Region

RIB 3215 Imperial dedication to Septimius Severus, Caracalla, and Geta (205 CE). University of Leeds.

In 410 Roman legions withdrew from the province of Britannia. With the departure of the last legions from Britain, and the end of Roman rule, literacy gradually left England. Within 40 to 50 years from the time of the departure of the Romans to the arrival in 597 of Augustine of Canterbury on a mission to convert the Anglo-Saxons, and for a period thereafter, it is believed that the people of Britain were, with few exceptions, essentially illiterate.

Roughly 40 years after the Romans departed, in 449, Saxons, Angles, and Jutes conducted large scale invasions of Britain, causing numerous members of the Christian aristocracy to flee to Bretagne, France. The environment in Britain became increasingly hostile to Christians, and increasingly illiterate.

The period from the departure of the Roman legions to the arrival of Augustine of Canterbury in 597 is often called Sub-Roman Britain or Post-Roman Britain. The date taken for the end of this period is arbitrary in that sub-Roman culture continued in the West of England, and in Wales, for a period of time thereafter. Reflecting the decline of literacy and of educational institutions, very little written material survived from the period.

"Two primary contemporary British sources exist: the Confessio of Saint Patrick and Gildas' De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain). Patrick's Confessio and his Letter to Coroticus reveal aspects of life in Britain, from where he was abducted to Ireland. It is particularly useful in highlighting the state of Christianity at the time. Gildas is the nearest to a source of Sub-Roman history but there are many problems in using it. The document represents British history as he and his audience understood it. Though a few other documents of the period do exist, such as Gildas' letters on monasticism, they are not directly relevant to British history. Gildas' De Excidio is a jeremiad: it is written as a polemic to warn contemporary rulers against sin, demonstrating through historical and biblical examples that bad rulers are always punished by God &mdash in the case of Britain, through the destructive wrath of the Saxon invaders. The historical section of De Excidio is short, and the material in it is clearly selected with Gildas' purpose in mind. There are no absolute dates given, and some of the details, such as those regarding the Hadrian's and Antonine Walls are clearly wrong. Nevertheless, Gildas does provide us with an insight into some of the kingdoms that existed when he was writing, and how an educated monk perceived the situation that had developed between the Anglo-Saxons and the Britons.

"There are more continental contemporary sources that mention Britain, though these are highly problematic. The most famous is the so-called Rescript of Honorius, in which the Western Emperor Honorius tells the British civitates to look to their own defence. The first reference to this rescript is written by the 6th century Byzantine scholar Zosimus and is found in the middle of a discussion of southern Italy no further mention of Britain is made, which has led some, though not all, modern academics to suggest that the rescript does not apply to Britain, but to Bruttium in Italy. The Gallic Chronicles, Chronica Gallica of 452 and Chronica Gallica of 511, say prematurely that 'Britain, abandoned by the Romans, passed into the power of the Saxons' and provide information about St Germanus and his visit(s) to Britain, though again this text has received considerable academic deconstruction. The work of Procopius, another 6th century Byzantine writer, makes some references to Britain, though the accuracy of these is uncertain."

"There are numerous later written sources that claim to provide accurate accounts of the period. The first to attempt this was the monk Bede, writing in the early 8th century. He based his account of the Sub-Roman period in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (written around 731) heavily on Gildas, though he tried to provide dates for the events Gildas describes. It was written from an anti-Briton point of view. Later sources, such as the Historia Brittonum often attributed to Nennius, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (again written from a non-Briton point of view, based on West Saxon sources) and the Annales Cambriae, are all heavily shrouded in myth and can only be used with caution as evidence for this period. There are also documents giving Welsh poetry (of Taliesin and Aneirin) and land deeds (Llandaff charters) that appear to date back to the 6th century" (Wikipedia article on Sub-Roman Britain, accessed 04-18-2014).

Relocated to the Rhine?

Noviomagus was located on the Rhine frontier. Credit: Battles of the Ancients.

In 1959, a discovery was made at the Hunerburg fortress near Noviomagus (modern day Nijmegen) in Lower-Germany. Originally, this fortress had been occupied by the Tenth Legion. Yet in 103 AD, after serving with Trajan during the Dacian Wars, the Tenth was relocated to Vindobona (modern day Vienna). Who does it appear replaced the Tenth at the Hunerburg? None other than the Ninth Hispania!

In 1959, a roof-tile dating to c. 125 AD was discovered at Nijmegen bearing the ownership mark of the Ninth Hispania. Later, further finds discovered nearby also bearing the Ninth’s stamp confirmed the presence of the Legion in lower-Germany around that time.

Some believe that these inscriptions belonged to a detachment of the Ninth – a vexillation – that was transferred to Lower Germany and that the rest of the Legion had indeed either been destroyed or disbanded in Britain in c. 120 AD. Indeed one theory believes the Ninth suffered mass desertions in Britain at this time, given the notorious ill-discipline of the British legions, and that what remained was transferred to the Hunerburg.

Yet many others now believe that in fact the whole legion was transferred to Nijmegen, casting fresh doubt on the traditional theory that the Ninth suffered a humiliating defeat at British hands at that time.

Bronze object from Ewijk in the Netherlands. It mentions the Ninth Legion and dates roughly to 125. Credit: Jona Lendering / Commons.

What Happened to Britain After the Romans Left?

The cathedral of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Built in 597, this is one of the oldest and famous Christian structures in England. (Image: Digalakis Photography/Shutterstock)

Roman Withdrawal from Britain in the Fifth Century

Following the barbarian crossing of the Rhine in the winter of 406–407, Roman military units in Britain rebelled and proclaimed one of their generals, who happened to be named Constantine, to be the new emperor.

This Constantine, known as Constantine III, withdrew virtually the whole of the Roman army from Britain around 409, both to fend off the barbarians who had recently entered the Roman Empire, and to fight for control of the western half of the empire. The Roman army never came back in any force to Britain, and those few Roman units left behind were unable to do much when barbarians began to attack Roman Britain.

Attack of the Barbarians on Roman Britain

/> Map showing the end of Roman rule in Britain. (Image: User:Notuncurious using several other references/Public domain)

With a remarkable sense of timing, barbarians started attacking right around the departure of the Roman army. It seems quite possible that someone had tipped them off that no one was watching this part of the empire any more some of those who attacked in the first half of the 5th century had a long history of raiding this portion of the Roman Empire.

Such were the Scotti of Ireland and the Picts from Scotland, who had regularly been crossing over into Roman territory. However, some other groups who did not have a long history of attacking Britain began to do so in the first half of the 5th century: the Angles and the Saxons of northwestern Germany, and the Jutes from southern Denmark.

Angles, Saxons, and Jutes in Fifth Century Britain

Map of Britain in 600, showing the location of various different peoples. (Image: User:Hel-hama Vectorization of File:Britain peoples circa 600.png drawn by User:IMeowbot border data from CIA, people locations from The Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd, 1926 edition, with clarifications supplied by en:User:Everyking per references used in en:Penda of Mercia. Anglo-Saxon coastline from Hill, ‘An Atlas of Anglo-Saxon England’ (1981)/Public domain)

In 408, either just before or just after the Roman army had withdrawn, Angles, Saxons, and Jutes began first to raid Roman Britain, and then to settle in certain areas. Indeed, the boundaries of modern England roughly correspond to the territories that were going to be settled by the peoples called, for the sake of convenience, the Anglo-Saxons.

This is a transcript from the video series The Early Middle Ages. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

By 600, the Anglo-Saxons had established several independent kingdoms within territories that had once been Roman. For example, there was a kingdom of Wessex, which comes from the West Saxons Sussex is where the South Saxons lived and perhaps the most famous of them, Northumbria.

A typical Anglo-Saxon dwelling called a Grubenhaus. Anglo-Saxons were Germanic peoples who worshipped Norse gods. (Image: dun_deagh – Flickr: Grubenhaus, Gearwe, Bede’s World, Jarrow/Public domain)

The Anglo-Saxons were not total strangers to Britain. Some had served in the Roman army even before 408, and the Anglo-Saxon mercenaries serving in Roman Britain may have notified their ethnic relatives back in Germany that the Roman army had left: “This would be a good time for us to move into this part of the world.”

The Anglo-Saxons who came to England at this time were barbarians, as Romans would have defined them. They spoke Germanic languages, they were still pagans worshiping Norse gods such as Thor and Odin, and they were illiterate as well.

King Arthur and the Battle of Mt. Badon

The indigenous Celtic population of Britain resisted the coming of the Anglo-Saxons as much as it had resisted the coming of the Romans, and had about as much luck as they had had against the Romans.

It is possible, but by no means certain, that a British war leader by the name of Arthur resisted the Anglo-Saxon migration and won a notable military victory against the Anglo-Saxons at the Battle of Mt. Badon around AD 500 notable, but not sufficient to stem the flood of Anglo-Saxons that were coming to Roman Britain.

However, Arthur is one of the most shadowy figures in early medieval history the later legends that were attached to him were quite out of keeping with his contemporary reputation, at least as best as we can reconstruct that reputation from the written record. Scholars are fairly certain, based on contemporary evidence, that the Battle of Mt. Badon took place, and that the Britons won, for once, against the Anglo-Saxons.

However, we do not know where Mt. Badon was. We have no contemporary evidence to suggest that Arthur was at the Battle of Mt. Badon. There is no contemporary reference to Arthur as a king either, and our earliest detailed evidence concerning Arthur and his alleged activities is from the 9th and 10th centuries, in documents written long after Arthur’s alleged lifetime.

The remains of an iron-age fort called Badbury in Dorset—one of the chief contenders for the location of the Battle of Mt. Badon. (Image: Pasicles/Public domain)

It is possible that the written records of the 9th and 10th centuries reflect accurate oral traditions about Arthur’s activities and had been passed down since the early 6th century. However, whenever a historian tries to invoke oral tradition as a piece of evidence, it generally means there isn’t hard evidence or an explanation. If you stick to strictly contemporary sources of the 6th century, there’s very little evidence at all about Arthur and his activities.

We do know that not all the Celts chose to fight the Anglo-Saxons there was a fairly substantial migration of Celts from Anglo-Saxon territories to northwest France in Brittany.

The Scotti and the Kingdom of Dál Riata

The Kingdom of Dál Riata (Green) and the neighboring Picts (Yellow). (Image: By en:User:Briangotts – Copied from en:Image:Dalriada.jpg/Public domain)

While the Anglo-Saxons were migrating to Britain from the south and east during the first half of the 5th century, other groups decided to take advantage of the situation, especially the Scotti from Ireland. They began to settle, though not in the same numbers as the Anglo-Saxons, along the west coast of Britain, and they established a number of small kingdoms for themselves, the most important of which was going to be the kingdom of Dál Riata.

This helps to explain why Scotland is in the British Isles while the Scotti hail from Ireland. The Scotti who settled there went on to conquer Scotland from the Picts, with Scotland deriving its name from them.

Roman Economic Impact on Britain

As for some of the broader consequences of these developments, it has to be noted that Britain experienced a relatively short, sharp, unsurprising break with the Roman past. Romans had come to Britain relatively late. They didn’t conquer it until the 1st century AD, and they had not put down deep roots at the time of the Anglo-Saxon migrations.

When the Romans came to Britain, they transformed its economy. Before the Romans came, the only region of Britain to use coins as a form of economic exchange was the far southeast, due to its relative closeness to the continent and because most manufacturing was very localized. The Romans introduced the use of money in every land they conquered, building large towns wherever they went, and creating a large-scale, integrated economy.

A few important centers began to manufacture pottery, for example, for the rest of Britain, and because pottery shards tend to survive fairly well on the archaeological record, much of what we know about the British economy is based on pottery.

The Collapse of the Roman British Economic System

By about AD 450, this economic system had broken down completely. The Britons reverted to small-scale, localized manufacturing of pottery, for example. The use of coins as an economic medium was abandoned.

There’s something unusual about many of the coins found in Britain. They have small holes punched in the top of them. If you couldn’t buy anything with them, you punched a hole in your coin and wore it as a necklace or as an earring. Money was turned into decoration rather than used as a form of economic exchange.

Town life, too, dwindled fairly quickly in Britain, and by 450 it was essentially dead in Britain. The towns had been abandoned, the public buildings had been abandoned, no longer serving the functions they once had, and only a few squatters remained within any Roman town. Squatters often took up residence in odd places—the bottom of baths very often—indicating no one was filling up the baths anymore. They had simply ceased to serve the function they once had.

This abandonment of habitations that you could find in towns also occurred, to a lesser extent, in the countryside, where there is evidence of fairly substantial abandonment of Roman villas during the first half of the 5th century. The relative speed of this break with the Roman past, after only a couple of generations, and the degree of this break would have important long-term consequences for British history.

From “Britannia” to “Angleland”

Among these consequences was a change of name. Britannia, the Roman name for Britain, became an archaism, and a new name was adopted. “Angleland,” the place where the Angles lived, is what we call England today.

Latin did not become a common language anywhere in the British Isles. Instead, the Germanic language of the conquerors became the standard vernacular.

There was also an important linguistic change that had no parallels on the continent. While Francia lost its Roman name and took its name from the Franks, people there still spoke a Romance language derived from Latin. But Latin did not become a common language anywhere in the British Isles. Instead, the Germanic language of the conquerors became the standard vernacular. Old English is a Germanic language modern English today is still a Germanic-based language. In lands that the Romans had never conquered, Scotland or Ireland, Celtic languages were spoken instead. This fundamental linguistic change did not occur elsewhere in the western half of the Roman Empire.

The Disappearance of Christianity in Angleland

But perhaps the most remarkable break with the Roman past in Anglo-Saxon England concerned religion and the fate of Christianity. On the rest of the European continent, non-Christian invaders adopted the religion of the former Roman peoples over whom they were ruling, and the barbarians became Christians.

Anglo-Saxon England is different in this respect: It would appear that the local population abandoned Christianity and adopted either their own paganism or the paganism of the Anglo-Saxons who ruled over them. Christianity persisted only in the Celtic borderlands, in Ireland and Scotland. There’s no evidence of Christian activities taking place in Anglo-Saxon England by the beginning of the 6th century.

During this period, the loss of Christianity in this part of the former Roman Empire saw the disappearance of literacy as well as of written records.

During this period, the loss of Christianity in this part of the former Roman Empire saw the disappearance of literacy as well as of written records. What we know about Anglo-Saxon England and this period is derived almost entirely either from archaeology or from accounts written after Christianity was reintroduced, often dating hundreds of years from the events they purport to describe, from Celtic authors living in Scotland or, perhaps, Ireland, which was somewhat removed in time and space from Anglo-Saxon England.

However, Christianity was not gone from Anglo-Saxon England forever. It was later reintroduced, and the fact that it had to be reintroduced by missionaries is good evidence that it had died out within Anglo-Saxon territories.

Pope Gregory the Great Tries to Re-Establish Christianity

Gregory I became pope in 590. (Image: by © Bettmann/CORBIS/Public domain)

In 597, missionaries dispatched by Pope Gregory the Great arrived from the European continent. According to tradition, some Anglo-Saxon youths wound up in Rome in the late 6th century, and they were spotted by Gregory the Great because they stood out from the local population: They were fair-skinned, they had light hair, and they looked rather different from the people in Rome.

Gregory the Great asked, according to tradition, “Who are these people?” He was told they were Angli—Angles from Britain, and Gregory the Great supposedly made a famous pun: “No, they don’t look like Angli—they look like angeli to me”—angels rather than Angles.

Augustine of Canterbury, the first Archbishop of Canterbury. (Image: Tupungato/shutterstock)

Regardless of whether this was what Gregory the Great said, he did send missionaries to Anglo-Saxon England, and the effort was spearheaded by Augustine of Canterbury. He arrived in the southeast of England, specifically in the kingdom of Kent, where an Anglo-Saxon king by the name of Ethelbert had a Christian wife. Thus Augustine was able to enjoy a certain amount of success in converting Ethelbert and his followers.

In general, the missionaries did not encounter a great deal of resistance to their efforts, but the Anglo-Saxons were often quick to relapse into their paganism. At the first sign of problems, such as bad weather or a military defeat, they would often decide that the problem occurred because they had converted to Christianity, and then return to their former religious beliefs. Missionaries often found themselves converting the same people again and again in an attempt to get the conversion to stick.

St. Patrick and Columba

Although Augustine had some success, the most successful missionaries operating in Anglo-Saxon England in the 7th century were not from the continent. They were Irish missionaries who, largely on their own, decided to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. Ireland had been substantially Christianized by about 500, thanks to the activities of St. Patrick. St. Patrick was a Christian kidnapped by Irish raiders, and after being set free, he had returned to Ireland to preach Christianity in the 430s. The Irish were responsible for converting many of the people in Britain to Christianity.

Saint Columba converting the Picts. (Image: By J. R. Skelton (Joseph Ratcliffe Skelton 1865–1927) (illustrator), erroneously credited as John R. Skelton – Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall, Scotland’s Story/Public domain)

The most famous Irish missionary was someone by the name of Columba, and he was personally responsible for converting many of the Picts of Scotland. In 563, Columba founded a famous monastery on an island off the west coast of Scotland named Iona Iona became the base for successful conversions of the Anglo-Saxons.

It took several generations for Irish missionaries coming from the north and west, and continental missionaries coming from the south and east, to get Christianity to stick, but by about the 660s, the Anglo-Saxons stopped the practice of going back to their pagan beliefs.

The Resurgence of England in the 7th Century

The spread of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England in the 7th century meant more than just a change of religion. It set in motion a chain of events that were a catalyst for other important changes. One, a good one for historians, was the reintroduction of literacy: Missionaries brought reading and writing with them to the Anglo-Saxons, and this increased our knowledge of Anglo-Saxon history dramatically.

The first Anglo-Saxon law code. (Image: Ernulf, bishop of Rochester – Rochester Cathedral Library MS A. 3. 5 (Textus Roffensis), folio 1v/Public doain)

The first Anglo-Saxon law code was put together by Ethelbert, who had been converted by Augustine of Canterbury. Christianization also, to a certain extent, stimulated the re-establishment of towns and cities in Anglo-Saxon England. When bishops arrived in Anglo-Saxon England, they were required by canon law, or church law, to reside in towns. You could not live in the countryside and be a Christian bishop except in far-flung areas such as Ireland, where canon law was not always enforced.

Bishops would take up residence in abandoned Roman towns such as Canterbury and bring with them their episcopal entourage. They would have priests and deacons with them, and these bishops and their households formed a sufficient market to attract people to come and live once again in the abandoned Roman towns and provide the services these religious officials needed. As a result, there is evidence of relatively substantial habitation once again in these Anglo-Saxon towns and cities, and of economic activities associated with urban environments.

A good sign of this was the reintroduction of the minting of coins in Anglo-Saxon England, which resumed in the late 7th century, and was a sign that Anglo-Saxon England was, once again, enjoying a monetized economy as opposed to a purely barter one.

Common Questions About Britain After the Romans Left

There was a great spread of Angles, Saxons, and Franks after the Romans left Britain , with minor rulers, while the next major ruler, it is thought, was a duo named Horsa and Hengist. There was also a Saxon king, the first who is now traced to all royalty in Britain and known as Cerdic.

Before England was called “England,” it was called Roman Britain .

A group of Germanic tribes called the Anglo-Saxons were the first inhabitants of what is known as England .

England has a first explorer on record named Pytheas of Massalia who circumnavigated the islands.


At the Unity Conference held at the Queen's Hall, Langham Place, London on Sat 14 May and Sun 15 May 1921, the Conference adopted the Draft Constitution, together with amendments, alterations, and additions agreed by the Conference as the Constitution of the British Legion. This Constitution was to become operative from the 15 May 1921.

On the 15 May 1921 at 9am at the Cenotaph, the shrine to their dead comrades, the ex-Service men sealed their agreement. The Legion had been born.

The Legion was formed with the amalgamation of four other associations:

  1. The National Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers (1916).
  2. The British National Federation of Discharged and Demobilized Sailors and Soldiers (1917).
  3. The Comrades of The Great War (1917).
  4. The Officers' Association (1920).

The amalgamation of these four diverse bodies can be attributed largely to two men: Field Marshall Earl Haig and Mr Tom F Lister of The Federation of Discharged and Demobilized Sailors and Soldiers.

By the time of the Legion's formation in 1921, the tradition of an annual Two Minute Silence in memory of the dead had been established. The first ever Poppy Appeal was held that year, with the first Poppy Day on 11 November 1921.

Legio XX Valeria Victrix

Legio XX Valeria Victrix: one of the Roman legions. The natural way to read the name is "victorious black eagle", although it can also be read as "valiant and victorious".

This legion was probably founded after 31 BCE by the emperor Augustus, who may have integrated older units into this new legion. Its first assignment was in Hispania Tarraconensis, where it took part in Augustus' campaigns against the Cantabrians, which lasted from 25-13 BCE. This was one of the largest wars the Romans ever fought. Among the other troops involved were I Germanica, II Augusta, IIII Macedonica, V Alaudae, VI Victrix, VIIII Hispana, X Gemina, and perhaps VIII Augusta. Veterans were settled at Mérida.

At least some subunits of XX Valeria Victrix were transferred to Burnum on the Balkans as early as 20. This is probably too early for the redeployment of the entire legion, but we can be certain that the entire unit was sent to the Balkans before the beginning of the common era. It seems to have stayed at Aquileia, east of modern Venice, and may have played a role during the war in Vindelicia. note [According to Tacitus, the legion was given its standard and surname together with I Germanica, which certainly was in Vindelicia Annals 1.42.]

/> Tombstone of Fuficius and his relatives

In 6 CE, Tiberius was to lead at least eight legions (VIII Augusta from Pannonia, XV Apollinaris and XX Valeria Victrix from Illyricum, XXI Rapax from Raetia, XIII Gemina, XIV Gemina and XVI Gallica from Germania Superior and an unknown unit) against king Maroboduus of the Marcomanni in Czechia at the same time, I Germanica, V Alaudae, XVII, XVIII and XIX were to move against Czechia as well, attacking it along the Elbe. It was to be the most grandiose operation that was ever conducted by a Roman army, but a rebellion in Pannonia obstructed its execution. The twentieth legion served with distinction. The Roman historian Velleius Paterculus states in his Roman History that during one battle, it cut its way through the lines of the enemy, found itself isolated and surrounded, and broke again through the enemy lines. note [Velleius Paterculus, Roman History 2.112.2.]

After the disaster in the Teutoburg Forest (September 9), where the legions XVII, XVIII and XIX were destroyed, Tiberius, who had to restore order, took the experienced twentieth legion with him, and it was now redeployed in Germania Inferior. The legion's first base was Cologne, but when Tiberius had succeeded Augustus and had become emperor, it was transferred to Novaesium (Neuss).

/> Tombstone of a soldier of XX (from an unknown site in France)

The unit was part of the army of general Germanicus, who led three punitive campaigns into "free" Germania. By then, it was commanded by Caecina, who led our unit back from one of Germanicus' campaigns through the notorious marches between modern Münster and the river Lippe.

In 21, a mixed subunit of XX Valeria Victrix and XXI Rapax, commanded by an officer from I Germanica, was sent out to suppress the rebellion of the Turoni in Gaul, who had revolted against the heavy Roman taxation under a nobleman named Julius Sacrovir and Julius Florus. Almost twenty years later, the Twentieth was employed during the Germanic war of Caligula. The details, however, are not fully understood.

More than twenty years layer, in 43, the emperor Claudius invaded Britain with II Augusta, VIIII Hispana, XIV Gemina and XX Valeria Victrix. Its first legionary fortress was in Camulodunum (modern Colchester), the capital of the Trinovantes. After 48, it was stationed at Kingsholm in Gloucester, and in 57, it moved to Usk. This was its base in 60, when it set out to suppress the rebellion of queen Boudicca. It is possible that the Twentieth received its surnames Valeria Victrix as rewards for its courageous behavior in this war.

/> Honorific inscription for a former soldier of XX Valeria Victrix (Rome)

In the civil war of the year 69, it sided with the emperor Vitellius. Several subunits took part in his march on Rome, and returned after the victory of Vespasian.

In 75, XX Valeria Victrix was transferred to Wroxeter, from where, governor Gnaeus Julius Agricola led it to the north (78). At the same time, VIIII Hispana launched its offensive from York the two armies met at Stanwick, where they caught the warriors of the Brigantes in a pincer movement. From now on, northern England was part of the Roman empire.

/> Tombstone of centurion Marcus Favonius Facilis

Agricola used the legion also during his campaigns in the Scottish highlands (78-84). The soldiers were temporary garrisoned at Carlisle, and finally moved to Inchtuthill in Perthshire. However, in 88, the legion was ordered to return to England, where it found a new base at Deva, modern Chester. It had been built by II Adiutrix but was now rebuilt from stone and bricks, which were prepared in a nearby town called Holt.

At the same time (83), at least one unit of XX Valeria Victrix took part in the campaign against the Germanic Chatti of the emperor Domitian.

Soldiers of the Twentieth were active in the construction of Hadrian's wall (122-125) and the Antonine wall (c.140).

In the years between 155 and 158, a widespread revolt occured in northern Britain, requiring heavy fighting by the British legions. They suffered severely, and reinforcements had to be brought in from the two Germanic provinces.

/> Dedication to Hadrian by XX Valeria Victrix

In 196, governor Clodius Albinus of Britannia attempted to become emperor. The British legions were ferried to the continent, but were defeated by the lawful ruler Lucius Septimius Severus in the spring of 197.

When the legions returned to their island, they found the province overrun by northern tribes. Punitive actions did not deter the tribesmen, and in 208, Severus came to Britain, in an attempt to conquer Scotland. XX Valeria Victrix may have fought its way up north along the west coast, but returned home to Chester during the reign of Severus' son Caracalla (211-217). However, the legion had behaved courageously and was awarded the surname Antoniniana.

Between 249-251, the legion was briefly called Deciana, after the emperor Decius. This also suggests some sort of courageous behavior, but we do not fully understand the details.

In 255, a subunit was fighting in Germania and, after its victory, sent to the Danube.

The legion was still active during the reign of the usurpers Carausius and Allectus (286-293 and 293-296), but is not mentioned in the fourth century. Perhaps it was disbanded when the Roman emperor Constantius I Chlorus reconquered Britain.

The symbol of the twentieth legion was not, as one would have expected, an eagle (valeria = black eagle), but a jumping boar. The significance of this emblem is not fully understood. The Capricorn was also used in the first century, but ignored in the second and third centuries.

Lost Roman city of the legion: Caerleon

Almost 2,000 years ago, the small Welsh town of Caerleon on the River Usk was an all mighty, bustling metropolis, its cobbled streets wore smooth by the foot traffic of Roman soldiers. Today the sleepy village provides perhaps the best evocation in the country of Rome’s three-century military occupation of Britain.

Welcome to Isca, major Roman port on the Severn Estuary and home of the Second Augustan Legion. Its location at the northern headwater of the Bristol Channel proved an ideal base for one of three standing legions of the Roman Army stationed in the Roman-occupied province of Britain. From that strategic spot, the legion could be dispatched across South Wales, into the Midlands or anywhere in southwestern England for any contingency.

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Some 6,000 professional soldiers made their home in Isca, recruited into the legion from across the Roman Empire. Recent discoveries on the Usk riverbanks have provided dramatic evidence of the large and busy harbor that existed there in the 200 years of Roman occupation from AD 75. Via the harbor, traces of which had long disappeared, the army was supplied with goods from Rome and across its provinces, reinforced with new postings and communicated with the broader Empire. A constant stream of olive oil and wine, ceramics and tools, dignitaries and dispatch riders arrived in shallow-draft ships on well-known routes that hugged the Atlantic coastline down to the Mediterranean.

If much was expected of the Roman army, much was provided for them as well. A huge complex of heated baths facilitated a recreational regimen and social life as well as hygiene. An amphitheater large enough to accommodate the legion of 6,000 soldiers provided entertainment, spectacle and military competition.

Over the centuries after Rome withdrew its army from Britain, Isca faded into insignificance. The structures and infrastructure of a once vital and affluent military city decayed into nothingness. The valley of the Usk and the neighboring hills became sparsely populated with farms. As happened in many places, the stonework of disused Roman buildings was carted off in bits and pieces to be built into village houses and walls and farm buildings surrounding Caerleon. The silt and soil of the centuries covered much of the evidence of Roman occupation. What remained, however, were the foundations of the only Roman legionary barracks left anywhere in Europe and Britain’s most complete Roman amphitheater.

The army barracks are a parade of housing rows, each row housed a unit of 80 soldiers and their commanding centurion. Eight soldiers shared a two-room apartment. The rear room was the sleeping area, and the front a communal space for equipment and personal belongings. At the head of the block were the larger rooms of the centurion.

Along the embankment beside the barracks rows, the foundations of the kitchen ranges are still intact. In the corner of the block, the elaborate plumbing and foundations of the latrine block are complete enough to identify their functions.


Caerleon is easily accessible. From the M4, Junction 25, just follow the B4596 along the River Usk a mile or so into town. In Caerleon, stay at the Priory Inn, or nearby at the 5-star Celtic Manor resort. There are many other options just a few miles on in Newport.

That courtyard garden called The Ffwrrwm? Sited on the old Roman market, they simply transliterated into Welsh: the Forum.

The four files of barracks left visible today could have housed only 320 men. In its heyday, Isca would have required 75 such blocks to accommodate the 2nd Augustan Legion.
It is not that difficult to imagine a legion of 6,000 in place around Caerleon’s amphitheater. The circle is virtually complete, with the entrances for performers, combatants and officials, a shrine to the gods and even what would have been a “green room.”

While most of Isca’s archaeological remains lie underneath the contemporary town of Caerleon, a wealth of finds over the years is gathered in the National Roman Legion Museum on High Street. www.cadw.wales.gov.uk

Through its exhibitions and artifacts the museum does a superb job of explicating life at this furthest outpost of Rome. Just down the street, the Roman Fortress Baths have enclosed an entire recreational complex of heated baths, exercise rooms and an open-air swimming pool. All under cover today, the entire complex closely resembles a modern leisure center. Both offer free admission to visitors. www.museumwales.ac.uk/en/roman

The footprint of the Roman barracks block remains after almost 2,000 years. DANA HUNTLEY

As centuries pass in such historic venues, history often melds into romance, and so it was with the lost city of the legion. Though much had disappeared, what remained was dramatic. Legend says that King Arthur himself made Caerleon his headquarters and that the amphitheater was indeed his famous Round Table. As tales of Arthur, his knights and valiant deeds became all the rage in the Middle Ages, Caerleon emerged as a favorite site with storytellers. In Wales they were gathered as the Mabinogion. Geoffrey of Monmouth (just up the road) linked Caerleon with Arthur in his History of the Kings of Britain, and Thomas Malory often placed King Arthur in the ancient fortress community. Even Alfred, Lord Tennyson came to town for inspiration when working on his own Arthurian masterpiece, The Idylls of the King.

There may well be fire in the smoke of the Arthurian romances. In actuality, the historic Arthur was more likely a Celtic warlord and king of Powys, who made his capital at the long abandoned Roman city of Viroconium—now Wroxeter Roman City near Shrewsbury. He would, however, have been very familiar with Caerleon, and may well have employed its location and amphitheater as a meeting place and encampment during his southern campaigns against the encroachment of the Anglo-Saxons.

Thousands of artifacts recovered over the years from the Roman city have been gathered for interpretation at the Roman Legion Museum. DANA HUNTLEY

Today, Caerleon is a pretty, quiet small town. St. Cadoc’s Church, begun in the 12th century, stands over the site of the old Roman principia in the heart of 2nd-century Isca. Caerleon’s Arthurian connections show up in a few place names and souvenir shops, and some fine wooden sculpture in a courtyard garden called The Ffwrrwm. Sculptures on show also include “the World’s Biggest Lovespoon.” With a dozen charming pubs and restaurants within the old fortress walls, there is not a chain store or eaterie in sight. The Bell Inn, though, has been pulling pints since 1602, when it began life as a coaching house.

Across the hills into the Cotswolds, with the Corinium Museum and nearby Chedworth Roman Villa, Cirencester provides an unparalleled perspective on domestic life in Romano-Britain. The Roman fort of Housesteads on Hadrian’s Wall evokes what the soldier’s life was on the frontier of the furthest outpost of the Roman Empire. Perhaps none of the many impressive remnants of Britain’s centuries as a Roman province, however, provides quite such a complete picture of the organization and life of the Roman army as the lost city of Isca. That modern Caerleon is a warm, friendly and rewarding place to visit is the proverbial icing on the cake.

In our centenary year, we are firmly focused on our future. By building on a century of work we’ll make sure we are a charity fit for the next 100.

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Watch the video: Roman Britains Missing Legion - with Dr Simon Elliott