In 43 AD Romans attacked Britain under the command of Aulus Plautius. Ambitions of the Empire grew and spread further beyond its borders. This time a 40,000 men army was sent to conquer distant lands of England, Scotland, and Wales. Little did the invaders know that despite the organizational and military supremacy, their legions would face a severe resistance.
There were four key tribal areas in Wales at that time: Deceangli in the North, Ordovices in highlands, Silures in the South-East, and Demetae in the South-West. They were disengaged from each other and acted chaotically. Nevertheless, it took over 30 years for Rome to firmly establish its rule.
Perhaps, the most glorious story of that period relates to Caratacus. He was the leader of the British resistance and fought the Romans since the invasion start. After defeat in the battle of the Thames Caratacus moved to the Welsh borders and mobilized Silures to act against the enemy using the guerrilla strategy. Their attacks were unexpected, fierce, and created confusion among Roman generals and soldiers.
After years of resistance, the Caratacus army was forced back to the North, where eventually it was defeated. The final combat happened around 50-51 AD. There are various theories regarding the actual site of the battle. The most popular version refers to the Caer Caradoc translating from Welsh as “the fortress of Caratacus”. It’s quite easy to get there from Cardiff. Take the train from Cardiff Central to the Church Stretton. The walk from the train station to the top of the hill takes less than 1 hour.
Silures demonstrated courage and great war spirit, but it wasn’t enough to compensate weak areas. Their army was outnumbered, lacked organization and military training. In addition, they didn’t have basic protection, such as breast-plates and helmets in comparison to Romans. Caratacus escaped but eventually was captured and brought to Rome, to face Emperor Claudius. The story tells that dignity and honor of Caratacus made such a remarkable impression at the court that he and his family were pardoned. No wonder Caratacus became an epic figure in the history of Wales and “the first national hero”.
Despite the failure, Silures didn’t give up. The luck was on their side in 52 AD when they defeated the Twentieth Legion. It was shocking to the Roman command and they reconsidered the strategy. Firstly, a chain of recently built forts was used by Romans to deter the intrusion of local tribes. Secondly, in 60 AD the new governor Suetonius Paulinus decided to crash the resistance by attacking them at the very heart – the island of Anglesey controlled by Druids. The forces of Silures were smashed. Massive punitive campaigns followed during 74–78 AD.
By the 78 AD, Wales was entirely conquered. Warlike attitude still existed but didn’t represent the real threat. In fact, the upper crust of the Celtic society preferred to cooperate with Romans seeing the opportunity to gain power and wealth. Actually, Romans implemented smart and efficient administration system. It was based on self-governance principles where each tribe was treated as a “city-state”. Welsh were allowed to preserve their customs, religion and appoint own leaders.
At the same time, Romans kept control over the military security and defense. They developed a system of “all-weather roads” that ran across the coastline and connected different parts of Wales. In this way, the army was mobile and reacted quickly to emerging threats. Fortresses were placed at the important road network junctions. They accommodated legions to oversee the adjacent territories. Caerleon in Monmouthshire is known “as one of the most important Roman military sites in Europe”. It hosted the Second Augustan Legion since 75 AD – around 5,500 people. Luckily, the remains of the fort were preserved and converted into the museum. I highly recommend visiting the place even before you travel to explore the famous Roman Baths in England.
For sure Romans influenced local life and culture. On the other hand, an ordinary life outside the elite society continued much as it was before. A relatively small percentage of the population adopted new customs and language. So the presence of Romans was less obvious outside cities and military areas.
The end of the Roman period is related to the overall decline of the Empire. The power of Rome weakened, and so did its capability to retain distant territories. An additional threat was coming from Irish, Frankish, and Saxon tribes who raided the shores of Britain. At this point, however, Wales was still not recognized as a separate administrative unit - the concept of its national identity and history was yet to be formed.