Return to Roman Britain

Roman Wales

Tacitus describes the Silures as a strong and warlike tribe, stubborn, with swarthy faces and curly hair. They inhabited the wooded uplands of southeastern Wales, living in hillforts and fortified settlements, and were Rome's most determined opponents. That resistance was led by Caratacus, a British chieftan who had sought refuge with the Silures after his father's tribal capital at Camulodunum was captured in the Claudian invasion of AD 43. After four years, Aulus Plautius, the first governor of Britannia, returned to a triumphal ovation in Rome. But there still was unrest. His successor, Ostorius Scapula, had only just arrived as governor (AD47-52) when there was an attack by hostile tribes from outside the borders of the new province.

Ostorius restored order and determined to disarm all the native tribes, even those who were nominal allies. This ill-advised policy prompted the Iceni to revolt, although they were defeated in their hillfort. Ostorius then advanced into Wales and had nearly reached the sea when, in AD 48, there was an uprising by the Brigantes, the largest tribe in Britain, and he was obliged to break off his campaign to quell the disturbance. "But neither sternness nor leniency prevented the Silures from fighting," and in AD 49, Legio XX had to be moved forward from Camulodunum to a site near Glevum (Gloucester). Caratacus, in turn, retreated to the territory of the Ordovices deeper in the mountains of northern Wales. There, he prepared for a decisive battle, one "which would either win back their freedom or enslave them forever." It was fought in AD 51. Caratacus was defeated and sought refuge with the Brigantes, but was given up to Rome.

He probably was one of the eleven British kings declared to have surrendered to Claudius on a triumphal arch dedicated to the emperor that year. Yet, the Romans may have been over confident. There was continued guerrilla warfare and widespread raids. Ostorius died the next year, worn out, says Tacitus, by the struggle. Before his successor could arrive, a legion was defeated by the Silures, who now were plundering the countryside. It was Rome's greatest defeat in Britain.

Wales was continuing to be a problem.

Didius Gallus, the newly appointed governor (AD 52-57), managed to restore order and turned his attention to the support of Cartimandua in the war against her husband Venutius, "the best strategist," says Tacitus, since Caratacus and now the leader of British resistance. Nero assumed the throne in AD 54 and, despite some thought of abandoning the province, was determined to conquer the Welsh. Suetonius Paullinus was appointed governor (AD 58-61) and presumably had subdued the southern part of the country and was attacking the Druid stronghold on the island sanctuary of Mona (Anglesey) in the north when, in AD 60, Prasutagus, king of the Iceni, died. The kingdom was forfeited to Rome, and Boudica, his wife, led her people in revolt. Paullinus rushed to Londinium to confront them, and Wales was reprieved.

The destruction of the Boudcian revolt was such that ten years passed before Rome resumed its policy of conquest. Then there came, in Tacitus's words, "a succession of great generals and splendid armies." The subjugation of Wales began in earnest with the governors appointed by Vespasian. The first was Petillius Cerialis (AD 71-74), who had nearly lost his life in the rebellion by Boudica. Julius Frontinus (AD 74-77) established a fortress at Isca (Caerleon) for Legio II Augusta in the territory of the Silures and later began the construction of another fortress at Chester in the north. It was Frontinus, according to the single sentence that Tacitus devotes to him, who "subdued by force of arms the strong and war-like nation of the Silures, laboriously triumphing not only over a brave enemy but also over difficult terrain." What he did not accomplish was completed by Julius Agricola (AD 77-83/84), who had been a military tribune on the staff of Paullinus. In his first year as governor, Agricola defeated the Ordovices and forced the surrender of the island of Mona, when his auxiliaries swam across the strait with their horses in a surprise attack.

Even the Silures, the most famous of the Welsh tribes and the most tenacious of foes, were Romanized. Eventually, they became a self-governing community of non-citizens (civitate peregrina), and had their tribal capital at Caerwent (Venta Silurum) near the fortress at Isca.

It had taken Rome more than thirty years to subdue the Welsh.

References: Britannia: A History of Roman Britain (1987) by Sheppard Frere; The Oxford Illustrated History of Roman Britain (1993) by Peter Salway; Roman Britain and the English Settlements (1937) by R. G. Collingwood and J. N. L. Myers; The Fasti of Roman Britain (1981) by Anthony R. Birley; Tacitus: The Annals of Imperial Rome (1959) translated by Michael Grant (Penguin Classics); Tacitus on Britain and Germany (1948) translated by H. Mattingly (Penguin Classics); Tacitus: The Histories (1975) translated by Kenneth Wellesley (Penguin Classics); Dio's Roman History (1927) translated by Earnest Cary (Loeb Classical Library); Caesar: The Conquest of Gaul (1982) translated by S. A. Handford (Penguin Classics); Caerleon Roman Fortress (1994) by Jeremy K. Knight (Welsh Historic Monuments); Caerleon-Isca: The Roman Legionary Museum (1987) by Richard J. Brewer; Caerwent Roman Town (1997) by Richard J. Brewer (Welsh Historic Monuments); Aldborough Roman Town (1995) by Colin Dobinson (English Heritage); Roman Legion (1994) by David Zienkiewicz (National Museum of Wales). The best modern account of the country is A History of Wales (1995) by John Davies.

Return to Top of Page