Ancient Britain


published on 28 April 2011
Map of Roman Britain, 150 AD (Andrei nacu)

Britain (or more accurately, Great Britain) is the name of the largest of the British Isles, which lie off the northwest coast of continental Europe. The name is probably Celtic and derives from a word meaning 'white'; this is usually assumed to be a reference to the famous white Cliffs of Dover, which any new arrival to the country by sea can hardly miss. The first mention of the island was by the Greek navigator Pytheas, who explored the island's coastline, c. 325 BCE.

During the early Neolithic Age (c. 4400 BCE – c. 3300 BCE), many long barrows were constructed on the island, many of which can still be seen today. In the late Neolithic (c. 2900 BCE – c.2200 BCE), large stone circles called henges appeared, the most famous of which is Stonehenge.

Before Roman occupation the island was inhabited by a diverse number of tribes that are generally believed to be of Celtic origin, collectively known as Britons. The Romans knew the island as Britannia.

It enters recorded history in the military reports of Julius Caesar, who crossed to the island from Gaul (France) in both 55 and 54 BCE. The Romans invaded the island in 43 CE, on the orders of emperor Claudius, who crossed over to oversee the entry of his general, Aulus Plautius, into Camulodunum (Colchester), the capital of the most warlike tribe, the Catuvellauni. Plautius invaded with four legions and auxiliary troops, an army amounting to some 40,000.

Due to the survival of the Agricola, a biography of his father-in-law written by the historian Tacitus (c. 105 CE), we know much about the first four decades of Roman occupation, but literary evidence is scarce thereafter; happily there is plentiful, if occasionally mystifying archaeological evidence. Subsequent Roman emperors made forays into Scotland, although northern Britain was never conquered; they left behind the great fortifications, Hadrian's Wall (c. 120 CE) and the Antonine Wall (142 -155 CE), much of which can still be visited today. Britain was always heavily fortified and was a base from which Roman governors occasionally made attempts to seize power in the Empire (Clodius Albinus in 196 CE, Constantine in 306 CE).

At the end of the 4th century CE, the Roman presence in Britain was threatened by "barbarian" forces. The Picts (from present-day Scotland) and the Scoti (from Ireland) were raiding the coast, while the Saxons and the Angles from northern Germany were invading southern and eastern Britain. By 410 CE the Roman army had withdrawn. After struggles with the Britons, the Angles and the Saxons emerged as victors and established themselves as rulers in much of Britain during the Dark Ages (c. 450 - c. 800 CE).

About the Author

Terry Walsh
Teacher of Classics

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Visual Timeline
  • 12000 BCE
    Paleolithic seasonal camp at Howburn Farm in Biggar, Scotland, visited regularly.
  • 10500 BCE - 7000 BCE
    Mesolithic settlements established (many seasonal) in Scotland.
  • c. 6500 BCE
    Possibly the last time there was a land bridge between Britain and the continent.
  • 6000 BCE
    Bones and antlers used as tools, ring and cup marks on stones begin appearing in Scotland.
  • c. 3500 BCE
    The vast stone complex known as the Ness of Brodgar in use in Orkney.
  • c. 3100 BCE
    Neolithic village of Skara Brae inhabited.
  • c. 3100 BCE - c. 2500 BCE
    Megalithic Period in which majority of standing stone sites were constructed.
  • c. 3000 BCE - c. 2800 BCE
    The Neolithic chambered cairn known as Maeshowe constructed and in use.
  • c. 2500 BCE
    Migration of the so-called Beaker People to Scotland.
  • 2000 BCE
    Completion of Stonehenge, Britain.
  • 2000 BCE - 1500 BCE
    Wessex culture introduces bronze working to Britain.
  • c. 2000 BCE - c. 1400 BCE
    Early Bronze Age in Scotland.
  • c. 1400 BCE - c. 900 BCE
    Middle Bronze Age in Scotland.
  • c. 900 BCE
    Celtic Migration begins in Europe with many Celts landing in Scotland.
  • c. 900 BCE - c. 400 BCE
    Late Bronze Age in Scotland.
  • 55 BCE - 54 BCE
    Julius Caesar invades Britain twice.
  • 55 BCE - 54 BCE
    Julius Caesar's expeditions in Britain.
  • 55 BCE
    Caesar attempts to invade Britain.
  • 54 BCE
    Caesar successfully invades Britain but withdraws to Gaul.
  • 54 BCE - 43 CE
    Roman influence grows in Britain owing to trade.
  • 43 CE
    Romans invade Britain under Aulus Plautius.
  • 43 CE
    Claudius commences the Roman conquest of Britain.
  • 43 CE
    Claudian invasion of Britain, includes the Legio II Augusta.
  • 43 CE - 47 CE
    Romans conquer South Britain and claim the territory as part of Roman Empire.
  • 47 CE - 50 CE
    Londinium (London) founded, roads constructed.
  • 51 CE
    Briton rebel leader Caratacus defeated, rebellion crushed.
  • 60 CE - 61 CE
    Boudicca's Revolt in Britain.
  • 60 CE - 61 CE
    Boudicca revolts, the Legio II Augusta does not respond to a call to arms.
  • 75 CE - 77 CE
    Romans defeat the last of the Northern tribes; Roman conquest of Britain complete.
  • 122 CE
    Construction begins on Hadrian's Wall.
  • 133 CE
    Hadrian’s wall is built in northern England.
  • 142 CE
    The Antonine Wall built under Antoninus Pius, north of Hadrian's Wall.
  • 286 CE
    Naval commander Carausius (Marcus Aurelius Mausaeus Valerius Carausius) declares himself emperor in Britain and Northern Gaul.
  • 293 CE
    Emperor Carausius assassinated by Allectus.
  • 410 CE
    Rome withdraws forces from Britain.
  • 450 CE
    Angels and Saxons settle Britain.
  • c. 500 CE
    Kingdom of Dal Riada conquers the region of Scotland.
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