Guide to Roman Britain: how long did the Roman occupation last and how did they change Britain?

When the Romans occupied Britain in 43AD, they set about building cities, walls and hundreds of roads that we still use today. Our guide to Roman Britain explores the history of the Roman occupation, the impact on wildlife, plus the best Roman sites to visit in the UK.

Hadrian's-wall
In 410 AD, the Western Roman emperor Honorius, finding the security of his empire threatened by invasion and civil war, wrote to the cities of Britain to tell them to look to their own defence. For the first time in nearly four centuries, the people of Britannia were no longer under the control of Rome.

Our guide to Roman Britain explores the history of the Roman occupation, the impact on wildlife, plus the best Romans sites to visit in the UK.

Roman facts

  • Before the final and successful Roman invasion of Britain under Emperor Claudius in 43 AD, Julius Caesar had invaded twice and won several battles against the Celts.
  • The population of Roman Britain numbered between three and four million people and was more racially and culturally diverse than at any time before the 19th century.
  • The first Roman town in Britain was Camulodunum (Colchester) – but less than a tenth of the population lived in towns.
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When did the Roman’s occupy Britain?

The Romans occupied Britain from 43 AD until 410 AD, when the Western Roman emperor Honorius, finding the security of his empire threatened by invasion and civil war, wrote to the cities of Britain to tell them to look to their own defence. It took nearly four centuries until the people of Britannia were no longer under the control of Rome, and hence its no surprise that the Roman influence on Britain is still identifiable today.


Why did the Roman’s occupy Britain?

Britain, in the first century AD, had been an obvious territory for the resource-hungry Roman Empire to annexe. A great source of iron, lead, copper, tin and gold, the island was also rich in cattle and grain. Taking control of such resources had made sound economic sense to the emperor Claudius, who, in 43 AD, authorised a full-scale invasion of the island. New tribal towns, each with a regular street grid, forum, basilica, theatre, amphitheatre, temples and bathhouse, were established across southern Britain, many being subsequently filled with high-status houses.

Roman remains
Once an extremely opulent Roman house; Fishbourne Palace, Sussex is one of the more famous Roman sites in Britain comprising, in its main phase, a public wing containing a large entrance hall, an impressive dining room, a private range and a guest wing all arranged around a large central courtyard with formal gardens. /Credit: Getty Images

Roman Britain’s impact on wildlife

Arguably Rome’s greatest legacy in Britain was not the towns, villas, mosaics and forts, but in the changes that it brought to the natural world. Roman farming regimes, which over-emphasised the production of beef and pork, also introduced ‘alien’ species of animals and plants to the British Isles. These new additions included the almond, sour cherry, plum, damson, cucumber, fennel, fig, grape, sweet chestnut, sycamore and walnut and probably also coriander, peach and the common elm together with cultivated forms of carrot, parsnip, apple and pear. New animal species introduced to Britain by Rome included the chicken, edible and garden dormouse, fallow deer, rabbit and Roman snail, and also probably the brown hare, common carp, pheasant, and new forms of domesticated cat and dog.

Wild boar
Large wild mammals such as boar declined due to Roman agricultural advances and organised hunting techniques/Credit: Getty Images

Less favourable additions, arriving with the intensification of Roman grain production, were the black rat, dark mealworm, granary weevil and saw-toothed grain beetle. During this time, native British species such as the elk, beaver, wild boar, bear, wolf and lynx, all went into serious decline, thanks to a combination of industrialised farming regimes and increasingly sophisticated hunting strategies.

Although from a cultural perspective, the Roman Empire had little effect upon the social development of Britain, its influence upon landscape and environment, particularly the flora and fauna, was significant – the fallout of which continues to affect us to this day.


Best Roman sites to visit in the UK

Roman Baths, Somerset

Roman Bath
The Roman Baths, pictured centre of Bath’s wider cityscape/Credit: Getty Images

At Bath, the temple, sacred spring and bathing complex belonging to Aquae Sulis are displayed in a stunning subterranean museum. Here you can also see a large number of sculptures and tombstones together with votive objects, including the famous ‘curse’ tablets.

Fishbourne Palace, West Sussex

Floor mosaic
Floor mosaic, Fishbourne Roman Palace in West Sussex/Credit: Getty Images

The palace at Fishbourne was one of the most opulent Roman structures built outside of Italy. An on-site museum and discovery centre display many of the key finds recovered from excavations here.

Bignor Roman Villa, West Sussex

Mosaic floor
View the remaining mosaics of Bignor Roman Villa/Credit: Getty Images

The beautiful mosaics of Bignor villa are protected by a series of thatched-cover buildings, first constructed in the early 19th century. A bathhouse, two dining rooms and associated floors including a hypocaust are visible.

Cawrwent Roman Town, Monmouthshire

Roman remains
Carwent Roman remains in Monmouthshire/Credit: Getty Images

Much of the tribal town of Venta Silurum is visible today, including the foundations of houses, shops, a temple and part of the forum and basilica. The town wall circuit survives in places to an impressive height of 5m.

Caerleon Roman, Fortress Gwent

Roman remains
Many Roman sites are on offer to explore at Caerleon Roman Fortress in Gwent, Wales/Credit: Getty Images

Constructed in the AD 70s, Caerleon (Isca), was only one of three permanently occupied legionary fortresses in Britain. Here you can see the mighty amphitheatre, legionary barracks, part of the main bathhouse and artefacts displayed in the Roman Army Museum.

Chedworth Roman Villa, Gloucestershire 

Man and Roman remains
Chedworth Roman Villa, a Roman site still actively being discovered/Credit: Getty Images

A spectacular set of mosaics and a private bathhouse all housed in a brand-new cover building. Continuous excavations are revealing more of the villa complex while an on-site museum displays artefacts.

Vindolanda, Northumberland

Roman remains
Vindolanda, the home of a whole host of collections of Roman artefacts/Credit: Alamy

The well-preserved frontier fort of Vindolanda, to the immediate south of Hadrian’s Wall, is justly famous for the incredible quantity and quality of Roman artefacts, including textiles, shoes, jewellery and writing tablets, recovered.

Lullingstone Roman Villa, Kent

Roman remains
The Roman bathhouse of Lullingstone; an atmospheric visit/Credit: Alamy

One of the earliest examples of Christian worship found in the UK. Today, the surviving mosaic floors, wall paintings and bathhouse of Lullingstone villa are protected by a substantial new cover building, museum and visitor centre.

Corinium Museum, Cirencester

Corinium-Musuem-Cirencester
A Roman feat of art; just one of the impressive mosaics you can see at the Corinium Museum/Credit: Alamy

An extensive collection of mosaics, tombstones, sculpture and everyday artefacts acquired from excavations of the second largest town of Roman Britain. The impressive, grass-covered remains of the town’s amphitheatre, are also visible.

Portchester Castle, Hampshire

Castle and grounds
The coastal fortress of Portchester Castle still stands remarkably strong/Credit: Getty Images

One of a chain of fortresses built towards the end of the 3rd century to protect harbours of Britain from attack. With walls over 6m high and with 14 of its original 20 towers surviving, Portchester is one of the best preserved Roman forts in Europe.


About the author

Dr Miles Russell is a senior lecturer in prehistoric and Roman archaeology at Bournemouth University. He has written 15 books and regularly contributes to TV programmes on UK history