50–350 AD, 300 Years of Conquest, Romans and Political History in York, the Capital of the North
“The furthest limits of Britain are thrown open, and the unknown always passes for the marvellous. But there are no tribes beyond us, nothing indeed but waves and rocks, and the yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission… To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a desert and call it peace.” – Calgacus, Chieftain of the Caledonian Confederacy (modern day Scotland), 84 AD
It is hard to feel the legacy of the past, and even harder to understand it. Many ancient places are lost to the throws of time, an eternal and inevitable struggle with the constant forces of destruction; however quickly or slowly they may come. By the end of the Roman period, York had seen itself grow from a tribal den to a military fortress with cobbled streets and stone abbeys, becoming the site of two emperor’s deaths, state funerals and springboards for invasions as the de–facto capital of the north of Britain.
2000 years ago, two tribes occupied the territory that is now York, the Brigantes and Parisii. Nevertheless, in 43AD the Roman conquest of southern Britain began, mercilessly subjugating tribes in a distinctively Roman fashion of imperialism. It was not until 70AD that the Roman legions crossed north of the Humber and Ouse. In the conquest of the Brigantes, historian and imperial cynic Tacitus notes that they were said to be “under a woman’s leadership”, almost defeating the Romans in a defiant last stand.
Though the date is contested, between 70AD and 107AD, the construction of a wooden fort began in York, the foundations of what would become known as Eboracum, given its name to mean “yew tree place”. The outline of these fortifications are still visible in York today, as it later became the base for later expansion.
Eboracum functioned as a military base for most of its existence, from which a town and city began to slowly flourish. Originally housing a garrison of 5,500 men, tribal uprisings during the first century of its existence facilitated a greater inflow of military men, which in turn allowed permanent civilian settlement due to the protection afforded to them. Since its conception, Eboracum was visited by two Roman Emperors: Hadrian in 122AD, and Septimius Severus in 208AD, both of whom sought to expand the fortification of the region and city itself. Some of the largest threats to Britain at this time were the organised tribes of the Scottish Highlands, most notably the Picts. It was during Septimius Severus’ visit that the Imperial court was relocated to York during a planned invasion beyond Hadrian’s Wall. However, in 211AD, he passed away and was cremated in the city.
Irish and Germanic sea raiders grew in presence at the turn of the third century. While they were not looking to conquer Britain , robbery and theft of the countryside of northern England began to take its toll on the land. According to historian Stephen Johnson, between 260 and 280AD, the number of recorded lootings in Britain increased by over 1000%. These foreign looters were taking advantage of the growing political turmoil of the Roman Empire, the so–called ‘Crisis of the Third Century’. A pretender emperor, Allectus, appropriated the garrison at
Hadrian’s wall to bolster his own army in the fight against the successive emperor, Constantius Chlorus. Their final battle came in the spring of 297AD with Constantius’ invasion of Britain, but due to the lack of defences against the Scottish tribes at Hadrian’s Wall, an invasion of the aforementioned Picts came swiftly. Campaigning in Britain for almost a decade, Constantius finally defeated the Picts in 305AD. In preparation for a retaliatory invasion of Scotland, Constantius (and his son Constantine) began the expansion of the fortifications of the city. In what has been described as a “marvel of the age”, the remaining legacy of the emperor(s) is that of the ‘Multangular Tower’ placed in York. Only one other in the world exists like it, emblematic of the architectural might that the Romans achieved in this period. Constantius is believed to have died of natural causes in 306AD, promoting his son Constantine to the Imperial throne. His soldiers crowned him at the base of what is now York Minster, where a bronze statue exists in his honour as the first Christian Roman emperor.
An earlier emperor, Diocletian, had administratively split the empire, which officialised Eboracum as one of the new provincial capitals, suggesting its importance by the end of the third century. Yet throughout the fourth century, the decline of the empire took a heavy toll on the flourishing city. Literacy, stonework, art and sophisticated crafts began to die out – while invasions by the aforementioned Picts and the growing ferocity of seaborn raids plagued the province with consistent and unending domestic threats. This was made untenable by the relentless sabotage of political order by ambitious Roman governors, who would almost periodically declare themselves emperor from the safety of their increasingly desolate island.
York became less and less important as a base of military operations as threats came from elsewhere or troops were syphoned off for endless civil wars. In economic decline and finding itself increasingly unimportant, histories mention little about Eboracum beyond the mid 300ADs. After 383AD, little evidence suggests that any Roman troops were based in northern England, unable to deal with the growing conquests of sea raiders or the raiding Picts, shifting their priorities to defend the more prosperous south.
In 407AD, Governor Constantine crowned himself Constantine III upon hearing of Germanic invasions of Gaul (modern day France) and the near collapse of the Roman government, abandoning the province of Britain and ordering all troops in the region to join his army. This abandonment of the province was famously followed by the Rescript of Honorius, whereby the then–Emperor Honorius told the people of Britain to fend for their own survival and protection, as the Roman state was unable to provide anything of significance. In the same year Rome was sacked for one of the last times in the Roman period (411 AD), effectively signalling the end of Roman power projection. Constantine III, the last Roman leader of Britain, was beheaded upon capture and his head was displayed on the walls of Carthage (modern day Tunis, Tunisia).
Left in mostly rubble and ruin, with a population and influence a fraction of what it once was, Eboracum would begin its slow transition into the city of York as we know it today. Nevertheless, the tales and histories of this legendary past are always visible – from the remnants of the Roman fort, to the base of York Minster, to the makeup of the city itself – that eternal legacy has a thousand of pasts to tell, and will continue to be of great importance to the history of Roman Britain.
Written by: Fin Bosworth
Image Credit: Paul Simpson, Flickr
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