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Roman Imperialism: The Victim's View by Tacitus

by Jim Jones, West Chester University of Pennsylvania (c.2013)
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Cornelius Tacitus (56-120 CE) was a prominent official in the early Roman Empire, and the author of one of the most famous histories of that period. He rose rapidly to become first consul and later governor of Asia, the wealthiest province in the Roman world. In his writing, Tacitus was critical of all who opposed his concept of freedom and honesty, including other prominent Romans, so he also made powerful enemies among the Roman elites.


Note: Britain refers to the islands that make up the modern countries of Great Britain and Ireland. Briton refers to the people who lived in Britain in Roman times. British refers to a modern society that did not come into existence until centuries after the Roman Empire.


The islands of Britain were located in the far northwestern part of the Roman world, so they were conquered relatively late in Roman history. Ethnically, their inhabitants were related to the population of Gaul, which Julius Casear's army conquered in 58-51 BCE. Britain remained a source of resistance to Roman Gaul, and finally in 55 BCE, the Romans briefly invaded the islands. Although they defeated King Cassivellaunus just north of the Thames River (in the vicinity of modern St. Albans) in 54 BCE, revolts in Gaul (modern France) and instability in Rome itself, forced Julius Caesar's army to withdrew.

Britain remained independent of Rome for nearly a century while Roman energy was directed towards stabilizing the Republic and resisting the Germans to the northeast and the Parthians in the far east. In 40 BCE, the Romans launched a campaign against the Britons that failed completely, but in 43 BCE, Aulus Plautius had more success. Emperor Claudius felt secure enough to visit the island and receive the surrender of Camulodunum (modern Colchester in Essex). The Romans continued their invasion north towards Lincoln and west to Chester, leading to the capture of the Briton leader Caractacus in 51 CE.

By 59 CE, the Romans controlled enough territory to justify nominating Suetonius Paulinus as the governor of Britain. He continued to wage war against the Britons, who were led by religious leaders called Druids. In 61 CE, Paulinus' actions ignited a revolt led by Queen Boudicca of the Iseni tribe (from the region of Norfolk). The Britons destroyed Roman settlements at Colchester, St. Albans and London, but the Roman counter-attack forced them to withdraw, and in the process, Boudicca was captured and executed by Paulinus.

Map of Roman Britain
Roman Britain

The Roman conquest of Britain continued and was finally completed between 77-84 CE by Julius Agricola, another Roman general who also served as the governor of the province of Britain. The most significant Roman victory came in 83 CE when they defeated the Caledonians (a tribe from modern Scotland) at Mount Graupius (near Aberdeen). The Romans did not follow up their victory, however, because Agricola was recalled to lead Roman troops in Germany in 84 CE.

The Caledonians never gave up their resistance to the Romans, and continually threatened outposts along the Roman northern border. In an attempt to stabilize the northern border, Emperor Hadrian (ruled 117-138 CE) ordered the construction of a wall from the Solway River to the Tyne river, separating Roman and Caledonian territory. His successor, Emperor Antonius Pius (ruled 138-161 CE), had another wall built farther north between the Firth of Forth and the River Clyde, but the Romans were eventually forced to abandoned it as indefensible. The northern Britons continued to revolt, and were partially successful in Yorkshire in 142-143 CE. As a consequence, the Romans were forced to station a large army along the Caledonian border, and several generals used their troops to support their efforts to become emperor in the third century CE. Thus, in the long run, the military situation in Britain destabilized the Roman government, since it provided a breeding ground for challengers to emperors selected in Rome.


  1. What was the military situation in Britain at the time this speech was given?
  2. How did the Briton chief describe the Roman system?
  3. Why did the Briton chief think that the Romans wanted to conquer Britain?
  4. How do you think Tacitus' readers reacted to the Briton chief's speech?
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