November 20th, 2018
The Romans left behind many legacies and inventions when they invaded Britain in the 1st century, and the mighty roads that linked important Roman forts and towns are one such legacy that are just waiting to be explored.
“All the Britons indeed dye themselves with woad, which occasions a bluish colour and thereby have a more terrible appearance in fight. They wear their hair long and have every part of their body shaved except their head and upper lip”.
When Roman General Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 55BC, he was shocked at what he saw. Although much of Caesar’s accounts have since been proved to be factually incorrect, it was true that the Iron Age Celtic tribes who ruled Britain before the Romans lived a very different life to that of the extravagant Romans.
From around 500BC to the time of the Roman invasion, Britain was held together by a patchwork of Celtic tribal areas, each ruled by its own king. The Celts were menacing warriors and the tribes often fought bitter wars against each other. And when they weren’t fighting, the Celts were mainly farmers who grew or gathered their own food. Each tribe had its own identity and customs, and across Wales there were several tribes that ruled the lands – the Silures controlled the valleys of South Wales, the Demetae tribe ruled the south western peninsula of Wales and the Ordovices were in charge of mid and west Wales.
And when the Romans finally successfully occupied Britain in 43AD, so fierce was the resistance from the Celtic people that it took almost four years for the invading soldiers to control the south of England where they had first landed and another 30 years passed before the western, mid and Welsh Celtic tribes surrendered to Roman rule.
The Romans were hoping to find hoards of bounty in the rich lands of Britain – they looked for riches such as land, slaves and precious metals like gold, copper, zinc and iron. And riches they did find, but also Celtic customs and traditions that were curious and seemingly old fashioned to the forward thinking Romans. It wasn’t long before Roman settlers brought their own inventions, technology and fashions and compelled the tribal Celts to adopt them.
The Romans brought us many things that today, we couldn’t imagine living without. Towns and cities were one fundamental part of Roman society, where previously only small villages, farmsteads and hill-forts had existed. Carmarthen, Chester, Northwich and Whitchurch are all towns which were largely founded by the Romans and were extremely important administrative or military centres.
The Romans also famously brought with them, and left behind, their language – much of modern English is derived from Latin words and phrases – as well as the calendar that is still in use today. Roman numbers are also still widely used and the Roman fashion for human form sculptures and statues was rarely seen in Celtic art and culture. They also left behind new and improved methods of mining and manufacturing – industries like glass making didn’t exist before the Romans, and neither really did stonemasonry. Before the Roman conquest, buildings were usually constructed from earth or wood but the Romans were experienced builders and so brought with them a huge range of skills linked to design and architecture. One of their most successful inventions was the idea of drainage – something we can’t imagine living without today.
Another innovation that the Romans brought with them of course was their famous road systems. Although some tracks existed in Britain before the Romans arrived, they were probably rough, uneven and rather rugged, and used mainly to move livestock between fields or for short distances, because cross country travel for most people was unheard of.
But for the Romans, it was a different matter. In order to expand their empire they needed a fast, efficient and safe way to move their armies across not just hills and mountains but over countries and across continents. They also used their roads as a way to send messages quickly across the empire, ensuring total control and efficient running of troops and campaigns as the empire grew.
So, when the Romans arrived in Britain it wasn’t long before they had constructed tough, durable and solid roads to link their main centres. In Wales, Roman roads linked Chester with Caernarfon, Tomen-y-Mur (near Trawsfynydd) and Pennal, and southwards to Pumsaint, Carmarthen, Abergavenny, Usk and Caerleon. Chester was also linked to the fort of Wroxeter in modern day Shropshire – one of the largest, and most important, cities of Roman Britain.
Sarn Helen was one such Roman road, and it ran from Aberconwy near the north coast of Wales all the way to Carmarthen in the south, spanning the spine of the country for over 150 miles. There was once a Roman fort called Canovium at Caerhun near Aberconwy, so this was thought to be linked with forts and roman towns across the middle of Wales – at Trawsfynydd, Dolgellau, Corris, Pennal, Llanio, through the Brecon Beacons and ending at Carmarthen, which was also home to a large Roman fort and amphitheatre (which is coincidentally one of only two roman amphitheatres in Wales that have survived).
Much of the road has been built over by modern highways but a lot of it still survives and is accessible for walkers as footpaths and rights of way. Although the tough and cobbled surface it once would have boasted has been lost along most of it, many sections have survived well and are obvious and easy to follow.