Chapter 1

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The Beginning of Wales


The Roman armies first arrived in Britain in 55 BC under Julius Caesar, but there was no significant occupation until a century later. Caesar had some interesting, if biased comments concerning the native inhabitants. "All the Britons," he wrote, "paint themselves with woad, which gives their skin a bluish color and makes them look very dreadful in battle." He also vividly described human sacrifices supposedly practiced by the Celts, but this may have been mere propaganda to justify his conquests.

It was not until an expedition ordered by the Emperor Claudius that permanent expeditions to the grain-rich southeastern territories of Britain begun in earnest. From their base in what is now Kent, the Roman armies began a long, arduous and perilous series of battles with the native Celtic tribes. In what was later to be called Wales, the Romans were awestruck by their first sight of the druids who accompanied their warriors to battle. Roman historian Tacitus described them along the shores of the Menai Strait (in present-day Anglesey) as being "ranged in order, with their hands uplifted, invoking the gods and pouring forth horrible imprecations." By attacking and killing these druids, their wives and children, the Romans were able to defeat the formations drawn up against them.

As on the Continent, superior military discipline and leadership advanced weaponry, along with a carefully organized system of forts connected by straight roads, led to the eventual triumph of Roman armys. I it was not long before a great number of large, prosperous villas and farms were established in many parts of lowland Britain, but especially in the southeast and southwest.

The villas, the remains of many of which can be seen today, testify to the rapidity by which most of lowland Britain became Romanized, for they functioned as centers of a settled, peaceful and urban life. Mountainous Wales and Scotland were not as easily settled; they remained "the frontier", sparsely settled rugged, misty lands where military garrisons were strategically placed to guard the Northern and Western extremities of the Empire.

The windswept western plateau that is now Wales would surely have been left alone if it had not been for its valuable mineral deposits, including lead, tin and gold. The fierce resistance of its tribes meant that two out of the three Roman legions in Britain were stationed on the Welsh borders. Deva (Chester) in the northeast, was the largest roman fortress in Britain, covering some sixty acres on the banks of the River Dee and guarding the approaches to North Wales. Two impressive Roman fortifications remain to be seen in Wales proper: Isca Silurium at Caerleon, in Gwent with its fine ampitheatre (shown at above) and remains of a huge bath complex; and Segontium, near Caernarfon, in Gwynedd.

Though the Celtic tongue survived in Britain as the medium of everyday speech, Latin being used mainly for administrative purposes, a great deal of Latin words entered the native vocabulary, and many of these are still found in modern-day Welsh. Today's visitors are surprised to find hundreds of place names containing Pont (bridge), while ffenest (window), pysgod (fish), milltir (mile), mil (thousand), mor (sea), mel (honey), melys (sweet) cyllell (knife), ceffyl (horse), perygl (danger), eglwys (church), milwr (soldier), cantor (singer), llyfr (book), sant (saint) and many others attest to Roman influence (though many of these may have entered the language in subsequent centuries).

Rome had became Christianized with the conversion of Constantine in 337, and thanks to the missionary work of Martin of Tours in Gaul and the edict of 400 AD that made Christianity the only official worship of the Empire, the new religion was brought to Britain, where the Romanized people quickly adopted it. Due to the activities of the Christian missionaries, who introduced the monastic system into the island, the old Celtic gods had to slink off into the mountains and hills to hide, reappearing fitfully and almost apologetically only in the poetry and myths of later ages.

When the city of Rome fell to the invading Goths under Alaric, Roman Britain, which had experienced hundreds of years of comparative peace and prosperity, was left to its own defences under its local Romano-British leaders. Apart from the mountainous, agriculturally poor north and west, much of the island eventually crumbled under the onslaught of Germanic tribes, themselves under attack from tribes coming from the East. These tribes wished to settle in the sparsely populated, richly fertile lands across the narrow channel that separated them from the islands of Britain.

The Germanic invasions of those islands, like those of the Romans before them, met fierce and prolonged resistance; they were stopped from conquering the whole island by such Romano-British leaders as Arthur (Arthur's Stone to the right), most certainly a Christian warrior king based in Wales. More than three hundred years of fighting took place between the native Celts, who with one or two notable exceptions were never strong enough, or capable enough, to offer organized resistance.

The ever-increasing number of Germanic newcomers spread westward like a slow moving flood, were eventually contained. By the end of the sixth century, Britain had more or less sorted itself out into three distinct areas: the Teutonic East, the Britonic West and the Britonic-Pictish North soon to be invaded and settled by the Scotti, from Ireland, who brought their Gaelic language with them.

It was these areas that later came to be identified as, England, Wales and Scotland, all of which were to develop with very separate cultural and linguistic characteristics. As early as 440, an anonymous writer penned the following:
Britain, abandoned by the Romans, passed into the power of the Saxons (Chronica Gallica)
The writer could not possibly have been referring to the whole of Britain; it was far too early for that, but it is certain that the Saxons had come to much of the islands to stay. The people of Wales had a new, powerful and numerous enemy with which to contend.

Chapter 2: A Sense of Wales
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