'The Roman Invasion of Britain' Documents Nearly 400 Years of Occupation

by Christel Loar

6 October 2010

Hosted by historian Bettany Hughes, The Roman Invasion of Britain is a three-part History Channel documentary that explores the nearly 400 year period in which Britain was occupied by the Romans.
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The Roman Invasion of Britain

(History Channel UK)
US DVD: 5 Oct 2010

The Roman Invasion of Britain is a three-part History Channel (it was broadcast on the History Channel UK, but has not yet been aired in the US) documentary that explores the nearly 400 year period in which Britain was occupied by the Romans. Hosted by historian Bettany Hughes, whose specialty is ancient civilizations, this program presents an overview of Rome’s imperialist occupation of Britain and subjugation and subsequent Romanization of its population.

Though it is called The Roman Invasion of Britain, only episode one, “Onslaught”, is actually about the initial invasion in 43 AD at the command of Emperor Claudius. Episodes two and three, “Revolt” and “Dominion” cover the key historical events that occurred in the ensuing centuries of Roman rule. In classic educational documentary/History Channel fashion, the facts are presented with a combination of narration and recitation of surviving historical accounts; visiting and/or excavating the modern-day sites of key events; interviews with historians, archaeologists and other experts and, of course, filmed re-enactments. 

The first episode, unfortunately, isn’t all that exciting, especially, given its subject and its title. The depiction of the “Onslaught” is somewhat marred by several things, including long, repeated and unnecessary sequences showing Hughes driving to the site where Romans first made landfall. It’s also more than a bit annoying that during the re-enactment scenes of legions marching and attacking, the narration and the battle sounds constantly overlap in a way that makes it nearly impossible to decipher either one because they cancel each other out. However, this episode does illuminate a few interesting and lesser known facts, such as how many ships Claudius sent in that first wave, and the real reason that there were no Britons there to defend against the invaders.

The second episode fares little better than the first as far as the overly long driving scenes and the sound separation issue during the re-enactments, but it does have much more stimulating information to impart. “Revolt” deals with several instances of resistance by native Britons in the first 90 years after Rome took over, but it focuses on the legendary Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni (also sometimes known as Boadicea). After the death of her husband, who had cooperated with the Romans in the hopes his tribe would be well-treated, Boudicca and her two young daughters were taken by Roman soldiers and beaten and raped as the whole village was made to watch.

The Romans intended to make an example for the people by humiliating their Queen, but Boudicca turned into another kind of example altogether.  She was able to unite several disparate East Anglian tribes and lead them to a bloody and devastating 17-year rebellion. The Boudiccan Revolt sacked and burned the roman cities of what is now Colchester, as well as St. Albans and London, among other colonies and townships. Proof of Boudicca’s fiery wrath has been found in the archaeological evidence beneath the foundations of modern Colchester, and Hughes makes no attempt to hide that she’s thrilled to see it and show it to viewers.

Of course, Boudicca was defeated by Rome in the end, otherwise England and Wales would not have remained a part of Roman Britannia for centuries to follow. Then end of the second episode discusses how Rome was never able to successfully invade or subdue the Picts, and therefore never ventured further north into Scotland. Instead, Emperor Hadrian built a wall, 73-miles in length, at the northern-most border of Roman territory (essentially the Scottish border) as a symbol of his power and of the dominance of Rome over Britain. Parts of the wall, as well as the colonial townships rebuilt during that time still stand today, and they are impressive as Hughes tours them, mainly as a symbol of the lasting impact and endurance of the Roman Empire in Britain.

The final episode, “Dominion”, deals mainly with the division of the population and the abuses heaped upon native Britons in the decades and centuries following the revolts. While perhaps ten percent of British natives adopted Roman customs, including living in towns, and lived quite well,  85 to 90 percent lived harsh lives filled with poverty, slavery and fear. At this time, a full ten percent of Rome’s military forces occupied Britannia in order to exploit its resources.

Hughes tours an ancient mine where countless Britons were enslaved for all of their short, miserable lives, and, incidentally, being poisoned by the arsenic that was present with the ore they were mining. By the time Rome withdrew from Britain to tend to its crumbling empire elsewhere, a great many things, most notable towns and roads, had become a permanent part of British life. As Hughes, tells us, these are the positive things that came from the Romano-Britannic period, and obviously evidence of these positive aspects can still be seen all over the country.

The Roman Invasion of Britain‘s bonus features include a 12-page viewers’ guide with time line, a history of Rome’s previous, failed British invasions, information on Roman and Catholic weaponry, a biography of the oft-cited Roman historian, Tacitus, and an essay on daily life in ancient Britain. The single disc also features biographies of the major historical figures, extended interviews with various historians and 14-minutes of extra footage. The program itself runs 138-minutes, and would probably be better used for scholastic instruction than as entertainment for Anglophiles and history buffs.

The Roman Invasion of Britain


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