Walking around Britain, it would be easy to forget that the place had a history before the Middle Ages. The magnificent buildings date from the Medieval Age, the stories mostly come from the Early Modern period, the neighborhoods were largely built in the early 20th century. Anything that predates these developments seems like a dark swirl of spookiness with a dash of nothingness. The fact that most history books give the “we don’t know, but we think” narrative only serves to cement this idea in most of us. Only after having left my high school history books behind and traipsed about a bit did I learn that there was a reason for that besides “we don’t know”.
It was the Romans.
We all know that the Roman Empire was extensive and covered most of continental Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, but we often forget that it extended into the British Isles. Perhaps the most famous of the Romans to invade Britain was Julius Caesar – as early as 43BC, the Romans had a presence in Britain. It didn’t last very long, though. The Celts and the Britons who lived in southern England and Wales proved to be a bit too much for the Romans. Compared to the Romans, with their state-of-the-art weaponry and armor, the Celts and Britons looked quite primitive, but the mysterious people also had the unique ability to strike out of nowhere and melt away into the forests without a trace, leaving the Romans with their togas around their ankles and incredible confused as to how that could happen to the single greatest military machine the world had seen. (Some say that the story of the wizard Merlin comes from a Celt leader, whose tactics were so effective and sneaky that the Romans were convinced he had supernatural help.)
Roman historians often describe the conquests of Britain in wonderfully vague terms, hinting at the supernatural, or at least at the soldiers’ tendencies towards being spooked by the antics of the native people. The practices of using war paint and lighting fires to celebrate the end of summer, or Samhuinn, are noted as being particularly eerie. Being a literate society, we often get our information from other literate societies, meaning that for a long time everything we knew about pre-Roman Britain came from the Romans, who were the only ones to write about it. Scholarship is starting to move away from this tendency, but it’s easy to see why high school textbook writers would use the Romans’ written histories as a basis instead of piecemeal archaeological evidence. The result, though, is the “we don’t know” line in your history books.
The Romans pulled out of Britain and re-invaded several times, each time with the goal of taking the whole island. They were eventually able to establish a firm foothold in England, founding some of the most important places of modern England in the process (London was originally a fortified Roman camp called Londinium). The farther north they got, though, the more difficult it was to push the native peoples out. The Picts, the tribe which occupied much of Scotland and northern England, proved particularly difficult to eradicate, and caused numerous headaches for the Roman soldiers in the area.
The Romans, realizing their military had no mechanism for dealing with guerrilla-type fighting against people who were much more familiar with the land than they were, turned instead to economics: They bought off the tribes (for anyone who’s interested, the National Museum of Scotland’s exhibition called “Scotland’s Early Silver” explained just how the Romans were able to do that).
To save some face, the Romans established a permanent camp as far north as they could safely hold, and ran their operations out of that camp, occasionally making new forays into the wilds of the north. They named their camp Eboracum, taking the name from the native languages of the area, meaning “place of the yew tree”. They fortified the walls, improving and rebuilding them several times. In true Roman fashion, they established a system of parallel streets and divided the camp into quadrants for various purposes. The location had some political perks as well: It was right on the river, and there was fertile farmland all the way around, meaning that transporting and feeding soldiers (i.e., keeping them non-mutinous) would be easy. It also occupied a neutral territory between two warring tribes the Romans wanted to keep tabs on. So all in all, it was the perfect spot for them.
The Romans occupied Eboracum until the final Roman withdrawal from Britain in 410AD, while the Empire was falling down around their ears. The next group of people to come by, the Angles, found a fully-built and partially inhabited town, and moved themselves in, changing the name to one easier for them to pronounce: Eoforwic. The town expanded until it could be properly called a city in 866AD, the Angles were forced out by bunch of even fiercer warriors from the north, the Vikings, who decided it was a nice town and they wanted it, so they took it. They renamed the city Jorvik, from which comes its modern name: York.
Remnants of the Roman occupation can still be seen in York. The city walls, which date from medieval times, were built on the site of the original Roman fortifications, and in some places the earthen hill-and-ditch wall that the Roman constructed can still be seen. The layout of the old city still more or less follows the Roman layout. The main highway into the city, the A64, follows the Roman approach to the camp. Just walk around for a bit and you’re bound to see the footprint of Rome in northern England.