The Roman period

In Britain the Roman period spans the time from the invasion under the Emperor Claudius in AD 43 to the abandonment of Britain by the Roman legions in AD 410. There is debate over the extent to which Britain was Romanised before, during and after this period. Roman goods appear in southeast England in the first century BC and were often incorporated in burials. An amphora found at Vetches Farm in Aston Clinton is likely to have come from a cremation burial but it is unclear whether the burial is Late Iron Age or Roman. During the Roman period, especially in the early years of conquest, there is evidence of Britons still living in roundhouses, typical of the Iron Age, rather than the rectangular houses of Roman culture. Burial practice in Roman period Britain becomes like that of Rome early on, suggesting that fundamental religious ideology may be have been adopted quite quickly. There had been a campaign by the Romans even before the conquest to identify British gods with Roman ones. 


The Romans landed at Richborough in Kent in AD 43 and went on to defeat the Catuvellaunian forces at the River Medway. From this point on the Roman legions travelled throughout England and Wales, building temporary camps as they went, and securing the country for the empire. They would have come across some tribes that were keen to be part of the Roman empire and some that weren’t. The Iceni were originally happy to be a client kingdom but after mishandling by the Roman tax collectors and soldiers the tribe turned against the occupiers.


Roman roads discovered in excavation at ThornboroughCertain types of archaeological monuments are known from the Roman period, such as roads, forts, villas and towns. Roman roads were built after the army had made an area safe and were useful, making marching and sending messages much quicker. Some of the major Roman roads are Ermine Street heading north from London, Watling Street, heading north-west from London, and the Fosse Way from Bath to Lincoln. The modern A5 is on the line of Watling Street which passes the northeast edge of Buckinghamshire. The A41 runs along the line of another of the major Roman roads, Akeman Street, which heads northwest from St Albans through Aylesbury.


Temporary Roman forts were built every night and destroyed every morning when the legions were on the march, so that the local population didn’t reoccupy them. They are usually playing card shape and leave only crop-marks to identify them. Larger stone built forts were constructed later when more permanent defences were needed, such as at Hadrian’s Wall and on the eastern shores of England during the later Roman period. There is very little evidence for any Roman forts in Buckinghamshire, with only a few possible examples, such as that suggested at Fleet Marston just outside Aylesbury on the line of Akeman Street.


Reconstruction of Yewden VillaRoman villas often replaced Late Iron Age farmsteads. The smaller Roman villas are usually rectangular buildings, often with wings whereas some are much bigger and have buildings enclosing a courtyard. They are found by looking at aerial photographs or when ploughing reveals a mosaic floor. They were farms and country retreats and tended to be built along Roman roads. Some famous villas in Britain are Lullingstone in Kent, Fishbourne and Bignor in Sussex, and Bancroft near Milton Keynes. They tend to have mosaic floors that are geometric in design in the earlier Roman period but become more elaborate, naturalistic and colourful in later centuries. They often have attached baths, which were a symbol of being Roman. Villas in Buckinghamshire are known from nineteenth century and later excavations at Foscott, Yewden and Latimer, amongst others.


The town is another type of site the Romans brought to Britain. Prior to this the oppida of Britain were merely small settlements in wide-open spaces bounded by lengths of ditches. Roman towns were laid out on a grid system, with groups of buildings between the roads in an insula. Larger towns could have theatres, amphitheatres, a forum and basilica, public baths and temples. The best known towns to be established were Colchester, or Camulodunum, as a town for army veterans to retire to; London, or Londinium, a trading town; St Albans or Verulamium; Bath or Aquae Sulis for the magical properties of its water, Silchester or Calleva Atrebatum and Winchester, or Venta Belgarum, but there were many more. Many towns with the ending –chester or –caster were once Roman towns. There are no spectacular remains of large Roman towns in Buckinghamshire. Some settlement is known north of Aylesbury at Fleet Marston but it is unlikely it had any of the major buildings to be found in a large Roman town.


Other settlements are similar to those in the Iron Age, though the buildings tend to be rectangular rather than circular in the height of the Roman period. These Roman farmsteads are usually enclosed by a boundary ditch and associated with outlying fields, also defined by ditches. Apart from the activity at Fleet Marston, other Roman settlements in the county are elusive. The remains of two Roman buildings were excavated at Bourton Grounds near Buckingham, near the second century AD temple. A Roman floor, well and drainage ditches were excavated in Pitstone Quarry 2.


Aerial photograph showing the two Roman barrows at ThornboroughRoman burial had to take place away from settlements, excepting the very young. For instance, Yewden Roman villa had 90 baby burials on site. Other Roman burials have been found at Wellwick Farm, Wendover. This was quite a rich cremation burial accompanied by eight pottery and two glass vessels, a lamp and an adze-hammer. Part of an inhumation cemetery was discovered during groundworks just after the Second World War on Blind Lane, Bourne End. Two burials were in lead coffins though the third was not. A Roman cremation was also found under one of the mounds at Thornborough when it was excavated in the nineteenth century. Burials under barrows was not common in the Roman period, but this one was placed at a cross-roads and would have been to remind travellers of the person buried underneath.


The Roman legions left Britain in AD 410 when Rome was facing attack. They left Britain open to attack from outsiders and from the fifth century AD, Saxons, Angles and Jutes raided and settled in Britain. The Anglo-Saxon period set the parameters for future England.