A Very Brief History of the Romans in West Cumbria

Return to Home

Roman influence in West Cumbria certainly predates actual invasion, if invasion there was. The Romans were astute traders and the mineral riches of West Cumbria would have been known of in the rest of Europe thousands of years before the Romans decided to make it part of an Imperial estate.

Indeed, a working knowledge of the coast, its estuaries and rivers would be an essential ingredient of any military campaign. 73AD sees Petilius Cerealis arrive at Carlisle, after crossing from York in what would otherwise be a suicidal traverse of unfriendly terrain, had it not been for a civil war in the dominant tribe of the Brigantes, and the apparently more acquiescent sub tribe the Carvetii.

In AD79 Gnaeus Julius Agricola took full advantage of the trading routes and contacts on his advance North, with construction of the Stanegate (between Carlisle and Newcastle), connecting East to West coasts and major fort construction along the way. Agricola laid the foundation for Roman control in the West that in turn paved the way for Trajan to further improve the infrastructure.

By AD 122 with the Emperor Hadrian's grand scheme to define the borders of the Roman world, the frontier of the West and North are already well established – the Wall, merely acts as an additional facility emphasizing the frontier zone.

To the West the forts become more sophisticated, with an emphasis on port and customs control; trade flourishes and with the Romanisation of the locals the status and responsibilities rise; the Carvetii get official accreditation within the Roman world, running the equivalent of a modern ‘canton’, responsibility passing down from Imperial control and results in a period of unilateral independence from formal Roman control; a situation that has to be rectified by the Emperor Severus in AD210.

Creation of wealth and wherever possible tax evasion ensures large towns remain technically untitled settlements – thereby evading punitive taxes, as the weight of the Roman Empire weighs heavier as the decades pass. Division of the country; rebellion and re-occupation makes very little impact upon a region that is rich in minerals and good farmland and of course the sea.

Roman occupation formally ends with the closing of the Imperial mints and the Emperor Honorius stating that the inhabitants would need to look to their own defence against the tides of change. West Cumbria would have adapted long before the formal collapse; trading would long have been in weight rather than denomination of gold and silver. Many of the traders would have been seen as enemies further South in the land. Having high quality iron is a magnet for customers from everywhere – there is nowhere to hide. The Roman forts may be poorly manned, the wages unpaid; the troops themselves most likely part of the hurly burly of barter, exchange and commerce; day to day life would transmute but continue with gusto.

So at the closing of the Imperial vei,l West Cumbria is of a vibrant, diverse disposition, a lively and dangerous trading region – adept at survival without formality – business as usual.

Great change and calamity was to come, but not quite yet………

Copyright Clifford Jones 2010