The first episode of the series picks up the story of Irish history around the end of the Roman Empire. This article looks at Ireland and its interaction with Roman Europe to set the stage.

What did the Romans do for us ?

It’s one of those questions that’s relevant to nearly every country in North Africa, the Middle East and Europe. Most of these countries though should really ask “what did the Romans do to us”. The answer is given by the Roman historian Tacitus, quoting a Britannic chieftain

“The Romans make a desert and call it peace”

You might get some flash buildings, fancy architecture to look at if you survived the invasion but overall this guy wasn’t far wrong. The Romans didn’t just beat enemies they annihilated them. If you were happy to play ball they were happy to work with you. However once you asked about independence or rose up, the Romans understood you could not just be beaten but had to be annihilated. They knew they had to make everyone else realise the value of the staying in the empire and the pain of leaving it.

Carthage (near modern day Tunis) Rome’s main competitor in the 2nd century BCE was not just beaten it was dismantled as a city, Gaul was conquered by Julius Caesar in ten years of brutal war from 59-49 BCE that fundamentally changed society there, killing probably hundreds of thousands of people. Jerusalem was destroyed after the Jews revolted for the third time in 132-135 CE and this was done by an emporer who was considered to be more peaceful than most.

When it comes to Ireland and we ask “What did the Romans do to us?” The answer is not very much compared to the rest of Europe. This can be said with a sigh of relief. Ireland was never invaded by the Romans. A big question though is why?

Often I’ve heard nationalists in the same breath as talking about independence from Britain say “sure even the Romans couldn’t even bate us”. Unfortunately or well more fortunately the truth is they could but just couldn’t be bothered. Look at the situation at the time. They conquered North Africa, The Middle East and Europe without any major hiccups after the destruction of Carthage in 146 BCE. By the time Ireland was on the chopping board – this must have been sometime after 43 CE (Britain was invaded this year) – The Roman army was a finely honed killing machine. It had destroyed The Carthaginian Empire (no mean feat! Hannibal was Carthaginian – these guys were no pushover’s). They subdued Gaulic tribes (inhabitants of modern – day France) united under a single leader in a ten year campaign from 59 BCE to 49 BCE. Don’t forget they also beat the diminished but still powerful and rich Egyptian state as a side show in a civil war. By the first century CE the only enemy they really faced were themselves in civil wars.

So if they had gone up against a series of disunited kingdoms in Ireland with inferior military technology they would have won. They definitely thought about it. Tacitus, the roman historian and son in law and biographer of the roman governor and general in Britain Agricola, said

“I have often heard him [Agricola] say that a single legion with a few auxiliaries could conquer and occupy Ireland, and that it would have a salutary effect on Britain for the Roman arms to be seen everywhere, and for freedom, so to speak, to be banished from its sight.”

It might have taken a while due to logistic and geographical problems but it could have been done. Agricola according to Tacitus said

“a single legion with a few auxiliaries could conquer and occupy Ireland”

These exact figures may or may not be true I don’t know enough about Roman militarism to comment except to say a legion during this period was about six thousand men so you decide.

And now back to the very start and the original question “What did the Romans do for us?”. In the podcast I touch on most of the important stuff. Roman traders came here and gathered intelligence and traded. Tacitus mentioned talked about Ireland…..

“Its extent is small when compared with Britain, but exceeds the islands of our seas [Mediterranean]. In soil and climate, in the disposition, temper, and habits of its population, it differs but little from Britain. We know most of its harbours and approaches, and that through the intercourse of commerce”

Trade seems to have developed and the presence of Romans in the country was probably not unusual. Roman pottery has been discovered in Ireland in not insignificant amounts. A roman burial found near Thomastown in Co Kilkenny dating from the first century is telling also. It indicates there was more than one Roman there – someone knew how to bury him according to Roman tradition. It also indicates the type of relationship that existed between Ireland and the roman world. These people were not in any rush or fearful of being spotted, they were by no means clandestine and were presumably very comfortable in the Irish Landscape. The burial is inland about 50 miles from the sea and 20 miles from a river estuary so these weren’t fly by night visitors. They cremated a body – which attracts attention and takes days. Some people even think this person/people may have lived in Ireland. This is a bit of jump– archaeologists have a tendency to run wild when anything close to a burial is excavated. We’ll never know what this person was doing in Ireland.

This trading relationship turned to piracy as Roman power started to fade. The historical example of this is the Great Conspiracy or Barbarian Conspiracy of 374 CE. The historian Amminias mentions that people from Ireland are involved in this. The conspiracy was probably no conspiracy but rather a year where Rome’s inability to defend itself ,as well as it once had, became obvious. Roman exceptionalism (the idea the Romans were the greatest – exceptional you might say) led the Romans to explain it away as some evil conspiracy rather than accept defeat to what they considered a lesser enemy.

Roman decline accelerated in the early 5th century. Britain was abandoned militarily in 408 CE; this did not end roman Britain, but made it more vulnerable. Rome as a city had declined with imperial court moving away but still no one can deny the significance of Rome being sacked in 387 CE, 410 CE and 455 CE. The last Roman emperor, the aptly named Romulus Augustus was deposed in 476 CE. His successor Odoacer was acknowledged as king of Italy by the Eastern Roman Emperor Zeno (the empire was split in two under the tetrachy system brought in by Diocletian) ending the Western Roman Empire as a political unit.

The European World though didn’t collapse, Ireland as you can hear in the podcast continued to trade with the European continent. No light went out over Europe but there was an acceleration of a process that had begun in the late Empire of ruralisation. For Ireland this had no impact – it had never been urban. The spread however of the state religion of the late empire – Christianity, created problems in Ireland. Although the ideas were accepted the structure was not. The Christian church found itself in a bind – how could it operate in a country that was never a province. The church had always acted as part of the roman structure and now the structure was nonexistent. At this point if you haven’t heard the podcast, listen now to find out where all goes from here…….

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