Although Roman Britain is often regarded as a single province, this was true only for its first 169 years as part of the Empire. The status of the province remained unchanged until the legions had advanced north and the entire province had been suitably pacified. At this point it was decided that the administration of Britain could safely be divided. This was achieved in three stages: first the province was divided into two by Emperor Caracalla in 212 AD; then it was divided into four provinces by the Emperor Diocletian in 269 AD; and finally a fifth province was added by Emperor Valentinian in 369 AD. Britain did not in fact become a single entity again until it was unified by an English king almost 700 years later1.
The Administrative Centres of the Province of Britain
The Province of Britannia was the title of the first administration of the province.
From the invasion in 43 AD until 212 AD.
The first Provincial Capital was Camulodunum now Colchester.
Britain was an imperial province2 and the appointment of the governor or legatus Augusti3 was the choice of the Emperor and was a senator from the highest classes in Roman society.
There were 36 Provincial Governors of Britain from the date of invasion until the 207 AD division; interestingly the average term of office was just four-and-a-half years. One of the longest terms served in office was that of Quintus Antistius Adventus4 from 169 AD to 180 AD, a total of 11 years.
Roman governors were given full control of all the military forces stationed in the province and could take any military action without prior consent of the emperor or the senate. The governor was also the supreme judicial authority of the province and was the only person who could order the imposition of the death penalty. Financial duties included the audit of the financial records of the cities within the province, and to set taxation rates and appoint tax collectors.
The term of office a governor served was strictly monitored, as owing to the power of the position it was always possible for a governor to contemplate an abuse of his position and become corrupt. To curb such abuses the term of office was normally limited to a minimum of one year and a maximum of five years. 'It is the part of a good shepherd to shear his flock, not to skin it', so says a Roman proverb.
The early Provincial Governors devolved some of their administrative duties to the rulers of Rome's client Kingdoms5 in Britain: the Brigantes, the Iceni, the Catuvellauni, the Atrebates and the Regnenses tribes. The king of the Regnenses, Cogidumnus became a client king of Rome and was instrumental in the success of the landings in AD 43. After the invasion he Romanised his name to Tiberius Claudius Cogidumnus in honour of his patron Emperor Claudius. The reward for his services was the palace complex at Fishbourne. As the occupation progressed more tribes came under Roman rule. It was only once the tribes had accepted Roman rule that they were incorporated into the regional government of the province.
Therefore from the earliest days of the invasion it was decided to base the administration of the new province upon the tribal kingdoms of Britain. Tribal capitals6 were set up around Britain to oversee the regional government of the area. A city council or 'civitas' was established in each tribal capital by Rome and ruled the area with the aid of an elected council of around 100 members. The council members were at first chosen from the ranks of the local elite; later they were elected and wealthy and prominent citizens were included. The council members were awarded the civic position or rank of duovir or duovir quinquennalis. To lead the council two of its members were elected to serve in the office of duumviri or magistrate. These men were held directly responsible to the provincial governor for the efficient administration of the region.
The region that was administered by the civitas was further divided into regional councils known as pagi. Each individual pagus7 was centred on a large settlement within their administrative area and these were responsible for all local administration, and the selection of local magistrates and other officials. It was here that regional elections were held for the local representatives to provincial council at the civitas.
This was the regional system that worked very well throughout the Empire8. All local government was responsible to the provincial government, which also had a council known as the concilium provincae. The provincial council was held at the capital of the province and all regions sent representatives to attend debates on provincial policy. This gathering was overseen by the governor and his officials. The governor was directly responsible to Rome for the security, profitability and the smooth running of the province.
The tribal capitals were established throughout the province, one in each of the tribal regions. These settlements each became known as a civitas capital. Of the 19 recorded civitas or tribal capitals 17 of them had the tribal name incorporated into the name of the city. This does not mean that there were just 19 tribes in Britain; there were in fact at least 44. It simply means that these were the pre-eminent tribes or client kingdoms that were selected by the Romans to participate in the regional government of the province.
Despite the later reorganisations of the Province of Britannia in 212 AD, 269 AD and 369 AD, this administrative system remained unchanged and was used until the final abandonment of the province.
The Regional Administration of the Province of Britain
The Roman administration divided the province into the following tribal capitals together with the possible main towns or pagi. There is no complete surviving record of the pagi; those mentioned are the most probable. It must be remembered that each tribal capital would have had only four or five pagi, so even though more are mentioned they would not all have been pagi. The modern place names have been used for clarity.
The Atrebates: This tribe's Celtic name may mean, 'The village dwellers'. The Atrebates Tribal Civitas, now known as Silchester, was Calleva Atrebatum or 'The Place in the Woods of the Atrebates'; this settlement was abandoned at the end of the Roman era. The regional councils or pagi were probably located at Mildenhall Cunetio9, Guildford, Thatcham and Reading.
The Belgae: This tribe's Celtic name may mean, 'The people descended from the lightning God', or simply a Roman administrative collective name referring to the immigrants to the area from north-western Gaul. The Belgae Tribal Civitas, now known as Winchester, was Venta Belgarum. The regional councils or pagi were probably located at Shepton Mallet, Old Sarum, Carisbrooke Isle of Wight, Nettleton, Sea Mills and Bath.
The Brigantes: The Celtic tribal name may mean, 'The peoples of the highlands'. The Brigantes Tribal Civitas, now known as Aldborough, was Isvrium Brigantun. The regional councils or pagi were probably located at10 Alston, Catterick, York, Slack, Binchester, Castleshaw, Burrow and Ilkley.
The Carventii (or Carventi): The Celtic name may mean, 'The people of the deer'. The Carventii Tribal Civitas, now known as Carlisle, was Luguvalium Carvetiorum. Great Chesters, Birdoswald, Stanwix, Old Penrith, Ravenglass and Bowness on Solway.
The Cantii11: The Celtic name may mean, 'The people of the clear water' or 'the white people'. The Cantii Tribal Civitas that is now known as Canterbury was Durovernum Cantiacorum. The regional councils or pagi of the tribe may have been located at Aylesford, Rochester, Lympne, Dover, Reculver and Richborough.
The Catuvellauni: The Celtic name may mean, 'The people who led in battle'. The Catuvellauni Tribal Civitas means Verulamium Catuvellorum or The town above the marsh. This site was abandoned at the end of the Roman era and the settlement relocated to St Albans. The regional councils or pagi of the tribe may have been located at Dropshort, Cambridge, Alchester, Irchester, Whilton Lodge and Wheathamstead.
The Coritani: The Celtic tribal name has not been recorded. The Coritani Tribal Civitas, now known as Leicester, was Rataer Corieltavorum. The regional councils or pagi of the tribe were probably located at Lincoln, Ancaster, Scunthorpe, East Stoke and Littleborough.
The Cornovii: The Celtic name may mean something like, 'The people of the horn or horned God'. The location of the Cornovii Tribal Civitas is now known as Wroxeter or Viroconium Cornoviorum. This site was abandoned at the end of the Roman era and not reoccupied. The regional councils or pagi of the tribe were probably located at Wall, Tilston, Water Eaton, Rochester Staffordshire, Whitchurch, Middlewich, Chesterton and Wilderspool.
The Deceangli: The Celtic tribal name has not been recorded. The location of the Tribal Civitas is not known, however there is speculation that it was a settlement situated near the auxiliary fort of Canovium now Caerhun.
The Demetae: The Celtic tribal name has not been recorded but is possibly 'The followers of the God Demetos'. The Demetae Tribal Civitas, now known as Carmarthen, was called Moridunum Demetarum. There is little information available, however the regional councils or pagi of the tribe might have been located at Aber-Cyfor, Parc-yr-Eglwys, Dolaucothi, Ford and Cwm Brwyno.
The Dumnonii: The Celtic tribal name is possibly 'The people from the land'. The Dumnonii Tribal Civitas, now known as Exeter, was called Iscia Dummoniorum, 'The Water of the Dumnonii'. The regional councils or pagi of the tribe were most likely to have been located at Taunton, Plymouth, Launceston, St Michaels Mount and Topsham.
The Dobunni: The Celtic tribal name is possibly 'The people with dark hair'12. The Dobunni Tribal Civitas, now known as Cirencester, was named Corinium Dobunnorum, 'The settlement of the Dobunni on the Churn river'. The regional councils or pagi of the tribe were most likely to have been located at Cricklade, Droitwich Spa, Worcester, Gloucester, Alcester, Weston-under-Penyard, Bourton on the Water, Dorn and Wanborough.
The Durotriges: The Celtic tribal name has not been recorded. The Durotriges Tribal Civitas, now known as Dorchester, was recorded as Durnovaria Durotrigum, however, there is evidence that there was a second, northern civitas situated at Durotraes Lindinis, The place of lime trees, now Ilchester.
The Icini: The tribe's Celtic name may mean, 'The people of the pine trees'. The Icini Tribal civitas, now known as Castor St Edmund, was recorded as Venta Icenorum. The regional councils or pagi of the tribe were most likely to have been located at Ixworth, Hockwold cum Wilton, Thetford, Snettisham and Woodcock Hill.
The Ordovices:13 The tribe's Celtic name may mean, 'The people of the hammer'. The location of the Tribal Civitas is not known, however, there is speculation that it was a settlement situated at the fort of Segontium, now Caernarfon. The tribe disappeared from the imperial records around 78 AD. They staged an uprising against Rome and the response of Governor Agricola was to attempt to exterminate the tribe. This appears to have been successful as they disappeared from history along with the location of their civitas.
The Parisii: The Celtic tribal name has not been recorded. The Parisii Tribal Civitas now known as Burgh-on-Humber was called Petuaria Parisorum. The regional councils or pagi of the tribe were most likely to have been located at North Ferriby, Malton, Guildford and Millington.
The Regni: The Celtic name of the tribe may mean, 'The very newly arrived and vigorous peoples'. The Regni Tribal Civitas that is now known as Chichester was recorded as Noviomagus Regnorum or The New Port of the Regni.
The Silures:14 The tribe's Celtic name may mean, 'The hill people'. The Silures Civitas is now known as Caerwent but was recorded as Venta Silvrum. The regional councils or pagi of the tribe were most likely to have been located at Cardiff, Monmouth, Machen and Usk.
The Tranovantes: The Celtic tribal name has not been recorded. The Tranovantes Tribal Civitas is now known as Chelmsford; previously it was Caesaromagus Trinovantum, The Fields of Caesar and the Tranovantes. The regional councils or pagi of the tribe were most likely to have been located at Romford, Coddenham, Rivenhall, Long Melford and Scole. There is also a settlement that has been lost to the sea at Dunwich; the name in the Antonine Itinerary is given as Sitomagus.
The Division of the Province of Britain in 212 AD, by Emperor Caracalla
It appears that this division of the province into two parts and the subsequent divisions of 269 AD and 369 AD, had little or no effect on the regional or local government. The system that had existed from the earliest days continued unaffected with only the promotion of Cirencester, Lincoln and York to the status of provincial capitals and the possible relocation of the concilium provincae to those cities.
The Province was divided by Emperor Caracalla in 212 AD, into two provinces in accordance with political differences. It may have nothing to do with the division of the province, however it is worth noting that the year 212 AD was also the year that the entire freeborn population of the Empire15, who were not slaves, were granted full Roman citizenship. This may indicate another aspect of the imperial policy or it may be coincidence, but the Empire was changing. The south, where the population had readily adopted Roman ways, was practically self-governing. This reorganisation of the province created the following administrative areas:
The Province of Britannia Superior was the title of the second administrative region of the Province.
From 212 AD, to 293 AD.
The Provincial Capital was Londinium – London.
The north, where the population had not adopted Roman ways and were still unsettled, was a border zone and there was still some activity between Hadrian's Wall and the Antonine Wall to the north. There continued to be a strong garrison force established at bases such as Eboracum – York and Lindum – Lincoln. This province was:
The Province of Britannia Inferior was the title of the second administration region of the Province.
From 212 AD, to 293 AD.
The Provincial Capital was Eboracum – York16.
Why the province was divided is unclear, although it was probably a simple matter of making administration simpler and revenue collection more efficient. It is worth noting that the Empire also went through some important political changes. The Empire also had administrational changes: Rome was the main political capital only until 286 AD. After this date the Tetarchy was established and other centres were founded – this continued until 286 AD. This was when Constantine declared Constantinople as the new Imperial capital, by this time the city of Rome had became the cultural and religious centre, as power was transferred to the regions. Constantine effectively split the Empire into two states, the Eastern and Western Empires, to provide some political stability a western capital was founded, first at Milan (Mediolanum), which later transferred to Ravenna around 867 AD.
The Second division of the Province of Britain in 293 AD, by Emperor Diocletian
The province was divided by Emperor Diocletian in 293 AD, into four provinces in line with the original division. The south was where the population had readily adopted Roman ways and were now self-governing. This further reorganisation of the province created the following administrative areas:
The Province of Maxima Caesariensis was the title given to the most southerly and most important administrative region of Britannia.
From 293 AD, to 419 AD.
The Provincial Capital was Londinium – London.
The Province of Britannia Prima was the title of the second, southern administration region of the Province.
From 293 AD, to 419 AD.
The Provincial Capital was Corinium – Cirencester.17
In the north almost all the population had now adopted Roman ways, however the area still had a strong military presence and patrols were frequently sent into the border zone beyond Hadrian's Wall. There were still strong garrison forces established at bases such as Eboracum – York, Lindum – Lincoln and the bases and garrisons along Hadrian's Wall. The provinces were as follows:
The Province of Flavia Caesariensis was the title of the new northern administration region of the Province.
From 293 AD, to 419 AD.
The Provincial Capital was Lindum – Lincoln.18
The Province of Britannia Secunda was the title of the most northerly administrative region of the Province.
From 293 AD, to 419 AD.
The Provincial Capital was Eboracum – York.
The Addition of the Province of Velantia in 369 AD, by Emperor Valentinian
This province was created by the emperor Valentinian with the express purpose of extending Roman rule into the area north of Hadrian's Wall. There was still a hope that the tribes between the walls, those of the Votadini, Selgovae and Novantae19 could be once again part of Rome. There was no attempt to expand the Empire beyond the line drawn between Falkirk and Glasgow. This province was:
The Military Province of Velantia This was administered by military commander under the direction of Rome.
From 369 AD, to the final withdrawal of Roman forces from Britannia.
A Provincial Capital was not created as this was a military province.
Although the system of Roman government in Britain was the same basic form used throughout the Empire, it developed some unique differences. Britain had a ruling class that had remained mainly pagan despite the fact Christianity had become the official religion of the Empire. The inhabitants of the province had also retained the same social structure as the Anglo Saxons; this meant the rural communities were almost the same as those of the raiders. It was because of this similarity that when the raiding started towards the end of Roman occupation, many of the raiders found it possible to settle into the established communities. Later people who had arrived as mercenaries, originally hired by regional nobles or communities to replace the departed legions, settled and became part of the community. It is a tribute to the flexible nature of Roman rule that it was possible for the original inhabitants to retain their Celtic traditions while being part of the Empire. This assisted the eventual transition into the independent kingdoms of the Saxon Heptarchy.