Ireland and the Roman Empire

Ireland

Ireland
Ireland

Did the Romans Occupy Ireland?

The Romans occupied Britain as far north as Scotland and they were aware of the large island to the west of their domains, which they called Hibernia (Ireland). The Romans never subjugated the island, but there is evidence of extensive trade and other links between the Roman Empire and Ireland, lasting until the Roman withdrawal from Britain in the 4th century B.C. There is also some evidence that the Romans may have interfered in local Irish affairs by supporting the claims of local leaders to the throne, by furnishing them with weapons. It is also possible that the Roman general Agricola (who was responsible for the Roman conquest of Britain) may have led a military expedition to Ireland, and established a fortified base on the site of the present city of Tipperary.

Irish and Roman Trade Links

Photograph of an Ancient Roman Lamp
Photograph of an Ancient Roman Lamp

Roman Influence on Ireland

Although Ireland was never a province of the Roman Empire, the Empire had considerable political, economic and cultural influence in the area.

The relationship between Ireland and Rome was mainly commercial. The historian Richard Warner believes that trade routes between Roman Britain and the Mediterranean also included the island of Hibernia and that there was considerable trade between not only Ireland and Britain but between Ireland and the center of the Roman world. For example, the geographer Ptolemy in his famous map drawn in the First Century after Christ, depicts perfectly the coasts of Ireland and its tribes, demonstrating an understanding that could only have been achieved through close contact between the two regions.

There is also evidence or religious and cultural ties between the Roman Empire and Ireland, as evidenced by the rapid spread of Christianity to the country. In fact the during the 5th century A.D., when the western Roman Empire was crumbling, Saint Patrick was sent to Ireland to strengthen the local Christian community, which presupposes that there was an earlier, ancient, Christian church already established in Ireland for some time, possibly since the 2nd century A.D. In addition to religious ties, the Irish aristocracy adopted Roman culture and manners. This was not unusual since many peoples in the Roman sphere of influence tended to adopt Roman manners, as this was seen as sign of good breeding and superiority. A similar phenomenon would be observed during the British and French colonial eras.

A Roman Standard Bearer Leads Troops Ashore
A Roman Standard Bearer Leads Troops Ashore

Roman Military Intervention in Ireland

Ireland and the Roman Empire also had military contact, though the extent of this contact is the subject of debate. It seems very likely, in light of archeological discoveries at Drumanagh and elsewhere, that there was an exploratory invasion of Hibernia by the Emperor Julius Agricola (or his deputy), which however did not lead to a permanent Roman occupation of the island.

Some historians believe that Ireland may have been invaded by a force composed of exiled Irish and British adventurers with the support of Roman weapons, training and organization. This possible invasion and attempted colonization may have been led by a prominent historical figure called Tuathal Techmar. This possible attempted invasion and colonization may have been led by a prominent historical figure called Tuathal Techmar. Evidence of this expedition comes from a number of sources including the discovery of a large, presumably Roman fort at Drumanagh. The fort suggests that the Romans attempted to control internal Irish politics during this period with a series of military campaigns designed to carve out kingdoms in the country for exiled Irish nobility.

Irish History; The Romans in Ireland

Some Archeological Finds

The name of the fortified promontory itself holds clues as to its Roman origin: Drumanagh has as its root the word (D)ruman, a clear reference to the ancient Romans. Other historical references have emerged which suggest the presence of Roman legionnaires in Ireland during the first century after Christ.

Another fort, located near present day Dublin, may also have Roman origins and according the historians Raftery and Cooney, this fort may have been a base camp used by Agricola on an exploratory/military expedition to Ireland around the year 82 A.D. The historians who support the theory of a Roman military expedition to Ireland point out that Caesar's expedition to Britain would itself be unknown if not for his writings in "De Bello Gallico" (The Gallic Wars) in which he documents his brief invasion of the island (a permanent Roman occupation would not occur until much later). Thus it is possible that other expeditions may have gone unrecorded and have been lost to history.


At the Drumanagh site, archaeologists have found artifacts and jewelry that are clearly of Roman manufacture, as well as Roman coins bearing the images of the Emperors Titus, Trajan and Hadrian.  These findings suggest a Roman presence (or participation) in Ireland from Roman 79 to 138 A.D. 

Moreover, recent archaeological excavations in Ireland have uncovered numerous artifacts and Roman and Romano-British artifacts in the southern and eastern coast of ancient Hibernia in historic sites such as Cashel, and Tara. Roman artifacts have also been found near the Lia Fáil (Stone of Destiny).

The Evidence from Roman Writers

In his De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae (The Life and Death of Julius Agricola), the Roman writer Tacitus says that his while he was governor of Britain (78 - 84 AD), Agricola welcomed an Irish prince exiled from  Ireland (perhaps Tuathal Techtmar) and took this as an excuse to plan the conquest of Ireland, which however never happened. Archaeological excavations have unearthed Roman and Romano-British  artefacts in many sites associated with Tuathal, as Tara and Clogher [11].

The historian Vittorio Di Martino has suggested that the Romans might have helped Tuathal, or someone like him to regain the throne, so as to have a powerful ally of the Irish who were able to put an end to Irish pirate raids against Roman Britannia.

For example, the Roman poet Juvenal (second century A.D.), who may have served in Britain under the command of Agricola, wrote that "the weapons were brought over the Irish coast."

Moreover, Tacitus says that in 82 A.D. Agricola crossed the sea and defeated people hitherto unknown to the Romans, though he does not specify what which sea they crossed (many scholars think that Tacitus refers to the Clyde or the Forth). But it should be noted that after this statement in the text of Tacitus, Tacitus writes about Ireland, which suggests that the people he was referring to were the Irish.  Indeed Agricola fortified the coast of Roman Britain which faced towards Ireland.

Tacitus also mentions that Agricola often said that Ireland could be conquered with a single legion and a few auxiliary troops, which suggests (unless it was mere wishful thinking) that the Romans knew about the local strength and disposition of the forces that they would face if they invaded Ireland. Such knowledge might have been gained as a result of an earlier military incursion.

So there are those who think that the crossing and the clash with people unknown to the Romans, mentioned by Tacitus refer to any exploratory or punitive expedition by Agricola in Ireland.

Roman Invasion of Ireland
Roman Invasion of Ireland

The View of Modern Historians

The historians Warner and Hughes believe that there was another Roman military campaign in Hibernia, led by the governor of Britain, Maximus, in 225. This invasion began with the occupation of Leinster (the region in Ireland where Drumanagh is located) and led to the creation of the castle of Cashel (Cashel comes from the Latin "castrum" meaning military camp or "castellum" meaning castle ). Of course, some of the Romanized place names might also derive from the fact that Ireland was within the Roman cultural sphere of influence and therefore it is possible that the Irish themselves had adopted some Latin loan-words.

There is not much evidence of Roman occupation or presence in Hibernia (Ireland), but the following have traces have been found:

    * In the south-east of the island there are many graves containing Romano-British artefacts, probably belonging to the tribe of the Brigantes. It should be noted that there are few archaeological finds of artifacts belonging to non-romanized natives.

    *  On the Isle of Lambay, off the coast of Dublin, were found about a dozen graves with Romanized ornaments (Roman brooches) from the first century, demonstrating the existence of an active trade with the neighboring British coastline.

    *  Three archaeological sites in Ireland have produced Roman artefacts (jewelry and coins) dating to the first centuries after Christ: the military-religious complex of Tara near Dublin, the northern fort of Clogher, and the fortified citadel of Cashel, whose name derives from the Roman word "casetllum".
In the Middle Ages each of these places became the seats of local petty kingdoms and their traditions and legends referred back to Romanized Britain.

    * Drumanagh, 20 km north of Dublin, is a fortified promontory defended by three rows of parallel trenches similar to trenches of Roman Britain (such as the Wall of Wat). Scholars such as Di Martino and Warner consider it a possible Roman fort.

    * British-Roman and Roman artifacts were found in Leinster, and many Roman coins were discovered in the famous Celtic site of Newgrange. 

    * According to historian Phillip Rance, tribes called Attacotti (in Celtic Aithechthúatha) in the area of Leinster were Foederati (allies) of the Roman Empire, and fought alongside the Roman legionaries in Britain and Gaul after 350.

    * Christianity, (imported from the Roman Mediterranean) was present in southern and eastern areas of Ireland when St. Patrick and St. Palladio began their first missions. One of the first churches in Ireland, founded by St. Palladio around 420, had the name "House of the Romans" (Teach-na-Roman, current Tigroney).

Roman Ireland

Conclusion


Although so far no one has discovered traces of Roman buildings or roads, and the archaeological evidence uncovered so far may indicate merely an active trade between Ireland and the Empire, the idea of a temporary Roman occupation has gained credence among academics. The historian Barry Rafter has even claimed that the the possible Roman fort at Drumanagh was probably a Roman military and commercial base populated (apart from legionnaires) by Romanized Britons and Irish, and some local merchants and Romans citizens.


However the fact that Roman civilization reached westward on the Atlantic raises some interesting possibilities and questions. There are many hoards of Roman coins that have been discovered in North America. These have been explained as modern caches or fraudulent plants. But what if the Roman Empire of the west looked out across the western sea and saw not only the Emerald Island but probed the New World centuries before the Vikings and Columbus? The fact that the Romans may have crossed the sea to Ireland suggests that perhaps the Atlantic was not completely off limits to them.

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17 comments

jayjay40 profile image

jayjay40 6 years ago from Bristol England

Very interesting hub, well researched and written, a pleasure to read. Thanks


SarahLMaguire profile image

SarahLMaguire 6 years ago from UK

Thanks for this thorough and interesting review of the subject.


Dublinius 6 years ago

"Drumanagh has as its root the word (D)ruman, a clear reference to the ancient Romans."

Sorry but you are talking through your hat. Drumanagh comes from the Gaelic "Droim Meánach" which means "Ridge of Meanach". Droim means back or ridge. The words have nothing to do with Romans.

Also you should clarify your sources. The speculation that Drumanagh is a Roman site arises from samian ware (pottery) which was discovered on the site during the 1950s. A preservation order was placed on the site during 1977 and no excavation has been carried out there to date. Just to repeat that last bit - the site has not yet been excavated. So how do we know its a Roman Military Fort ? It could be anything.

We need less speculation and fantasy.

We need more evidence and clarity.

Go raibh maith agat


Hooligan 6 years ago

Fascinating stuff and very well written. More links to sources would be good, but many are not available on-line. For me the jury is still out on the Agricolan invasion, but you may be interested in the stuff on my website (on the "Deva Vitrix" page) about the rather odd "Elliptical Building" in Chester (which dates from c.79 AD). I have put forth the speculation, with little evidence, that this could somehow be connected to Túathal.

Thanks for an entertaining and informing page!


RunAbstract profile image

RunAbstract 6 years ago from USA

Interesting article. Much food for thought.


Tom 6 years ago

The name Meánach does not seem to have a history in the area. Irish place name translations can be extraordinarily incorrect, based on a civil servants interpretation rather than on direct usage. When you speak "Drumanagh" in Irish, its literal meaning can also be the "Back of the Ford" or the "Ridge Ford". A ridge ford could be a crossing for instance where a crossing could be made when the tide is out. Its limitless based on the Geography of the site.


jonihnj profile image

jonihnj 6 years ago from Metro New York

This certainly offered much food for thought and, as anything Irish, seems to have sparked controversy! Although (as several commenters point out) there is much that remains to be proven definitively, the suggestion of a topic of which many readers may be unaware for further contemplation has value of its own. I found the comments sparked by your hub interesting and informative as well. Overall, you've offered us a piece that it is well written and definitely thought provoking.


EUGENE SAMPIERI 6 years ago

The information provided would appear to confirm earlier thoughts concerning the extent of the Roman Empire in to Hibernia. This should answer, once and for all, any critics who claim that the Roman's never set foot on Irish soil.


James A Watkins profile image

James A Watkins 6 years ago from Chicago

I enjoyed reading your article. I love history. You wrote very well, and your research was outstanding. Thank you for this pleasure.


oneluckystar 6 years ago

Hello there! I love trying to figure out the meanings of names and words. My surname is actually Drummond, from the Scottish clan and in Gaelic means the back of a mountain. I noticed that the meaning of my name is very close to Drumanagh and its Gaelic origin.


Sean 6 years ago

Very interesting article that might turn Irish history on its head if even part of it were true. However as Dublinius stated there is a lack archaelogical credibility to support a deliberate Roman military expedition to Ireland, although it is clear that the Romans or Romano-British had closer connections to Ireland than previously thought.

The role of Tuathal Techmar in such a Roman mission to Ireland is highly subjective. I believe no Roman source actually mentions his name or someone like him in particular. He may have lived decades or even a century before Agricola became govenor of Britain, in fact he may not have existed at all outside of Irish legend or mythology. Also if the Romans could never subdue Scotland and eventually had to build a series of walls to keep the Scottish (Picts)out, how hard would it have been to invade and control Ireland across the sea.


Idugit profile image

Idugit 5 years ago from England

I found this hub very interesting, especially about the derivation of the name "Attacotti", who were a people who, along with the Picts and Scots (Scots and Irish) clobbered the shores of Britannia in the 360's.

There certainly does seem to be threads of evidence that Agricola at least thought of invading Ireland, and the point that archaeological and literary evidence don't always back each other up, is a very good one.

Thanks for an interesting read.


Roman Antiquities 5 years ago

thanks for the info. Ireland is definitely not the first place that comes to mind when you think of ancient Rome. It's amazing how much influence Rome had on the world.


Yoshiro Makata 4 years ago

The Romans had influence in Ireland, Juvenal & others even stated that the not so mighty Irish were paying the Romans not to invade.

For anyone to think that the Romans could not have conquered Irelad orwhat would later become Scotland is delusional thinking.

The following points should be remembered.

First, the Romans always had a reason to conquer a land.

It had to be a military threat, of strategic, economic, or political importance. They were not big on wasting resources taking places that were of no value. Neither Caledonia or Ireland were any of these things.

Lastly, in the late third century the Romans defeated Carthage,

& the Celts in northern Italy at the same time. Does anyone truly

think the the far more primitive & less numerous folks in Ireland

& Caledonia would have stopped a determined Roman invasion?


quotations profile image

quotations 4 years ago from Canada Author

I think that the Romans could have conquered Ireland when they were still expansionistic and had the resources to do it. As the Empire declined, it would have been harder and harder to project such a large force across the sea and so far away from the center of Roman power.

Thanks for reminding me about the quote from Juvenal.


Sean 3 years ago

Yoshiro the Romans unfortunately had very little influence in Ireland in the period of the Roman invasion of Britain or the centuries after it, and the archaelogical record currently supports that viewpoint .

Very little Roman material has been found in Ireland and no Roman roads were built. Despite all the speculation about how easy the Romans could have controlled Ireland here is no evidence of a Roman military presence whatsoever. What has been found in clustered along the southeast of Ireland or in a few settlements in the interior. This material points to a limited movement of British or Romanised British elites to Ireland rather than actual Romans. Many Irish tribes probably had British origins or British relations, and they were likely related to the British who came to Ireland during the Roman occupation of Britain. Trade certainly occurred and possibly the Romans had some political influence at certain times in Ireland, and possibly even sent some arms or military advisors to influence dynastic disputes in their favour. But if they did or not there is no archaeological evidence to support it and it is pure speculation.

Also the Romans did not conquer Scotland because they couldn't. They tried, but gave up and then built a series of forts and walls to keep the Scots/Picts out of their new province of Britannia. Why they gave up was probably due to the fact that the land was relatively poor and the climate was not to their liking, but also because the natives didn't want to become Romans.

Much the same argument could be made about the Romans trying to conquer Ireland, and it would have been even harder to control as it was an island. The Romans did not know much about Ireland, the country was also covered in forests at this time and the natives were hostile to invaders. The Vikings tried to control it nearly a thousand years later and ultimately failed. The Anglo-Normans/English/British also tried to control it from the 12th century but only started to succeed after nearly 500 years when they colonised with English and Scottish settlers, and they also ultimately failed. Perphaps the Irish are more mighty than you think!


Lee Cloak 21 months ago

Very interesting hub, great read well done,Thanks!

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