- Education and Science»
- History & Archaeology»
- History of Europe
Ireland and the Roman Empire
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
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.
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 .
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.
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).
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.
I welcome your comments. Please let me know what you think.