They were known for their power and military prowess and to onlookers at the time, seemed close to world domination. But did the Romans ever invade Irish territory or extend their military efforts to the country?
In this article we will take a brief look at Irish history and examine the facts to determine what, if any, the Romans involvement was with the country of Ireland. Read on.
A Brief History of Ireland
Ireland has a long and diverse history, so before we get to how the Romans and the country were entwined lets take a look at some of the events that molded the Emerald Isle into the country that it is today. From religion to Kings, Ireland has played center stage to many events over the centuries.
Ireland or The Emerald Isle as we know it was first settled in 4000 BC, right around the time of the first Stone Age. The first visitors to land on Ireland soil and make settlements were mainly farming people.
It took until 300BC for the famous Celts to arrive on Irish shores and exert their well renowned influence. Coming across the sea from mainland Europe the Celts had a huge impact on Irish history, creating many of the myths, art, and folklore that still prevails in Ireland today.
They were also responsible for bringing Gaelic (the traditional Irish language) to the country.
St Patrick, the patron Saint of Ireland arrived on the green lands of the Emerald Isle sometime during the 5th century and with him he brought Christianity to the previously pagan country.
By 600 AD Christianity was widely practiced in Ireland and produced many scholars, craftsmen, and artisans that formed the basis for the Irish art and culture we can still see today.
From the 8th to the 12th century Ireland saw its share of invaders from the Vikings to the Normans and during this time saw the building and development of many structures; churches, monasteries, walled towns, and the advancement of agriculture.
King Henry VIII
By 1534 King Henry VIII had created the Church of England and, in 1541, added ‘King of Ireland’ to his growing list of self proclaimed titles. It was from this time all the way up until the 1600s that Ireland experienced its first wave of a massive influx of settlers.
New inhabitants that were all moving to the country from neighboring England and Scotland. Most of the people that were relocating to Ireland were Protestant. Through the 17th century, as Ireland was a predominantly Catholic country, there were bloody battles for control and power in the region.
This period saw the introduction of the Penal laws and many Catholics had lands and property seized and were denied entry to schooling and certain professions.
The Potato Famine and Immigration
Jumping ahead a few hundred years propels us in to the 1800s. This time period brought one of the most well known and devatstaing events in Irish history – The Potato Famine 1845-1847. Potatoes were a staple food at the time. They were hit by a disease and rendered inedible.
Due to trading regulations the country was still forced to export much of its remaining food, creating a dire shortage of supplies. Its estimated that 2 million people died during the famine and it began the widespread emigration of Irish people to new lands.
The majority sought out a new life in America, and Ireland never regained its pre-famine population count.
Moving on to present day, Ireland during the 1980s saw a vast number of people leaving its shores again bound for England, America and Australia. This, in part, may have led to the subsequent economic reforms, and from the 1990s, for the first time ever, people began to immigrate IN to the country in large numbers.
This was a reversal of any previous large Irish population moves. The influx created a lucrative period in the region, and one of the best economic growth rates the country had ever experience throughout its long history.
The Roman Civilization
Now that we have a brief history of what shaped Ireland into the country we know and love today, we can turn our attention to older times. Ireland has seen a good amount of settlers and invaders arrive over the years. There is evidence of life in the country dating back thousands of years to ancient times.
One of the biggest world changing and historic events to occur and affect the global population was the expansion of the Roman Empire; the systematic military projection of the Roman empire into Europe and beyond. An event that spanned over hundreds of years and changed the face of the world forever.
So when it comes to Ireland, where does it fit in? How was it affected by this world changing Roman onslaught? How did it impact Ireland as a nation?
The Romans persistently and strategically traveled across Europe and North Africa and waged a military campaign that had never before been seen by the invaded countries, many which were ill equipped to defend against the onslaught. Many were terrorized and enslaved.
As the original ‘superpower’ the Romans eventually managed to create an vast empire that controlled most of Europe and other territories. As a nation it had attained incredible wealth and power by using its indomitable military forces and executing sophisticated military campaigns with astounding precision.
It seemed that both as a military force and as a nation they were virtually unstoppable. Tales and feats of Roman achievements, both military and otherwise, are well documented in the history books.
Roman Invasion of England
Even though the country had its fair share of visitors, invaders, and usurpers, Ireland managed to narrowly escape occupation by the Roman forces.
The same was not true of England and Europe, the Romans waged a pervasive military campaign adding huge swathes of land to its empire, but during all of the fighting, Ireland somehow managed to remain largely untouched.
Britain had been visited by Emperor Julius Caesar as far back as 55AD and the Romans had made some progress,and then almost a decade later in 43AD they began their takeover in earnest.
Beginning in the southern region of the country around the area of Colchester and St Albans the Romans started their invasion. Over the next several decades the Roman armies pressed relentlessly northwards all the way up to Scotland, fighting off many resistance attempts from various British tribes along the way.
They met with increased levels of rebellion in Scotland and the northern lands, eventually resulting in the construction of Hadrian’s wall to prevent attacks.
The wall stretched across the north of England and spanned almost 80 miles. Sections of it still stand today as a testament to the strength and quality of Roman construction and engineering abilities.
Although the Romans took any lands they wanted by force they also brought an incredible array of advancements from their empire. Things that had never before been seen or experienced by England, and other countries.
They brought new standards in plumbing, road construction, religion, food, language, engineering, and government, all which left an indelible mark on the countries they occupied. Many examples of Roman influence can still be seen today all across England and Europe.
So with all this greedy campaigning for land and power, and the Romans occupying land just across the sea in northern England, Wales, and Southern Scotland, how was it that the Romans never set their sights on the Emerald Isle? The truth is, they did.
How Ireland escaped Roman rule
The legendary ‘luck of the Irish’ may be well founded as it certainly played a part in the country evading the Romans grasp. By the time the Roman empire had extended its reach into Britain and Scotland resources had become somewhat thin.
War and military campaigns cost an exorbitant of money, time and soldiers to execute and by the time the Romans were looking at Ireland they were running out of everything. Their attention turned to conserving the riches they had already amassed rather than trying to gain more.
In addition the Romans had also realized how much trouble the tribes of Britain and Scotland could be with their constant uprisings and rebellions. The Romans had to be consistently on high alert to guard against attacks
Even with all this, an Irish invasion was seriously considered and was, in fact, deemed to be a relatively easy task. Ireland was made up of various tribes scattered across the land that had no central communication or defense ability.
Gnaeus Julius Agricola was the governor stationed in Britain at the time and he determined that overthrowing Ireland would take just one single Roman legion (approximately 5000 men), a drop in the bucket by Roman standards. Unfortunately around the time that Agricola was debating whether or not to invade Ireland, he had to turn his attention to yet another large scale Scottish rebellion.
That combined with a mutiny which occurred within his own army forced any plans of an Irish invasion to be put on hold. After this most recent rebellion Agricola was order to return to Rome and any thoughts of Irish occupation disappeared with him.
It was shortly after this that the aforementioned Hadrian’s Wall was constructed to protect from any further uprisings.
Historic Roman Artefacts in Ireland
Although there never was a takeover attempt of Ireland by the Romans there is certainly evidence of Roman money and other items that have been found in various areas of the country. Some of these items are possibly from the result of trading but many are thought to be spoils and loot from Irish raids along the coast of England.
The Irish would target a city or town, sail across to the coast, and execute a fast in and out style of attack. Grabbing everything of value that they could find in the process. The items were then taken back to Ireland as spoils of the raid.
The raids were conducted regularly, but not to steal valuable items and money, that was a bonus. The true intention was to capture slaves and take them back across the sea.
During one of these raids a youth was captured and sold into slavery where he worked as a shepherd for 6 years. Conditions were deplorable and the boy sought comfort in Christianity. Eventually, after finding an opportunity, the young lad managed to make his escape and fled to England.
Unfortunately he was captured and returned where he escaped again and wandered around Europe for several years. He continued his studies in the Christian faith and eventually went back to Ireland. That boy went on to become who we now know as St Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland.
It is St Patrick that is credited with the Shamrock being used as an emblem of the country, he used the 3 leafed plant to demonstrate the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost to his followers. The symbol quickly became adopted and is now synonymous with the country of Ireland.
Roman Influence in Ireland
Ireland managed to escape the notorious Roman rule by the skin of its teeth, or maybe just by pure Irish luck, but it did have some dealings and connections to the empire.
The Irish land was dubbed ‘Hibernia’ by the Romans, the Latin name for Ireland, and the Romans did have some influences over the region. Specifically commercial, cultural, and religious
Artifacts that have been uncovered across the Emerald Isle are evidence of some kind of trade or commercial enterprise. In addition a selection of Roman coins and jewelry have been discovered in locations throughout central and southern Ireland and also at important Irish sites, like Newgrange.
The ancient and historic stone age structure dating back to 5000 BC. There is also evidence of some sort of slavery trade, as the story of St Patrick would corroborate, conducted between southern Irish and English or Scottish lands.
Even though St Patrick is credited with bringing Christianity to many of the Irish people the truth is that the Roman’s had begun the process of conversion some time before. Ancient Irish texts speak to a bishop being appointed to Irish Christians.
This gives proof that there were Christians living in the country prior to the arrival of St Patrick. There is a notation in ancient Irish records that the intended result for an invasion of Ireland was to ‘make the barbarian island Christian’.
Although Roman religious practices and ceremonies started creeping into the Irish religion throughout the country, wide scale Christian conversion was not achieved until the arrival of St Patrick and the subsequent building of churches and monasteries.
Although the Roman Empire did not occupy the country of Ireland nor its people live there, some cultural influences still crossed over to the region. The ancient Ogham language and alphabet was derived in part from Latin, the language of the ancient Romans.
Among high ranking people and tribal leaders of the early centuries Roman influence can be seen in the clothing style and jewelry that was worn.
The Roman campaign was so pervasive and far reaching that many countries have been shaped and molded by their culture. The Romans are responsible for so many things that we see today, some of which you may be surprised to learn were developed by Roman architects, designers, engineers, and gardeners.
Here is a list of some of the items that we may never have had without the influence of the Roman empire.
- Heated baths
- The Calendar
So did the Romans actually invade the country of Ireland? The answer is a categorically a resounding NO. But the Roman influence and achievements are without a doubt far reaching and are evidenced within the country.
Just as in other regions throughout the European and northern African areas. Whether it was due to Roman military resources being stretched too thin and being overwhelmed, or just due to Irish luck, the Emerald Isle remained unscathed.