A major exhibition at the British Museum has no comprehensive answer as to why the Romans never invaded Ireland. GERARD CASSINI reports
THE British Museum has just opened its fascinating exhibition Legion: Life in the Roman Empire. The empire — one that stretched from the southerly reaches of Scotland to the Red Sea, occupying more than a million square miles — was propped up partly by a huge, well drilled army and a large administrative cohort. Basically a huge civil service alongside an elite officer corps and legions of soldiers kept the show on the road.
This British Museum exhibition, which continues until June 23, 2024, draws these threads together and explains how the empire ran — focusing on everything from family life on the fort, to the brutality of the battlefield. Everything from armour to cuisine. And ablution too — the Roman bathhouse was a sophisticated piece, not just of architecture, but engineering too. A huge amount of ingenuity went into making life more comfortable.
Of course the one place that is not mentioned in the exhibition is Ireland. The Roman Empire never occupied Hibernia, ‘the Land of Winter’ as they named the misty island to the west.
So why did the Roman legions never venture across the Irish Sea? Well, the short answer is, they did. At Drumanagh, in present Fingal County, some sort of trading depot evidently had been established. Roman coins, metal ware and fragments of pottery have all been found there.
But the handful of Romans who lived there — possibly some sort of traders as well as a few scouts, certainly didn’t settle. They came, they saw, they headed home.
Those early visitors probably came from somewhere near Hadrian’s Wall in Scotland, and worked their way south.
It’s possible that some of 20,000 legionaries stationed on Anglesey might have made the journey around AD60, but the Irish Sea crossing at that point is far greater there than further north. The Romans were never as comfortable as mariners as the Greeks or the Phoenicians.
Nonetheless, that number of troops on the island of Anglesey may have presaged an invasion of Ireland, possibly as part of the great Roman outreach programme.
Alternatively, scouts may have returned after their reconnoitering visit and let it be known that, rationally speaking, the cost/ benefit analysis wasn’t worthwhile.
To copper-fasten that decision, trouble began brewing on Britannia’s eastern flank. Boudicca, queen of the Iceni, had launched a rebellion in southeast England. Any thoughts of committing troops to an Irish frolic would have been quickly dispensed with.
But there was possibly another reason for Ireland not tempting the Romans.. Much of the expansion of the Roman Empire was driven by individuals seeking out glory, a glory that would give them greater authority at home. This happened during the years of the Republic, when there was a continual scramble for power —if you conquered lands abroad, it showed you had a bit of muscle, you were somebody to be reckoned with; this converted into political power.
But change came with the beginning of the Imperial system. Now the Emperor was in charge, rather than power being dispersed and open for competition. It was closed and concentrated in one man, the Emperor.
Octavian Augustus was the man in charge when the Romans occupied Britain, and wily leader that he was, saw that there was no benefit for him or for the Empire in expanding into a land which appeared to offer little return. The manpower required to mount an invasion, or even an expeditionary force, just wasn’t worth it.
Triumphantly returning from Hibernia would have counted for little. A parade down the Appian Way in Rome proclaiming, “Hey! You know that song ‘You’ll never beat the Irish’? Well, we’ve just beaten them!” would have made no impression on the average Roman. But political stability at home did count.
Thus Ireland lay undisturbed during the Roman occupation of Britain, and right through the Middle Ages until the Vikings arrived.
The Irish used that time wisely, and it had far reaching consequences, not just for Ireland, but for the rest of Europe. And ironically, it helped preserve much of the civilisation that Rome had been responsible for.
This was Ireland’s golden age of ‘Saints and Scholars’, a testament to the cultural extravaganza Irish monks produced at a time when the rest of Europe was sinking into the Dark Ages, ravaged by various tribes of Goths, Visigoths and Vandals. The Roman Empire had collapsed, and Christendom was in danger of imploding. Rome, the cradle of world history, was no more.
But Irish monks kept the Gospels alive, partly through their intricate artwork in the illuminated manuscripts, and subsequently Irish missionaries would venture out into Britain and mainland Europe to re-introduce learning, art and culture back into the continent.
Legion: life in the Roman army sees the British Museum partnering with Horrible Histories, author Terry Deary and illustrator Martin Brown’s bestselling book series, for the exhibition
The exhibition runs until June 23, 2024