Prehistoric Britain is thought to have been occupied by the Homo genus for several hundreds of thousands of years–the first group of settlers arriving around 700,000 years ago. This was a time when the water levels dividing the Islands were significantly lower and Britain was connected to Ireland and the rest of Europe through a land mass called the ‘Doggerlands.’
Since there is no historical record of this period, all is left to archeology to sort out the who and what of it. There is strong evidence that during several ice-ages, the early inhabitants come and left with periods of no habitation at all.
There is also significant evidence that Prehistoric Britain was a trade route and that the inhabitants used tin among other technologies of the time.
The first written records of Britain are handed down from an ancient Greek sailor named Pytheas [325 BCE] who explored the region extensively in his trade routes.
Britannia was first exploited by Julius Caesar who thought that the Britons were supporting the Gauls in his quest against them in 55-54 BCE. Weather had damaged his ships and he was unable to continue his campaign against Gaul–but Britain quietly ceded to him at which time he installed Mandubracius as head of state, took some hostages who were in return ransomed for a price, Britannia became a client kingdom to Rome, the Senate recorded the mission a success even though the initial conquest failed, and Rome agreed to support Mandubracius against his enemy Cassivellaunus. Diplomacy was established through trade and taxes.
Despite this working agreement between Britannia and Rome, Claudius invaded the Island in 43 BCE and claimed Britannia as Roman territory instead of a client kingdom. In a northward expansion, Hadrian’s Wall was built in Britannia in 128 CE dividing the territory into ‘Superior Britannia’ and ‘Inferior Britannia.’ By 293 it was furthered divided into ‘Imperial Diocese.’
Perhaps the most famous battle of this period is the Boudicean Revolt of 60/61 in which Boadicea wife of Prasutagus led a revolt against Rome and nearly defeated them.
Prasutagus was the Iceni king who signed his kingdom on in loyalty to the Roman Empire to which it was mutually beneficial for Rome and the Icenis: the Romans made more from tribute taxes than they would have with an occupation and the Icenis maintained autonomy. The clause to the contract was that when the king of the client nation died, his kingdom was automatically defaulted to Rome.
When Prasutagus died, he willed his kingdom to his wife and daughters and Rome equally. Rome ignored the will. Roman soldiers beat Boadicea and raped her daughters. Ironically, the historical record of this revolt is only available through the Roman historians Tacitus and Dio [the latter is thought to have gotten his information from the writings of the former].
Boadicea is recorded as having been a strong figure of a woman with long blond hair and a challenging deep voice. She rallied the forces of all the neighboring kingdoms under Roman rule and engaged in several strategic battles. There is archaeological evidence of the fire that Tacitus speaks of in his account where Boadicea burned an entire town where Roman aristocrats lived.
In an unconfirmed location, Boadicea was defeated by the last attempt of the Roman garrison to keep the territory [Nero was about to withdraw the effort] when her army of what is estimated to be around 270,000 men were trapped in by their wives and children who were stationed behind them in a line of horses and wagons making retreat impossible.
According to Tacitus Boadicea drank a deadly poison, according to Dio, she fell ill, either way, she died without being taken prisoner by the Romans.
Meanwhile Rome was experiencing many uprisings in other areas of her territory such as Judea where Eleazar Ben Simon, 66 CE, leader of a faction called the Sicarii combated the Roman forces on Mount Masada and established a stronghold, as told by Josephus. (Some scholars doubt the accuracy of Josephus’ reporting, however, due to the fact that he was supposedly the only survivor of the suicide pact–in which each man was to kill someone else until the last man standing, who was supposed to take his own life in a mass suicide agreement. It was believed better to die than to be captured and enslaved by the Romans. Josephus lived to tell the tale, meaning, he reneged on the compact).
Had it not been for civil warring during the revolt instigated by a group of zealots who were fighting against the Jews as well as the Romans, there is reason to believe that the revolt could have worked rather than having the tragic ending that it did.
This Judean revolt was soon followed by the Bar Kochba revolt from 132-135 CE.
By the 5th century, Roman influence began to decline in Britannia which is evidenced by no archaeological evidence of new coins going into circulation by 407 CE. The use of coins as a means of trade had been almost completely abandoned by 430 CE. It is supposed that the rich continued to use metal and glass vessels but the poor were left to use leather and wooden ones.
People began burying their precious coins and possessions in hoards by the masses during this time, which the ‘Hoxne Hoard’ comes from this period.
Rome left in 410 CE, which began the ‘Sub-Roman Period’ for Britannia. Wars broke out constantly, stronger forces taking weaker territories. In 447-8 the Britons wrote a letter to the Roman Consul Aetius asking him to intervene but were told that they should fend for themselves.
Aetius’ death in 455 ended Britain’s involvement in the ‘Imperial Orbit.’
In 497 Aurelianus Ambrosius defeated the Saxons in the Battle of Mons Badonicus. The Arthurian legends are believed to stem from this, opening the age of the British Monarchs.