Ireland, lying between Britain and Spain, and easily accessible also from the Gallic sea, might serve as a very valuable link between the provinces forming the strongest part of the empire. This is significant both because it shows an awareness of strategy, and because Tacitus goes on to note that, on several occasions, Agricola claimed that he would need only one legion to conquer Ireland. Tacitus also records that Agricola befriended an Irish prince, possibly with the intention of using him as a bargaining tool or collaborator in a conquest.
Roman Catholic Popes of the Fifth Century
But Juvenal was a satirist, and as such, using his work as evidence is problematical; he may be referring to invasions, but equally, he may refer to failures! It should also be pointed out that the Orkneys and Northern Britain were never fully invaded or organised, and advancing armies to a region is quite different from invading it.
Finally, the later Chronicle of Tysilio, which is corroborated by the Norman propagandist Geoffrey of Monmouth, mentions a Romano-British expedition to conquer Ireland during the reign of Claudius, but the details of this are unclear.
Roman coins such as these of Augustus and Trajan depict emperors holding the earth in such ways as to suggest power over it. Until very recently there has been little archaeological evidence for a Roman invasion. This need not be the case, and at any rate we cannot be sure that the final results will be conclusive. The site has not been excavated, so any conclusions drawn now could be dangerously premature.
Rise of Rome
Gold coins have already been found near Dublin and at Bray; silver and bronze coins at Newgrange; brooches at Knockawlin and Cashel; occasional finds of grave goods have included Roman or Romano-British items. We do not have to accept that there was an invasion simply because there was some Roman influence in the area. Romans often traded with regions that they did not invade. Only after a full excavation of the site can we examine with any confidence the question of a Roman military presence in Ireland.
This is not much to go on but the possibility of an invasion remains. He knew of Ireland, and that it was close to Britain. It is possible that Agricola, in AD 83, tried to invade Ireland but was unsuccessful, or that he had one legion on standby for such an expedition, supported by Irish allies, but permission was not forthcoming from Rome. The evidence against an invasion is quite strong: no ancient source known specifically mentions one. But if there was no invasion or if there was an unsuccessful foray which was not followed up, why was this the case?
Around this time there is a loss of impetus generally in the Roman conquest of Britain, possibly caused by military problems elsewhere in the empire, in the Rhine and Danube regions.
The Thirteen Popes of the Fifth Century
The Roman army was not large enough to fight on many fronts, and thus soldiers may have been withdrawn from Britain to conflicts elsewhere. The drive to expand in Britain never really returned, which may explain why there was no subsequent invasion of Ireland.
After the mid-second century, Roman frontiers were always under pressure from some direction. By this stage they certainly knew what Ireland was like and that it probably was not worth the trouble of invasion. Additionally, Solinus notes that the Irish were an unfriendly, warlike people who smear the blood of slain enemies on their faces and so do not distinguish from right and wrong. The Hereford Map c. AD ,in which Augustus is shown issuing orders to three surveyors mensores.
Ireland,above the heads of the mensores, is depicted as being part of the Roman world. Instead of speculating on the Roman invasion theory let us consider Roman attitudes towards their empire and the wider world and their conceptions of space and power.
Frontiers as we understand them did not exist before the seventeenth century, and certainly not in Roman times. Two main reasons for this have been identified. First, poor geographical knowledge meant that the Romans tended to underestimate the distance between the centre of their empire and its periphery; second, regions beyond the centre were perceived in terms of power rather than territory. Having power over, influence over, or even connections with a region was enough for the Romans to claim it as part of their empire, regardless of whether they had good geographical knowledge of it.
These sentiments were not without parallel. Despite this magnanimous gesture, the implication is that Rome enjoyed power over the whole world. Additionally, Roman coins depict emperors holding the earth in such ways as to suggest power over it. Augustus was a great conqueror, but was painfully aware of how the empire could be over-extended, especially after a disaster in Germany in AD 9, when three whole legions fell to German tribes.
The Latin is ambiguous, and what this phrase actually means has been the subject of dispute. But to what lengths were they prepared to go? Were the words of the poets simply imperialist rhetoric? Augustus, we saw, was careful; his diplomatic rather than military victory over Parthia is testament to that.
On this Day
Tiberius consolidated rather than expanded. His successor Gaius Caligula was at best incompetent, at worst insane. Claudius needed the military victory, but chose the victim carefully. After Claudius, there was some expansion in Britain, but this eventually came to a standstill.
We have to turn to Strabo to understand our problem. He stated that the people beyond the empire were treated as part of it. Clemency and friendship were extended to them, but in most cases these realms were considered unsuitable for occupation owing to weak internal infrastructures. Only those parts of the oikoumene which were considered worthy were to be occupied and organised, although the rest could certainly be exploited.
This is also stated by the earlier historian Polybius, who notes that only the known parts of the inhabited world were ruled by Rome. The arguments and views are complex, and in a sense contradictory; most Romans surely knew that they did not control the whole world, otherwise how could any imperial expansion take place? However, we must now try and fit Ireland into this picture. It is clear that Roman geographical knowledge of Ireland was not good, with its climate considered by Strabo to be uninhabitable, at least for Romans in their togas!
It probably lacked the infrastructure, either economic or administrative, that would have appealed to the Romans. Too much initial organisation would have been necessary in order to exploit the new province to the limit. Why would the Romans invade Ireland if there was little to interest them? Rome only took over economically viable territories; she did not conquer indiscriminately.
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The Panegyric on Constantine Augustus, the first Christian emperor of Rome, states that Ireland was not thought worthy of conquest; the effort was probably not worth the gain. Taking into consideration that the claims and hopes of Roman poets did not always reflect the true picture, and that Ireland had little to offer in terms of wealth to the Romans, is there really a case for a Roman invasion of Ireland?
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The fact that it is featured on maps of the Roman empire is not important. This is an important distinction as communication or trade with Ireland was not a precursor to or a result of invasion. With all the upheavals in the world do you think there are things that we can still learn from Roman times?
I think that the quality of great literature is that it contains timeless truths. It is like a kaleidoscope — our understanding of the text will change according to the way that we ourselves change. In terms of the lessons to be drawn from Roman history, of course it will always hold a mirror up to the present, for the simple reason that what is distinctive about Western civilisation, particularly compared with the other great civilisations like China or India or even the Middle East, is that in the West we have had two cracks at it.
We had the first starting in BC and lasting up until the collapse of the Roman Empire and then the second, building on the ruins left by classical civilisation, continuing into the present. And all the way through our attempts to construct civilisation we are always overshadowed by the previous attempt, so we will find in Roman history what I guess we find in science fiction — that there are points of resemblance heightened and made strange by the way that they are also completely different.
I thought that if I was going to choose five books on Roman history I really had to choose a Roman historian because, for modern historians, Roman historians have always been the great model. Because the classics are classics. Throughout the Middle Ages when people wanted to have a model they would look back to great Roman historians.
I was thinking I should possibly have chosen the man who I think is the greatest Roman historian, Tacitus , who is a sort of pathologist of vice, particularly the vice of autocracy. I think he is one of the all-time great historians. But I decided against that because my next two choices are very infused with the spirit of Tacitus.