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Romano-British AD 43 to 410

Under New Management

We must imagine a rural society over large parts of lowland Cornwall, ruled over by a fractious aristocracy. For many decades before the Roman invasion Cornwall must have received its share of Gaulish refugees with tales of hardship under the Roman yoke but for some the arrival of the Romans may have been a godsend - chiefs who saw the chance to gain an advantage over other tribal groups, traders anxious to exploit the commercial opportunities of becoming part of an Empire that stretched to Egypt and beyond.

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It appears that many of the larger hillforts were already abandoned by the time the Roman legions marched west. Following the subjugation of the southern tribes, the Second Augustan Legion marched west and built and occupied the fortress at Exeter (ISCA DUMNONIORUM) between AD55-75. Presumably up until then the Dumnonii had not posed any threat. Whatever caused the Romans to extend the frontier zone into Cornwall, the results were not as dramatic as elsewhere in Britain. So far only two forts, either side of Bodmin, at Nanstallon to the north and at Restormel to the south are certain. Nanstallon is sited close to the then navigable River Camel, whilst Restormel close to the Fowey, and both could therefore have access both to the sea and to the ridgeway along the high ground between the Camel and Fowey rivers - a routeway dominated in previous centuries by the enormous hillfort of Castle Canyke.

Cornwall was incorporated into the administrative area or 'civitas' centred on Exeter. It appears that many hillforts were forcibly abandoned during the military occupation but what is equally clear is that most important rounds were not; they were probably left in the hands of client or trusted chiefs. Large enclosures or rounds such as Carvossa in the Fal Valley and Carloggas, St Mawgan continued in occupation and excavation has produced a wide range of typical Roman artefacts, Gaulish Samian ware, glass and metalwork. Elsewhere rounds continued to be built although a sub-rectangular shape was often preferred and in some cases such as that excavated at Killigrew (Mitchell) evidence of an industrial function is indicated. Half a tin platter was found as well as evidence of metal working. Excavation has shown that during the Roman period the shape of houses changed from circular to oval or elongated, perhaps influenced by Roman building practice. However, the main agents for Romanisation are not found in Cornwall: there are no towns and only one or two villas. Rural life no doubt continued much as before and even though power had shifted decisively to the invader, it is likely that, apart from a few Roman administrators, Roman Cornwall was still ruled by the pre-invasion tribal leaders and their descendants.

A form of settlement not found elsewhere in Britain developed in west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly in the 2nd century AD. Courtyard Houses consist of round and oval stone dwellings, sub rectangular byres and other farm buildings that look onto open, partially paved, farm yards (courtyard). The structures are confined within massive stone walls with substantial gates giving access to the yard. Each unit represents a self-contained farmhouse. Over thirty courtyard house settlements are known. They vary from substantial hamlets as at Chysauster to single units. Many developed from open settlements of round houses, and their fields, by then already many centuries old, continued to be used. By the end of the 5th century AD the area under cultivation along the north coast of Penwith cannot have been much different from the area cultivated only 150 years ago. The constant clearing of stones and the relentless movement of ploughsoil downhill during this period, and over the succeeding centuries, has ensured that the massively walled fields survive and today they are a vital part of this uniquely beautiful and ancient landscape. It is likely that the fields here have been in use since at least the Iron Age, over 2000 years ago. Tin became important after the 2nd century AD when the Empire's Iberian mines were in decline. Used in coins and pewter ware, tin was transported from the tin gravel extraction sites to the markets in ingot form. Many ingots of this date are known from Cornwall and it is likely that, as with other mineral producing areas, Cornish tin was worked under Imperial control.

By the time the last legions were withdrawn from Britain in AD410 for the defence of the Roman heartland, Cornish society had changed. There was a monetary economy where none had existed before, trading links had been extended, farming had undoubtedly expanded and finds of fine wares, coin hoards and expensive high status metalwork suggest that, though unsophisticated by Roman provincial standards, Cornwall was by no means impoverished. Some people had no doubt adopted Roman names, manners and accents but it was not long before society began to splinter; Cornwall was still, despite 350 years of Roman bureaucracy, essentially Celtic in character.

Read about Romano-British monuments