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What if the Romans had never landed in Kent to invade Britain?


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In the third of our What If series of articles, the University of Kent's Dr Christopher Burden-Strevens imagines a world where the Romans never ventured across the Channel to Kent.

Romans first arrived in Kent in AD55
Romans first arrived in Kent in AD55

In August 55BC, Julius Caesar became the first Roman commander to set foot upon British soil.

Landing on the coast between Walmer and Pegwell Bay, he had led his men to the edge of the known world.

Kent was where Roman maps quite literally stopped; some even believed Britain (the ‘Land of Tin’ in the ancient Greek language) was a hoax.

Although inconsequential, Caesar’s invasion of Kent was hailed as a triumph at the time: he had gone to the edge of the earth and returned alive. It was the ancient equivalent of the Moon landing.

A century later, the Romans returned to the county on the instructions of the emperor Claudius; and by 47AD, the province of Britannia was an organised region of the Roman Empire with a Roman administration from Canterbury to Lincoln.

Romans first arrived in Kent in AD55
Romans first arrived in Kent in AD55

The history of Britain had changed forever. But if we could reverse Roman history – our history – and undo the Roman conquest of Britain, what country would we have inherited, and how would Kent look today?

In this non-Roman world, up until the 20th century, the inhabitants of Kent would speak a Celtic dialect akin to Welsh or Cornish.

The Romans’ language of Latin never arrived in Britain, so instead of mouse (Latin: mus) we say logodenn; for flower (Latin: flos) we say blejyowa, and for navy (Latin: navis) we say a'n-lu-lystry.

The Norman Conquest did not occur. England has never been ruled as a single state by a single king such as Alfred the Great: although former tribes have evolved to become stable and populous countries, Britannia is still effectively a patchwork of smaller states.

Without a single king like Harold Godwinson – and without the system of contracts introduced by the Romans, William the Conqueror had no claim to cross the Channel and fight at Hastings.

The Battle of Hastings, which changed the course of our history, would never have happened
The Battle of Hastings, which changed the course of our history, would never have happened

The landscape of Kent is unrecognisable. This is most visible at the fishing settlement of Dover.

Its natural harbour is useful for trade with Belgium and France, which the archaeological record shows occurred long before the Roman invasion, but in this alternative timeline Dover has no significant naval infrastructure.

Dover Castle does not exist, seeing as the 2nd Century AD Roman lighthouse (Britain’s oldest standing building) was never present for subsequent generations to build around.

Canterbury, originally the seat of the ancient tribal leaders of the people of Kent (the Cantii), would have become a major administrative centre and remained the capital of the south-east region.

However, its architecture is entirely different from what we consider to be typical of a Western capital city today.

A view of St Paul's Cathedral across the River Thames. Picture: Barry Goodwin
A view of St Paul's Cathedral across the River Thames. Picture: Barry Goodwin

The Romans brought to Britain four major architectural advances which they had perfected: columns, arches, domes, and concrete.

Imagine a major public edifice such as the Natural History Museum or the Bank of England without columns.

In this hypothetical world the iconic dome of St Paul’s Cathedral is gone.

We have acquired a knowledge of arches from our neighbours, but our viaducts and bridges are far inferior to those on the continent.

The lack of concrete and expertise in working it has also made most modern architecture difficult to construct; to many this will not necessarily be a disappointment.

The remains of a Roman aqueduct in Tunisia
The remains of a Roman aqueduct in Tunisia

Having never been a united entity with advanced engineering, administration, education, and a single language, the British states would have projected little power across the globe.

It was impossible to establish a colonial empire: the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand were colonised by our more advanced neighbours and now speak French, Spanish, and Dutch.

Kent would have accordingly not have developed as its neighbours did from the economic benefits of colonialism.

Lack of international interaction would have greatly reduced the need for the Medway dockyards, and they would certainly not be the powerhouse they came to be.

Britain would still retain one particular advantage: its rich natural resources, including fine agricultural land and plentiful iron and coal.

A photo from 1950 shows work being undertaking on the mosaic of the floor of a Roman villa dining room in Lullingstone
A photo from 1950 shows work being undertaking on the mosaic of the floor of a Roman villa dining room in Lullingstone

During the 19th century this made Britain, firstly Kent, an ideal target for its more advanced neighbours.

This would be particularly evident in a bleak period of this other Kent’s history, in which the fertile plains and natural harbours of Kent would be occupied by Nazi Germany in order to acquire Lebensraum, a new settlement colony, for German families living under the Nazi regime.

Without the substantial technological advances gained from a Roman presence many centuries earlier, Kent would have been defended only by the Channel.

It is a sign of how essential Rome has been to the development of Britain that this alternative reality seems impossibly fanciful.

We cannot imagine our history without the advancements in technology, communications, trade, and culture brought to these shores by Rome.

Lullingstone Roman villa mosaic. Picture: Julie Edwards
Lullingstone Roman villa mosaic. Picture: Julie Edwards

The brutality of the Roman Empire should never be forgotten, but nor should its enormous contribution to the history and development of these islands.

Even without this history, one fact is worth remembering: the word “Kent” is pre-Roman in its origins.

As such, with or without our neighbours’ invasions, Kent was always here – and still would be, too.

In our previous What Ifs, we looked at the death of Thomas Becket and the Battle of Britain.

Dr Christopher Burden-Strevens is a lecturer in Roman History at The University of Kent
Dr Christopher Burden-Strevens is a lecturer in Roman History at The University of Kent

Dr Christopher Burden-Strevens is lecturer in Roman History at The University of Kent. His research focuses on the history of Rome around the time of Julius Caesar and its reception in later Latin and Greek literature.

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