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XV. On the Intercourse of the Romans with Ireland

By Thomas Wright, M.A., F.S.A., etc.

Read April 24th, 1886

I offer a few brief notes on a subject, which can perhaps hardly be considered to be directly ethnological, although it relates to ethnology as far as it concerns the great question of the movements of people and races. But my reason for bringing them forward here is that they have arisen out of a paper on the bronze weapons, etc., of antiquity, which was read before this Society last year, in which I said, speaking of Ireland, "Where, by the way, it has been somewhat too hastily asserted that the Roman arms never penetrated, seeing that we know little of the history of our islands under the Romans; that Juvenal, speaking as of a fact generally known, asserts –

"Arma Quidem ultra

Litora Juvernae promovimus";

And that Roman antiquities are now found in Ireland". A writer in the last number of the Anthropological Review has "felt compelled to contradict me most flatly and pointedly" (I use his own words) in the remark I had here made; and he proceeds to allege a few arguments which go at most only to show that we have no direct proof that the Romans did conquer Ireland. The tone of these arguments seems to be founded on the assumption that I have said that the Romans had subjugated Ireland and established themselves as conquerors in it, which was certainly very far from my thoughts. The facts on which we have to work, in this question, are very few, and, it must be confessed, not altogether satisfactory; but perhaps it may be worthwhile to put them together, and see what is the presumption that will arise from them.

And, first, as to the historical evidence that remains, - and it is to be regretted that nearly all the historical records which could have affected this question have been lost in the wreck of ages, - the writer of the remarks alluded to refuses to accept the statement of Juvenal as a historical fact, but considers it to be a mere flourish of the pen. "It sounds, he says, "very like a poetical license". I confess that I can perceive no such sound in it; on the contrary,it reads to me like a very distant statement of an event, probably recent, which was then publicly known at Rome. But let us consider for a moment the little information we possess relating to British affairs at this period. We are informed by the historian Tacitus, that Agricola, in the fifth year of his government of Britain, had formed the design of invading Ireland. He was encouraged in this project by the presence in his camp of a fugitive Irish chieftain, or king, who had been driven from his throne (if you like to call it a throne) by a domestic revolution, and of course sought the assistance of the Roman power to restore him. It is evident that Agricola had the project greatly at heart; for he had gathered so much information as to it's feasibility, and the means of carrying it out, that he was able to assure Tacitus, his son-in-law, that "the island might be subdued and guarded with one legion and a few auxiliaries." Other important affairs so far occupied Agricola, that he had not carried his design into execution when he was recalled from his government;but we know that the design was not given up, for in the second year after this,Agricola's fleet "sailed round the north of Scotland, took possession of the of the Orkneys, and came into the Irish Channel, surveying the coasts and collecting information by the way. His motive in sending the fleet round was connected with his intended invasion of Ireland." I tell this in the words of the writer in the Anthropological Review.

Agricolawas recalled in the year 85, and we know literally nothing of the governors of Britain who followed him; but the Romans were not in the habit of giving up a design they had once formed, and a successor of Agricola is very likely to have sought to emulate his glory by such an expedition as the invasion of Ireland, having only to carry into effect the preparations already made by his predecessor. Accordingly Juvenal, whose second Satire appears to have been written some two or three years after this time, tells us,

"Arma quidem ultra

Litora Juvernae promovimus, et modo captas

Orcadas, ac minima contentos nocte Britannos:

Sed, quae nuns populi fiunt victoris in urbe,

Non faciunt illi quos vicimus." – Sat., ii, 159.

We have here a statement of three recent conquests, which were evidently thought much of in Rome. By the "minima contenti nocte Britanni," Juvenal no doubt meant the people of the north of Britain, who had been subdued by Agricola; and no one will doubt that Agricola's victories over the Caledonii were a fact. We have just seen that the capture of the Orcades, or Orkneys, was also a fact. What, I should like to ask, is there in the third of the satirist's statements, that the Roman arms had been carried beyond the shores, that is, into the interior, of Ireland, which especially "sounds like a poetical license," so as to distinguish it from the two other statements, - particularly when we consider that the satirist has placed it first in order, probably as the most recent of these causes of Roman triumph? I think we are quite justified in concluding that, subsequent to Agricola's removal, his plan for the invasion of Ireland had been carried into execution, and successfully. Perhaps the Romans had not judged it advisable to establish their power in Ireland. They left the northern parts of Britain only partly subdued. Perhaps they received the nominal submission of the native chieftains, and perhaps a tribute; but I think it can hardly be doubted that the Romans did invade, and, in their view of the case, subdue Ireland. That there must have been a close intercourse between Roman Britain and Ireland during the Roman period seems to me evident from another circumstance.

There was a great Roman road – perhaps we may call it the greatest in this island – which our Saxon forefathers named'the Watling Street." It ran from the celebrated port by which the Romans usually entered Britain, Rutupaie (Richborough), right through the heart of the island, across North Wales, and over part of the Snowdon mountains, to a Roman town called Segontium (near Caernarvon), the walls of which still partially remain. Segontium was evidently a very important place, and stood on the shores of the Menai Straits, being the point from which the Romans passed over to the Isle of Man. There was another of the great Roman military roads, which, starting from Deva (Chester) the station of the twentieth legion, proceeded along the coast of North Wales, and ended also at Segontium. A third great Roman military road, running from Isca (Caerleon), the station of the second legion, passed through the southern and western districts of Wales, and again carried us to Segontium. Why should three of the great roads in Roman Britain all go to this town? Let us cross into the Isle of Man (the Mona of the Romans), where we know that they had copper mines. At Holyhead there was a Roman station of importance. Roman antiquities have been found there abundantly. There is, on the summit of the Holyhead mountain, a space enclosed with ramparts, called in Welsh "Caer-Gybi," which appears to have been a Roman post. We all know that at the present day the passage over to Ireland is from Holyhead. Surely no one, especially one who knows anything of the Romans, will believe that they made all these great roads to carry you to Segontium, and onward to Holyhead, that they made a station there, and that with all this they stood still at the top of the rock for a great part of four hundred years, staring across the Channel towards Ireland, and never ventured over!

I do not believe, and I am not aware that I have ever said, that the Romans established themselves as conquerors of Ireland; and I need not, therefore, reply to the objection of the writer whose objections I am reviewing, that if the Roman general had landed, "he would have built forts and roads, etc…But not one trace of a Roman exists on the soil of Ireland, not one fort, one road, one earthwork, one engraved stone, not one of the well known Roman relics so plentifully found in England and Scotland, have ever been in Ireland." The circumstances of the case are totally different. But I would remind this writer that Julius Caesar invaded Britain twice; that on the second of these occasions he fought battles, gained victories, marched over a considerable extent of ground, crossed the Thames, forced the oppidum of one of the most powerful tribes, situated in the heart of Hertfordshire, received the submission of numerous chieftains, and conquered the south-eastern parts of the island. These are facts that I suppose nobody will doubt; but we know them only because they had so much to do with the great revolutions of Rome, that the Roman historians, as well as Caesar himself, have recorded them. Yet there is not a single monument left, "not one trace of a Roman, not one fort, one road, one earthwork, one engraved stone, not one of the well known Roman relics," etc., to mark the presence of Caesar and his Roman legions. If the Roman writers who speak of Caesar's invasion had been all lost, and if no Roman had ever been here after his time, we should probably have no evidence whatever that a Roman had ever set his foot on our shores.

But my opponent on this point has replied to himself in another way, and I think, too, rather contradicted himself, when a little further on he says: "A quantity of silver coins, all Roman, with some engraved specimens of silver, were lately found in Ireland, these were unmistakably the property of some traveling silversmith. A Roman medicine stamp has also been found in Ireland, denoting that most probably some traveling physician had found his way thither. Some sixty of those stamps have been found in France, Germany, Africa, England and Scotland; but, as I believe, like the bronze swords, not one has been discovered in Italy."

Supposing that no other Roman antiquities had been discovered in Ireland, those mentioned here are of classes that bespeak permanent residence rather than transitory visits. We have no reason to believe in wandering silversmiths along the Romans, nor is it likely that a Roman wandering silversmith would carry a hoard of coins with him in Ireland. He could not receive Roman coins in payment from the wild Irish; and it would be useless to carry them among people among whom there was no minted circulation, and who, therefore, would not receive them in payment. Moreover, where hoards of coins are found under such circumstances, they mark usually the spot where some kind of permanent residence had existed; for they arose from a well-known practice in former times, of preserving property in money by buryingit in the ground, either beneath the floor of the house, or within the enclosed yard or garden. The Romans did not usually bury their treasures in unprotected or accidental places.

The same may be said of the medicine-stamps, which in Britain, as far as we know, have always been found on the sites of Roman towns. They were, as this writer says, analogous with the modern patent medicine-stamps; and I need hardly remind him that wandering or local venders of patent medicines were not in the habit of carrying with them the instrument for printing the stamps, but the medicines which bore the stamp upon them as the warrant of their authenticity. There appears to be little room for doubting that these Roman stamps belonged to resident manufacturers of the medicines indicated on them, and that these manufacturers supplied these medicines, made in packets in some form or other, to the dealers. The fact of their not being found in Italy destroys at once one of the arguments against the Roman character of the bronze swords. Although found in tolerable abundance in the western and northern provinces of the empire, not one is at present known to have been found in Italy, yet they are undoubtedly Roman.

I will only add that our writer appears to be very imperfectly informed as to the number of Roman antiquities which have been found in Ireland; and I have no doubt, now that more attention has been called to the subject, the number will be greatly increased by future researches. The following is a list of a few such discoveries, consisting chiefly of coins, as objects the character of which admits of the least dispute, and gathered in a glance over the volumes of the Journal and Transactions of the Archaeological Society of Kilkenny, and of the Ulster Journal of Archaeology, -

In 1820 a hoard of about three hundred Roman silver coins were found near the Giant's Causeway, in the county of Antrim; all of the earlier periods of the empire. (Proceedings of Kilkenny Archaeological Society, vol. iii, p. 61, 1854-5.)

In 1850 eight Roman coins were found in the county of Down. (Ib., p. 62.)

In 1850 a brass coin of Augustus was found in the county of Tyrone. (Ib.)

In 1851 two Roman coins, one of the Emperor Gordian III, the other of Antoninus Pius, were found near Templemore in the county of Tipperary. (Ib. p. 63.)

In 1854 "an extraordinary discovery of an urn containing 1,937 coins, together with 341 ounces of silver in pieces of various sizes, was made near Coleraine. The coins are Roman, in a perfect state of preservation; and, what is very singular; no two coins appear to bear the same superscription. The silver is composed of a large number of weighty ingots and ornamental pieces, supposed to have been used on armor for horses. There are also several battle-axes marked with Roman characters. The whole are now in the possession of Mr. J. Gilmour, Coleraine, county of Londonderry." (Ib.) A more detailed and accurate account of this discovery is given in the Ulster Journal of Archaeology, (vol. ii, p. 182), with a complete list of the coins, the true number of which was 1,506. They were all of silver, and of the lower empire, the list beginning with Constantius II and ending with Constantius III, who was proclaimed emperor by the legions in Britain in 407.

Other discoveries of Roman coins appear to have been made in the neighborhood of Coleraine and the Giant's Causeway, but the account of them is not very clear. (See the Ulster Journal of Archaeology, ii, 187.)

A Roman interment, with a Roman coin, was found in the town land of Laughed, near Donahue, county Down. (Journal of Kilkenny Archaeological Society, vol. I, p. 164, 1856-7.)

Roman coins were found in a Roman cemetery near Bray, in the county of Wick low. (Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, vol. iii, p. 186.) It is hardly necessary to remark that the existence of a Roman cemetery amounts to positive evidence of a Roman settlement.

In 1830 five hundred Roman silver coins were found in the town land of Tonduff, about one mile from the Giant's Causeway. (Ulster Journal of Archaeology, ii, 187.)

In 1854 a hundred and ninety-five Roman coins were found near Coleraine not far from the place of the discovery of the great hoard of coins found in the same year, as described above. These were of the emperors Gratian, Honorius, and Valens. (Ib.)

We have thus authenticated accounts of discoveries of Roman coins in no less than five Irish counties, Antrim, Londonderry, Down, Tyrone, and Tipperary, which already show us the Romans scattered tolerably widely over the island. With one exception, these discoveries all occur in the province of Ulster, which would seem to show that the Romans had settled chiefly in the northeast of Ireland. There are many reasons for supposing that this would be the case; the southwest was, no doubt, at that time very wild and difficult of access. Moreover, the coins themselves show that this settlement of the Romans in the north-east of Ireland, of whatever character it may have been, lasted during the whole period of the Roman power in Britain; for while some were evidently deposited at a rather early date of the Roman rule, others belong to emperors who belong to so low a date a the beginning of the fifth century.

Source: Transactions of the Ethnological Society of London, Vol. 5. (1867), pp. 168-173.

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