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Roman Britain   43AD-450AD

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Roman Buildings on Thanet

Curator's Introduction

Roman Thanet

Our first written record of Roman interest in Britain is the description by Julius Caesar of his two brief expeditions to the Island in 55 and 54 B.C. when he made a survey of parts of southern Britain and established treaties with some of the local leaders.

From Caesar’s work we are given a limited insight into the cultural and political world of Late Iron Age Kent, he named four Kentish leaders and suggested that they were generally hostile to the Roman incursion.

The Roman state was a military, political and economic force that grew rapidly in the later first Century A.D. and was expanding by direct military intervention by the first Century A.D. The influences of Roman expansionism would have been felt in all aspects of life in the peoples of Britain and Europe not yet directly occupied by the Roman forces.


Traditionally the Roman occupation of Britain is dated to the invasion instigated by Claudius in A.D. 43 but Roman influence on the society and economy of the Island of Britain is now known to extend at least to Caesar’s time and even further back. The invasion was justified as a protection of established Roman interests in the politics and economy of the Island.

Thanet’s close links and geographical proximity to the coast of Gaul is reflected in the transitional changes made to the economy, in the form of evidence for the increased use of coinage for economic exchanges and developments in technology improving the quality of indigenous products.

There is also evidence of increased demand for exports of goods produced in Britain, like hunting dogs, and the importation of luxury goods produced in the rest of Europe such as the developing taste for wine that was common to all the peripheral areas of the expanding Roman Empire.


The Romans invasion was not simply the conquest of a nation by a strong imperial power. Alliances and contacts had been made with Rome and economic ties developed; the Roman presence was an armed formalisation of the relationship between Rome and Britain as the Roman Empire perceived it.

The official presence of a Roman government in Britain is attested from the invasion in the early first Century until the last confused accounts of the early fifth century.  Within that period of time the island of Britain was occupied by one of the largest standing military forces maintained by the Romans.

The bases and civilian settlements of the Army formed some of the most intensively settled sites of the period. Military occupation brought with it trade and settlers and from all over the known world. The road network established to serve the Army long outlasted the Roman Empire. Trading ports, and civilian towns were founded and expanded and contracted according to the fortunes of the Imperial economy and politics.

In the countryside, Villa complexes whose buildings reflected the construction technologies and architectural fashions of the whole empire replaced Iron Age farmsteads and village settlements. These buildings grew increasingly large and elaborate and accommodated a broad range of facilities and industrial processes. We also know of other unusual structures and facilities that are only now being drawn into our picture of life in Roman Britain.

As with the later Iron Age, the boundaries between this period and the Saxon Period that followed it are not clearly defined and Thanet has some of the best surviving evidence of that complex transition.

Perhaps the most impressive evidence of the Roman presence near Thanet are the remains of the Roman forts at Richborough and Reculver. The standing structures on these two sites show only a part of the story though, with the extensive remains of early forts, a town, triumphal monument and then the great walls of the Saxon shore fort at Richborough reflecting a complicated series of social changes in the Romano-British society that we understand in only a very limited way.

Traditionally the landing place of Claudius’s invasion force of 40,000 men and the primary port of entry to Britain throughout the Roman period Richborough must stand along with the civilian town of Canterbury as the most significant settlements of the period. In recent years it has been established that Richborough was itself the site of a small town, the later enclosure of the core within a defence having parallels with continental examples. The fort at Reculver is less well understood although it is known that there was Iron Age settlement prior to the fort and that a small town was also associated with the fort.

Until recently the best-known Roman site in Thanet was the small Roman Villa discovered and excavated at Tivoli Park near Margate by Dr. Arthur Rowe in 1924. Examination of the records of Rowe’s work and recent excavations nearby have established that the building was located on an intensively occupied Late Iron Age settlement and cemetery.

Since Rowe’s excavations more than twenty sites have produced evidence for Roman buildings and other find spots of pottery spreads, features and small finds including coins have been encountered throughout the Island, an Iron-working site was found near Minster. Evidence for the Romano-British populations of Thanet are extensive with thirty five recorded burials or cemetery groups.

One major villa complex at Abbey Farm in Minster in Thanet has been excavated over a number of seasons raising many questions about the prosperity and cultural integration of the Isle of Thanet into Roman society. Many other sites have revealed evidence of the transition from Iron Age to Romanised settlements where sequences of pottery span the Iron-Age to Roman periods, particularly along the coast near Birchington.

Few smaller sites have produced extensive evidence for Late Roman settlement although recent finds at Abbey Farm indicate activity within the Villa complex in the fourth century. A small building recently discovered near Broadstairs may also be occupied into the later Roman or early post-Roman date.

Recent archaeological work has established that Thanet was occupied more extensively in the Roman period than previously thought. A pattern is emerging of an area linked by roads and sea to international markets and trade. Within the island settlement was sparse but no less integrated within the Roman world than any other urban hinterland in this period. It may even be that Thanet’s unique geography contributed to its amenity and that the Island’s community was structured in a very different way to that of the rest of Roman Britain although this remains to be proved by further research.

Ges Moody
Version 1 posted 5/05/05


Detsicas A. 1983     The Cantiaci

Perkins D.R.J.          The Roman Archaeology of the Isle of Thanet, Arch. Cant. Vol. CXXI 2001


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Roman Buildings on Thanet

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