Iberia, Britannia, and the Fall of Rome

The Greeks used the word Iberia for the western peninsula as early as 500 BCE. After they took control of the Mediterranean from Phoenicia, they started occupying the peninsula’s eastern and southern coasts. Today the Iberian Peninsula incorporates Spain, Portugal, the sovereign states of Andorra and the British Oversees Territory of Gibraltar, and parts of France.

More Greeks fled to Iberia when the Persians invaded Greece between 492 and 490 BCE. After the Greeks came the Etruscans, then the Romans, who began their invasion in 218 BCE. In spite of the Roman presence, Jews fled there too after Rome sacked Jerusalem in 70 CE.

Roman armies were nearly stopped by the Celtic Lusitanians and Galicians living in today’s Portugal and Galicia. It took the Romans two hundred years to dominate them, whereas the Romans conquered every other place in a matter of months. Under Caesar Augustus, the Romans finally assassinated the Lusitanian leader, Viriathus, and finished Rome’s take-over in 19 BCE. The Celts were never killed off. The survivors retreated inland to the hills west of Braga and Porto, from where they occasionally raided Roman settlements. They will rise again, found a country named Portugal, and become the first empire to dominate the Ocean Sea.

During the next two centuries, Roman presence affected all parts of Iberia. They set up fortifications at Braga, Évora, Conímbriga [near Coimbra], and eventually, Lisbon which by 138 BCE they called Olissipo.

Roman ruin of a temple to Diana in the middle of Évora today.(1)

Today, the most extensive renovations of Roman ruins are those of Conímbriga. Conímbriga was the site of an old Celtic, and perhaps pre-Celtic city. The Romans, under Augustus, enjoyed the place after building baths and a central heating system. They brought in fresh water from two miles away along an aqueduct from Alcabideque.

Model of the Forum at Conímbriga Museum.(2)

Excavated ruins of the baths of Conímbriga.(3)

Archaeologists have also found countless amphorae [ceramic containers used to ship wine, olive oil, and garum fish paste] that the ancients left in the area around Lisbon. The amphorae reveal that the Romans in the Tagus River port traded with Italy, Sicily, Southern Hispania, Greece, and the Middle East. The Romans built their signature roads throughout the peninsula. They added their Latin language and laws, forums, temples, law courts, architecture, city planning, and irrigated fields to the culture. Farms were run by the feudal Roman agricultural systems based on slave labor and dependent on an even more advanced version of the plow.

But whereas the Romans intermarried with the coastal people west and south, the Lusitanians and Galicians in the northeast remained, as an ethnic group, relatively unpolluted. The Basque people, who lived in Viscaya [Biscaya], also kept their original culture.


As we mentioned earlier, the Romans rowed and sailed their galleys as far northwest as Thule [Iceland]. They also traded with the Orkney Islands, as indicated on Ptolemy’s map. The Romans under Julius Caesar invaded Britannia in 55 BCE and took control of the southern third of the country. Ninety years later, in 43 CE, 40,000 Roman soldiers under Emperor Aulus Plautius invaded and incorporated the Province of Britannia into the empire. In 122 CE, Roman Emperor Hadrian built a wall at the northern boundary of his lands. Many parts of Hadrian’s Wall still exist today. It extended east - west for seventy-three miles, and was as wide as eight feet, and as high as ten feet.

Ten years later, in 122 CE, Emperor Antoninus Pius built another wall between the Firth of Forth [the bay at today’s Edinburgh] and the Firth of Clyde [the bay at today’s Glasgow]. Antonine’s Wall was sixty-three miles long, ten feet at its highest, and sixteen feet at its widest. There were sixteen forts and fortlets placed every two miles along the length. The twelve-year project was meant to keep the Caledonians [the Roman name for the Celts in Scotland] out of England. The Romans launched several campaigns in an attempt to conquer the Caledonians, but failed each time. After eight years, the Romans moved their boundary back to Hadrian’s Wall and abandoned Antonine’s Wall. Most of Antonine’s Wall has been destroyed since then. Just a few piles of stone sprinkled about are left to remind us of all the hard work the Roman slaves did for nothing.

By 214 CE, Roman Britannia was divided into two provinces. The northern province was called Britannia Inferior and administered from York. The southern province was called Britannia Superior and administered from London. In 368 CE, the Picts and Saxons successfully attacked the Romans, and by 383, the Romans were withdrawing from the island. The Romans left their mark like they did every place else. They imposed their laws and customs and introduced the technology they had learned from the ancient cultures before them.

The Fall of Rome

After two and a half centuries of dominating the Mediterranean, Roman control began to weaken, as indicated in 378 CE, when they lost an important fight against the northern Goths at the Battle of Adrianople [modern day Turkey].

Historians can not agree on the specific reasons for the Fall of Rome. The reasons are not important to this book – only what was lost as a result, and how Roman occupation influenced Europe, and ultimately, western expansion.

As the empire declined, warriors in northern Germany, called Visigoths, began conquering their neighbors. The Visigoths first invaded the Roman Empire in 406 CE. They invaded again in 410, marched to the city of Rome and sacked it. [The term sack, as in sacking Rome, came from the act of filling sacks [cloth bags] with plunder [the stolen treasures] after a conquering army captured and destroyed a town, building, or other place.]

In 455, warriors from eastern Germany, known as Vandals,(4) invaded and sacked Rome once again. By that time, the city and empire were done for.

All sorts of barbarian tribes from the north moved into southern Europe and England. The word Barbarian simply meant strange or different. The Jutes, Angles, Saxons, and Suebi came from today’s Denmark and northern Germany. The Normans and Goths came from Scandinavia. The Huns came from today’s Russia, the Ostrogoths from Ukraine, the Visigoths from Romania, the Francs from Germany, and the Vandals from Poland. These origins are vague because tribes were constantly on the move.

Two different tribes settled the Iberian Peninsula.

  1. Suebi [also called Suevi and Swabians] invaded today’s Portugal and the provinces of Galicia and Léon. Over time the culture mixed with the Celtic Lusitanians to become the Portuguese. They located their capital and church at Braga. Their principal seaport was Portucale [today’s Porto].
  2. Visigoths invaded today’s Spain. They came from the area in Europe around the Black Sea. Visigoths were more pastoral(5) in nature than the Suebi. They set up their capital in Toledo.

Both cultures retained the feudal agricultural system of serfs and landlords that the Romans had brought to the peninsula earlier.

It is difficult to assess how the invasion of the barbarians influenced technological progress. We know that when the Vandals and Visigoths destroyed Rome, they destroyed libraries and places of learning. But fortunately, a tiny number of scribes and monks hid documents away that a few lucky scholars and archaeologists will find again during the Renaissance.


  1. Header Photo: Ring of Brodgar aka Brogar, a neolithic stone circle and henge monument. Loch of Harray in the background. Photo by Stevekeiretsu - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35375808. Image source url. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ring_of_Brodgar#/media/File:Ring_of_Brodgar,_Orkney.jpg
  2. Photo of Temple of Diana ©2015 Mary Ames Mitchell. All rights reserved.
  3. Photo of Conimbriga Forum model ©2015 Mary Ames Mitchell. All rights reserved.
  4. Photo of Conimbriga ruins ©2015 Mary Ames Mitchell. All rights reserved.
  5. We get the word vandalism from the Vandals.
  6. Pastoral people used land to grazing sheep and cattle rather than agricultural cultures, who used the land to grow crops.

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