Economy in Roman Britain



Lead was the most important metal mined in Britain, because in Roman times it was used to make silver, which was used in coinage, and also because lead was used for piping, coffins, and baths. The lead mines in Britain were in the Mendips (used from 49 AD onwards, possibly even earlier), in Wales (from 74 AD), and Derbyshire (a few years after Agricola's 78 AD campaign of the area). Lead and silver production in Britain was small compared to other mines in the Empire, and the work was gradually transferred to civilian ownership. Pliny the Elder in the 70s wrote that Britain's lead was abundant and so easily extracted compared to that in Gaul and Spain that a law had been passed to limit its production.

Copper was also valued because it was used to make strong alloys such as bronze. The main mine was in Anglesey, and a protective Roman fort at Caernarvon was still manned in the second half of the 4th century. Other copper mines, such as Shropshire, were mined by natives who lived in the mines, either as convicts or slaves.

Tin was being mined in Cornwall before the 3rd century BC. It was important because it was used to make pewter which was used in many household items. Caesar's wars in the 1st century BC disrupted trade and allowed Spanish mines to capture the market. After the Occupation, tin production restarted, but didn't offer any serious competition until the mid 3rd century, when Spanish production declined following a barbarian invasion.

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Mining 2

Iron was mined extensively in Britain. The main areas were in Kent, Gloucestershire, and Northamptonshire, with minor mines in Somerset, Warwickshire, Yorkshire, and Northumberland. Before the Occupation, the Celts were smelting iron using a relatively inefficient 'bowl-furnace' method. The Romans brought their 'shaft-furnace' method, which increased output considerably.

Coal was mined in many places in the north and west of England, and was used for both industrial and domestic purposes, particularly for firing hypocausts. 

Gold probably came from Ireland before the Occupation, but the Romans mined for gold in Carmarthenshire, beginning soon after the conquest of Wales in 74-5 AD

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Pottery was the most productive manufacturing industry in Britain. Until the late 2nd century AD, the market was dominated by a red-glazed pottery called Samian ware, which came from southern Gaul. Around 200 AD, samian ware declined as a popular pottery, partly because central Gaul was affected by conflict, and also because the standard became inferior. Rhenish ware from Cologne, imported glass and silver, and British-made pottery and pewter all took its place.

The first good pieces of British pottery came from the Nene valley in Cambridgeshire, from about 150 AD. At the end of the 2nd century, large scale production started in Northamptonshire, which lasted to the early 5th century, and was sold all over Britain.

There were other, smaller potteries, such as in the Colchester area from the late 2nd century, and in the Oxford region from the late 3rd century.

Samian ware is a good indicator of date because it has distinctive decorative styles and potters' name stamps.

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Other British industries

Clothing (leather, woollen, and fur) was an industry in Britain, with the birrus britannicus, a woollen, hooded cloak, being made and (according to Diocletian's Edict of Prices) sold for 6000 denarii, a real high ticket item. It was made for the army because it was waterproof and warming, and could be used as a blanket for night shifts.

British wool rugs (tapetia) are also listed as high-quality items, suggesting that by the beginning of the 4th century AD Britain had a well-developed textiles industry.

The main imports to Britain were tableware (including pottery), glass, wine, olive oil, and minor luxury items. Wine was a popular drink, often more so than home-brewed beer, and olive oil was used both for cooking and lighting.

Most of the glass from Britain comes from the Rhineland, and northern Gaul. In this period, the glass was coloured and there was a great range of shapes and decoration. During the 2nd and 3rd centuries the glass tended to be colourless, but there was an even greater range of new shapes and types of decoration. Glass was used for amphorae, bottles, bowls, beakers, and windows.

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Cottage industry

Cottage industry continued after the Romans came because some occupations were needed to serve local communities. An example of this is smithwork, because every settlement would need to have someone relatively competent in metalwork. One room at Gadebridge Park villa in Hertfordshire has produced various traces of ash, iron ****, and tools, as well as general occupational debris, so this was the room in which the villa's blacksmith worked.

Shrines were other focal points of metalworking because pilgrims would have expected to be able to buy souvenirs such as statuettes, or metal votive letters to leave for the God. The Fossdyke Mars is an example of a votive statuette - it is Gallo-Roman art probably made in Britain.

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Timber, tiles, and bricks

Timber was fundamental in the Roman world as it was used in the construction of forts and fortresses, housing, the first phases of some public buildings (such as Silchester's basilica and forum), ships and carts, and writing tablets. It was also used as fuel.

The tiler Cabriabanus from Kent put his name on his tiles (although this would not have been visible once the tiles were in place), so from this we can see that he was a jobbing tiler, taking commissions where they arose, because his work has been found at several places in Kent.

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Coinage and units of exchange

Celtic tribal coinage was mainly silver and gold, but the weights, denominations, and purity were not standardised. Celtic currency largely disappeared after the Romans arrived but some Celtic coins have still been found in hoards of Roman date.

Roman coinage was based on intrinsic value and became the only circulating currency in Britain soon after the invasion. Soldiers were probably the most prolific users of coins to begin with. Roman coins found their way to Scotland, which proves that even beyond the frontier, tribes had become accustomed to using coins.

Barter would continue to have been used after the invasion as a form of trade. All communities would have access to coinage and would have used it to some extent.

In the second half of the first century AD, Rome started to have problems with its currency, which led to coins gradually being debased, and many forgeries being in circulation. The last official coins to reach Britain were struck around 402, and after that new coins are in such small number that they must have been brought by individuals than official consignments.

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The Romans introduced oats, flax, and spelt, which were sown in the winter and finer for bread flour. They also brought new root crops such as carrots and turnips which helped to solve the problem of feeding the animals in winter. Raised barns meant crops could be stored better, and this all contributed to a greater surplus of produce.

Better tools were introduced by the Romans, such as a plough which turned the soil as well as cutting a slit. The scythe was improved with the Roman handle.

Irrigation systems were improved so the land wasn't as swampy, and forest area was cleared to create more arable land. Celtic fields were square, but Romans used rectangular fields which had less built up headland.

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Roads linked towns together to unify the province. They were also useful for transporting the army from place to place. They were mainly in the south and east to begin with.

Suetonius Paulinus and his troops used the existing road system in the south to get to the areas where Boudicca was revolting quickly.

Roads were straight where possible to allow quicker movement. Villas and towns were usually situated next to major roads (or rivers) so that trading was faster and labour could be moved around more quickly.

Roads could move food, supplies, labour, and tribute to different areas of the province.

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