Celts and the Classical World

By David Rankin | Go to book overview

Appendix: The Romans and Ireland

A view long and piously maintained is that the Romans, whatever they did to Britain, had relatively little impact on Ireland. A scattering of artefacts, some reference to trade contacts in Tacitus, were all the evidence there was for contact with the Roman superstate before the Christian era. Ireland imbibed Latin culture as a spiritual essence, without the dishonour of conquest by Roman armies. Tacitus reports that he often heard his father-in-law, Gnaeus Julius Agricola (40-93 AD, legatus (governor) of Britannia 78-84 AD), say that it would have been possible to conquer Ireland with one legion and a modest force of auxiliaries (Agricola 24.3). The ‘often’ is significant. We can almost hear the voice of the retired general regretting a lost opportunity or a frustrated plan: Ireland provided a very undesirable example of liberty for the subjected British. It would have benefited Rome’s British policy to remove this (Agr 24.3).

In the last two decades, there has been an increasing interest in the relations between Roman Britain and Ireland. Reinterpretation of existing evidence, together with estimate of new material, has revived an old debate about the nature and extent of a possible Roman presence in the country. The interpretation of the fortifications at Drumanagh, about fifteen miles north of Dublin, as a Roman fort, or at least one which was used for them by their allies, has been seen as a revolutionary advance in our understanding of the question. News of this apparently serious Roman intrusion broke in the Sunday Times (21 January 1996). A vividly written article on the topic provoked outbursts of academic caution. Rightly, for a thorough investigation of the site has yet to be made. It can reasonably be said that diagrams of the Drumanagh site do not so far suggest anything so complex as the legionary fort at

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