Ireland And The Roman Empire. Modern Politics Shaping The Ancient Past?

I’m here in Dublin Airport, not far from Drumanagh, the site discussed in the following post. I’m on my way back to Wales for, among other things, tomorrow’s graduation ceremony for students from the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University.

I thought I’d reblog the post here because it’s very interesting and it follows on from a comment thread relating to my post a few days ago about the current drought in Ireland which has revealed many previously unknown features of archaeological interest, and the (unrelated but also recent) discovery of a 5500 year-old passage tomb in County Lowth.

The site at Drumanagh is not related to either of those new discoveries, but it is fascinating because of the controversy about whether or not it is evidence of a Roman invasion of Ireland in the first century AD. I think the idea that no Romans ever set foot in Ireland during the occupation of Britain is hard to accept given the extensive trading links of the time, but there’s no evidence of a full-scale military invasion or lengthy period of occupation. The only unambiguously Roman finds at Drumanagh are coins and other artefacts which do not really indicate a military presence and there is no evidence there or anywhere else in Ireland of the buildings, roads or other infrastructure that one finds in Roman Britain.

My own opinion is that the Drumanagh site is more likely to have been some sort of trading post than a military fort, and it may even be entirely Celtic in origin. The position and overall character of the site seems more similar to Iron Age promontory forts than Roman military camps. I am, however, by no means an expert.

You can find a description of the Drumanagh site in its historical context here.


Way back in 1996, the Sunday Times newspaper in Britain ran an enthusiastic if awkwardly-phrased banner headline proclaiming that a “Fort discovery proves Romans invaded Ireland”. The “fort” in question was an archaeological site in north County Dublin known as Drumanagh, situated on a wave-eroded headland near the coastal village of Loughshinny. Nearly 900 metres long and 190 metres wide, the monument consists of a trio of parallel ditches protecting an oblong thumb of land jutting out into the ocean, the seaward sides of the irregular protrusion relying on the waters of the Irish Sea for defence. The location is fairly typical of a large number of Iron Age promontory settlements found in isolated spots throughout the country. However what made the area at Drumanagh of particular interest was the significant number of Roman artefacts found within its fields.

Unfortunately a comprehensive archaeological survey of the site has yet to be published due to questions over property rights and compensatory payments for finds, meaning most discoveries from the location have come through agricultural work or destructive raids by…

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10 Responses to “Ireland And The Roman Empire. Modern Politics Shaping The Ancient Past?”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Thank you for the information about Drumanagh. This is fascinating. Clearly there was never Roman infrastructure in Ireland. The site could therefore be: (a) an indigenous celtic port, trading with the Romans across the sea; (b) a Roman trading post established with the agreement of the local chieftain for mutual trading benefit (such agreement could be either free or coerced – “or else we’ll invade like we did Britain”); (c) a Roman fort from which a campaign was launched, at the end of which the Romans concluded – as they did in Scotland – that, for whatever reason, they would not remain.

    This debate appears to have modern resonances. For the avoidance of misunderstanding, I mean none of those.

    • telescoper Says:

      Apparently there was a similar discussion about the invasion of Britain:

      ‘There is no advantage to be gained by taking and garrisoning Britain.
      More revenue is derived from duty on their commerce than tribute could bring in; especially when we deduct the expense involved in maintaining an army to guard the island and collect taxes. The un-profitability involved in occupying the islands near Britain would be even greater’

      (Strabo, Geography, 2.5.8).

      This is also a reminder that Hadrian’s Wall was less a defensive barrier and more a means of ensuring that duties were collected on goods crossing the border of the empire.

    • telescoper Says:

      I’m also interested in knowing how much Roman coins were used by people living outside the Roman empire. I’d imagine quite a lot if their trading network were extensive.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Also they would be in demand because the stamp was a guarantee of the quality and quantity of the metal.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      To add to my earlier post, the absence of any mention by extant Roman historians of a campaign in Ireland, cf the campaign in Scotland, suggests that no serious campaign took place there.

      Which raises the question: Why? Strabo’s reasoning against imperial extension below, which Peter gives in relation to Britain, applies to many places, but fails to take into account that conquered peoples could provide Rome not only with taxes but slaves and soldiers.

      • telescoper Says:

        Yes, many of the Roman troops based in Britain during the occupation were actually from elsewhere in the empire, including people of Slavic origin. But the more soldiers you have to garrison the forts of a bigger and bigger empire, the more taxes you have to raise to feed and pay them.

      • telescoper Says:

        Julius Caesar didn’t think it was worth doing a full invasion. Neither of his two expeditions led to a permanent presence, and it was almost a hundred years later that Claudius decided to mount a full invasion. Perhaps it was the perception that Britain was particularly rich in metal ores (e.g. zinc and copper) that tipped the scales in favour of full invasion. I don’t think there ever was any perception that Ireland was similarly endowed.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Cornish tin reached the Med for sure. But strangely the Romans never seemed to see Cornwall as a priority.

  2. Interesting account on these kinds of issues in “The Roman Empire and the Indian Ocean … ” by Raoul McLaughlin. Argument essentially is that early empire Romans understood very well that it can be more profitable (up to a point) to trade than invade.

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