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Hibernia – what did ancient Romans know about “Green Island?”

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Ireland in ancient times was called by the Romans Hibernia (from the word hibernus – “winter”). The Romans certainly had commercial contact with the inhabitants of the island. The question arises: what did they know about “Green Island” and whether a Roman legionary appeared on the Irish coast?

Discovery of Ancient Ireland

Map of the British Isles from 1654 with Hibernia.

There are indications that Ireland was discovered as early as the 6th century BCE, by Phoenician or Greek merchant ships, famous for their greatest discoveries in ancient times. The term “Massiliote Periplus” appeared in the scientific literature in the 20th century. According to the German historian Adolf Schulten, based on some verses of the work of a Roman writer from the 4th century BCE – Festus Rufus Avienus entitled “The Sea Coast” (Ora maritima), it can be concluded that there was a kind of document – periplus – which did not survive to our times, but which was primarily to present key places and the route from ancient Massala (present Marseille) to the Pointe du Raz headland in northwestern France. Periplus was a directory of important and useful information for sailors. According to the German researcher, the document was also supposed to mention a distant island (Ireland?) And its more important points on the coast, along with the determination of the distance between them, facilitating navigation. This bold theory, however, did not receive great recognition and is currently criticized by the research community.

Another evidence of very early discovery of Ireland (even in the 10th century BCE) is a spearhead found in the port of Huleva (southwestern Spain), which some say is to prove the existence of early trade between the island and the Mediterranean region.

The first, reasonably credible records of Ireland are due to the discoveries of Pytheas of Massalia, a Greek explorer and geographer from the 4th century BCE. We know about Pytheas’ expedition thanks to Strabo and his book Geographica. Ireland there is called “Ierne” and is described as “cold”1. You ask was an extremely brave traveler; according to Pliny the Elder even reached the Baltic Sea2. On the occasion, however, he was criticized by his contemporaries who questioned his bold claims about, for example, great tides or the existence of 19-hour days in some places.

The first term for Ireland – Hibernia – was used by Julius Caesar in his work Commentarii de Bello GallicoCaesar, Commentarii de Bello Gallico, 5.13" data-footid="3">3. He describes the island as being half the size of Britain. Moreover, Caesar correctly states that it is west of Britain and not north as Strabo claimed.

Pomponius Mela, a Roman geographer of the middle of the 1st century CE, calls Ireland Iuverna. According to him, the climate on the island is unfavourable for the cultivation of grain, but the grass grows so abundantly that it is an ideal place for grazing cattle4.

The term Hibernia appears once again in the work of Tacitus, a Roman historian from the late 1st century CE, entitled “The Agricola”. The author also uses the phrase partem Britannia quae Hiberniam, meaning “Hibernia is part of Britain”. The name “Hibernia” was derived from the transformation of the word hibernus – “winter”, which confirms again that the peoples of the Mediterranean considered the island’s climate to be cool.

Another geographer mentioning ancient Ireland was Claudius Ptolemy, a scholar from Alexandria who in his mid-2nd century work “Geography” calls the island IouerníāClaudius Ptolemy, Geographica, II.1" data-footid="5">5. From the surviving manuscripts of the researcher’s work, it is possible to read several Irish centres that modern researchers have combined with modern places, e.g. Hibernis (Tara hill in the eastern part of the island), Rhaeba (around the village of Tulsk in the northern part of the island), Magnata (the city of Sligo in the northwest) or Eblana (perhaps modern Dublin). Knowledge of the island in ancient times was limited only to the island’s shoreline; inland areas were still unknown, as trade was mainly carried out in ports. Ptolemy’s information probably came from the knowledge of merchants who did business in that region. Interestingly, the details collected by Ptolemy were later used in mapping Ireland in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Military activities of the Romans in Hibernia?

Gnaeus Julius Agricola

Statue of Julius Agricola in Baths

The most important source for us in the context of the relationship of ancient Rome with Hibernia is Tacitus and his work devoted to the life of his father-in-law Gnaeus Julius Agricola – “Agricola”. Tacitus naturally describes the Roman chief in a favourable manner. Below is a description of his upbringing:

Brought up by her side with fond affection, he passed his boyhood and youth in the cultivation of every worthy attainment. He was guarded from the enticements of the profligate not only by his own good and straightforward character, but also by having, when quite a child, for the scene and guide of his studies, Massilia, a place where refinement and provincial frugality were blended and happily combined. I remember that he used to tell us how in his early youth he would have imbibed a keener love of philosophy than became a Roman and a senator, had not his mother’s good sense checked his excited and ardent spirit. It was the case of a lofty and aspiring soul craving with more eagerness than caution the beauty and splendour of great and glorious renown. But it was soon mellowed by reason and experience, and he retained from his learning that most difficult of lessons—moderation.

Tacitus, Agricola, 4

Agricola was of Roman-Gallic origin and was born in 40 CE. His father Lucius Julius Graecinus was praetor to receive the right to sit in the senate in 40 CE.
Agricola tied his career with the legions; He began his military career in Britain, where he served as a military tribune during the governorship of the capable Gaius Suetonius Paulinus (58-62 CE). This ruler extended Rome’s rule to the shores of the Irish Sea, conquering today’s Wales. He also tried to capture the island of Mona, where the center of Druidism was located, but in the further destruction of the druid caste he was prevented by the outbreak of a rebellion led by the great Celtic Queen of Boudica.

Then, until 68 CE, Agricola focused on his political career and after the so-called the Year of the Four Emperors again, thanks to the Emperor Vespasian (reigned CE 68-79), went to Britain, where he took command of the Legio XX Valeria Victrix in place of Marcus Roscinus Coelius, who sparked a revolt against the provincial governor Marcus Vettius Bolanus. After his arrival, Agricola restored discipline in the army and stabilized the situation.

In the 70s of the 1st century CE, Agricola mostly stayed in Rome, in order to receive the governorship of Britain in 78 CE. The choice was not accidental. Agricola had extensive military experience and extensive knowledge of Britain and the peoples living there. It was then, in 78-84 CE, that he led the Roman legions into the conquest of Britain as provincial governor. His great success was a victorious offensive against the Caledonian people, a people who threatened Roman rule. The hostilities ended in breaking the power of the Caledonian tribes for a generation.

After defeating the enemy, Agricola gave the fleet prefect an order to sail along the coasts of Britain to the north, which made it possible to clearly state that Britain was an island. It is possible that Agricola, being confident of himself, marched all the way to the north coast of Britain. This is evidenced by aerial photos of the Cawdor fort (not far from Inverness in Scotland), which, according to some researchers, confirm the existence of a Roman camp in the region.

Tacitus on Hibernia

What do we know about Hibernia and its inhabitants from sources? Tacitus in his work reports:

[…] that part of Britain which looks towards Ireland, he posted some troops, hoping for fresh conquests rather than fearing attack, inasmuch as Ireland, being between Britain and Spain and conveniently situated for the seas round Gaul, might have been the means of connecting with great mutual benefit the most powerful parts of the empire. Its extent is small when compared with Britain, but exceeds the islands of our seas. In soil and climate, in the disposition, temper, and habits of its population, it differs but little from Britain. We know most of its harbours and approaches, and that through the intercourse of commerce.

Tacitus, Agricola, 24

In addition, we can learn about Tacitus’ opinion about the origin of the inhabitants of Hibernia:

[…] usually curly hair, and the fact that Spain is the opposite shore to them, are an evidence that Iberians of a former date crossed over and occupied these parts.

Tacitus, Agricola, 11

Probable military campaigns of Agricola.
Author: Notuncurious | Under Creative Commons Attribution License - Share Alike 3.0.

Invasion of Hibernia?

What is most interesting, however, is the question: did the Romans have any military plans against Hibernia? They must have been aware of the existence of a large island west of present-day Wales. Tacitus wrote in the aforementioned biography that in CE 81, Agricola, at the head of his troops, crossed an undefined body of water on a ship and defeated the people living on the island once and until now unknown to the Romans. It is believed that Agricola may have had contact with Ireland and even prepared for the invasion and conquest. This claim can be supported by the fact that Agricola fortified the coast of Britain overlooking Ireland and argued that the island could be captured with one legion, assisted by auxiliary auxilia. He also gave shelter to the king, banished from the island – his presence was the perfect pretext for an invasion. Below is an excerpt from the source:

I have often heard him [Agricola – author] say that a single legion with a few auxiliaries could conquer and occupy Ireland, and that it would have a salutary effect on Britain for the Roman arms to be seen everywhere, and for freedom, so to speak, to be banished from its sight.

Tacitus, Agricola, 24

While the actual invasion of Ireland during Agricola’s stay in Britain probably did not take place, some historians believe that Tacitus’s records refer to some kind of part-scale expedition against Ireland. The aforementioned reservoir some researchers, incl. Barry Raftery, link with the Irish Clyde or Forth estuary.

Interestingly, the Irish legends of King Tuathalu Teachtmhar are somehow confirmed by Tacitus’s words. According to the “Chronicle of the Four Masters” (medieval history of Ireland), the ruler was banished from Ireland to Britain as a boy in CE 56 after his father was deposed from the throne. Twenty years later, he returned at the head of the army to regain his throne. It is traditionally assumed that this was around CE 76-80, so around the time Agricola was in Britain. Naturally, there are also critical words that believe that medieval legends cannot be combined with ancient sources.

SH Gimber, Juvenal

Interestingly, Juvenal – a Roman poet (60-130 CE) – in his “Satyrs”6states: “Our arms indeed we have pushed beyond Ireland”7. It’s hard to consider such a small excerpt from Juvenal’s work as evidence of a Roman military expedition to the island; it should be noted, however, that Juvenal was an officer in the Roman army, and his considerable knowledge of Britain encourages us to say that he could serve even under the governorship of Agricola.

Dismissal and death of Agricola

In 85 CE, after an astonishingly long term in office, Agricola was recalled to Rome. Tacitus claims that Agricola was forced to return because Emperor Domitian (ruled 81-96 CE) did not like the scale of Agricola’s victories, which might overshadow his own achievements in Germania. Despite being granted the right to triumph, he never took up any position again. This is how Tacitus describes the end of his life:

[…] a deplorable calamity to us and a grief to his friends, was regarded with concern even by strangers and those who knew him not. The common people and this busy population continually inquired at his house, and talked of him in public places and in private gatherings. No man when he heard of Agricola’s death could either be glad or at once forget it. Men’s sympathy was increased by a prevalent rumour that he was destroyed by poison. For myself, I have nothing which I should venture to state for fact

Tacitus, Agricola, 43

Agricola died in 93 CE. It is difficult to say whether a longer rule in Britain would allow for a real Roman invasion of the island. On the one hand, the ambition and effectiveness of the leader do not allow to rule it out, on the other hand, however, it is necessary to consider what benefits could result from having a new province separated?

Investigators’ discussions about the Roman presence in Ireland

Archaeological excavations at sites traditionally associated with Tuathal (Leinster Province, East Ireland) have provided further evidence in the form of artefacts of Roman origin. In Drumanagh – the coastal village of Loughshinny – or on the island of Lambay (eastern Ireland), Roman objects were found, e.g. brooches and ornamental hardware. There were voices suggesting that Drumanagh may have been the site of the Roman fort; most scholars, however, favour the existence of some kind of protection for Roman merchants coming to Hibernia or a Celtic settlement in practice. It is also possible that the artefacts may have come simply from the trade or as loot stolen by Irish Celts from Britain in the 4th and 5th centuries CE.

Lambay Island
Brian Lennon

According to Irish scientist Barry Raftery, Drumanagh was certainly a Roman trading post or colony in Ireland. This place is fenced off on three sides by water, and from the land side, it could be easily protected by embankments. He claims that the centuries-old perception that Ireland was isolated from the Roman world is not true; In his opinion, the island was in fact heavily Romanized. Another historian, Gabriel Cooney, is of the same opinion.

In the 1950s, the remains of red pottery, characteristic of Roman culture, were discovered in the vicinity of Drumanagh. Moreover, later burials were found in Ireland, dating back to the times of the Empire, where Roman coins were placed on the body of the deceased, which, according to Greek and Roman mythology, allowed the deceased soul to cross the River Styx to the kingdom of the dead. Scientists suspect that they may have been Romans or mercenaries who returned to their homeland after years of fighting for the Romans in Britain or Gaul.

Barry Raftery’s approach does not, however, meet with general agreement. For example, David Sweetman, a former chief archaeologist in Ireland, stated that these are bold theses and are primarily aimed at finding the strength of Roman influences on the island. Another researcher – Billy O’Brien – believes that the Romans may have had some contact with the island, but quickly gave up permanent influence on Ireland. Another scientist, Michael Herity, said the Drumanagh satellite images suggested that the houses inside the fort were circular, not rectangular – contrary to what the Romans built. In his opinion, the fort was a Celtic construction.

Trade cooperation between Hibernia and Romans

There was certainly trade between the Romans and the Celts inhabiting Hibernia. This is evidenced by numerous Celtic finds from the island in areas controlled by the Romans or Roman artefacts discovered in Ireland, e.g. in central and southern Ireland many items such as jewellery and coins were found in the 1980s.

The aforementioned map of Claudius Ptolemy also proves the advanced trade exchange between Great Britain and Hibernia as early as the middle of the 2nd century CE. The possibility of indicating numerous settlements, tribes, rivers and other characteristic points must have resulted from frequent merchants’ trips to the “Green Island” through the Irish Sea and knowledge of the region.

There are also voices (including Thomas Charles-Edwards) suggesting that there was an intensive importation of slaves from Ireland to meet the needs of wealthy villas in Britain.

Cultural influence of the Romans

The expansion of Roman culture to Ireland is visible as early as the 3rd century CE. Discovered artefacts in Ireland prove that the upper classes of the Celts began to adopt Roman fashion, especially in terms of clothing. The alphabet and writing also had strong foundations in Latin, which is certainly due to the mixed relationships between the Celts and the Roman Britons.

With the expansion of Christianity in the Roman Empire, Ireland also moved to a new religion. The first credible historical evidence associated with the “Green Island” is the “Chronicles” of Prospero of Aquitaine, a Christian theologian from the end of the Roman state (5th century CE). In 431 CE, Pope Celestine I appointed the first bishop on the island, Palladius; this proves that the island’s Christians have performed before.


Based on the previously presented opinions of researchers, it is difficult to unequivocally assess whether the Romans were stationed in Ireland in practice. The small amount of evidence and the lack of real sense in having a permanent military unit on the island lead us rather to the conclusion that the ancient Romans in Hibernia appeared occasionally, mainly due to trade and mainly on the eastern coast of the island.

It is possible that the Romans carried out some military operations on the Irish quay. However, it seems practically certain that the Romans decided that getting involved in the island’s affairs was unnecessary, and the possible benefits of its conquest would be disproportionate to the costs. Moreover, the Romans still had problems with the peoples living in the north of Britain, and the Caledonians did not succumb to Roman rule and over the following centuries attacked Hadrian’s wall or for some time Antoninus Wall.

You can certainly talk about a certain romanization of the Celts living in Ireland and cooperation with Britain under Roman rule. It is also possible that slaves and mercenaries were brought from Hibernia, due to the fact that these were common practices in the ancient world.

Summing up, in my opinion, Ireland kept a certain illustration, but contacts with the Romans were mainly in the commercial sphere.

  1. Strabo, Geographica, II.5.8
  2. Pliny the Elder, Natural history, XXXVII.11
  3. Julius Caesar, Commentarii de Bello Gallico, 5.13
  4. Pomponius Mela, De Chorographia, 3.53
  5. Claudius Ptolemy, Geographica, II.1
  6. Juvenal, Satires, 2.159-160
  • Barry Cunliffe, Britain Begins, 2013
  • Experts Claim Romans May Have Established Colonies in Ireland, "Los Angeles Times", 17.11.1996
  • Piotr Iwaszkiewicz , Wiesław Łoś, Marek Stępień, Władcy i wodzowie starożytności. Słownik, Warszawa 1998
  • Barry Raftery, Pagan Celtic Ireland, 1997
  • Tacitus, Agricola
  • John Taylor, Albion: the earliest history
  • Wikipedia

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