The Roman Invasion of Britain

Caesar’s Expeditions

The first Roman Expedition to Britain was undertaken in the summer of 55 B.C. by Julius Caesar to both enhance his own political reputation and to chasten the British Celts who had been stirring up trouble by backing their continental relatives in their fight against the Roman Occupation of Gaul. Given the relatively smooth conquest of Gaul, he didn’t imagine Britain would be a particularly hard case, and this opinion was only reinforced by the information he had obtained from the merchants trading between Rome and Britain. These people, of course, having vested business interests that a possible invasion might ruin, had given him a misleading and definitely uncomplimentary impression of Britain. It was supposedly a land of primitive savages (despite the quality goods they supplied) who were awfully quarrelsome and apparently always engaged in incessant disputes with one another. They really weren’t worth bothering with, or so the traders hoped to convince Caesar, and when this didn’t work they went the other way and informed the British Celts of the impending Roman attack.

The Roman Senate ratified the undertaking and Caesar set sail for Britain with an invasion force of 10,000 troops. Being no fool, he had not depended entirely on the merchants, but had sent his deputy Caius Volusenus to scout ahead for the needed strategic details, and his Gallic Atrebatian vassal, Chief Commius, to demand submission from the British Atrebates. Caius was successful, reporting possible landing places; Commius was not and was detained by his outraged relatives. They passed along the word to the other Celtic Tribes and when the Romans arrived they found an impressive welcoming committee lining the cliffs. The Romans perforce changed plans and sailed on to a different location about seven miles further, but here too the enemy awaited. From the safety of the shore, they launched such a fierce barrage of slingshots, arrows, and javelins that they almost caused a stampede amongst the disembarking Roman troops who, being rather disoriented with the effects of sea-sickness and furthermore unaccustomed to wading in the sea in heavy battle gear, were unable to retaliate as swiftly. They managed to reach the dry land somehow under the cover of artillery counterattacks from their galleys, and faced next a terrible onslaught of enemy cavalry and chariots that thundered straight through their confused ranks, hurling javelins and crushing fallen soldiers under wheel and hoof. Caesar had to send forth all his auxiliary legions as well before the Celts could be quelled.

The devious Celts, however, were still not giving up. They parleyed with the Romans, all the while waiting expectantly for a scheduled full moon night high tide to happen, which it did. The rough weather had already made landings impossible for many of the incoming Roman ships, and now the ones ashore were wrecked by the gigantic tidal waves. As if the Romans weren’t harried enough by all this, they magically lost sight of the Celtic peace-makers as well. The Celtic attack that soon followed was swifter and deadlier than the earlier one, and this time the Celts had more assistance coming and the Romans didn’t. Caesar bowed to the inevitability of the situation, and the Romans beat a hasty retreat from the British Isles. The mighty Caesar and his mighty Roman legions had been put to flight by the barbarians. As it would never do to admit this before the Senate, it wasn’t and they were given a fictitious account instead about a certain victory being snatched by uncontrollable weather elements. The charismatic Caesar as usual was impressive in his oratory and the Senate decreed a thanksgiving of twenty days to celebrate his safe home-coming.

Smarting inwardly about the peremptory defeat though, Caesar almost immediately began planning the next expedition for the spring of 54 B.C. Wiser to the strength and ferocity of the British Celts now and hellbent on defeating them, his war strategy this time around was more carefully chalked out and the number of his legions far greater. With a formidable fleet of eight hundred shallow draft transport ships capable of anchoring up-close to the beach and bearing five legions and a two thousand strong cavalry, it seemed victory was all-out assured. The Celts certainly were unable to stem the Roman landings this time and retreated before Caesar’s legions to their traditional stronghold at Bigbury a few miles from the Stour River (near modern Canterbury). This hilly fort, inured to holding off local enemies, fell however with no trouble to the superior Romans, and the Celts fled further inland. The Romans, since they were unsure of the territory, decided against pursuing them immediately and set up camp instead for the night. The following morning troops and cavalry were dispatched after the enemy, but they were recalled after Caesar received bad news from the coast. Apparently the capricious British Weather had once again worked up a mighty tempest and played a tremendous havoc with the anchored Roman fleet. The Roman retreat to repair their wrecked ships provided a hiatus of about ten days in which the various Tribes expediently organized a defensive coalition under the leadership of Chief Cassivellaunus of the Catevellauni Tribe. After losing several skirmishes however, they withdrew into the Catevellauni territories north of the Thames, spiking the river against the pursuing Romans and destroying the local food sources that they might have availed of. Even this didn’t stop the Roman advance and the Celts, driven even northwards, resorted to the last ditch tactic of holding off the Romans with 4000 chariots while the majority escaped. It worked and perhaps the tribes would have managed a better defense later on if it hadn’t been for the traitors in their camp. The powerful Trinovante Tribe had deep grievances against Cassivellaunus as he had killed their Chief Imanuentius and put his heir Mandubratius to flight to Gaul; now they discovered that the latter had been sheltered and protected by Caesar and they sued separately for peace. The Romans returned Mandubratius to them, promising them continuing protection and future assistance, and in return took forty hostages and corn for the legions. Following the defection of the Trinovantes, the tribes of the Cenimagni, the Segontiaci, the Ancalites, the Bibroci, and the Cassi, who either resented Cassivellaunus too or had no heart for more fighting, surrendered too to Caesar. The location of Cassivellaunus’ hideout at Wheathampstead on the River Lea, near St. Albans, was divulged to the Romans, and this was duly raided. The Celtic warriors, caught unawares by the swooping Roman attack, were quickly routed, and shortly afterwards the large Cantii Tribe under the four chieftains Cingetorix, Carvilius, Taximagulus and Segonax too failed in the attempt to destroy the Roman beach camp at Deal. Cassivellaunus was left with no other option but to surrender. A peace treaty was made with the Romans in which he was acknowledged as the King of Britain and as such made responsible for ensuring the agreed upon yearly tribal tributes to Rome. He was also warned against exacting revenge on the Trinovantes and had to cede a number of hostages to Caesar. Taking these along, Caesar returned to Gaul to cope with the troubles that had arisen there in his absence. The result of his invasion was an increase in trade relations and the beginning of the ‘Romanization’ of the unruly Celts. However it was to be nearly another century before Rome attempted to incorporate Britain into its Empire.

The Invasion of Britain

The failures of Caesar weighed heavily on his ambitious relative Claudius, who became the Roman Emperor in 43 A.D., and he began organizing a massive force for the conquest of Britain. It would not only be extremely prestigious for him personally if he succeeded where the great Caesar hadn’t, but Rome would also enormously benefit from the natural resources of Britain. Also, Caratacus, Chief of the Catavellauni tribe and, as a descendant of Cassivellaunus, the King of Britain, had stopped the yearly tributes to Rome and needed to be taught a lesson. The immediate justification needed for the invasion came when Roman assistance was requested by Chief Verica of the Atrebates, whose territories had been confiscated by Caratacus. Claudius, seizing the fine opportunity, sent his general Aulus Plautius at the head of 48,000 troops that landed in East Kent and launched a swift, attacking campaign that swept in three directions and captured all the territory that they overran. The forces of Caratacus and his brother Togodumnus were tackled along the Medway River in a famous showdown that lasted two days and in which the Romans revealed themselves to be master tacticians. Crack Batavian swimmers were sent stealthily to the Celtic camp on the opposite shore to incapacitate their horses. This not only rendered their fearsome Chariots useless, it also created a diversion in which the Roman legionaries crossed the river and launched a surprise attack. Togodumnus was killed and the rest of the Celts, despite putting up a vicious fight, were soundly defeated. Drastically diminished in numbers, they fled across the Thames to their capital, Camulodunum (Colchester), with the Romans in full pursuit. However, as Emperor Claudius himself wanted to oversee the fall of the capital and he had not as yet arrived in Britain, the Romans stopped short at the outskirts and reluctantly allowed Caratacus to escape to the sanctuary of the still unconquered Wales. The South-Eastern lowlands were however now in Roman hands and, when Emperor Claudius finally arrived in the early autumn, the formality of capturing Colchester too was completed. He accepted the surrender of eleven tribal chiefs, appointed Aulus Plautius as the first Governor of Britain, and then returned to Rome.

Roman Occupation

Now came the difficult task of managing the captured territories and making the resentful natives adhere to Roman rule. It would be a long time before the conquerers were perceived with anything other than contempt and hatred, but trading relations had already once more been resumed and matters were smoothed further by the famed Roman diplomacy that had already been used with such resounding success in other parts of the Empire. They established client-relationships with the conquered tribal chiefs, in which the latter accepted Roman suzerainty in return for Roman citizenships, a limited control of their own lands, and the guaranteed backing of the Roman might in case of any threat. By 47 A.D., many of the British tribes like the Iceni, the Atrebates, and the Brigantes had become Roman vassals, and the Romans, somewhat at ease, had set about constructing military roads and establishing their boundary in the lowlands along one of these, the Fosse Way, which ran from Exeter to Lincoln, along the Trent, Avon and Severn Rivers. There was to be no lasting peace however, not while their irrepressible foe Caratacus was still at large in the Welsh Mountains. He had now assumed the leadership of the Silures Tribe there, and gained the support too of the Ordovices Tribe. No sooner had Plautius finished his tenure in Britain and departed for home-shores than the Roman presence in Britain was once more challenged. It became necessary to crush these troublemakers and the seasoned Roman legions yet again rose to the task, routing Caratacus and company in a battle near Snowdonia in 51 A.D. The defeated Caratacus sought refuge this time with Queen Cartimandua of the Brigantes. It was an unfortunate choice. More concerned about the wrath of Rome descending upon her people next, she right away turned him over to the enemy. He was bundled off to Rome to be publicly displayed as a prime example of the British ‘barbarians’ and it appears that, on seeing the grandeur of the Romans, he was greatly puzzled by their hankering for his less-developed homeland. He never saw it again, living out the rest of his years in Rome together with his family and in the manner that befitted his former position. It was a great Roman tradition to pardon a formidable and spirited foe.

With Caratacus out of the way, the Romans turned back once more to consolidating their possessions. Their first capital in Britain was established at Colchester, but later on this was shifted to a more strategic location on the Thames. Since the Roman Commander Aulus Plautius had bridged the river earlier on and as this bridge was now connected with the network of new roads, transport and trade were greatly facilitated and the new settlement, named Londinium, soon became a major administrative hub. Londinium and Colchester were razed in 61 A.D. by the Icenic and Trinovante tribes under Queen Boudicca. Formerly Roman allies, they had been incited to revolt by the Roman appropriation of the Icenic lands and by the ill-treatment meted out to the Queen and her two daughters. Queen Boudicca, after causing much mayhem, was eventually defeated by the Roman governor, Suetonius Paulinus, and the cities were rebuilt. The Romans then decided to deal with the menace of the Celtic Priests, the Druids, who had sheltered Caracatus previously. They were using their great religious, political and social influence within the Tribes to incite their people against the Romans, and were thus making the take-over of Northern Britain difficult. This angle apart, the Druids’ grisly penchant for animal and human ritualistic sacrifices didn’t sit too well with the super-civilized Romans either. If they were ever going to civilize the northern savages, as they intended to, the bad influence of the Druids had to cease and so a campaign to smoke them out from their hideout in Anglesey was launched by the next Roman Governor Julius Agricola. Between 77 and 83 A.D. the Druids were massacred, the Selgovae, Novantae and Votadini tribes subdued, and Scotland brought under Roman control, but the fiercely independent and unyielding Caledonians further north were to remain a problem. It was for protecting the Roman territories from their continual attacks that the Emperor Hadrian built his famous wall along the northern frontier. Still, Roman rule in Britain was now well-established and, despite the many hiccups, would remain so for the next 367 years.