The Roman Conquest of Britain

  By Dawn

Roman Conquest of Britain

The Roman conquest of Britain was neither quick nor painless. From the time Julius Caesar first set foot on the island until the time Pax Romana was fully installed, it would take more than 150 years. It would see much war, many revolts and much bloodshed.

The earliest people are thought to have come to Britain about 500,000 years ago. The Celtic tribes invaded from Europe after about 800 BC, many with long term roots there as well as in northern France. They developed knowledge of how to make stronger weapons and tools using iron: it was the start of the Iron Age . There were at least seven different tribes living throughout the island. The tribes had their own coinages, there was wealth from copper and tin and commerce was successful. Gaelic, Irish, Welsh and Cornish languages are all connected to the language of the Celts. In 320 bc. the Greek navigator/geographer Pytheas conducts a partial exploration of the island of "Albion".

Caesar and Britain

Julius Caesar became governor and military commander of the already Roman provinces of Gaul. From 58 BC to 47 BC. He led a number of military campaigns throughout Gaul (now modern day France, Belgium, and parts of Germany, Holland, and Switzerland) To preserve Gaul as a province, Caesar determined to separate it from its foreign enemies and allies. After crushing the Germanic tribes, enemies of Gaul, Caesar desided to invade Britain, an ally of Gaul. The British islanders had helped the Gauls across the chanell to fight against Caesar. Britain, unconquered and close at hand, would prove a dangerous example of independence to Gaul, and therefore must be silenced and taught the power of Rome.. Caesar probably planned an expedition to Britain in 56 BC, a year when the Armorican tribes in the coast of Britanny revolted against the Romans with aid from the tribes of southern Britain. The operation was further delayed by battles with the Morini and Menapi, Belgic tribes who controlled the Straits of Dover. Caesar's first visit to Britain was very brief. In August of 55BC Caesar with two legions crossed the English Channel to Dover. The Britons met the legionaries at the beach with a large force, including warriors in horse-drawn chariots. After an initial skirmish, the British war leaders sought a truce, and handed over hostages.

Four days later, however, when Roman ships with 500 cavalry soldiers and horses tried to make the channel crossing, they were driven back to France by bad weather. The same storm seriously damaged many of Caesar's ships at Deal. This twist of fate resulted in Caesar's initial landing force having no cavalry, which seriously restricted the mobility of the 55 BC operations. It was also disastrous for the planned reconnaissance since the legionary soldiers were forced to repair the ships and were vulnerable to the British forces who began new attacks. Because of thier immobility, the Roman legions had to survive in a coastal zone which they found both politically hostile, and naturally fertile. The need to get food locally resulted in scouting and foraging missions into the nearby countryside. Caesar reports abundant grain crops along a heavily populated coastline; and frequent encounters with British warriors in chariots.When the repairs to most of the ships where completed Caesar ordered a return to Gaul, thus ending his short viist. While this excursion was unsuccessful due to storms and the resulting damage to his ships, Caesar would return during the following year.

In July of 54 BC, Caesar made the trip with 800 ships transporting five legions, 2,000 cavalry troops and their horses plus a baggage train. They sailed from Boulogne at night on July 6. He landed unopposed in an area between Sandwich and Deal. Upon seeing the large size of the Roman force, the natives moved inland with Caesar and and his troops in pursuit, marching a further 12 miles inland. At daybreak on the 8th of July, 54 BC, the Romans encountered British forces at a ford on the Stour (later the town of Canterbury). The Romans easily scatterd the Britons, who retreated to a hill fort or stronghold (oppidum), which from Caesar's description, is probably the hill fort at Bigbury.

Things didn't go all the Roman's way. For the second time in as many years, storms struck the coast, forcing Caesar's troops to beach the entire fleet and build a land fort for the ships in just ten days. While this activity held the Romans attention, the British obtained a new commander, Cassivellaunus. Cassivellaunus used guerrilla warfare tactics against his Roman visitors. However, he was not well-liked by a number of local tribes, and as a result, the Trinovantes, Cassi, Ancalites, Cenimagni, Segontiaci, and Bibroci tribes switched their allegiances to the Romans.

Cassivellaunus' slip-up occurred when he ordered his troops to attack the Romans' Deal beach camp. The failure of the attack led to Cassivellaunus' surrender, but apparently its terms were less important than new problems Caesar faced in Gaul. Caesar would leave Britain in September of 54 AD. Caesar never again came to Britain. For the next few years, he was at war with Pompey, and then he was assassinated, just when he was on the verge of becoming emperor. The next Roman invasion of Britain - and the start of over four centuries of ocupation - would not take place for another 97 years until AD 43 under the command of Claudius.

Claudius and Britian

About 100 years later (in AD 43) the Roman emperor Claudius invaded Britain. The emperor started off his reign with some instability and a lack of support from the people. He was in dire need of a military victory to sure up his public image. In order to achieve this he decided to invade Britain, a place that Julius Caesar visited but never ended up conquering. The only real benefit from the expedition was that the records helped Claudius plan his invasion of Britain. Claudius sent in four legions under the control of Aulus Plautius, who became the first governor of Roman Britain..They land at Richborough (Kent) for a full-scale invasion of the island. The main army was put ashore at Richborough, ventured across the Medway and the Thames and captured Colchester, capital of the Catuvellaunian kingdom. The Romans moved north through England and Wales but were stopped by the fierce tribes which were living in what is now Scotland

In years after the initial invasion the Romans steadily expanded their control over the rest of southern Britain and into Wales. The Romans suppressed several revolts, one of which was led by Caratacus the leader of the Catuvellauni in 47 and an other by Boudicca, queen of the Iceni, in 60-61.

Emperor Claudius died suddenly in 54 AD. in highly suspicious circumstances at the same time of the Brigantes rebellion. His stepson, Nero, came to the throne. In his writings, Suetonius says that Nero once considered abandoning Britain as it was taken too many resources to hold the country. Resources that could be better used to expand the Roman Empire. With the death of Claudius, his friends and advisors also disappeared from the scene, though not in such extreme ways. Claudius was elevated to the level of a God, but also allowed him to become a subject of ridicule. Such is the attitude of the Romans to treat a late Emperor in this manner. Claudius had an outstanding military reputation. The Romans were a very proud race and believed that public image was paramount. If Nero had withdrawn from Britain it could had been viewed as a deformation of Claudius and all the victories he had had accomplished. Maybe it was for this reason that Nero stayed with the British situation.

At first the Romans attempted to gain control of all of Britain with their allies, the Brigantes. But in 69 an anti-Roman faction gained control of the tribe and as a result forced the Romans to invade and take it under Roman rule. In 79 Agricola embarked on a voyage to conquer Scotland. He had fought four years and gathered several significant victories including a great victory over the natives at Mons Graupius. However at this point there was trouble at the Danube and Domitian was forced to withdraw his troops for Britain. By the end of the century the frontier had been pushed back to the Tyne-Solway isthmus, where Hadrian was to build his wall.

Caratacus Revolt

An historical person with some legendary accretions, Caratacus (also spelled Caractacus) was the king of the Catuvellauni at the time of the Roman invasion under their commander, Aulus Plautius.. He and his brother, Togodumnus, were said to be sons of the British king, Cunobelinus, and, after the king's death, became the leaders of the anti-Roman campaign that managed to resist the invaders for a period of nearly nine years. He lead the revolutionaries through the change in governers from Plautius to Publius Ostorius Scapula .In the winter of 47 AD., tribes from outside the Roman occupied territory began assaults on the positions to the south. The new governer did not hesitate and confronted these insurrections not with the full might of the Roman army, but a number of lightly armed cohorts The Iceni had been very much pro Roman during the invasion, and rebelled for the first time The tribes were defeated after a fierce battle. Now Caratacus, who had fled to Wales from eastern England after the Battle of Medway' reappeared. He was now leader if the Silures of South Wales. Little did Ostorius know that Caratacus was later to be general commander of the opposition to Roman rule. He would be centered on the central territory occupied by the Ordovices In Caratacus' final battle the tactics and sheer willingness of the Romans to win overcame the warriors. Caratacus' family were captured. His wife and daughter taken and his brother surrendered. Caratacus though fled north west to the Brigantes. This was a bad move, as the queen of the Brigantes, Cartimandua, was pro Roman. The Roman governor had already put down a rebellion amongst hthe Queen's subjects. Not wanting to get on the wrong side of the Romans, she ordered that he be taken and given to the Romans. Caratacus and his family were sent to Rome where he was paraded in Triump the pardond by Claudius and alowed to live out his life in Italy. But this was not the end of trouble in Britian for the Romans.

The Romans now had a divided province with tribes both pro and anti Roman sharing borders. The country had to be calmed. The Senate was tiring of the situation in Britain and wanted it resolved before the Claudian image of victory that Rome was presenting would be damaged. A new governor was appointed with due speed. The new governor was Aulus Didius Gallus, a man with an impressive record who had been decorated for his successful campaigns in southern Russia. By the time Didius had reached Britain, the Silures had defeated a legion, something unheard of before. They were now making advances into Roman territory. The arrival of Didius did at least restore calm. This did not last and as soon as Didius had managed to restrain the Silures, ten the Brigantes began to rise up. Venutius, husband of Queen Cartimandua of the Brigantes, was the best military leader in Britain after the capture of Caratacus. He had been placed in power by the Romans after the last Brigantian uprising. As he was leading this revolt, this now means that husband and wife were opposing each other. He leading the tribe in rebellion, and her trying to appease the Romans.

The next governor was Quintus Veranius, who had received early promotion to this high status. He had been very successful in his campaigns on the eastern front of the Empire in Lycia and Pamphylia. He would without doubt have invaded Wales and spread north east to the Brigantes. There was only time for a few raids against the Silures, before he died suddenly in office. On his death bed, Verabius claimed that he could have conquered the whole province in two years. (Two years being the normal length of stay in office for a governor.)

C. Suetonius Paullinus succeeded Veranius in this office. He too had a strong reputation in military circles. He had been the first Roman general to make a crossing of the Atlas mountains in Mauretania and so was experienced in mountain warfare. This man had been the reason he had been chosen to lead the forages into Wales and the Pennines.

By 60 AD., he had taken Wales and was preparing to cross the waters to Angelsey. This island had become the last point of retreat for the rebels. Being surrounded by water, this was logical since the British forces could only retreat towards the sea. The Druids, seen as one of the strongest band of people in Britain, were also on the island. Angelsey was to be no pushover. It is written that it was defended by praying Druids, fierce warriors and wild women. The assault and taking of Angelsey was brutal, bloody and savage in the extreme. These people were fighting for their lives with no avenue of retreat. Paullinus was so engrossed in these battles that he did not see that behind him the worst from the British was yet to come.

Sicily and Sardinia + Corsica were turned into Rome's two first provinces. They were each ruled by a praetor, who had to defend the province, maintain law and order and collect taxes.

With the horrible First Punic War finally over, Rome and Carthage had the opportunity to turn their attention to other matters. Hamilcar Barca had overcome the rebellion (241-38) and left for Spain to expand Carthaginian posessions. Rome strengthened her grip on the Po Valley, defeating an army of Gauls from that region who had invaded Etruria. After this victory, Rome conquered Milan (Mediolanum) and founded two large colonies: Piacenza (Placentia) and Cremona. Also, Rome turned Illyria, infamous for its piracy, into a Roman protectorate.

Boudicca's Revolt

Boudicca became leader of the Iceni (in Norfolk) when her husband Prasutagus died. The Romans seized his treasure and Roman soldiers assaulted Boudicca and her two daughters. This angered the Iceni people and they rose in revolt. Within a few weeks Boudicca was leading and army of 70,000 men. They advanced on Camulodunum (Colchester) a prosperous Roman town with few soldiers to guard it. The people hid in a magnificent temple newly built in honour of Claudius. Boudicca's army rampaged through the town stealing food, clothing and jewelry from shops and houses. Then they surrounded the temple. The Romans inside thought they would be safe but the rebels battered down the doors. Inside they hacked to pieces the men, women and children. No-one was spared. They then set fire to the town and left it a smoking ruin.

The rebels advanced on Londinium (London). The Romans sent a messenger to Wales to get help from Suetonius who set-off for London with his cavalry, leaving his infantry to follow as fast they could. When Suetonius reached London he realised that his men could not stop Boudicca's huge army and withdrew ordering the citizens to leave town. When Boudicca reached Londinium it was undefend. The rebels killed anyone they could find. Some were killed in horrible ways as sacrifices to their gods. The town was looted then burned. Verulamium (St.Albans) was the next town to fall to the rebels. The three largest towns in Roman Britain had been destroyed in a few weeks, and 60,000 people killed. Boudicca was now ready to take on the Roman army led by Suetonius. She found it almost half way between St. Albans and Wroxeter. A small army of 10,000 including women and children who had come to watch the inevitable victory (with their wagons loaded with booty).

The rebels charged the Romans at the end of the valley. The Roman infantry stopped the charge and began to advance, driving the rebels back. The Roman cavalry charge caused the Britons to turn and run. The women and children and wagons prevented the rebels from fleeing the battlefield. The Romans killed 80,000 men, women and children for the loss of only 400 of their own men. Boudicca escaped but took poison before the Romans could capture her. The most serious threat to Roman conquest was over.

The end of Boudicca brought the completion of the conquest of Britain and the Pax Romana. Britian was more or less peaceful from 77AD on. In 122AD the emperor Hadrian decided to establish a northern border for the Roman empire by building a wall guarded by Roman soldiers: this is known as Hadrian's Wall. A large part of this wall, and the remains of several Roman camps which were built along it, can be seen if you visit the area of north England called Northumberland Time line


55 - Julius Caesar's first invasion of Britain.

54 - Julius Caesar's second invasion of Britain... Caesar's first two expeditions to Britain were only exploratory in nature, and were never intended to absorb Britain into the Roman sphere, at that time.

54 BC-43 AD - Roman influence manages to increase in Britain during this time, eventhough Roman troops are absent, as a direct result of trade and other interaction with the continent.

AD 5 - Rome acknowledges Cymbeline, King of the Catuvellauni, as king of Britain

43 - Romans, under Aulus Plautius, land at Richborough (Kent) for a full-scale invasion of the island. Caratacus leads main British resistance to the invasion, but is finally defeated in 51.

51 - Caratacus, British resistance leader, is captured and taken to Rome

61 - Boudicca, queen of the Iceni, led uprising against the Roman occupiers, but is defeated and killed by the Roman governor, Suetonius Paulinus

75-77 - The Roman conquest of Britain is complete, as Wales is finally subdued; Julius Agricola is imperial governor (to 84)

122 - Construction of Hadrian's Wall ordered along the northern frontier, for the purpose of hindering incursions of the aggressive tribes there into Britannia.