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The Roman Conquest of Britain

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Charles Gray as Julius Caesar in 1979.

The island of Great Britain was invaded by the Romans in 43 AD. Within the space of just 41 years, they had subdued all of the island as far north as Hadrian's Wall, which roughly follows the present England/Scotland border.

The 43 AD invasion was not the first time the Romans had attempted to take Britain; it was in fact the third Roman invasion, and was 'led' by Emperor Claudius (from behind in Rome) and General Aulus Plautius (from the front in Britain). The Romans had previously arrived in 55 BC, commanded by Julius Caesar. That military expedition had to be abandoned due to trouble in Gaul. Another attempt was made in 54 BC, but this also was abandoned for the same reasons; politics, civil war and particularly Caesar's assassination meant that he never returned.

Claudius's invasion was more successful; an army of four legions sailed from Boulogne to the Solent, landing in the vicinity of modern-day Richborough, known to the Romans as Rutupiae. The legions in question were experienced units that had a long history of fighting in some of the toughest campaigns of the Gallic wars.

The pacification of Gaul 90 years before had shown what the Romans were capable of. Led by Julius Caesar, ten legions (about 50,000 soldiers), had killed a million, enslaved a million more (1 in 4 of the population) and destroyed 800 towns and settlements.

The British resistance to the conquest was fierce and was led by Togodumnus and Caractacus of the Catuvellauni tribe. They fought well but were outclassed and stood little chance. Caractacus managed to flee when his own tribe was conquered and continued the resistance for many years, but eventually was captured and sent to Rome as a prisoner. He was treated well and eventually freed. When given the opportunity to address the senate in Rome he is alleged to have said:

And can you who have got such possessions, and so many of them, covet our poor tents?

The Romans remained in Britain for 326 years and the country became thoroughly civilised in that time, but eventually, unrest on the continent meant the legions were needed more in mainland Europe. The Roman army made a strategic withdrawal, leaving the local British people to fend for themselves.

Reasons for Invasion

The reasons Claudius had for the 43 AD invasion are varied but can be summed up under three headings: political, timing and opportunity and finally finance and trade.

Political

Claudius was the new Emperor of Rome. This was a position in which he needed to prove himself a strong and worthy ruler.

Britain is only 22 miles from the coast of France, at the time known as Gaul, and was inhabited by the Britons, a Celtic people closely related to the people of Gaul. The example of an independent Britain could cause unrest in Gaul and was regarded as a danger to the security of the western side of the empire. Also, any defeated chief of Gaul could retreat to Britain to prepare a return with the support of the British leaders, and with no fear of Roman reprisals.

Timing and Opportunity

One of the most powerful tribal leaders in Britain, Cunobelinus, had died and his two sons, Togodumnus and Caractacus, now controlled his lands. They would take some time to establish their reputations, gain control over the kingdom and renew treaties. The British tribes were angered by the tribute imposed by Julius Caesar in 54 BC, when he withdrew from Britain. In 43 AD, Caractacus made an error. He invaded the territory of Verica, king of the Atrebates. Verica fled to Rome and asked Claudius to help; the reason for invasion was provided.

Finance and Trade

The presence of an independent Britain was affecting trade routes throughout Gaul and caused fears of unrest and disruption of trade in the western empire.

The Roman trade in lead, copper, iron and tin was hungry for raw materials that were abundant in Britain. At this time there was a dangerous shortage of gold and silver and this shortage of the metals used to make coins threatened inflation; this could lead to serious public unrest.

There was also an excess of agricultural land in Britain which would provide a reliable and plentiful supply of various food crops for the expanding empire.

The Legions That Conquered Britain

Four legions were used to conquer the country. These were battle-hardened campaigners from all over the empire. Some history of the legions below shows the sort of encounters they would have had before the British invasion :

  • The 20th Legion (XX) Valeria Victrix
  • The 14th Legion (XIIII1) Gemina Martia Victrix
  • The 2nd Legion (II) Augusta
  • The 9th Legion (VIIII) Hispana

Three of these legions had worked together before: the 2nd, 14th and 20th Legions. The 9th Legion Hispana had not fought alongside the others before.

Roman legions generally had about 5,000 men, varying from about 4,200 to about 5,500. They had a rigid hierarchy of officers at different levels, so that no officer had to give orders to more than about ten subordinates. Senior officers included Legatus Legionis, Praefectus Castrorum and Tribune. A legate was a deputy general. The Centurion was a junior officer normally in charge of 100 men. Other officers included Vexillum, Duplicarius, Sesquiplicarius, Salararius, and Triplicarius. The best known of these officers was the Vexillum or Company Commander. The Vexillation Fortress has been named after this officer and the company under his command. Lower non-officer ranks in the legion included Immunis, Miles and the un-trained Discens and Tiro.

The 20th Legion Valeria Victrix

This legion was formed in 31 BC. It was awarded the title 'Valeria Victrix', thought to mean 'Valiant and Victorious', after action in the Pannonian revolt of 6 - 9 AD. The legion used a boar as a battle standard.

At the time of the British invasion, the legion was stationed at the fortress of Novaesium2 in Germania.

The legion was ordered to be part of the invasion of Britain, under the command of Valerius Messallinus.

The 14th Legion Gemina Martia Victrix

The Roman general Julius Caesar recruited the 14th Legion in 57 BC, during the Gallic wars and deployed them in battle against the Nervians. In the same year, the legion was set against Ambiorix and the Eburones of Belgium, and was annihilated3. It was immediately reformed and saw action again at the siege of Alesia in 52 BC. In the Civil War between Caesar and Pompey the Great, the legion fought for Caesar in the battle of Ilerda in Hispania. The 14th Legion Gemina Martia Victrix saw action again in the battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC. In 21 BC, the legion was in action against the rebellious Turoni tribe in Gaul.

The next action the legion was involved in was in 6 BC, against King Maroboduus of the Marcomanni. This took three years, as the Roman forces had to put down a revolt in Pannonia to finish the task.

In 40-41 AD, the legion was in action against the Chatti, near Mainz in Caligula's war against the Germans.

The title 'Gemina Martia Victrix' or 'the twin legion, blessed by Mars and victorious' was awarded after action in the Boudiccan rebellion in 60 AD. The legion used a Capricorn (a 'sea goat') as a battle standard.

The 2nd Legion Augusta

Formed in 43 BC, this legion was given the title 'the Legion of Augustus' in honour of its founder. Their battle standard was a winged horse.

This was possibly the Second Galician Legion and was in the forefront of the 25-13 BC Cantabrian wars (along with eight other legions including the 20th Legion Valeria Victrix). After the disaster of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD, the 2nd, the Augusta, were posted to Germania and put under the command of Germanicus4, where they served alongside the 14th Legion Gemina Martia Victrix. In 21 AD, the Legion was in action in Gaul against the rebels Julius Sacrovir and Julius Florus.

At the time of the British invasion, the legion was under the command of Titus Flavius Vespasianus.

The 9th Legion Hispana

Formed in 58 BC, this legion was awarded the title 'The Hispana' after action in Hispania (Spain) in the campaign against the Cantabrians (25 – 13 BC).

The battle standard of the legion was a bull.

The 9th Legion fought through all the Gallic wars, and stayed loyal to Caesar in the civil war against Pompey. The legion was at the battles of Dyrrhachium and Pharsalus in 48 BC. After the disaster of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD, the legion was sent to Germania, and was then moved to Pannonia (Austria, Hungary and Serbia).

At the time of the British invasion, the legion was under the command of Caesius Nasica.

The Crossing

The land of Britain was regarded with suspicion by the Romans; this fear was second only to their fear of the sea. The result was that all four legions refused to go on to the waiting ships, despite the orders of the army commander Aulus Plautius, and the invasion was nearly called off. Claudius sent Narcissus, his Secretary for State, to assist Aulus Plautius, and between them they persuaded the 42,000 soldiers to embark. The fact that Narcissus was an ex-slave helped.

Over 100 years later, the Roman historian Dio Cassius wrote the only account of the crossing in his Roman History, and this has led to some confusion. There is a clear port of departure, the port of Gesoriacum (Boulogne-sur-Mer). Cassius writes that the invasion set sail in three separate divisions but he failed to state precisely the sites of the landings.

All available evidence points to the landing sites being as follows:

  • The main landing point was Richborough; the 9th Legion Hispana and 14th Legion Gemina Martia Victrix landed here, with Plautius in command.

  • Lympne was the destination for the second division, the Legion II Augusta, with Vespasian in command.

  • Dover was the final landing point, for the 20th Legion Valeria Victrix, the commander of which was not recorded.

All three landing sites are in Kent.

There is some evidence that there may have been a landing at Chichester5 and Bosham Harbour (Noviomagus); a distribution and supply depot was established here but this is likely to have been after the landings at Richborough.

First Stage - The Southeast: 43 AD

After the landing, a major supply and distribution depot was established at Richborough.

The Emperor Claudius appointed the general Aulus Plautius to be the first Governor of Britain. He ruled from 43 to 47 AD and during his governorship, continued the expansion of Roman rule.

  • The first area that was consolidated was inhabited by the Cantium tribe in Kent and parts of Sussex, with no king recorded for the area. Of the 27 forts built during this period, only one, Richborough itself, was in Kent leading to the conclusion that the area was easily annexed.

  • The legions then moved west into the area inhabited by the Atrebates, Hampshire, Surrey and Sussex, that had been previously ruled over by Verica. The palace at Fishbourne (near Chichester) is thought to have been a reward to Verica for supporting the Romans during the invasion. It is not surprising that some of the British leaders supported the Romans; they knew what would happen to them if they lost the struggle.

  • The final stage of this expansion was north and east into the area inhabited by the Trinovantes, Essex and parts of Suffolk, previously ruled over by King Cunobelinus6.

Second Stage - Expansion: 44-47 AD

All four legions, the 9th, 20th, 14th and 2nd, were active during this stage of expansion.

  • The expansion started in a northeast direction into the lands occupied by the Catuvellauni. This included Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire and parts of Essex, previously ruled over by King Cunobelinus, but at the time of the invasion there was a power struggle between his successors. The tribe's lands were pacified or annexed by operations of the 14th and 20th Legions in 44-46 AD. The tribal capital Camulodunum (Colchester) fell during the brief campaign7 of the Emperor Claudius8. The last leader of the Catuvellauni was Caractacus. His people were defeated and his lands conquered by the Romans, but he himself fled and lived to fight the Romans another day.

  • The 14th Legion then turned west towards the territory of the Dobunni, who occupied Avon and part of Gloucestershire - no king is recorded. The tribe's lands were pacified and annexed by 46 AD.

  • In 46 AD, the 2nd Legion moved west into the lands of the Durotriges, Devon and parts of Dorset and Somerset. Again, no king is recorded. By 47 AD, the eastern part of the territory, Dorset and Somerset, were fully under Roman control, leaving the tribe holding Devon. There were forts built by the 2nd Legion in Chichester, Fishbourne and Warnborough.

  • While the 2nd Legion were busy in the west, the 14th Legion advanced north into the territory of the Corieltauvi - occupying Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, Rutland, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Northamptonshire. Caractacus of the Catuvellauni had fled to here and was now leading the resistance against the Romans. The tribe's lands in Northamptonshire, Rutland and Leicestershire fell under Roman control in the years 46-47 AD, leaving the tribe holding Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.

Third Stage - Southern England and Wales: 47-61 AD

The legions involved in this stage were the 14th, 20th and 9th, while the 2nd Legion consolidated Rome's power in the west.

In 47 AD, Emperor Claudius appointed a new Governor, Publius Ostorius Scapula. He ruled until 52 AD.

  • The first action was against the Iceni, in Norfolk and parts of Suffolk, ruled over by King Prasutagus. Formerly a client kingdom of Rome's, the Iceni support of Rome was lost when Prasutagus led the tribe in revolt over Roman policy9. The tribe's lands were annexed by operations of the 20th Legion in 47-48 AD. Rome allowed Prasutagus to retain an independent kingdom. There was a fort built by the legion in Kingsholm after the unrest. This was not the last time the Iceni fought against the Romans, however.

  • In 48 AD, the 14th Legion marched north into the lands of the Cornovii or Horn People10 of Shropshire, parts of Cheshire and Staffordshire. No ruler is recorded. The tribe's lands were fully conquered or annexed by 50 AD. There was a fort built by the legion in the Midlands, but the site has been lost.

  • The 9th Legion were ordered north in 49 AD, to complete the subjugation of the Corieltauvi, who still held Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. The tribe's lands were conquered or annexed by 52 AD. There was a fort built by the legion in the North East Midlands, but this site has also been lost.

  • During this period the 2nd Legion continued operations in the west against The Dumnonii of Cornwall and parts of Devon and Somerset. The tribe's lands in Somerset were conquered or annexed by operations of the 2nd Legion. There was also a camp built at Alchester and then the 2nd Legion built a fort at Exeter. The 2nd Legion transferred to a base at Kingsholm at the end of 51 AD.

  • The lands of the Curatrixes, holding parts of Devon, were threatened by the 2nd Legion from their new base at Kingsholm. By the end of 52 AD, the tribe was annexed. The 2nd Legion moved west into the territory occupied by the Cornish Cornovii, holding south western Cornwall and parts of Devon, no king is recorded. The tribal lands were annexed by operations of the 2nd Legion.

  • The legions moved north and combined detachments of the 14th and 20th Legions moved against the Silures11, of southeast Wales and some of Gloucestershire. This tribe was now being led by Caractacus. The tribe was defeated in 51 AD and Caractacus retreated northwest into the lands of the lands of the Ordovices, but the Silures were to remain active against Rome until 77 AD.

    The Ordovices of southwest Wales, were led briefly by Caractacus in his last defence against the Romans, but were conquered. Caractacus fled to the lands of the Brigantes, a client kingdom of Rome since 43 AD led by Queen Cartimandua. The Brigantes handed Caractacus over to the Romans and he was taken to Rome as a prisoner.

  • The legions continued north west to the lands of the Deceangeli - of Northern Wales - Flintshire and Denbyshire. No leader is recorded for this tribe. They were conquered and annexed in 48 AD, after a short campaign.

The last Governor to be appointed by Claudius was Aulus Gallus (52 - 54 AD). He continued the conquest of Wales. He also supported the ruler Cartimandua of the Brigantes in her struggle to keep her kingdom.

  • The territory of the Demetae, of southwest Wales, Gwynedd and south Clwyd, was annexed by detachments of the 20th and 14th Legions in 53 AD.

Emperor Nero appointed a new Governor in 57 AD: Quintus Veranius Nepos (57 AD). He died in the year of his appointment and therefore there are no achievements recorded. In the same year, Nero appointed his second Governor of Britain, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, (57 - 62 AD). He completed the conquest of Wales and destroyed the Druids in a series of hard-fought actions ending in Anglesey (Mona).

Whilst Gaius Suetonius Paulinus was engaged in the action in Anglesey, the Iceni led by Queen Boudicca staged a revolt (60 - 61 AD) against Roman rule. The south eastern tribes of Britain supported the Iceni and destroyed Colchester (Camulodunum), London and St Albans (Verulamium) killing 80,000 Romans in the process.

Paulinus gathered men from the 20th and 14th Legions, together with all available auxiliary forces (10,000 men), and defeated Boudicca and the British forces (80,000 men) at the battle of Watling Street somewhere near Atherstone in Warwickshire. The scattered traces of the burial mounds of the 80,000 Iceni who were killed can still be seen on Watling Street between High Cross (Venonis) and Mancetter (Mandvessedum) to this day.

Fourth Stage - Pushing North: 62-78 AD

Active Legions: the 20th supported by the 9th. The 2nd Legion remained stationed at Exeter.

Governor Paulinus was recalled by Nero due to his extreme punitive reprisals against the tribes involved in the rebellion. There followed a whole string of governors, lasting only a few years each:

  • Publius Petronius Turpilianus (62-63 AD). He was given the job of rebuilding after the rebellion of Boudicca. He held the post for just one year. Around this time, the lands of the Parisii of East Yorkshire and the Novantae of Cumberland were conquered. The Legions in Britain were reinforced by 9 auxiliary Legions from Europe.

  • Marcus Trebellius Maximus (63-69 AD). A Romaniser of Britain, he rebuilt Camulodunum, and established the growth of trade in London. In 67 AD, the 14th Legion was withdrawn to the Balkans as a civil war broke out within the Empire. Auxiliary Legions were sent from Europe to replace them.

  • Marcus Vettius Bolanus (69-71 AD). In 69 AD, the 14th Legion returned to Britain with the new Governor.

  • Quintus Petillius Cerialis (71-74 AD). He returned with the 2nd Legion Augusta and started operations to subdue the Brigantes, who occupied Lancashire and part of Yorkshire. This area was initially a client kingdom of Rome's and regarded as friendly territory. Unrest had started in 47 AD, and flared up in the area12, after an auxiliary force defeated the second rebellion against Queen Cartimandua's rule. Queen Cartimandua was deposed and the kingdom and was given to Venutius who supported Rome. The northern Brigantes still opposed the Roman expansion and supported other members of the Brigantes royal family.

  • Sextus Julius Frontinus (74-78 AD). He subdued the northern Brigantes in 74 AD. He then completed the conquest of the Silures and other hostile tribes of eastern Wales in 77 AD and founded the new base and town at Caerleon.

Fifth Stage - Scotland: 78 - 84 AD

Active Legions: the 20th Legion supported by the 9th Legion.

A new Governor was appointed by Rome in 78 AD: Gnaeus Julius Agricola13 (78-84 AD). As an ex-commander of the 20th Legion and the general that was responsible for much of the conquest of the island, he was used to life in Britain. Agricola started his rule by finally subduing Wales. In 78 AD, the Ordovices in North Wales were conquered and the Romans occupied Anglesey.

The push northwards continued. Agricola strengthened Roman control in the northwest of Britain with a series of forts.

  • The territory of the Votadini, Northumberland and the Firth of Forth area, was conquered and annexed in 79 AD. This was a confederation of tribes relying on a system of hill forts that included Traprain Law.

  • The lands of the Selgovae, Cumbria or the upper Tweed area, were conquered or annexed in 80 AD.

  • In 80/81 AD, the legions advanced into south eastern Caledonia (now known as Scotland) and reached as far north as the area around the river Tay, establishing Roman control north of the river.

  • In 81 AD, Agricola consolidated his position by building a line of forts across the narrowest part of Scotland, from the river Clyde to the river Forth.

  • In 82 AD, the Romans advanced west into Ayrshire.

  • 83 AD, the Inchtuthill legionary fortress was started on the banks of the Tay near modern Perth, and garrisoned by the 20th Legion. The first strong resistance from the Caledonians was in this year when the 9th Legion was attacked, but the Caledonians were driven off.

  • In 84 AD, the Romans reached the northern limit of their advance: the Moray Firth. The battle of Mons Graupius14 was fought between the Romans and the Caledonians - the Romans won this battle, beating the Caledonian leader Calgacus and a force of 30,000.

From 84 AD, the Romans withdrew south. By 100 AD, they had established the frontier on the line from Carlisle to Newcastle. In 122 AD, Hadrian's Wall was built along this frontier. In 142 AD, Emperor Antoninus Pius once again pushed the frontier northward, and the Antonine Wall was built from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Clyde, but it was abandoned when Antoninus died and Hadrian's Wall once again became the northern frontier of the Empire, remaining so until the Romans left Britain. The Inchtuthill legionary fortress, started in 83 AD, was never finished.

The following tribes of Scotland were never conquered by the Romans: the Venicones in the northwest, the Vacomagi and Taxali in the north east, and the Caledonii, after whom the Romans named the whole region of Caledonia. There are no rulers recorded for the northern tribes.

1The Romans never used the form IV or IX in their numerals; that construction was a Medieval invention.2Near Neuss.3Caesar destroyed Ambiorix and the Eburones, in retribution for this.4Father of the future Emperor Nero.5Or possibly near Southampton, in the territory of the Atrebates.6Cunobelinus was king of both the Trinovantes and the Catuvellauni tribes7The campaign was notable for the use of elephants.8While all campaigns were in the name of the Emperor, Claudius actually came to Britain for 16 days in 44 AD, although the exact date is hard to pin down.9The Roman Governor required the tribe to hand in their weapons.10There are three Cornovii tribes listed: the Midland Cornovii, the Cornwall Cornovii and the Scottish Cornovii in the Caithness area.11The Silurian geological period was named after this tribe.12The Brigantes were finally pacified in 84 AD.13There was a statue erected in his honour in Bath in 1894.14The exact location is unknown.

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