Roman invasion of Britain

Roman invasion of Britain: Britain was the target of invasion by forces of the Roman Republic and Roman Empire several times during its history. In common with other regions on the edge of the empire, Britain had long enjoyed trading links with the Romans and their economic and cultural influence was a significant part of the British late pre-Roman Iron Age, especially in the south.


Julius Caesar: 55 BC

In 55 BC, Julius Caesar landed on the coast, perhaps in what was intended as a reconnaissance mission. During his campaigns in Gaul, as recorded in Gallic Wars, he had determined that the Gauls were receiving aid from Britain. Towards the end of the summer, he decided that it would be useful to get some reliable information about the people, localities and harbours of the island, since little useful information was available from the Gauls or the merchants who visited it. First he sent out Caius Volusenus in a ship of war to investigate the coast, while in the meantime assembling a fleet of ships and settling an uprising by the Morini tribe of Gaul. Within days he received ambassadors from British tribes, promising that they would give hostages and submit to the Romans. He received them favourably and sent them back with Commius of the Atrebates, whom he thought would be influentual in Britain. Volusenus reported back after five days, but had not identified a harbour.

Caesar's fleet comprised about 80 transport ships for two legions. He also had ships of war and 18 ships of burden for his cavalry. Caesar sailed for Britain with the legions, but was met by the massed forces of the Britons gathered on the hills and cliffs overlooking the shore. After waiting at anchor for several hours, he sailed about seven miles, tracked all the way by the British cavalry and chariots, and made an opposed landing on an open beach. The size of the ships meant that the Romans had to disembark in deep water, while the British attacked from the shallows. The British were eventually driven back with projectiles fired from the ships of war and the Romans managed to land and drive them off. The cavalry had been delayed by adverse winds, so no pursuit was possible.

The Romans established a camp and received ambassadors. Caesar demanded hostages; Commius, who had been seized on arrival, was handed over as part of the negotiations. However when Caesar's exposed ships were damaged in a storm, the Britons took the opportunity to renew hostilities, ambushing one of the legions as it foraged near the Roman camp, making use of a form of cavalry attack that was novel to the Romans. The foraging party was relieved by the remainder of the Roman force and the Britons were put to flight once again.

After several days of storms, the British regrouped with a larger force and attacked the Roman camp, but were once again driven off. Commius had been able to provide some horsemen from his people, so a large number of Britons were killed in retreat, and the Romans laid waste to the surrounding area. Once again the British sent ambassadors. Caesar demanded double the number of hostages, but realising his position was untenanble ordered them to be delivered to Gaul (only two tribes eventually made good this promise). With as many of the ships as were salvageable repaired and the equinox drawing near, the Romans returned to Gaul.

Julius Caesar: 54 BC

In 54 BC, Caesar returned with a larger force. According to some Caesar's own account the fleet comprised some 800 ships, many of which were built to Caesar's specifications: broader and lower for easier beaching. Men of all ranks across the Roman Republic swarmed to join the expedition.

The Britons did not oppose the landing, apparently imtimidated by the size of the fleet. Caesar made an immediate night march inland, driving the Britons back, but when his ships were once again damaged in a storm he was forced to retreat and regroup.

The Britons had appointed Cassivellaunus, who had recently overthrown the king of the Trinovantes and forced his son, Mandubracius, into exile, to lead their forces. Cassivellaunus knew he could not defeat Caesar in an open engagement and used guerrilla tactics, relying on the mobility of his chariotry and superior knowledge of the terrain, but he was unable to prevent the Roman advance. Ambassadors from the Trinovantes told Caesar the location of Cassivellaunus's stronghold, which he proceeded to besiege. Cassivellaunus sent word to his allies in Kent to attack the Roman naval camp, but when this attack failed he surrendered, mediated by Commius. Tribute and hostages were agreed, Mandubracius was installed as king of the Trinovantes and Cassivellaunus undertook not to make war against him. All this accomplished, Caesar returned to Gaul.

The invasion could only last a season as Caesar was preparing for the emerging conflict amongst the First Triumvirate and growing unrest in his actual area of command, the conquest and submission of Gaul. No territory was conquered, but Caesar had brought Britain further into Rome's sphere of influence, and over the next century diplomatic and trading links grew.

Aborted invasions

Augustus prepared invasions in 34 BC, 27 BC and 25 BC. The first and third were called off due to revolts elsewhere in the empire, the second because the Britons seemed ready to come to terms. According to Augustus's Res Gestae, two British kings, Dumnovellaunus and Tincommius, sent supplications to Rome during his reign, and Strabo's Geography, written during this period, says that Britain paid more in customs and duties than could be raised by taxation if the island were conquered.

Caligula planned his own campaign against the British in 40, but its execution was bizarre: according to Suetonius, he drew up his troops in battle formation facing the English Channel and ordered them to attack the standing water. Afterwards, he had the troops gather sea shells, referring to them as "plunder from the ocean, due to the Capitol and the Palace."

Aulus Plautius: AD 43

By the 40s AD the Catuvellauni had displaced the Trinovantes as the most powerful kingdom in south-eastern Britain, taking over the former Trinovantian capital of Camulodunum (Colchester), and were pressing their neighbours the Atrebates, ruled by the descendants of Julius Caesar's former ally Commius. Verica, the king of the Atrebates and an ally of Rome, was ousted and appealed to the emperor Claudius for aid. In response Claudius mounted an invasion of the island in 43. Aulus Plautius, a distinguished senator, was given charge of four legions, totalling about 20,000 men, plus about the same number of auxiliaries. The legions were:

The II Augusta is known to have been commanded by the future emperor Vespasian. Three other men of appropriate rank to command legions are known from the sources to have been involved in the invasion. Gnaeus Hosidius Geta probably led the IX Hispana. Gnaeus Sentius Saturninus and Vespasian's brother Titus Flavius Sabinus probably commanded the other two legions. Cassius Dio says that Sabinus was Vespasian's lieutenant, but as Sabinus was the older brother and preceded Vespasian into public life, he could hardly have been a military tribune.

The main landing is thought to have been at Richborough, in modern Kent in south east England; Some archaeologists have questioned the evidence for this, and believe that at least part of the force may have come via another route, eg. the Solent. The evidence for this is discussed at site of the Claudian invasion of Britain

British resistance was led by Togodumnus and Caratacus, sons of the late king of the Catuvellauni, Cunobelinus (Cymbeline in Shakespeare's play). A substantial British force met the Romans at a river crossing thought to be near Rochester on the River Medway. The battle raged for two days. Hosidius Geta was almost captured, but recovered and turned the battle so decisively that he was awarded the ornamenta triumphalia.

The British were pushed back to the Thames. The Romans pursued them across the river causing them to lose men in the marshes of Essex. Whether the Romans made use of an existing bridge for this purpose or built a temporary one is uncertain. At least one division of auxiliary Batavian troops swam across the river as a separate force.

Togodumnus died shortly after the battle on the Thames. Plautius halted and sent word for Claudius to join him for the final push. Cassius Dio presents this as Plautius needing the emperor's assistance to defeat the resurgent British, who were determined to avenge Togodumnus. However Suetonius says that Claudius received the surrender of the Britons without battle or bloodshed. Claudius was no military man, and it is likely that the Catuvallauni were already as good as beaten, allowing the emperor to appear as conqueror on the final march on Camulodunum. Cassius Dio relates that he brought war elephants and heavy armaments which would have overawed any remaining native resistance. Eleven tribes of South East Britain surrendered to Claudius and the Romans prepared to move further west and north. The Romans established their new capital at Camulodunum and Claudius returned to Rome to revel in his victory. Caratacus escaped and would continue the resistance further west.

The conquest continued

Vespasian took a force westwards subduing tribes and capturing oppida as he went, going as least as far as Exeter and probably reaching Bodmin. The Ninth Legion was sent north towards Lincoln and within four years of the invasion it is likely that an area south of a line from the Humber to the Severn Estuary was under Roman control. That this line is followed by the Roman road of the Fosse Way has led many historians to debate the route's role as a convenient frontier during the early occupation. It is more likely that the border between Roman and Iron Age Britain was less direct and more mutable during this period however.

Late in 47 the new governor of Britain, Ostorius Scapula began a campaign against the tribes of Cambria, modern day Wales, and the Cheshire Gap. The Silures of south east Wales caused considerable problems to Ostorius and fiercely defended the Welsh border country. Caratacus himself was defeated in one encounter and fled to the Roman client tribe of the Brigantes who occupied the Pennines. Their queen, Cartimandua was unable or unwilling to protect him however given her own truce with the Romans and handed him over to the invaders. Ostorius died and was replaced by Aulus Gallus who brought the Welsh borders under control but did not move further north or west, probably because Claudius was keen to avoid what he considered a difficult and drawn-out war for little material gain in the mountainous terrain of upland Britain. When Nero became emperor in AD 54, he seems to have decided to continue the invasion and appointed Quintus Veranius as governor, a man experienced in dealing with the troublesome hill tribes of Asia Minor. Veranius and his successor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus mounted a successful campaign across Wales, famously destroying the druidical centre at Mona or Anglesey in AD 60. Final occupation of Wales was postponed however when the rebellion of Boudicca forced the Romans to return to the south east. The Silures were not finally conquered until c. 76 when Sextus Julius Frontinus' long campaign against them began to have success.

Following the successful suppression of Boudicca, a number of new Roman governors continued the conquest by edging north. Cartimandua was forced to ask for Roman aid following a rebellion by her husband Venutius. Quintus Petillius Cerialis took his legions from Lincoln as far as York and defeated Venutius near Stanwick around 70AD. This resulted in the already Romanised Brigantes and Parisii tribes being further assimilated into the empire proper. The new governor in 77AD was the famous Gnaeus Julius Agricola. He finished off the Ordovices in Wales and then took his troops north along the Pennines, building roads as he went. He built a fortress at Chester and employed tactics of terrorising each local tribe before offering terms. By 80 he had reached as far as the River Tay, building the fortress at Inchtuthil. From here, he continued further north into Moray where he won a crushing victory against the Caledonian Confederacy at Mons Graupius. He then ordered his fleet to sail around the north of Scotland to establish that Britain is an island and to receive the surrender of the Orcadians.

Agricola was recalled to Rome by Domitian and seemingly replaced with a series of ineffectual successors who were unable or unwilling to further subdue the far north. It is equally likely that the costs of a drawn-out war outweighed any economic or political benefit and it was more profitable to leave the Caledonians alone and only under de jure submission.

Roman occupation was withdrawn to the River Clyde-River Forth area in 142 when the Antonine Wall was contructed before retreating to the earlier and stronger Hadrian's Wall in the River Tyne-Solway Firth frontier area, this having been constructed around 122. Roman troops however penetrated far into the north of modern Scotland several more times, most notably in 209 when the emperor Septimus Severus defeated the Caledonian Confederacy and accepted their surrender. The degree to which the Romans interacted with the island of Hibernia is still unresolved amongst archaeologists in Ireland.

Asclepiodotus : AD 296

The rebellion of Carausius in AD 286 led to Britain breaking away from the Roman Empire and it was not for another ten years that an expedition to retake the province was launched by Emperor Constantius Chlorus.

The emperor commanded one force and a second was put under the command of a praetorian prefect named Asclepiodotus. Constantius' contingent was turned back by storms but Asclepiodotus' troops successfully landed near Southampton. He burnt his boats and marched toward Londinium (London). Caraousis' successor, Allectus confronted him near Calleva Atrebatum (modern Silchester), but was defeated and killed in battle. Constantius himself then arrived to protect London from Allectus' retreating Frankish troops and receive a triumphant victory.

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