The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






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.

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 did not land immediately, since the British forces had gathered on the hills overlooking the shore and his cavalry had been delayed. After waiting at anchor for several hours, he sailed about seven miles to a place with an open shore. However the British under the leadership of Cassivelaunus, using cavalry and chariots, were able to follow the progress of the fleet and attacked the Romans as they attempted to land. The Romans were disadvantaged by the need to disembark in deep water due to the size of the ships, while the British attacked from the shallows. However 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 Romans established a camp and received ambassadors, and meeting again Commius who had been seized on arrival. Caesar demanded hostages: however a storm forced his still delayed cavalry back to the continent and many of his ships were damaged on the beach. With the Romans presumed to be disheartened and short of provisions, the British took the opportunity to renew the attack, 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. However they were relieved by the remainder of the Roman force and the British were dispersed once again. After several days of storms, the British regrouped with larger forces. On attacking the Romans they were once again defeated, with a large number killed in retreat and the Romans laying waste to the surrounding area. Once again the British sent ambassadors, this time Caesar demanded double the number of hostages, to be delivered to Gaul (only two tribes eventually made good this promise). With 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 historians, this fleet included some 800 ships. Men of all ranks across the Roman Republic swarmed to join the expedition. This invasion was a greater success than the previous effort as new ships with shallower hulls were constructed to assist in the landing effort and the Romans were more familiar with the terrain and the combat tactics used by the natives. As this was not a territorial invasion the end of the summer saw the Roman troops embarked for the continent. Tribute and hostages were presented to Caesar, and the Roman conquest of Britain would not commence for almost another century. Note, 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.

Aulus Plautius: AD 43

The main (and most successful) invasion, occurred during the reign of the emperor Claudius. In 43, Aulus Plautius was appointed by Claudius as the general in charge of 4 Roman legions to invade Britain. The four legions were:

These totalled about 20,000 men. In addition there were also about the same number of auxiliaries in the invasion force.

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 Richborough is persuasive however; the huge Claudian period camp there indicates it was the invasion's bridgehead. Dio Cassius' description of the landscape also closely resembles the flat countryside of East Kent. A secondary force probably landed on the Hampshire coast to assist Verica however.

British resistance was led by the sons of King Cunobelinus (Cymbeline in Shakespeare's play), Togodumnus and Caratacus. A substantial British force met the Romans at a river crossing thought to be near Rochester on the River Medway. A two-day battle raged which resulted in the British being 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 at this point which appears to have inspired the British sufficiently to turn on the Roman troops, causing consternation to Aulus Plautius who dug in and called for the emperor. After a standoff of around two months Emperor Claudius visited Britain briefly to take charge of the army personally. Claudius attacked and captured Cunobelinus's capital, Camulodunum (modern Colchester) although his strategic skills were probably less valuable to Plautius than his morale value. It is said he brought war elephants with him and heavy armaments which would have terrified and outclassed any native resistance. After this defeat, Caratacus fled to the Welsh mountains and continued the fight against the invaders. 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.

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 sucessor 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.

Further reading

See also

Last updated: 05-12-2005 13:27:58
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04