A Show of Force: The Roman Conquest of Britain

Colin Ricketts

3 mins

09 Aug 2018

Rome had had its eye on Britain for some time when troops sent by Emperor Claudius landed in 43 AD. Caesar had come ashore twice but failed to secure a foothold in 55-54 BC. His successor, Emperor Augustus, planned three invasions, in 34, 27 and 24 BC, but cancelled all of them.

Caligula’s attempt in 40 AD is surrounded with bizarre tales that befit the maddest emperor. Claudius’ push to finally cross the Channel may have been a way of proving his mettle and distancing himself from his crazed relative.

The Empire wouldn’t get rich by invading Britain. Its tin was useful, but the tribute and trade established by earlier expeditions probably provided a better deal than occupation and taxation ever would. The Britons had, according to Caesar, supported their Celtic cousins in Gaul in rebellions, but they were no threat to the safety of the Empire.

The invasion of Britain

Roman troops landing in Britain

Britain gave Claudius a shot at an easy military victory and when Verica, a British ally of the Romans, was deposed he had an excuse. He ordered Aulus Plautius north with around 40,000 men, including 20,000 legionaries, who were Roman citizens and the best troops.

They probably sailed from what is now Boulogne, landing at either Richborough in eastern Kent or perhaps in Vertiga’s home territory on the Solent. The British had had decent relations with the Empire, but an invasion was another thing entirely. The resistance was led by Togodumnus and Caratacus, both of the Catuvellauni tribe.

The first major engagement was near Rochester, as the Romans pushed to cross the River Medway. The Romans won victory after two days of fighting and the Britons retreated before them to the Thames. Togodumnus was killed and Claudius arrived from Rome with elephants and heavy armour to receive the surrender of 11 British tribes as a Roman capital was established at Camulodunum (Colchester).

Expansion

Hill fort at British Camp in the Malverns

Britain was a tribal country though, and each tribe had to be defeated, usually by siege of their hill fort last redoubts. Roman military power headed slowly west and north and by about 47 AD a line from the Severn to the Humber marked the boundary of Roman control.

Caratacus had fled to Wales and helped inspire fierce resistance there, finally being handed over to his enemies by the British Brigantes tribe. Emperor Nero ordered further action in 54 AD and the invasion of Wales continued.

The massacre of the druids on Mona (Anglesey) in 60 AD was an important landmark, but Boudica’s rebellion sent the legions scurrying back to the southeast, and Wales was not fully subdued until 76 AD.

A new governor, Agricola, expanded Roman territory from his arrival in 78 AD. He established Roman troops in lowland Scotland and campaigned right to the north coast. He also set up the infrastructure to Romanise, building forts and roads.

The conquest of Caledonia, as the Romans called Scotland, was never completed. In 122 AD Hadrian’s Wall cemented the northern limit of the Empire.

A Roman province

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Britannia was an established province of the Roman Empire for some 450 years. There were tribal rebellions from time to time, and the British Isles was often a base for renegade Roman military officers and would-be Emperors. For 10 years from 286 AD a run-away naval officer, Carausius, ruled Britannia as a personal fiefdom.

The Romans were certainly in Britain long enough to establish a distinctive Romano-British culture, most strongly in the south east. All the hallmarks of Roman urban culture – aqueducts, temples, forums, villas, palaces and amphitheatres – were established to some degree.

The invaders could show sensitivity though: the great Baths at Bath were quintessentially Roman, but were dedicated to Sulis, a Celtic god. As the Empire crumbled in the fourth and fifth centuries, the frontier provinces were abandoned first. It was a slow process though, as distinctive Roman introductions to the culture were gradually starved of funds and fell into disuse.

The military left early in the fifth century, leaving the islanders to defend themselves from the Angles, Saxons and other German tribes who would soon take over.