The Roman Invasions of Britain and Their Consequences

History Hit Podcast with Simon Elliott

3 mins

02 Aug 2019

Julius Caesar launched the first Roman invasions of Britain. He came to Britain twice, in 55 and 54 BC.

His first invasion in 55 BC was a failure. Caesar hardly got out of his marching camp and his cavalry didn’t arrive. So even when he engaged the Britons, he had no means of pursuing them if he beat them. He also couldn’t use cavalry for reconnaissance to see the route forward for any conquests.

So the Romans, only about 10,000 men, more or less stayed in their marching camp.

Caesar’s second attempt

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The second time Caesar came was in 54 BC. The Romans being the Romans, they learned from their mistakes. Caesar came with ships built specifically to invade Britain, more suited to northern waters, and with 25,000 men.

This was a successful campaign. Caesar beat the Britons, crossed the Thames, and got to the capital city of the Catuvellauni, the main tribe leading the opposition. They submitted to him and then he returned back to Gaul with hostages and tribute.

Britain’s place on the map

Caesar didn’t stay over the winter, but from that point, Britain ceases to be this terrifying and mythical place.

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So the great Augustus, the first emperor, tried to plan the conquest of Britain three times. But for whatever reason, he pulled out all three times.

Caligula in AD 40 then made a properly planned invasion almost take place. He probably built 900 ships on the northwest coast of Gaul. He also stocked warehouses with all the materials needed to invade Britain, but then he too failed to invade Britain.

Claudius’ Invasion

So we come to AD 43, and the ill-favoured Claudius. He only became emperor because the Praetorian Guard wanted somebody they could use as a puppet after Caligula had been assassinated. But Claudius turns out to be far greater an emperor than people were expecting.

He looks around and thinks, what can he do to make his name as a great Roman emperor? The conquest of Britain. He has the means already; he’s got Caligula’s ships and stocked warehouses.

Emperor Claudius. Marie-Lan Nguyen / Commons.

So he gathers 40,000 men to the northwest coast of Gaul. With his legions (20,000 men), and an equivalent number of auxiliaries he carries out the invasion.

Initially under his governor of Pannonia Aulus Plautius, who turns out to be a very successful general, Claudius invades Britain and mounts a campaign of conquest.

The campaigns of conquest, from the point when the Claudian invasion landed under Aulus Plautius, are very important in how the narrative of Roman Britain unfolds.

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The legacy of the invasions

They’re also very important in the whole history of Britain from that very point. Some of the events in the conquest period actually set in stone aspects of Britain which still impact the country that we live in today.

For example, the conquest of Britain took far longer than the conquest of Gaul, which took about eight years. Gaul, given that Caesar had probably killed a million Gauls and enslaved a million more, proved far easier to integrate into the Roman empire than Britain did.

The campaigns of conquest from when Plautius landed in the Claudian invasion took far longer: AD 43 to the mid to later AD 80s, over 40 years. So it’s a far more difficult undertaking and, therefore, aspects of it resonate.

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The far north of Scotland, for example, was never conquered in these campaigns, even though there were two major attempts to do so in the history of Roman Britain. So we have the political settlement between Scotland and England still existing today because of this differing experience of Roman Britain.

Ireland was never invaded by the Romans, even though there was a plan to invade Ireland. So again the political settlements of the British Isles, with Ireland and England and Scotland being separate in some way, shape, or form, can be linked all the way back to that period.

More importantly, because the campaigns of conquest took so long and were so difficult, Britain became the wild west of the Roman Empire.

Featured image: Drawing by Edward of Caesar’s Invasion of Britain.