What Happened after the Romans Landed in Britain?

History Hit Podcast with Simon Elliott

Ancient and Classical Ancient Rome
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In late summer AD 43 the Emperor Claudius’ invasion forces land under Aulus Plautius. They successfully defeat the British opposition by October; they win a battle, cross the River Medway, then pursue the fleeing Britons north to the Thames.

There they fight another battle, succeed in crossing the river Thames, and then fight all the way through to the capital of the Catuvellauni, who are leading the resistance at Camulodunum (modern Colchester).

Somewhere between the Thames crossing and their arrival at Camulodunum, Claudius joins Plautius. They reach Camulodunum and the native Britons, led by the Catuvellauni, submit. With all the tribes fighting the Romans at that time surrendering, the province of Britannia is declared.

Interestingly, Claudius brings elephants and camels wit him to shock the native Britons and it succeeds.

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Campaigns of conquest

In AD 43, the province is probably only the southeast of Britain. However, the Romans knew they would have to conquer far more of Britain to make the invasion of this new province worth its huge monetary expense.

So, very quickly, the breakout campaigns begin. Vespasian, for example, conquers the southwest of Britain through to the late AD 40s, founding Exeter, Gloucester, and Cirencester on the way.

Bust of Vespasian. Credit: Livioandronico2013 / Commons.

We know, for example, that Legio IX Hispana, the famous Ninth Legion that later disappears mysteriously, campaigned in the North.

So, in this campaign the Romans founded Lincoln as a legionary fortress, and later in the conquest of Britain they founded York. The province of Britannia starts expanding, and each governor comes over with a brief from the emperor to expand it further.

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Agricola in Britain

This reaches its height with three warrior governors: Cerialis, Frontinus, and the great Agricola. Each one of those expands the frontiers of Britain further until Agricola in the late AD 70s and early AD 80s.

It is Agricola who campaigns, ultimately, in the far north. It is Agricola who takes the fight of the Romans in their campaign of conquest into what we now call Scotland.

We can make the case that Agricola is the only of the Roman governors who can truly claim to have conquered the whole of the main island of Britain. Because he defeats the Caledonians he’s fighting in Scotland at the Battle of Mons Graupius.

Agricola also orders the Classis Britannica, which is the regional fleet in Britain, to circumnavigate the whole island of Britain. Domitian, the emperor at the time, orders a monumental arch to be built at the imperial gateway to Roman Britain, at Richborough, on the east coast of Kent. This was place where the Claudian invasion had originally taken place in AD 43.

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So the Romans built this structure monumentalising the conquest of Britain. But, sadly, Domitian has a very short attention span and ultimately orders Agricola to evacuate the north and brings him back to Rome.

North and south

The border of Roman Britain, the northernmost frontier in the Roman Empire, settles down to the line of the Solway firth and is itself later monumentalised by Hadrian’s Wall. This is why Britain becomes the wild west of the Roman empire, because the far north is never conquered.

Since it is never conquered, the province of Britain has to have at least 12% of the Roman military establishment in only 4% of the geographic area of the Roman empire, to maintain the northern border.

The south and the east of the province is a full-fat functioning part of the province of Roman Britain, with all the money going into the imperial fiscus (treasury). The north and the west, however, while still being in the province of Britain, has its entire economy bent towards maintaining its military presence.

It’s a very grim place, I would argue, to live in during the Roman period because everything is geared towards the presence of the Roman military. So Britain has a very bipolar nature in the Roman period.

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Britain in the Empire

So Britain was different to anywhere else in the Roman Empire. It also obviously lay across Oceanus, the English Channel and the North Sea. It was the wild west of the Roman Empire.

If you’re a Roman senator and you want to make your name as a young man and progress your career, you might go to the eastern frontier fighting the Parthians, and later the Sassanid Persians. Or you go to Britain because you can guarantee there’s gonna be a punch-up in the North where you can make your name.

So Britain, because of this long, never-fulfilled process of conquest is a very different place within the Roman Empire.

Tags: Hadrian's Wall Podcast Transcript

History Hit Podcast with Simon Elliott