Of the multitude of books and papers which deal with the invasion of 43 BC, very few actually explain the reasons why Claudius took that history-changing decision to invade and occupy this terra incognita of ours – an operation which everyone close to the seat of power in Rome knew would be costly in terms of time, money and casualties. Many commentators mention the invasion as a simple, isolated act, an event in a historical bubble, without recourse to much background detail which gives it its context within the politics, foreign policy and military objectives in the wider Roman Empire.
Why Did the Romans Invade Britannia Anyway?
Why did the Romans feel the need to conquer Britannia? After all, the empire already stretched from the Sahara to the north German plains, from the Caucasus to the English Channel, and the Channel formed a good, natural, defendable, dependable frontier. A cautious Augustus had reined in the unquenchable hunger for booty; lucrative conquest – so rampant in the later republic – was increasingly hard to come by anyway and he had learnt sobering lessons from the humiliating and costly massacre of Varus’ legions in the Teutoburger Wald in AD 9, and before that from the lesser-known Clades Lolliana in which, in 17 BC, tribes led by the Sugambri from near what is now the Dutch-German border on the right bank of the Rhine, ignominiously defeated a Roman legion under the command of Marcus Lollius.
Augustus wielded complete control; he also retained control of the Roman army – enabling him to prevent a return to the bloody turmoil of the civil wars by covetous, power-hungry, often out-of-control generals. He maintained a policy of limited expansion, largely preserving the new empire within its existing borders. This was in the face of hawkish conservative calls to invade Britannia to the west and Parthia in the east and an absolute need to ensure that the legions were usefully employed to the benefit of the political establishment and Rome’s stability rather than to its detriment. As far as many Romans could see, there was little out there now which would earn a return on expensive military campaigns; lucrative booty and fertile lands not under Roman control were clearly in short supply beyond what was already embraced by the empire.
So, why bother? Augustus had the financial resources to satisfy and resettle veterans out of his substantial windfalls from the Ptolemaic Empire; he was, as noted, naturally unwilling to allow ambitious commanders any opportunity to fuel insurrection on the back of victorious and lucrative military campaigns.
Britain was not without resources such as copper, gold, iron, lead, salt, silver, and tin, all in high demand in the Roman Empire. The Romans could depend on advanced technology to find, develop and extract valuable minerals on a scale unparalleled again until the later Middle Ages. But economics was not really a viable motive or an incentive – the Roman Empire already enjoyed riches-a-plenty and the natural resources in Britannia were only going to increase those reserves incrementally.
The answer to why the Romans invaded was as much to do with politics and celebrity than anything else. Claudius became emperor by default: the ugly assassination of his predecessor, mad, bad Caligula, had left no obvious successor. Despite his undoubted intelligence and impressive literary skills, Claudius has always been seen, quite unjustly, as a bit of a buffoon (no thanks to Robert Graves), an imperial embarrassment. He would never have been anyone’s first choice to lead mighty Rome out of a perilous power vacuum. On accession, to correct this perception Claudius was in desperate need of a high-profile action, an event on an imperial, global scale, which would raise his political and military stock. Britannia was an obvious target, and so the invasion was on.
Claudius the Man
On 24 January AD 41, Caligula and his family were unceremoniously murdered; the Praetorian Guard, ever faithful to the Julio-Claudians, needed someone new to guard: Claudius was available and so they proclaimed Claudius emperor. Claudius, whom everyone found easy to ridicule, was, in his early days, looked after by his grandmother Livia, wife of Augustus: Suetonius shows, through various letters, how Livia agonised over how to accommodate him in the imperial firm while the Piso decree recognises the discipulina (education) he received through Livia; she was clearly at pains to give him at least a chance to get on in life.
But for whatever reason – frustration, disappointment, embarrassment – his mother, Antonia Minor Augusta, was, to modern sensitivities, cruel to Claudius, who suffered from what was probably cerebral palsy, calling him a ‘monster’, a ‘half-complete creation’, and describing others she considered stupid to be dafter even than Claudius. Despite Livia’s efforts to help, Augustus and Livia were embarrassed by Claudius, as shown by a letter from Augustus to Livia in which the emperor deliberates over the extent to which he should allow Claudius to officiate at public events and be seen, indeed gawped at, in the imperial box with him, Emperor of Rome. He urges Livia to show Antonia the letter, confirming for us that she too was exercised by this issue. To a Roman, particularly an elite and successful Roman, virtus was a hallmark of Romanitas; a deficiency of virtus was seen as weakness, a lack of manliness: disability of any kind, mental or physical, precluded virtus – they were mutually exclusive. Claudius’ virtus was seriously compromised and, on the face of it, Claudius never stood a chance in the alpha male world at the pinnacle of Roman power politics.
However, Claudius was nothing if not a determined man and, having made the decision to invade, scored a resounding political and military victory in AD 43 when he conquered Britannia, extending the northern boundary of the empire and eclipsing alpha male Julius Caesar’s forays some ninety years earlier. The subsequent lavish victory parade in AD 44 gave Valeria Messalina, his third, mercurial, wife, her first opportunity to shine, and to display her new privileges as first lady of Rome. Their son, Tiberius Claudius Caesar, was given the additional name Britannicus in honour of his father’s achievement, Claudius having modestly rejected it when offered it by the senate.
Claudius was a notable historian and an avid student of Greek culture; his teachers included Livy and Sulpicius Flavus. He even had an impact, albeit short-lived, on Roman epigraphy; according to Suetonius (Claudius 41-42): ‘He invented three new letters and added them to the alphabet, maintaining that they were greatly needed ... . These characters may still be seen in numerous books, in the daily gazette, and in inscriptions on public buildings.’
The new letters were Ↄ or ↃϹ/X (antisigma) to replace BS and PS, just as ‘X’ stood in for CS and GS; Ⅎ (an inverted ‘F’ or digamma) to represent consonantal ‘U’; and Ⱶ (a half ‘H’) as a short vowel sound used before labial consonants in Latin words such as ‘optimus’.
Claudius would have been persuaded by the high regard in which the potential subjugation and annexing of Britannia were held. We have seen how Julius Caesar won prestigious supplicationes for his two forays into the unknown; the indecisiveness of Augustus and the aborted invasion by Caligula would surely have been a source of great disappointment, embarrassment even, to the public in Rome. Nevertheless, the triumphs bestowed on Claudius when he came home victorious; and the highly visible, tangible victory arches dedicated to him were just the start in a series of events reflecting and highlighting the prestige in which Britannia was held as an asset and as a conquest. Some years later, under Trajan, the appointment of two eminent senators as governors of Britannia – T. Avidius Quietus and L. Neratius Marcellus (from AD 103) – lend further evidence, were it needed, of how highly Britannia was regarded back in Rome. The subsequent attention bestowed on Britannia by the highest profile generals in emperors Hadrian and Antoninus, who honoured the island with two of the most significant and expensive frontier defences (provisioned by and reinforced at York) in the empire, were good news stories which contributed to a much-needed feel-good factor back in Rome and in Britannia itself. Indeed, this was maintained and followed by Emperor Septimius Severus who launched punitive attacks into Caledonia from his fortress in York in attempts to quell the northern unrest once and for all. The elevation of York to headquarters of the northern command, its promotion to the status of colonia and the upgrading of the fortress to capital of Britannia Inferior making it, with London, one of the two superior cities of the province and one of the empire’s significant places – all these things built up the high reputation of Britannia in general and to York in particular. Add to these the important fact that Britannia was, when circumstances in the wider empire permitted, garrisoned generously and expensively with troops and materiel. The legions here gained fame when they declared that Constantine the Great be appointed Emperor of Rome at his headquarters in York on the death of his father, Constantius in AD 306.
So, the Claudian invasion of Britain did not just happen. It was never a mere inevitability waiting to take place. The invasion of Britain was conceived as a necessity for Claudius on a personal and political level which later assumed an important place in the strengthening and security of the Roman empire at its northern extremes, often spearheaded by the fortress at York.
The Roman Media
Britannia was a very long way from the seat of power and government. Given communications at the time there must have been a real sense of isolation felt in, for example, London and York – a sense of isolation which has rarely been acknowledged or analysed in histories of Roman Britain. So, how did the Romans get their news about what was going on around them not just in Rome, but in the far-flung four corners of the empire and in all points in between? How did they get the breaking news that their emperor, Claudius, had won a victory in Britannia? Obviously, word of mouth, chatter and speculation played a big part as did official pronouncements from the senate. However, the most systematic medium was the Acta Diurna, first published in 59 BC. This was a kind of daily gazette, a daily record, which recorded official events, ceremonies, speeches in the senate, military activity and lawsuits. Indeed, it was the Roman equivalent to today’s online news reports. Public notices and significant births, marriages and deaths were included later.
Its readership extended well beyond Rome into the provinces. The news the Acta carried was carved on stone or metal and displayed on message boards in public and busy places such as the Forum Romanum: Rome’s equivalent of billboards or outdoor digital screens. Just like yesterday’s papers and web posts today, the Acta had a short, dispensable life: the notices were taken down after a few days and, with a commendable anticipation of future scholarly needs and curiosity, archived. Scribes sometimes made copies to be dispatched to provincial governors to keep them up to speed with events at the heart of government and Roman power. In the later empire, they were used to announce royal or senatorial decrees and goings-on at court. Publicare et propagare appeared at the end of the texts tagging them as a form of press release.
Julius Caesar’s expeditions, the disappointing news about the Augustan and Caligulan invasions, the triumph of Claudius in newly subjugated Britannia, the ultimate victory over Boudica, and Agricola’s victory at Mons Graupius would certainly have made ‘the front pages’, as it were, to satisfy the good-news needs of the Roman public from Gaul to Egypt, from Persia to Spain. What today we call ‘spin’, and ‘fake news’, would, of course, have been integral factors in much of the content.
Claudius the Invader
Any doubts Claudius may have had about a Britannia expedition evaporated when, as we have described, the usurped and exiled Verica, client king of the Atrebates who had been exiled after a revolt by the Catuvellauni came to him for help as a rex, a king and an ally of Rome. Furthermore, Cunobelinus and his sons Togodumnus and Caratacus were busy upsetting the Roman established status quo in the south and Cunobelinus had already expelled another son, Adminius, whom Rome had installed and who was making entreaties to Caligula for reinstatement. The refusal of the Romans to extradite British refugees and the shambolic non-invasion by Caligula did nothing, of course, to help Roman prestige around the world. This was Claudius’ chance for fame in the name of Rome and for approval in the eyes of Romans throughout the empire – and he took it with alacrity.
The invasion marked the start of the Roman occupation of Britain. It was only after 365 years of controlling (largely) civilising (mainly) and developing (constantly) that the Romans eventually deserted Britain to defend mother Rome from the circling barbarians. The AD 43 invasion and subsequent occupation was, broadly speaking, an unmitigated success by any military, colonising or imperial standards.
Our first-hand sources for the actual invasion are, to say the least, scant. Tacitus does allude to it briefly in the Agricola but the relevant part of his Annals is lost. That leaves an epitomised description by Cassius Dio (60, 20) with all the drawbacks that an epitome gives.
Aulus Plautius was appointed commander-in-chief and first governor of Britannia. The invasion force comprised four legions: the IX Hispana posted in from Pannonia on the Danube frontier, the II Augusta from Strasbourg, the XIV Gemina from Mainz, and the XX Valeria Victrix from Neuss supported by 20,000 auxiliary troops from Thrace, and Batavia in Germany. The II Augusta was commanded by Vespasian who was to emerge as emperor in AD 69 during the turbulent Year of the Four Emperors. The Claudian invasion was not without its problems, however: the old superstitions and horror stories about this strange terra incognita spread like wildfire amongst the troops who mustered on the beaches of Gaul terrified of what they were about to do: to them it was just like sailing off the edge of the world. They mutinied, causing the invasion to be delayed by a month or so. Nevertheless, once reassured that the world did not actually end where they stood, reassured significantly by Claudius’ influential freedman and high-flying secretary Narcissus – and eventually encouraged at seeing this former slave acting the role of general – they shouted out a war cry ‘Io Saturnalia!’ and off they went. Saturnalia was the Roman festival in which social roles were reversed for the day – slave became master and master acted the slave.
The Roman legions on the beach, then, were initially paralysed by fear and superstition. The Romans were by nature a superstitious people; in everyday life superstition was rife and omnipresent. We saw it intruding during Caesar’s invasions and we see it repeated here with Claudius; we will see it again during the Boudican revolt. In a world where it was widely considered unpropitious for a black cat to enter your house or a snake to fall from the roof into your yard, where it was unlucky if a statue of a god was seen to sweat blood, where a horse was born with five legs, a lamb with a pig’s head and a pig with a human head, where a rampant bull ran up three flights of stairs, and a cow talked, and where a statue laughed uncontrollably, a horse cried hot tears, in a world where it was inauspicious to sneeze in the presence of a waiter holding a tray or to sweep the floor when a guest was standing up, where it was de rigueur to whistle when lightning flashed, in such a world it should come as no surprise to hear that you should only clip your nails on market days – and even then starting with the forefinger and doing it in silence and never at sea. This was a world which surprised itself that it ever stepped outside, never mind conquered the world. Pliny records that in certain Italian towns it was forbidden by law for women to walk through the streets carrying a spindle. Certain days of the year were avoided by betrothed couples when choosing their wedding day, and the groom had to carry his bride over the threshold to avoid any chance of an unlucky stumble.
Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the Romans were probably no more superstitious than other contemporary cultures and societies. Indeed, if we look at the old wives’ tales recounted by George Orwell from an English rural childhood around 1900 in Coming Up for Air, can we say they are any less absurd or irrational than the Romans’? Take for example:
swimming was dangerous, climbing trees was dangerous ... all animals were dangerous ... horses bit, bats got in your hair, earwigs got into your ears, swans broke your leg ... bulls tossed you ... raw potatoes were deadly poison, and so were mushrooms unless you bought them at the grocer’s ... if you had a bath after a meal you died of cramp ... and if you washed your hands in the water eggs were boiled in you got warts ... raw onions were a cure for almost anything.
Back on the beach with the invading armies, panic and potential mutiny evaporated in flash when that rallying cry rent the Channel air: the invasion force set sail in three waves, landing at Rutupiae (Richborough), Dubrae (Dover) and Lemanae (Lympne), and possibly also at Bosham Harbour near Fishbourne – a legionary helmet of Claudian date has been found in the harbour there and now resides in Lewes Museum. The delay had the unexpected, but welcome, effect of persuading the Britons that the invasion was off, so they relaxed and got on with the all-important business of bringing in the harvest. Meanwhile, materiel was being shipped over and quietly warehoused at Rutupiae with its extensive camp – the lines of supply were being methodically established.
The Britannia legions
These are the legions which at one time or another served in Britannia:
Legio II Augusta – The Second Augustan Legion
Legio VI Victrix – The Sixth Victorious Legion
Legio VIII Augusta – The Eighth Augustan Legion
Legio IX Hispana – The Ninth Spanish Legion
Legio XIV Gemina – The Fourteenth Twin Legion
Legio XX Valeria – The Twentieth Legion, Valiant and Victorious
Legio XXII Deiotariana – The Twenty-Second Deiotarian Legion
Legio XXII Primigenia – The Twenty-Second Firstborn Legion
The II, IX, XIV and XX probably all came over in the invasion force. Legio VI Victrix and the Legio IX Hispana served in York with the former replacing the latter around AD 120 with the arrival of Severus. The mysterious fate of the IXth is dealt with below.
The IXth Legion Before Britannia
Before coming to Britannia the legion may have fought in the siege of Asculum (modern Ascoli Piceno, Italy) during the Social War in 90 BC. Julius Caesar, as governor of Cisalpine Gaul in 58 BC, inherited the four legions, the VII VIII IX and X, that were already based there. It seems that the IXth may have been stationed in Aquileia ‘to guard against attacks from the Illyrians’ and saw action in the assault on the Helvetii and in the Gallic wars.
Amid the wreckage of the republic, the IXth fought in the battles of Dyrrhachium and Pharsalus (48 BC) and in the African campaign of 46 BC. Caesar then cashiered the legion and settled the veterans around Picenum on the Adriatic coast. After Caesar’s assassination, Octavian recalled the veterans of the IXth to quell the rebellion of Sextus Pompeius in Sicily. After defeating Sextus, they were posted to Macedonia. The IXth remained with Octavian in his war of 31 BC against Mark Antony and fought with him in the battle of Actium. With Octavian, now Augustus, the legion was sent to Hispania to take part in the offensive against the Cantabrians (25–13 BC). Their name Hispana comes from this time.
After this, the legion probably formed part of the Imperial Army in the Rhinelands that was campaigning against the Germanic tribes. Following the abandonment of the eastern Rhine area after the disastrous Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in AD 9, the IXth was relocated to Pannonia.
The Legio IX inscription from York is a superb fortress inscription from one of the main gates of the Roman fortress and one of the best examples of epigraphy to emerge from Roman Britain (Roman Inscriptions of Britain (RIB) 665). It was found 7 metres down in King’s Square, at the corner of the square and Goodramgate – within a few metres of the site of the Roman south-east gateway. The inscription reads:
The Emperor Caesar Nerva Trajan Augustus, son of the deified Nerva, Conqueror of Germany, Conqueror of Dacia, pontifex maximus, in his twelfth year of tribunician power, six times acclaimed emperor, five times consul, father of his country, built this gate by the IXth Legion Hispana.
At the start of the Claudian invasion the Britons were somewhat elusive, playing a game of cat and mouse – dodging the invaders by retreating into bogs and impenetrable forests, declining all offers of battle. Eventually, Aulus Plautius found his prey, disorganised as they were, subduing first the Catuvellauni led by Togodumnus and then Caratacus. Fort constructed, Plautius moved forward first to do battle on the River Medway, and then on the Thames. The Medway battle was won by a flanking movement by the auxiliary Batavians – special forces who were expert in swimming in full armour. Vespasian commanded Legio II and, along with Hosidius Geta, defeated the Britons in an unusually protracted two-day battle. Togodumnus was killed, but Caratacus lived to fight another day out west, taking his forces with him and leaving the rest of the army rudderless after the death of his brother. On the Thames, the Britons failed to organise an effective rearguard action and were cut off by the Romans who had crossed unchallenged.
Aulus Plautius paused, waiting for his emperor to arrive and take over the command at this high-profile critical juncture: Claudius eventually joined Plautius with reinforcements, artillery and terrifying elephants for the attack on Camulodunum, the Iron Age oppidum which was the Romans’ key objective. At the time it would have consisted of motley groups of insalubrious timber, wattle and daub huts. Trade, however, was flourishing: excavations have revealed fine imported ware from Gaul and red Arretine from Italy as well as the glass Strabo mentions. Slaves too, captured from other tribes, were on the manifests: a six-man slave chain has been found at Lord’s Bridge in Cambridgeshire. How great a change awaited Camulodunum, though, when the Romans later colonised the place with temples, a forum and other powerful symbols of their civilisation and projections of Roman power.
This was Claudius’ big moment; this is what he had planned the invasion for: personally taking the war to the enemy and capturing their royal capital, thus placing him amongst the great Roman commanders of the past, not least Julius Caesar whose efforts he now truly eclipsed. Claudius would now be a credible and memorable member of the Julio-Claudian gens: the people of Rome and of the Roman Empire would see how he extended that empire by adding a new province, compensating for the theatrical shambles that Caligula had orchestrated and, in doing so, restoring the glory of Rome in this very visible theatre of war.
Claudius led from the front and, according to Cassius Dio, the stronghold fell after sixteen days allowing Claudius to enter the oppidum in triumph. Suetonius is less enthusiastic (Claudius 17), an impartial Josephus even less so, giving all the glory to Vespasian (Bellum Judaicum 3, 1, 2). Roman armies at this time were in the habit of hailing their emperor as imperator when he had won a significant conflict; Dio tells us that, in the case of Claudius, this happened more than once so we might assume that Colchester was not the only successful outcome in his three weeks in Britain. Cogidubnus was installed as a client king for the kingdom of Verica (Sussex); he received two tribes to control and was honoured with the title rex et legatus Augustii in Britannia, elevating him to native prince and Roman official. Eleven other tribes of south-east Britain surrendered to Claudius with no loss and the Romans proceeded to infiltrate further west and north into the territory of the Durotriges and Belgae of Dorset and Wiltshire retaining Camulodunum as a springboard for the incursions. The Romans duly established their new capital at Camulodunum and Claudius returned to Rome, his job done, the victory celebrated with coins and triumphal arches in Rome, Boulogne-sur-Mer, Claudius’ departure point for Britain, and Cyzicus in Anatolia.
The Arch of Claudius in Rome was a triumphal arch built to honour Claudius’ successful invasion of Britannia. Sadly, it has not survived, but happily, the inscription can still be seen at the Capitoline Museum. The arch was dedicated in AD 51, although a preview of sorts could be seen on the reverse of coins issued in AD 46–47 and AD 49 depicting it surmounted by an equestrian statue between two trophies. The reconstructed inscription, which can also be found on the arches celebrating the same events at Boulogne-sur-Mer and at Cyzicus reads:
The Roman Senate and People to Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, son of Drusus, Pontifex Maximus, Tribunician power eleven times, Consul five times, Imperator 22 times, Censor, Father of the Fatherland, because he received the surrender of eleven kings of the Britons defeated without any loss, and first brought barbarian peoples across the Ocean into the dominion of the Roman people.
ILS 216 (Corpus Inscriptionum
Latinarum, CIL 6, 920)
Military service demonstrated patriotism, pietas and responsibility; it was also prestigious, offering the gens and the family palpable opportunities for glory that were visible in decorations, citations, prizes and, the pinnacle of them all, a triumph processing through the streets of Rome. Moreover, military service allowed the proud and patriotic Roman to demonstrate his virtus, his bravery and virtue. Glory and kudos were boosted by the complex system of decorations, dona militaria, and rewards that was established to reflect military success. Discipline and loyalty too were also strengthened by a tangible and noticeable array of benefits which included elevation to the rank of centurion where, after Marius, the pay was double that of the common soldier and the booty share was sizeably bigger. Gratuities, pay rises, better rations and promotion all contributed, as did social mobility for the common soldier and political success for the elite. Make no mistake though, the average pay for the average soldier or sailor was niggardly: he could earn three times more doing manual labour at twelve asses per day; it took until the time of Julius Caesar for a soldier’s remuneration to be raised to ten asses per day in 49 BC. Pay was probably introduced around 406 BC after the wars with the Veii, but it was never meant to provide a living wage – rather it was more of a contribution to the cost of food, equipment and clothing. Increasingly, booty was the financial answer. In the empire, symbolic spears, the hasta pura, crowns, collars, phalerae and phiale, and standards, vexilla, were also there for all to see. The spolia opima was, of course, a highly prestigious and rare award.
The origin of the triumph remains something of a mystery, with its roots probably in an old Latin rite which, over time, absorbed various Etruscan and monarchical influences. The ceremony was in three parts: the first was focused on the army and the commander, assembled on the Campus Martius with praise heaped on the commander and individual soldiers who had shown conspicuous gallantry. Next came the procession along the traditional route which took in the Porta Triumphalis, the Circus Maximus, the Palatine, Forum and the Capitoline ending at the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. The procession had three parts: the booty and prisoners of war, the general accompanied by magistrates, and the army. The general rode in a four-horse chariot; he was decked out in a purple and gold tunic and a purple toga; he carried a laurel branch and an ivory sceptre; on his head was a laurel crown; his face was painted red.
You also earned the right to wear triumphal dress in public: the corona triumphalis (a gold coronet in the shape of a laurel wreath with gold ribbons); an ivory baton; the tunica palmata (a tunic embroidered with palm leaves); and the toga picta (painted toga), a toga dyed purple with an embroidered gold border, a robe believed originally to have been the official dress of the early Roman kings. The only other Romans entitled to wear these were the emperor, the two consuls in office and other magistrates when presiding over games.
A bronze statue of the triumphator was erected in the Forum of Augustus. The beneficiary also had the right to erect a further statue of himself in triumphal attire in the vestibule of his own house, which might also be kept on display by his descendants. The honours were degraded towards the end of Tiberius’ rule and under Nero (r. AD 54–68), who also awarded them to delatores (deployed by these emperors to frame out-of-favour senators for treason and the like), but they were redeemed by Vespasian (r. AD 69–79) who had himself been awarded ornamenta triumphalia by Claudius during the invasion of Britain. Under the Antonine emperors (AD 98–180), the winners of triumphal honours lost the right to wear triumphal dress, which was now reserved for the consuls and for the emperors themselves, but they retained the distinction of a public statue.
The British Forces Opposing Rome
What sort of armies were the Romans up against? The Romans were usually a highly trained and disciplined fighting force with effective tactics and strategies; they routinely built camps as they proceeded (as we will see) and they possessed good equipment and a range of battle-proven weaponry; their lines of supply and stores were, by and large, well organised – as evidenced, for example, by the excavation of three quarters of a million nails unearthed at the site of the Inchtuthil legionary base.
Not so the Britons. No standing army – just levies of independent tribes, mainly farmers, with wavering loyalty, disunity and differing objectives. The Britons had absolute dependence on their lands and so many combatants had to keep one eye on the seasons and weather so that sowing and harvesting times were not missed.
The Romans’ short-term strategy of subjugation must have been to establish legionary fortresses, auxiliary forts and roads to connect them all. A location somewhere in the vicinity of York, with Brigantes on one side and Parisi on the other, will have been earmarked for a northernmost fortress based on earlier reconnaissance of the island. So, Aulus Plautius got on with his task of subduing Britannia, advancing inland. The IXth penetrated the northeastern territories of the Catuvellauni into the Coritani lands in modern Leicestershire and Lincolnshire, establishing a fortress at Lincoln (Lindum Colonia). Within four years of the invasion, an area south of a line from the Humber to the Severn estuary was under Roman control, a line traced by the Roman Fosse Way. The XIVth marched north west, quelling the remaining pockets of Catuvellaunian resistance before conquering the Dobunni in what is Gloucestershire today. The II Augusta, under Vespasian, went south west as far as Exeter and South Wales (Agricola 13, Histories 3, 44; Suetonius, Vespasian 4), where, en route, they conquered first the Belgae of Wiltshire and Hampshire and then the Durotriges in Somerset and Dorset, assisted by the Classis Britanniae ‘the British Fleet’, whose role it was to build a naval supply depot at Chichester in the lands of the Regnenses and to provide naval support where required. Of the twenty or so British oppida taken in this campaign, the undoubted jewels in the crown were the formidable Maiden Castle (Dunum) near Dorchester, Hod Hill, north east of Blandford, Waddon Hill and Spetisbury Rings in north Dorset. In AD 49, the XXth moved west from Colchester and built a fortress at Gloucester (Gleva) in order to keep an eye on the troublesome tribes in the Welsh foothills. The XIVth were installed further north at Wroxeter (Viroconium) with the IXth over at Lincoln. The principal sea ports were at Richborough (Rutupiae), Bosham near Fishbourne and Fingringhoe in Essex, Hamworthy at Poole and Topsham near Exeter. The tribes of the Brigantes were taken on board under Cartimandua. By AD 49 the Romans had reached what was presumably their primary objectives: the Trent; the Severn and the Dee. Then they paused.
One thing all three legions now had in common was that they each faced hill country and all the military challenges that uplands and their inhabitants presented; the hills of Wales, Derbyshire and the Pennines were to prove no exception. Indeed, so formidable an obstacle did they present that real progress was hindered for the best part of a generation. A three-year foray into Wales from AD 57 was aborted. By the end of AD 69, through the reign of Nero and the Year of the Four Emperors, not much had changed: the west was confined behind a line from Newport through Shrewsbury to Chester; the north through Lincoln, Derby and Chester.
On the plus side, Tacitus describes the infighting and divisiveness that was characteristic of the British tribes and particularly of the confederation that was the Brigantes. Their inability to unify was ultimately largely responsible for their conquest: ‘and so they fight individually, and all are conquered’; nevertheless, ‘the natives are generally compliant and toe the line, so long as their trust is not abused.’ Divided and ruled the Britons clearly were.
Plautius remained governor of the new province until AD 47 when he was replaced by Publius Ostorius Scapula. Dio records that, on his return to Rome, ‘Plautius for his skillful and successful conduct of the war in Britain not only was praised by Claudius but also obtained an ovatio – ovation’. Unusually, and contrary to protocol, the emperor walked with his governor friend to the capitol on the big day.
An ovatio was a diluted form of a triumph, triumph-lite. Augustus had changed the rules regarding triumphs when he reserved the honour exclusively for members of the imperial family, so Claudius was honouring Plautius with the next best thing. In an ovatio, the conquering commander entered Rome on a caparisoned horse instead of the triumphal chariot; he did not redden his face with red lead as was the practice in a triumph in imitation of a terracotta image of triumphant Mars, but he did follow the same route through the city. Plautius’ ovatio was to be the last time the distinction was granted to anyone outside of the imperial family. Claudius was, though, distantly related to Plautius through his first marriage to Plautia Urgulanilla.
Nepotism apart, this ovatio shows just how important the conquest of Britannia was to Roman foreign policy and prestige at home.
Of all the British tribes, the one that interests us most is the Brigantes because York was established in Brigantian territory. Little is known of the Brigantes before the Roman invasion. Ptolemy helps us locate them in his Geographia (2, 3, 4) when he cites Eboracum as one of the nine places in Brigantian territory. This allows us to locate them in the old counties of Lancashire, the North and West Ridings of Yorkshire, Cumberland, Westmoreland and Durham. Ptolemy mentions two places, Camulodunum and Rigodunum, which were originally pre-Roman hill forts at Almondbury and Ingleborough; there was another at Barwick-in-Elmet and an oppidum at Stanwick near Richmond – a fortified royal centre. Because the Brigantes were a confederacy of clans rather than one united tribe it led to tribal and family rivalries and many a power struggle. This, of course, was a significant weakness militarily and diplomatically and something of a gift to the invading Romans.
Archaeological evidence suggests some wealth and culture among the tribal hierarchies, no doubt bankrolled by Roman subsidies paid to keep them down and quiet. A prestigious horned-head-shaped terret or harness ring found at Aldborough and an enamelled belt plate unearthed in York are in the Yorkshire Museum. Apart from the aristocracy, most of the Brigantes lived in rudimentary circular houses about 15 metres in diameter on farmsteads; good examples have been found at Naburn, close to York.
Stanwick (between Richmond and Gainford) probably represents the pinnacle of Brigantian wealth and power. Today an excavated section, some of it cut into rock, of the ramparts of the huge Iron Age trading and power centre can still be seen. Some four miles long, the defences covered 766 acres. After the Roman conquest, the Brigantian capital relocated to Aldborough. Archaeology tells us that the Brigantes were trading in Roman goods with French ceramics and Italian glass; Roman roof tiles have also been unearthed. Evidence of military activity comes by way of a hoard of decorated metalwork, which included chariot fittings, harness mounts and a sword scabbard. The ditch next to a gateway has yielded a sword still in its scabbard and a skull nearby, traumatised with life-changing wounds.
The absence of written records relating to the Brigantes before the Roman conquest makes it difficult to give a cogent history of their political, religious and social activities, but it seems probable that their rise to power came gradually rather than suddenly by conquest. Territorially speaking, the Brigantes were the largest tribe in Britain, encompassing sub-tribes such as the Gabrantovices on the Yorkshire coast, and the Textoverdi in the upper valley of the River South Tyne near Hadrian’s Wall. The names Portus Setantiorum and Coria Lopocarum suggest other groups, the Setantii and the Lopocares, located on the Lancashire coast and the River Tyne respectively. The Carvetii, who occupied what is now Cumbria, may have been another sub-tribe.
Ptolemy names nine principal poleis or towns belonging to the Brigantes, these were:
Whitley Castle, Northumberland
Binchester, County Durham
Catterick, North Yorkshire
Burrow, Lonsdale, Lancashire
Aldborough, North Yorkshire
Castleshaw, Greater Manchester
Ilkley, West Yorkshire
Slack, West Yorkshire
There was also:
Wincobank, near Sheffield
Bremetenacum Veteranorum, Ribchester, Lancashire
Calcaria, Tadcaster, North Yorkshire
Luguvalium, Carlisle, Cumbria – probably a settlement of the Carvetii
Coria Corbridge, Northumberland – possibly a settlement of the Lopocares
The first we hear of the Brigantes after the Roman invasion is when, according to Tacitus (Annals 12, 32), in AD 47, Publius Ostorius Scapula had to abandon his campaign against the Deceangli of North Wales because of annoying and worrying ‘disaffection’ among the Brigantes, whose leaders had been allies of Rome. Some of those who had taken up arms were executed while the rest were pardoned.
Aldborough is built on the site of a major Romano-British town, Isurium Brigantum. Isurium was probably the headquarters of the Legio IX Hispana although no structural evidence for any fort has been found. Isurium Brigantum was at the crossing of Dere Street over the River Ure, the Roman road from York to the Antonine Wall via Corbridge and Hadrian’s Wall. The modern village does retain part of the Roman street plan and St Andrew’s Church stands on the site of the forum. Isurium Brigantum was the capital of the Brigantes after AD 160, one of the most northern Roman urban centres – a civitas – probably founded in the late first century or early second century. In terms of civic status, it was on a par with Exeter, Leicester, Chichester and Canterbury.
In Britannia generally all was not well. The area corresponding roughly to modern-day Wales continued to prove particularly intractable with fierce resistance coming from the Silures, Ordovices and Deceangli. In addition, Caratacus and his guerrilla attacks were a real problem as he proceeded to shift his allegiance to the Silures and then to the Ordovices (in modern Powys). In the north and east of England the Brigantes and the Iceni continued to be troublesome. AD 50 saw things came to a head when Publius Ostorius Scapula defeated Caratacus in the Battle of Caer Caradoc, Caratacus’ last stand. Caratacus’ wife, son, and daughter were captured and his brother surrendered; Caratacus fled to the Brigantes, but a fickle Queen Cartimandua handed him over to the Romans in chains and he was dispatched to Rome to become a reluctant star in Claudius’ triumph. This was another significant feather in Claudius’ military cap; Ostorius, however, had to make do with triumphal insignia.
Intractable Wales and Duplicitous Cartimandua
It is unlikely that Ostorius had much time to bask in his new glory: the Silures would not lie down, continually harassing the Romans, fired by the Roman’s tactless assertion that ‘the Silures must be exterminated’, which may have resonated with some of the more educated tribesman as an echo from the rumours they may have heard of Cato’s similarly doom-laden ‘Carthage must be destroyed’. Their guerrilla campaign culminated in an attack on a large detachment of legionaries under a praefectus castrorum, which had been detailed to construct forts in Silurian territory. The unit was cut off and only narrowly survived, but with the loss of the prefect and eight centurions – a significant defeat by any measure (Tacitus, Annals 12, 38). Other embarrassments included the ambushing of a foraging party and then of the auxiliaries dispatched to rescue them: Ostorius had no option but to deploy his legions. Then there was the luring into a trap of two auxiliary cohorts which were taken prisoner; the shrewd Silures cleverly shared out the hostages and their booty amongst neighbouring tribes, thus currying favour locally and building up an alliance against the Romans.
Ostorius died soon after – exhausted by his reversals: taedio curarum fessus (Annals 12, 39); the Silures were saved the promised extermination and lived to fight another day – much to the dismay of the Romans. Ostorius was hastily replaced by the experienced and successful Aulus Didius Gallus (14, 1); he advanced into Wales, but the Silures continued to triumph, not least with a significant victory against the XXth legion. Didius managed to subdue the Welsh border country but then halted. Significant a victory as this was, Didius could not afford to relax, and now faced a renewed threat from the Brigantes. Cartimandua’s former husband Venutius, a passionate hater of the name of Rome, Romani nominis odium, assumed the mantle of leader of British resistance against Rome.
In Rome at this time there was considerable tumult. Claudius died in suspicious circumstances and was succeeded by the mercurial and unpredictable Nero. Suetonius (Nero 18) records that the emperor was presumably running out of patience with the persistent unrest in Britannia and considered pulling out altogether. If this rumour had reached Didius it would be no surprise if he reverted to a strategy of containment. Alternatively, it is quite possible that Nero’s negative attitude was shaped by the pandemonium caused by the Boudican revolt. Whatever the reason, Nero, in the end, was astute enough to see that a withdrawal would reflect well on Claudius but would rebound on himself – he would be seen as the emperor who presided over a failure.
In Britannia, the next seasoned general as governor – one Quintus Veranius – planned another punitive assault on Wales. Veranius, however, died in office, paving the way for Gaius Suetonius Paulinus.
Tacitus had asserted that the guerrilla warfare waged by the Silures and other disaffected tribes was only dealt with by a policy of building fortresses (Annals 12, 32); these would be supported by the establishment in AD 49 of a colonia at Camulodunum where agri captivi – the lands of the defeated – were requisitioned on which, six years after the invasion, Roman veterans who were coming up for retirement could be settled. This was not only a consolidating defensive tactic, it was also intended as a big step towards the Romanisation of southern Britain. Cunobelinus would have been a major loser here with his lands suddenly being subsumed into the emperor’s private estates. As an exercise in Romanisation it clearly failed; on the contrary, it caused seething and rebellious discontentment amongst the Catuvellauni and the Trinovantes.
Cartimandua had probably been leader of the Brigantes well before Claudius invaded and may be one of the eleven monarchs who surrendered to Rome without a fight, as proclaimed on Claudius’ triumphal arch. She was now considerably wealthy, due to her shrewd support of Rome and her betrayal of Caratacus; however, Venutius attacked the Brigantes, only failing to defeat them when the Romans sent Caesius Nasica and the Legio IX Hispana, to reinforce the queen.
Cartimandua had married Vellocatus, former armour-bearer to Venutius, and made him her king. Although Tacitus records that Cartimandua was a trusted ally of Rome’s and acknowledges her nobilitas – nobility – he savages her character in much the same way as back in Rome the establishment Augustan poets, Horace, Virgil and Propertius, had trashed the memory of Cleopatra VII in the early days of the empire. Tacitus describes Cartimandua’s treatment of Caratacus as evilly intentioned, and highlights her obscene wealth and luxurious lifestyle; he slurs her liaison with Vellocatus as adulterous, driven by rage and lust: it is a disgraceful act, flagitium, which shook the very foundations of her dynasty. Cartimandua is regina, queen, (a dirty word in Rome, thanks to Rome’s vexed relationship with Cleopatra) and is duplicitous in her behaviour towards Venutius and his family. Tacitus disparages the power that she wields as being ignominious to men. The historian’s vitriol here is indicative of his, and of many Romans like him, unfettered disgust at duplicity, particularly duplicity in a woman.
The next powerful woman, the next British queen the Romans encountered, Boudica, was to prove even more belligerent and somewhat less compliant.
A druid was a member of the higher class in ancient Celtic cultures. We associate them with religious leadership, but they were also legal experts, judges, bards, medical professionals, and political advisors. Druids were literate but they have left us no written records because, inconveniently for us, they were not permitted to produce written accounts of themselves.
As we have said, in AD 58 Gaius Suetonius Paulinus was appointed governor of Britain, replacing Quintus Veranius, who had died in office. Suetonius was another eminent commander, having been, amongst other achievements, the first Roman to cross the Atlas Mountains. His objective in AD 60 Britannia was to indulge in a spot of ethnic cleansing and religious intolerance: the subjugation of Mona, Anglesey, and extermination of the druid community there. In doing so, Suetonius would bring an end to the island’s status as a haven for disaffected refugees. Druidism was feared by the Romans, not least because of its reputation for focusing opposition to Roman rule and for its veneration of the human head, which often led to routine decapitation of corpses after battle. This terrifying headhunting can be seen depicted on Trajan’s Column. According to Caesar (De Bello Gallico 4), druidic convention ruled that anyone found guilty of theft or other petty criminal offences could find themselves sacrificial victims, although if such criminals were in short supply, innocents would do just as well. A form of sacrifice recorded by Caesar from his experiences in Gaul was the burning alive of victims in a large wooden effigy, now often known as a wicker man. According to Tacitus, the druids had a reputation for ‘soaking their altars in the blood of prisoners and using human entrails in their divination’; human sacrifice in other words. Reports of druids performing human sacrifice are found in Lucan, Pharsalia 1, 450-58; Caesar, Gallic Wars 6, 16, 17.3-5; Suetonius, Claudius 25; Cicero, Pro Fonteio 31; Cicero, De Republica 9, 15. The demonisation of druids by the Romans may be seen as an attempt to justify colonialisation and the suppression of so-called barbarians.
But they were not totally savage: Strabo tells us about those who studied moral philosophy. Nevertheless, Diodorus Siculus records that:
These men predict the future by observing the flight and calls of birds and by the sacrifice of holy animals: all orders of society are in their power ... and in very important matters they prepare a human victim, plunging a dagger into his chest; by observing the way his limbs convulse as he falls and the gushing of his blood, they are able to read the future.
Paulinus’ soldiers lined up opposite an armed force among which were ‘women dressed in black robes with dishevelled hair like Furies, brandishing torches. Next to them were the druids, their hands raised to the skies, screaming fearsome curses.’ The Romans were at first paralysed with fear, understandably, but then pulled themselves together, attacked, slaughtered all before them and hacked down the sacred groves.
As noted, by and large, Rome was receptive to many of the religions it encountered in its conquests, allowing a mutual absorption of the imperial with the local. This tolerance and syncretism, however, had its limits – and anything the Romans encountered which excited their innate superstition or was considered a vehicle for sedition was not tolerated. Druidism, obviously, fell into that category. According to Pliny the Elder, Tiberius (r. AD 14–37), enacted laws banning druidic practices, and those from other native soothsayers and healers, a move which Pliny believed would bring an end to human sacrifice in Gaul. Suetonius claimed that Augustus had decreed that no one could be both a druid and a Roman citizen, and that this was followed by a law passed by Claudius which ‘thoroughly suppressed’ the druids by banning their religious practices.
Suetonius also tells that another, purely personal, reason for Paulinus’ assault on the druids was to match rival general Corbulo’s achievement in winning Armenia for Rome. Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo (c. AD 7–67) was a populist Roman commander, brother-in-law of Caligula and father-in-law of Domitian. Nero, scared of Corbulo’s reputation, ordered him to commit suicide, which the general carried out, exclaiming Axios, ‘I am worthy’, and fell on his own sword.