Arrival in Britannia

Ex his omnibus longe sunt humanissimi qui Cantium incolunt, quae regio est maritima omnis, neque multum a Gallica differunt consuetudine.

Of all the Britons, by far the most civilized are the inhabitants of Kent, a wholly maritime region, who in their way of life do not differ greatly from the Gauls.

Gallic War (V.14)


UNLIKE Julius Caesar’s arrival in Britannia, the first sights and sounds to greet travellers now, as they near the long anticipated province, are not war cries from ranks of ferocious painted people but the screeches of seabirds circling above the line of white cliffs. In earliest times this land was referred to as ‘the island of the Albiones’; but contrary to what the newcomer may think, looking at those gleaming cliffs, ‘Albion’ does not derive from the Latin for white (albus) but from the British stem albio-, meaning ‘the land’ or ‘the country’.1 Now, of course, it is ‘Britannia’, originally from the Greek Πρεττανια (Prettania).

As Julius Severus approaches the island’s shores he is at last allowed to assume the insignia of his office, something he is expressly forbidden to do until he enters his new province.2 As the new governor of an imperial province, Severus must wear military uniform and carry a sword—with which he is permitted to execute even soldiers—unlike the governors of senatorial provinces. It would not be done to have a senior ranking official, a seasoned soldier, travelling through the empire in military uniform with such power, so this privilege is confined to his role in the province as the emperor’s representative.


Unlike the governors of senatorial provinces, appointed for a single year, Julius Severus will be expected to stay in Britannia for however long the emperor chooses. Although most imperial governorships last for about three years, Severus served in Dacia for at least six years, and Agricola was governor of Britannia for a similarly extended period. Whatever the duration, once Julius Severus sets foot on the island he will be expected to stay there until his tour of duty is over: he is not allowed to leave the boundary of his province unless for the purpose of fulfilling a vow; and even then, he must not spend a night away.3


Rutupiae (Richborough), just south of the Isle of Thanet, is the port from which Claudius launched his invasion in AD 43, and in AD 130 it is still the key point of entry to Britannia, representing the shortest crossing from Gesoriacum. It lies on the coast at the centre of the Wantsum Channel, which separates the Isle of Thanet from the British mainland. At the Wantsum Channel’s southern mouth is a shingle barrier, which partially closes the channel, with another shingle bank to the north-west, so that Rutupiae provides a large, sheltered anchorage.*1

Dominating the entrance to the port and the entire surrounding landscape is a gigantic monumental arch. It represents the accessus Britanniae, the symbolic gateway to Britannia, sited at the place where terrifying Oceanus meets the shore of this remote province. Glistening in Italian marble from the imperial quarries at Carrara, and adorned with bronzes and sculptures (and conceivably also an enormous sculpture of a chariot drawn by elephants*2), this four-way ‘quadrifrons’ structure is one of the largest—if not thelargest—arches in the empire. Its four arches point north, south, east and west, and it aligns with Watling Street, thus connecting with the great network of roads that penetrates the whole province. It was erected by Domitian in about AD 85, just two years after Agricola’s defeat of the Caledonians at the Battle of Mons Graupius (near Inverness). This was the victory that completed the conquest of Britain, by reaching the very furthest corners of the earth, or, in the words Tacitus put in Agricola’s mouth as he rallied troops before the battle, the place ‘where land and nature end’.4

Although Dubris (Dover) will soon become the main British naval port and base of the classis Britannica, Rutupiae is and will remain an important hub and entry port for goods.*3 Its name in the literary imagination is synonymous with the whole island.*4 At about 21 hectares, Rutupiae may be small in comparison with the great ports of the Mediterranean, but its theatrical setting and historic importance still make it a splendid place to stage the formal adventus or arrival of a new governor. Tacitus may have asserted piously that when Agricola (his father-in-law) arrived as governor, in c. AD 77, he elected to get straight down to campaigning in North Wales instead of holding any welcome celebrations, ‘choosing work and danger rather than ostentation and ceremony’; 5 but observances of the adventus, such as hanging out garlands or filling the air with incense,6 are usually to be encouraged. Whatever the scope of the inauguration ceremonies and celebrations for Julius Severus, protocol at least requires that an incoming governor should always arrive at the customary port of entry, ‘for provincials think maintenance of customs and privileges of this kind very important’.7

While for some it is a mark of honour to be part of the official welcoming party for an incoming governor or other senior official, for others it is simply a costly and time-consuming affair. But it is a brave—or foolhardy—man who dares to opt out of such a ceremony.8 Emperor Claudius was furious with the people of Ostia when they failed to send boats to meet him on entering the Tiber; he complained bitterly that they had reduced him to the rank of a commoner.9

The more judicious—or ambitious—attendee will try to be among the first to greet Julius Severus, perhaps travelling some distance to do so, although those already due to receive him elsewhere are officially exempt from having to greet him now.10 For his part, the new governor will need to cut a dash in his military uniform, with his five lictors (ceremonial bodyguards), assigned to him while in office, walking before him: their job is to clear a path, keep order and compel respect. As they process from the quayside and straight up the steps leading to the victory arch, Severus’s party will no doubt be reassured by the size and confidence exuded by the monument. As part of the ceremonial duties surrounding his arrival, Severus will make a sacrifice for a safe passage acrossOceanusat the religious sanctuary that stands close to the sea, to the south of the arch. A little further to the south-west, on slightly raised ground at the edge of town, lies an amphitheatre, which can seat between 4,000 and 5,000 people.*5

Conveniently situated a short walk away from the arch, in the north-eastern corner of the port, is the recently rebuilt stone courtyard building that accommodates the official government guesthouse, the mansio. Though modest in size, with a small bath-house, it is decorated and appointed in a way that will be familiar enough, even if it is somewhat basic by Roman and eastern Mediterranean standards. On the table will be imported food, drink and crockery—Spanish olive oil, Greek or Italian wine, and Gallic Samian ware. But the new arrivals might be eager to try the famous local oysters for dinner, which are now farmed along the coast of Cantium (Kent) and highly rated by connoisseurs. Some gastronomes are said to be able to tell ‘at the first bite whether an oyster comes from Circei [in Lazio, Italy], or near the cliffs of the Lucrine Lake [Campania, Italy], or from the beds of Rutupiae’.11


Julius Severus can choose to continue his journey from Rutupiae to the province’s capital, Londinium, by ship; but there is also the option to become better acquainted with his new province by road. He need not worry about any of the logistics himself, as he has his own strator consularis, or transport officer, whose job is to make travel arrangements for him.12 Even for those travelling independently, there will be little difficulty in finding the road to Londinium out of Rutupiae. The gigantic victory arch is aligned directly with Watling Street, which runs all the way to the capital and thereafter continues to Verulamium (St Albans) and up to Viroconium (Wroxeter).

The busy street leading out of town is lined with shops and workshops, including one selling lamps and another offering metal goods made on the premises. A busy port like Rutupiae is also provided with taverns, where people can drink and play games, using dice towers or pyrgi which, with their angled slats, prevent people from cheating at throwing the die.

Just south-west of Rutupiae the road forks, with one branch leading south-east to Dubris. Anyone heading to Londinium needs to continue west, to Durovernum Cantiacorum (Canterbury), 11.5 miles (18.5km) away. The Romans have divided Britannia intocivitates, tribal states, each with their own civitas capital, and Durovernum is the civitas capital of the Cantiaci.

Before the conquest, the people of this region had long had contact with Rome, and Durovernum was already an important centre in the Iron Age. With its convergence of roads and river networks, all now leading along Watling Street, the town remains a key link in the Roman transport network. A senior official such as Julius Severus will be expected to visit the temple at the heart of the town and to make a sacrifice there.13 Across the road from the temple is a distinctive Romano-Celtic theatre where religious gatherings also take place. Reminiscent of theatres in Gaul, it is partly an amphitheatre design, with a central arena, but a third of its seating is taken up by a stage.14

With the temple enclosure on their right, travellers heading for London will round the corner of the precinct onto what is fast becoming the town’s main street, with new roads being laid off it.15 Once over the River Stour, the road passes through an industrial zone in the north-west quarter of town. Here are brick, tile and pottery kilns, iron-smelting furnaces and bronze-working facilities. It will be a relief to get past this noisy, smoky district, whose fumes must make even the eyes of those in carriages water.

From here, Watling Street passes through easy and pleasant countryside studded with farmsteads in a more or less straight line to Durobrivae (Rochester), just over 25 miles (40km) away. As arguably the most important road in the province, along which all road traffic must progress to Londinium from the south-coast ports, it is extremely busy. Wheeled transport comes in all shapes and sizes. The plodding goods vehicles include the Gaulish benna, with basketwork sides; but the most common is the plaustrum, a two- or four-wheeled wagon drawn by yoked oxen, or occasionally by mules. One would hope, with Julius Severus and his retinue on the road, that such tediously slow contraptions have been diverted onto minor routes and byways.

For their own transport, senior members of the official party may choose to travel in a reda, a large four-wheeled carriage drawn by two or four horses, while for swifter travel there are lighter vehicles, such as the two-wheeled cisium. Servants and baggage usually travel in the lumbering, open petoritum, and it is to be hoped that both have been sent on ahead in readiness. Julius Severus and his family might well travel in a covered two-wheeled carpentum, usually pulled by mules. Such carriages can be luxuriously appointed, with large gabled roofs supported by ornamental columns, and fitted out with every comfort. The heavier four-wheeled carruca is also an option; it can be adapted for use as a sleeping wagon (carruca dormitoria) on long journeys.

If Severus needs to work while travelling, he can dictate notes to a secretary, who will need to have a steady hand: no amount of plump cushions and plush curtains can disguise the fact that the carriages—with their wooden wheels, iron tyres and lack of springs—make for bone-shaking experiences.16 This did not stop Emperor Claudius, a gaming addict, from having a game board specially fitted to his chariot so that he could play while driving himself around.17 However you choose to distract yourself while on the road, there is no getting around the fact that travelling by carriage is uncomfortable and noisy. As Horace puts it, the streptitus rotarum—the jarring screeching of wheels—can badly get on your nerves, even after a very short length of time.18 Travelling in these conditions is immensely tiring, and even if you are fit and well before the start of a journey, it may take its toll after a time.

Severus could choose to ride for parts of the journey, for in the Kent countryside on an early summer’s day, he will at least be unlikely to suffer the extremes of heat, dust and insects that colleagues in other parts of the empire must endure.19 On the contrary, given that this is Britannia, it might still be rather damp and chilly. Those on horseback, lacking the protection of a covered carriage, might well be grateful for their leather travelling cloaks, with the hoods pulled up against the rain.

Twelve miles into the journey, there is a small stopping place called Durolevum.*6 This may be as far as you would wish to travel in a day. But since it is unlikely to offer much in the way of comfort, then—weather and daylight permitting—it could be advisable to press on to Durobrivae, which lies at a crossing of the River Medway. A mansio lies just behind Watling Street.*7 Typically, mansiones are courtyard buildings, and here officials, soldiers, their animals and carriages can be accommodated securely. Travellers can be assured of a bed, a meal and (they will hope) a bath. Those travelling with special permits are able to obtain a change of animal or carriage to take them on to the next stage.

An official transport system, which later became known as the cursus publicus, had been established by Augustus as a form of courier service for disseminating news and messages more speedily and efficiently throughout the empire, via a system of basicstationes, ‘posts’, and mutationes, ‘changing posts’.20 In theory, the service is carefully regulated; to use it, people need to be issued with a permit or diploma, either signed by the emperor in person or issued by provincial governors (who have a limited number to give out).21

In the early post-conquest days, official types of lodging in Britannia were normally attached to forts. As parts of the province became more settled, they began to be found in towns and cities and at convenient stopping places in between, where small roadside settlements sprang up to cater for the needs of the military. The system is now being much improved, and bigger and better accommodation, with separate bath houses, is being built in many parts of the country.

The service is, unfortunately, also open to abuse by the unscrupulous, and it can prove to be a real burden to the locals who are obliged to maintain it, despite many attempts over the years to impose regulations on everything from tipping (not acceptable) to the maximum weight of saddlebags, the size of wagons and the type of whips allowable for use on animals: knotty and very stout clubs are banned, and any soldier found employing them will be demoted (if he is an officer) or deported (if he is a common soldier).22

If the travellers rise early the next day, it will be possible to reach Londinium, almost 29 miles (47km) away, in one long day, breaking the journey at Noviomagus (Crayford), about 15 miles (24km) further on. About 8 miles (13km) from Durobrivae, the road runs by the River Ebbsfleet, which joins the Thames just over a mile to the north. Here, at Vagniacae (Springhead), travellers enter a sacred landscape of springs, temples, shrines and ritual pits, including those containing the remains of twenty-three dogs. Pilgrims come here to celebrate the deity of the sacred springs at the head of the river and to gain strength from her healing powers. Within the sacred enclosure lies a late-first-century AD temple, to the north of which is a large rectangular stone-lined pool. Another, smaller temple of more recent date contains within its foundations the remains of four babies ritually murdered, two of them decapitated, and placed at each corner of the building.23 All in all, it is an interesting place at which to stop—to make an offering at the temples, to take spiritual and physical refreshment from the springs and temple bakery, and to rest in accommodation provided for pilgrims.

For new arrivals in Britannia, this region will appear at least to be peaceful and relatively prosperous, strongly reminiscent of parts of northern Gaul in terms of the style of buildings, the language spoken and the general feel of the place. There are many substantial farms and houses in the surrounding countryside, especially as you get further north. Eleven or more substantial villa estates nestle just to the west of Watling Street, in the broad valley of the navigable River Darent, where lie water meadows and good arable land.*8 It will probably be more agreeable to stay in one of these villas than to spend another night in an indifferently run mansio on a grubby little roadside settlement.

As Julius Severus and his party near their destination, Watling Street takes them onto Shooters Hill. From its west slope they will be treated to a magnificent view of the whole of the Thames basin, as they prepare to make their descent—into Londinium.24

*1 In the twenty-first century, the Wantsum Channel is completely silted up, and the Isle of Thanet is connected to the mainland. The shingle barrier is now known as the Stonar Bank.

*2 Although there is no direct evidence for this elephant quadriga at Richborough, a coin of Domitian dated AD 95 or 96 depicts an arch surmounted by a chariot drawn by elephants. The so-called Torlonia relief, found at the site of Portus in the nineteenth century, depicts a scene from Portus showing the Domitian arch with elephantquadriga(and other scenes): it portrays the charioteer holding a sceptre with a human head, a motif found on coins issued during his reign.

*3 Rutupiae is the only channel crossing mentioned in the third-century Antonine Itinerary, a collection of about 225 routes along the empire’s roads.

*4 As the poet Lucan wrote, ‘When the tides of Ocean and the Rutupian shore are raging, the waves are not heard by the Caledonians’ (The Civil War, VI, 67), meaning that when far from events, one cannot be expected to know what is happening—Britannia being as remote as you could get in the Roman world, and the Caledonians being even further away than that.

*5 The dating of the amphitheatre is uncertain. It has been suggested that it might be late third century and contemporary with the Saxon Shore fort.

*6 This is possibly Ospringe, near Faversham.

*7 The remains of the (conjectural) mansio lie under Rochester Cathedral.

*8 A Roman ‘villa’ meant a house in the country, ranging in size from a farm to a vast estate. At this date, villas in Britannia were generally of modest size. Those in the Darent Valley, including Lullingstone, were much aggrandized in the third and fourth centuries, as elsewhere in Britain.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!