Twenty-seven years had passed since the 14th Gemina Martia Victrix Legion returned triumphantly from its A.D. 16 German operations. The legion hadn’t been given a chance to invade Germany again. In the winter of A.D. 16, Tiberius recalled Germanicus to Rome, to put the glory of Hermann’s final defeat out of his reach. He gave him a consulship, then sent him to Syria as commander in chief of the Roman East. There, in A.D. 19, Germanicus was assassinated—poisoned—dying in Agrippina’s arms. A murder trial in the Senate ended when the accused, Gnaeus Piso, Governor of Syria, committed suicide. But like the historian Tacitus and most Romans, the men of the 14th G.M.V. would have gone to their graves convinced that Tiberius had ordered Germanicus’s death.
Hermann died that same year, A.D. 19, also murdered by his own people. After Germanicus left the Rhine, on Tiberius’s orders no more Roman armies marched into Germany. Hermann never again fought Rome. Instead he fought a Roman ally, defeating fellow Germans, King Maroboduus and his Marcomanni, to whom his uncle Inguiomerus had defected. For being overly ambitious, Hermann was soon assassinated by the Cherusci.
Tiberius Caesar died in A.D. 37, reputedly smothered by Praetorian Prefect Naevius Macro. Living out his last years a bitter, twisted recluse on the Isle of Capri, Tiberius had taken a liking to Germanicus’s son Caligula, keeping the youth on Capri with him. On Tiberius’s death, twenty-four-year-old Gaius “Caligula” Caesar succeeded him. Suetonius says Caligula’s ascension to the throne was a dream come true for the Roman people, who held such fond memories of his father, Germanicus, and his late mother. Agrippina had died in A.D. 33 while being held by Tiberius on the Italian prison island of Pandateria. For the first seven months of his reign a reforming Caligula rode a wave of popular support before falling dangerously ill. When he recovered he was a different man—irrational, irresponsible, jealous, paranoid, cruel, vindictive, murderous. Execution without trial became the norm during his reign. No one was safe.
Although, contrary to popular myth, Caligula didn’t make his horse a senator, much of what he did was bizarre. The legions weren’t immune from his craziness. In A.D. 40 he proceeded to France, summoning elements of the 14th G.M.V. and the seven other Rhine legions to the Channel coast. He was going to invade Britain, he said, and ordered the legions, their auxiliary units, and his Praetorian Guard and German Guard escort to line up on a Pas de Calais beach in battle formation, facing the water. Though Dio says as many as 250,000 men stood on the sands, the number would have been closer to 100,000. Caligula then had their trumpeters sound “Charge.” As the mystified troops wondered what to do, their emperor issued a new order: the men were to collect seashells in the laps of their tunics, as spoils of Caligula’s victory.
On January 24, A.D. 41, the last day of the Ludi Palatini Festival, Colonel Cassius Chaerea, the tribune commanding the Praetorian Guard cohort on duty at the theater at Caligula’s Palatium that day—a career soldier who’d been a junior tribune on the Rhine under Caligula’s father, Germanicus—and Colonel Cornelius Sabinus, Prefect of the German Guard, put Caligula and Rome out of their misery. The colonels cornered the twenty-eight-year-old emperor in a narrow passageway as he left a theatrical performance and was walking to the palace of his late father to meet Greek boys who were to sing a hymn in his honor at the festival. The officers’ swords swiftly terminated the imperial malignancy.
Through the influence of the Praetorian Guard and the German Guard, Caligula’s uncle, Germanicus’s brother, the forty-nine-year-old cripple Claudius Caesar, was proclaimed emperor the following day. Unlike previous emperors, Claudius hadn’t served in the army; he’d been a scholar. Within a year, the Governor of Dalmatia, Lieutenant General Furius Camillus Scribonianus, an old warhorse, felt that Claudius was so unsuited to the job he initiated a rebellion against him. Scribonianus’s own 7th and 11th Legions soon turned against their governor and terminated the rebellion and Scribonianus. But the brief revolt had been a wake-up call for Claudius. He knew he would have to keep the army happy to keep his throne. One way to do that was by pulling off a bold military campaign, a conquest unlike anything any emperor since Augustus had achieved. And as he looked around for a suitable campaign, a British prince gave him an idea.
In A.D. 39 one of the sons of King Cunobelinus, Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, had fled from Britain to France, banished by his dying father or on the run after fighting with his four brothers over control of their father’s kingdom. Dio says his name was Bericus. Suetonius calls him Adminius, the Roman name given him once he settled in Italy and became of assistance to the Palatium. Caligula had formally received the surrender of Bericus, as if he’d captured him in battle—the “battle” that had resulted in the men of the 14th G.M.V. gathering seashells on the seashore. According to Dio, it was Bericus who inspired Claudius’s British operation. He no doubt painted the new emperor a picture of minimal resistance and substantial profit should Rome send an army to his island. No doubt, too, Bericus had visions of being installed as Rome’s regent in a conquered Britain. So it was that Claudius set in motion the invasion of Britain that Tiberius had once contemplated and Caligula had recently toyed with. Orders went out from the Palatium for the creation of a Britannic Fleet and for four legions and numerous auxiliary units to march to an embarkation point in France.
The 14th Gemina Martia Victrix was one of those four legions. And that was why, in the spring of A.D. 43, the legionaries of the latest enlistment of the 14th marched out of Mainz for the last time and headed for the French coast.
From the hill at Boulogne, gazing out over the embarkation camp on the French coast in the summer of A.D. 43, Major General Flavius Sabinus would have been both a happy man and an unhappy man. Son of a moneylender, grandson of a centurion in Pompey the Great’s army at the Battles of Dyrrhachium and Pharsalus, but no relation to the Colonel Sabinus who’d murdered Caligula, he was about thirty-nine years of age.
Sabinus had good reason to be happy. He was to lead the 14th Gemina Martia Victrix Legion in the coming operation, and also had been appointed deputy commander of the task force, under Lieutenant General Aulus Plautius. And his younger brother, thirty-three-year-old Major General Titus Vespasianus—or Vespasian, as history knows him—was leading the 2nd Augusta Legion in the task force: he’d taken charge of the 2nd Augusta on the Rhine a year or two previously. Sabinus’s unhappiness had two causes. First, the entire operation was on hold, delayed by a near mutiny of the troops. But worse, men from his own 14th G.M.V. were among the ringleaders of that dissension.
Forty thousand Roman legionaries and auxiliaries were in camp at Boulogne, a port the Romans originally called Gesoriacum, and later, Bononia. Just as General Sabinus’s own command, the 14th G.M.V., had marched to Boulogne from the Rhine, the 2nd Augusta Legion, the 14th’s old campaigning partner, had been detached from the Army of the Upper Rhine, coming down from Strasbourg. The 20th Valeria Victrix had come from its A.L.R. base at Neuss, while the 9th Hispana had marched up from its home at Sisak in Pannonia, escorting the invasion task force’s commander, Lieutenant General Plautius, who, until that time, had been Governor of Pannonia.
Boulogne has a long history as an assembly point for invasions, in operations that suffered setbacks, delays, and sometimes premature termination. Julius Caesar used this site for the embarkation of two legions in his 55 B.C. British campaign. In 1066, William the Conqueror’s invasion fleet would sail from Saint-Valéry-sur-Somme, just down the coast from Boulogne, after a false start from farther south. In the 1800s, Napoleon Bonaparte would assemble an army at Boulogne for an aborted British invasion. Then in 1940-1941, German landing barges filled Channel ports for Operation Sea Lion, an invasion of England that failed to proceed, while the German navy used Boulogne as a U-boat base.
The men of the junior cohorts of the 14th who came to Boulogne in A.D. 43 had joined their legion at its A.D. 31 discharge and reenlistment, when the 14th was brought back to ten full-strength imperial-era cohorts of 5,253 officers and men, including a general, 6 tribunes, a camp prefect, 60 centurions, and a cavalry squadron of 120 men and 4 decurions. Veterans of the A.D. 11 enlistment who’d fought Hermann and signed on for a second enlistment after their mandatory twenty years were up went into the 1st and 2nd Cohorts. Those 14th G.M.V. veterans were now a minimum of fifty-two years of age. Their comrades of the junior cohorts were in their thirties, with twelve years’ service to their credit. That service had included occasional punitive crossings of the Rhine after one German tribe or another had caused trouble, but this British operation was the biggest thing the first-enlistment men had ever been involved in, and they would have arrived at the embarkation camp keyed up and raring to go. But the men of the 14th’s senior cohorts had put a monkey wrench in the works of the entire operation: led by the 14th G.M.V., all four legions were stubbornly refusing to set foot in Britain.
Apart from the 9th Hispana, all these legions had served in Germanicus Caesar’s A.D. 16 German campaign, although men of the second enlistment of just one of the three legions were still serving with their unit—the 14th Gemina Martia Victrix. The second-enlistment veterans of the 2nd Augusta and the 20th V.V. had retired in A.D. 40. These men of the 14th G.M.V.’s senior cohorts, legionaries with thirty-two years legion experience, had been wrecked on the shores of Britain on the harrowing return journey from Germany in the late summer of A.D. 16. And as they’d whiled away their time in the Boulogne camp waiting for this operation to commence, they’d told their first enlistment comrades wild stories about those traumatic days, about sea monsters and terrifying British creatures that were half men, half beast. And they reminded their wide-eyed younger colleagues that Britain was beyond the limits of the known world.
As an old Latin saying goes, no desire is felt for a thing unknown. And as the stories spread from the tents of the 14th G.M.V. to those of the other legions, the stories suffered from exaggeration, as rumors always do. Roman legionaries were highly superstitious at the best of times. Before long, thousands of them had confronted their officers and flatly refused to take part in an invasion of the unknown and mysterious British Isles. No amount of persuasion, cajoling, threats, or promises could change the minds of the troops, forcing an exasperated General Plautius to write to Rome confessing that his legions had gone on strike and couldn’t be budged. Plautius had a friend at court—a handsome nephew was a favorite of Claudius’s bed-hopping wife, Messalina, who dominated Claudius through his staff. Instead of replacing the general, the emperor sent his Chief Secretary, the freedman Narcissus, hurrying up to Boulogne to help him.
General Plautius ordered a parade of his army, then welcomed Narcissus onto the tribunal in front of the assembled legions. The wealthy and powerful Narcissus stepped up, wearing a purple-fringed toga granted to him by the emperor, and, at his waist, the sheathed dagger that was the symbol of office of the Chief Secretary. But before Narcissus could even open his mouth to address the troops, they began to heckle him. “Hooray for the Saturnalia!” they chorused.
It soon became a chant as legionaries gained full voice, no doubt smiling broadly. Their message was clear enough. During the Festival of Saturn each December, slaves were given a number of privileges, from permission to play dice legally to the right to wear their master’s clothing. The Boulogne legionaries, Roman citizens all, were not prepared to give a hearing to a former slave who’d come to address them on behalf of his master, even if that master was the emperor. Humiliated, Narcissus left the tribunal.
Cassius Dio says that after Narcissus’s failed mission, General Plautius was himself able to finally resolve the problem and convince the men to go forward with the mission. Just how he accomplished this is unknown, but it probably involved a hefty bonus payment. Narcissus would no doubt have come to Boulogne with just such a proposal, if not with the cash in question, but had been prevented from airing it himself.
Passing a giant lighthouse built by Caligula at Boulogne in A.D. 39-40 and modeled on the Pharos at Alexandria, a wonder of the ancient world—one of the few good things to have come out of Caligula’s “British operation”—the first transports of General Plautius’s invasion task force set out toward the end of a late summer’s day. From the accounts of Julius Caesar’s landings ninety-eight years before, the men of the 14th G.M.V. knew to expect to be going ashore across the Strait of Dover the next morning.
After nightfall, a storm blew up. Rain pelted down. A strong north wind chopped up the water and drove the craft back toward France. Then, as the wind eased, a massive bolt of lightning was seen to flash across the sky from east to west, as if pointing the way for the legions. It was an omen not lost on the legionaries of the 14th.
Ignoring the beaches of Pevensey Bay farther west, which would attract William the Conqueror’s invasion force in 1066, the new Britannic Fleet sailed up the Strait of Dover in the dark, following the low stretch of Kent coastline beyond Dover and its white cliffs; passing Deal, where Julius Caesar landed in 55 and 54 B.C.; and heading for the Isle of Thanet, near present-day Ramsgate. Back then, Thanet really was an island. Over the centuries the Wantsum Channel, the narrow waterway between the island and the mainland, silted up. Modern historians think that Lieutenant General Plautius’s spearhead hit the beach in the vicinity of Pegwell Bay.
In the new day’s light the ships slid into the shallows, and the 14th’s men jumped over the sides and went wading ashore, packs on backs. The Celts of southern England had been alerted by traders from Gaul to Roman preparations at Boulogne, but when midsummer arrived and the Romans didn’t, the British had decided it was a false alarm and went back to their farms and villages. The legions’ strike had worked in their favor—the landing went ahead unopposed. So far, so good as far as the 14th was concerned.
Dio says the landing took place in three divisions. As only one landing place is thought to have been used, this suggests that the troops landed in three waves at Pegwell Bay. Splashing ashore with the 14th G.M.V. were the light infantry of the Cohortis Batavior, the Batavian Cohorts, eight of which now provided the 14th’s regular auxiliary support. One of their eight cohort commanders was a sandy-haired Batavian prefect of twenty-five who’d recently commenced service with the Roman army, Colonel Gaius Civilis. He was a grandson or nephew of Chariovalda, last king of the Batavi, who’d been killed by Hermann’s men in A.D. 16. Rome had not permitted the crowning of another king since.
Also going ashore were the troopers of the Batavian Horse, plus a wing of the Thracian Horse multinational cavalry, and the Vettonian Mixed Horse, a Spanish equitatae unit, made up of both cavalry and infantry, commanded by Colonel Didius Gallus. The method of landing horses from transports in Roman offensive operations is unknown; perhaps via ramps, perhaps using mast booms and slings.
A troop of elephants had even been put on standby by the Palatium, but there’s no indication it ever left its base at Laurentum, outside Rome, to take part in the operation. The nature of the terrain the invasion force would have to negotiate—often marshy ground frequently crossed by rivers—was not suited to elephant operations, as the Palatium knew from Caesar’s Gallic War Commentaries, the guidebook for the operation.
Once ashore, the men of the 14th G.M.V. and General Plautius’s other legions were permitted to remove helmets and stack shields and javelins, but otherwise worked in full equipment as they dug entrenchments to establish a secure beachhead and build a camp beside the Stour River, near modern Richborough. The safe harbor and camp here, named Rutupiae, would be used as a Roman base for supplies coming in from France for the next thirty years, before being superseded by other British ports.
These successors of the original, ill-fated 58 B.C. enlistment of the 14th Legion still came from the same part of the Roman world as their forebears, wore the same uniform, and carried similar weapons, although the A.D. 43 helmet had better neck protection, and instead of the mail-covered leather jackets of Caesar’s and Augustus’s days, the 14th’s men now wore metal body armor, not unlike, in style and purpose, today’s military and police body armor or flak jacket. This recently introduced lorica segmentata armor comprised curved metal segments fastened together by bronze hinges, covering torso and shoulders—the model for the armor of the knights of the Middle Ages. Shining in the sun, it would have made the legionaries look, to the part-time British warriors who were soon to come face to face with them, like gleaming machines from the underworld.
With a beachhead established, and leaving the 9th Hispana to hold the Rutupiae fort, General Plautius led the major part of the task force inland. Following in Julius Caesar’s century-old footsteps, Plautius advanced toward the Thames, the river called the Tamesis by the Celts, with the 2nd Augusta on his left and the 20th V.V. on the right wing, and with the 14th G.M.V. occupying the center.
At first there was no contact with the Britons. The local people, of the Cantiaci tribe, took refuge in the swamps and forests of western Kent as the Roman army tramped though their wheat fields, and summoned help from tribes to the west and the north. When the British did commit to combat, it was under the command of two brothers, sons of the late Cunobelinus, king of the powerful Catuvellauni tribe. The boys’ brother was the exiled Bericus, inspirer of the Roman invasion. Their great-grandfather, King Cassivellaunus, had fought and paid tribute money to Julius Caesar a century earlier.
One of the brothers was Togodumnus, who ruled from the old Catuvellauni capital, Camulodunon, “the fort of Camulos,” named for the Celtic patron deity of the tribe, which was to become present-day Colchester, in Essex, north of the Thames. The other brother’s Celtic name was Carodoc. History knows him as King Caractacus, or, more correctly, Caratacus, his Roman name. He ran the western part of his father’s former kingdom from the town Romans were to call Calleva Attrebatum, near today’s Silchester in Hampshire, in the heart of the Atrebates’ tribal territory. We know nothing of Caratacus’s appearance or background. We know he had a wife and daughter, and can guess that he and his brothers were perhaps in their twenties and thirties.
The rivalry between the five sons of King Cunobelinus that had led to the ejection of Bericus seems to have been a continuing thing. For, hurrying east, Caratacus didn’t wait for his brother Togodumnus to join him with his warriors. Impatient for glory, he immediately took his Atrebate and Dobunni tribesmen against the Romans. King Caratacus’s fighting men were equipped with just shields and short spears. They didn’t possess armor or helmets, and the common warrior fought naked to the waist, often barefoot, and sometimes even buck naked to scare the daylights out of his opponents. Long-haired, often mustachioed, but not bearded, many covered their exposed skin with markings, like tattoos, in blue-green woad, a plant dye. The tribes had previously spent much of their time and energy fighting each other. Now they had to contend with a new, very different enemy.
All the Celts of southern Britain worshiped the Celtic war god Camulos, patron deity of the Catuvellauni tribe. And before they went into battle they swore a sacred oath to their god that they would not yield to the weapons of the enemy or to wounds they received in battle. Despite their oaths, Caratacus’s men were soon on the run after being swiftly routed by the mechanical efficiency of the legions in the first engagement in Kent. Caratacus hastily withdrew, hoping to re-form his force beyond the Medway River.
As he pulled back, Caratacus lost one of his tribes, the Dobunni from the Gloucestershire region, which had been subservient to Caratacus for some time. Now, deciding they would prefer to be ruled by Rome rather than by fellow Celts, the Dobunni surrendered en masse to General Plautius. He hastily built a fort in his rear where auxiliaries were left to guard the Dobunni POWs, then pushed on.
Caratacus’s brother Togodumnus now crossed the Thames and Medway Rivers with his Catuvellauni. Equally impatient, he left his chariots behind, apparently to be brought across the Thames on rafts, and swung southeast to attack the advancing Romans with his foot soldiers. In open country, against the drilled Roman machine, his loosely organized infantry force was easily repulsed by the 14th and its fellow legions, with heavy British casualties from javelin and sword. Togodumnus himself appears to have been seriously wounded in this contact. Carried away by followers, he was dead within days.
Togodumnus’s warriors fled back to the Medway, where they linked up with Caratacus and his Atrebates and were joined by the chariots Togodumnus had left behind when he hurried to come to grips with the invaders. As Caratacus took overall command, General Plautius reached the Medway. The legions were greeted by the sight of thousands of warriors and hundreds of war chariots on the far bank—it’s been estimated that Caratacus had sixty thousand to eighty thousand fighting men.
General Plautius gave the impression he was building a camp for the night, with extravagant activity from the men of the 20th Valeria Victrix Legion. At the same time, he discreetly sent the Batavian Horse downstream and Generals Sabinus and Vespasian upstream with the 14th G.M.V. and the 2nd Augusta. The Britons took no notice of the cavalry trotting away, not realizing that the Batavians were General Plautius’s secret weapon. Out of sight of the two armies, the Batavians dismounted; then, hanging onto their saddles, they swam the river beside their horses in full equipment, as Batavian cavalry was traditionally trained to do. Once over the river, they remounted and came up the far bank, launching a surprise attack on the Britons. At first recoiling, the British regrouped and fiercely counterattacked the Batavians with chariots and cavalry. The Batavians deliberately wounded British horses, neutralizing chariots and destabilizing the British cavalry, but, vastly outnumbered, they became pinned down.
The men of the 14th, in the meantime, were crossing the river unnoticed in company with the 2nd Augusta, using a bridge of boats quickly thrown across the Medway by Roman engineers. The small, light boats had been brought along on the task force’s baggage train for this very purpose. The forerunner of the latter-day Bailey bridge, Roman boat-bridges were strung across waterways with astonishing speed. As soon as they were across, the two legions then joined the battle from the north. The Britons not only held their ground as the 14th G.M.V. bore in, they also pressed back, hard. With the Batavians under severe pressure, legion commanders Sabinus and Vespasian threw their men into the fight as soon as each cohort funneled across the river. The 14th and the 2nd both straggled into the battle, cohort by cohort. Nineteenth-century military strategist Carl von Clausewitz wrote that when absolute superiority is not attainable, produce relative superiority at a decisive point. With their commanders going against that principle at the Medway, the men of the two legions were paying the price.
The fighting was bloody and no holds barred, and lasted all through the afternoon. For the men of the G.M.V., it became simply a matter of survival. Strong, gutsy leadership was all-important. The camp prefect of the 2nd Augusta, Major Publius Anicius Maximus, won several bravery awards during the British campaign, and almost certainly one or more of them came out of this torrid day’s work beside the Medway. As the sun went down, the 14th G.M.V. and the 2nd Augusta found themselves penned beside the river, hemmed in on three sides. The Britons ceased their attacks but held their positions as the legionaries tried to dig a defensive trench line. It was a grim night for Generals Sabinus and Vespasian and the brothers’ men, spent under arms and on the alert, without tents, bed-rolls, or rations. It was made all the more depressing by the fact that General Plautius withdrew the bridge of boats. They were well and truly on their own.
With the arrival of the new day, General Plautius had the 20th V.V. build a new boat-bridge downstream, then sent that legion across to relieve the units pinned down on the northern riverbank. This time the Britons saw the Romans coming. Led by its commander, Major General Gnaeus Hosidius Geta, who’d three times defeated the forces of Moorish general Salabus in Mauretania the previous year, the 20th forced a bridgehead on the far bank under a hail of spears and against charge after British charge. It was tough going for the Powerful Conquerors as they fought to maintain their foothold on the far bank. General Geta himself only narrowly avoided being captured in one melee.
By sheer courage and determination General Geta’s 20th V.V. held and expanded his bridgehead, from which they were able to break out later in the day and go to the rescue of the trapped legions upstream, which had fought off renewed British assaults throughout the morning and afternoon. Geta acquitted himself so well in this action that Claudius would award him Triumphal Decorations following the campaign, despite the fact that he was only a major general; uniquely, three of the four legions of the task force were commanded by major generals.
The bloodied Celts withdrew; the 14th, 2nd, 20th, and the Batavians linked up; and the legions followed hot on British heels to the Thames. The tribesmen easily crossed the broad waterway where the river entered the sea, knowing exactly where firm ground lay at low tide, leaving the Roman troops literally floundering in their wake. General Plautius again brought up his baggage train, unloaded his small craft, and lay another bridge of boats across the river in his path. At the same time, he again sent the Batavian Horse swimming across the waterway in his path, downstream. The repeated tactic succeeded: as Roman cavalry attacked the Britons from one direction and infantry from another, the tribesmen put a up a brief fight, but after taking heavy casualties, they lost heart and fled for the Essex Marshes, where the Thames entered the sea. Roman troops gave chase, only to become bogged down in the marshes. Finding danger in clawing sand and clay and hidden depths, the Romans pulled back.
The tribes had been devastated. As the will to continue the fight against this unstoppable Roman killing machine evaporated, King Caratacus, determined to continue resistance but deserted by his own people, fled west, taking his wife, daughter, and his two surviving brothers with him. In his wake, General Plautius decided to hold the line along the Thames with his main force, ordering General Vespasian to secure his left flank with the 2nd Augusta. As Vespasian’s legion powered southwest, the 9th Hispana came up from the coast to join the 14th G.M.V. and the 20th V.V. at the Thames. Again the men of the 14th set to work digging a camp, this time on the southern bank of the Thames.
Vespasian and the 2nd Augusta swept along the southern coast of England, fighting thirty battles, mostly short, sharp sieges of hill forts, taking twenty towns, including Caratacus’s capital, Calleva, plus the Isle of Wight, and forcing the surrender of the tribes of Somerset and Dorset, the Regni and the Durotriges. The young ruler of the Regni, Cogidubnus, a descendant of Commius, the Atrebatean king who fled to Britain after going against Julius Caesar, became a faithful ally of Rome, and would remain so for the next fifty years. King Cogidubnus would have been among envoys who now went to British tribes to the north and west to convince them to come to terms with the Romans.
By the fall, with General Vespasian in control in the south and a number of tribes beyond the Thames indicating they were prepared to submit, General Plautius sent a message to Rome, a message the emperor had been waiting for. Claudius now set off for Britain, departing Rome in a fleet of lavish barges rowed down the Tiber to Ostia and waiting warships of the Tyrrhenian Fleet from Misenum. Accompanying the emperor on the barges was a large entourage of senators and sycophants, as well as Claudius’s private secretary, Posides, and Xenophon, Claudius’s personal physician. At the same time, Praetorian Prefect Colonel Rufrius Pollio marched several cohorts of the Praetorian Guard and the German Guard down the Ostian Way to join the fleet.
Officially, Claudius was coming to take personal command of the offensive. But the fighting was over. All that was left for him to do was accept the surrender of the conquered tribes. His course from Ostia took him across the Mediterranean to Marseilles, where his storm-tossed party landed and continued overland, through France and Belgium to the Rhine, and from there to Boulogne for the Channel crossing.
Silent, as rigid as statues, in full parade dress with helmet plumes and shining bravery decorations, the men of the 14th Gemina Martia Victrix Legion, 20th Valeria Victrix Legion, and 9th Hispana Legion stood at attention in their cohorts outside Colchester.
Suetonius says the legions sacked the town, and it appears that once the tribes north of the Thames agreed to surrender, the legions crossed the river and moved inland to take the dead Togodumnus’s Catuvellauni capital. Dio says that Claudius led them across the Thames and on the short march north to the town.
Flanked by lanky soldiers of the German Guard and the Praetorian Guard, the emperor Claudius took the surrender of British rulers—eleven of them, according to the inscription on the Arch of Claudius erected at Boulogne nine years later to commemorate the British campaign. They would have been leaders of the Cantiaci, British Atrebates, Regni, Durotriges, Dobunni, Catuvellauni, Trinovantes, Coritani, Cornovii, Dumnonii, and the Parisii of Yorkshire—emigrants from along the Seine River in France.
One after the other the British leaders came forward; prostrated themselves in front of the Roman emperor, Lieutenant General Plautius, and the host of senators who’d come with the emperor; swore allegiance to Claudius Caesar and to Rome; and signed a peace treaty. That treaty permitted the kings to retain their thrones, but required them to pay annual taxes to Rome, to disarm their populations, and to provide their tribes’ finest young men to serve as auxiliaries. Within fifty years there would be at least thirteen British auxiliary infantry units, the Cohortis Britannor, as well as British cavalry, serving in the Roman army. With the sealing of the treaties, Claudius proclaimed Britain an imperial province of Rome, with General Plautius its first propraetor and Colchester the provincial capital and governor’s seat.
After spending just sixteen days on the island, Claudius went home. He arrived back in Rome early in A.D. 44, six months after he’d departed, bringing thousands of British prisoners captured in the initial advance and the 2nd Augusta’s southern sweep. The Britons marched in chains through Rome’s streets in the Triumph celebrated by Claudius that summer for the British victory. Subsequently sent to the amphitheater, British prisoners would still be fighting in gladiatorial contests at Rome two years later.
Claudius gave out numerous awards for the campaign. When General Plautius returned to Rome at the end of his posting several years later he celebrated an Ovation, a lesser form of Triumph where the awardee rode through the streets of Rome on horseback rather than in a golden quadriga. Plautius was the first to receive an Ovation in many years. General Geta received his T.D.s for the Battle of the Medway. And for his all-conquering southern coast sweep, General Vespasian was likewise granted Triumphal Decorations, even though he, too, was only a major general. But taking the shine off their awards was the fact that Claudius also awarded T.D.s to senators who’d merely accompanied him to Britain and played no part in the fighting.
The 2nd Augusta pushed on to the Exe River in Devon, turning the capital of the Dumnonii tribe on the eastern bank of the river into the Roman town of Isca Dumnoniorium, the later Exeter. By the end of the year, all four invasion force legions had spread across southwestern England and established permanent bases along a frontier line thirty miles deep, from Dorset to the Humber Estuary. To the north of the 2nd Augusta, the 20th V.V. established a base called Glevum, which would become today’s city of Gloucester. The 14th G.M.V. was based above the 20th at a number of frontier forts spread through present-day Derbyshire to Nottinghamshire. Digging in on the 14th’s northern flank, the 9th Hispana would make its forward headquarters at Lindum, today’s city of Lincoln.
The 14th G.M.V. faced west, toward the wild valleys of Wales, home to fierce tribes the legionaries had yet barely heard of. They would come to know of them soon enough. King Caratacus and his family reached Wales, taking with them the king’s household but leaving behind most of the horses, arms, and possessions that had once been symbols of Caratacus’s power. These spoils of war fell into the hands of the 2nd Augusta as the legion took over Calleva, demolished Atrebatian mud huts, laid out grid-pattern streets, and planned grand public buildings in stone. In Wales, the tribes not only welcomed Caratacus, they also made him their war chief, as he swore to repel the invaders.
Meanwhile, the men of the 14th G.M.V. and the other legions of Plautius’s task force had a mental readjustment to make. After decades at their old postings they now had to turn their backs on places, sights, sounds, weather, and people they had known intimately. Old lives, business investments, illegal wives, and illegitimate children had all been left behind, and there was no going back. The legions’ places at their previous stations had already been filled by the transfer of units from elsewhere in the empire.
For the 14th Gemina Martia Victrix, after a solid if unspectacular performance in the invasion, this was where their future lay. Britain was home.