Post-classical history



DURING THE HUNDRED YEARS WHICH FOLLOWED JULIUS CÆSAR’S invasion the British Islanders remained unmolested. The Belgic cities developed a life of their own, and the warrior tribes enjoyed amid their internecine feuds the comforting illusion that no one was likely to attack them again. However, their contacts with the mainland and with the civilisation of the Roman Empire grew, and trade flourished in a wide range of commodities. Roman traders established themselves in many parts, and carried back to Rome tales of the wealth and possibilities of Britannia, if only a stable Government were set up.

In the year A.D. 41 the murder of the Emperor Caligula, and a chapter of accidents, brought his uncle, the clownish scholar Claudius, to the throne of the world. No one can suppose that any coherent will to conquest resided in the new ruler, but the policy of Rome was shaped by the officials of highly competent departments. It proceeded upon broad lines, and in its various aspects attracted a growing and strong measure of support from many sections of public opinion. Eminent senators aired their views, important commercial and financial interests were conciliated, and elegant society had a new topic for gossip. Thus, in this triumphant period there were always available for a new emperor a number of desirable projects, well thought out beforehand and in harmony with the generally understood Roman system, any one of which might catch the fancy of the latest wielder of supreme power. Hence we find emperors elevated by chance whose unbridled and capricious passions were their only distinction, whose courts were debauched with lust and cruelty, who were themselves vicious or feeble-minded, who were pawns in the hands of their counsellors or favourites, decreeing great campaigns and setting their seal upon long-lasting acts of salutary legislation.

The advantages of conquering the recalcitrant island Britannia were paraded before the new monarch, and his interest was excited. He was attracted by the idea of gaining a military reputation. He gave orders that this dramatic and possibly lucrative enterprise should proceed. In the year 43, almost one hundred years after Julius Cæsar’s evacuation, a powerful, well-organised Roman army of some twenty thousand men was prepared for the subjugation of Britain. “The soldiers were indignant at the thought of carrying on a campaign outside the limits of the known world.” But when the Emperor’s favourite freedman, Narcissus, attempted to address them they felt the insult. The spectacle of a former slave called in to stand sponsor for their commander rallied them to their duty. They taunted Narcissus with his slave origin, with the mocking shout of “Io Saturnalia!”(for at the festival of Saturn the slaves donned their masters’ dress and held festival), but none the less they resolved to obey their chief’s order.

Their delay, however, had made their departure late in the season. They were sent over in three divisions, in order that they should not be hindered in landing—as might happen to a single force—and in their voyage across they first became discouraged because they were driven back in their course, and then plucked up courage because a flash of light rising in the east shot across to the west, the direction in which they were sailing. So they put in to the Island, and found none to oppose them. For the Britons, as the result of their inquiries, had not expected that they would come, and had therefore not assembled beforehand.1

The internal situation favoured the invaders. Cunobelinus (Shakespeare’s Cymbeline) had established an overlordship over the south-east of the Island, with his capital at Colchester. But in his old age dissensions had begun to impair his authority, and on his death the kingdom was ruled jointly by his sons Caractacus and Togodumnus. They were not everywhere recognised, and they had no time to form a union of the tribal kingdom before Plautius and the legions arrived. The people of Kent fell back on the tactics of Cassivellaunus, and Plautius accordingly had much trouble in searching them out; but when at last he did find them he first defeated Caractacus, and then his brother somewhere in East Kent. Then, advancing along Cæsar’s old line of march, he came on a river he had not heard of, the Medway. “The barbarians thought that the Romans would not be able to cross without a bridge, and consequently bivouacked in rather careless fashion on the opposite bank”; but the Roman general sent across “a detachment of Germans, who were accustomed to swim easily in full armour across the most turbulent streams. These fell unexpectedly upon the enemy, but instead of shooting at the men they disabled the horses that drew the chariots, and in the ensuing confusion not even the enemy’s mounted men could save themselves.”2 Nevertheless the Britons faced them on the second day, and were only broken by a flank attack, Vespasian—some day to be Emperor himself—having discovered a ford higher up. This victory marred the stage-management of the campaign. Plautius had won his battle too soon, and in the wrong place. Something had to be done to show that the Emperor’s presence was necessary to victory. So Claudius, who had been waiting on events in France, crossed the seas, bringing substantial reinforcements, including a number of elephants. A battle was procured, and the Romans won. Claudius returned to Rome to receive from the Senate the title of “Britannicus” and permission to celebrate a triumph.

But the British war continued. The Britons would not come to close quarters with the Romans, but took refuge in the swamps and the forests, hoping to wear out the invaders, so that, as in the days of Julius Cæsar, they should sail back with nothing accomplished. Caractacus escaped to the Welsh border, and, rousing its tribes, maintained an indomitable resistance for more than six years. It was not till A.D. 50 that he was finally defeated by a new general, Ostorius, an officer of energy and ability, who reduced to submission the whole of the more settled regions from the Wash to the Severn. Caractacus, escaping from the ruin of his forces in the West, sought to raise the Brigantes in the North. Their queen however handed him over to the Romans. “The fame of the British prince,” writes Suetonius, “had by this time spread over the provinces of Gaul and Italy; and upon his arrival in the Roman capital the people flocked from all quarters to behold him. The ceremonial of his entrance was conducted with great solemnity. On a plain adjoining the Roman camp the Pretorian troops were drawn up in martial array. The Emperor and his court took their station in front of the lines, and behind them was ranged the whole body of the people. The procession commenced with the different trophies which had been taken from the Britons during the progress of the war. Next followed the brothers of the vanquished prince, with his wife and daughter, in chains, expressing by their supplicating looks and gestures the fears with which they were actuated. But not so Caractacus himself. With a manly gait and an undaunted countenance he marched up to the tribunal, where the Emperor was seated, and addressed him in the following terms:

If to my high birth and distinguished rank I had added the virtues of moderation Rome had beheld me rather as a friend than a captive, and you would not have rejected an alliance with a prince descended from illustrious ancestors and governing many nations. The reverse of my fortune is glorious to you, and to me humiliating. I had arms, and men, and horses; I possessed extraordinary riches; and can it be any wonder that I was unwilling to lose them? Because Rome aspires to universal dominion must men therefore implicitly resign themselves to subjection? I opposed for a long time the progress of your arms, and had I acted otherwise would either you have had the glory of conquest or I of a brave resistance? I am now in your power. If you are determined to take revenge my fate will soon be forgotten, and you will derive no honour from the transaction. Preserve my life, and I shall remain to the latest ages a monument of your clemency.

“Immediately upon this speech Claudius granted him his liberty, as he did likewise to the other royal captives. They all returned their thanks in a manner the most grateful to the Emperor; and as soon as their chains were taken off, walking towards Agrippina, who sat upon a bench at a little distance, they repeated to her the same fervent declarations of gratitude and esteem.”3


The conquest was not achieved without one frightful convulsion of revolt. “In this year A.D. 61,” according to Tacitus, “a severe disaster was sustained in Britain.” Suetonius, the new governor, had engaged himself deeply in the West. He transferred the operational base of the Roman army from Wroxeter to Chester. He prepared to attack “the populous island of Mona [Anglesey], which had become a refuge for fugitives, and he built a fleet of flat-bottomed vessels suitable for those shallow and shifting seas. The infantry crossed in the boats, the cavalry went over by fords: where the water was too deep the men swam alongside of their horses. The enemy lined the shore, a dense host of armed men, interspersed with women clad in black like the Furies, with their hair hanging down and holding torches in their hands. Round this were Druids uttering dire curses and stretching their hands towards heaven. These strange sights terrified the soldiers. They stayed motionless, as if paralysed, offering their bodies to the blows. At last, encouraged by the general, and exhorting each other not to quail before the rabble of female fanatics, they advanced their standards, bore down all resistance, and enveloped the enemy in their own flames.”

“Suetonius imposed a garrison upon the conquered and cut down the groves devoted to their cruel superstitions; for it was part of their religion to spill the blood of captives on their altars, and to inquire of the gods by means of human entrails.”

This dramatic scene on the frontiers of modern Wales was the prelude to a tragedy. The king of the East Anglian Iceni had died. Hoping to save his kingdom and family from molestation he had appointed Nero, who had succeeded Claudius as Emperor, as heir jointly with his two daughters. “But,” says Tacitus, “things turned out differently. His kingdom was plundered by centurions, and his private property by slaves, as if they had been captured in war; his widow Boadicea [relished by the learned as Boudicca] was flogged, and his daughters outraged; the chiefs of the Iceni were robbed of their ancestral properties as if the Romans had received the whole country as a gift, and the king’s own relatives were reduced to slavery.” Thus the Roman historian.4

Boadicea’s tribe, at once the most powerful and hitherto the most submissive, was moved to frenzy against the Roman invaders. They flew to arms. Boadicea found herself at the head of a numerous army, and nearly all the Britons within reach rallied to her standard. There followed an up-rush of hatred from the abyss, which is a measure of the cruelty of the conquest. It was a scream of rage against invincible oppression and the superior culture which seemed to lend it power. “Boadicea,” said Ranke, “is rugged, earnest and terrible.”5 Her monument on the Thames Embankment opposite Big Ben reminds us of the harsh cry of liberty or death which has echoed down the ages.

In all Britain there were only four legions, at most twenty thousand men. The Fourteenth and Twentieth were with Suetonius on his Welsh campaign. The Ninth was at Lincoln, and the Second at Gloucester.

The first target of the revolt was Camulodunum (Colchester), an unwalled colony of Roman and Romanised Britons, where the recently settled veterans, supported by the soldiery, who hoped for similar licence for themselves, had been ejecting the inhabitants from their houses and driving them away from their lands. The Britons were encouraged by omens. The statue of Victory fell face foremost, as if flying from the enemy. The sea turned red. Strange cries were heard in the council chamber and the theatre. The Roman officials, business men, bankers, usurers, and the Britons who had participated in their authority and profits, found themselves with a handful of old soldiers in the midst of “a multitude of barbarians.” Suetonius was a month distant. The Ninth Legion was a hundred and twenty miles away. There was neither mercy nor hope. The town was burned to ashes. The temple, whose strong walls resisted the conflagration, held out for two days. Everyone, Roman or Romanised, was massacred and everything destroyed. Meanwhile the Ninth Legion was marching to the rescue. The victorious Britons advanced from the sack of Colchester to meet it. By sheer force of numbers they overcame the Roman infantry and slaughtered them to a man, and the commander, Petilius Cerialis, was content to escape with his cavalry. Such were the tidings which reached Suetonius in Anglesey. He realised at once that his army could not make the distance in time to prevent even greater disaster, but, says Tacitus, he, “undaunted, made his way through a hostile country to Londinium, a town which, though not dignified by the title of colony, was a busy emporium for traders.” This is the first mention of London in literature. Though fragments of Gallic or Italian pottery which may or may not antedate the Roman conquest have been found there, it is certain that the place attained no prominence until the Claudian invaders brought a mass of army contractors and officials to the most convenient bridgehead on the Thames.

Suetonius reached London with only a small mounted escort. He had sent orders to the Second Legion to meet him there from Gloucester, but the commander, appalled by the defeat of the Ninth, had not complied. London was a large, undefended town, full of Roman traders and their British associates, dependants, and slaves. It contained a fortified military depot, with valuable stores and a handful of legionaries. The citizens of London implored Suetonius to protect them, but when he heard that Boadicea, having chased Cerialis towards Lincoln, had turned and was marching south he took the hard but right decision to leave them to their fate. The commander of the Second Legion had disobeyed him, and he had no force to withstand the enormous masses hastening towards him. His only course was to rejoin the Fourteenth and Twentieth Legions, who were marching with might and main from Wales to London along the line of the Roman road now known as Watling Street, and, unmoved by the entreaties of the inhabitants, he gave the signal to march, receiving within his lines all who wished to go with him.

The slaughter which fell upon London was universal. No one was spared, neither man, woman, nor child. The wrath of the revolt concentrated itself upon all of those of British blood who had lent themselves to the wiles and seductions of the invader. In recent times, with London buildings growing taller and needing deeper foundations, the power-driven excavating machines have encountered at many points the layer of ashes which marks the effacement of London at the hands of the natives of Britain.

Boadicea then turned upon Verulamium (St. Albans). Here was another trading centre, to which high civic rank had been accorded. A like total slaughter and obliteration was inflicted. “No less,” according to Tacitus, “than seventy thousand citizens and allies were slain” in these three cities. “For the barbarians would have no capturing, no selling, nor any kind of traffic usual in war; they would have nothing but killing, by sword, cross, gibbet, or fire.” These grim words show us an inexpiable war like that waged between Carthage and her revolted mercenaries two centuries before. Some high modern authorities think these numbers are exaggerated; but there is no reason why London should not have contained thirty or forty thousand inhabitants, and Colchester and St. Albans between them about an equal number. If the butcheries in the countryside are added the estimate of Tacitus may well stand. This is probably the most horrible episode which our Island has known. We see the crude and corrupt beginnings of a higher civilisation blotted out by the ferocious uprising of the native tribes. Still, it is the primary right of men to die and kill for the land they live in, and to punish with exceptional severity all members of their own race who have warmed their hands at the invaders’ hearth.

“And now Suetonius, having with him the Fourteenth Legion, with the veterans of the Twentieth, and the auxiliaries nearest at hand, making up a force of about ten thousand fully armed men, resolved . . . for battle. Selecting a position in a defile closed in behind a wood, and having made sure that there was no enemy but in front, where there was an open flat unsuited for ambuscades, he drew up his legions in close order, with the light-armed troops on the flanks, while the cavalry was massed at the extremities of the wings.” The day was bloody and decisive. The barbarian army, eighty thousand strong, attended, like the Germans and the Gauls, by their women and children in an unwieldy wagon-train, drew out their array, resolved to conquer or perish. Here was no thought of subsequent accommodation. On both sides it was all for all. At heavy adverse odds Roman discipline and tactical skill triumphed. No quarter was given, even to the women.

“It was a glorious victory, fit to rank with those of olden days. Some say that little less than eighty thousand Britons fell, our own killed being about four hundred, with a somewhat larger number wounded.” These are the tales of the victors. Boadicea poisoned herself. Pœnius Postumus, camp commander of the Second Legion, who had both disobeyed his general and deprived his men of their share in the victory, on hearing of the success of the Fourteenth and Twentieth ran himself through with his sword.

Suetonius now thought only of vengeance, and indeed there was much to repay. Reinforcements of four or five thousand men were sent by Nero from Germany, and all hostile or suspect tribes were harried with fire and sword. Worst of all was the want of food; for in their confident expectation of capturing the supplies of the Romans the Britons had brought every available man into the field and left their land unsown. Yet even so their spirit was unbroken, and the extermination of the entire ancient British race might have followed but for the remonstrances of a new Procurator, supported by the Treasury officials at Rome, who saw themselves about to be possessed of a desert instead of a province. As a man of action Suetonius ranks high, and his military decisions were sound. But there was a critical faculty alive in the Roman state which cannot be discounted as arising merely through the jealousies of important people. It was held that Suetonius had been rashly ambitious of military glory and had been caught unaware by the widespread uprising of the province, that “his reverses were due to his own folly, his successes to good fortune,” and that a Governor must be sent, “free from feelings of hostility or triumph, who would deal gently with our conquered enemies.” The Procurator, Julius Classicianus, whose tombstone is now in the British Museum, kept writing in this sense to Rome, and pleaded vehemently for the pacification of the warrior bands, who still fought on without seeking truce or mercy, starving and perishing in the forests and the fens. In the end it was resolved to make the best of the Britons. German unrest and dangers from across the Rhine made even military circles in Rome disinclined to squander forces in remoter regions. The loss in a storm of some of Suetonius’ warships was made the pretext and occasion of his supersession. The Emperor Nero sent a new Governor, who made a peace with the desperate tribesmen which enabled their blood to be perpetuated in the Island race.


Tacitus gives an interesting account of the new province.

The red hair and large limbs of the inhabitants of Caledonia [he says] pointed quite clearly to a German origin, while the dark complexion of the Silures, their usually curly hair, and the fact that Spain lies opposite to them are evidence that Iberians of a former date crossed over and occupied these parts. Those who are nearest to the Gauls are also like them, either from the permanent influence of original descent, or because climate had produced similar qualities. . . . The religious beliefs of Gaul may be traced in the strongly marked British superstition [Druidism]. The language differs but little. There is the same boldness in challenging danger, and when it is near the same timidity in shrinking from it. The Britons however exhibit more spirit, being a people whom a long peace has not yet enervated. . . . Their sky is obscured by continual rain and cloud. Severity of old is unknown. The days exceed in length those of our world; the nights are bright, and in the extreme north so short that between sunset and dawn there is but little distinction. . . . With the exception of the olive and vine, and plants which usually grow in warmer climates, the soil will yield all ordinary produce in plenty. It ripens slowly, but grows rapidly, the cause in each case being excessive moisture of soil and atmosphere.

In A.D. 78 Agricola, a Governor of talent and energy, was sent to Britannia. Instead of spending his first year of office in the customary tour of ceremony, he took field against all who still disputed the Roman authority. One large tribe which had massacred a squadron of auxiliary cavalry was exterminated. The island of Mona, from which Suetonius had been recalled by the rising of Boadicea, was subjugated. With military ability Agricola united a statesmanlike humanity. According to Tacitus (who had married his daughter), he proclaimed that “little is gained by conquest if followed by oppression.” He mitigated the severity of the corn tribute. He encouraged and aided the building of temples, courts of justice, and dwelling-houses. He provided a liberal education for the sons of the chiefs, and showed “such a preference for the natural powers of the Britons over the more laboured style of the Gauls” that the well-to-do classes were conciliated and became willing to adopt the toga and other Roman fashions. “Step by step they were led to practices which disposed to vice—the lounge, the bath, the elegant banquet. All this in their ignorance they called civilisation, when it was but part of their servitude.”


Although in the Senate and governing circles in Rome it was constantly explained that the Imperial policy adhered to the principle of the great Augustus, that the frontiers should be maintained but not extended, Agricola was permitted to conduct six campaigns of expansion in Britannia. In the third he reached the Tyne, the advances of his legions being supported at every stage by a fleet of sea-borne supplies. In the fifth campaign he reached the line of the Forth and Clyde, and here on this wasp-waist of Britain he might well have dug himself in. But there was no safety or permanent peace for the British province unless he could subdue the powerful tribes and large bands of desperate warriors who had been driven northwards by his advance. Indeed, it is evident that he would never of his own will have stopped in any direction short of the ocean shore. Therefore in his sixth campaign he marched northwards again with all his forces. The position had now become formidable. Past misfortunes had taught the Britons the penalties of disunion.

Agricola’s son-in-law tells us:

Our army, elated by the glory they had won, exclaimed that they must penetrate the recesses of Caledonia and at length in an unbroken succession of battles discover the farthest limits of Britain. But the Britons, thinking themselves baffled not so much by our valour as by our general’s skilful use of an opportunity, abated nothing of their arrogance, arming their youth, removing their wives and children to a place of safety, and assembling together to ratify, with sacred rites, a confederacy of all their states.

The decisive battle was fought at Mons Graupius, a place which remains unidentified, though some suggest the Pass of Killiecrankie. Tacitus describes in unconvincing detail the course of this famous struggle. The whole of Caledonia, all that was left of Britannia, a vast host of broken, hunted men, resolved on death or freedom, confronted in their superiority of four or five to one the skilfully handled Roman legions and auxiliaries, among whom no doubt many British renegades were serving. It is certain that Tacitus greatly exaggerated the dimensions of the native army in these wilds, where they could have no prepared magazines. The number, though still considerable, must have been severely limited. Apparently, as in so many ancient battles, the beaten side were the victims of misunderstanding and the fate of the day was decided against them before the bulk of the forces realised that a serious engagement had begun. Reserves descended from the hills too late to achieve victory, but in good time to be massacred in the rout. The last organised resistance of Britain to the Roman power ended at Mons Graupius. Here, according to the Roman account, “ten thousand of the enemy were slain, and on our side there were about three hundred and sixty men.” Clive’s victory at Plassey, which secured for the British Empire a long spell of authority in India, was gained against greater odds, with smaller forces and with smaller losses.

The way to the entire subjugation of the Island was now open, and had Agricola been encouraged or at least supported by the Imperial Government the course of history might have been altered. But Caledonia was to Rome only a sensation: the real strain was between the Rhine and the Danube. Counsels of prudence prevailed, and the remnants of the British fighting men were left to moulder in the Northern mists.

Dio Cassius, writing over a century later, describes how they were a perpetual source of expense and worry to the settled regions of the South.

There are two very extensive tribes in Britain, the Caledonians and the Mæatæ. The Mæatæ dwell close up to the cross-wall which cuts the island in two, the Caledonians beyond them. Both live on wild, waterless hills or forlorn and swampy plains, without walls or towns or husbandry, subsisting on pastoral products and the nuts which they gather. They have fish in plenty, but do not eat it. They live in huts, go naked and unshod; make no separate marriages, and rear all their offspring. They mostly have a democratic government, and are much addicted to robbery. . . . They can bear hunger and cold and all manner of hardship; they will retire into their marshes and hold out for days with only their heads above water, and in the forest they will subsist on bark and roots.


In the wild North and West freedom found refuge among the mountains, but elsewhere the conquest and pacification were at length complete and Britannia became one of the forty-five provinces of the Roman Empire. The great Augustus had proclaimed as the Imperial ideal the creation of a commonwealth of self-governing cantons. Each province was organised as a separate unit, and within it municipalities received their charters and rights. The provinces were divided between those exposed to barbarian invasion or uprising, for which an Imperial garrison must be provided, and those which required no such protection. The military provinces were under the direct supervision of the Emperor. The more sheltered were controlled, at least in form, through the medium of the Senate, but in all provinces the principle was followed of adapting the form of government to local conditions. No prejudice of race, language, or religion obstructed the universal character of the Roman system. The only divisions were those of class, and these ran unchallenged throughout the ordered world. There were Roman citizens, there was an enormous mass of non-Roman citizens, and there were slaves, but movement to full citizenship was possible to fortunate members of the servile class. On this basis therefore the life of Britain now developed.

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