The ultimate adventure, when all the barriers and ogres have been overcome, is commonly represented as a mystical marriage of the triumphant hero-soul with the Queen Goddess of the World. This is the crisis at the zenith…For she is the incarnation of the promise of perfection; the soul’s assurance that, at the conclusion of its exile in a world of organized inadequacies, the bliss that once was known will be known again.
To understand the backdrop for Rome’s decision to invade Britain in 43 AD, one needs to understand the strong social and trading ties that Britain had with continental Europe. Similar to the Modern World, the Ancient World had a global economy. Any major event on the Continent significantly impacted Britain.
The post below summarizes the political and trading connections between Britain and Gaul up to Julius Caesar’s campaign in Gaul (modern day France) about 60 AD.
Ancient Britain History: Connection to Gaul
Toward the beginning of second century BC, a confederation of Belgic tribes between the English Channel and the west bank of the Rhine in northern Gaul began minting gold coins. These communities had close social ties to their British neighbors and it was not long before their coins found their way to the isle. The areas where these coins were distributed in Britain gives a clear picture of where the networks of exchange were in operation.
The Gallo-Belgic A coins were minted in the region between the Seine and Somme valleys in 175– 120 BC. These gold coins (staters) were produced under the authority of Gallo-Belgic leaders who primarily used these for gift exchanges with their allies. In Britain, these coins were predominantly found in the Thames estuary which was believed to be the main point of entry. A few coins were found in the south, suggesting secondary networks there.
The wide distribution of these coins suggest strong social networks between the leaders of Britain and Gaul. Caesar wrote King Diviciacus of the Suessiones tribe in Gaul had sovereignty in Britain. Most likely, Diviciacus was high king over one or more of the British tribes. He likely gave coins to the British nobles to ensure their continued fealty.
The later Gallo-Belgic C and D coins were minted between 120 – 60 BC. The coins were widely scattered throughout southern Britain between Beachy Head (the highest chalk sea cliff near Eastbourne) and Portsmouth. There was also a high concentrations of these coins found in the broader Thames estuary region.
To fund the war against the Romans, the Gauls issued a large number of Gallo-Belgic E coins that were widely distributed over much of southern Britain. Caesar indicated the Britons had served in most of the Gallic wars. British warriors drawn to the battle-front in Gaul most likely brought these coins back as rewards for their fighting. It is estimated that 5,000 – 6,000 kilograms of fine gold was needed for the total minting required. This is a measure both of the intensity of the coordinated native resistance to Rome and the available resources available to the war leaders.
Caesar wrote there was a large group of immigrants from Belgic Gaul who “came to raid and stayed to sow’. He gave no indication when they arrived or where they settled. The timing of the event was probably the late second or early first century BC since the memory was still alive in Caesar’s time. Most likely, they landed somewhere on the Solent coast (near the Isle of Wright) and settled in Hampshire. Their capital was Venta Belgarum (market of the Belgae), modern-day Winchester.
Commius, a Gallo-Belgic ally turned enemy against Caesar, later fled to Britain to join his own people there. He set up a new center, Calleva (Silchester) on the northern region of the Belgic territory. This area would have been considered a no-man’s-land. The Belgae immigration unlikely conflicted with the vested interests already in Britain.
Trading Routes with Gaul
Early in the first century BC, the coastal port of Hengistbury Head that shelters the Christchurch Harbour became a reinvigorated trading network linking southwest Britain with Amorica and lower Normandy. The headland was protected by a massive rampart and ditch.
Prominent archaeological finds here include Mediterranean commodities: Roman wine amphorae, bronze cups, purple and yellow glass in raw form, and dried figs. Local Amorican merchants carried these exotic goods to trade with their own merchandise with the Britons. The principal exports from Britain, according to Greek geographer Strabo, was “grain, cattle, gold, silver and iron…also hides and slaves and dogs that are by nature suited to the purpose of the chase.”
It is uncertain how long the trade flourished here because of the upheavals caused by Julius Caesar’s expeditions to Britain in 55 and 54 BC.
Caesar’s Campaign in Gaul
By about 60 BC, most of the communities of southeastern Britain were locked into complex social and economic networks with their Gallic neighbors. People and commodities moved with ease between the two regions, introducing the Britons in the central southern region to wine and other Mediterranean luxuries.
The revitalization of maritime networks was due, in part, to the impact of Roman commercial activities in Gaul. The increasing Roman presence in southern Gaul caused new confederations to grow in northern Gaul. In this atmosphere of political self-awareness, social ties on both sides of the British channel were strengthened. New alliances were formed. Mobility became the order of the day.
In 58 BC, Julius Caesar marched into free Gaul, setting the pathway for conquest and consolidation that dramatically changed the region. Caesar was aware of the maritime interests of the Amoricans and said the Veneti tribe, “… had many ships and regularly sail to and from Britain. When it comes to knowledge and experience to navigation, they leave all the other tribes standing…They are able to extract tolls from almost all who regularly use these waters.”
Though Caesar had planned to launch a major campaign in Britain in 56 BC, a revolt among the tribes of Armorica distracted him. Strabo claimed the uprising was a deliberate attempt by the Armoricans to deflect Caesar from his British exploits that would have disrupted their lucrative trade with the island. In any event, the Armorican insurgents were defeated.
Late in 56 BC Caesar then turned his attentions to subduing the tribes occupying the northern Gaul coast that flanked the Strait of Dover. Their resistance was greater than he anticipated. He had to return the following year in 55 BC to finish the task. His campaign to Britain was again delayed by an invasion of Germans across the Rhine.
By the time Caesar first invaded Britain, there was only enough time for a cursory exploration of the island he could glimpse across the narrow strait. His forays into Britain in 55 – 54 BC introduced the Britons to the reality of Roman power. Although Caesar’s legions ultimately departed the islands, Britain became, in reality, an adjunct to the empire.
In less than five years when Caesar first entered Gaul, western Europe was completely transformed. All of Gaul came under Roman control. Though there were occasional local uprisings in this region, the situation became sufficiently stable for a national census to be implemented by 27 BC. In 12 BC, the process of incorporating Gaul into the Empire was marked by the dedication of an altar to Rome and Augustus in Lugdunum (Lyon). Representatives from sixty tribes in Gaul were in attendance at this ceremony.
The integration of Gaul into the political and economic sphere of Rome significantly impacted trade routes between Rome and Britain that favored certain tribes, further igniting animosity among them. The high demand for British slaves spurred local warfare and raiding to satiate the Roman’s appetite for the highly valued human commodity.
To be continued
The next series of posts will describe the rise of powerful Celtic tribes in Britain leading to internal conflicts and the growing tension between pro and anti-Roman factions that set the stage for the Empire’s invasion under Claudius in 43 AD.
Barry Cunliffe, Britain Begins; Oxford University Press, 2013.
Graham Webster, The Roman Invasion of Britain, Reprinted 1999 by Routledge (Imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group), NY.
Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 2005.
Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces; New world Library, Novato, CA; 2008.