In the end, Caligula drew up his army in battle array on the shore of the ocean…and gave the order: “Gather seashells!”
Prequel to Roman Invasion of Britain 43 AD
Claudius declared Britain was a country ‘where a real triumph could most readily be earned’. Several of the events leading up to the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 AD were bizarre based on accounts by Roman historians.
Unlike the stiff British resistance in Caesar’s expeditions to Britain in 55-54 BC, there was no initial battle when the Romans landed in 43 AD. Though Claudius claimed glorious victory, he only took charge at the end of the campaign. His role in the invasion appeared staged like a Hollywood production. He was in Britain for only sixteen days and took command of the following activities:
- Ceremonial arrival
- Treaty discussions with local chieftains
- Battle for capture of Camulodunum (modern day Colchester)
- Victory celebrations
This article provides an overview of key events and players leading up to the invasion based on the historical accounts from Dio Cassius and Seutonius. Some archaeological experts propose the Claudian invasion was the last in a line of interventions, both and planned, that spanned the period between 55 BC and AD 43. Some have suggested that there was already a Roman military force in Britain prior to 43 AD. The invasion was nothing more than a peace-keeping expedition. This theory will be discussed in a future post.
Aftermath of Augustus
One of the greatest British kings, Cunobelin, was an astute politician who came into power about 9 AD. At this time Emperor Augustus faced one of Rome’s most calamitous periods when the German Prince Arminius destroyed three Roman legions in Germany. Cunobelin maintained a balance of power with Rome by welcoming their traders into his capital, Camulodunum (modern day Colchester). Cunobelin reigned over the Trinovantes and the Catuvellauni. A great statesman, he skillfully balanced between the bitterly opposing pro-and anti-Roman factions.
Augustus died in 14 AD and was succeeded by Tiberius. He accepted Augustus’ injunction to allow things to stay as they were and to concentrate on sound administration. There was renewal of diplomatic activity with Verica (King of the Atrebates).
The final years of Cunobelin was marred by a family upset around 40 AD, when Caligula was Emperor. The elderly king appointed his pro-Roman son, Adminius, as ruler of the northeast tip of Kent. This included the land-locked harbor along the southeast coast and the Wansum Channel into the Thames Estuary. It appears it was Roman policy to ensure that the main landing points remain in friendly hands.
The precise date of Cunobelin’s death is not certain, but it is within 1 year before or after 40 AD. His eldest son, Togodumnus, inherited the kingdom while his brother, Caratacus, struck out on his own conquering other territories. Their brother, Adminius, was ousted from Britain about 40 AD. His flight may have been connected with these events.
Caligula’s Staged Invasion
When Caligula visited the Germanian legions and auxiliaries in 40 AD, Adminius and his followers sought the Emperor’s aid to restore the status quo ante. The Roman historian Suetonius said Adminius surrendered to the Emperor after he had been banished by his father, Cunobelin. Caligula then dispatched a message claiming all of Britain had surrendered to him. He ordered his couriers to drive their chariots all the way to the Forum and the Senate house to deliver his letter.
Caligula then ordered all troops and siege engines to be positioned on the ocean shoreline for battle. It was as if he was going to conduct a campaign in Britain. He embarked on a trireme (ship with multiple banks of rowers), sailed a short distance from shore, and then returned. He took his seat on a lofty platform and gave the soldiers the signal to charge with trumpeters urging them on.
No one understood what Caligula had in mind when he suddenly gave the order to gather seashells as plunder owed to Rome. He ordered the soldiers to fill their helmets and folds of their cloths with the ocean loot. Having secured these spoils, he became elated as if he had enslaved the ocean. He commemorated the victory by erecting a tall lighthouse where fires would guide ships at night.
Caligula gave his soldiers many presents and took their shells back to Rome to exhibit the bounty from Britain. He also selected a few German prisoners to parade in an extravagant triumph that he told his agents to prepare in Rome.
Although Caligula’s real plan is obscured by these wanton acts, he clearly intended to invade Britain. It may have been at Adminius’ urging. But this invasion was deferred, most likely as a result of mutinous soldiers refusing to cross the monster-infested British Channel.
In early 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated in Rome for his crazed behavior.
Rise of Anti-Roman Factions
The political strife in Britain did not come all at once, but by stages, starting with the removal of Adminius. Cunobelin felt he could entrust his son with the strategically important area of Kent to rule. After the death of Cunobelin, Togodumnus and Caratacus pursued an expansionist policy even more vigorously than their father. And they did this with less respect for what seemed an indecisive and ineffectual Roman authority across the Channel.
Dynasties of Southeast Britain
|Date||Rome||Southern Dynasty||Northern Dynasty|
|50 BC||Civil War, Murder of Caesar;|
|30 BC||Octavian and Mark Antony Civil War||Addedomaros|
There was ongoing, bitter rivalry between the ruling houses of the Atrebates and the Catuvellauni. The control of lands in Kent teetered back and forth between these dynasties. The Atrebates laid claim to east Kent through Eppillus, who reigned there from 5 to 20 AD until Cunobelin took control.
Verica succeeded his elder brother Eppillus as king of the Atrebates about 15 AD. He established his capital at Calleva (modern-day Silchester). Verica’s territory was pressed from the east by Cunobelin’s brother, Epatticus, who conquered Calleva (modern day Silchester) about 25 AD.
When Epatticus died in 35 AD, Verica regained his original territory. Cunobelin chose not to challenge Verica. He instead honored Verica’s treaty agreement with Rome.
With the death of Cunobelin, the political balance tipped when Caratacus first took control of Kent from his brother Adminius. Not content with this, he invaded south of the Thames. He succeeded where his uncle Epatticus had failed: gain control of territories in southern Britain and forge them into his kingdom. Sometime after 40 AD, he conquered the entire Atrebates territory.
This time, the British King taking flight and seeking protection was Verica. Appearing as a suppliant before Claudius, Verica claimed he had been driven out of Britain by an uprising. He called upon Claudius to fulfill his obligation under their treaty.
Clearly, critical land areas on the southeast coasts of Britain were now under hostile control and the political balance so skillfully developed and maintained by Augustus was in shambles. Evidence of further expansion of the Catuvellaunian power was provided by Dio Cassius in his Roman History. Soon after the Roman landing, Commander Aulus Plautius received the surrender of some Dobunni, who, he adds, were subjects of the Catuvellauni.
This gave the newly empowered Claudius a cast-iron justification for an invasion. Victory would elevate him to the same glory as Julius Caesar and divert Rome’s attention away from his relationship with the Senate that was charged with suspicion and hostility.
To be continued:
The next post will highlight the Roman pre-launch activities that almost ended in disaster and the relative ease of the Legions to occupy Britain initially.
John Manley, AD 43 The Roman Invasion of Britain: A reassessment; Tempus Publishing, Inc., Charleston, SC, 2002.
David Miles, The Tribes of Britain; Phoenix, Imprint of Orion Books, Ltd., London, UK, 2006.
Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, The Twelve Caesars, Translated by Robert Graves; Reprinted 2007 by Penguin Books, New York.
Graham Webster, Roman Invasion of Britain, Reprinted 1999 by Routledge, London.
Graham Webster, Rome Against Caratacus: The Roman Campaigns in Britain AD 48-58; Reprinted 2002 by Routledge, London.
Graham Webster, Boudica: The British Revolt Against Rome AD 60; Reprinted 2004 by Routledge, London.
Cassius Dio, Roman History, published in Vol. VII of the Loeb Classical Library, Edition 1924; Book LX http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cassius_Dio/60*.html