Claudius Roman Invasion Britain

Emperor Claudius Credited with Roman Conquest of Britain

Emperor Claudius Credited with Roman Conquest of Britain

“Claudius undertook, in all, one expedition and that one was of no great extent. When he was granted triumphal ornaments by decree of the Senate, he thought that the title was not weighty enough to grace the imperial magistracy and craved the distinction of a proper triumph.”
—Suetonius, Life of Claudius.


Claudius Roman Invasion Britain

Ancestral Legacy of Claudius

Emperor Claudius is credited for the Roman invasion of Britain in 43AD. He was the first emperor born outside of Italy in Lugdunum (Lyon, France). As the son of Drusus and Antonia Minor, he emphasized his right to rule as a member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

Cameo of Claudius Cabinet des Médailles

Cameo of Claudius Cabinet des Médailles

Claudius was also the grandson of Mark Antony, whose marriage to Octavia (Octavian’s sister) resulted in the birth of two daughters, one being Claudius’ mother. Shortly after Antony’s defeat and death in 30 BC, Octavian declared his rival’s birthday, 14 January, as nefastus (unholy). Of note, Claudius’ father also had the same birthday on January 14—a day no public business could be transacted in Rome.

Octavian also convinced the Senator to damn Antony’s memory forever (damnatio memoriae). By discrediting Antony, Octavian hoped to elevate his standing as Emperor Augustus in history. It took Claudius, almost one hundred years later, to restore Antony’s memory

Bust of Mark Antony

Bust of Mark Antony

Not only did Claudius restore the memory of Antony, he also needed a conquest which he could earn a triumph to legitimize his rule against potential usurpers. Suetonius dismissed the Roman invasion of Britain by Claudius as of no great importance. “Claudius decided that Britain was the country where a real triumph could be most readily earned. Its conquest had not been attempted since the days of Julius Caesar. The Britons were now threatening vengeance because the Romans had refused to return some fugitives.”

The written account of the Roman invasion of Britain in 43AD is primarily based on Cassius Dio’s “Roman History.” Unfortunately, his account gives very little detail about the campaign. The only resistance the Romans encountered was the forces led by Caratacus and Togodumnus, the anti-Roman sons of Cunobelin from the Catuvellauni tribe.

 

Britain_WEB_SIZED_INK[1]

Opportunity for a Triumph

In 41AD, Caratacus strategically positioned himself in Silchester, so he could thrust westward to grasp the lands of the Dobunni and of the Atrebates, ruled by the elderly Verica. Verica fled to Rome seeking help from Claudius to stop the aggression. Caratacus and Togodumnus countered by arrogantly demanding that Claudius return their pro-Roman brother, Adminius, and Verica to Britain. Their demand instead triggered the emperor’s decision to send four legions to settle the political differences. Claudius would later use this as a propaganda tool to convince the Senate that he deserved a triumph for conquering Britain—a task left undone by his great ancestor Julius Caesar.

Bust of Emperor Claudius

Bust of Emperor Claudius

The Britons must have been misled to believe that Rome’s only intent was to provide legions for peace-keeping. Most tribes that felt the expansionist weight of the Catuvellani had no reason to resist the Romans. The Atrebates viewed the empire as their saviors.

No Initial Resistance

In the summer of 43AD, the Roman legions led by Plautius did not encounter any British resistance after they landed. They had to search for the troublemakers, Caratacus and Togodumnus.

Possible Landing Richborough Roman Fort at Sandwich, Kent

Possible Roman Landing Site Richborough Roman Fort in Kent

The first battle took place at a river that many believed was the Medway in Kent. Armed Britons waited for the Romans on the other side of the waterway that had no bridge. Plautius sent some auxiliaries, who were accustomed to swimming in full armor, across the waterway to wound the horses that drove the British war chariots.

Celtic Chariot

Celtic War Chariot in Britain

Soon after, Flavius Vespasian crossed the river with his troops and surprised the Britons. The ensuing battle lasted for two days until reinforcements from another Roman legion proved the turning point.

The British warriors then retreated to the River Thames, possibly the Tidal Pool of London, east of the Tower Bridges. After some more fighting, Plautius stopped his advancement and sent for Claudius to lead the final charge. By this time, Togodumnus had died from injuries suffered from battle.

Roman Infantryman in Ancient Britain

Roman Infantryman

Claudius’ Final Victory

Extensive preparation had already been made in advance of Claudius’ arrival. Various types of equipment, including elephants, were gathered to support the emperor’s final charge into battle.

Roman and Celtic Shields Used in Ancient Britain

Roman and Celtic Shields Used in Ancient Britain

Claudius arrived at the Thames toward the end of summer. He crossed the river, defeated the enemy, and captured Camulodunum (Colchester). Cassius Dio says, “He won over many people, some by diplomacy, some by force of arms. He confiscated the weapons of these peoples and handed the tribes over to Plautius, and left him with orders to subdue the remaining regions.”

Claudius depicted as the Roman god Jupiter

Claudius depicted as the Roman god Jupiter

Claudius was in Britain for only sixteen days to achieve his glorious victory. He rushed back to Rome for his triumph and accolades. The inscription dated 52AD on the Arch Claudius in Rome was dedicated by the Senate and the People of Rome in recognition of Claudius receiving the submission of eleven kings without loss. The phrase “without loss” confirms Suetonius’ account that British princes submitted without battle or bloodshed to the emperor in Colchester.

Linnea at Roman Wall at Colchester

Linnea at Roman Wall at Colchester

Conclusions

It is now theorized that Rome culminated the processes of subjugating at least southeast Britain and of bringing that area under its complete control before 43AD. Viewed in this light, the Claudius’ campaign in 43AD was not a military invasion, but rather a political annexation of an already ‘Romanized” region.

Celtic Tribal Territories in Southern Britain

Celtic Tribal Territories in Southwest Britain

The primary evidence leading to this conclusion is as follows:

  1. Archaeological findings suggest the region was populated with increasing multiple cultures with different ethic identities and languages between the time of Caesar and Claudius.
  2. Children and other close relatives of indigenous rulers in Britain were educated in Rome. There was a growing practice that British kings first sought recognition from Rome when they took control of a region. Augustus also personally appointed client kings.
  3. There are increasing hints from archaeological sites that Roman soldiers were present in Britain before 43 AD. Orthogonal structures, more typical of Roman architecture, have been discovered near Colchester and the Fishbourne Palace.
Replica of a Dining Room at Fishbourne Palace

Replica of a Dining Room at Fishbourne Palace

There was precedence of Romans stationing legions beyond the formal frontier of the empire’s rule. Julius Caesar stationed three to four legions with Cleopatra after he restored her to the throne in 47 AD. Feel free to comment on whether you believe the theory that the invasion of Britain was nothing more than a ploy by Claudius to legitimize his role as the Roman emperor.

Julius Caesar Statue

Statue of Julius Caesar

References

  1. John Manley, AD 43 The Roman Invasion of Britain: A reassessment; Tempus Publishing, Inc., Charleston, SC, 2002.
  2. Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, The Twelve Caesars, Translated by Robert Graves; Reprinted 2007 by Penguin Books, New York.
  3. Graham Webster, Roman Invasion of Britain, Reprinted 1999 by Routledge, London.
  4. Graham Webster, Rome Against Caratacus: The Roman Campaigns in Britain AD 48-58; Reprinted 2002 by Routledge, London.
  5. Graham Webster, Boudica: The British Revolt against Rome AD 60; Reprinted 2004 by Routledge, London.
  6. 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

Coming Soon!

My website is undergoing development in anticipation of the launch of my epic historical fantasy, APOLLO’S RAVEN, next year. The next series of posts will focus on the historical background and themes in the upcoming series.

Apollo's Raven Book Cover Under Development

Apollo’s Raven Book Cover (Historical Fantasy)

The concept of what constitutes a heroine’s journey for the main character of Catrin, a Celtic warrior princess, will be discussed. Mark Antony—the inspiration for Marcellus, Catrin’s lover—will be explored in a new light.

Celtic Warrior Princess

Catrin, Celtic Warrior Princess Summons Raven

Please join me on my journey of discovering how history and mythology can relate to each one of us today.

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Roman Invasion Britain 43 AD

Backdrop to Roman Invasion Britain 43 AD

The events of the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 AD were primarily taken from accounts of Cassius Dio’s “Roman History” and Suetonius’s “The Twelve Caesars.” The historians give little detail about the invasion. There was no British resistance when the Roman legions first landed. Later, the Catuvellauni tribe led by Togodumnus and Caratacus primarily resisted the Roman invasion.

Ironically, Suetonius dismissed the British campaign as of no great importance. He further said, “Claudius decided that Britain was the country where a real triumph could be most readily earned. Its conquest had not been attempted since the days of Julius Caesar. The Britons were now threatening vengeance because the Romans had refused to return some fugitives.”

Imperial portrait of Roman emperor Claudius

Imperial portrait of Roman emperor Claudius

Some archaeologists have proposed that the campaign was nothing more than a political annexation in a region that was already highly influenced by Rome. The following article provides the backdrop to the Roman invasion in 43 AD and the evidence that supports the theory that this was not a full-scale military campaign.

Map Ancient Britain 1st Center

Map Ancient Southeast Britain 1st Century


Evidence of Rome’s Influence Prior to 43 AD

Obsides

One strategy that Rome used to effectively control Britain between the invasions of Caesar and Claudius were to take obsides (hostages) in conjunction with peace pacts and treaties. In Rome, these hostages were indoctrinated into the Roman culture.

During Caesar’s invasions of Britain in 55 – 54 BC, he demanded several hostages as part of the peace truce with southeastern British tribes. Most of these hostages were children or close relatives of the British rulers.

Celtic Child in Roma Ara Pacis Procession Nord Particolare

Celtic child in frieze of Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace)

British rulers, many of whom were educated in Rome and fought in their auxiliary, had to first seek recognition from Rome when coming to power. From Augustus onward, the rulers in southeast Britain were appointed by the emperor. Although there may not have been large-scale occupation of Britain by Roman troops, the dynastic rulers were viewed as imperial administrators of Rome.

Presence of Roman Soldiers

There are archaeological findings that hint Roman soldiers were present in Britain prior to 43 AD. In particular, there may have been a Roman fort near Colchester. The fort can only be detected from aerial photography and is thus undated. However, it is constructed in accordance with an orthogonal Roman fort. It is possible that Cunobelin, who was most likely trained in the Roman army, constructed this fort along similar lines as a Roman encampment. Alternatively, the fort may have garrisoned a genuine Roman auxiliary prior to 43 AD.

Linnea at Roman Wall at Colchester

Linnea at Roman Wall at Colchester

There is also another evidence of Roman occupation prior to 43 AD at Fishbourne Palace. The first stage of timber buildings and the orthogonal road layout was most likely constructed prior to 43 AD. It is possible the pro-Roman ruler Verica might have organized his own forces in Roman style military buildings. More likely, there was a detachment of Roman auxiliary already stationed at Fishbourne to assist Verica.

Model of Fishbourne Palace

Replica of Fishbourne Palace

There is precedence that Romans stationed troops beyond the formal frontier of the empire’s rule. Julius Caesar stationed three legions with Cleopatra in Egypt when he left her country. Herod’ arrival in Jerusalem in 37 BC was supported by a Roman legion.

Roman Pottery

The distribution of Arretine pottery that was manufactured in the Roman Empire was widely distributed in the areas of Fishbourne and Chichester. The pottery was found in ditches with a distinct Roman military profile in both areas. Yet there is no evidence of Late Iron Age settlement activity which strongly suggests the presence of Roman soldiers prior to 43 AD.

Céramique sigillée, époque gallo-romaine, musées de la Cour d'Or à Metz.

Arretine Red-Gloss terra sigillata Roman Pottery

In contrast, Canterbury had a substantial Late Iron Age settlement activity, but very little Arretine pottery has been found from this time period. Substantial quantities of Belgic pottery were imported for at least a generation after the invasion of Britain in 43 AD.

Interactions with Rome

Influential figures from the Chichester and Fishbourne areas had significant interactions with Rome prior to 43 AD. Such contacts paved the way for a much quicker Roman transformation post 43 AD with public buildings erected in Chichester and, of course, ultimately the grand palace at Fishbourne.

Replica of a Dining Room at Fishbourne Palace

Replica of a Dining Room at Fishbourne Palace


Backdrop Roman Invasion Britain 43 AD

Family Turmoil

Cunobelin, a great statesman, skillfully balanced between the bitterly opposing pro-and anti-Roman factions. During his later years, he ultimately lost control to his anti-Roman sons, Togodumnus and Caratacus. A third pro-Roman brother, Adminius, ruled the northeast tip of Kent. This area included the land-locked harbor along the southeast coasts and the Wansum Channel into the Thames Estuary. It was in Rome’s interest to ensure the main landing points remained in friendly hands.

Prior to Cunobelin’s death, a family upset led to the exile of Adminius from Britain in 40 AD. Suetonius records the banished prince, with a group of his followers, arrived at the camp where Caligula was reviewing the troops in Germany.  The emperor proclaimed the whole of Britain had surrendered to him. It was probably Caligula’s original plan to invade and occupy Britain, but it is unclear why this never happened. It is possible the troops refused to carry out Caligula’s orders. In early 41 AD, Emperor Gaius Caligula was assassinated and succeeded by Claudius.

Status of Caligula on Horseback

Status of Caligula on Horseback

Meantime, in Britain, Cunoblin’s eldest son, Togodumnus, took over the kingdom. His brother Caratacus began invading lands south of the Thames. Within a year, King Verica from the Atrebates tribe was also expelled from Britain during an internal revolt.

Verica journeyed to Rome, where he beseeched Claudius to help him regain power by sending Roman troops in Britain. As the acknowledged king, Verica was considered an ally of Rome. Suetonius reports the Britons threatened vengeance against the Romans unless they returned some fugitives (Adminius and Verica).

Bronze Head of Claudius

Bronze Head of Claudius

Rome could either abandon any hope of maintaining useful political and trading relationships in Britain or seize the country by force of arms. An important underlying motive for invading was economic. Trade with Britain brought in a good return and investment to the growers, the pottery factories and those dealing in general merchandise. Most important were the vast surface deposits of lead ore (galena) found in southwest Britain that Rome desperately needed.

Britain_WEB_SIZED_INK[1]

Thus, it could not have been a difficult decision for Claudius and his advisers to reach. To Claudius, the change in the political climate in Britain was a direct affront to the name of his forbear, Julius Caesar. From his point of view, he badly needed to draw public attention away from Rome where he was still at odds with the Senate. And to win the support of his army, what better way than to lead them to a great victory? The empire was in one of its rare peaceful intervals, and troops could be spared.

Roman Legion

Roman Soldiers in Legion

Thus, Verica’s exile gave the Claudius an excuse to begin his invasion. The subsequent invasion under Claudius may have initially been a campaign to annex the territories that had been ruled by Cunobelin.

Delay in Invasion

Aulus Plautius, a distinguished senator, was assigned as commander of the expedition to Britain. Similar to what may have happened to Caligula, Plautius had great difficulty in convincing the Roman army to embark from Gaul. The troops feared crossing the channel with the enormity of the task. As the Roman army was made up of free citizens, the soldiers could exercise some free will by not immediately obeying their officers’ commands.

Ancient Roman Warship Model

Roman Warship Model at Fishbourne Palace

The terror of the superstitious troops brought face to face with the ocean is understandable. They knew that three or four years earlier, the invasion planned by Caligula had been abandoned. Caligula had ordered a lighthouse be built at Boulogne, an important step in setting up a permanent communication link across the channel.

Overview White Cliffs Britain

Dover Cliffs Overlooking British Channel

Nonetheless, it is strange that Plautius was unable to exert his authority as supreme commander. He instead had to ask Claudius for help and advice. Eventually, the aid to convince the army to embark came in the form of Narcissus, a freedman and one of Claudius’ closest advisers. His speech on behalf of Plautius prompted a jibe by Cassius Dio. He said that Narcissus’s former slave status dissolved the soldiers into gales of hysterical laughter. One can only guess at the coarse ribaldry used by Narcissus to convince the soldiers to embark, to which Plautius and his staff were unlikely to descend. This wily Greek freeman ultimately succeeded in cajoling the troops aboard the ships.

The Roman army were divided into three squadrons to avoid an opposed landing, which might hold up a single force. The crossing was difficult and ships were driven back from their course. It was not until the superstitious Romans saw a shooting star flash over from east to west did they believe there was a favorable omen for the invasion.

The landing at Richborough was unopposed and the Britons seemed reluctant to fight at first.

Richborough Roman Fort at Sandwich, UK

Richborough Roman Fort at Sandwich, UK

To be continued

The next post will provide an overview of the recorded events during the Roman invasion of Britain.

References

  1. John Manley,AD 43 The Roman Invasion of Britain: A reassessment; Tempus Publishing, Inc., Charleston, SC, 2002.
  2. Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus,The Twelve Caesars, Translated by Robert Graves; Reprinted 2007 by Penguin Books, New York.
  3. Graham Webster,Roman Invasion of Britain, Reprinted 1999 by Routledge, London.
  4. Graham Webster,Rome Against Caratacus: The Roman Campaigns in Britain AD 48-58; Reprinted 2002 by Routledge, London.
  5. Graham Webster,Boudica: The British Revolt Against Rome AD 60; Reprinted 2004 by Routledge, London.
  6. 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

British Kings Atrebates

Cities and Thrones and Powers
Stand in Time’s eye,
Almost as long as flowers,
Which daily die,
But, as new buds put forth
To glad new men,
Out of the spent and unconsidered Earth,
The Cities rise again
Rudyard Kipling

British Kings Atrebates

Introduction

Julius Caesar described the tribes in southeast Britain as being similar to Gaul (modern day France). He mentioned that some of the tribal names in Britain were identical as those in Gaul, but does not specify these. Much of the population was divided into named units in the order of tens of thousands of people which were called civitates, usually translated as ‘tribes’ or ‘states’.

Silberring von Trichtingen. A 28/61. Dm 29,4 cm. Laténezeit

Celtic Torc hung around neck

It is striking that most of the tribes that Caesar mentioned in his accounts vanished by the time of Claudius’ invasion in 43 AD. Archaeological finds, particularly coins minted by the British kings, suggest great instability and volatility in the ever-expanding dynastic states. Coin evidence is no substitute for detailed political accounts. Nevertheless, it provides us with the earliest names of the players in the political struggles. Coins also provide a crude indicator of tribal territories, alliances and the political geography of southern Britain. The power struggles between pro- and anti-Roman factions play a crucial role in triggering the Roman invasion in 43 AD.

Celtic Tribal Territories in Southern Britain

Celtic Tribal Territories in Ancient Britain

The previous two posts on APOLLO’S RAVEN describe the political struggles of the northern Catuvellauni dynasty that overtook the Trinovantes. To the South was the powerful Atrebates who shared their name with a tribe in Gaul. King Commius fled to Britain after Caesar’s conquest in Gaul to establish this powerful dynasty.

Below is a tabular summary of British kings who minted coins in the southern and northern dynasties.

British Kings in Southeast Britain

Date Rome Southern Dynasty Northern Dynasty
50 BC Civil War, Murder of Caesar;
40 BC Commius
30 BC Octavian and Mark Antony Civil War Addedomaros
20 BC Augustus Tasciovanus
10 BC Tincomarus Dubnovellaunos
1 AD
AD 10 Epatticus Cunobelin
Vodenos
AD 20 Tiberius Eppillus
AD 30 Verica Adminius
AD40 Caligula Caratacus
AD50 Claudius

Commius of the Atrebates

Alliance with Caesar

Julius Caesar considered Commius one of his strongest Celtic allies and made him King of the Atrebates in Gaul. In 55 AD, Caesar sent Commius as a diplomatic emissary to Britain to win their loyalty to Rome. The tribes Caesar had in mind were those who had fled from Gaul during his military campaign. The moment Commius disembarked on the shores of Kent and announced his mission, he was taken prisoner. Later that summer, he was handed back to Caesar in his first expedition to Britain. Commius then went with Caesar on his second expedition to Britain and helped with the peace negotiations.

Celtic Chariot

Celtic War Chariot Used in Fights Against Caesar

Resistance with Vercingetorix

In spite of winning Caesar’s favor, Commius allied with Vercingetorix and was appointed one of the chief officers in a united Gallic resistance against Caesar in 52 BC. After Caesar’s great victory over Vercingetorix at Alesia, Commius escaped the battle with the aid of the Germans.

Statue of Vercingetorix

Statue of Vercingetorix

Caesar sent a special team to execute Commius, but he managed to escape with a severe head wound. He avoided yet another encounter with Roman executioners at a party. After that, he sailed to Britain with a band of his followers. Again, he eluded Romans ship that were pursuing him.

Ancient Roman Ship Frieze

Roman Ship Image on Frieze

Atrebates Southern Dynasty

Commius landed on the British Sussex coast and established himself as King of the Atrebates. He established his capital at Calleva (Silchester). There may have already been an Atrebates tribe in Britain that accepted Commius as their king. Commius coinage was widespread, suggesting his authority spread over a large area north of the Thames, Hampshire and Sussex.

Tincomarus

Tincomarus, son and heir of Commius, ascended to power around 20 BC. Emperor Augustus scored a great diplomatic triumph winning over the son of the man who hated the Romans. Tincomarus  issued coins that more closely resembled the Roman types.

Based on the imagery used on his coins, Tincomarus may have been brought up as an obses (diplomatic hostage) in Rome during the early years of Augustus’ reign. It is conceivable that he gained experience in the Roman army before his return to Britain in 20 BC. He most likely established trading and diplomatic links with Augustus as evidenced by Roman pottery and other imports that have been dug up at Calleva.

Celtic Child in Roma Ara Pacis Procession Nord Particolare

Celtic child in frieze of Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace)

Augustus maintained diplomatic links in Britain to ensure the southeast stayed in the hands of friendly tribes. To the north, the Catuvellauni were ambitious and aggressive (their name means ‘Men Good in Battle’). To keep them in their place, Rome cultivated their southern rivals, the Atrebates. As far as the Romans were concerned, the rest of Britain and Ireland beyond the trading gateway were remote and thus irrelevant.

Caesar Augustus Marble Head

Caesar Augustus Marble Head

Some time before 7 AD, Tincomarus was driven out of his kingdom for unknown reasons and fled to Rome as a refugee. His expulsion may have resulted from a family dispute with his brother, Eppillus. Tincomarus appeared before Augustus as a suppliant king. Augustus recognized Eppillus as REX (king) rather than depose and reinstate Tincomarus. Augustus may have planned to use his ally’s ejection as an excuse to invade Britain but other, more pressing foreign policy matters took precedence.

Celtic Battersea Shield

Celtic Battersea Shield

Epillus and Eppaticus

Epillus’ rein over the Atrebates was short-lived. Eppaticus, the brother of Cunobelin, most likely expelled Eppillus with the support of the anti-Roman Druids. Eppaticus managed to establish himself over the Atrebates at the time Rome was preoccupied with its own troubles about 10 AD.

Verica, the grandson of Commius, regained the throne from Eppaticus who was subsequently killed.

Post-Augustus Policies and Trade

Upon his death in 14 AD, Augustus instructed his successor, Tiberius, not to expand the Empire. Tiberius accepted this policy, since he was weary of many years of frustration and denigration.

By then, Cunobelin most likely signed a formal treaty with Rome. This is implied by the Greek historian Strabo who states in 14 AD, “With important export duties, Rome receives greater profit than any army could produce.” Strabo listed British exports as grain, cattle, gold, silver, iron, hides, slaves and hunting dogs. The general philosophy was these treaties with client kings made Rome’s position in Britain so secure that there was no longer any need for Rome to invade.

During the campaigns on the Rhine under Germanicus in AD 16, some troop ships were blown across the North Sea and wrecked on the British coast. These were returned, clearly indicating a friendly gesture from one of the tribes, perhaps under a treaty obligation.

Tiberius Caesar Augustus

Tiberius Caesar Augustus

To be Continued

The next posts will provide an overview of the final political upheavals that triggered Rome’s Invasion of Britain.

References

  1. John Peddie, Conquest: The Roman Invasion of Britain; St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1997.
  2. John Manley, AD43 The Roman Invasion of Britain; A Reassessment; Tempus Publishing, Inc., Charleston, SC, 2002.
  3. David Miles, The Tribes of Britain; Phoenix, an imprint of Orion Books, LTD, London, 2006
  4. Graham Webster, Boudica: The British Revolt Against Rome AD 60; Routledge, London, 2004
  5. Graham Webster, Rome Against Caratacus; The Roman Campaigns in Britain AD 48-58; Routledge, London, 2003
  6. Graham Webster, The Roman Invasion of Britain; Routledge, New York, 1999.

Cunobelin Celtic British King

One thing that comes out in myths is that at the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation. The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light—Joseph Campbell


Cunobeline Celtic British King

Cunobelin was considered the greatest of all the Celtic British kings. The Romans referred to him as Britannorum Rex, the King of the Britons. He is also known as Cunobeline and Cunobelinus. He is the radiant character in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the King of Britain written in 1136 AD. It is not clear where Cunobelin came from, but his rise to power was rapid and dramatic. He gained his throne in the early years of 1st century AD as a young man in his twenties or early thirties.

Dying Gladiator

Statue of Celtic Warrior

Cunobelin Rise to Power

Cunobelin claimed he was the son of Tasciovanus, the Catuvellauni ruler whose center of power was at Verulamium (present-day St. Albans). Upon his father’s death, Cunobelin gained power over the Catuvellauni. He then moved against the Trinovantes and extended his kingdom to the east. His father may have had an alliance between the two powerful tribes, possibly by dynastic marriage. It is also possible that he seized the throne in a palace revolt. He expanded his territory to the west and southward into Kent.

Marble Head of Augustus Caesar

Marble Head of Augustus Caesar

His rise to power occurred at the same time that Emperor Augustus had significant resistance in Germania that took higher precedence. In 9 AD, three Roman legions led General by Publius Quinctilius Varus were crushed by the German prince, Arminius—a disaster of unparallel magnitude. Augustus and his advisers were too preoccupied with the events to pay much attention to political upheavals in Britain. Cunobelin must have known he could act without any serious threat of Roman reprisals. An astute statesman, he gave assurance to Rome that the balance of power was not seriously affected. Roman traders were still welcome in Camulodunum and elsewhere north of the Thames.

Roman Soldiers in Formation

Roman Soldiers in Formation

Balancing Pro and Anti-Roman Factions

Geoffrey of Monmouth writes Cymbeline (i.e. Cunobelin) was a warlike man and insisted on the full rigor of the law. He was reared in the household of Emperor Augustus Caesar. The King was so friendly with the Romans that he might well have kept back their tribute-money but he paid it of his own free will.

Celtic Child in Roma Ara Pacis Procession Nord Particolare

Celtic child in frieze of Ara Pacis Augustae

Cunobelin had to maintain a balance between two bitterly opposing factions for, and those against, Rome. In view of the expulsion of the pro-Roman rulers Tincommius and Dubnovellaunos around 8 AD, Cunobelin had to be careful throughout most of his rein not to show undue bias towards Rome. There were strong anti-Roman elements by Druids in the royal household. During his lifetime, Cunobelin successfully satisfied his own people, as well as persuade Rome of his loyalty and keep the power of the Druids in check.

Bronze Coins of Cunobelin

Bronze Coins of Cunobelin

Camulodunum Oldest Recorded City

Cunobelin moved his capital to Camulodunum. It was considered the oldest recorded town in Britain, as it was mentioned by Pliny the Elder who died in 79 AD. The Celtic settlement was huge compared to hill forts to the west or north. Cunobelin minted his coins at this town to exploit trading with the Continent. The grave goods found in this area illustrate the impact of Rome on Camulodunum’s nobles in early 1st Century. Items found included chain-mail armor, Roman bronze vessels, furniture, Italian wine amphorae and a medallion encasing a silver coin of Augustus, minted about 17 BC.

Greek Amphorae to Store Wine

Greek Amphorae to Store Wine

The nobles sustained their power and their lifestyles on the back of hard-working peasantry. Power was maintained by warriors whose loyalty had to be constantly rewarded. To maintain luxurious lifestyles, the Celtic rulers raided inland Britain for slaves. Neck chains used to restrain slaves have been found around Colchester and are on display at the museum in Colchester. Strabo notes that some British leaders procured the friendship of Augustus by sending embassies and paying court to him.

Roman Wall Colchester

Roman Wall at Colchester

Cunobolin’s Expansion into Kent

Cunobelin expanded his influence into Kent, which became a fiefdom ruled under his son, Adminius. Durovernum (modern day Canterbury). Like Verulaminum and Camulodunum, the town functioned as a center for the elite, a gateway for Roman luxury goods and a base for traders from the empire.

Durovernum Mosaic_Roman_Museum_146

Durovernum Roman Mosaic at British Museum

Players Triggering Roman Invasion

Cunobelin had several sons of whom three, Togodumnus, Caractacus, and Adminius, played significant roles that triggered the Roman invasion in 43 AD. In Cunobelin’s final years, he had trouble over the succession. His sons shared administrative duties for various parts of his king. In Cunobelin’s declining years, it is likely Rome became uneasy with the political uncertainties. It became increasing clear that the valuable commercial asset in Britain needed to be secured either by renewing treaties with the new rulers or by military force.

Celtic Horned Helmet

Celtic Horned Helmet Found at River Thames

Coinage minted by Adminius suggests that he ruled the Northeast part of Kent on behalf of his father a short time before his death. Adminius held pro-Roman sympathies whereas his brothers were anti-Roman. Emperor Caligula may have secretly collaborated with Adminius to set up a major seaborne operation to invade Britain. This could have been the reason that Cunobelin expelled Adminius from Britain in 40 AD. Suetonius records the banished prince with a group of his followers fled to a Roman encampment where Caligula was reviewing the troops in Germania. Caligula retained the Britons as hostages and dispatched a message to Rome proclaiming he had conquered the whole of Britain.

Young Roman on Horseback

Statue of Caligula on Horseback

Subsequently, Roman troops appeared ready to invade Britain, but it is not clear what stopped the expedition. Possibly the troops rebelled and refused to embark the warships. Infamous for bizarre behavior, Caligula paraded the troops in battle array on the shore and commanded them to collect sea shells. Though the Roman invasion was abandoned, Caligula erected a great lighthouse at Boulogne. It stood as a memoir of this event until it was torn down in 1544 AD.

Ancient Roman Ship Frieze

Roman Ship Image on Frieze

The precise date of the death of Cunobelin is not certain, but it must be within a year of 40 AD. This is when Caractacus conquered territories south of the Thames while Togodumnus inherited the kingdom. The flight of Adminius may be connected with these events.

Caractacus overthrew Verica, King of the Atrebates who also sought protection from the Romans. Verica appeared before Emperor Claudius claiming he had been driven out of Britain by an uprising. He called upon the Emperor to fulfill his obligation to reinstate him as ruler under their treaty.

South_Britain_WEB_SIZED_COL[1]
Caractacus demanded that Claudius release Adminius and Verica to him, which was the final trigger that incited Claudius to invade Britain in 43 AD.

Richborough Roman Fort Ruin

Richborough Roman Fort Wall Site of Invasion

Overview of Celtic Kings in Southeast Britain

Below is an overview of Roman events and Celtic kings in Southeast Britain between Julius Caesar’s invasions in 54-55 BC and Claudius’ invasion in 43 AD.

Date Roman Events Southern Dynasty Northern Dynasty
50 BC Caesar’s Invasion Mandubracius, Cassivellaunus
40 BC Murder of Caesar Commius
30 BC Octavian & Mark Antony Civil War
20 BC Augustus Stabilization Tincomarus Addedomaros, Tasciovanus
10 BC Eppillus Cunobelin, Dubnovellaunos
1 AD
AD 10 Tiberius comes to power Vodenos
AD 20 Epatticus
AD 30 Caligula comes to power Verica Adminius
AD40 Claudius comes to power Caractacus, Togodumnus

To be Continued:

The next posts will focus on the southern dynasties as reflected in the above table.

References:

Geoffrey of Monmouth, “The History of the Kings of Britain.” Translated with an Introduction by Lewis Thorpe; First Published in 1966; Republished by Penguin Books, London England

David Miles, “The Tribes of Britain”, published in 2006 by Phoenix, an imprint of Orion Books, LTD, London.

Graham Webster, “Boudica: The British Revolt Against Rome AD 60, Reprinted 2004 by Routledge, London.

Graham Webster, “The Roman Invasion of Britain.” Reprinted in 1999 by Routledge, New York.

Joseph Campbell, “The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers.” Anchor Books, a Division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, New York, 1988.

Celtic Spirit Warrior

British Tribal Dynasties


Once having transversed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials.
–Joseph Campbell

 

Julius Caesar’s Impact British Tribal Dynasties

The most important impact of Caesar on the British scene was to divide the southeastern British tribal dynasties into pro- and anti-Roman factions. After Caesar’s expeditions in Britain, lucrative Roman trade was extended to Celtic British kings who were Roman allies. The kings of Kent without exception had been hostile and only made peace overtures after they were thoroughly beaten. The tribes on the north bank of the Thames and in Kent were forced to pay an annual tribute which sustained their festering hatred of Rome.

Julius Caesar Statue

Statue of Julius Caesar

 

Those that benefited, primarily the Trinovantes and the people of Verulamion and Braughing areas and their allies, were rewarded with political alliances and access to trade with Rome. As far as Rome was concerned, southeast Britain was conquered. The next stage was to allow the effects of trade and cultural contacts to prepare the way for full Roman occupation with all of the apparatus of government and law.

But any immediate plans were put aside by the serious rising of almost all tribes in Gaul (modern day France) united under one commander, Vercingetorix (whose name means ‘victor in 100 battles’). The whole of Gaul had to be conquered a second time. Of the six million people living in Gaul before Caesar arrived in 58 BC, one million were killed and one million were sold as slaves when he left in 50 BC. Caesar himself wrote in his Commentaries on the War in Gaul that peace had been brought to the whole of Gaul. This was the peace of a graveyard.

Statue of Vercingetorix

Statue of Vercingetorix

During the subsequent civil wars in the empire, Britain was forgotten except by Roman merchants using trading posts. As soon as Julius Caesar’s nephew, Augustus, established himself as the princeps in 27 BC, he realized there was unfinished business that needed attention. There was an indication that he was thinking about invading Britain in the autumn of that year, when he was in southern Gaul reorganizing the province. But any serious plans for an expedition the following year were swept aside by trouble in Spain. He was by nature cautious, preferring compromise as a solution.

Augustus of Prima Porta

Statue of Emperor Augustus Caesar

Trying to balance the needs of a large sprawling empire, he decided not to launch a campaign against Britain when there were other more pressing military operations elsewhere. Thus, he maintained Roman influence over the British rulers by diplomatic means. As long as Rome had strong allies along coastline Britain who controlled the main points of entry from Gaul, he did not feel there was a need for further action. Nonetheless, he kept a wary eye on Britain since changes in British tribal dynasties could upset the balance of power. He did not want coastal areas, important for trade and potential landing points, to fall into hostile hands. Augustus was reluctant to interfere with British politics, but there were times when this became necessary.

Ara Pacis: Processional frieze showing members of the Imperial household

Ara Pacis: Processional frieze showing members of the Imperial household

 

Polarization of the British tribal dynasties remained and a fascinating pattern of shifting inter-tribal relationships can be dimly perceived through the study of coinage that was minted by the Britons themselves. Coin evidence is no substitute for political detailed political accounts. Nevertheless, it provides us with the earliest names of the players in the 1st century British power struggle. They provide a crude indicator of tribal territories, alliances and the political geography of southeast Britain in the decades before the Roman invasion of AD 43. The following is a discussion of the political struggles of British tribal dynasties north of the Thames and Kent.

Map Ancient Britain 1st Center

Map Ancient Southeast Britain

Addedomaros

The first identifiable king to mint coins was Addedomaros. He became the ruler of the Trinovantes in approximately 25 BC and was probably the successor to Mandubracius—an ally of Caesar on his second expedition. At the time of his death, Mandubracius may not have had any heirs. Possibly Addedomaros succeeded to the throne after a brief struggle between the remaining Trinovantian noble houses. Addedomaros  moved his center of government from the eastern headwaters of the river Lea to a new site on the east coast which he named ‘the fort of the war god Camulos,’ known as Camulodunum (Colchester).  The reason for this move is that he may have felt increasingly under pressure from the growing strength of the Catuvellauni whose tribal base was situated only a few miles from the river Lea. Establishing a new capital offered the benefit of shortening the lines of communication with the continent.

Trinovantes Coin Minted at Camulodunon

Trinovantes Coin Minted at Camulodunon

Addedomaros either warred with or was a client to the Catuvellaunian ruler, Tasciovanus. For a brief period from 15-10 BC, Tasciovanus issued coins from Camulodunum (minted mark CAMV[lodunum]. The circumstances of his brief reign over the Trinovantes and his sudden move back to his old tribal capital is not clear. His power over the Trinovantes may have been due to conquest or dynastic marriage.

Gold coin of_Addedomarus 35BCE_1BCE

Gold coin of Addedomarus 35BCE – 1BCE

Tasciovanus

Several small tribes came under the rule of Tasciovanus, whose center of power was at Verulamium (St. Albans). He ruled under the title of ricomus, the Celtic equivalent of the Latin rex, interpreted as ‘king. Several coin issued by Tasciovanus indicate he had a long reign. At the peak of his career, his coins spread south of the Thames to the Northwest. This young and energetic Catuvellaunian ruler could have overran the Trinovantes and surrounding tribes in his lust for power.

Celtic Gold Stater Minted by Tasciovanus, Catuvellauni

Celtic Gold Stater Minted by Tasciovanus, Catuvellauni

Another possibility is that he created an alliance with the Trinovantes by the means of a dynastic marriage. His mother may have been the daughter of Mandubracius and he went to war or formed an alliance with the Trinovantes on that pretext. Whatever the circumstances, he was able to bring together two powerful kingdoms for a short time and pass it on to Cunobeline, who claimed to be his son.

Remains Verulamium Wall

Remains Ancient Verulamium Wall

Dubnovellaunus

On the death of Tasciovanus, or towards the end of his reign, the throne of the Trinovantes was taken over by Dubnovellaunus. His coins were found in two quite separate areas, that of the Trinovantes and Northeast Kent, with very little overlap. The coins from Camulodunum closely follow the style of Addedomaros, which suggests Dubnovellaunus was his direct successor. The series of coins based in Canterbury, however, appears similar to Tasciovanus.

Based on limited Roman records, Dubnovellaunus was probably acting under Roman advice and economic pressure. Augustus, a skilled statesman, built up alliances with political forces in Britain which had pro-Roman leanings. Of these, the Trinovantes and their allies were the most important, as the control of East Kent by a Roman ally was paramount. By 15 BC certain British rulers made offerings in Rome, implying formal treaties were ratified with the empire. An inscription in Ankara, Turkey known as Monumentum Ancyranum said two British Kings, Dubnovellaunus and Tincommius, appeared as supplicants in Rome presumably after they had fled the kingdoms. The accepted date of this monument is AD 7, which means that their flight from Britain must be dated before this.

Monumentum Ancyranum; Temple of Augustus in Ankara, Turkey

Monumentum Ancyranum; Temple of Augustus in Ankara, Turkey

In conclusion, the records suggest a flurry of diplomatic activity by Augustus in 17 BC which can be linked with the sudden rise of Dubnovellaunus and the spread of Roman control over the Thames Estuary. This was reversed in  AD 1 when Cunobeline seized power and the Catuvellauni took control of the region.

To be continued

The next posts will provide an overview of the rise of Cunobeline and the political struggles in Southern Britain.

References:

David Miles, The Tribes of Britain Phoenix, Imprint of Orion Books, Ltd., London, UK, 2006.

Graham Webster, Boudica: The British Revolt Against Rome AD 60, Reprinted 2004 by Routledge, London.

Graham Webster, The Roman Invasion of Britain, Graham Webster, Reprinted 1999 by Routledge, New York, NY.

John Peddie, Conquest: The Roman Invasion of Britain, St. Martin’s Press, New York, NY 10010.

Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Bollingen Series XVII, 3rd Edition; New World Library, Novato, CA 

Caesar’s Invasions of Britain: Celtic Perspective

“Of the inhabitants, those of Cantium (Kent), an entirely maritime district, are far the most advanced, and the type of civilization here prevalent differs little from that of Gaul. With most of the more inland tribes, the cultivation of corn disappears and a pastoral form of life succeeds, flesh and milk forming the principal diet, and skins of animals the dress. On the other hand, the Britons all agree in dying their bodies with woad, a substance that yields a bluish pigment, and in battle greatly increases the wildness of their look. Their hair is worn extremely long, and with the exception of the head and upper lip the entire body is shaved.” (Julius Caesar’s account of Britain)

Caesar’s Invasions of Britain: Celtic Perspective

Introduction

In researching Celtic history, I ran across an interesting book entitled, “History of the Kings of Britain,” that was written in Latin by Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1136 AD. This book traces the history of Britons through a sweep of nineteen hundred years stretching from the mythical Brutus, great-grandson of the Trojan Aeneas, to the last British King, Cadwallader. Geoffrey claims he translated his stories from ‘a certain very ancient book written in the British language’ that was given him by Walter the Archdeacon. Though his work has been sharply criticized for its historical inaccuracies, there are bits of truth that cannot be completely discounted.

Celtic Tribes in Britain

Celtic Tribes in Britain

Of particular interest is Geoffrey’s account of Caesar’s invasions of Britain and his battles with Cassivellaunus that is told from his patriotic British viewpoint. What rings true in his story is the fragility of the British rulers’ egos and their lust for power, a weakness that eventually plays into the hands of Claudius who invaded Britain in 43 AD. Previous posts which have summarized Caesar’s Invasions of Britain from his accounts are located in the archives under the categories: Julius Caesar and Roman Invasion of Britain

Below is a summary of Geoffrey’s version. One has to wonder if there are some truths from this version that put some of Caesar’s accounts into question.

Geoffrey’s Account of Caesar’s Invasions of Britain

Julius Caesar was fascinated with Britain as he had been told the Britons were founded by Brutus, a descendant of Aeneas who fled from the ruined city of Troy to Italy. Although the Romans descended from the same ancient Trojan stock as the Britons, he underestimated them believing it would be a simple matter of forcing them to pay tribute and to swear their perpetual obedience to Rome. Thus, Caesar dispatched a message to the British King Cassivellaunus with demands that he pay tribute.

Reading the message, Cassivellaunus became indignant and sent Caesar a written message refusing to accept the terms of slavery. He further says, “It is friendship which you should have asked of us, not slavery. For our part we are more used to making allies than to enduring the yoke of bondage…we shall fight for our liberty and for our kingdom.”

The moment Caesar read this letter he prepared his fleet to set sail to Britain.

Ancient Roman Ship Frieze

Roman Ship Image on Frieze

King Cassivellaunus—along with his brother Nennius, his nephew Androgeus (Duke of Trivovantum) and other nobles—marched down to meet Caesar after he landed and set-up his camp near the British Dover Cliffs. A fierce hand-to-hand battle ensued. In single combat, Caesar cut his sword into Nennius’ shield that he could not wrench out. Nennius, taking Caesar’s sword, raged up and down the battlefield killing everyone he met. The Britons pressed forward as a united front cutting the Roman forces into pieces. That night, Caesar reformed his ranks, boarded his ships and sailed back to Gaul in defeat.

Overview White Cliffs Britain

Dover Cliffs Kent Britain

Nennius succumbed to his wounds fifteen days after the battle and died. Cassivellaunus buried him with Caesar’s sword called Yellow Death, for no man who was struck by it escaped alive.

Celtic Sword

Celtic Sword and Scabbard

Two years later, Caesar prepared to cross the sea a second time to avenge Cassivellaunus for the humiliating defeat he had suffered at his hands. As soon as the King heard of this, he garrisoned villages everywhere and planted stakes shod with iron and lead below the water-line in the bed of the River Thames, up which Caesar would have to sail to attack Trivovantum.

Celtic Roundhouses on Hill Fort

Ancient Celtic Village on Hill Top

Cassivellaunus and every man of military age waited for Caesar to cruise up the Thames where his ships were ripped apart by the stakes. As a result, thousands of Romans drowned, but several survivors clambered with Caesar onto dry land. The King ordered his warriors to charge the remaining Romans. The Britons, outnumbering the Romans three to one, were victorious over their weakened enemy. Again, Caesar escaped to his remaining undamaged ships and sailed back to Gaul.

Celtic Horned Helmet

Celtic Horned Helmet Found at River Thames Date 150-50BC

Elated from his overwhelming victory, Cassivellaunus invited all his noblemen to a glorious feast where cows, sheep, fowl, and wild beasts in the hundreds were sacrificed as offerings to the gods. At the sporting events that night, the King’s nephew was beheaded by the nephew of Duke Androgeus in a dispute. Enraged, Cassivellaunus demanded that the Duke present his nephew in court for sentence. Androgeus refused.

Celtic Round House

Celtic Round House for Assembly

Enraged by the Duke’s refusal, Cassivellaunus ravaged his lands. In desperation, Androgeus dispatched a message to Caesar with a plea to help him restore his position. Only after the Duke sent his son, together with thirty young nobles as hostages, did Caesar depart for Britain a third time.

Ancient Roman Ship Replica

Model of Ancient Roman Ship

This time, Cassivellaunus was sacking Trinovantum when Caesar landed. Upon hearing the news of Caesar’s return, the King abandoned his siege and rushed to meet his Roman adversary. When the two sides met, they hurled deadly weapons at each other and exchanged mortal blows with their swords. In an unexpected move, Androgeus and his forces attacked the rear of the King’s battle line, forcing his warriors to give ground from the assaults on both sides.

Roman Legion

Roman Soldiers in Legion

The King took flight from the battlefield and retreated to a hill top. Caesar besieged the hill, but he still could not defeat the King. Even now, when driven off the battle-field, Cassivellaunus and his battered forces continued resisting a man whom the whole world could not withstand. Caesar resorted to cutting off all means for the King’s retreat and to starving them.

Maiden Castle Hill-Fort

Ramparts and Ditches Maiden Castle Hill-Fort

After two days without food, Cassivellaunus sent a message asking Androgeus to make peace for him with Caesar. When the envoys delivered the message to Androgeus, he said, “The leader who is as fierce as a lion in peace-time but as gentle as a lamb in time of war is not really worth much.” Nonetheless, he was moved by the King’s pleas and went to Caesar to plead mercy for the King. He told Caesar, “All that I promised you is this, that I would help you humble Cassivellaunus and conquer Britain. He is beaten, and, with my help, Britain is in your hands. Yet I cannot allow you to kill him while I myself remain alive.”

Celtic Carnyx War Horn

Celtic Carnyx Serpent War Horn

Ultimately, Caesar made peace with Cassivellaunus who, in turn, promised yearly tribute to Rome. The tale ends well as Caesar and Cassivellaunus become great friends and give each other gifts. Androgeus travels to Rome as a guest of Caesar.

Concluding Remarks

Certainly the above tale of Caesar’s Invasions of Britain differs from the Roman General’s account, but there are some similarities. Caesar wrote that, after Cassivellaunus brought down the King of the Trinovantes, his son Mandubracius fled to Gaul. He asked for Caesar’s help in regaining the Trinovantes kingdom. On Caesar’s second invasion of Britain in 54 BC, Cassivellaunus fiercely resisted the Romans, but he eventually surrendered after they devastated his territories and other rival kings sought peace with his enemy.

Celtic Greaves

Celtic Greaves

Though Caesar was proclaimed a hero by the Roman Senate for his accomplishments in Britain, it can be argued his expeditions were not successful as he did not complete the conquest. The scenario of British rulers fleeing to Rome and asking for help to regain their sovereignty from rival rulers repeats time and time again up to the final conquest by Emperor Claudius in 43 AD. At that time, the King of the Atrebates, Verica, asked for help from Claudius in regaining his territory from Caratacus, a chieftain from the Catuvellauni tribe.

Richborough Roman Fort Ruins

Richborough Roman Fort, Site of Roman Invasion Under Claudius

To be continued

The next posts will provide an overview of rival dynastic kings that came to power in Britain between the time period of Caesar’s invasion of Britain in 54 BC up to Claudius’ conquest in 43 AD.

References:

Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, translated with an introduction by Lewis Thorpe; Penguin Books, New York; first published 1966.

Julius Caesar, The Conquest of Gaul, translated by Rev. F. P. Long and introduction by Cheryl Walker; Barnes  & Noble, Inc.,  New York; 2005.

Julius Caesar Impact on Ancient Britain

Of the inhabitants, those of Cantium (Kent), an entirely maritime district, are far the most advanced, and the type of civilization here prevalent differs little from that of Gaul—Julius Caesar

Introduction

In 1st Century, Celtic maritime networks were revitalized in the northern Atlantic region as a result of Roman commercial activities in southern Gaul (modern day France). Celtic social ties on both sides of the British channel were strengthened and new alliances were formed.

When Julius Caesar marched into free Gaul in 58 BC, these maritime networks were disrupted as he conquered Gaul and put the region under Roman control. His forays into Britain in 55-54 BC introduced the Britons to the reality of Roman power and the consequences of sending their warriors to aid fellow Celts in Gaul.

Roman Eagle Standard

Roman Eagle Standard

Caesar wrote, ‘no one goes there [Britain] except traders, and even they are acquainted only with the sea-coasts and the areas that are opposite of Gaul.’ Prior to his first excursion in 55 BC, Caesar summoned ‘traders from these parts’ for information of Britain, but they told him nothing of value. This would seem surprising given the extensive trade between Gaul and Britain. A likely explanation is these traders chose to be highly selective with the intelligence they shared. The Gallic traders warned the Britons of Caesar’s intention to land on their island. As a result, several of the British tribes send envoys offering hostages and allegiance to Caesar while he was in Gaul.

Side-by-side Comparison of Celtic and Roman Chariots

Celtic Chariot Comparison to Roman Chariot


Commius, King of the Atrebates

Caesar pursued the offers made by British envoys by sending Commius—a chief of the Atrebates in Gaul and confidant of the Romans—to persuade the Britons not to resist the Romans when they landed in 55 BC. However, Commius was immediately imprisoned by the Britons. He was later handed back as part of of Caesar’s peace settlement with the Celtic leaders on his first expedition. During Caesar’s second expedition to Britain in 54 BC, Commius negotiated the surrender of the British leader Cassivellaunus (see below). Commius remained loyal to Caesar through the Gaulish revolts of 54 BC, and Rome rewarded him by allowing the Atrebates tribe to remain independent and to be exempt from tax.

Diplomatic Gift to a Chieftain ruling in Southern Britain, possibly Commius of the Atrebates.

Diplomatic Gift to a Chieftain ruling in Southern Britain, possibly Commius of the Atrebates.

Although Commius was at first an ally of Rome, he switched sides to join the revolt in Gaul led by Vercingetorix in 52 BC. He later escaped to Britain to join his people who had already settled there. He established a powerful kingdom based at Calleva (modern day Silchester). By about 30 BC, Commius had established himself as king of the Atrebates in Britain and was issuing coins.

Statue of Vercingetorix

Statue of Vercingetorix

Lessons Learned Caesar’s First Expedition

Caesar’s first expedition to Britannia had limited success. The main lesson learned was the ocean and its massive tides and racing currents was a more formidable opponent than the Britons. Natural forces wreaked havoc on the Roman logistics and destroyed several ships. Even though the native Britons were fierce fighters, they were totally unused to facing the disciplined Roman army. The various tribes were politically fragmented and made Roman diplomacy to divide them an effective weapon.

Overview White Cliffs Britain

Dover Cliffs Near Julius Caesar’s Landing in Ancient Britain


Mandubracius, King of the Trinovantes

To take advantage of the fragmentation between the tribal kings, Caesar negotiated a deal with Mandubracius, the son of the king of the Trinovantes. He had fled to Gaul to put himself under Caesar’s protection after his father had been killed in a conflict with his neighbor—Cassivellaunus, the king of the Catuvellauni. According to Caesar, the Catuvellauni were in a continual state of war with the other tribes in the area.

Celtic Horned Helmet

Celtic Horned Helmet Found at River Thames Date 150-50BC

Caesar’s campaign in early July 54 BC was on a more massive scale. Five legions and 2,000 cavalry –some 27,000 men—were transported in over 800 vessels. The landing was unopposed. Mandubracius proved to be invaluable as a source of intelligence about the complexities of local politics and the principal centers of power in eastern Britain. He helped Caesar navigate through the terrain he would fight on. Armed with this information, Caesar made a rapid, though heavily opposed advance through Kent that let him to the Thames, which he crossed, probably near London.

Roman Cavalryman in Ancient Britain

Roman Cavalryman in Ancient Britain

Mandubracius was a political pawn that played to good effect for Caesar. The Trinovantes, whom Caesar describes as the strongest tribe in southeast Britain, sent a deputation to discuss terms for their surrender. In this agreement, Mandubracius was reinstated as the tribal king who Caesar promised to protect his sovereignty. In exchange, the Trinovantes surrendered to Caesar, sending forty hostages as an assurance of their good behavior and providing grain for the Roman army. The concession by the Trinovantes was the major turning point and other tribes quickly followed. In all likelihood the basic deal had already been negotiated during the winter, when Mandubracius was under Caesar’s protection in Gaul. Knowing that he could rely on the Trinovantes to come over to Rome would have emboldened Caesar to make his rapid advance into hostile territory across the Thames, dangerously far from his supply base.

Roman Wagon

Roman War Wagon Used in Ancient Britain


Cassivellaunus, King of the Catuvellauni

But the danger still existed for Caesar despite his settlement with the Trinovantes. His army made for Cassivellaunus’ oppidium (fortified town) of Verulamium in the vicinity of St. Albans. It was protected by forests and marshes, and a great number of men. Cassivellaunus sought the aid of four tribal kings in Kent to attack the Roman base and supply lines. The attack ultimately failed and there was little Cassivellaunus could do but negotiate for peace.

As it was late in the summer season, Caesar was eager to negotiate terms so he could return to Gaul. It was agreed the Catuvellanuni would pay an annual tribute to Rome and hand over hostages. Further, Cassivellaunus agreed to leave the Trinovantes in peace. With his primary aims achieved, Caesar returned to Gaul with a great many prisoners.

Ancient Ruins of Verulamium Wall near St. Albans

Ancient Ruins of Verulamium Wall near St. Albans

Julius Caesar Impact on Ancient Britain 

Roman Domination

Whether these two brief excursions into Britain could be judged a Roman success is debatable since we do not know what Caesar’s true aspirations were for this isle. It is likely he had grossly underestimated the perils of the Channel crossing and the ferocity of the British resistance. He embarked on these expeditions with considerable risk and was lucky to escape with his reputation unscathed. What he did show, even if it was at a price, was the ocean could be mastered and that the distant island was accessible. He also claimed that the first step was taken to bring Britain under Roman domination. As far as Rome was concerned, southeast Britain had been conquered and treaty relationships had been established with the most powerful tribes. Britons were now paying an annual tribute to the Roman state. Others would have to complete the conquest.

Roman and Celtic Shields Used in Ancient Britain

Roman and Celtic Shields Used in Ancient Britain

Tribal Patronage to Rome

The Britons form the southeast gained not only first-hand experience of Roman military might, but, more importantly, they learned how the Romans had politically divided the tribes. Before the Roman invasion, the Celtic tribes were engaged in local conflicts and struck-up up allegiances for mutual benefit. Now these tribal rulers had a far more powerful force enter the arena. To gain patronage from the Roman world could offer them real advantages.

Celtic Gold Torc

Celtic Gold Torc Worn by Celtic Leaders

The most important effect of Caesar on the British scene was to divide the southeastern tribes into pro- and anti-Roman groups. Those who had suffered defeat, i.e. the tribes on the north bank of the Thames and in Kent were forced to pay an annual tribute which sustained a festering hatred of Rome. Those who benefited, the Trinovantes and the Catuvellauni, were rewarded with political alliances and access to trade.

Peoples of Southern Britain According to Ptolemy's Map

Peoples of Southern Britain According to Ptolemy’s Map

Lucrative trading monopolies were negotiated, and the hostages—usually young men from elite families—could be educated in Roman ways. Those who remained abroad maintained filial links with their tribe, while those who chose to return would bring with them new knowledge and a network of contacts that could benefit all. The desire to travel and to explore the world was deeply embedded in the psyche of the Britons. Patronage to the Roman cities was expanded.

Celtic Child in Roma Ara Pacis Procession Nord Particolare

Celtic child in frieze of Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace)


To be continued

The tribes that Caesar encountered in his first incursion that are mentioned above became powerful tribal kingdoms, in part, due to favorable treaties negotiated with Rome and favorable trading treaties. The subsequent rulers of these powerful kingdoms will be discussed in upcoming posts.

References:

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.