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.”
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.
Evidence of Rome’s Influence Prior to 43 AD
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Backdrop Roman Invasion Britain 43 AD
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
To be continued
The next post will provide an overview of the recorded events during the Roman invasion of Britain.
- John Manley,AD 43 The Roman Invasion of Britain: A reassessment; Tempus Publishing, Inc., Charleston, SC, 2002.
- 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