Roman conquest of Britain

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Roman Empire in 117 C.E.

By 43 C.E., the time of the main Roman invasion of Britain, Britain had already frequently been the target of invasions, planned and actual, by forces of the Roman Republic and Roman Empire. In common with other regions on the edge of the empire, Britain had enjoyed diplomatic and trading links with the Romans in the century since Julius Caesar's expeditions in 55 and 54 B.C.E., and Roman economic and cultural influence was a significant part of the British late pre-Roman Iron Age, especially in the south. Between 55 B.C.E. and the 40s C.E., the status quo of tribute, hostages, and client states without direct military occupation, begun by Caesar's invasions of Britain, largely remained intact. Augustus prepared invasions in 34 B.C.E., 27 B.C.E. and 25 B.C.E. The first and third were called off due to revolts elsewhere in the empire, the second because the Britons seemed ready to come to terms.[1] According to Augustus's Res Gestae Divi Augusti, two British kings, Dumnovellaunus and Tincomarus, fled to Rome as suppliants during his reign,[2] and Strabo's Geography, written during this period, says that Britain paid more in customs and duties than could be raised by taxation if the island were conquered.[3]

By the 40s C.E., however, the political situation within Britain was apparently in foment. The Catuvellauni had displaced the Trinovantes as the most powerful kingdom in south-eastern Britain, taking over the former Trinovantian capital of Camulodunum (Colchester), and were pressing their neighbors the Atrebates, ruled by the descendants of Julius Caesar's former ally Commius. Caligula planned a campaign against the British in 40, but its execution was bizarre: according to Suetonius, he drew up his troops in battle formation facing the English Channel and ordered them to attack the standing water. Afterwards, he had the troops gather sea shells, referring to them as "plunder from the ocean, due to the Capitol and the Palace".[4] Modern historians are unsure if that was meant to be an ironic punishment for the soldiers' mutiny or due to Caligula's derangement. Certainly this invasion attempt readied the troops and facilities that would make Claudius' invasion possible 3 years later (e.g., a lighthouse was built by Caligula at Boulogne-sur-Mer, the model for the one built soon after 43 at Dubris). The Roman conquest and subsequent occupation of Britain, which ended in 410, left a permanent mark on Britain and on the island's future role in the world. Centuries later, as it acquired its own empire, it set itself the task of emulating Ancient Rome. As a result of their own incorporation into the wider world by Rome, which opened up for Britain the legacy of classical learning, the British in their turn brought vast territories and their people into a global community, making them aware of their membership of one human family. Only a world community whose citizens acknowledge their inter-connectivity and inter-dependence can rise to the challenge of making the planet a healthy, wholesome, peaceful, equitable and sustainable habitat.

Claudian Preparations

Three years later, in 43, possibly by re-collecting Caligula's troops, Claudius mounted an invasion-force to re-instate Verica, an exiled king of the Atrebates.[5] Aulus Plautius, a distinguished senator, was given overall charge of four legions, totaling about 20,000 men, plus about the same number of auxiliaries. The legions were:

  • Legio II Augusta
  • Legio IX Hispana
  • Legio XIV Gemina
  • Legio XX Valeria Victrix

The II Augusta is known to have been commanded by the future emperor Vespasian. Three other men of appropriate rank to command legions are known from the sources to have been involved in the invasion. Gnaeus Hosidius Geta, who probably led the IX Hispana, and Vespasian's brother Titus Flavius Sabinus II are mentioned by Dio Cassius (Dio says that Sabinus was Vespasian's lieutenant, but as Sabinus was the older brother and preceded Vespasian into public life, he could hardly have been a military tribune). Gnaeus Sentius Saturninus is mentioned by Eutropius, although as a former consul he may have been too senior, and perhaps accompanied Claudius later.[6]

Crossing and Landing

The main invasion force under Aulus Plautius crossed in three divisions. The port of departure is usually taken to have been Boulogne, and the main landing at Rutupiae (Richborough, on the east coast of Kent). Neither of these locations is certain. Dio does not mention the port of departure, and although Suetonius says that the secondary force under Claudius sailed from Boulogne,[7] it does not necessarily follow that the entire invasion force did. Richborough has a large natural harbor which would have been suitable, and archaeology shows Roman military occupation at about the right time. However, Dio says the Romans sailed east to west, and a journey from Boulogne to Richborough is south to north. Some historians[8] suggest a sailing from Boulogne to the Solent, landing in the vicinity of Noviomagus (Chichester) or Southampton, in territory formerly ruled by Verica. An alternative explanation might be a sailing from the mouth of the Rhine to Richborough, which would be east to west.[9]

River Battles

British resistance was led by Togodumnus and Caratacus, sons of the late king of the Catuvellauni, Cunobelinus. A substantial British force met the Romans at a river crossing thought to be near Rochester on the River Medway. The battle raged for two days. Hosidius Geta was almost captured, but recovered and turned the battle so decisively that he was awarded the ornamenta triumphalia, the Roman Triumph.

The British were pushed back to the Thames. The Romans pursued them across the river causing them to lose men in the marshes of Essex. Whether the Romans made use of an existing bridge for this purpose or built a temporary one is uncertain. At least one division of auxiliary Batavian troops swam across the river as a separate force.

Togodumnus died shortly after the battle on the Thames. Plautius halted and sent word for Claudius to join him for the final push. Cassius Dio presents this as Plautius needing the emperor's assistance to defeat the resurgent British, who were determined to avenge Togodumnus. However, Claudius was no military man. Claudius's arch states he received the surrender of eleven kings without any loss, and Suetonius says that Claudius received the surrender of the Britons without battle or bloodshed.[10] It is likely that the Catuvellauni were already as good as beaten, allowing the emperor to appear as conqueror on the final march on Camulodunum. Cassius Dio relates that he brought war elephants, although no remains of them have been discovered in Britain, and heavy armaments which would have overawed any remaining native resistance. Eleven tribes of South East Britain surrendered to Claudius and the Romans prepared to move further west and north. The Romans established their new capital at Camulodunum and Claudius returned to Rome to celebrate his victory. Caratacus escaped and would continue the resistance further west.

44-60 C.E.

Statue of Boudica near Westminster Pier

Vespasian took a force westwards subduing tribes and capturing oppida as he went (each main town or city), going at least as far as Exeter and probably reaching Bodmin.[11] The Ninth Legion was sent north towards Lincoln and within four years of the invasion it is likely that an area south of a line from the Humber to the Severn Estuary was under Roman control. That this line is followed by the Roman road of the Fosse Way has led many historians to debate the route's role as a convenient frontier during the early occupation. It is more likely that the border between Roman and Iron Age Britain was less direct and more mutable during this period however.

Late in 47 the new governor of Britain, Ostorius Scapula began a campaign against the tribes of Iska (modern day Wales), and the Cheshire Gap. The Silures of south east Wales caused considerable problems to Ostorius and fiercely defended the Welsh border country. Caratacus himself was defeated in one encounter and fled to the Roman client tribe of the Brigantes who occupied the Pennines. Their queen, Cartimandua was unable or unwilling to protect him however given her own truce with the Romans and handed him over to the invaders. Ostorius died and was replaced by Aulus Gallus who brought the Welsh borders under control but did not move further north or west, probably because Claudius was keen to avoid what he considered a difficult and drawn-out war for little material gain in the mountainous terrain of upland Britain. When Nero became emperor in 54 C.E., he seems to have decided to continue the invasion and appointed Quintus Veranius as governor, a man experienced in dealing with the troublesome hill tribes of Asia Minor. Veranius and his successor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus mounted a successful campaign across Wales, famously destroying the druidical center at Mona or Anglesey in 60 C.E. Final occupation of Wales was postponed however when the rebellion of Boudica, the widow of slain Prasutagus, forced the Romans to return to the south east. The Silures were not finally conquered until circa 76 C.E. when Sextus Julius Frontinus' long campaign against them began to have success.

60-96 C.E.

Following the successful suppression of Boudica, a number of new Roman governors continued the conquest by edging north. Cartimandua was forced to ask for Roman aid following a rebellion by her husband Venutius. Quintus Petillius Cerialis took his legions from Lincoln as far as York and defeated Venutius near Stanwick St John around 70. This resulted in the already Romanized Brigantes and Parisii tribes being further assimilated into the empire proper. Frontinus was sent into Roman Britain in 74 C.E. to succeed Quintus Petillius Cerialis as governor of that island. He subdued the Silures and other hostile tribes of Wales, establishing a new base at Caerleon for Legio II Augusta and a network of smaller forts 15 to 20 kilometers apart for his auxiliary units. During his tenure, he probably established the fort at Pumsaint in west Wales, largely to exploit the gold deposits at Dolaucothi. He retired in 78 C.E., and later he was appointed water commissioner in Rome. The new governor was the famous Gnaeus Julius Agricola. He finished off the Ordovices in Wales and then took his troops north along the Pennines, building roads as he went. He built a fortress at Chester and employed tactics of terrorizing each local tribe before offering terms. By 80 C.E. he had reached as far as the River Tay, beginning the construction of a fortress at Inchtuthil—which would have been the largest in the Roman world at the time if completed. He won a significant victory against the Caledonian Confederacy led by Calgacus at Mons Graupius. It is conventional to give Bennachie in Aberdeenshire, Scotland as the location of this battle but some recent scholarship also suggests that Moncrieffe in Perthshire was the site. He then ordered his fleet to sail around the north of Scotland (called Caledonia by the Romans) to establish that Britain is an island and to receive the surrender of the Orcadians.

Agricola was recalled to Rome by Domitian and seemingly replaced with a series of ineffectual successors who were unable or unwilling to further subdue the far north. The fortress at Inchtuthil was dismantled before its completion and the other fortifications of the Gask Ridge in Perthshire erected to consolidate the Roman presence in Scotland in the aftermath of Mons Graupius were abandoned within the space of a few years. It is equally likely that the costs of a drawn-out war outweighed any economic or political benefit and it was more profitable to leave the Caledonians alone and only under de jure submission.

Failure to conquer Scotland

Remnants of Hadrian's Wall.

Roman occupation was withdrawn to a line subsequently established as one of the limes of the empire (i.e. a defensible frontier) by the construction of Hadrian's Wall. An attempt was made to push this line north to the River Clyde-River Forth area in 142 when the Antonine Wall was constructed. However, this was once again abandoned after two decades and only subsequently re-occupied on an occasional basis. The Romans retreated to the earlier and stronger Hadrian's Wall in the River Tyne-Solway Firth frontier area, this having been constructed around 122. Roman troops, however, penetrated far into the north of modern Scotland several more times. Indeed, there is a greater density of Roman marching camps in Scotland than anywhere else in Europe as a result of at least four major attempts to subdue the area. The most notable was in 209 C.E. when the emperor Septimus Severus, claiming to be provoked by the belligerence of the Maeatae tribe, campaigned against the Caledonian Confederacy. He used the three legions of the British garrison (augmented by the recently formed 2nd Parthica legion), 9000 imperial guards with cavalry support, and numerous auxiliaries supplied from the sea by the British fleet, the Rhine fleet and two fleets transferred from the River Danube for the purpose. According to Dio Cassius, he inflicted genocidal depredations on the natives and incurred the loss of 50,000 of his own men to the attrition of guerrilla tactics before having to withdraw to Hadrian's Wall. He repaired and reinforced the wall with a degree of thoroughness that led most subsequent Roman authors to attribute the construction of the wall to him.

It was during the negotiations to purchase the truce necessary to secure the Roman retreat to the wall that the first recorded utterance, attributable with any reasonable degree of confidence, to a native of Scotland was made (as recorded by Dio Cassius). When Septimus Severus' wife, Julia Domna, criticized the sexual morals of the Caledonian women, the wife of a Caledonian chief, Argentocoxos, replied: "We consort openly with the best of men while you allow yourselves to be debauched in private by the worst." The emperor Septimus Severus died at York while planning to renew hostilities, but these plans were abandoned by his son Caracalla.

Later excursions into Scotland by the Romans were generally limited to the scouting expeditions of exploratores in the buffer zone that developed between the walls, trading contacts, bribes to purchase truces from the natives, and eventually the spread of Christianity. The degree to which the Romans interacted with the island of Hibernia (Ireland) is still unresolved amongst archaeologists in Ireland. The successes and failures of the Romans in subduing the various peoples of Britain are still represented in the political geography of the British Isles today, with the modern border between Scotland and England running close to the line of Hadrian's Wall.


The Roman conquest and occupation of Britain was a turning point in British history. It impacted how the very self-understanding and self-identity of the English later developed. Until the Roman conquest, Britain had been a remote off-shore island. It did have contact with the ancient Greek and Roman world through trade but it only after the conquest that it became part of the civilization of the Classic Age. It was the Romans who introduced Christianity thus for centuries it would be through the medium of Latin that learning was acquired. Right up until the time that the British established their own Empire, training in the classics of Greek and Roman history and philosophy and literature was a central plank of the education of a gentleman. It was these men, schooled in the classics, who ran the British Empire. Comparison and analogy between the British and the Roman Empire was commonplace. Having experienced what life was like as a colony themselves, arguably, the British might have expressed more sympathy than they did with the aspirations for freedom of their own subject peoples. The British, however, consciously emulated many aspects of the Roman Empire. Like the Romans, they saw themselves as spreading civilization, law and order. What has been called the "British imperial spirit" was consciously modeled on the Roman model, as explored by Hingley:

Through the process of conquest, Rome was felt to have introduced and Christianity and civilization to Britain and also to have helped to form the imperial character of the English. English civilization, religion and the imperial spirit are all traced back to the Roman past. This continuity in imperial spirit is defined in such a way that the natives of Roman Britain are often viewed in popular literature to have adopted Roman civilization and improved upon it in an active effort to create modern England and the British Empire. Incorporated in this distinctly English racial mix was the brave spirit of the ancient Britons who had opposed Rome. In this context, some popular pictures of Roman Britain gave a nationalist view of a civilized distinctly British province - a linear forbear for modern England.[12]

Historian Richard Hingley cites the poet of British imperialism, Rudyard Kipling writing with C.R.L. Fletcher about Egypt and Sudan: "The justice and mercy which these countries had not known since the fall of the Roman Empire, is now in full measures given them by the British."[13]

Roman and British imperialism, like all such enterprises, often exploited people and devalued their cultures. Yet both also spread ideas about human dignity and worth, and made more people aware of their membership of the same human family. Only a world in which people realize that they are inter-connected can then realize that all people have shared responsibility to defend human rights and to ensure that the planet itself is a sustainable habitat on which all people can live in freedom, and enjoy peace with justice.

See also


  1. Dio Cassius and Earnest Carey, (trans.) 1917. Roman History 49.38. Retrieved September 18, 2008.;Roman History. Retrieved September 18, 2008.;Roman History 53.25. Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library. Volume 5. Retrieved September 18, 2008.
  2. Augustus. 1924. Res Gestae Divi Augusti 32. The name of the second king is defaced, but Tincomarus is the most likely reconstruction. Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library. Volume 5. Retrieved September 18, 2008.
  3. Strabo and Horace Leonard Jones, (trans.) 1923. Geography Geography 4.5. Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library. Volume 2. Retrieved September 18, 2008.
  4. Suetonius and J.C. Rolfe, (trans.) 1913. The Lives of the Twelve Caesars: Caligula 44-46. Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library; Dio Cassius and Earnest Carey, (trans.) 1924. Roman History 59.25. Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library. Volume 5. Retrieved September 18, 2008.
  5. Dio Cassius and Earnest Carey, (trans.) 1924. Roman History. 60.19-22. Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library. Volume 7. Retrieved September 18, 2008.
  6. Eutropius and John Selby Watson, (trans.) 1853. Abridgement of Roman History 7:13. (London, UK: Henry G. Bohn). Retrieved September 18, 2008.
  7. Suetonius and J.C. Rolfe, (trans.) 1914. The Lives of the Twelve Caesars: Claudius 17. Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library. Retrieved September 18, 2008.
  8. John Manley. 2002. AD 43: the Roman invasion of Britain: a reassessment. (Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: Tempus)
  9. Strabo and Horace Leonard Jones, (trans.) 1923. Geography 4:5.2. names the Rhine as a commonly-used point of departure for crossings to Britain in the 1st century C.E. Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library. Volume 2. Retrieved September 18, 2008.
  10. Suetonius and J.C. Rolfe, (trans.) 1914. Lives of the Twelve Caesars Claudius 17. Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library. Retrieved September 18, 2008.
  11. Suetonius and J.C. Rolfe, (trans.) 1914. Lives of the Twelve Caesars: Vespasian 4. Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library. Retrieved September 18, 2008.
  12. Richard Hingley. 2000. Roman officers and English gentlemen the imperial origins of Roman archaeology. (London, UK: Routledge), 4
  13. Hingley, 2000, 52. Citing Rudyard Kipling and C.R.L. Fletcher. [1911.] Pocket History of England. (London, UK: Clarendon Press, 1983); New York, NY: Random House. ISBN 9780517402450), 244.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Cottrell, Leonard, and Leonard Cottrell. 1992. The Roman invasion of Britain. New York, NY: Barnes & Noble. ISBN 9781566190060.
  • Hingley, Richard. 2000. Roman officers and English gentlemen the imperial origins of Roman archaeology. London, UK: Routledge. ISBN 9780203171417.
  • Manley, John. 2002. AD 43: the Roman invasion of Britain : a reassessment. Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: Tempus. ISBN 9780752419596.
  • Pryor, Francis. 2003. Britain BC: life in Britain and Ireland before the Romans. London, UK: HarperCollins. ISBN 9780007126927.
  • Pryor, Francis. 2005. Britain A.D.: a quest for Arthur, England and the Anglo-Saxons. London, UK: Harper Perennial. ISBN 9780007181872.
  • Salway, Peter. 1981. Roman Britain. The Oxford history of England, 1A. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press. ISBN 9780198217176.


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