CONQUEST BY ROMAN

BRITANNIA Official Clip “Battlefield” (HD) David Morrissey Amazon Series

Dio Cassius reported Verica’s appeal to Claudius but gave the name of Berikos. Whatever the name the situation suited Claudius who had recently been created emperor by the actions of the Praetorian Guard. In describing Claudius’s childhood Suetonius said that he was so troubled by illness that he grew up half-witted and with little physical strength. Unprepossessing and with a club foot he was contemptuously despised by his mother as a man whom Mother Nature had begun to work on and cast aside. This was doing Claudius an injustice. He was certainly not a fool and made some astute choices in selecting his generals. Suetonius dismissed Claudius’s future campaign as being of no great importance but he does state that the emperor saw attacking Britain, an island which no one had attempted to invade since Caesar’s time, as a much needed chance for military glory. Claudius’s argument was that Britain was in turmoil as a result of the driving out of Verica, and its refusal to return fugitives from Gaul was provocative and a diplomatic breach. He might also impress the Romans by crossing Oceanus to bring this isolated island into the Roman Empire.

Claudius did not intend to lead the invasion as Caesar had done. He selected Aulus Plautius, whom Dio describes as a senator of distinction. He had been governor of Pannonia, a province probably not unlike Britain in its mountainous areas. A cousin of Claudius’s ex-wife Urgulanilla, he was well known to the emperor. Other senior men chosen for the invasion included those tried and trusted in warfare. One of the legionary commanders was extremely competent: he was the future emperor Vespasian. Another was the future emperor Sulpicius Galba. This invasion was obviously to be treated as a serious campaign.

Plautius chose 4 legions, probably about 20,000 men, to accompany him – Legion II Augusta, Legion IX Hispana, Legion XIV Gemina and Legion XX. Three had been brought from the Rhineland; Legion IX had been in Pannonia and therefore was well known to him. In addition, a large number of auxiliary regiments were allocated to the invasion, bringing the force up to about 40,000. This would be a major expense but there would be an advantage if Britain were to prove to be a source of mineral wealth. Above all, it would keep the legions and the auxiliaries occupied and in a position where Claudius could control them.

There was again restlessness on the part of the legionaries who were still reluctant to cross Oceanus, but Plautius in a shrewd move sent a freedman Narcissus, who was on Claudius’s staff, to address them. When he started speaking the troops roared ‘Io Saturnalia’, referring to the winter festival when masters and slaves changed places. The troops were either putting Narcissus in his place or may have resented being addressed by a man of lowly rank. They may also have felt that their courage was being impugned. Whatever the reason they lost their obduracy and preparations for the invasion were swiftly resumed.

Plautius probably sailed from Boulogne and, as in the case of Caesar’s invasions, there were problems with the tides and the weather because the ships were driven back on their course. The Romans had yet again failed to understand the tidal system and had miscalculated the winds, as indeed other invading forces were to do in British history. The Romans, with their superstitious nature according to Dio, were encouraged when a flash of light shot across the sky from east to west, pointing in the direction in which they were travelling. This is a curious statement because if they were to land in Kent they would have been travelling north-westwards. The flash of light can be explained as a shooting star. The discrepancy in direction may be explained by the fact that the fleet had been blown very far to the east and therefore was turning back to land in the Richborough area.

Dio said that the fleet had sailed in three divisions, possibly one after the other. It is not certain how many ships were entailed. Frere calculated a fleet of 800 ships. John Peddie in 1977 estimated that 933 ships would be needed to carry the large numbers of troops, cavalry horses, baggage animals, equipments and supplies but if the expedition did sail in three divisions this would mean between 200–300 per group and that not all the fleet might have been driven off course. They could have been strung out along the Channel. The passage might take from ten to twenty hours, implying that they could have been at sea overnight, which the Romans hated to do, especially as the animals would have to be fed and watered.

Dio reported that the landing was unopposed but his comment on three divisions could indicate a dividing of the fleet and that there were several landings. It is uncertain where these might have taken place. Suggestions have ranged from Hampshire to Essex. The time limit would have been feasible to reach any of these areas. One of the complicating factors is that the first tribe that capitulated was named by Dio as the Bodunni. As mentioned, this must be the Dobunni who inhabited the Gloucestershire area and possibly one division landed west of the Solent in the Hampshire region. From there one Roman legion could have moved swiftly north-westwards to secure the submission of the Dobunni.

Modern interpretations, however, have hardened on East Kent with a main landing place either at Dover or in the Wantsum Channel, where the Romans were to establish the fort of Richborough. Excavations there have revealed two parallel ditches dated to the Claudian period, but even more important has been the recent discovery of a shingle harbour buried beneath 1.83 m (6 ft) of soil near Richborough. The fort was situated at the southern end of the Wantsum Channel that separated the Isle of Thanet from the mainland. Over the centuries this channel has silted up but in AD 43 this would have provided a sheltered lagoon and a perfectly safe anchorage for a fleet.

Dio’s account, which is the most detailed though the most problematical, said that the Romans advanced to a river, probably the Medway, where a huge battle took place lasting two days. Eventually the Romans were victorious and crossed the river. They then advanced to the Thames where in another skirmish Togidubnus was killed but this made the Britons even more determined to resist. Dio said that Plautius was worried about the situation, as he was unsure of the numbers of the British tribes and about crossing the Thames. It was more likely that once he realized that the Thames was fordable he hesitated so that he could obey his orders to bring Claudius to Britain and allow him to claim the victory.

Claudius had already sailed from Ostia to Marseilles, almost being shipwrecked by furious north-westerly storms. He marched through Gaul to Boulogne and embarked for Britain, bringing reinforcements and an entourage that included elephants. Their appearance must have startled the Britons. Dio said that Claudius took command although this must have been nominal given the military experience of Plautius. The Romans crossed the Thames – suggestions for the location range along the Thames between the City and Brentford – and advanced to the capital of the Trinovantes at Camulodunum, which was quickly taken.

Claudius stayed only sixteen days in Britain. He returned more leisurely to Rome, probably travelling along the Rhone and crossing the Alps before proceeding south through Italy and taking nearly five months on the journey. During this time no move had been made against his rule and on his return to Rome a compliant Senate granted him the title Britannicus, which was passed to his son, awarded him a triumph and an annual festival to commemorate the event, and ordered the building of two triumphal arches, one in Rome and one in Gaul. All this was what Claudius would have wished. On his triumph he rode in a decorated chariot followed by his wife Messalina and the officers who had ensured his glory. This must imply that some legionary officers had been withdrawn from Britain. In addition, on the Campus Martius he ordered the representation of the storming and sacking of a British town as well as replicating the surrender of British kings.

Suetonius said that Claudius had fought no battles and suffered no casualties, which was probably true as he had left all this to Plautius, but that he had reduced a large part of the island to submission. According to an inscription from the Roman arch dedicated in AD 52, now partly preserved in the courtyard of the Musei Capitolini, Rome, Claudius received the surrender of eleven British kings and ‘was the first to bring the barbarian people across the Ocean under the power of the Roman state’. Caesar’s exploits were conveniently ignored. Three of these kings must have been Togidubnus, Cogidubnus and an ancestor of Prasutagus, King of the Iceni. Others might have been kings in Kent and those ruling the Dobunni and the Coritani and possibly Cartimandua or her predecessor as ruler of the Brigantes, although it is doubtful that Roman intelligence had reached so far north. Suetonius said that Claudius placed a naval crown on the gable of his palace as well as a civic crown as a ‘sign as it were, that he had subdued Oceanus’. Tacitus laconically summed it up: ‘tribes were conquered, kings captured and destiny introduced Vespasian to the world’.

Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus ruled the Chichester area and Tacitus, in the Agricola, said that ‘he had remained totally loyal down to our own times in accordance with the long-standing policy of making kings even their agents to enslave peoples’. As Tacitus was writing in the AD 90s this implies that Cogidubnus had a long reign. On an inscription found in the area, dedicating a temple to Neptune and Minerva by the guild of smiths, he is called Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus, which suggests that Tiberius had given Roman citizenship to him. He is also named Rex and Legatus Augusti in Britain, an astonishing title but which may indicate that Cogidubnus had calculatedly decided to throw in his lot with superior forces and become a suppliant client king. He may also have realized that allying with Rome provided protection against an attack by Catuvellaunian power. The kings of the Cantii and the Iceni may also have realized this, which would account for the ease of Roman conquest in the south. The Romans had long experience in wooing individual tribal leaders by a series of inducements, rewards and threats. Client kings could keep their independence and privileges provided they pledged their loyalty to Rome and ensured that of their followers. This tactic was to succeed in the north. It was in the west of Britain, especially in Wales, where the most hostile tribes might be found.

Before he left Britain Claudius had sensibly given command of the army back to Plautius instructing him to subdue the rest of the island. This Plautius proceeded to do, sending the Legion II Augusta along the southern coast under its commander, the future emperor Vespasian. This legion swept through the country, possibly aided by Cogidubnus’s loyalty in providing a base. Suetonius succinctly reports in his life of Vespasian that the future emperor fought thirty battles, subdued two warlike tribes and captured more than twenty oppida as well as the Isle of Wight.

The tribes were possibly the Durotriges and either the Belgae or the Dumnonii. Amongst the oppida were certainly two in Dorset, Hod Hill and Maiden Castle. Others are probably Hembury (Devon), Spettisbury Rings (Dorset) and the Somerset sites of Worlebury, South Cadbury and Ham Hill. Excavations at Hod Hill revealed that one particular hut seemed to have been bombarded by ballistae (weapons for projecting missiles such as bolts). This was assumed to be the chieftain’s hut as it was situated on the main street near the most important gate. A Roman fort was established in one corner of Hod Hill thus securing that area. The Britons at Maiden Castle may have put up equal resistance to the Romans. A vast hoard of sling stones had been prepared to repel any attack and the hillfort’s complicated arrangement of ramparts and ditches could have repelled attacks by neighbouring tribes. These defences, however, were useless against the firepower of Roman catapults and an onslaught by disciplined troops. Telling evidence on the uselessness of resistance was the finding of a body of a British victim, buried quickly in a mass grave, with a ballista bolt cut into his spine. The hillfort was overrun and eventually the inhabitants were moved into the ordered civilization of the Roman town of Dorchester. A mass grave of over forty-five headless bodies dating to the early first century found recently near Weymouth (Dorset) may also have been the burial place of victims of the invading force. Sweeping aside any resistance it continued into Cornwall, establishing a base at Nanstallon. Later it swung north and centred the headquarters of Legion II Augusta at Exeter in about AD 55.

Vespasian also seems to have laid out a series of bases, which could be used by the fleet. Evidence of Roman occupation was found at Fishbourne, Hamworthy in Poole Harbour (Dorset) and Topsham (Devon) on the estuary of the River Exe. Coastal stations giving wide views were situated at Abbotsbury (Dorset), tacked on to a huge Iron Age fort (presumably another of the captured oppida), and High Peak, west of Sidmouth. Military bases were added at Dorchester, Ilchester, Camerton and Sea Mills. These soon attracted people who gathered there for security and thus developed into small towns.

Meanwhile, Plautius proceeded with an advance to the north. The Iceni quickly went over to Rome, possibly as a check to Catuvellaunian advance into their territory and allowing their king to become head of a client state. East Anglia therefore seemed relatively safe. Legion XX established Colchester, a base adjacent to Camulodunum, which was chosen to indicate that Roman power had superseded British power. Colchester could be also be used as a port for landing supplies from the Rhineland and Gaul and shipping them along the eastern coast.

Legion IX was sent north to subdue the Catuvellauni and soon established a fort at Longthorpe on the River Nene. Little resistance seems to have been shown and troops pressed on, eventually siting their main base at Lincoln, probably in the AD 50s. A network of garrisons was linked by roads, the most important of these being Ermine Street leading directly north. Possibly a fleet also moved along the coast establishing supply bases. One seems to have been situated at Kirmington and another at Old Winterington on the River Humber. From here it would have been easy to send supplies along the River Trent to camps as far as Newark and Margidunum (Nottinghamshire). Forts were also sited at Leicester, Broxtowe (Nottinghamshire) and Strutt’s Park near Derby to control the midland area. Plautius’s policy seems to have been to establish camps and forts at important river crossings, on high ground or near to native settlements, so that a watch could be kept to determine opposition. This policy seems to have succeeded and for the next fifteen years there was little sign of trouble.

Legion XIV was sent towards the midland region along a line later developed as Watling Street, although none of the forts on that road date to the early period. It established a base at Alchester (Warwickshire). Detachments moving along the Thames established a fort at Dorchester-on-Thames. The strategy seems to have been a swift movement to convince the Britons that resistance was futile and in this Plautius was successful, for as far as is known there was no considerable show of force.

When Plautius returned to Rome in AD 47 he could faithfully claim that the invasion had created a new province for Rome. For this he was given an ovatio, a lesser honour than a triumph but with the additional honour of the Emperor Claudius going out to meet Plautius when he entered the city and walking with him to the Capitol.

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