*** war and social upheaval: Roman conquest of Britain

Roman Conquest of Britain (43AD- )

Figure 1.--This is a child's bust found at Fishbourne Palace, an incredible archeological site along the Engklish Channel in West Sussex. It was manificent villa built shortly after the Roman invasion and one of the greatest Roman sites in Britain. The villa may have marked the site of one of the landings by the Romans to protect the 'friendly' Atrebates tribe whose King Verica had been ousted. One of the countless artifacts uncovered was this bust of a child. Almost certainly it was modeled on a real person. One theory was it was the son of King Verica who had invited the Romans to come to Britain. Another theory is that it was Emperor Nero as a child which to us is unlikly given that images of Nero were destroyed after he was killed by the Pretorian Guard and Cludiius was placed on the throne. All this occurred before the Roman invasion and the cinstruction of the villa.

Julius Caesar while campaining in Gaul launched two expeditions accross the Channel (55 and 54 BC). Ceasar decided against a major military expedition. It is not enirely sure why. His focus at the time was on Gaul. Presumably he concluded the conquest would not justify the expense, especially when the situation in Gaul itself was not yet settled. Ceaser did, however, report on these explots to his adoring public back in Rome. The subsequent Roman invasion came a century later. Roman attempted to bring Britain within the Empire through diplomatic initiatives. By the time Rome initiated the conquest of Britain, Gaul had been firmly Romanized. Rome's new emperor, Claudius (43 AD), athorized The invasion. It was Claudiu's first foreign expedition. Successful military expeditions were important in establishing a prestigious reputation. Claudius assigned Aulus Plautius to carry out the invasion. The Britons were a Celtic people, related to the tribes of Gaul which Ceasar had conquered. The British proved to be a substantial military challenge, taking several decades to accomplish. Eventually Roman armies subjugated the British Celts and the era of Roman Britain began.


Roman civilization had an incalcualble impact on Western civilixzation. As such this is a topic we plan to develop in some detail, although we have not yet seriously addressed it. The impact of Rome on western civilization is incaluable. The Roman legacy in art and sculpture, architecture, literature, philosophy, political organization and law, and religious is extensive. Rome was the conduit through which many aspects of Greek culture were passed on to our modern age. Today the power of media has obscured the great legacy of Rome to that of gladitorial spectacle. Many scholars are convinced that perhaps with the exception of Jesus, the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero is the most important single voice in Western civiliztion. It was Cicero that was a key influence in British political thought and the American and French Revolutions and thus all modern democracies. It was an idealized Roman Republic that inspired the founding fathers. Roman legends like Cicinatus who volutarily gave up power inspired thge founding fathers. Many of the key Revolutionary leaders had read Cicero's works like De Officius. Even Washington, who unlike many of the other founding fathers had not studied classuical history, acted out a scene in a play about Cato that he had seen to defuse a mutiny of the Continental Army. The American Republic is in large measure a Ciceronian Republic. The legacy of Rome can be found throughout the American Republic. A Senate was created to limit the passions of the majority. Executive authority is limited by checks and ballances. It was Cicero's heroic, but ultimately failed effort to save the Roman Republic that enspired political thinkers of the 18th century to device a system that could prevent despotism. This effort motivated many of the debates over the American Constitution.


The Britons were Celtic tribes in much of the island south of modrn Scotland. The Btitish cekts like the Gaul Celts were divided into tribes. The Celts had no written language and thus, unlike Rome, we know relatively little about them. Most contemprary accounts come from Greeks like Polybius or Romans. Ironically, Ceasar commentaries of the cinquest of the Gauls are some of the major written accounts with information about the Celts. After Ceasar's conquests, Gaul is rapidly Romanized and knowledge of their Celtic past is lost. Caesar provides into Celtic culture, politics, and religion of druidism. Ceasar played a major role in destroying Celtic culture, not only through his military campaigns but by the concerted persecution of the druidic sects who were the central force in Celtic culture. They played both a spiritual role and a repository of oral knowledge--legends and traditions.

Roman Conquest of Gaul (58-50 BC)

The Gallic Wars were the campaigns waged by Ceasar in Gaul (modern France and the Low Countries). The Gauls were Celts divided into tribes. This lack of unity enabled Ceasar with a realtively small Roman force to defeat the numerically superior, but less well organized Gauls. There was no consensus in Rome as to the need to conquer Gaul. It was Ceasar who persued this perhaps the most important of all Roman conquests. Ceasar's first campaign was to prevent the Helvetii from entering southwest Gaul. Then the Aedui asked for his support in fending off the Germanic Ariovistus. Ceasar then pacified the Belgica (57 BC). Then he attacked the Veneti (56 BC). Next Caesar moved into the Low Countries and crossed the Rhine beginning Roman efforts to pacify the Germanic Tribes (55 BC). Then he invaded Britain in an unsuccsessful campaign (54 BC). Then Ceasar faced a Gallic revolt. Ambiorix raised some Belgian tribes which Ceasar dispersed. A more serious adversary was Vercingetorix who succeeded in uniting the tribes of central, eastern and northern Gaul in a general revolt. Ceasar campaign to defeat the revolt is one of the classic military campaigns in history. It is often said that that the victors write history. This is certainly true with the Gallic Wars, both because Caesar conquered, but also he wrote a litteraey masterpiece to describe his conquests.

Celtic Britania

Very little is known about the early inhabitants of the British Isles, although archeological work has unearthened some fascinating informatin in recent years. The Celtic peoples appear to have begun migrating to Britain at about the tme Rome began to emerge in Italy (about 600 BC). There is some evidence that the Celts integrated the existing population. The Celts were a pre-literate society. Thus there are no written records. In fact, the first written accounts of Celtic Britain are provided by Julius Ceasar during his military expeditions (55-54 BC). Ceasar learned a good bit about the Britons and Celts while in Britain. The British war techhnology was more advanced than he anticipated. He was surprised to find the Britons had war chariots. He was also astonished to find that the Britons would rub their bodies with woad before going into battle. He picked up usefil information about the Gauls. King Commius of the Atrebates, who founded a dynasty in modern Sussex and Hampshire, was a source of information. Celtic legend was that he Druids, Celtic priests, had originally come from Britain and not Gaul itself. Caesar's assessment was that the Britons, much like the Gauls, were a quarrelsome tribal society. Even with the Roman Army in Britain, the various tribes seem primarily concerned with long standing tribal differences. Cassivellaunus appears to have been the most powerful of the Celtic tribes in southern Britain. Mandubracius, chief of the Trinovantes, north of the Thames in East Anglia, was attacked by Cassivellaunus and sought Ceasar's protection. Ceasar did not fully understsand the tribal relations, in particular whether the warring Britons were separate tribes or sub-groups of the same tribe. Very little is known of the Britons at this time because there are not British written records. One of the few sources of information or coins minted by the various British tribes. Many of these coins had the names of the tribal chiefs. Archeologists have found coins from the Dobunni (Gloucestershire), Durotriges (Dorset), Iceni (East Anglia), and Corieltauvi (Leicestershire, Lincolnshire).

Early Roman Concept of Britain

The Roman concept of Britain before Caesar's expeditions was more legendary than factual. Homer had described a great river encircling the inhabited world--Oceanus. This of course ws the origin of our world "ocean". Britain for the Romans was an island lying beyond beyond Oceanus and civiization. The Roman had contacts with the Gaults (Celtic tribes of modern France and Belgium) and the Germanic tribes beyond the Rhine and Danube, but Britain itself was a legendary land.

Caesar's Expeditions (55-54 BC)

Julius Caesar while campaining in Gaul launched two expeditions accross the Channel (55 and 54 BC). Ceasar decided against a major military expedition. It is not enirely sure why. His focus at the time was on Gaul. Caeasar probably was less interested in conquering Gaul than in making sure that the Brions would not support the resistance of their fellow Celtic tribesmen in Gaul. Caesar may have been thinking about creating a Roman protectorate along the southern coast to make such assistance impossible. Chrossing the Channel seems to have been a major logistical probem, as other conquerors or would be conquerors found. Caesar's major problem as finding a safe anchorage for the invasion fleet. And he knew nothing about tides in the Channel and a result the fleet was badly damaged. Presumably he concluded the conquest would not justify the expense, especially when the situation in Gaul itself was not yet settled. Ceasar appears to have concluded that the Britons would not intervene in Gaul. Caeser reported on his explots to his adoring public back in Rome. Ceasar had learned something of Briton, but the island remained something of an enigma. Caesar was not even sure that Briton was an island. The subsequent Roman invasion came a century later. Caesar while in Brutain helped support Mandubracius. He also negotiated treaties with the Britons imposing tribute and apparently opened trade relations. Caesar's expeditions were limited to the southeastern corner of the island. He found Celtish peoples organized into tribes, much like the Gauls. He described Cantium as "most civilized". The Roman people, however, continued to think of the Britanni as barbric savages who nt only painted themselves blue, but sacrificed children to their gods. For the Romans who regukarly slaughtered and enslaved children, this was a particularly heinous inditement. Their great enemy,m the Cathaginians, were accused of sacrificing children.

Diplomactic and Trade Contacts (54BC-43 AD)

A Roman Civil War followed Caesar's preliminary expeditions. Ceasar had he not been assasinated might well have launched a major invasion of Britain. After all he and his Legionaires were the only Romans with a knowledhe of Briton. With Caesar's assasination (44 BC), an epic civil war broke out, first to avenge Caesar and then for control of the Empire between Octavian and Anthony supported by Cleopatra. With domestic war, The Britons were largely forgotten and military forces were not available to cross the Channel. With the conquest of Gaul, the Romans were now in cotact with the Britons. There were trade exchanges accross the Channel. After Octavian (as Augustus) united the Empire, the Romans again began thrinking of Britain so tantelizing close to Gaul. Roman attempted to bring Britain within the Empire through diplomatic initiatives. The Romans also began thinking of a military campaign, but for decaded diplomats and traders were the contacts with the Britons. The diplomatic contacts are not well documented. The appearance of British coins with Latin inscriptions and formats (Augustus and Tiberius, Roman deities, lions and sphinxes) before the conquest shows that there was expanding Roman influence. Roman trade good (wine amphorae and silver and bronze vessels) have been found in pre-conquest Britain.

Pre-Invasion Developments

The Celts in both Gaul and Britain were a cultural, but not centralized political group. Thet were constantly fighting with each other, more commonly than in engaging in wars with other prople. This made it possible for Ceasar to invade and conquer Gaul, a large area and substantial population with a relatively small army. He raided Britain, but did not stay to begin an actual conquest. He found the Britions every bit as disunited and quaresome as the Gauls. While Ceasar withdrew, the Romans did not lose interest in Britain. The island offered rich pickings. Not only was it a rich agricultural area, but it was a potengtial source of slaves and skins. Perhaps most importantly, Britain had important metal mines, including tin, lead, and silver, the major monetary metal of the Empire. The Romans knew what was available because there was trade connections with the Britains. Emperor Claudius came to the throne after the Praetorian Guard staged a coup against the half-mad and unpredictable Emperor Caligula (AD 40). The Guard also eliminated most of Caligula's family. They did not, however, have a plan as to how to relace Caligula. Then they came across his nephew, Claudius often the butt of Caligula's jokes, cowering behind the curtains in the palace. Claudius was the most unlikely of emperors. He not only was lame, but stutterd and drooled. The royal family did not know waht to do with him and essentially hid him from public view. He was unloved by both his mother (Antonia daughter of Mark Anthony) and grandmother (Augustus' wife Livia). He was, however, a member of the royal family. The Guard placed him on the thone. While having handicaps, Claudius had a sharp mind who had busied himself by writing histories while his family imploded around him. His hanicaps meant that he was not a threat to anyone and this was probably why he survived. The Guard set out to eliminate the royal family, but the innocuos Claudius managed to survive, reportdly by bribing the Guard to place him on the throne. He realised that with his inauspicious beginning and to cement his hold on the throne that a military triump would be very useful. And Britain off the coat of Gaul beckonned. Caratacus and Togodumnus, sons of Cunobelin, were suceeding in uniting Celtic tribes. They were becoming a major power in southeastern Britain. This was a direct threat to Rome. Potentially it could promote resistance to Rome in northeastern Gaul. And if the Celts suceeded in uniting more tribes, it would make a Roman invasion virtually impossible. Verica, one of the Celtic chiefs driven from power fled to Rome. His pleas for help interested Claudius and his advisers.

Military Campaigns (43 AD- )

By the time Rome initiated the conquest of Britain, Gaul had been firmly Romanized. The Britons were a Celtic people, related to the tribes of Gaul which Ceasar had conquered a century earlier. Rome's new emperor, Claudius, ordered the invasion. It was Claudius' first foreign expedition. Successful military expeditions were important in establishing the prestigious reputation that Claudius needed. Claudius picked Aulus Plautius an ex-consul in whom he had great confidence to organize the invasion. Plautis was serving as governor of Pannonia (modern Austria, Hungary, and Slovenia). He assembled his legions at Boulogne (late-spring 43 AD). Unlike Ceasar's raid, this was a huge military operation. Plautius crossed the Channel near its narrowest point and established a base camp at Richborough in Kent. The Britons resisted, but the level of resistance msy be exagrated. Remember that Verica, a Celtic chief, had invited the Romans to intervene in the first place. The military campign is fairkly well dicumented by the Romans. Plautis and his Legions fought their way north to the Thames. Togodumnus died in a skirmish resisting the Roman drive north. Caratacus continued to resist. Plautius as ordered sent for Claudius who was closely following the military reports. He traveled north and a staged entry was arranged at Camulodunum, Caratacus' capital (September). Detailed reports were dispatched to Rome. The Senate voted him a triumphal arch 'because he was the first to bring barbarian peoples across the ocean under the sway of the Roman people�. Plautius established Colchester as the operational base and fortress for the 20th Legion. Palautius used his other Legions to fan out from this secure base all over lowland Britain. The Britons proved to be a substantial military challenge, taking several decades to accomplish. Vespasian (a future emperor) took the 2nd Legion westward along the southern coast. He established a base in the client kingdom of the Regni at Fishbourne, near Chichester. The Roman strategy was to defeat the tribs that resisted and to molify others who accepted Roman rule into client states. This helped reduce the military demand at this critical point of the conquest. Vespasian eventually set up his main base at Exeter. The 14th Legion was ordered to the north-west along the line of what is now Watling Street to Fosse Way at High Cross, near Leicester. The 9th Legion was ordered north. An early base was established at at Longthorpe, near modern Peterborough. Eventually their base was set up at modern Lincoln. Plautius did not move in force to the east. There in East Anglia the Iceni recognized Romam overlorship and became one of the Celtic client tribes often referred to as kingdoms, but that term suggests a level of political organization that the Celts lacked.

Boudicca's Rebellion (59-61 AD)

Boudicca was queen of the Iceni, an important Cletic tribe in in eastern Britain (modern East Anglia). She became queen as wife of Prasutagus. The Romans conquered southern England (43 AD). As part of their policy of conquering Britain with limited forces, they allowed Prasutagus to continue to rule after he acknowledged Roman authority. The Romans issued the Lex Iulia de vi publica which among other matters prohibited civilians from possesing military arms. The Iceni resented this and other aspects of Roman rule. Discontent simmered among the still unconquered Iceni. When their chief Prasutagus died, Roman Governor Gaius Suetonius Paullinus decided to rule the Iceni directly without the the traditional leadership. He saw this as a way of more effectively exploiting the Iceni and cementing control. As part of the process, Paullinus confiscated the property of the Iceni leadership. Tradition also says that he had Boudicca pubically stripped and flogged. Her daughters were raped, perhaps an action to brutally demonstrate Roman authority. These and other actions only increased already widespread resistance to Roman rule among the Iceni and neighboring tribes. Paullinus moved his attention west to North Wales. Boudicca and the Iceni used this distraction to rebel. Other Celtic tribes joined them. This posed a major threat to Roman rule. As with Ceasar in Gaul, a relatively small Roman force had proved succssful in Britain by fighting one or a small group of tribes in localized combat. There was no unified Celtic resistance to them. The cloest such resistance came with Boudicca who became a warrior queen. Boudicca's undisiplined fighters defeated the Roman Ninth Legion and priceeded to destroy the capital of Roman Britain, then developing at what became Colchester. Next they destroyed Londinium and Verulamium (St Albans). Thousands of Romans in those developing cities were put to the sword. Paulinus defeated Bodicc'a much largrer army. The more disciplined Roman Army prevailed aginst thepoorly led Celts. Huge numbers of the Celtic warriors were killed. Boudicca is believed to have poisoned herself to avoid capture and display in chains at a Roman triumph. The site of the battle is lost to history.


The revolt of the Iceni proved to be the last real challenge to Roman rule. This was in part due to a shift in Roman policy. Celtic Britain was a huge area with a subtantial population. Repression would have been a daunting and costly undertaking as Boudicca and the Iceni proved. The Emperor Nero had replaced Claudius (54 AD). The man chiefly responsible for that change was Caius Julius Classicianus Roman Procurator of Britain--meaning in modern parlance the chief financial officer. He was also a Roman of Gaulish origin and married to the daughter of a leading pro-Roman Gaulish chieftain from Trier. Classicianus saw that Paullinus' policy of repression was responsible for the Iceni rebellion and was detrimental to the exploitation of the new acquisition to the Empire. He secretly sent reports to Nero (61). The Roman has survived the Iceni revolyt, but just barely and largely because several imoortant client tribes remained loyal. And both Legions and military expeditions were expensive. Nero wanted to exoploit the Britons and the resources of Britai, not finance expensive military expeditions. As a result, Nero recalled Paullinus and a more restrained policy of Roman rule ensued. The Roman commanders who conducted the military campaigns and future govenors tuned their attention to Romanizing Britain as a previous generations had done in Gaul.

Roman Britain: Britania (1st-5th Century)

The Roman conquest of Brition ws characterically brutal. It took longer than Caesar's conquest of Gaul. But the impact on Celtic Britain began even while the conquest was underway. Eventually Roman armies subjugated the British Celts and the era of Roman Britain began. The Romans called their new province Britannia. Some of the luxuries of the Roman Empire had reached Britain even before the conquest. There were cultural and economic links with the Celtic tribes in Gaul and these cotavts continued after the Roman conquest. The Romans brought with them many new technologies in agriculture, industry and architecture. One of the most significant imprint on Celtic Britain was urban life--a hallmark of Roman civilization. And with urbanization came a variety of luxuries. These luxuries were coveted by the Britanii. The British army set of forts throughout Briton. Some were temporary emplacements. Others forsts became the beginning of the major cities of Roman Britain. Almost from the beginning the Romans began constructing roads connecting these forts. The salaries paid the soldiers from an early period began attracting Celts willing to perform services of value to the soldiers and Roman officials. This included artisans, bakers, laborors, launderers, smiths, and many others. These people at first settled outside the Roman forts. The forts and Celtic selllements developed into cities. These Celts over time became Romanized to varying degrees. The Romans established definiticely that Briton was an island when Governor Gnaeus Julius Agricola dispatched a naval expedition to explore the northern reaches of the island (80s AD). Caesar left an account of his expeditions. And there are accounts of the conquest, but unfortunately very few written records of Roman Britannia have been found either in Briton or Rome itself. This probably testifies to the titality of the Anglo-Saxon assault on Roman Briton. Most od what we now know comes from archaeological and epigraphic work. With the withdeaw of te Legions (407 AD), Roman Briton was soon destroyed by Anglo-Saxon invaders. Some of the British retreated west, but the suyrvivors seem for Celtic than Roman.


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Last updated: 12:41 AM 5/13/2023