Roman conquest of Britain AD 43

Claudius and the Preparations for Roman Invasion

Emperor Claudius (b. 10 C- d. 54 AD)

Emperor Claudius (b. 10 BC- d. 54 AD)

Aulus Plautius

Aulus Plautius held consulship in 29 AD and had participated in a prominent military career during his time in the Roman military. It seemed natural for Emperor Claudius to appoint him as the head of the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 AD. His task came to be the raising of an army, crossing the English Channel, and command the military dependent upon British resistance. If victory came about, Plautius was to be promoted to governor of Britain, and develop a province out of this victory. Learning from the mistakes of Julius Caesar who did not bring a large enough set of troops, Plautius raised about 50,000 men from all over the Roman Empire for his invasion.

Claudius' forces landing at Britain

Claudius’ forces landing at Britain

Preparation

Preparing for the invasion of Britain was unlike anything the Romans had ever taken up in their military history. The obvious reasons of course come to mind, such as that the English Channel has for centuries been nearly impossible to cross even with modern technology, therefore it is reasonable to guess that it was even more difficult for the Romans. In addition, the landing was incredibly difficult with a rocky shoreline and cliffs providing constant cover for whatever forces of Celtic tribes lay on the shoreline. Finally, the great commander Julius Caesar, an idolized individual in Roman military annals, had failed to conquer the British people. Naturally, fear of invading this island spread throughout Roman ranks simply because it was completely unknown territory to them, only seen through the eyes of legend and fairytales. Psychology played a major role in preparation for the invasion of Britain, and in fact held the invasion force on the Norman coast for several months. Claudius, however, sought his military glory that he had yet to win and was determined to invade Britain to win his Gloria. Claudius sent a former slave from Rome named Narcissus to address the soldiers in the person of the Emperor. The legions were so insulted that it is said they proceeded to remove doubts and prepare for invasion.

Recruitment for this great army was generally based in Italy, Spain, and Gaul. The invasion force was made up in a fashion not quite different than most Roman legions: There were the usual legions made up of cohorts and centuries, and auxilia making up archers and ranged troops, as well as usage of a small group of cavalry. Many specialists were also brought along, including stone masons, medical specialists, clerks, armorers, and artificers. Legionaries tended to be equipped with strip armor, a breakaway from the commonly used leather jerkin of yester year, a change not exclusive to Roman Britain. Legionaries used javelins and short swords as attacking weapons, referred to as pilum and gladius respectively in Latin. In terms of naval practices, which were essential for the crossing of the English channel, the Romans created an entirely new ship, the Mediterranean war galley, which were much thicker in wood and more stable on rough waters. In addition, the Roman navy, which was ranked as quite inferior prior to the invasion of Britain, became a much more professional and respected branch of the Roman army due to its necessity and skill in the invasion. The formation of the Classis Britannica became one of the greatest naval units in the Roman Army.

Celtic Britain pre Roman invasion.

Conquest of the Belgic Kingdom and the Formation of a Province

The Roman army embarked upon the newly formed Classis Britannica fleet and sailed across the English Channel by nightfall to begin the invasion of Britain. The details of what exactly would happen upon landing were unclear: would they meet British resistance, where would they land, and most importantly, would they even survive the crossing? The landing was rather uneventful compared to likely expectations. Navigators found a landing spot on Rutupiae Island on the East coast of Britain near the mouth of the Thames River that was adjacent to an easily traversable channel leading to the British mainland. The landing was completely unopposed by British forces, something completely unexpected by the Romans. Several reasons likely contributed to this. First, diplomatic relations with local tribes from the time of Caesar likely reduced resistance in general, and secondly, the delay of the invasion made the British tribesman, particularly the Belgic, tired of waiting, and they just went home. Thus the Romans began marching into Southern Britain after establishing a permanent beachhead camp near the town of Richborough, and, as Dio tells us, encountering resistance finally from the two Belgic brothers: Togodumnus and Caratacus.

Kent estuary, Whitbarrow and the Lakeland mountains from Arnside Knott

Medway River

Defeat at Medway and the Occupation of Britain

In marching through the southern possessions of the Belgic in Kent, Aulus Plautius encountered relatively little resistance because the tribes in this area were relatively ambivalent toward to the Belgic, and simply let the Romans through. Following the path described by the medieval author Geoffrey Chaucer as Pilgrim’s Way, the Romans came to the Medway River, an area that Caratacus felt the Romans could not cross without a bridge. The Romans were, unlike crossing the sea, very skilled at river crossing, and employed effective strategy that took Caratacus by surprise. Plautius made two crossings on the river, one of which was intended to be the main attacking force, and the other as a distraction. Roman engineers found a ford that was traversable at low tide near modern day Rochester, and would cross the main force at this location. Caratacus, realizing what the Romans were doing, attacked and nearly defeated the legions. However, after a day of fighting, reinforcements proved too powerful for the Belgic, and they retreated. Medway would come to be the decisive battle in Britain because it would come to render the Belgic kingdom helpless and open for Roman occupation, effectively ending organized resistance to Roman invasion prior to the formation of the province. After Medway, Plautius occupied the trade bridge on the Thames, the last defense between Rome and the Belgic capital. In the battle just past this bridge, Togodumnus was killed. Togodumnus carried far more Belgic loyalty than did Caratacus, thus the aristocracy of the kingdom began to waiver, and Caratacus was forced to flee to Wales (to return later). Claudius had seemingly won his great military victory, and he came to Britain to oversee the final days of the campaign and the capture of the Belgic capital.

Caractacus brought before Emperor Claudius

Caractacus brought before Emperor Claudius

The Shaping of Roman Britain

Plautius, as promised, became the governor of Britain after the conquest of the Belgic. His major tasks lay directly in front of him: consolidate Roman power with a frontier and permanent encampments, subdue resistance to the south in the form of the Durotrige, and end the resistance of Caratacus. Plautius is able to establish what comes to be known as the Plautian frontier, developing a border near Wales between the Romans and the Durotrige consisting of an elaborate pattern of forts and defenses that acted as more of a buffer zone than anything, but still inspired the later boundaries of Hadrian’s and Antoine’s wall in Scotland. Yet what Plautius accomplished in the invasion did not necessarily carry over to governorship, as Ostorius Scapula would be given credit for defeating Caratacus in Wales in 51 AD (see “Caratacus” in Uprisings), and Vespasian was seen as the final conqueror of the Durotrige in 70 AD as well as extending Roman influence to the borders of Scotland by defeating the Brigante. Regardless, by 79 AD, the vision of Claudius and certainly Aulus Plautius had been fulfilled. The Romans had occupied the Belgic kingdom and the southern coast of Britain. The great rebel Caratacus had been defeated in Wales, and Roman lands had been extended at the frontier of Scotland. The Romans now controlled everything from the Thames to Western Wales, all the way to modern day York and Southern Scotland, and finally modern Dorchester, an area that 30 years earlier had been nothing but stories to most Romans.

Roman Wall

Defenses on Plautian Frontier

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