For anyone who has read Robert Graves’ Claudius the God, the Roman conquest of Britain began in earnest under Emperor Claudius in AD 43. Of course, Julius Caesar invaded Britain twice in 55 and 54 BC and agreed with the tribes that they would send tribute to Rome and that Britain would become a country primarily made up of client states. However, after tribal warfare concluded with the expulsion of Verica, the exiled King of the Atrebates tribe who Rome recognised as the King, Claudius prepared an invasion party on the pretext of reinstating Verica.
But why and how exactly did Emperor Claudius prepare and succeed in conquering Britain? The team here at LocalHistories decided to take a look.
British Turmoil Prior to the Roman Invasion
Between 34 BC and 25 BC, Emperor Augustus planned to invade Britain on at least three occasions. Due to revolts elsewhere and the fact that Britain seemed more likely to come to terms with Rome, several of the plans were called off. However, historians citing Strabo’s Geographica believe that Britain paid more in customs and duty than could be raised by taxes if Rome was to conquer the island. The issue of taxes was the final straw which broke the camel’s back, however.
Three years before Claudius’ invasion in around 40 AD, the political situation in Britain was rocky to say the least. The Catuvellauni tribe had just displaced the Trinovantian as the most powerful kingdom in the Southeast of Britain, taking over their capital city Camulodunum (Colchester). This did not affect Rome, as it was the Atrebates tribe under Verica, whose capital was Atrebatum (Silchester) which had friendly trade and diplomatic links with Rome. However, shortly after his tribe’s success in Camulodunum, Caratacus conquered the entire kingdom and expelled Verica. Caratacus did not wish to adhere to Rome’s terms and spent the rest of his life resisting the Roman conquest of Britain.
Historians think that Emperor Caligula planned a campaign against the Britons in 40 AD. Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars told that Caligula drew his troops in battle formation facing the British channel. In usual Caligula style, he ordered his troops to gather up seashells from the floor and referred to them as plunder from the ocean. Despite this, troops stationed in Gaul (France) were readied for a full invasion three years later, facilities were also readied in preparation. Caligula built a lighthouse called the Tour d’Ordre, the model for the lighthouse later built in Dover.
British Resistance but Eventual Defeat
Rome’s main invasion force was led by Aulus Plautius and they crossed in three divisions. Although it is uncertain where each of the landing forces landed, it is thought that the point of departure was Bononia (Boulogne) with the main landing coming on the east coast of Kentat modern day Richborough. Claudius brought War Elephants over the channel to fight the British too. The Romans were far superior to the Brits in terms of tactics, ornaments, and pretty much everything else required for war. The Brits had the advantage of battlefield knowledge given that the fights occurred in their homelands, but this advantage did not last for long.
The British resistance was led by Togodumunus and Caratacus of the Cunobeline tribe. Many of the battles took place at river crossings. The first major battle occurred on the River Medway near Rochester which lasted two days and was won by the Romans, eventually. The British were pushed all the way back to the river Thames which is where Togodumunus died. It was at this point that the Roman army generals called for Claudius’ assistance, although by this point the British were all but beaten. At least eleven tribes in the Southeast of Britain surrendered which allowed Caludius to push further North. The Romans established their new capital at Camulodunum (Colchester) although Caratacus escaped with his family and continued his resistance further west. Despite this, a new king for the region was established by Rome.
The conquest of the south of Britain was largely completed by 87 AD. The North of Britain and Scotland proved far trickier and there was very little sustained success, even with the completion of Hadrian’s Wall in 122 AD.
What the Romans Brought to Britain (Other than War)
The Romans brought a wealth of innovations to the British Isles. Baths and aqueducts, stone buildings, and administrative centres are just a few Roman innovations. Before the Romans, engineering was pretty much unknown in Britain. Romans prioritised keeping towns and forts clean through the use of drainage systems. Aqueducts brought in clean water and drains were used to keep houses and streets clean. Prior to the Roman’s coming, clean water and sanitation was not something that was even thought about let alone prioritised.
Before Roman rule, indigenous Britons spoke the Celtic language known as Brittonic. When the Romans came, Latin became the primary language and although nobody really speaks Latin in Britain today, many modern words and phrases have their origins in Latin (as well as Ancient Greek). Rome gave British religion, law and administration the power of the Latin language and that is one of the main reasons why we have so much information about life in Roman Britain. Roman culture was very bureaucratic, the army especially. We know the names of who built what as well as the wives and children of many Romans from generals and senators to local builders.
In early Roman society, gambling was only allowed during the month of December during the feast of Saturnalia. However, by the end of the empire, there is evidence of gambling throughout every social hierarchy occurring throughout the gambling year. The emperor Augustus was thought to have played throughout the year and played openly for recreation.
Of course, one of the most famous occurrences of gambling in Roman times was at Jesus’ crucifixion when the soldiers ‘cast lots’ for who took his garments. Dice play was common, lotteries were also established as a way for the governments to raise revenue too. It just goes to show that Britain’s history of gambling is not unique. Even today, the UK governments take in billions of pounds in gambling revenue per year from different online slots sites whilst the national lottery still generates governmental revenue in 2023 like it did in AD 23!
Like today in 2023, gambling was accepted in Rome, but excesses were frowned upon.
PR and Marketing
According to English Heritage, the modern concepts of marketing and PR can trace their roots back to the Romans, who then brought this to Britain. The emperor was the biggest promoter of them all, of course. Whilst military victories were stamped on coins and commemorated in various artworks, sculptures, and buildings. Lower down the social hierarchy, traders and blacksmiths would advertise themselves via signs and billboards, the latter would stamp their initials on their work too, as would potters.
Roman Baths in Bath