Heritage > The Romans

The Conquest of Britain

In the year of 61 BC the Roman republic had conquered Italy, most of the mediterranean and was making serious inroads towards Gaul. The Senate of Rome appointed General Caius Julius Caesar to be the governor of Gaul and in four years he had conquered the whole area.

Caesar was left with an overriding ambition to get across the channel and take over Britain as soon as possible. He knew there was a great deal of mineral wealth to be found in the country across the water as well as an abundance of corn which was the staple diet of the Roman legions under his control furthermore, he also knew that Celtic warriors from Britain had been sent over the channel to help the continentals in their fight with the Romans during the previous years. So he was sure that he could get the political backing he needed from the senate to start a major campaign on foreign shores.

The Roman Empire in 117 A.D.

In 55 BC Caesar sailed across the channel with an army of 10,000 men in 80 ships - as dawn broke Caesar saw that the southern tribes of Britain had massed on the cliffs of Dover to meet them. Caesar sailed on in an attempt to find somewhere to land his troops and eventually they came to a shallow beach whereupon the tribes of the Britains moved onto the beaches and did their best to intimidate the Romans. At first the intimidation seemed to work as the legionaries refused to disembark - until a lone standard bearer leapt ashore and was cut down whereupon the rest of the army were shamed into making a bloody landing.

Caesars progress inland was incredibly slow as his cavalry units had been lost earlier on the journey in a gale and he made the decision to withdraw back to Gaul and return the following year with more men.

54 BC saw Caesar attempt to take over Britain once more - he had at his disposal an army of 50,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry and he expected a full battle. Caesar landed unopposed however and marched quickly North towards the strongest of the British tribes. Caesar knew that any conquest of Britain would involve the surrender or decimation of the Catuvellauni tribe which at that time was the strongest in Britain. Their stronghold was betrayed by a rival tribe called the Trinovantes and it did not take long for the Chief of the Catuvellauni to surrender to Caesar. After the signing of a treaty between Rome and the British tribes, Caesar again withdrew from Britain in an attempt to quell the unrest in Gaul that had begun due to the lack of Roman legionaries in the immediate area.

The next serious campaign to conquer Britain did not take place until the reign of Claudius in AD 43. Four legions under the control of Aulus Plautius and numbering 24,000 men with an equal number of auxiliaries landed at Richborough on the East Kent coast. After a vicious two day battle on the banks of the Medway the opposing British tribes retreated across the river Thames. The legions followed and soon crossed the Thames and headed towards the tribal capital of Camulodunum (Colchester).

By the late summer of AD 43 the capital had fallen and the emperor himself arrived in Britain to accept the surrender of the eleven British tribal kings. The triumph was commemorated in Rome with the erection of a great arch dedicated to Claudius in the year AD 51.

The secret behind the Roman occupation of Britain lay in their tolerance of other religions and the fact that they allowed the tribal chiefs to remain in power but as "governors" for the Romans. This self development gave the people of Britain the opportunity to become accustomed to the Romans while still retaining the life they had been used to for most of their lives. For example Roman law took precedence but where possible the Romans adopted the local laws as their own and meted out the punishment in accordance with the British traditions.

It was this tolerance and acceptance which allowed the two cultures of the Romans and the Britons to live together and eventually amalgamate. The most dangerous uprising of the Britons against the Romans was as a result of this tolerance and self development being ignored.

Prasutagus was the King of the Iceni tribe and had been left to rule the area of East Anglia around Norfolk with the consent of the Romans. On his death he left a large expanse of land to the Romans on the understanding that his successor would be allowed to continue in his role. The Romans however were less than hospitable and declared all of the Iceni land forfeit and the brutality of the assault on the tribe were brought to a head when the two daughters of Prasutagus were savegely raped and beaten. Prasutagus’ wife Boudica (popularly known as Boudicea) was consumed with the need for vengeance and gathered together the tribe in preparation for battle.

BoudicaBoudica led her army toward Colchester which at the time was the Roman capital. The governor of the time, Suetonius Paullinus had come to power in AD 58 and had spent the next two years effectively quelling the Welsh opposition. By the time Boudica had gathered the Iceni for war he was leading the main body of the Roman army into Anglesey and was destroying the sanctuary of the druids in an attempt to rid the empire of the evil religions practised by the druids.

When Boudica arrived at Colchester the city was virtually defenceless and the townspeople, when confronted by the advancing army, fell back to the temple of Claudius. After two days of seige the defences of the temple were broken and everyone inside was killed. Boudica burnt Colchester to the ground and headed towards Londinium and after destroying the town she moved on to Veralamium (St Albans).

Boudica had managed to destroy the three most important towns in Roman Britain and had by now gathered together a huge army as more and more britons flocked to her cause.

The site of the final battle remains a mystery but what we do know is that the outcome was decisive and by the end of the battle 80,000 britons had fallen compared to just 400 romans. Boudica herself did not die in battle and she is said to have committed suicide soon after the battle and was buried in a secret location by her people.

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