Rebellion: Britannia #2: The History, by Maurice Suckling

This is part 2 of a series.


The historical and archaeological records on Roman presence in first century Britain are problematic. We have short accounts of the invasion all within larger accounts: Agricola by Tacitus (late first century), Life of Claudius, and Life of Vespasian by Suetonius (second century), and The Histories by Cassius Dio (third century). We also have paragraphs within the writings of Josephus (late first century), Tacitus’ Histories, Eutropius (fourth century), and Orosius (fifth century). Relating specifically to the invasion, the archaeological record gives us coins, and a victory monument in Rome. We have much archaeological evidence relating to Roman presence in Britain, but it is often unclear how this relates to the specifics of the invasion, or the other military campaigns in the first century in detail.

The Romans arrive in Britain. Picture by Harry Payne. Image found here.

We can say little with real certainty. Almost everything is in some form of doubt – the port of departure might have been Boulogne, or perhaps from the Seine estuary.1 The landing site might be in Kent, or Sussex, or even farther west in the Solent, or perhaps there was more than one.2 Birgitta Hoffmann tells us: “…the only facts that can be trusted are that there was a successful invasion of Britain, that Aulus Plautius was in charge, that Vespasian had a lesser command and that Claudius came for a short period.”3 If we extrapolate further we find a consensus formulating amongst scholars that the invasion likely occurred in 43 CE, and that Plautius probably brought with him the IX legion, Hispana, from Pannonia, where he was likely governor prior to the invasion, and he brought the II legion, Augusta, from Upper Germany, commanded by Vespasian.4 It’s possible that the XIV legion, Gemina, and the XX legion Valeria Victrix, were also present at the invasion, since we know they were present during Boudica’s rebellion seventeen years later in 60-61 CE.5 It’s possible, however, that other legions had been present instead and were swapped out for these legions later.

Cassius Dio gives us the fullest account of the invasion with the most details. But these are all impossible to verify, and the lack of clarity on the sources he drew from are cause for serious doubt over the writing’s trustworthiness. He relates a number of details, but as J.G.F. Hind suggests, these may be best understood not as a sequential narrative, but as a headline sketch followed by a fuller account, otherwise a confusing repetition is conveyed.6 Hind collates and summarizes Dio’s account thus:

…the Roman landing met no opposition, because the Britons were not expecting them to come; even after the landing, they held back in the woods and swamps, hoping to drag out the time so that the army would give up, re-embark, and sail away, as Julius Caesar had done (60.19.4-5). After some time Plautius found the leading kings among the Britons, Caratacus and Togodumnus, sons of Cunobelinus, who was by then dead, and defeated them one after the other (60.20.1). They were in flight after these events, and then he received the voluntary submission of a part of the Bodunnoi tribe; leaving a garrison there, he moved on (60.20.2).7

Hind ascribes that text to a headline sketch, then considers what follows to be a fuller account of the same narrative:

When they came to a certain river, which the Britons believed could not be crossed without a bridge (they had therefore camped on its bank carelessly), the Celtic auxiliaries (Batavi) swam across and disabled the British chariots, and endangered their occupants (i.e. the leading Britons), by shooting down their horses. On two successive days three Roman generals, Vespasian, his brother, and then Hosidius Geta, also crossed the river and killed many of the Britons. Geta, after getting into difficulties and almost being captured, extricated himself and won the triumphalia ornamenta in recognition. It is implied that this victory of Geta, coming after the previous phases of the battle on the river, was decisive in the campaign (60.20.2-4). In retreat the Britons fell back to the Thames and no further resistance was offered until the Roman army also reached it, ‘where the river nears the Ocean, and a lake is formed at high tide’. Here the Britons were able to cross by fords and firm ground, but the Roman army failed to find them and the pursuit stalled (60.20.5). Those auxiliaries skilled at crossing rivers again swam across, and other troops crossed by a bridge a little way upstream. Between them they attacked the Britons from several sides and killed many. However, in following up the remaining Britons, they fell into marshes that they found difficulty in making their way out of and lost a number of men (60.20.6). About this time, when Togodumnus also was dead/destroyed.., the Britons, far from giving in, banded together all the more to avenge him. Plautius’ reaction was to advance no further, hold under occupation what he had overrun, and send for Claudius; according to his original orders, he was to do this if he met any particularly stiff opposition. Cassius Dio adds that large-scale preparations had been made for a second, reinforcing, expedition to be led by the emperor himself. When this arrived it eventually dealt with the Britons north of the Thames (the Catuvellaunians in their heartland), and occupied the capital, Camulodunum (60.21.1-2).8

The first of the major battles at the outset of the invasion is often called The Battle of Medway and is notable for being a two day battle – a rarity in ancient warfare, and suggestive of serious military resistance to Rome. The second battle on the Thames often has no formal name. The general feeling amongst scholars is that Camulodunum was occupied quickly, and that control of the south east was soon achieved – in whatever form that might have taken, perhaps a mixture of military dominance, alliances, and client kingdoms.9

In 47, with the north and westwards expansion from Londinium perhaps having reached as far as the Seven and Trent rivers, Plautius returned to Rome and was replaced by Publius Ostorius Scapula.10 Tacitus makes reference to unrest amongst the British tribes around this time. Reference to the rivers Seven and Avon/Trent suggests the aggressors may have been the Silures. But the account references the Iceni so there is confusion here, or literary and/or contemporary politics in Rome are central concerns for Tacitus as he sought to vilify Nero as incompetent.11 Perhaps the Iceni were not aggressors in the revolt, but were victims, and Tacitus had his geography muddled, or the Iceni, as a client kingdom, were agitated in some way. In any case, the situation was stabilized, and campaigning against the Deceangi was renewed. Then the Brigantes rebelled. Or perhaps the punitive campaign that was launched against them was more cynical, with a more long term strategy in mind to ensure a firmer client kingdom relationship in the years ahead, and to ensure a more reliable eastern flank ahead of the ensuing campaigns against the Silures.12 Caratacus, it seems, at this point led the Silures. He joined forces with the Ordovices, was again defeated in a pitched battle, known as Caer Caradoc, around 51-52, this time on a mountain. His wife and brothers were captured and he escaped to the Brigantes, where he was then betrayed, or handed over to the Romans in a meaningful exchange, depending on the emotional weight one ascribes the act or whatever the details of what the Brigantes got in return.13

Caer Caradoc - 2007-04-15.jpg
The Caer Caradoc hill in Shropshire, United Kingdom. Image found here.

The Silures continued to be a problem, however, and a fort in their territory was attacked, and a rescue mission was sent with serious losses incurred. Scapula died around 52, and the next governor, Didius Gallus continued the Silures conflict which seemed to last for the duration of his governorship.14

Gallus left his post in 57 CE, and his successor was governor after less than a year.15 The next governor, Suetonius Paulinus, was campaigning in Wales – on Mona/Anglesey as Boudica’s rebellion erupted. We have four main accounts of this rebellion: Tacitus’ Agricola, and Annals (both written 40-50 years after the events), one by Suetonius in his Lives of the Caesars (second century), and one by Cassius Dio (third century).16 It is from Tacitus’ Annals that we get the detail that feeds the iconic power of the Boudica myth. In his will Prasutagus, king of the Iceni named Nero as joint heir with his daughters. Nero then declared himself sole heir, Roman soldiers flogged Prasutagus’ widow, raped his daughters, and leading Iceni were robbed and treated like slaves. Boudica acted in vengeance and the Iceni, together with the Trinovantes, and unspecified others, sacked Camulodunum. The IX legion tried to defend the city but was almost completely destroyed. Paulinus returned to Londinium, but considered it impossible to defend. Londinium was then sacked, and Verulanium plundered, and 70,000 Romans were killed. Paulinus gathered part of the XIV legion, and the XX legion, together with auxiliaries, and gave battle at a site protected by forests at the rear, funneling the Britons towards his line. The battle is known as Watling Street, but its location is still disputed.17 Tacitus gave Boudica an impressive speech exhorting death over slavery. We are told the Romans were vastly outnumbered, but secured an emphatic victory with 80,000 British dead, and just 400 Roman dead. After the defeat Boudica took poison and died. We should treat all numbers with caution, but note both the 70,000 and the 80,000 are high numbers, and that the number of Briton deaths from the battle exceeds Roman deaths from the uprising, perhaps telling us Rome is mightier, and Rome always wins.

Boudica statue, Westminster (8433726848).jpg
The statue Boadicea and her Daughters (1865-1885) by Thomas Thornycroft, in London. Image found here.

The last military campaigns of significance in the first century are the campaigns against the Brigantes in 71-73, and the campaigns of Agricola 77-84. Both were preceded by considerable turmoil as Rome descended once more into civil war, 69 being known as the year of four emperors. Vespasian, one-time commander of the II legion in Britain emerging as the last of these. Trouble reared its head in the Brigantes in the midst of the civil war – perhaps it seemed like a good time to exploit Roman weakness. Seemingly pro-Roman Cartimandua divorced her seemingly anti-Roman husband Venutius and the region was split by civil war. Marcus Vettius Bolanus, the new governor, rescued Cartimandua, but a more punitive campaign was launched later to ensure control of the Brigantes.18 Of course, it’s entirely possible that the Cartimandua-Venutius schism was a mere pretext for more heavy-footed occupation, prior to launching a northerly campaign. In any event, York was founded in 71 from a camp built by the IX legion and a campaign further north would have been logistically more difficult without York.

That northerly campaign would soon begin with the arrival of a new, dynamic governor, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, but not before the Ordovices in northern Wales rose in rebellion in 77.19 Battling poor weather in September, Agricola pursued Ordovices warbands in the high ground and slaughtered ‘almost the whole tribe’.20 He then turned his attention to Mona, where he perhaps destroyed the remnants of the druids, and/or the remnants of the Ordovices, or perhaps other refugees.21

Statue of Gnaeus Iulius Agricola at the Roman Baths in Bath, United Kingdom. Cut-out from an image found here.

The following year Agricola consolidated control of the Brigantes, and likely established a fort in Carlisle.22 The year after, 79, it seems likely that Agricola had reached the River Tay, but his progress then slowed with the news of the death of Vespasian reaching him.23 80 was then spent consolidating control of the lowlands. There was much building of forts, and roads too.24 In 80 consolidation continued as far north as the Forth estuary.25 In 81 Agricola marched west across to the Novantae, modern day Galloway and Carrick. There is also reference to Agricola considering conquering Ireland. In 82 Agricola pushed north again, now applying more pressure on the Damnonii, or Dumnonii (although not to be confused with the Dumnonii of Cornwall, to which they may have been related). Tacitus also mentions the use of substantial naval support and an accidental circumnavigation of Britain.26 In 83 Agricola faced off against the combined ‘Caledonian’ forces under Calgacus, and defeated him at the Battle of Mons Graupius. There was also a complete circumnavigation of Britain. Consolidation followed until Agricola’s recall to Rome in 85.

Roman presence in Britain in the first century had transformed the island. This was a century of invasion, rebellion, and suppression. But Rome was far from the only agent in these affairs. In particular, the Catuvellauni, Iceni, Silures, Ordovices, and Brigantes had major parts to play.

Maurice Suckling is an assistant professor in the Games Simulation Arts and Sciences program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York. He teaches and researches narrative in games, and historical simulations. He is a veteran of the video games industry, with credits on over 50 video games, including Civilization VI, and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. He is also a board game designer and his credits include Freeman’s Farm: 1777, Chancellorsville: 1863, and Hidden Strike: American Revolution. He has designed numerous games with his friend Daniel Burt, but none of them have yet been published.

[1] Grainge, G. The Roman Invasions of Britain. (Stroud: Tempus, 2005), p. 33, pp.111-140, pp.164-165.

[2] Manley, J. AD 43: The Roman Invasion of Britain, a reassessment. (Stroud: Tempus, 2002), p.7.

[3] Hoffman, B. The Roman Invasion of Britain: Archaeology Versus History. (Barnsley/Havertown: Pen & Sword Archaeology, 2013), p.54.

[4] Ibid., pp.55-56.

[5] Ibid., p.57.

[6] Hind, J. G. F. ‘A. Plautius’  Campaign in Britain: An Alternative Reading of the Narrative in Cassius Dio (60.19.5-21.2)’. Britannia Vol.38 (2007), pp.93-106, p.95.

[7] Hind, p.94.

[8] Hind, pp.94-95.

[9] Peddie, J. Conquest: the Roman Invasion of Britain, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993), p.110. Hoffmann, pp.65-79.

[10] Tacitus, Agricola 14. Peddie, p.120.

[11] Hoffmann, p.77.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Hoffmann p.80. Tacitus Annals 12.35.

[14] Ibid., p.83.

[15] Ibid., p.82.

[16] Ibid., p.93.

[17] A study in 2010 using computer analysis identified 263 possible locations for the battle. Kaye, S. ‘Can Computerised Terrain Analysis Find Boudica’s Last Battlefield?’ British Archaeology 114, Sept-Oct (2010), p.32.

[18] Campbell, D. B. Mons Graupius AD 83: Rome’s battle at the edge of the world, (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2010) p.11.

[19] Campbell, p.38.

[20] Agricola, 18.3.

[21] Annals, 14.29.

[22] Campbell, 40-41.

[23] Campbell, p.42.

[24] Campbell, p.43. Hoffman, p.132.

[25]. Campbell, p.45.

[26] Agricola, 25.1.

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