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The Roman Invasion of Britain

In 58 BC Julius Caesar became governor and military commander of the Roman province of Gaul, which at this time included modern France, Belgium and areas of Switzerland, Holland and Germany west of the Rhine. For the next eight years Caesar led military campaigns in this area.

In the 1st century BC Britain was populated by Iron Age tribes, many of whom had close links with the tribes of northern France. Britain was divided among 24 different tribes of varying area, population sizes and levels of technological advancement. At least seven of these Iron Age tribes had their own coinage. Many of the tribes in the south-east of England benefited from trade routes with France and the rest of Europe, and commerce had begun to flourish. Tribes in the south-west of Britain and Wales controlled considerable mineral wealth in tin deposits and copper mines.

In 55 and 54 BC Julius Caesar led two expeditions into Britain from Boulogne, both of which landed on the Kent coast at Deal, a few miles north-east of Dover. These expeditions were short lived, and there were no further attempts by the Romans to land in Britain until Claudius' invasion in AD 43.

The First Roman Landing, 55 BC

The seed for a Roman invasion of Britain had probably been sown when the Armorican tribes on the coast of Brittany rebelled against the Romans with the help of tribes from southern Britain. Caesar recognised that he needed to subdue the tribes of Britain before they could create more problems within the unstable western edge of the Roman province.

On 26th August 55 BC, two Roman legions (about 10,000 soldiers) under the personal command of Julius Caesar crossed the English Channel in a group of transporter ships from the Portus Itius in Boulogne. By the next morning the Romans were not far from the cliffs of Dover, whose upper banks were lined with British warriors in horse-drawn chariots (an antiquated method of fighting no longer used by the Roman army). After an initial battle the British war leaders sought a truce and handed over hostages.

Four days later, when Roman back-up (including 500 cavalry soldiers and horses) also tried to land in Britain, they were beaten back by bad weather. The storm also damaged many of the ships already beached at Deal. This lack of cavalry seriously restricted Caesar's operations as soldiers were forced to repair their boats and were therefore at risk from the British tribes who began to take advantage with fresh attacks. After repairing most of the ships Caesar ordered the troops to return to Gaul, bringing an abrupt end to the first invasion attempt as it was now the end of the Roman campaigning season.

The Second Roman Landing, 54 BC

The following year, the Romans organised a much larger expedition to Britain, with a total of 800 ships transporting five legions and 2,000 cavalry troops, plus horses. They set sail from Boulogne on 6th July and landed unopposed the next day on a beach between Deal and Sandwich in Kent.

When the native Britons saw the size of the Roman army they quickly retreated inland. Julius Caesar immediately marched 12 miles inland to the Stour River, and at daybreak on 8th July the Romans and the Britons met in battle. The Britons used chariot warfare, with two horses pulling a driver and warrior, the latter hurling javelins and dismounting to fight at close quarters. However, the discipline, organisation and technique of the Roman army soon had the natives beaten and they were forced to retreat once more to a nearby hillfort (probably Bigbury) a mile and half from the river crossing. The Roman Seventh Legion attacked the hillfort but were kept out by trees that had been piled up at the entrance. To gain access, the Romans filled the ditches with earth and branches, making a ramp, and then captured the fort.

However, bad weather was once again to bring misfortune for the Romans. An overnight storm had driven most of the Roman ships onto the shore, and the main body of the troops returned to the beach to find at least 40 ships completely destroyed. Caesar's army then set about building a land fort into which the remaining 760 ships had to be transported, which took ten days.

During this ten-day delay a large British force was briefly united under a single commander, Cassivellaunus, who ruled the Catuvellauni tribe on the north side of the River Thames. It was Cassivellaunus' army that had met Caesar's troops at the Stour river crossing. After being driven back by the Romans towards the Thames, Cassivellaunus then set about destroying local food sources and using his chariots to attack the Roman legions. Unfortunately for Cassivellaunus other British tribes (including the Trinovantes and their allies) resented his control and defected to the Roman side. Through these tribes Caesar acquired much useful information, including the whereabouts of Cassivellaunus' stronghold.

Even as the Romans were preparing to attack his fortress Cassivellaunus was ordering his allies in Kent to attack the Roman camp at Deal. The attack failed and Cassivellaunus surrendered, but he appears to have been fairly treated by the Romans who had learned of problems in Gaul and made plans to return there. The Roman legions left Britain in early September 54 BC, and it was to be another 97 years before they would again attempt the conquest of Britain.

The Roman Invasion of AD 43

Following the death of Cunobelinus, who had been one of the most powerful tribal leaders in Britain and effectively the British "king", his throne passed to his two sons Togodumnus and Caratacus. By this time Rome and Britain were trading with each other, with Rome taking a special interest in the metals that Britain had to offer. However, most of Britain at this time was still defiantly anti-Roman, and was especially opposed to the taxes that were paid to Rome.

By this time Claudius was Emperor of Rome, and he needed to prove to the Senate that he was a competent and worthy successor. The reasons for Claudius' invasion of Britain were:

  • The trade was bringing in a good income, especially for the wine growers, pottery manufacturers and Roman merchandisers in general. If Britain gained her independence these trade routes would suffer.
  • If Britain broke away from Rome it might persuade other subjected nations to follow suit, and the rebellious Britons might offer support to those on the western edge of the Empire.
  • The Spanish silver mines on which the Romans depended to produce raw materials for the manufacture of its currency were running low, and they had heard that south-west England and Wales were rich in copper, tin and lead ore.
  • The invasion would prove to the Senate and the people of Rome that Claudius was not a weak emperor and that he could be a victorious and strong ruler.

The Invasion

To ensure success Claudius spent a great deal of time planning the invasion. Four years previously the Emperor Gaius had planned to invade Britain, but his mission had been abandoned. The cause of the reluctance was an obstacle that had confronted both of Caesar's invasions and defeated them both times: the sea. The Roman troops were terrified of the sea and what it could do to their ships, and perhaps even more terrified of being stranded on British shores with the barbarian natives all around. With this fear lying heavily on their minds the Roman troops of Claudius' invasion refused to board the ships, and their commander Aulus Plautius was unable to persuade them otherwise. To help him Rome sent Narcissus, the Secretary for State, to talk to the troops. Narcissus was an ex-slave and perhaps because of his lowly origins he was able to persuade the Roman troops to set sail.

This time, the Romans landed at Richborough in Kent and were unopposed by the Britons. When Caratacus heard of the Roman landing he knew that it would take some time to gather a force large enough to tackle the Romans head on, so he gathered as many troops as he could and prepared to meet the Romans at the River Medway.

The battle scene was set. The Romans and Britons faced each other from the opposite sides of the river bank. The Britons watched the Roman troops moving about on the other side, little knowing that while they watched eight cohorts of Batavian troops were slipping into the water unseen. The Batavians came out a little way from the British warriors and made their way to the back of their lines to where their chariots stood. They then began to disable the horses and the chariots, thus taking away the British army's back-up. This put the Britons into total disarray, and while they panicked two Roman legions successfully crossed the Medway and set up base on the British side. The Britons rushed at the legions and the battle carried on throughout the day, the Roman legions knowing that they had to stand firm until reinforcements arrived. By night more Romans crossed the river and the next day the fighting resumed with the Romans employing their tight group fighting tactics.

With superior armour, discipline and sheer force of numbers the Roman army was victorious and now had a large area of south-east Britain subdued, which they could use as a base from which to launch further expeditions into Britain to prevent the possibility of the remaining tribes forming a larger fighting force and launching counter-attacks.

The battle at Medway was one of the most significant battles in British history, for it enabled the Romans finally to get the stronghold in Britain that they so desired. It gave them a base from which to plan and carry out the Romanisation of Britain and the expansion of the Roman Empire. Unfortunately the exact site of the battle at Medway has not been definitively identified. After the battle the troops returned to collect their dead comrades and see that they were appropriately buried.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2004]