The Roman invasion: Whose side were the Britons on?

The display of the Hallaton helmet reconstruction in 2012 sparked debate about how far Britons colluded with the Romans on their invasion in AD 43. Here, Gillian Hovell considers this and other key questions about the start of the Roman occupation.

This article was first published in the April 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine

Romans and their enemies clash in a second-century relief sculpture.

The Roman invasion of Britain is an old, old story. However, the reconstruction and display of the Hallaton helmet – a ceremonial Roman helmet found in an Iron Age shrine – in 2012 reminds us that relations between the invaders and the Britons were more complex than we normally imagine. Did Britons really, as the helmet’s discovery implies, fight side by side with the Romans against their own people? Why might they have swapped their loyalties? And, even with local support, was it really an easy ride for the Romans? 

By combining the latest archaeological discoveries – such as the Hallaton helmet – with reports written by ancient historians, we can piece together the events and motives of the time. From these, startling questions arise: were the Britons more prepared than the Romans who first marched into this unexplored world? And what opportunities for personal advancement did some Britons seize, while others continued to put up such a determined resistance that, in 400 years of Roman occupation, Britain never truly lost its identity as a military frontier province? Just what was the real story?

The Hallaton helmet was discovered in 2000 near Hallaton, Leicestershire. It was possibly made between AD 25 and 50, making it one of the earliest Roman helmets ever found in Britain. (Credit: Rex)

 

Why did Caesar only come, look and leave again?

Rome first invaded Britain back in 55 BC. Julius Caesar had just spent three years conquering Gaul, but he knew that Britons were supporting the Gallic resistance there. A punitive attack to put the interfering Britons in their place was due. He intended not only to prove Rome’s might, but to return laden with booty and with military and political glory for himself – for the invasion and the conquest of a new, untamed land was an accepted traditional route to political success.

So he led two legions across the channel and arrived on the south coast of Britain in August 55 BC. However, the tidal waters at Deal made it impossible to beach his ships and his army was forced to wade ashore in full armour, leaving them in no state to meet the local warriors who were waiting for them. The Romans survived but victory eluded both sides because the Britons used guerrilla tactics and avoided a pitched battle of the kind that the Roman army was accustomed to.

When the weather worsened and the Roman fleet was virtually destroyed in a storm, Caesar retreated and limped homehaving underestimated the resistance he would meet. He returned the following year, 54 BC, for a face-saving expedition, this time with more soldiers and the addition of cavalry to counter the Britons’ devastating, whirling war chariots. Shocked, the Britons buried their differences and united together under Cassivellaunus, the king of the Catuvellauni tribe. Tribal enmities proved too ingrained though and Cassivellaunus was betrayed: Caesar extracted tribute and eventually returned triumphant to Rome, but he never came back to Britain.

 

What led Claudius to invade?

It was nearly 100 years before Rome invaded Britain again. After Caesar’s expedition, the geographer Strabo had written, rather defensively perhaps, that “although the Romans could have held Britain, they scorned to do so, because they saw that there was nothing at all to fear from the Britons (for they are not strong enough to cross over and attack us), and”, he continued, “they saw that there was no corresponding advantage to be gained by seizing and holding their country”.

Nonetheless, the limping, trembling and militarily inexperienced Emperor Claudius knew (like Caesar) that he needed military success to thrive in power, and that a prestigious invasion could provide him with the greatest honour any Roman could hope for: a triumphal procession in Rome and all the glory and popularity that went with it. A victorious invasion of a barbarian land would also serve to boost Roman morale and to distract from troubles at home. 

He was well equipped. Three years earlier, Emperor Caligula had drafted legions specially to invade Britain but had never used them. They were idle and dangerously restless, so, when a request for help came from Verica of the Atrebates tribe (who had been ousted from power by Caratacus, king of the Catuvellauni tribe), Claudius was ready.

Celtic coins like this one aped the style of their Roman counterpart. (Credit: Scran)

 

How did the invasion commence in AD 43?

The emperor gave command of the invasion to the general Aulus Plautius, who led legions, cavalry and auxiliary troops across to Britain. They arrived unopposed in three groups – though it is not clear where they landed: Richborough and the Solent have been suggested – defeated Catuvellaunian attacks and reached a river, perhaps the Medway or the Thames. The Britons were carelessly encamped on the west side, thinking the Roman army couldn’t cross the fast, wide river without a bridge, but the Romans had recruited Celts who were practiced at swimming in full armour. These auxiliary troops crossed to the enemy camp and maimed the horses that drew the formidable battle chariots. The Roman advance towards London continued and the Catuvellaunian king Caratacus fled to Wales (where he instigated opposition to Rome for years).

No other tribe could come close to the military strength of the Catuvellauni and, one by one, they surrendered to Rome. Aulus Plautius now sent a message to Claudius, inviting him to come to Britain and to personally make a triumphal entry into Colchester. Some weeks later, Claudius arrived, together with war elephants. This wasn’t just for show, for their smell was known to drive enemy horses mad and the Britons’ skill in chariots was likely to be a real threat, even now. Colchester was taken, and Claudius declared Britain conquered. After just 16 days, he headed home to receive the applause and glory of a triumphal entry into Rome. Plautius was left to consolidate the conquest across the rest of Britain.

 

How strong was the Roman army?

Aulus Plautius commanded perhaps up to 40,000 professional soldiers in Britain. This army’s true strength, though, lay not just in numbers or in the mix of regular legionaries and skilled auxiliaries but in the way the soldiers trained together, spent their adult lives in military service together and, following precise orders, fought in a disciplined and controlled manner. The Britons, on the other hand, were fierce warriors who fought for individual honour, as and when required. 

The contrasts were highly visual too: the Romans were heavily armoured (one legionary alone probably wore more iron in his helmet, breastplate and weaponry than most Britons saw in their lifetime) and they advanced as a unified whole, shields protecting neighbours, and with short, stabbing swords that encouraged close teamwork and close combat. The Britons, however – so the Romans tell us – looked more like beasts than men: they howled battle shrieks and cries and fearlessly stripped off for battle, painted themselves with the blue dye of the woad plant, and caked their long wild hair and tousled beards and moustaches with limed water into white spikes. They excelled at ambushes and quick strikes, and fought so skilfully that they could launch spears and wield shields and swords at full gallop, leap on and off the chariots at speed, and even in mid-battle stand on the pole and run up and down from the chariot to the rugged but agile ponies.

The Romans’ speed was more measured: despite the weight of equipment they carried, they were hardened to long and swift marches, after which they would dig ramparts and set up marching camps each night. They would build strategic wooden (and later stone) forts for a more permanent presence – theirs was no hit and run invasion. The message was clear – they were here to stay.

This second-century bronze statuette shows the dress of a typical Roman legionary. (Credit: The British Museum)

 

Did the Britons know the Romans were coming?

The arrival of the Romans was not a surprise to the Britons. Previous contact between them certainly existed: trade had, for decades, brought cultural influences such as coins and amphorae of wine to Britain; some Britons had fought with the Gauls against Rome in Caesar’s Gallic War – the military might and ambitions of Rome were not just recognised but had been experienced; and Caesar tells us some tribes, learning of the invasion from traders, sent envoys to him in Gaul to sue for peace.

Nonetheless, the channel must have provided a buffer, a sense of protection, not just for the Romans, but for the Britons too who were engrossed in their own local tribal disputes. The first Romans may have seemed like just another border challenge. 

After Caesar’s failed incursions, the Britons may even have felt rather superior. It was only the arrival of around 40,000 soldiers in AD 43 that prompted them to work together: either they were shocked into it (and therefore not so prepared after all), or perhaps they had already considered and prepared for the undignified possibility of having to join forces against the common enemy.

A Celtic relief of a chariot, which the Britons employed as a formidable weapon. (Credit: National Museum of Archaelogy France)

 

What did the Romans think Britain would be like?

The Romans viewed the Britons as deeply barbaric. Rumours of druidic rites and human sacrifices, and tales of enemies being headhunted were so rife that Claudius’s soldiers refused to set sail across the channel until his freedman, Narcissus, was sent to shame them into action – it took the humiliation of a telling-off by an ex-slave to overcome their fear and to get them moving. Some 15 years later, Roman soldiers would again be rooted to the spot in terror when attacking the druid stronghold of Anglesey: the Romans were definitely leaving their comfort zone and entering an alien land.

Tacitus, the Roman historian, would express their fear when he imagined a Briton chief pronouncing “our very remoteness, in a land known only to rumour, has, until now, protected us”.

It was such rumours of barbarism that inspired the Romans to believe they would be doing these Britons a favour by conquering them, occupying the country and enforcing the civilised ways of Rome on them.

 

Did the Romans have support from native Britons?

The traditional view of the invasion is a straightforward tale of the organised Romans sailing over, marching across the land, and subduing the primitive Britons. The reality appears less clear-cut. 

The Britons’ loyalties were divided: a warrior people, they sought status by violently taking other tribes’ lands and their people as slaves, and their inability to abandon the traditional in-fighting of these tribal rivalries weakened them and indirectly helped the Romans. 

While the Britons were certainly tough and warlike, they were also opportunistic and capable of changing loyalties as it suited them: the cut-throat inter-tribal conflicts often provided the Romans with allies. Celtic soldiers even served in the Roman army, either to help to defeat a tribal enemy or to get ahead personally – a conscious decision to side with the potential winners and to receive a reward (such as the Hallaton helmet, perhaps?). Indeed, some tribal chiefs openly surrendered to the Romans in order to share the victory and to acquire power and status, for being a puppet chief of the Romans would rake in the material benefits and luxuries of the empire and could be preferable to honourable defeat and slaughter. 

Despite this, the Britons were no walkover: their warriors’ skills in chariot warfare and guerrilla tactics were highly effective in reducing the efficiency of the trained Roman units. It was only in the south-east that the Romans really silenced the opposition. 

The Roman conquest of Britain was never a foregone conclusion though: even nearly 20 years on, an excessively heavy Roman rule would prompt the rebellion of the Iceni, led by Queen Boudica, whose followers would raze the new Roman towns of London, St Albans and Colchester to the ground in an uprising in which 70,000 people would be killed before the Romans regained control. Further north and in Wales, the Britons continued to resist violently. They were never really settled or Romanised at ground roots level, and the army remained an active presence throughout the occupation. 

Because we talk of ‘Roman Britain’ we tend to forget that most of Scotland, despite some Roman incursions, remained unconquered and was never truly won over. And Ireland was never invaded. ‘Roman Britain’ was essentially only Roman England and (less securely) Wales.

 

When did the invasion finish and the occupation begin?

Claudius considered the occupation of Britain to have begun as soon as Colchester fell: the tribes encountered up to that point had capitulated and he ordered inscriptions to be set up around the empire glorifying his defeat of 11 tribal kings. 

There was still much work to be done though. An army headed northwards, from Colchester and the Catuvellauni territories into the Midlands, while Vespasian (the future emperor) led an army west, taking 20 Iron Age forts including Maiden Castle. By AD 47, the Romans held England from the river Humber in the north to the estuary of the river Severn in the south-west. It was a remarkable achievement.The concept of a ‘Roman Britain’ can be applied only to urban life. It might be said to have existed once the Britons began to accept and adopt Roman ways; when they considered themselves part of the empire and made Rome work to their personal advantage. 

The peaceful and thriving south did truly adopt Roman culture, but the north remained a military zone, and Wales was frequently troublesome. Roman Britain was a land linked by a web of forts and military roads and it is telling that, unlike any other Roman provinces, no Briton who ever went to Rome itself made it big there.

Nonetheless, right from the moment when the first British chiefs yielded, Rome’s eagle had them in her grip. Roman Britain had tentatively begun and, from now on, the everyday life of urban Britons would look increasingly Roman.

Maiden Castle in Dorset, an Iron Age hill fort abandoned after the Roman conquest. (Credit: Alamy)

 

How much do we really know about this story? 

The archaeological evidence for the invasion years is sparse, yielding little more than shadows of wooden forts and echoes of violent warfare, such as the artillery bolts that litter Maiden Castle. This is why the Hallaton helmet, ritually buried at a Leicestershire Iron Age shrine within a mere two years of AD 43, is so important. This rich gift from Rome, heavy with ‘victory’ symbols, suggests serious collaboration by the locals. 

Of course, it could have been stolen, a trophy of a raid, but archaeology combines with Roman literature (there were no writers in the illiterate British Iron Age) to reveal that some ambitious Britons were quick to seize opportunities for personal advancement. The Greek historian of Rome, Cassius Dio, recorded that Celtic soldiers served in the Roman army, but even before Claudius’s invasion, Strabo reckoned that dues from British trade were richer pickings than any invasion might supply. 

Through such trade, Roman culture seeped in. Iron Age coins mimicked Roman coinage (one chief’s coins bore the image of a Roman-style helmet – an interesting symbol when we consider the Hallaton helmet) and archaeologists found fine Roman dining ware even in the royal huts of the northern Brigantian stronghold at Iron Age Stanwick. 

Within a few years of the invasion, buildings like Fishbourne Palace and Brading Villa and towns like London and St Albans would appear, but the Romans didn’t have it all their own way. Even as victors they recorded continuing tales of frightened Roman soldiers and terrifying resistance. The Britons were clearly fierce, headstrong and independently minded. 

Rome may have declared herself the master of Britain, but many Britons made Rome serve their own purposes. As more details, like the Hallaton helmet, emerge from archaeology, each new clue adds to the complex and fascinating story that is the Roman invasion of Britain.

Gillian Hovell is the author of Roman Britain (Crimson Publishing, 2012). For more information, visit www.muddyarchaeologist.co.uk

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