What’s the real history behind ‘Britannia’?

It’s AD 43 and the Romans are coming. With the advertising tagline “No one wants to be civilised", Sky Atlantic’s new sword and sandals TV series Britannia is about to invade our living rooms with – if the trailers are to be believed – more than a fair smattering of orgiastic violence, fire and blood. Here, archaeologist and author Miles Russell previews the coming season…

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The Roman invasion of Britain is an event which, perhaps rather strangely, has yet to be featured much in either TV or film. There have been any number of cinematic outings (as well as documentaries and books) about Queen Boudica, who led an uprising against the Romano-British government in AD 60/61 destroying the cities of Colchester, London and St Albans – but the initial stages of conquest have been largely ignored. Britannia, written by Jez Butterworth, suggests that this is all about to change: the publicity promises swords, sex, carnage and “a country dominated by powerful druids and warrior queens”. Whilst both the costumes and setting look reasonable (so far), how much of the series is actually drawn from real events?

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Here’s what we do and don’t know about the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43.

Who were the Celtic Britons?

At the time of the invasion, Britain was an island which was politically fragmented, with multiple tribes each led by a chief, king or queen who – if we believe Roman writers – were constantly at war with one another. Some of the names of the British tribes, such as the Cantiaci (of Kent), the Trinovantes (of Essex) and the Durotriges (of Dorset), were preserved by the Roman government when they built brand new towns to win the hearts and minds of the indigenous population. Unfortunately, we know very little about the customs, lifestyle, outlook, language or religion of these individual tribes. Some had leaders who actively traded with the Mediterranean world, exchanging locally-produced cattle, grain, metal and slaves for wine, olive oil and exotic forms of glassware and pottery. Others seem to have actively opposed any kind of Roman influence.

Kelly Reilly as Kerra in Britannia
Kelly Reilly as Kerra in Britannia. (Copyright © Sky UK Ltd)

Why did the Romans invade Britain?

The Roman Empire, which in the early 1st century AD stretched from Spain to Syria, was a resource-hungry superstate and Britain, on its north-western frontier, was a hugely attractive target. This was a land rich in metals (especially iron, tin, lead and gold), cattle and grain. Unfortunately for Rome, Britain lay beyond the civilised world, on the other side of ‘the Ocean’. Just getting there seemed a risky endeavour – especially if, as many Romans believed, the place was full of monsters and barbarians.

Julius Caesar had led two expeditions to southern Britain in 55 and 54 BC and, although these ultimately came to nothing, he had been celebrated in Rome as a hero simply for daring to cross the sea. Caesar’s heirs meddled constantly in British politics, trying to bring order to the frontier-land by helping to resolve disputed royal successions and organising lucrative trade deals. By the time Claudius came to power in AD 41, several British aristocrats had formed alliances with Rome, visiting the city in person to pay their respects and leave offerings to the Roman gods. When the political situation in southern Britain became unstable, with warring tribes threatening both trade and the wider peace, Claudius deployed boots on the ground. The fact that he needed to draw public attention away from difficult issues at home, whilst simultaneously hoping to outdo the military achievements of the great Julius Caesar, probably helped to spur this on.

What do we know about the invasion?

Very little, as no contemporary record survives. The popular view today is that four legions together with auxiliary support, totalling between 30-40,000 soldiers, landed on the Kent coast and fought their way inland. But there is no real archaeological or historical evidence to support this.

What we do know is that the ‘invasion’ appears to have been undertaken in two distinct phases. The first, led by senator Aulus Plautius, was probably a peace-keeping mission, which saw Plautius operating with a small force in order to negotiate a truce between the various British factions whilst hoping to restore certain British refugee monarchs to power. Not all the tribes were opposed to Rome in AD 43 and many leaders would have seen the emperor and his advisors as friends. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, negotiations broke down leaving the emperor no choice to trigger a second phase of the invasion, some months later. This was a calculated display of force, designed to shock and awe enemy elements into submission. Claudius himself led the reinforcements, bringing with him a number of war elephants (he intended to arrive in style). Shortly after, Roman troops marched into Camulodunum (Colchester), the centre of native resistance, and took the formal surrender of 11 British leaders.

(Copyright © Sky UK Ltd)
(Copyright © Sky UK Ltd)

How did Britons respond to the invasion?

Some, like the Trinovantes – a tribe based around what is now Colchester – seem to have actively resisted the advance of the Roman legions whilst others, such as the Atrebates (of Berkshire), supported the newcomers and were subsequently very well rewarded. The native town of Camulodunum (Colchester) was subjugated by the Roman military and had a legionary fortress built directly over it.  Elsewhere, the Trinovantes were treated as a conquered people whilst the Catuvellauni tribe, who had helped the Romans, were awarded special status in the province and had a brand-new town, full of civic amenities, built for them at Verulamium (St Albans). Having lost the first stage of the war, the British resistance leader Caratacus fled west, stirring up tribes in what is now Wales against Rome. Eventually Caratacus was betrayed by the pro-Roman queen Cartimandua, and handed over to the emperor Claudius in chains.

Was Aulus Plautius a real person?

Yes, although he was probably nothing like the battle-hardened veteran depicted in the TV series (by David Morrissey), being more of a capable and reliable member of Rome’s ruling senatorial class. Although Plautius would have had some experience in the army, he was ultimately a career politician (a safe pair hands) and, for military advice, would have relied on the more experienced legionary officers under his command.

Zoe Wanamaker as Queen Antedia in Britannia.
Zoe Wanamaker as Queen Antedia in Britannia. (Copyright © Sky UK Ltd)

Are Queen Antedia and Kerra, who both appear in Britannia, real? Who might they be based on?

Unlike the male-dominated world of Rome, ancient British society was more egalitarian with both men and women wielding political and military power. We know very little about the command structure of British tribal armies opposing Rome during the invasion. Although the names of some leaders survive on Celtic coins and in the pages of Roman writers and historians, there is, unfortunately, no historical evidence (yet) for the female war leaders Antedia and Kerra (played by Zoë Wanamaker and Kelly Reilly in the TV series).

A king called Antedios certainly seems to have ruled in Norfolk just prior to the invasion whilst the leader of the British resistance was a king called Caratacus (who later became target number one for the Roman government). There were certainly strong and militarily capable women within the British tribal armies – this was a point often used by Roman generals in an attempt to ridicule their foe. Later, in the AD 60s, Queens Cartimandua of the Brigantes (in Yorkshire) and Boudica of the Iceni (in Norfolk) emerge. Both, however, were, at least during the early stages of the invasion, firm supporters of Rome, seeing the obvious benefits of siding with a Mediterranean superpower.

Did druids exist at this time and what might have been their status or role?

In popular culture, the druids are usually seen as being integral to Celtic society: part mystical, religious teachers and part hard-line resistance leaders, constantly stirring up trouble for Rome. The problem is that we really have very little evidence for their existence in Britain.

Mackenzie Crook as Veran in Britannia
Mackenzie Crook as Veran. (Copyright © Sky UK Ltd)

In Gaul (France), Julius Caesar had noted their presence in the mid-50s BC, but there is only one definite reference to them in the British Isles, on the island of Anglesey where, so the Roman writer Tacitus tells us, they were committing acts of human sacrifice in AD 60. Modern writers and historians tend to view druids as part of an all-encompassing religion (druidism) and, thanks to fictional accounts (most notably in the stories of Asterix the Gaul) suggest that every tribe would have had one: a prehistoric equivalent, perhaps, of a parish priest or holy-man. The trouble is, as plausible as this theory may appear, there is absolutely no evidence for this.

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Miles Russell is a senior lecturer in prehistoric and Roman archaeology at Bournemouth University. Britannia begins on Thursday 18 January at 2am on Sky Atlantic.