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Roman invasion of Britain: did the Britons ignore them?

To fight or capitulate. That was the choice facing the people of Britain when the Romans invaded in AD 43. Or was it? Miles Russell tells the story of a tribe that adopted an alternative strategy: to treat the legions with utter indifference

A marble bust of the Roman Emperor Claudius
Published: February 22, 2022 at 7:48 am
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In 1936, a group of archaeologists working at Maiden Castle, near Dorchester, made a grisly discovery. Scattered near the east gate of this ancient hillfort were at least 52 Iron Age skeletons, some with horrific injuries to the head, back and shoulders. For the excavation director, Mortimer Wheeler, the cause of these terrible injuries was clear. He interpreted the skeletons as part of a war cemetery, bodies lying “in tragic profusion, displaying the marks of battle”. To him, these were the men and women of the Durotriges tribe, who had, in the first century AD, vainly defended their hilltop home against advancing Roman troops.

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“What happened here was plain to see,” Wheeler was later to write. The Roman infantry, under the covering fire of missiles, had “advanced up the slope, cutting its way from rampart to rampart, tower to tower” until they got into the area of the hillfort gateway. “Confusion and massacre dominated the scene,” he went on. “Men and women, young and old, were savagely cut down, before the legionaries were called to heel and the work of systematic destruction began.”

It was a dramatic and evocative description of a battle fought 1,900 years earlier – and one that proved extraordinarily persuasive. Mortimer Wheeler’s “war cemetery” became a 1930s media sensation – one that, until recently, appeared in pretty much every account of Roman Britain. For much of the 80 years or so since Wheeler’s team entered Maiden Castle hillfort, the Durotriges have been credited with leading armed resistance to the armies of Rome, operating from a series of strongly fortified hillforts across what is now Dorset and southern Wiltshire. Their story has been presented as a bitterly contested struggle against what may have been the first professional army of the ancient world – one that ultimately saw their hillforts taken and their people killed or enslaved.

With positions such as keeper of the London Museum on his CV, Mortimer Wheeler was one of the most respected archaeologists of his generation. But recent archaeological discoveries are suggesting that, when it came to the Durotriges, his conclusions may have been incorrect. These new finds are painting a very different picture of what happened within the confines of Maiden Castle hillfort almost two millennia ago. They suggest that the Durotriges didn’t fight to the death against Rome’s legions. Instead, it seems, they had a relaxed relationship with the invaders, almost to the point of complete indifference.

Good for business

The Durotriges weren’t the first British tribe to encounter the Romans following their invasion of Britain in AD 43. When the Roman emperor Claudius ordered the assault, target number one for his legions was Camulodunum (Colchester), capital of the Trinovantes, then one of the more powerful tribes in southern Britain. Once Roman troops had eliminated all opposition, the emperor arrived to oversee the capture of Camulodunum where, as an inscription in Rome was later to note, “he received the surrender of 11 British kings”. Sadly, neither the names of these kings, nor the tribes they ruled over, was recorded.

The skeletons of Maiden Castle hillfort were long believed to be the victims of a brutal Roman ground assault

Despite this lack of information, it’s assumed that the main tribes surrendering to Claudius were the Catuvellauni, Regni and Cantiaci, all of whose lands bordered the now defeated Trinovantes. Joining these three tribes in pledging allegiance to Rome were probably the Corieltauvi, Atrebates, Belgae and Dobunni. Their leaders must have quickly come to the realisation that Rome boasted vastly superior military forces, and that it was better to capitulate than see their people die needlessly. They must also have reflected that, with the Trinovantes, their tribal competitor, now smashed, siding with Rome would be good for business.

Certainly, when we look in the archaeological record for the period, it’s clear that the Trinovantes were the ultimate losers in the immediate aftermath of the Roman invasion, suffering the indignity of witnessing a huge fortress being built over the remains of their capital. Meanwhile, the Catuvellauni, Atrebates, Belgae, Regni and Dobunni were all provided with brand new Mediterranean-style towns. The message was clear: being with Rome was a good thing; standing against them spelt disaster. 

Iron Age roundhouses
Roundhouses in the Iron Age enclosure at Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire. Photo by Alamy

Further afield, the Iceni of Norfolk and the Brigantes (a tribe that occupied much of what is now Yorkshire) weren’t immediately brought into the empire, having no new towns, temples or villas built in their territory. Instead, the Roman government seems to have paid them off, offering their leaders lavish gifts in order to keep them sweet (a policy that, in the case of the Iceni, broke down in spectacular fashion in around AD 60 with Boudicca’s rebellion).

But what about the Iron Age tribes of south-western Britain – which included the Durotriges? Our understanding of their relationship with Rome’s legions is less clear, as there’s no useful written evidence to tell us exactly what happened. We do know that one legion, the II Augusta – comprising more than 5,000 heavily armed, well-trained, professional soldiers – was dispatched westwards, across an area we now recognise as Hampshire, Dorset and Devon, with orders to “conquer the rest”.

The commander of the II Augusta was a general by the name of Vespasian and, as he later became emperor (in AD 69), the Roman biographer Suetonius recorded the early part of his career. In Britain, Suetonius tells us, Vespasian oversaw the conquest of the Isle of Wight, fighting 30 battles, capturing more than 20 towns and receiving the surrender of two powerful tribes. The location of these battles and details of the towns the Romans captured go unrecorded, but it was long believed that the Durotriges were among the powerful tribes that the legions beat into submission – and that much of the fighting probably took place in their territory.

Long time dead

Prior to the invasion, archaeology shows that the Durotriges seem to have profited little in the way of trade contact with the Roman Empire. Presumably, they would have seen few benefits in joining Rome, and would have viewed the arrival of Vespasian as a thoroughly bad thing. Given that some of the largest and most impressive Iron Age hillforts anywhere in Britain are found in Dorset – sites like Maiden Castle, Hod Hill, Hambledon Hill and Badbury Rings – it was naturally assumed that these sites formed the focus of organised resistance.

But there’s a problem with this theory, one that has been thrown into ever sharper focus as our knowledge of Mortimer Wheeler’s “war cemetery” – and Dorset’s Iron Age hillforts more generally – has improved. For a start, the skeletons that Wheeler’s team discovered in 1936 are not the product of a single event. Rather, it appears that they were buried over an extended time period – and, crucially, that the trauma they exhibited on their discovery was largely the result of executions rather than battle injuries.


Listen | Miles Russell responds to listener queries and popular search enquiries about the four centuries of Roman rule in Britain, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:


Just as tellingly, the iron projectile in the spine of one skeleton – one that Wheeler believed had been fired by Roman forces – is actually an Iron Age spear. The final blow to the theory of armed conflict between Rome and the Durotriges is the discovery that the Durotriges had vacated the hillfort at least a century before the Romans arrived. In AD 43, Maiden Castle was no battle-ready fortress but an abandoned set of earthworks, its grass-covered ramparts probably undefended.

It’s been suggested that a second Dorset hillfort, Hod Hill, was also the target of a Roman attack – perhaps an artillery barrage unleashed by II Augusta. A small Roman fort was indeed built inside the Iron Age hillfort, and archaeological investigations, conducted in the 1950s, found multiple projectiles fired from a Roman device known as a ballista. However, we now know that Hod Hill, like Maiden Castle, was largely empty in AD 43, and it’s likely that the bolts found were fired from the Roman fort during a period of peace-time target practice.

Legions on the march

So it seems that the Durotriges didn’t take the fight to the Romans. And that was probably a wise decision. Ongoing archaeological investigation is showing us that the Durotriges lived in small farming communities, rather than in large groups inside strongly defended hillforts. They were probably too few in number, too widely scattered and too politically disorganised to offer any significant resistance.

In fact, the idea that any of the various Iron Age tribes of southern Britain had the capability to truly test the Romans on the battlefield is a fantasy based on the modern misguided idea that they possessed large standing armies. Only when tribes pooled their resources, which rarely seems to have happened, or deployed guerrilla tactics, ambushing legions on the march, could they achieve anything. Faced with the superior numbers, training and equipment of a Roman legion, individual tribal warriors and poorly armed farmers could achieve little.

Does this mean that the Durotriges surrendered to the Romans – just as their counterparts in the south-east had done? Well, actually, no. Many tribes in the south-west of Britain – such as the Dumnonii of what is now Cornwall and Devon, the Silures of today’s south Wales and the Durotriges themselves – appear to have decided that neither fighting the Romans nor capitulation was the best course of action for them. With little experience of trading with the Romans, and no chance of besting them on the battlefield, they pursued a third option:
and that was to ignore them.

Disposing of the dead

Compared to their Iron Age neighbours to the east, the Durotriges were unusual in a variety of ways. They buried their dead in cemeteries, while other tribes practised cremation or disposed of their dead in places where modern archaeologists cannot find them, such as rivers or lakes. This Durotriges disposal practice has proved extremely informative for archaeologists, allowing them to better understand the tribe through their skeletal remains and associated grave goods. And, crucially, these finds suggest that the Durotriges’ settlements continued uninterrupted beyond the Roman “conquest”. Traditional forms of burial were maintained for many more generations, and grave goods, placed within native-style burial grounds, avoided all but the most basic of Roman artefacts.

The location of these battles is unrecorded, but it was long believed that the Durotriges were among the tribes beaten into submission

Personal possessions are relatively simple, comprising bronze brooches, bangles, rings and occasionally decorated mirrors. The Durotriges, it seems, wanted only those Roman items, such as hair-plucking tweezers and pottery drinking cups, that fitted into their existing lifestyle. They had little interest in anything that might usher in a more Mediterranean style of living.

Durotriges customs may have differed from their Roman counterparts in another key aspect: gender relations. It’s perhaps interesting to note that greater numbers of artefacts are found in female graves, suggesting that women enjoyed a higher status. Perhaps the Durotriges were a matriarchal society, political power passing down the female line. Certainly, Roman writers of the time often observed that in the “barbarian” lands of Britain, women were just as likely to hold power as men, something the patriarchal Romans just couldn’t understand.

In the second half of the first century AD, the Roman government created the new town of Durnovaria Durotrigum (Dorchester) for the tribe, to act as their administrative and economic centre. It was never truly successful, only really developing more than three centuries later, under the patronage of a few wealthy individuals who built a series of well-appointed private houses: a sort of Roman gated community.

All this evidence paints a picture of a tribe that had no desire to become Roman. Archaeology tells us that the Durotriges seem to have been unaware of the ideas, fashions and artefacts that best defined Rome, shunning the status symbols acquired by their Romanised tribal colleagues to the east. The “Roman project” was not for them.

It seems that the Durotriges calculated that passive resistance was the best way to preserve their customs, their culture and their way of life. And perhaps they were right. Maybe it was this apathy towards the Roman empire that both defined them and helped them to survive.

Miles Russell is a senior lecturer in prehistoric and Roman archaeology at Bournemouth University

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This article first appeared in the February 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine

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