Roman Britain – Claudius Invades Britannia (AD 43) & the End of Roman Britain

Nearly a hundred years passed since Julius Caesar launched Rome’s inaugural skirmish into Britannia. During the course of that time Rome had decidedly degenerated into an imperial rulership. Julius Caesar was assassinated by his political opponents -he was stabbed to death on the floor of the Senate on March 15 in 44 BC. Following his death, another unstable Triumvirate was established until Octavius (a.k.a. Caesar Augustus) took power. He planned several invasions of Britannia, but each attempt was eventually abandoned because there was no need for Rome to invade -Britannia and its various kings paid all their tributes to Rome in an acceptable manner. Augustus ruled as Emperor until his natural death in AD 14. He was followed by his adopted son Tiberius who ruled until his death in AD 37. Then one of the more infamous Roman Emperors, Caligula, took power from the Augustan bloodline. Latter day writers have painted Caligula as a sadistic madman, lusting for greed, sexual deviance, and personal power. An amusing anecdote in Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars highlights Caligula’s insanity while preparing his troops to invade Britannia -an invasion that never happened because as he lined up his soldiers gazing out over the English Channel, he oddly instructed his infantry to hurl their javelins into the sea. Caligula ruled for less than 1 year until meeting his grisly demise amidst a conspiracy of Praetorian guards who replaced Caligula with his uncle, Claudius in AD 41.

According to the Roman historian Cassius Dio, who wrote some 80 books on the history of ancient Rome, the province of Britannia during the AD 40s had become a rowdy and unstable place. The Atrebanes tribe had once again been conquered by the Catuvellauni. So, Roman Emperor Claudius used this ‘affront’ as a pretext and he launched an invasion with the promise of reinstating the power of the Roman client state, the Atrebanes, led by their exiled king, Verica. Claudius’s goal was to complete the task Caesar had set out for himself nearly a hundred years prior: conquering Britannia and claiming it for Rome. In many ways Claudius’s invasion was hardly an invasion at all, and more of an impressive work of performance theatre. It was led by Aulus Plautius, a ‘famous soldier’ according to Tacitus, and Narcissus, Claudius’s all-powerful secretary.

Plautius took his team of Gaulish soldiers fighting their way inland upward to the Thames, at which point Claudius was notified. In ceremonial fashion, Claudius arrived in a well-orchestrated performance showcasing a massive regalia of elephants conquering the Catuvellauni. It was called a bloodless victory and Caratacus, the leader of the Catuvellauni, was captured and taken in chains to Rome. Upon Claudius’s return to Rome, he performed the stunt all over again to roaring crowds. After Claudius’s victory, one legion was sent further north and another legion conquered a series of tribes who became Roman clientele in the southwest under the generalship of Vespasian, future emperor of Rome.

However, not every client kingdom easily fell under the sway of Rome. In Ad 60-61 the king of the Iceni, a tribe of Eastern Britain, died and he left half his kingdom to Rome and the other half to his daughters. The Romans did not accept his award of female rulership, and they wanted all of his kingdom in the name of Rome, so Rome simply ignored his will and plundered the whole kingdom. Rome removed his Queen Boudica from power, and raped his daughters. In revenge, Queen Boudica raised an army from the neighboring Trinovantes and they burned surrounding towns to the ground, including Londinium (London) and Verulamium (Albion) -the effects of which have been shown in present-day excavations. Queen Boudica’s uprising was so great that Emperor Nero considered withdrawing forces from Britannia, but the Romans managed to put down her rebellion, leading Queen Boudica to either die of ill-health (as Cassius Dio says) or poison herself (as Tacitus claims).

Nevertheless, despite the rebellions Roman culture was spreading across the British mainland and it quickly spread throughout southern Britannia and even as far north as Scotland. Sophisticated classical education emerged under the rule of Emperor Agricola. Roman baths, roads, and architecture took hold, as well as coinage and Latin script. Cogidubnus took over the rulership of Verica, king of the Atrebanes, and he perpetuated the Romanization of the island. Londinium was refortified and rebuilt with a Roman amphitheater and Forum.

A vast wall was constructed during the reign of Emperor Hadrian in AD 122, and it extended across Northern England to prevent Pict invasions. The wall is famously known, of course, as Hadrian’s Wall. A second wall was also constructed further north about twenty years later, called Antonine’s Wall (in present-day central Scotland). In addition, an outer defensive wall was built around the growing commercial port of Londinium. The visible remnants of the wall can still be seen today, notably at Cooper’s Row near the Tower Hill Tube station.

In AD 313 Emperor Constantine “The Great” issued the Edict of Milan, announcing his politically motivated “conversion” to Christianity, as well as proclaiming religious toleration particularly for Christians throughout the Empire. As a result, Britannia gradually became a Romanized Christian island.

The Pax Romana brought a period of relative peace to the British isles, but it was tragically not to last. Throughout its vast empire, Rome relied upon servitude from its subjects, and there were always those who refused to bend the knee -namely the barbarians, the uncivilized Gauls and Goths. Post Augustus, all power in Rome was concentrated in the hands of the Emperor. Those peoples excluded from declaring their own sovereignty were forced to choose the path of violence and force. Insurrections and rebellions grew in numbers, while the Roman gentry grew unruly, decadent, and addicted to entertainment. Eventually, even the Britons grew distasteful of the Romans. It all came to a head in AD 367 amidst the collapsing scenery Roman Britain besieged by the Gauls, Picts, Scots (of Ireland), and others including Saxon raiders in long-boats from the mainland in the barbariac conspiracio of Ad 367. They raided and overwhelmed the Roman defenses, as well as the vast villas that were spread out across the isle. It was a year of chaos and insurrection that only ended when the Roman Emperor Valentinian sent military leader, Theodosius, fought back against the invaders and restored temporary law and order in Britannia.

By the year AD 409 the Britons were wholly discontented with their Roman rulers and many Romans were pushed out of Britannia back to mainland Europe. However, once infighting arose in Britannia again, kingdoms called to Rome for help but Emperor Honorius had more pressing concerns: Rome was under the threat of destruction. In AD 410 Rome, itself, was captured by Alaric the Goth. The city was sacked and the emperor’s own sister was carried off as a prize. This pivotal moment caused the shift of power in Rome from West to East, in Byzantium. Meanwhile the western Roman provinces were all lost. Emperor Honorius instructed Britannia to look to its own defenses -a foreboding sign of the impending collapse of the Roman Empire and the looming shadow of the Dark Ages.


For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, and the writings of Tacitus and Cassius Dio.

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