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The Roman Invasion
of Britain (43 AD)

Background and events leading to the invasion

Tiberius Claudius Nero GermanicusFollowing the death of Cunobeline the throne passed to his two sons and the balance of power in the island changed dramatically. By 43 AD, Rome was trading heavily with Britain, especially in the metals that they needed for everyday items. Britain, and mostly the South East, had taken a distinct anti-Roman attitude. Even though Britain was trading heavily with Rome, discontent grew. Such matters as the taxes paid to Rome were causing anger amongst the Britons.

To the Emperor Claudius, this reversal in attitudes was an insult to his great forbear, Julius Caesar. There is nothing any Roman cherished so much as a great victory to boost his personal image and that of Rome.

The factors that Claudius took into account before the planned third invasion

  • Rome had, up to this point, enjoyed useful political and trading relationships which they wanted to keep alive.
  • Trade with the British was bringing in a good income, especially for the wine growers, the pottery factories and merchandise in general.
  • The Spanish silver mines, for which Rome depended to produce raw materials for the manufacture of its currency were running low. Shafts had to be dug deeper — this meant that less material was available and with deeper mines, the time and cost factor rose sharply.
  • Information arrived from Rome that extensive surface deposits of
    argentiferous lead oreArgentiferous lead ores are one of the principal sources of silver, and also yield some gold.
    (galena) had been found in the South West region of Britain
  • This invasion would enable Claudius to deflect attention from his political battles with the Senate of Rome

There seemed little alternative for Claudius and his advisors. A full scale invasion to take complete control was the only course of action.

The Roman Empire was in a peaceful stage and so it was possible to gather an army of troops for this task.

Claudius gathered together and formidable army. Studying and learning from the failures of Julius Caesar, Claudius planned this invasion with the utmost care — his first action was to retire those soldiers who did not reach a set level of fitness.

Planning the invasion

This time, a great deal of planning by Claudius went into this invasion attempt. Four years previously, the Emperor Gaius (most commonly known by us, as "Caligula") had planned such a mission, but it had ben abandoned. The main reason for the reluctance to launch an invasion, was due to an element the Romans had not encountered before, yet had nearly defeated them both times. The sea, between Gaul and Britain, had been the downfall of Caesar twice. The Roman troops were superstitious and quite terrified of the channel crossing, as they knew of the dangers this stretch of water could bring. it may seem strange to us, according to the writings of Suetonius, the Roman hierarchy took it seriously as, to aid the boats in their travels, a lighthouse was built at Boulonge, to act a beacon for the craft passing across the channel.

channel weather

Aulus Plautius was forced to delay the landing until late in the year because of the unpredictable weather conditions. Suetonius, noted that the delay was claimed to have been caused by a minor illness to (the future emperor) Galba a friend to Emperor Claudius. For reasons unclear, the supreme commander, Plautius, was unable to exert his authority, so he turned to Rome for help. This came in the form of Narcissus, a Freedman who used his position as correspondence secretary (ab epistulis) to the Roman emperor Claudius to become, in effect, a minister of state — the Secretary for State, and a close advisor to Claudius. Narcissus managed to persuade the troops into boarding. Because of his background, he was more on the same level with the troops and managed to get them to board the ships, even with their superstitions.

The invasion

Dio recorded the happenings of the invasion. He stated that there were three divisions, not one. This would mean three separate landings, making the defence of Britain harder than if just one beach was chosen. It is unclear whether this meant three separate landing spots, or whether there were three groups of ships in line. Three groups may have been used so that the first group would secure a landing, then the other would follow and land. It is stated that three legions were involved at the Medway battle, so it's likely that there was one landing point, with the fourth legion being held in reserve.

The landing at Richborough was unopposed and the Britons at first seemed reluctant to battle the Romans. The most likely cause of this was that the Romans had sent out scouts to scan the land ahead of the force and indicate were the routes were that were least defended.

When news of the landings reached Caratacus, all he had available were his own followers and warriors and it would have taken some time for him to assemble a force big enough to fight the Roman legions. He was a true tactician, so rather that try to fight them head on with his available forces, he most likely gathered as many warriors as he could and stood his ground at the River Medway, ahead of the advancing Romans.

The tribes were divided as to their allegiance, The South-East tribes were mainly anti-Roman and would have defended their territory. North of the Thames, the tribes were more relaxed in their attitudes to the invaders and so may well have surrendered without much of a fight. Plautius regarded this as useful as his policy of war was to divide and conquer.

The only known military sites in Kent are at Richborough and Reculver.

The Batlle of Medway

The Roman army advanced along the North Downs ancient prehistoric track, now known as the "Pilgrims Way."" On reaching the banks of the Medway river, Plautius stood on a high ground and could see into the marshland of Essex, where the Britons were waiting in force. Both sides faced each other over the 500 metre gap and wondered how the Romans would attempt a crossing. The Romans were masters of tactics and would use the ploy of appearing to meet the enemy via a certain route, then would actually appear some distance away and come at their enemy from an unexpected direction.

The battle lasted two days, long by Roman standards., as there were two distinct assaults on the Britons.

The first phase of Plautius' tactic was to have a great many troops move about and appear to be taking up positions along the bank. This had the effect of holding the Britons in their current position, observing the movement. Plautius knew of the British use of chariots, which had been so effective against the expeditions of Caesar in the previous century. He knew that these chariots had been parked behind the British lines, possibly to one side. He had eight Batavian cohorts in his army, who were masters at crossing deep waterways unseen, while wearing full battle gear. They were the Roman equivalent of modern day Special Forces

While the Britons were engaged in watching the Romans troops moving around on the South side of the river, the Batavians slid into the water at a point where the Britons could not see them. They had been given specific instructions as to their task. The Batavians came out of the Medway beyond the British lines and make their way behind the Britons towards the chariots. The Batavians reached the chariots and launched a full assault on the horses, slashing at their legs intending to wound them sufficiently to disable them and thus render the chariots useless. As quickly as they had arrived, the Batavians fled, having done their deed. The Britons were in complete disarray now, knowing that their backup units were out of the battle. While the Britons attended to this, legionaries moved across the water unseen to the other side and regrouped on firmer ground. Claudius had not only launched a surprise attack, he also created a diversion for his troops to cross unseen.

The spearhead of two legions under the Flavian brothers made a successful crossing and established a base inland of the north bank of the Medway. Too late, the Britons realised that they had been outthought and so threw themselves at the legions, who held firm. At all costs the Roman troops had to hold their position until reinforcements arrived. Throughout the day, both sides battled each other until night fell. Under cover of darkness, more legionaries crossed the river and at dawn the Romans were ready. As with their usual practice, the Romans then formed their units into tight groups so that they could employ their standard battle tactics.

The battle was long and hard-fought until Geta's unit broke through and circled around the Britons, catching them in a classic pincer movement. It still could have swung towards the British, if an attempt to capture the Roman commanding officer had been successful. It was Geta's belief that he should be in the thick of battle fighting alongside his troops. This added to their motivation and boosted their moral to fight on even harder. In Dio's writings of the battle, he gave special mention of this, which earned Geta the ornamenta triumpalia. Claudius was known to be generous with this award, and most certainly have bestowed it upon all his commanders.

Although it is known that at least three legions were used, Claudius may had kept one in reserve for any eventualities had the British managed to gain the upper hand.

It was one of the most significant battles even fought on British soil, as the invading army had secured the lowlands of the South East. Thereby making a base from which to spread out into the rest of the country. All that remained, was to seek and kill any remaining warriors, and at the same time, to summon each tribe's leader to a meeting for them to surrender to the Emperor Claudius and Rome. This was not easy, as Caratacus and his warriors retreated to the Thames, forcing Plautius to go even deeper inland to defeat them. He had to do this to prevent the possibility of them forming a a larger fighting force by becoming allies with adjoining tribes and launching counter attacks.

It is generally assumed that evidence of this battle would be found today — in the form of skeletons, discarded weapons clothing etc. Not so. After the battle all the weapons were collected and the bodies gathered to be given a proper burial. We could expect ditches of Roman camps, but so far none have been found. The only evidence found took over 1000 years to surface in the form of 34 gold coins found at Bredgar. The latest of these coins depicted Claudius and were minted in 41 and 42 AD. This site is 11 miles east of the Medway, almost a days march from the battle scene. They could not have been buried after the battle, more at a stopping point in the advance west towards the Medway. there are many theories why they were buried, but none have any strength of evidence and we can only guess at the reason for this. There is not even a sign of the pontoon bridge that the Romans would have built across the Medway river, or the fort at Rochester, that would have been built to guard this all important artery, one that was so vital in the supply route.

Taking these lands was a titanic struggle for the Romans. Over the next 200 years, the effort of holding onto them would be much harder...

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