Ruled Britannia: 8 Events That Defined Roman Britain

Ruled Britannia: 8 Events That Defined Roman Britain

Patrick Lynch - September 11, 2017

The Romans first attempted to invade Britain in 55 BC when Julius Caesar led an army to ‘Britannia.’ It achieved little other than establishing a beachhead on the east coast of Britain at Kent. Caesar returned the following year and installed a puppet ruler named Mandubracius, but no territory was conquered and added to Rome.

Augustus apparently planned an invasion on three occasions between 34 BC and 25 BC but a combination of the British apparently agreeing to peace and revolts in other parts of the Empire prevented him from following through. Fast forward to 40 AD, and Caligula supposedly placed in men in battle formation facing the English Channel. Then he ordered them to pick seashells. Historians debate whether this was the madness of Caligula or if he was punishing the troops for mutiny.

When Claudius became Emperor in 41 AD, he knew it was necessary to legitimize his reign as the Senate did not want him in power. In 43 AD, he ordered a massive invasion of Britain. It was the beginning of over 360 years of Roman occupation. Let’s take a look at 8 crucial events in the history of Roman Britain.

1 – Battle of the Medway (43)

In 43 AD, Claudius placed Aulus Plautius in charge of four Roman legions which totaled around 20,000 men; he also had command of approximately 20,000 auxiliaries. Incidentally, Plautius gave control of Legio II Augusta to future Emperor Vespasian. When the Romans landed off the coast of Kent, the British tribes joined forces and were led by Togodumnus and Caratacus (his brother).

Ruled Britannia: 8 Events That Defined Roman Britain
Emperor Claudius. Wikipedia

There were an estimated 150,000 men in the combined ranks of the British army, but they suffered an early blow when the Romans forced the surrender of the Dobunni tribe. Historians are in dispute with regard to the location of the battle. The accepted version of events is that it took place near the River Medway. However, other scholars assert that the river was too tidal and wide for a battle. Therefore, it could have been fought near the River Thames.

In the opening phase of the battle, the specially trained Roman auxiliaries swam across the river and attacked the British chariots from behind. The chaos allowed Vespasian and his men to cross the water, but the Romans did not press their advantage, so the battle went to a second day. Gnaeus Hosidius Geta led a bold attack against the British on day two and was almost captured for his troubles. However, the Roman army fought valiantly and forced the British back.

The last stand by the British took place on high ground overlooking the river. While Caratacus left the battlefield at this stage, Togodumnus remained behind and was killed in action. Ultimately, the British lost approximately 5,000 men compared to 500 Roman casualties. It is likely that the Romans killed hundreds of retreating enemy soldiers before building a bridge at Rochester to improve their supply route. They now had a foothold in Britain, and given the length of their occupation, most historians rank the Battle of the Medway next to the Battle of Hastings in terms of important British battles.

Ruled Britannia: 8 Events That Defined Roman Britain
Statue of Boudicca. Sites at Penn State

2 – Battle of Watling Street (60/61)

The Romans were gradually making their way through Britain but the Iceni tribe, in modern-day Norfolk, had reached an agreement with the invaders. The Iceni agreed to stay out of Roman affairs in exchange for keeping their land. The tribe’s king, Prasutagus, believed it was prudent to create a will. In it, he left Iceni land jointly in the hands of his daughters and the Roman Emperor, Nero. When he died in 60/61 AD, however, Nero ignored the will, seized the land and made an attempt to disarm the tribe.

When Prasutagus’ widow, Boudicca, protested, she was whipped and beaten while her daughters were raped. The Iceni’s neighbors, the Trinovantes, had problems of their own. The Romans colonized their capital (modern-day Colchester) and built a temple to the former Emperor Claudius. As a result, the Trinovantes had no hesitation in allying with Boudicca when the warrior queen requested their help in an uprising.

The rebels descended upon Colchester and looted it; they murdered as many inhabitants as they could. By now, the uprising had gathered pace, and the rebels marched towards modern-day London. Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, the Roman Governor of Britain, considered meeting the rebels at London but decided that he didn’t have enough men to defeat the enemy. When Boudicca and her army arrived at London, they showed no mercy, killed hundreds of people and burned the city to the ground.

It was crucial for the Romans to quell the uprising as soon as possible because it was gathering impressive momentum. Boudicca’s next target was modern day St. Albans, but this time, Suetonius elected to meet them in battle. However, he had just 10,000 men against a rebel army that numbered 150,000 according to Tacitus. The precise location of the battle is unknown although historians believe it happened somewhere between London and St. Albans.

Although he was heavily outnumbered, Suetonius gave his army the advantage by lining up along a narrow gorge with a forest behind him. Bear in mind, the large British force described by Tacitus consisted of tens of thousands of women and children; they were also poorly equipped. Boudicca made the mistake of ordering a full frontal assault, and soon, her large army was packed into a giant mass. The Romans countered by throwing javelins, and they easily prevailed in hand to hand combat against the tightly bunched enemy.

When the British tried to flee, they got in each other’s way and were slaughtered by the combination of Roman infantry and cavalry. Only 400 Romans died against 80,000 Britons (probably an exaggeration by Tacitus), and Boudicca poisoned herself rather than face capture. Suetonius’ reward for winning at Watling Street was to be replaced as governor. The victory ensured Roman control in Southern Britain. However, the North remained volatile.

Ruled Britannia: 8 Events That Defined Roman Britain
Battle of Mons Graupius. The Paisley Tartan Army

3 – Battle of Mons Graupius (83/84)

Gnaeus Julius Agricola became the Governor of Britain in 78 AD and was charged with bringing Northern Britain under Roman control. He was exceedingly successful as he routinely quelled uprisings including revolts in Wales and by the Brigantes in Northern England. Events came to a head at the Battle of Mons Graupius in 83 or 84 AD. The exact location of the battle is unknown with as many as 29 different sites purported to be the battleground.

Indeed, the entire conflict is shrouded in mystery since the only account of it comes from Tacitus. We have to be careful when analyzing his version of events in this particular instance because Agricola was his son-in-law and the Roman commander at the battle. What we do know is that Agricola established fortifications between the Clyde and Forth rivers by 82 AD. He decided to press forward once his supply and troop lines in the south were set.

According to Tacitus, the Romans had 11,000 auxiliaries and four squadrons of cavalry against up to 30,000 members of the Caledonian Confederacy. After a brief exchange of missiles, the Romans marched forward in tight military formation. The enemy, used to small raids and tribal battles, rushed to meet the Romans chaotically. As a result, the auxiliaries were able to crush the tribes to the extent that the Romans were able to keep the legion in reserve throughout.

Tacitus claimed that the Romans lost 360 men compared to 10,000 Caledonian deaths. As it was normal for Roman writers to diminish their losses and exaggerate those of the enemy, his figures are highly suspect. However, the Caledonians did flee the field in what amounted to a significant Roman victory. Agricola did not get the chance to advance north because he was recalled to Rome, and the Romans never conquered modern day Scotland.

Ruled Britannia: 8 Events That Defined Roman Britain
Hadrian’s Wall. BBC

4 – The Creation of Hadrian’s Wall (Began in 122)

Although the Romans failed to take Scotland, they were firmly established in England by the end of the first century AD. By this stage, there were approximately 8,000 miles of roads completed in Britain which made it easy to send troops and goods across the country. When Emperor Trajan assumed control of the Empire, he ordered a total withdrawal from Scotland and the development of a frontier between Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Carlisle.

Emperor Hadrian ordered the construction of the famous wall which bears his name in 122. It is likely that the idea for Hadrian’s Wall was first mooted in 118 or 119. The reasons behind the creation of the barrier vary. Some say it was a symbol of Roman power while other historians suggest it was indicative of Hadrian’s policy of defense ahead of expansion. It was a wise strategy at that point because under Trajan; the Empire had grown so large that it was becoming difficult to control.

Whatever the reasons, construction began in 122, and Hadrian’s Wall was finished in 128. Upon completion, the barrier was 10 feet wide and 15 feet high with parapets of up to 20 feet. The wall was 80 ‘Roman Miles’ long which equates to 73 miles. There were also 80 ‘mile castles’ to add further reinforcement to the already impressive structure. It is worth noting that most of the early forts on the wall face south into Brigantine territory; an indication of how dangerous the recently subverted tribes still were.

It may surprise you to learn that despite its place in history, Hadrian’s Wall as effectively abandoned around a decade after its completion. While additional fortifications were added in the 130s, the wall was relegated to a ‘support’ defensive role once Emperor Hadrian died in 138. Marcus Antonius used Hadrian’s Wall as his main defensive unit in 164, but Septimius Severus preferred the Antonine Wall although the Romans returned to Hadrian’s creation after failing to conquer Caledonia.

Ruled Britannia: 8 Events That Defined Roman Britain
Part of the Antonine Wall at Kinneil Country Park. Visit Scotland

5 – The Antonine Wall & Further Caledonian Failures (From 140)

Antoninus Pius became Roman Emperor in 138, and within two years, he ordered the creation of the Antonine Wall to restore order to Britannia and attempt to take Caledonia. The Romans had trouble in Scotland ever since they invaded Britain and while they had a major victory at Mons Graupius in 83/84, they never built upon it.

Instead, the barbarians continued to harass the Romans, and successive emperors tried different ways to solve the problem. First Hadrian, and then Antoninus Pius, tried to create defensive barriers to prevent the enemy from raiding the Roman part of the island. Construction of the Antonine Wall began in 142 and finished six years later. It was built after governor Quintus Lollius Urbicus occupied part of the Scottish Lowlands.

Upon completion, the wall was 10 feet high, 16 feet wide and 63 miles long. There was also a deep ditch on the northern side and probably a wooden palisade on top of the turf. As impressive as the structure was, it did nothing to prevent the Caledonians from attacking Roman territory as frequently as they did before. Ultimately, the Antonine Wall was abandoned sometime between 162 and 165 whereupon the Romans retreated to Hadrian’s Wall which was some 90 miles south.

The Antonine occupation of Scotland didn’t last long; a revolt by the Brigantes from 155 to 157 forced the Romans to retreat. Although Governor Gnaeus Julius Verus suppressed the rising and recaptured the Antonine Wall sometime in the late 150s, the wall was abandoned once again within a few years. The issues with Caledonia continued for several decades until finally, one emperor had enough and launched a wide-scale invasion.

Ruled Britannia: 8 Events That Defined Roman Britain
Bust of Septimius Severus in Rome.

6 – The Invasion of Caledonia (208/210)

The latter part of the second century AD was filled with riots and rebellions in different parts of Britannia. Clodius Albinus was the Governor of Britannia and became embroiled in a Roman power struggle after the assassination of Commodus in 192. Albinus declared himself emperor in 193 and 196. However, he was defeated by Septimius Severus at Lugundum in 197, and his death left a vacancy in Britannia that was filled with anarchy.

After a decade of suffering raiding and plundering at the hands of barbarians, Roman Britain was in chaos and Severus decided to sort things out once and for all. He arrived in Britain in 208 with 40,000 men and rebuilt Hadrian’s Wall. After completing a rebuild on the Antonine Wall, Severus marched north in 209 but suffered heavy casualties due to the guerrilla tactics used by the Caledonians.

As a result of these tactics, Severus elected to adopt a strategy of retaking the old forts once occupied by Agricola and destroying any territory he couldn’t conquer. After peace talks failed in 210, Severus’ son, Caracalla, led an expedition north of the Antonine Wall with the sole purpose of murdering, looting and destroying. The idea was for Caracalla to cause chaos and Severus would follow with his army and occupy Caledonia once and for all. However, the Emperor became ill and remained at York.

Severus never recovered and died on February 4, 211. Caracalla called off the invasion and returned to Rome. The Romans never again campaigned deep into Caledonia. It is difficult to tell whether or not Severus would have succeeded in his conquest had he not taken ill. According to Cassius Dio, up to 50,000 Romans died in the two-year attempt. Would Severus have continued with such heavy casualties? If he did, it is probable that Rome would eventually have conquered Scotland. Although the quest was a failure, there were some practical benefits. It resulted in the strengthening of Hadrian’s Wall and the conflict weakened the barbarian tribes. It took them decades to regroup and launch raids in large numbers.

Ruled Britannia: 8 Events That Defined Roman Britain
Constantius Chlorus. Wikipedia

7 – Battle of Silchester (296)

During the Crisis of the Third Century, Britain became part of the Gallic Empire with Gaul and Spain. It was a short lived exercise as the Romans recovered the territory in 274. However, trouble wasn’t far away, and another important piece of Roman British history began in 286. In that year, a Roman naval commander named Carausius declared himself Emperor of Britain and Northern Gaul. He had been accused of collaborating with pirates for personal gain and was sentenced to death by Maximian, the Roman Emperor in the West.

In 293, the Western ‘caesar’, Constantius Chlorus, regained the Gallic territory but was unable to retake Britain until he strengthened the navy. Meanwhile, Carausius was murdered by his subordinate Allectus who assumed control of Britain. In 296, Chlorus finally had a strong enough navy to attack Britain.

Chlorus sent two naval forces; he led the first while the second was under the command of Julius Asclepiodotus. The latter group reached the British mainland undetected due to fog and burned their ships once they reached the shore before heading to London. This action forced Allectus to engage the enemy. Chlorus arrived soon afterward.

Allectus met Asclepiodotus at Silchester, known as Calleva Atrebatum. In what was apparently a fairly short battle, the invading Romans defeated the rebels and Allectus was killed in action. The fleeing rebels went to London with the intent of looting it but ran into a contingent of Chlorus’ soldiers en-route and were massacred. With the death of Allectus, Britain was once again part of the Roman Empire, and Chlorus was hailed as a liberator by the natives. The Roman Empire was showing major cracks, and the rest of Rome’s occupation of Britain was beset by problems.

Ruled Britannia: 8 Events That Defined Roman Britain
John William Waterhouse ‘The Favourites of the Emperor Honorius’ (1883). Wikimedia Commons

8 – Emperor Honorius Abandons Britain (410)

After the Battle of Silchester, Roman was split into four provinces. The level of barbarian raids on Roman Britain intensified in the 4th century when it became clear that the Empire was crumbling. By 367, Scottish, Irish and German barbarians were coordinating attacks and routinely plundered towns throughout the province. As a result, Britain descended into anarchy.

Although future Emperor Theodosius managed to drive back the enemy in 369, the status quo didn’t last long. The barbarians renewed their massive attacks on Britain in 396 and in desperation; the Romans sent reinforcements from other parts of the Empire to quell the unrest. After three years of fighting, peace was restored in Britannia, but it only lasted a few years.

In 401, a large amount of troops were withdrawn from the province in order to help defend Rome against the attack by Alaric. Britannia came under siege once again as barbarians continually breached its borders. The near collapse of the Roman Empire meant that no further reinforcements came to Britain after 406. The following year, a Roman general in Britain was declared Constantine III of the Roman Empire. He decided to assemble an army and invade Gaul.

With only a small Roman force remaining, the natives decided to throw off their allegiance to Rome and remove the last vestiges of imperial authority in 409. In 410, Britain was under attack from the Picts, Saxons, Angles, and Scots, so the population appealed to Emperor Honorius for aid. He famously sent them a letter which said they should “look after the defenses.” His refusal to help effectively marked the end of Roman Britain. In the same year, Rome was sacked by Alaric in what was the beginning of the end of the Western Empire.


Sources For Further Reading:

History Collection – The Rise and Fall of Roman Britain

Historic UK – Timeline of Roman Britain

History Extra – What If Boudica Had Defeated the Romans?

UK Essays – Why Did Boudicca’s Revolt Fail?

War History Online – Boudicca: The Warrior Queen Who Defeated the Mighty Romans

BBC Bitesite – Did the Romans Conquer Scotland?

History Collection – What Battle Was Like for a Roman Soldier in the Imperial Army Will Amaze You