Roman Britain: Ruling Britannia

Archaeologist Miles Russell describes recent discoveries which overturn accepted views about the Roman invasion of Britain.

New archaeological evidence from Sussex suggests that the history of Britain will have to be rewritten: the invasion of AD 43 never happened, at least not in the way that the Roman emperor Claudius would have had us believe.

Like 1066, 1588 or 1940, AD 43 is considered one of the most defining dates in British History. This was the year that the Roman emperor swung his gaze across the northern seas and claimed Britain for  Rome. 40,000 heavily armoured Roman soldiers, one of the largest invasion fleets ever to assemble against Britain, swept ashore on the coast of Kent, before cutting a bloody path north towards the Iron Age city of Camulodunum (modern day Colchester). In AD 43  Britain was forcibly incorporated into one of the largest and most successful empires ever. But was it really like that?

Recent fieldwork conducted by David Rudkin, John Manley and the Sussex Archaeological Society at Fishbourne to the south-west of modern Chichester has uncovered evidence of a significant Roman presence in Britain well before this date. Excavations located a V-shaped Roman-style enclosure ditch containing Roman pottery dated to between 10 BC and AD 10. The pottery, although broken, crucially appeared to have been unweathered, suggesting fairly rapid deposition. Elsewhere in the ditch were fragments of a very early first-century Roman scabbard.

Military finds such as this are not uncommon at Fishbourne. In the 1960s, excavations beneath the palace site found a similar range of first-century pottery, coins and military equipment all in association with a series of straight gravel roads and at least two Roman military buildings (thought to be granaries). The pottery  suggested that at least one of the structures dated to before AD 20, but because received wisdom stated that the fort could not be earlier than AD 43, the evidence was interpreted to suggest a post-invasion supply base that was issued with out-of-date stock. Early first-century military kit and late first-century bc/early first-century ad pottery have also been found in Chichester harbour and surrounding areas.

There is a wealth of evidence to support claims of trade contact between Britain and Rome during the last century BC and early years AD. Wine and oil amphorae from the Mediterranean are found across the south and east coasts of Britain and we know a number of British kings were minting Roman-style coins and styling themselves ‘REX’. All this implies imperial patronage, or at least a two-way trade whereby Britons bought into a Roman lifestyle while Roman traders acquired iron, gold, slaves and hunting dogs at a reduced price. No one has seriously suggested that Roman involvement in Britain may have been more direct than this, but it is now clear that the Roman army was in Britain at least three decades before Claudius.

The current view is that Claudius directed four Legions and associated auxiliary soldiers at Britain in an attempt to conquer the island. Foremost in his mind would have been the desire to outdo Julius Caesar, who had led two prestigious, though ultimately futile incursions into Britain in 55 and 54 BC. Claudius’s predecessor, the emperor Caligula, had also attempted an invasion in AD 39, possibly for similar reasons. Caligula’s plans ended in fiasco, the deranged emperor ordering his men to collect seashells to commemorate a successful war against the sea. Modern historians presume that Caligula’s men had mutinied and were being punished. Others believe the event was a sign of his growing insanity. However, the Roman historian Dio Cassius observes that Caligula was primarily aggrieved ‘at his lieutenants who won some slight success’ in the war against Britain. A landing therefore seems possible.

Before Caligula, the Emperor Augustus, adopted son of Julius Caesar, had also considered intervening in British affairs, in 34, 27 and 26 BC but had been deflected by problems elsewhere in the empire. We know that two British kings, Tincomarus, who ruled an area around northern Hampshire and Dubnovellaunos, of Essex and Eastern Kent, were in Rome by at least 30 BC. Both are noted as ‘seeking refuge’, though from what is not recorded. It seems likely that they were hoping to persuade Augustus to intervene in some way, perhaps restoring both to their thrones. In the early years of the first century, however, Augustus was pushing his armies north-east across the Rhine and into Germany. Britain may well have appeared a priority, however, the annihilation of three Roman Legions in the forests of Germany in AD 9 may have put paid to any dreams of a northern European empire and made Augustus remove any troops he had in Britain.

The present consensus is that the invasion plans of both Augustus and Caligula came to naught, and Britain remained fiercely independent from Rome. The new evidence, however, appears to contradict this. Roman troops were stationed in Britain in the early years of the first century perhaps to protect friendly British kings from outside aggression or to protect Roman trade interests. Certainly the provision of military outposts beyond the frontiers of empire was a common enough feature elsewhere, such as found in Armenia, Egypt, Judea, Germany. It is harder to understand why Rome would not have set up bases in Britain, given the levels of commerce evident.

When Claudius came to the throne in AD 41 Britain provided a fantastic opportunity to prove his military clout. First, from a propaganda perspective, the deified Caesar, had failed to conquer the Britons so if Claudius could attain any kind of victory, he would be better than a god. Secondly, ships, military units and provisions were probably all still in place from Caligula’s earlier foray. Thirdly, as all Claudius’ predecessors had been aware, Britain was rich in grain, slaves and metals and had plenty of anchor points already well known to the Roman army. A war in Britain would not only make sound political sense, but would also be economically viable if Rome could take direct control of all the island’s resources.

Those Britons based around the Roman harbour at Fishbourne would have been the first to see the increased benefits of a Roman lifestyle. By the time Claudius finally made it across the English Channel in AD 43, the people of west Sussex and eastern Hampshire were no longer Iron Age Britons; they were well on the way to becoming Roman.