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The Roman Invasions of Britain

After Julius Caesar's two abortive expeditions to Britain in 55-54 B.C., the first Roman Emperor and adopted son of Julius Caesar, Augustus (63B.C. -A.D.14) issued an edict banning further expansion of the Roman frontiers. In A.D.40 the Emperor Gaius (Caligula)1 received the surrender of a number of Britons while he was campaigning in Germany. Among those who paid homage to the mad Emperor was Adiminus, brother of Caradoc and son of the British chieftain Cunobelin. After being banished by his father, Adiminus sought help from Gaius in order to reassert his position in Britain. Thereafter Gaius took his army to the Channel coast of France (Gaul) and ordered his troops to gather seashells, considering that by doing so he had conquered the sea and therefore had obtained a victory over Neptune!2

With the assassination of Gaius in A.D.41, his stuttering, lame footed uncle, Claudius became Emperor. Claudius now turned his attention to incorporating Britain into the Empire. The Claudian invasion of Britain in A.D.43 was based on little more than it being, 'the most obvious place for the acquisition of real military glory', and the fact that, 'the impact of conquest on the public throughout the Empire was considerable, partly in response to Claudius' precised wishes'.3

When we consider the massive logistic problems that have been entailed in such operations as the 1944 Normandy Invasion, The Falklands War and Operation Desert Storm, then the organization of men, horses, ships, food and equipment for the Roman invasion of A.D.43 must have been a tremendous undertaking for its time. In all some 45-50,000 men, in four legions-II Augusta; IX Hispana; XIV Gemina and XX Valeria, together with vast amounts of supplies, as well as ancillary workers were transported on over 1,000 ships, this fleet alone necessitating the felling of thousands of trees.4   The command of the invasion was given to Aulus Plautius, who was to become the first Roman governor of Britain.

In the late summer of A.D.43 the main force of the invasion fleet embarked from the port of what is now modern day Boulogne, landing at Richbrough, Kent; while smaller flotillas came ashore at Dover and Lympne. No serious opposition was met during these landings, but a decisive battle was fought at the Medway, which caused many of the British tribes in this area to make their peace with Rome. Caradoc and another one of his brothers, Togodumnus managed to pull a large force back to their stronghold at Camulodunum (Colchester); however Plautius did not attack the British capitol at once, but awaited the arrival of the Emperor himself, who had just landed with reinforcements, including elephants, from Rome. Claudius now took command and the assault began. We have little to go on as to what exactly took place during the battle, but it would appear that Caradoc offered battle outside the fortifications of Camulodunum in order to allow himself more room for maneuver. We do know that the elephants played a crucial role in causing panic in the British ranks, which in turn allowed the Romans to obtain a victory; nevertheless, Caradoc was able to escape to the west taking a large portion of his army with him.5

After receiving the surrender of Camulodunum, Claudius celebrated his triumph, and after only sixteen days on British soil he took himself off back to Rome, confident we may imagine that all had been done that necessitated his Imperial person remaining to checkout a British winter. What became of the elephants we can only speculate? It would be quite an achievement if all of these poor beasts retuned safely to a warmer climb, and after being engaged in a full blown battle one can say with some certainty that many must have suffered horrendous wounds when we consider the type of weapons used at this time.

After the battle at Camulodunum the only real problems the Romans encounter were in the southwest, which was dealt with in short order by the Roman general, and future Emperor, Vespaisian with the II legion Augusta.6  Thus the Romans secured for themselves a large foothold in Britain, which stretched from the Humber along the Trent Valley as far as the Bristol Channel;7 however the tribes beyond this frontier were quite another proposition.

As was their wont, the Romans at once began to seek security and protection of the new frontier line by the creation of client states; this was a system of Roman patronage whereby each kingdom within the borders of the Roman frontier was allowed to be ruled by it as own chieftain. These friendly states paid tribute to Rome; while at the same time they took an active part in the prevention of outside forces invading the province, a practice that was dubious in the extreme.

Plautius did not have much success in recruiting many of the tribes into client statehood beyond the boundaries of his initial frontier line; however he did manage to pull-off one great coup, and that was to secure Queen Catimandura on the throne of the Brigantia tribe, which in turn brought together other smaller tribes from as far away as Yorkshire and Lancashire. Catimandura will appear again in the saga of Caradoc.

Plautius remained in Britain continuing the ponderous job of conquest until A.D.47 when he returned to Rome to receive his ovation, which was on the grand scale, with Plautius entering the city on horseback rather than in a chariot, a custom normally only reserved for members of the Imperial family.8

Once again, as they had always done the Romans, without reference to military precedence took away a commander who understood his job, and replaced him with a man of lesser talent. Publius Ostorius Scapula now became the second governor of Britain.

Next


1   Caligula," Little Boots", a name given him as a child.

2   Rodney Legg,'Romans in Britain', page 10

3   Barbara Levick,'Claudius', page 139

4   No real information on just how many ships were used in the Claudian Invasion, but see General J.F.C.Fullers book,' Julius Caesar, Man, Soldier and Tyrant', page 124. Here there is a very interesting account of Caesar's shipping figures for his invasion of Britain in 54 B.C.

5   Peter Berresford Ellis,' The Celtic Empire', page 199

6   Graham Webster,' Rome against Caratacus', page 13

7   See enclosed map

8   Barbara Levick,'Claudius', page 144

 

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