The Roman Conquest of Britannia (History in a Nutshell No.2)

Updated on November 8, 2018
Stephen Austen profile image

History is one of S.P. Austen's favourite topics and he is fascinated how it has shaped us all.

The Romans Return to Britain

After the assassination of Julius Caesar, Rome experienced civil war and disruption. Yet, as with all civilizations, the Romans eventually returned to a relative stability, and once again turned attention on the island of Britannia. It was now in the year 43AD (97 years after the second Roman invasion of Britain) that the Emperor Claudius decided that he would gain glory by conquering the Britons.

Claudius organised 20,000 troops for the invasion of Britannia. He sent his commander Aulus Plautius at the head of his legions to conquer and subjugate these wild barbarians. Once again, as in the first Roman invasion, the Britons were divided tribally, and because of this they were greatly weakened as a fighting force.

Bust of Claudius
Bust of Claudius | Source

The main leaders of the Britons at this time were the brothers Caractacus and Togodumus of the Catuvellauni tribe. Now at this time, the Britons decided not to fight the Roman Legions in open battle as their predecessors had done, in which they would invariably meet with defeat, so instead they took to hit and run guerrilla tactics and hid out amongst the marshes and swamps, making it decidedly difficult for armoured Legionaries to hunt them out.

Plautius was fearful of these kind of tactics and was not used to such fighting, so he encamped, and sent word back to the Emperor to come over to Britannia himself. Claudius was enthusiastic for the conquest, and he set out with his troops for Britannia, where he joined the legions on the banks of the River Thames, which in those days, was mostly marshland, and London (the Roman Londinium) did not yet exist.

Claudius now launched his forces against Camulodunum (modern Colchester in Essex) where the Romans defeated the Britons who held a stronghold there. After this defeat, Claudius returned to Rome in triumph.

Romans in battle against Celts
Romans in battle against Celts | Source

The Defeat of Caractacus

Togodumus, the brother of Caractacus, had been slain by the Romans. In defeat, Caractacus now fled to the mountains of Wales, where he held out resistance. However, Caractacus was eventually defeated by Rome in 50AD.

Through the treachery of fellow Britons, Caractacus was handed over to the Romans as a prisoner. His fame, however, had gone before him, and he was even heard of in Italy itself. So Caractacus was taken to Rome and he and his family paraded before the people as part of the Roman triumphal ceremonies.

But Caractacus was shrewd, and although he did not plead for his life, he spoke of how his resistance against Rome and eventual defeat, had served to embellish the power of Rome. He went on to say that if the Romans saw fit to spare his life, (when they had him in their power to do with as they willed) their clemency would be recognised throughout the Empire. Claudius therefore decided to free Caractacus and his family, but they were never allowed to return to Britannia again.

Boudicca (boo-dik-ka)

The Romans soon set up their stronghold in Camulodunum (Colchester, in modern Essex, north of London) but were continually harassed by the British tribes who resisted Roman rule. In 54AD Claudius died, and the Roman Empire was now commanded by the monstrous Nero as dictator.

At this time the British queen Boudicca, of the Icini tribe in East Anglia, had replaced her husband upon his death. (When I was at school, we learned the name of this great queen as Boadicea, (bode-dis-see-er) rather than Boudicca. The Romans brutalized her, flogged her and raped her two daughters. This was a monumental mistake on the part of the Romans, as Boudicca commanded a vast army and the outraged Britons soon took up arms against the imperialists.

It was now 61AD. Boudicca led her forces directly against Camulodunum, the seat of Roman power on the island. Boudicca had fiery red hair and was equally fiery by nature; like a pre-Tudor Elizabeth the First, although a queen, she had the 'heart and stomach of a king' as the flame-haired Elizabeth would declare over one thousand five hundred years later when she faced the Spanish Armada.

Boudicca Rallies her Forces
Boudicca Rallies her Forces | Source

The Icini warriors showed no mercy, and killed every Roman in sight and destroyed and burned every edifice of Roman authority and rule. The Roman Ninth Legion were now advancing towards Camulodunum to crush the revolt, and the Icini went out to meet them. The Icini massacred the entire legion. Boudicca now turned her forces to descend upon Londinium. The Romans there were totally massacred, save for some who escaped before the Britons descended upon them.

Boudicca's warriors beheaded hundreds of Romans and tossed the severed heads into the nearby Thames; it is possible that the Britons offered the heads as trophies for the god of the River Thames, according to their pagan beliefs. To this day, Roman artifacts and skulls are occasionally dredged from the muddy banks of the Thames.

After the slaughter at Londinium, Boudicca led her forces on the rampage into Verulamium (modern St. Albans, north of London in Hertfordshire) and committed more murderous and vengeful acts there. About 70,000 Romans were killed in these attacks.

Boudicca now led her troops into the Midlands, where she mustered her force of over 200,000 warriors. She was met in the field by the Roman commander Suetonius, who positioned his soldiers up on a sloping incline with a forest behind them, facing the Britons in open land in front; this time, the Britons would not be able to have the advantage of surprise attack and guerrilla style warfare. However, Suetonius only had a force of 10,000 so he was vastly outnumbered.

In this battle, though vastly outnumbered, the Romans demonstrated the practical use of Roman discipline and battle strategy; it won the day, and the Britons were defeated. Boudicca could see no way out, and knew that if captured alive, a terrible execution would await her. So, she took poison, and died amongst her fallen warriors, their wives, their children and their old people. The Romans, like the Britons, showed no mercy.

Map of Roman Britain
Map of Roman Britain | Source

The Romanization of Britannia

Nero now sent more forces to Britannia, and put down rebellion wherever it was found. This was now the beginning of true Roman rule in Britannia, for Boudicca's revolt was the last major uprising of the British tribes against Imperial Rome. The British would now be dominated by the Romans until the year 410AD.

The Celtic peoples of Britannia would ultimately become Romanized, and over the three-hundred and fifty years ahead, they would become Romano-Celts as they intermarried with their conquerors and learned to live in the Roman way. Already, the British race were changing, adopting Roman laws, place names, styles of dress and changes in diet as well as adopting Roman religious beliefs.

Many of the die-hard Britons moved further west to escape the Romans and their incursions into the island, and it is said that the descendants of this original race of Celts live still in the northern and western most areas of Wales, north-western Scotland and the far south-west of Cornwall and Devonshire. The Roman invasion and conquering of Britannia represented the first major change in the British way of life for tens of thousands of years.

Roman coin of Emperor Nero
Roman coin of Emperor Nero | Source

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 S P Austen

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      • Stephen Austen profile imageAUTHOR

        S P Austen 

        12 months ago from Qualicum Beach, BC, Canada

        Thanks so much, John, as always; we are certainly a mixed bag of people in Britain, and Boudicca was amongst the greats. Watch out for more of these Nutshell Histories coming up! Best wishes, and thanks for the feedback. Steve.

      • Jodah profile image

        John Hansen 

        12 months ago from Queensland Australia

        Steve, this was enthralling. I don't know a lot about the history of Britain so your article is very educational as well. Boudicca was some woman.

      • Stephen Austen profile imageAUTHOR

        S P Austen 

        13 months ago from Qualicum Beach, BC, Canada

        Thank you, Larry; it's good to know our roots and what has shaped us all. Best wishes, SP Austen

      • Larry Slawson profile image

        Larry Slawson 

        13 months ago from North Carolina

        Really interesting read. Thank you for sharing.

      • Stephen Austen profile imageAUTHOR

        S P Austen 

        13 months ago from Qualicum Beach, BC, Canada

        Thanks, Alex, I may also venture into American history at some point too, as it greatly interests me.

      • Guckenberger profile image

        Alexander James Guckenberger 

        13 months ago from Maryland, United States of America

        I'm about 19% British, so I love British history. :)

      • Stephen Austen profile imageAUTHOR

        S P Austen 

        13 months ago from Qualicum Beach, BC, Canada

        Thanks Alexander, I hope that this little piece of ancient British history met with your expectations! Best wishes, SP Austen

      • Guckenberger profile image

        Alexander James Guckenberger 

        13 months ago from Maryland, United States of America

        I love history. ^_^

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