The Roman Invasion of Britannia (History in a Nutshell No.1)

Updated on November 8, 2018
Stephen Austen profile image

SP Austen writes on many subjects, and history is one of his favourite topics. He is fascinated how history has shaped us all.

Map of ancient Britain
Map of ancient Britain | Source

When did the Romans First Invade Britain?

Fortunately, for those of us who love history, the Romans too were great historians and they pretty much recorded everything for posterity. Therefore, we know that Gaius Julius Caesar had his eye on invading the British Isles and actually did so in the month of August, 55BC. The Romans themselves did not call this year 55BC of course; for them, it was the Roman year of 699, calculated from the founding of Rome.

Caesar was aged 45 and a man for the conquest, and he wanted to expand the Roman Empire. It is difficult to say whether the isle of Britannia held attractive prospects of riches for the Roman Empire, or whether Caesar merely needed another victory to place his stamp on Rome and keep himself in power. The Channel of rough waters between Britannia and Gaul (France) was notorious for its dangers and was quite a risk for the ships of the day to traverse and then fight a battle with the hardened natives.

The ancient British were not a general threat to Rome and its Empire due largely to being an isolated island race, surrounded by its treacherous waters. Although they certainly did trade with other European countries, the land of Britannia itself did have much tin and other minerals that the Romans could use.

Image by: Skitterphoto
Image by: Skitterphoto | Source

Who were the Britons?

The inhabitants of Britannia were the Celts, and Caesar, being a methodical historian, recorded what they were like. They were tribal people, with long hair often with a moustache but no beard, and tattooed with designs in blue woad. Although the Celtic peoples of Britannia were ruled by chieftains or kings, and sometimes queens, they were spiritually ruled by a religious elite known as the Druids.

The Roman historian Tacitus gives a frightening description of these Celts in which he explains how woman were mixed in with the massed ranks of bare-chested woad-tattooed warriors and brandished flaming torches, wearing their hair long and wild and screaming and encouraging the men. The Druids too, took part, offering up prayers with incense and curses upon the enemy.

Having almost been completely shipwrecked before landing, this is what Caesar's forces faced before they disembarked from their ships. Caesar had taken ten Legions with him for the conquest, which amounted to almost 50,000 soldiers. The Britons, it has been estimated, had a total of about 500,000 men on the island to take on this task force from Rome, outnumbering them enormously.

Ancient British warriors
Ancient British warriors | Source

The First Invasion

Caesar's armada set out from Gaul and landed on the beaches of Britannia in Kent. They were faced with the massed ranks of the Britons. Already, the Britons were launching javelins and sling-shot at the Romans, and running chariots along the beaches.

The Britons knew of the invasion force in advance, and some tribes had even sent emissaries to Gaul to bargain for peace with Caesar before he set sail. But now, he was here, on the beaches of Britannia. At first, the Roman soldiers were fearful to disembark, as the Celtic warriors engendered such terror in them.

However, the heroic action of a Standard Bearer meant that they had to leap into the water and get to the shore and face their enemies. It would mean utter disgrace on the Legionaries if they let the Standard fall. The Standard Bearer jumped into the water first; he could still keep his footing, holding the Roman Eagle aloft. The rest followed him in.

There was immediate fighting in the cold water as the tide lapped the shore, but the Romans managed to press forwards into the massed Celtic army and drive them off the beach. When the battle was over, the Romans then camped on the beaches.

The Britons sued for peace, but when they saw that the Romans lacked provisions and cavalry, their hopes of defeating the invaders returned. Caesar's ships that were carrying his cavalry had been blown off course in the storm which had nearly destroyed his fleet, and he impatiently waited for them to land.

The Roman army encamped and managed to survive repeated attacks by hoards of marauding Britons, surviving for two weeks on the food that was found on the land. Caesar then returned to Rome with prisoners and booty. However, this invasion was not a complete takeover, and must be seen more as a raid. A massed raid, but a raid nonetheless. Britannia was by no means dominated ~ yet.

Image by: Sprachprofi
Image by: Sprachprofi | Source

The Second Invasion

Although there was not yet total domination of the British, Caesar's attack on this wild and hostile island was viewed in Rome as a triumph. He began to make preparations for a second invasion in the following year, 54BC or the Roman year of 700.

This time Caesar ensured that his cavalry forces would be able to safely disembark on the landing beaches. His fleet numbered 800 ships. The sight of this massive armada put terror into the hearts of the Britons, and they did not face the Romans on the beaches. However, storms smashed more of Caesar's ships. Once again, he encamped, forming a makeshift fortress for defence against the British hordes.

Now at this time, the warring tribes of Britons had managed to put their tribal differences aside and unite under a chieftain named Cassivellaunus. Under the leadership of this chieftain, Caesar was assailed in battle by the agility and skill of the British charioteers. He described how the charioteers would work their way in amongst the Roman cavalry and hurl javelins at the Romans.

British chariots usually consisted of one driver of a pair of short, sturdy horses, and one warrior armed with javelins. Once the fighting became more intense, the warriors would dismount from their chariots and fight on foot, allowing the charioteers to depart the fray and wait in the British lines to rescue them if need be.

The drawback for Cassivellaunus, of whom we know very little, was that he had many enemies amongst the other British tribes. This meant, of course, that the Britons were not truly united. They may have had a common enemy in the invading Romans, but they also hated one another. So, they fell divided.

Britannia Conquered?

In the event, the Romans were victorious, and the Britons sued for peace once again. Caesar returned to Rome with his usual enemy hostages. But now, he had more pressing matters to deal with closer to home. Gaul was in revolt.

Julius Caesar never returned to set foot on British soil again. However, his two incursions into Britain established what was viewed by the Roman Senate as a victory, and he had therefore set a precedent for future invasions at a later date. Britannia would be conquered and come under Roman rule, but not yet.

In 44BC (the Roman year of 710) Gaius Julius Caesar was stabbed to death in the Senate on the Ides of March (the 15th) by Brutus, Cassius, Casca and the other conspirators against him. For the time being, Britain was forgotten.

© 2018 S P Austen

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    • Stephen Austen profile imageAUTHOR

      S P Austen 

      4 weeks ago from Qualicum Beach, BC, Canada

      Thanks, John, I appreciate that, and I am glad that you enjoyed this 'history in brief'!

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      4 weeks ago from Queensland Australia

      Thank you for sharing this piece of history, Steve. It was a captivating account and I enjoyed the read.

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