Roman Britain: A Case Study Of Roman Conquest & Rule
Perhaps it is ironic that Julius Caesar embarked on the conquest of Britain as a “little summer excursion”, in 55 B.C., when he was general of the Roman armies in Gaul. Whatever personal reasons he had behind this invasion – to boost his reputation back in Rome – it was still tactically sound, as this would cut off the aid to the Celts in Gaul from their British kindred. Hence, attacking Britain would also benefit the war effort in Gaul.
His invasion was successful, as after landing in what is Kent, today, he battled several tribes, and by the next summer, defeated King Cassicellaunus. The term “king” might be a misnomer, as he was closer to a tribal chief, because a unified Britain did not exist, just a collection of tribes without an “army”.
Caesar left after these two summers, and another century would pass before Rome again tried to expand into “England” as we know it today. Links between the two developed, however, and trade connections between the Romans and the British Celts developed.
In 43 A.D, during Claudius’s assumption of the imperial Roman throne, King Verica of the Atrebates requested Roman help in dealing with Caratacus, king of another tribe, who had invaded their terrority. Claudius seized this opportunity to establish himself securely on the throne, in much the same fashion that leaders nowadays manipulate – or even precipitate – crises in order to confirm their legitimacy to a divided and skeptical populace. War, since these ancient times, has been used at times as a public relations exercise, originating more from national issues than of foreign policy, as there is nothing like an external threat to distract people’s attention from internal discontent.
Hence, he launched this invasion of Britain, despite the common soldier’s initial fears of the Celts, as the troops at first refused point blank to step off the boats onto British shores. The Celts were mythologised into barbarians, and Roman “historians” recorded the practices of the druids as largely pagan, with human sacrifices involved. How much truth there is in these reports is uncertain, but Celtic warriors did engage in a practice like “headhunting”, cutting off heads and using them as war trophies, as they believed the knowledge and power of their enemies could be taken with the head. One thing that perhaps added to Roman apprehensions was (perhaps only fictional) legendary Celtic penchant for going into battle fully naked, with dyed blue skin, appearing less like humans and more like screaming demons.
However, these fears were soon overcome, and they launched a three-pronged attack up from their landing place. Marks of their passage can be seen – particularly in Dorset, at Maiden Castle – where dead Celts were interred in a war cemetery. By summer, Claudius, Emperor of Rome, landed in Britain to personally accept the admission of defeat from twelve chieftains. Part of the reason for the defeat was due to disunity within the tribes, making it hard for them to cooperate, since unlike the Romans, they had no experience working in a disciplined regiment.
In 51 A.D, Caratacus himself was captured and displayed triumphantly as a prisoner of war in Rome, ending the border harassment by the tribes. Rome established Colchester as the capital of their new province “Britannia”, but the Thames river’s importance in facilitating transportation, trade and communication meant “Londinium”, today known as London, was extremely important. Londinium was the hub of a network of roads – which served as trade routes – but were established to enable the movement of troops and for the strategic/military purposes of the Empire. Soon, the capital was established in Londinium instead, as the focal point of Britain.
The Romans were very practical, establishing “client kingdoms” in certain parts of Britain, just as they had during their other campaigns. Instead of trying to directly conquer all the territories and stretch their resources or military might, they made treaties, promising not to eliminate certain Celtic tribes in exchange for alliances. Meanwhile, the Roman army busied itself with stabilising their hold on the newly-won territory, eliminating pockets of resistance, namely the Druids. Although the Romans were religiously tolerant, the Druids were also part of the political authority among the Celts, a religious organisation which could have threatened their rule. Another factor was that the “enlightened” Romans found grisly rituals (and alleged human sacrifices) anathema.
However, 18 years after they had first disembarked, their rule was threatened again, as there was an uprising in East Anglia which coincided with their final battle with the Druids in what would be known as Wales. This was the famed uprising of Boudicca, an Iceni queen, after the Romans took advantage of her husband’s death to take over the tribe’s lands and their weapons. Naturally, she objected vehemently, but the Roman commander had the widow flogged, and her two daughters were raped. Such outrageous treatment, especially considering they were nominal “allies”, was enough for the Iceni and Trinivantes tribes to revolt against Roman rule. The rebellion was carefully planned, with “soft targets” hit, and symbolic targets destroyed. The capital of Colchester was burned, and the trading centre of London demolished, with the settlers killed. Finally, her futile uprising was crushed by the Romans, and Boudicca took poison rather than allow herself to be taken prisoner.