Britain invaded! (1)

In my previous post, I raised the issue of the difficulties in writing a historically based novel when the history is unclear. The second problem I came up with on my ebook Legionis Legatus was with the invasion of Britain. Again, the volumes of Tacitus’ Annals relevant to the time are missing, and much of what we know comes from archaeological work, and from Cassius Dio, who unfortunately wrote a relatively short section on this about 150 years later. Suetonius dismisses the invasion of Britain as “one campaign and that of little importance.” He then says that Claudius gained the submission without a battle or bloodshed. Suetonius is not known for praising Emperors! Further, four legions were involved, and that means it was not a campaign of little importance, particularly as there is clear evidence, including archaeological evidence from excavations, that a number of battles took place. (A deeper consideration of the issues involved can be found in Graham Webster’s The Roman Invasion of Britain (Routledge, 1999) and Leonard Cottrell’s The Great Invasion (Evans Brothers, 1958).)

So, what do we know as opposed to infer? Unfortunately, not much. The start was interesting in that when it was time to board, the Legio II Augusta refused. Why not is unclear, but options include a fear of falling off the world, or, according to Dio, the omens were not propitious. This shows that neither Vespasian (the Legatus) nor the overall commander, Aulus Plautius, had the necessary control. That would never have happened (and it did not) under the first Gaius Julius Caesar. Had it, a cohort would be selected and a decimation ordered. Instead, we know all Plautius could do was to appeal to Claudius. What happened then is that a lot of time was wasted, which may have actually helped the invasion.

Exactly what happened next is unclear. Claudius himself could not come and order the troops because his appearance was too unimposing. He had an awkward gait, he tended to dribble when excited, and he stuttered hopelessly. So instead he sent a freed slave, Narcissus, to try to get the troops to embark. Our only record of what happened next is from Cassius Dio. Narcissus was almost shouted down but there was a cry of Io Saturnalia, everyone burst out laughing, and Vespasian got his troops to board. Now, that is a challenge to fill in the pieces, but I hope I managed.

Where did the invasion fleet go, in the first instance? The short answer is, nobody knows. From what we do know, there is reasonable evidence that at least one legion landed at Rutupiae (Richborough), which would be the closest port to where they embarked, assuming they embarked at Boulogne, which in turn is not exactly firm, but is probable. There is clear evidence of a Roman camp at Richborough, but it does not follow that it was the site at AD 43. We know the Augusta under Vespasian was sent to support the Atrebates and Verica, so it is reasonable to assume that they set off to a port closer to the south coast, and many suggest Lemanae (Lymphne, no longer a port), where again the Romans established a base, although again this may have been later. That left the Valeria, and I have adopted the proposition that they would land at Dubrae (Dover), which is the third possible useful port on the south east coast. There is surprisingly little evidence of exactly where the first landings were, although the description from Cassius Dio of what happened next supports at least the Richborough landing. What we do know is that the invasion force landed essentially unopposed. The reason for this is probably that the Britons did not have a professional army, and when they decided the Romans were not coming, they all went home. One good reason for doing this is that they were essentially farmers, and they needed to get the crops in. Whatever the reason, the Romans got well established and nothing much happened, at least as far as we know, until they decided to march. The initial marching also appears to have been unopposed, apart from the odd skirmish of the “hit and run” type, until the first major battle occurred. That will be the next post’s topic.

From a military point of view, if the Celts wanted to stop the invasion, they lost two great opportunities. Landing troops would be a slow business, thanks to congestion and the lack of maneuverability of triremes, and those at sea could do little to help those on land. The second option was while they were marching through forest tracks, as was shown in the Teutoberg forest. But neither opportunity was taken. That was also something to note while plotting the novel.