How did Caesar’s invasion effect Britain?

The Tribes Trade with Rome

It was normal for Roman traders to settle beyond the borders of the Empire to create trading posts. Britain had enjoyed diplomatic and trading links with the Romans in the century since Julius Caesar’s expeditions in 55 and 54 BC, and Roman economic and cultural influence was a significant part of the British late pre-Roman Iron Age, especially in the south.

One existed at Braughing (Hertfordshire), in the territory of the Catuvellauni. This town has produced a great deal of high-quality early imported Roman tableware. More importantly, was also the discovery of graffiti and mortaria (which was used in the preparation of Roman food) suggests that some of the people living here were Roman, rather than celtic. The town was founded on maritime trade coming up the Thames.

Roman goods also appeared in a variety of rich graves on the Hertfordshire and Essex border over the next century, for example at Baldock Settlement and Welwyn Settlement. Baldock, dating to c. 100–50 BC, is the earliest known, and, characteristically for these graves, featured ‘feasting equipment’ in the form of a cauldron and firedogs, as well as a Roman amphora. The Welwyn grave seems to have been deposited in a timber vault around 50–25 BC. It contained several Italian wine amphorae, 30 pottery vessels and a silver Italian cup.

Such graves point to something subtler than trade. Their contents may well reflect Roman patronage, which reached its climax in the client kings established by Augustus at the end of the first century BC.

The Lexden grave, buried after 17 BC, was even more elaborate. At least 16 amphorae were represented, along with metal-bound chests, silver and gold, and iron mail. It was traditionally thought that such graves must represent tribal aristocrats, but this is a judgment based solely on the grave goods, not on the burial rituals.15 If the occupants were less significant individuals, this may mean that access to these goods in late Iron Age Britain was slightly easier than previously thought. Along the south coast, Fishbourne Harbour could have offered an equally amenable location for Roman traders. Not only have Roman imports of pre-conquest date been found here, but a case has also been made for the establishment of a pre-43 Romanized settlement. Further west, Poole Harbour now seems to have become the main port of entry in the southwest, supplanting Hengistbury Head.

Recent analysis has shown that Italian wine amphorae imports to Britain were maintained at a high level after 50 BC, peaking c. 10 BC, unlike in Gaul where far less was imported, but thereafter declined. This is explained by demand from the Roman army on the Rhine for British foodstuffs and sustained state interest in Britain, until an increase in demand for wine in Italy limited exports.

When Commios fell out with Caesar in 52 BC, he fought once more with the Gaulish Atrebates until he was defeated, and fled to southern Britain. Here he seems to have founded a dynasty, known to us initially through coinage. Since later rulers in his line struck coins at Calleva (Silchester), this was probably where he established his stronghold. Begun originally as an Iron Age oppidum, by as early as 20 BC Silchester may have had a street grid, identifying its ruler as someone with a precocious sense of self improvement on a Roman model. The kings in the dynasty Commios founded, like the ruling houses of the Trinovantes and the Catuvellauni, used Latin words and Roman iconography on their coins. After the invasion of AD 43, Silchester was made the regional capital and named Calleva Atrebatum, ‘Calleva of the Atrebates’.

Although the Claudian invasion was a dramatic historical event, Roman influence and patronage had started to play a very important role in southern Britain since at least Caesar’s time. During this period the Roman Empire ceased to be a state ruled by military dictators and became a monarchy in all but name, with imperial prestige invested in the person of the emperor. Augustus, Caesar’s great-nephew, became the first emperor in 2 7 BC. Augustus deliberately and continually intervened in frontier politics, deposing and imposing rulers in territories on the Empire’s fringes. He cultivated submission to Roman interests and the adoption of Roman customs and expectations, and brought the sons of ruling native families to Rome to educate them in Roman ways. Britain was simply another component in a chain of frontier territories that stretched to the Middle East. By the time of the Claudian invasion, the tribal élite of southern Britain no longer had any meaningful concept of their power in a non- Roman context. They used Roman goods, accepted Roman gifts, adopted Roman titles, fled to the emperor for help when they felt under threat, and defied him when they felt powerful.

The British tribes after Caesar’s Invasion

In the decades immediately after Caesar’s invasion, tribal politics in Britain appear to have stabilised, and although pro- and anti-Roman stances are detectable, it made little immediate difference to the state of relations between Rome and the southern British tribes. Indeed, British tribes did business with Roman Gaul and, according to Strabo, commodities passing from Britain included grain.

Following Caesar’s departure from Britain the Celtic tribes continued to rule their land, but one particular tribe, the Catuvellauni started to become more powerful. 

By the time that Augustus died in ad 14, the principal tribal groups were the Read more about the Catuvellauni Tribe (north of the Thames), who, contrary to the agreement made with Caesar, had now incorporated the territory of the Trinovantes Tribe, and the Atrebates Tribe (on the southern side of the river). Of these, the Atrebates, although deriving from a Gallic tribe which had opposed Caesar, were the more firmly pro-Roman, whilst the Catuvellauni were suspicious but circumspect. Both were effectively led – the Atrebates by Verica, who was a client of Rome and had principal centres at Silchester and Selsey, and the Catuvellauni by Cunobelinus who ruled from Colchester and who, despite his independence of spirit, used coinage with the title, REX (King), and probably also enjoyed a treaty with Rome.

The stances of the tribes were well caught by the symbolism of their coinage; Verica, indicating his sympathies and his commercial contacts with the Mediterranean, coined with a vine-leaf motif, whilst Cunobelinus coined with a prominent ear of barley – a ‘trade war’ between Mediterranean wine and British beer! Recent excavations at Silchester have provided firm artefactual evidence of the strength of trade between the Atrebates and the Roman world, including both ‘consumer durables’ and foodstuffs; as has been noted, it has also become clear that Silchester, in the late pre-Roman Iron Age, was fast becoming a ‘Romanised town’.

At the beginning of his reign in 31 bc, Augustus had an invasion of Britain high on his agenda; the court-poet, Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus) had announced that Augustus would be considered a ‘god upon earth’ if he added the British to the Roman empire and a later historian, Dio Cassius, indicates that expeditions were planned in 27 and 26 BC. Augustus, as his reign developed, however, became increasingly pre-occupied with territorial wars in central Europe, which culminated in the major disaster in the Teutoburgerwald in AD9, in which three complete legions were annihilated. It was undoubtedly within the more sober atmosphere that prevailed after this that Augustus is said to have advised his successor, Tiberius (ad 14–37), not to contemplate wars for territorial gain.

Tiberius, as always, took Augustus’ advice, and no further moves were undertaken with regard to Britain. In general, British leaders appear to have remained cooperative, and we learn that in ad 16, when a number of Roman soldiers from the Rhine were swept by bad weather across the North Sea, they were returned to Rome by an unnamed British king – possibly Cunobelinus. However, a hint that the quiescence of Britain could not be taken for granted is perhaps given by a serious outbreak of trouble in Gaul in ad 21 and 22, which appears to have been inspired by Druidic priests/military leaders; Tiberius is on record as having expelled Druids from Gaul, and it is reasonable to suppose that some of these ‘militants’ found refuge in Britain.

Although it seems likely that not all Druids were anti-Roman, Caesar portrayed them as men of considerable power, even surpassing that of individual tribal authorities; they were regarded as having a special power over entry to the Underworld. Although there is no proof, it would seem possible that British Druids, enhanced by militant immigrants from Gaul, were more effectively able to exercise an influence over a younger generation of tribal leaders, in a situation where the inclination of their elders to be at least circumspect in their dealings with Rome, came to take on the appearance of weakness. Thus, we may suspect that, under Druidic influence, younger leaders began to look for a more radical approach. The suggestion that the recently discovered Cheshire ‘bog-body’ represented a Druidic sacrifice to avert a
Roman invasion provides a possible glimpse of their power and influence.

Tiberius was succeeded in ad 37 by his great-nephew, Gaius Caligula (ad 37–41); this was a crucial time for Rome’s relations with Britain, as both the long-standing leaders, Cunobelinus and Verica, were getting older and susceptible to more vigorous pressures. Cunobelinus must have died in c. ad 39, and his heirs were his three sons, Caratacus, Togodumnus and Adminius. Of these, the first two were spiritedly anti-Roman, whilst Adminius, perhaps to protect his inheritance, sought help from Rome and crossed the Channel to meet Caligula. It is in this context that we should view the ‘British policy’ of Caligula, which earned the universal contempt of surviving Roman writers; they saw it as an episode full of bizarre incidents and inconsistencies which served to demonstrate the emperor’s mental imbalance. Caligula, however, was probably not ready in ad 40 to invade Britain; he did not trust members of the senatorial order whom he would have had to leave temporarily to their own devices and, more seriously, in the previous year he had had to act quickly to snuff out an incipient rebellion amongst some of the Rhine legions which left them in a demoralised state. The famous story that Caligula lined up his troops on the Gallic coast and gave them orders to gather sea-shells as ‘the spoils of the Ocean’ has been taken by most as a sign of the emperor’s insanity. However, the story may have been a misunderstanding of (or a malicious invention based upon) formalities associated with the acceptance by Caligula of the submission of Adminius. The events may, in fact, have been intended as a timely warning to Adminius’ brothers that Roman legions were not far away.

Caligula’s successor, his uncle, Claudius (ad 41–54), brought to the ‘British question’ some different considerations from those that had exercised his predecessor. Whatever the precise circumstances of Caligula’s death and Claudius’ accession, a significant part had been played by officers and men of the praetorian guard; this may have impressed upon Claudius, who had little experience of public affairs and none of military matters, the need to project a more military image. Military conquest and the annexation of a new province were clearly powerful ways of achieving this. There was also, however, another dimension to Claudius’ difficulties with the military which could be solved in the same way. There was great antagonism between the legionary army and the praetorian guard, who were regarded by the legionaries as effete, overprivileged and over-paid. As the protégé of the guard, Claudius risked aggravating legionary sensibilities; such a campaign as was contemplated in Britain would help to soothe these. Claudius had already had a warning of the potential danger, when in ad 42 the governor of a Danubian province had attempted to entice his legions to desert Claudius. In addition to strengthening Claudius’ image as a ‘soldiers’ emperor’, the conquest of Britain would enhance Claudius’ reputation by countering the widespread view that he was a fool.

Claudius suffered from physical disabilities which had prevented earlier emperors from wanting to use his services; consequently he had spent much more time in study than was normal for a Roman noble. As a student and writer of history Claudius probably had a more reasoned understanding of Rome’s ‘mission’ than most of his class. In his administration in Rome, Claudius was to demonstrate that he was a radical thinker; in his view of empire he clearly was greatly taken by the example of Julius Caesar in terms of both imperial objectives and the means of achieving them. He, more than most, may have seen Britain as Caesar’s ‘unfinished business’.

It is clear from Tacitus’ views on British geography that Romans saw Britain as more closely integrated into Europe than we might; it was envisaged as ‘sitting in’ a western European ‘bay’, so that a close relationship was thought to exist between Scots and Germans, English and Gauls, and Irish and Spanish. Such a view undoubtedly influenced the formulation of military imperatives. Finally, we should relate such considerations as these to the situation in Britain, where Roman interests were increasingly under threat. Caratacus and Togodumnus had demanded their brother’s return and had set out on a policy of imperial
aggrandisement, which had led them to take over parts at least of Verica’s kingdom; this ‘friend and ally of the Roman people’ had been driven out, and undoubtedly wanted Rome to honour its side of their treaty. We have already noted the degree of Roman influence in Verica’s centre at Silchester; to men like Caratacus, Verica and his fellow Atrebatic leader, Cogidubnus, will have seemed dangerous in their pro-Roman stance. Thus, from the Roman point of view, practical politics and the integrity of a treaty demanded action to restore Verica. Indeed, Roman troops may already have been present in Britain before the invasion itself. In any case, the prospect of southern Britain united under hostile rulers posed great dangers to Romanised Gaul. In short, all considerations pointed in the same direction: the time was ripe for Roman conquest.

Roman Sites to visit in South East England