The Forgotten Heroes of Britain
Prologue: History is full of those whose names are unknown and yet they still played an enormous impact on the world. The Roman Empire was invincible at its height and when Julius Caesar learned of the vast amounts of Lead that could be mined in England he saw an opportunity to bring back precious supplies for Roman plumbing. But Caesar had wars on too many fronts. He was fighting in Northern Africa, Spain, Gaul, Egypt, and in Parthinia. Caesar couldn't send a force large enough to satisfy an invasion on an island that was said to be inhabited by blood-thirsty savages. At least in Gaul, there was some predictability with the enemy.
This is a story seldom told. It is the history of those who resisted the Roman invasions and how it came to be that the Romans finally subdued the tribes of Britain. This island on the outskirts of the Roman Empire proved to be a crucial turning point in helping Rome reach the 'Pax Romana' and to set its place in history for the next 300 years.
But the victory came with a price. Unlike other subdued peoples under Roman occupation, the tribes resented the idea of becoming Roman citizens. They maintained a fiercely independent identity that persists to this day. We know this because the languages of the tribes largely remain intact, never having assimilated Latin as part of their culture. The mythology of Rome that exists elsewhere within the empire is virtually non-existent in Britain.
Had it not been for the Historical forensics and Archaeology that we have studied and the new discoveries in the past twenty-five years, we might never know the story of two obscure brothers who stood out in their courage and bravery against the mighty forces of the Roman Empire. Here is their story and the methods that Historians have used to uncover the source of one of the greatest mysteries of Roman England.
Note: Except where otherwise noted, the photographs and the coins are all my own, acquired during my own research.
Just a decade after the death of Jesus Christ, in 43 A.D. the Romans set forth a military fleet in order to conquer Britain. 40,000 soldiers intent on conquest met stiff resistance from a disorganized and chaotic mass of various tribesmen and warriors. The Romans never could have foreseen the fight they would have.
Caligula had brought his troops all the way to Normandy. But superstition and fear soon gave way to one of the most insane episodes of Caligula’s insane life. The night before his men were to attack, he spoke to the soldiers. ‘’Our war is not against the barbarians of Britain, but against the god of the seas, Apollo.’’ And with that, he ordered the troops to take their helmets off and collect seashells.
Left: Roman Walls in London, built in 44 A.D. This is the first picture I shot once I was in London.
For soldiers trained to fight and who were paid part of the booty confiscated during an invasion this was a severe blow to their pride. But there were some who were secretly satisfied that the invasion didn't happen. It was believed that the English Channel was full of dragons and strange creatures, only heightening the fear of the Romans. Furthermore, they expected bloodthirsty savages to be at their footsteps upon arrival. It was these same fears which caused Julius Caesar to call off the invasion of the Isles as well.
The city of Rome was in political chaos. Initially Caligula was highly regarded, improving the prestige of Rome with aggressive building projects and an ease on taxation. But this would soon change, and the Romans quickly grew tired of their Caligula.
Perhaps it was because the Emperor would insist on having sex with the wives of prominent senators while at state dinners. Perhaps it was the fact that he practiced incest with his sisters. Perhaps it was because he made his horse the chief consort of the Roman Empire, making the Senate answerable to his equine friend. Culturally speaking, Caligula was devoid of any moral character and would stop at nothing to get what he wanted.
It is this critical juncture in Roman history that was to heighten the empire. Rome ruled all of North Africa, Asia Minor, Europe all the way to the Rhine River and the entire Iberian Peninsula. What would Rome need in a remote windswept island that was cold, wet and foreboding? The answer was in its timber, its lead mines, its iron-ore and many other natural resources. Britain was going to increase the Roman treasury, and this is a driving factor in everything Rome did when it came to the conquest of Britain.
By the time he was assassinated in 43 A.D. the Roman Empire was effectively leaderless and the morale painfully low. As winter came to an end in 43 A.D. more than 800 war ships were getting ready to set sail. Historians have long been fascinated by the personality of Claudius. Somehow, in an era where so few who were experienced and skills would even survive, Claudius somehow overcame all odds.
He was a deeply troubled man, disabled since birth and perceived as a weakling. Claudius would be unrivaled in his thought process. But his beginning was about as auspicious as it could be. He was hiding in a closet when members of the senate found him after the assassination of Caligula. They thought they had a man who would be easily controlled. They couldn’t have been more wrong. Nonetheless, he politically needed a conquest and a triumph to increase his hold on the Empire.
Claudius wanted to succeed where Julius Caesar and Caligula had failed. Without a strong national identity, the weakness of Britain was attractive to the Romans. There were three million fragmented peoples living in a division of a myriad of independent tribes. Kingdoms could come and go within a generation. The crucial problem for the tribes was that they almost never worked together, and this division amongst the tribes made it easy for the Romans to conquer.
The Romans always seemed to have great military minds at the military helm and this invasion of Britain was no different. Aulus Plautius was the man that Claudius had designated to lead three divisions across the English Channel. He had campaigned in numerous other parts of Europe and his loyalty was without question in-so-much as he was married to Claudius’s sister. She would prove to be just as crazy as her brother and she set out to murder her husband and emperor. But in the end, the man who would lead the expedition into Britannia would be as large in memory as Caesar himself.
’Britannia is fascinated by tales of monsters and magic of the Druid cult. To murder a man is an act of the greatest devoutness, and to eat his flesh, most beneficial.’’
Pliny the Elder
The Roman world had a very low opinion of the British inhabitants. They had no written language that had any consistency. Stories of the Cannibalism and Human Sacrifice had been spread throughout the Roman world. For the Romans, they liked to think of themselves as purveyors of civilization. They believed Jupiter had given them the power to civilize the world. All of this caused them to underestimate the Keltic tribes. Still, In the nights before the invasion, a mutiny was on hand right under Plautius’s watch.
Once again, supernatural and superstitions began to overtake the men. Britain seemed so remote, so very distant, and on the very edge of the world. It is a petrifying place that held a lot of unknowns and inhabited by terrifying barbarians. Dark rumors fly about the activities of the Druids. This was a trip into the world unknown and the mutiny was at hand.
Plautius became aware of the grumblings and sent one of his trusted men, a freed slave, to address the soldiers. His name was Narcissus. He had to act and gave a rousing speech – ‘’If I, a mere slave, can take on the barbarians, then surely a seasoned and professional set of proud warriors, the indestructible Roman Armies, can certainly win.’’ Perhaps because they were shamed or because they were made aware of the truth, his words rallied the soldiers. In addition, the shadow of Caligula’s failure to invade Britannia was hanging over the heads of many of these soldiers. Failure was simply not an option.
They made their way across the channel and much to their surprise, they were met on the beaches by no one. Hearing of the mutiny amongst the Romans, the tribes believed the invasion was called off. The most powerful tribe in Britain, the Catuvellauni, had prepared for battle for quite some time. They were led by two brothers whose names are virtually unknown to the casual historian today- Togodumnus and Caratacus.
Togodumnus and Caratacus were experienced and war-hardened leaders, but they grossly miscalculated the Roman resolve for war. In a moment that was certainly anti-climatic, the Romans landed near Kent England without so much as a single fight. Like elsewhere, they landed completely unopposed. It did leave the Roman forces unnerved, believing that danger lurked around every corner.
The Romans landed near Rutapiae. (Present Day Richbourough in Kent.) When you see Richbourough for the first time, it hardly seems possible that a fleet of even a few dozen ships could land here. But 2000 years ago this village was much closer to the sea, and the remnants of ships with precious cargo still lay, not under the sea, but under the mud of these fields. The sea levels of the ocean were higher because the earth was still coming out of a mini-ice age and glaciers covered far more land then they do today.
Uncovering History: Knowing exactly where the Romans landed in Britain very difficult and many historians disagree. But there are some important clues in the way that Romans did things, and building triumph-arches and devoting a great deal of resources to a unique structure must have been on an iconic piece of land. It is similar to the building of the Coliseum on top of Nero’s palace.
The site is dominated by the remains of a massive Roman fort. Upon driving into the area, there are two shrines just to the south of the fort that was first built by the arriving Romans from timber. Later, it would be replaced by stone. These shrines, or temples, were built around 300A.D and faced in the general direction of Rome. But within a hundred years, degradation and dissolution of the Roman Empire made these temples vacant for worship. Today the remnants stand without so much as a marker to remind you that they once stood there. But the building of a massive fort in Richbourough suggests that the landfall was here.
Historians still have a hard time seeing 800 ships landing here. It hardly seems the harbor or seaside could have supported such a fleet. A more practical explanation is that there were multiple landing sites and the Romans would have sent out search parties from each one in order to expedite the process of finding enemy combatants. The scouts expected to pick up a trail of a large army but much to their surprise they found nothing. The British simply weren’t expecting the Romans to come when they did. And yet, the apprehension of the Roman soldiers must have been very high.
Coin Depicting Cunobelin, father of Caratacus and Togodumnus; On the Right, Caratacus
The Druid Priests were ringleaders of rebellion against Roman occupation. As word began to spread of the huge army of Romans marching through the marshy peat bogs of Southeast England toward the Thames, the people of Britain realized the need to unite. The first army of Britannia to be aware of the Romans were the powerful the Catelvellauni. They were recognized by Caesar as the tribe that caused such fierce resistance to the Romans. This was still a hundred years before, The two brothers, Togodumnus and Caratacus.
We have learned of them from the writings of a Greek Historian of the Roman world. (And this by the way, this offers a fascinating perspective) Cassius Dio, (155-235A.D) Κάσσιος Κοκκηϊανός writes extensively about the brothers. His writings are invaluable to us because so many circumstances were eye-witnessed or he was able to interview actual people involved. Linguists love his writings because of the frequent use of Latin slang, something that few other writers ever attempted, and fewer even understood.
At Right: Hadrians Wall, Vestige of the Roman Empire
’He was constantly giving gladiatorial contests; for he took great pleasure in them, so that he even aroused criticism on this score. Very few wild beasts perished, but a great many human beings did, some of them fighting with each other and others being devoured by the animals. So great, indeed, was the number becoming of those who were publicly executed, that the statue of Augustus which stood on the spot was taken elsewhere.’’
Cassius Dio, Describing Claudius, 212 A.D.
Some historians have mistakenly credited the Catelvellauni with ‘allowing’ the Romans to land opposed. Truthfully, they had no idea that this was going to happen. It was a complete surprise. The brothers decided to launch a guerrilla campaign against the Romans- but to little avail. Meanwhile, the legions set out to engage the British warriors along the Medway River. This is a marshy waterway that feeds into the Thames. At some point, the Romans stumbled upon the British army that they expected to find all along.
Geography is one of the greatest tools historians have to validate moments in time. When looking at a map of Britain from the first century, you can see how many of the tribes were disunited in advance of the Roman invasion.
This is a pattern that repeats itself throughout all of human history. Consider the Americas in the 1700s and the countless Indian nations that made the country easy for conquest.
Great leaders in history have been able to mobilize multiple tribes to defend against such invasions. Brian Boru would become an Irish hero a thousand years later for uniting its tribes against a Viking and then British invasion. It is one of those many patterns in history which repeats itself due to the world’s ethnic diversities.
Once that had happened, the Romans felt safe to bring forth a battle line of legionnaires. The Brits valiantly fought the Romans for two days. But they would soon learn what the rest of the world already knew. The Romans were too organized, too specialized and too professional to be beaten. The Roman soldier was so well trained that they were perhaps the finest soldiers in history.
The Catelvellauni were no match for the Romans. Togodumnus died in this battle, and they fled in complete disarray and desperately headed for Camulodunon. (modern-day Colchester) It was a familiar place to Caratacus as it had been the seat of power of his father Cunebelin.
Modern Day Colchester is a wonderfully charming Medieval English hamlet. The streets are narrow, meaning that you can hear the music all around you and smell the scones baking.
Over the centuries the Camulodunon would become Colchester, which would be one of the most highly placed and strategic places in the island. Just eight months after the invasion, the city of Camulodunon was on the brink of falling. Plautius led his men to a most decisive moment. He knew he had the Brits on their last legs. But rather than finish off the offensive on his own, he did something considered extraordinary, and halted the invasion so that Claudius could seize the moment. Propaganda, then-as-now, is a powerful tool for one’s reputation, and Claudius badly needed the positive press this would give him.
For the first time in his life, Claudius put on the attire of a soldier and proceeded to tell the Roman people that their time was now and he was going to return a victor. His knowledge of topical geography and military tactics were highly under-rated. In this case, the river was too deep and there were no bridges at this time. As soon as Claudius saw the Britons on the opposite riverbank, they sent Batavian fighters through the river. Their mission was simple and calculating. Destroy the Chariots and Chariot Horses so that the Brits could not quickly re-arm themselves. It was a brilliant tactic, and furthermore it exploited the use of mercenary soldiers.
Claudius raced to Britain to march in to Colchester. He arrived on – of all things – an elephant! They will announce the grand entrance of the emperor. One can imagine the shock on the faces of the British fighters. Ever the propaganda machine, the image of Claudius entering Camilodunon in such a manner was a gesture which told everyone that now an alien and giant culture ruled the provinces.
Roman Coins Commerating Claudius’s victory over the British. The Elephant is an astonishing addition to a Roman Coin and it tells the story of Claudius’s invasion. The other side of the coin is called a ‘’fascis’’ which proceeded Roman Magistrates when they marched victorious in their ‘Triumph.’ This tells the entire story of Claudius victory over the Brits and how it was celebrated.
The invasion was a very adroit move and an enormous success for Claudius. Here was this humped-back emperor with an unsure posture and vocal stammering that made him look like a fool, directing the most successful invasion of Britain to-date.
it is important to note that the Roman armies were often made up of ‘’Provincials’’ which were soldiers from recently defeated territories. It had always been a hallmark of Roman ingenuity to allow conquered soldiers to fight in your army in order to maintain their freedom. Secondly, soldiers of varying backgrounds would be roomed together so that language and culture could spread. Moreover, the separating of the conquered soldiers into different groups maintained stability.
The river was too deep and there were no bridges at this time. As soon as they saw the Britons on the opposite riverbank, they sent Batavian fighters through the river. Their mission was simple and calculating. Destroy the Chariots and Chariot Horses so that the Brits could not quickly re-arm themselves. It was a brilliant tactic.
The Druids hold river-water to be sacred and there was the belief that the rivers would protect them. Mystical ideas were pervasive amongst the armies of Britannia, as evidenced by the fact that Caratacus would not wear armor into battle. For instance, he believed he needed no protection and relied on a heavy amount of war paint on his face as his protection. The river was too deep and there were no bridges at this time. As soon as Platius (with Claudius in the background) saw the Catelvellauni’s on the opposite riverbank, they sent Batavian (provincial) fighters through the river.
With no possibility of a fast retreat, Plautius sends in his full force to attack the Catellvelauni. On the first day of battle, the well organized Romans were engaging in murderous warfare. The troops of both sides swarm and more-or-less, it become a big melee. On the second day however, the advantage shifts toward the Romans. The lack of armor and protective gear makes it nearly impossible for the Catelvellauni to come back to fight the next day. The Romans skillfully outmaneuvered and defeated the locals in a epic bloodbath. Caratacus fled with a small band of warriors while his brother Togodumnus dies in the battle.
It was at this time that Claudius arrives with his Praetorian Guard and of course, the war elephants. The remaining tribes of England surrendered without much of a fight. And yet it was Claudius who brought Britain to its knees. In personality, Claudius was paranoid, and perhaps with good reason. His wife, Messalina, was a vindictive blood-thirsty woman. She took out her frustrations on the couple’s daughter, said to be very close to Claudius. Messalina saw to it that their 16-year old daughter was murdered. Dio writes that she ‘’took many lovers and ridiculed Claudius in a most shameful way. Her lust knew no end’’
One-by-one, the kingdoms in England capitulated. In Brigantes, the decision to surrender or fight is a daunting one. In certain areas of Brittania, women played a more active role in the decision-making and in Wales this was indeed the case. In many places, women were seen as equals to men. In this brutal era of blood and violence, The beautiful Queen Cardemandua was in charge of making a choice for her small clan.
She seeks a peaceful resolution, but her husband, Venusius, has no pretense about the Romans. He did not trust them and wanted nothing in the way of an alliance with them. (In Wales, first line of succession or primo-geniture. Venusius married into the family.)
History Mystery: The Druids had other reasons to want the Romans gone. The increase of technical know-how and innovation threatened to decrease their mystic power amongst the general population.
In the area that would become Wales, the many ferocious tribal warlords were cleaving to the old ways and reject imperial domination. The Druids were alarmed at the arrival of the Romans and call upon their gods to eradicate Britain from all of Rome. In their hour of greatest need, they perform a bizarre human sacrifice of a living man. The former king Caratcus, becomes their righteous agent and his passion further intensifies and ignites their resistance. He was perhaps the most charismatic man of all Britain, able to galvanize groups of peoples of different tribes and different agendas into a series of loyal kingdoms with a common goal in mind.
Even as the Roman Empire establishes a capital at Colchester, a dozen kings pledge their allegiance. Their allegiance provides a buffer between the Romans and the Brits. Then - after just sixteen days, Claudius leaves Britain. He is hailed as a hero in Rome and returns with the honor of being called ‘’Brittanicus’’ by the Senate. They also wanted to confer upon him two Triumphal Arches, both seventy-five feet tall. They are huge testaments of Claudius’s victories.
Colchester England is perhaps England's Oldest Continously inhabited city .
History Mystery: Who Were The Other Eleven Tribes That Surrendered to Claudius?
Sometimes in history, we tend to overlook important details. In this account, we quickly find out who the main enemy was that Claudius encountered. But of the many kingdoms, we only hear of one that surrendered to the Romans. Here is a list of the other ones that paid homage to Claudius:
It took Claudius just six months to return home. And when he does, he is hailed as a hero. His popularity soared and the Empire was greatly restored. But the rebellion in Wales and in the rest of his England was just beginning.
Guerilla attacks on the soldiers were succeeding in outfoxing the Romans by rolling logs into them, throwing stones at them, spears and other projectiles. The Roman soldiers had no idea how to handle these types of attacks.
The remaining provinces were yet to be under military control. One legion, commanded by a future emperor, Vespasian, traveled through the south of England. Other generals went through the various geographies. To no one’s surprise, Rome adopted a strategy that relied on ruthless military force. Now that Plautius was victorious, he became governor of the lands and he needed a successor. Publius Scalpius, a wealthy land owner was chosen to lead the military and to be the successor.
Many of the tribes in Britain simply capitulated rather than wage war against the Romans. One of those tribes was the Iceni of northern Anglica. What made them different was their level of civilization was considerable more advanced than that of the other tribes. They were settlers and planters and not given over to ritual warfare as so many of the other tribes were.
Prasutagus and Boudicca [ˈbɨ̞ðɨ̞ɡ] ruled as king and queen of the Iceni.
Dio says of Boudicca, ‘’She was possessed with far more intelligence and manner of sophistication thathan other women.” Prasutagus was a man of means and was well off by standards of the day. When he finally negotiated with the Romans to what were widely believed to be benevolent terms. They were allowed to keep their own coinage, their own lands and their family lineages. Moreover, he willed that two-thirds of his vast estate be given over to Claudius and in exchange, the Roman legions would spare their wrath on Boudicca and her daughters. But soon after his death, the Romans showed that they weren’t intent on keeping their word. It began with slights and insults and more laws requiring the surrendering of their weapons.
Scalpula then made a tactical mistake and ordered all of the tribes who had come into alliance with Rome to hand over their weapons. This was a huge issue for the Iceni who felt that a man’s axe, swords, and knives were precious property and a sign of wealth. They were not about to give in to the Romans. Their repeated insults and slights made to the Iceni were beginning to take their toll and the unrest amongst the clan was rising by the day. At this very same time, in 60AD, Gaius Suetonious Paulinas was leading the Ninth Spanish Legion on a campaign against the Mona, a mysterious tribe of Druids off the island of Angelessy near Wales.
Boudicca had not just the empathy of her people, but she had developed a coalition with other tribes. She was multi-faceted as a military leader, drawing on spiritual strength as well. The historian Dio says that at the outset Boudicca employed ‘’…a form of divination, releasing a hare from the folds of her dress and interpreting the direction in which it ran, and invoked Andraste, a British goddess of victory.’’ The Icenians soon mounted a fierce revolt with Boudicca on the front lines. They went straight for Colchester, now a Roman Colony. The Roman veterans who had been settled there mistreated the locals and a temple to the former emperor Claudius had been erected there at local expense, making the city a focus for resentment. The Romans didn’t hasten to protect the fort and sent only 200 men to ward off the attack.
Boudicca seized the opportunity and burned Colchester to the ground. The Spanish Legion then chased down the Icenians but Boudicca was prepared. She split her forces and sent two armies around each side of the columns and scattered the Ninth Spanish Legion, among the finest of Rome’s fighting forces. It caught Scapula by surprise. He fought back and won the day. Once he wiped them out, he headed to Wales. There were four tribes there, and the one that gave the most trouble to the Romans were the Silurians. Scapula would end up hating them more than any other tribe.
These Welsh aggressors had formed an alliance with none other than Caratacus. The Roman writer Tacitus writes that the ‘’Silurians were a native and warlike nation..’’ Caratacus had such a good standing that he was able to get en on his side.
Scalpula sent 10,000 men, two legions, to Wales, to fight. But the terrain in Wales was wild and untamed. Furthermore, it had rained non-stop for days and the ground had turned onto a soggy bog-like mud that made travel very hard. They proceeded to execute a guerilla war, but it wouldn’t last. Caraticus decided to retreat which the Roman historian Tacitus writes about. He says of Scalpula, thathe ‘’whipped his men into a frenzy and charged them to a certain scream.’’
The other Roman generals met with fierce resistance. Vespasian achieved his greatest victory in southern England. After capturing twenty towns and subduing tribe after tribe, he invaded the Isle of Wight. The Romans had completely overrun southern Britain and within three years, Vespasian would rule the entire Roman Empire.
By 69 A.D. Rome was beginning to unravel and weak governors only led to more chaos in the provinces. A civil war raged in Rome that made governing the outlying colonies next to impossible. In addition, Trajan’s continuing Dacian wars cost Britain badly needed soldiers who were pulled in order to fight elsewhere.
Historians continue to uncover new and exciting information which is rewriting the story of Britain’s heroes. One of the greatest Archaeological sites being excavated today is at Trimontium. The great thing about this excavation is that it has been in progress since 1910. Forts on top of forts were built here. The Romans used the area as a landfill and there are still countless items being found here.
The site itself is commemorated by a large modern altar stone of granite. A circular walk punctuated by several information points with reconstructional paintings also help to historians realize its past importance. A military amphitheater excavated in the late-1990’s is marked by a circle of white-painted stones in a small hollow outside the northern defenses and, overlooking the site from the disused railway embankment to the east, a reconstruction of the fort’s defensive rampart is being built at this time. History, the study of our human past, continues to be a work of our human present.
Clearly, the story of the Roman invasion and occupation of Britain is a story of unrivaled tactics and strategy. It serves as a blueprint for many different episodes in our human existence. A larger and far more civilized and technologically advanced peoples looking for natural resources invade and then absorb the peoples who are without a systematic form of language and ethnic universality. Ultimately, the conquering peoples absorb the conquered and individual stories of courage and heroism begin to drive an ethnic uniqueness.
The stories of the heroes of early Britain tell us much about ourselves today. With a determination to overcome and survive, this moment in time gives us a good idea of our own human nature and a blueprint for the future. Without the preservation and careful excavation of the past, we would never know the real story of the British reistance against a mighty empire many times stronger than the disunited tribes of the island.