‘They submit so easily to heavy duties… that there is no need of garrisoning the island. For one legion, at the least, and some
cavalry, would be required’
Although he was the leading authority on the island at the time, Strabo’s account is based on speculation, since Julius Caesar failed to conquer Britain with two legions. In addition, the situation had changed significantly since Strabo had written - trade had been disrupted at this point, and the fighting between the Atrebates and the Catuvellauni made the latter hostile towards the Romans. Although it was believed that it would only require one legion to garrison the island, and that their duties would mostly involve nothing more than collecting tribute, it actually took four legions to conquer the island, of which three remained as a permanent garrison; when Legio IX Hispana was later reduced in strength, there was a need to replace them with Legio VI Victrix.
It is possible to determine the legions which were most likely involved in the conquest, and to do so there is a need to consider several types of evidence. Literary sources for military movements are relatively scarce, since Roman authors tended to focus more on the politics of history than the minutiae of details. Nonetheless, Legio II Augusta’s involvement is directly recorded by Tacitus, since the future emperor Vespasian ‘had been appointed by Claudius to the second legion, and had waged war with distinction’. He also wrote that during the Boudican revolt that ‘the fourteenth legion with the veterans of the twentieth were now with Suetonius'.
Silures. During Latin Camp two summers ago I visited two sites in Wales, the legion camp at Caerleon and the town of Caerwent, and both of these presented a different image of the Roman occupation of Wales. At Caerleon there was a very strong military presence, with barracks capable of housing roughly 5000 soldiers. The fact that one of the three permanent legion fortresses in Britain was built in Wales indicates that there was a real need for such an immense garrison. The site at Caerwent appears to paint a very different interpretation of the Roman occupation of Wales. Certainly there was fierce resistance immediately after the invasion, and this is likely to have remained for some time afterwards, however the development of Caerwent as what appeared to me to be a fairly standard town supports the interpretation that Wales was successfully Romanised. Fragments of a mosaic depicting various fish were found in an excavation in 1881 evidences this, and a number of buildings had a hypocaust system in place. However the majority of houses still lacked these luxuries, indicating that, except for a few more prosperous families, Caerwent never achieved the same level of Romanisation as other British tribal capitals.
Cassius Dio wrote that after the initial success of the invasion, it faltered following the Battle of the Medway. At this point, Claudius himself arrived in Britain, apparently to crush this stronghold of resistance:
‘Plautius became afraid, and instead of advancing any farther, proceeded to guard what he had already won, and sent for
Claudius. For he had been instructed to do this in case he met with any particularly stubborn resistance, and, in fact,
extensive equipment, including elephants, had already been got together for the expedition’
Dio was close to the imperial court during his time, and as such had an experience of imperial life. Despite this, he was unable to comprehend the affairs of early Imperial Rome. This interpretation doesn’t appear to be plausible, and more likely is the suggestion that Claudius intended to arrive in Britain simply to claim the glory and prestige for the victory. This is borne out by the fact that
reinforcements had already been gathered before it was known if there would be resistance, and also because he stayed in Britain for only 16 days, during which he triumphantly entered into Camulodunum (modern Colchester) on the back of an elephant. This could be seen as a victory from Claudius’ perspective; however his personal involvement probably amounted to very little, since although he led the final assault on the city, the majority of the work had been achieved by Plautius. Also questionable is the extent to which Britain was actually conquered. As they pushed further north, they fought a war of sieges to capture the hill forts scattered across the country, and as noted they struggled to subdue Wales for over a decade.
It would appear that initially, the Roman invasion of Britain went fairly smoothly. Since the tribes in the south were divided, they were easily conquered. Indeed, a number of them even welcomed the Romans into their lands; it couldn’t get much easier! However Claudius’ advisors were overly optimistic in their predictions and four legions were needed to subdue the island rather than one. In addition, Wales proved far more of a challenge to conquer due to a combination of unity under Caratacus and mountainous terrain, and most certainly cannot be considered an easy victory. In this respect, the invasion might be seen as fairly unsuccessful. To Claudius, however, it was enough of a victory and it achieved its purpose - something we'll look at more closely next time. In this light the invasion can be seen as successful to some extent, but it is possible that there would have been easier conquests to make.
This series on the conquest of Britain is nearly done now, I believe there are only two left to go, but I've got some interesting posts coming up including one which I'm hoping will broaden the horizons of this blog a little more since it'll be taking a look at the peculiarities of Medieval Latin! In the meantime though, thank you for reading!