The invasion of Lowland Britain by the Romans in AD 43 is one of the most significant events in British history. For the English at least, it marks the very beginning of history, when for the first time events were recorded by residents, rather than foreigners depending on hearsay and rumour. Histories of England traditionally start with the Roman conquest. The date may be less universally memorable than the Norman Conquest of 1066, the only other successful military invasion of Britain, but it marks an equally significant historical milestone.
Based on major archaeological excavations over eighteen years, it has long been accepted that the Roman landing took place at Richborough in north-east Kent. Since the 1930s, virtually all books on the subject have treated this as established fact. Recently, though, a challenge has been sounded from the vicinity of Fishbourne, the grand Roman villa, now more appropriately described as a palace, in Sussex, above Chichester Harbour and about 150 miles along the coast south-west from Richborough. The Sussex archaeologists claim that the continuing excavation of what had been regarded as a minor supply base, possibly connected with the invasion or its immediate aftermath, was in reality something much larger – nothing less, in fact, than the site of the main invasion.
Less is known of the events of the Claudian conquest than of the two expeditions of Julius Caesar in 55 and 54 BC, for which we have the soldierly account of the commander-in-chief himself. The only substantial description of the invasion of AD 43 is that of Cassius Dio, in his history of Rome written over 150 years later but bearing evidence of acquaintance with earlier sources now lost.
The expedition consisted of four legions plus auxiliaries, probably about 40,000 men altogether, under the command of Aulus Plautius, governor of Pannonia. It sailed from Boulogne and landed almost unopposed. After several skirmishes, the Romans reached a large river where the Celtic tribes assembled to contest their advance. A great battle ensued and the Britons were beaten. Aulus Plautius advanced to the Thames, where he won another battle, but having lost a lot of men in the Thames marshes, decided to wait for the arrival of the Emperor Claudius, bringing reinforcements that included those great frighteners of ancient warfare, elephants. Now led by their emperor, the Romans continued their advance on their objective, Camulodunum (Colchester), the stronghold of their chief opponents, the Catuvellauni. Claudius remained long enough to see Camulodunum fall and, according to the inscription on his triumphal arch in Rome, to accept the submission of eleven Britannic chieftains (including one alleged to have come from the Orkneys). He departed only 16 days after he had landed. These latter events are well attested, but for the actual invasion and its immediate aftermath, virtually the only evidence is that provided by Dio or by archaeology.
Dio does not say where the Romans landed, nor does he name the river where the great battle took place. Nineteenth-century historians speculated on various possibilities, but the most likely landing place was always Richborough, in north-east Kent, known to be the port of entry for Roman supplies during the subsequent, ongoing conquest, and the site of a victory monument erected soon after AD 80. From there to a point at which the Thames could be forded (possibly between Westminister and the City of London) the natural route was parallel with the Thames estuary, perhaps along the track of the future Roman road (Watling Street), fairly close to the coast. In that case, the large river must have been the Medway at Rochester or, more likely, a few miles upstream, where a large stone monument commemorating 'the Battle of the Medway in AD 43' was erected as recently as March 1998.
This scenario was apparently confirmed by the archaeological excavations at Richborough from the 1920s. They revealed, below later Roman buildings, substantial defensive ditches and a supply base dating from the early Claudian period. Some rather slight evidence to support the battle on the Medway turned up in 1957 with the discovery of a cache of coins, the latest dating from AD 41, at Bredgar, some miles east of the Medway. It has been tentatively assumed to have been stashed by a Roman officer killed in the subsequent battle – though if that is so, the officer concerned must have been a man of remarkable prescience to anticipate the battle when still the best part of a day's march away. But even without the Bredgar hoard, the Richborough-Medway thesis seemed beyond doubt. So the books have said since the 1930s, and so, on the whole, they still do. But in the last few years a shade of doubt has appeared. Some have mentioned the possibility that one division of Plautius's forces may have landed in the west, though they still maintain that Richborough was the main site.
In spite of the hectic pace of archaeology, the case for the Solent as the site of the Roman invasion, first proposed in a scholarly journal ten years ago, rested mainly on reinterpretation of the historical evidence rather than on new discoveries, and to a large extent it still does.
Aulus Plautius assembled his forces, Dio tells us, at Boulogne in the spring of AD 43. Sailing was delayed by a mutiny: the soldiers were unwilling to venture forth upon the Ocean, regarded as the boundary of the inhabited world. An emissary had to be summoned all the way from Rome to stiffen their backbones, so the delay must have been considerable, long enough, apparently, for the Britons, who of course knew what was afoot, to have relaxed their guard on the south coast and returned to their farms.
At sea, Plautius divided his force into three. It was once assumed that there were landings at Dover and Lympne, besides Richborough, and that the three divisions later linked up somewhere near Canterbury, but no archaeological evidence of landings at Dover or Lympne, nor of a sizable base at Canterbury, has been found, and it may be that the division of the fleet was just a temporary diversion intended to confuse watchers on the shore. The next incident, as reported by Dio, has been seized upon as ammunition for the Sussex school. The ships were guided, he says, by a shooting star, which moved from east to west. If they did indeed follow the course indicated by a comet, the Romans could hardly have ended up in east Kent. A landing in the Solent (almost due west from Boulogne) would be more likely.
The Kentish riposte draws attention to the powerful westward trend of the current and the prevailing westerly winds in the English Channel, which would tend to impel the primitive Roman vessels towards the Kent shore. Moreover, Caesar, who also embarked at Boulogne, landed on the beach near Deal, only a few miles south of Richborough (had he known of the natural harbour at Richborough, he would no doubt have made use of it: his unprotected achorage twice brought him close to disaster). Finally, the Kentish men add, it is abolutely unheard of for anyone planning to invade southern England, including Hengist and Horsa, Napoleon and Hitler, to contemplate landing anywhere except Kent (though William of Normandy bent the rules slightly by landing over the border in East Sussex). There are indeed several strategic reasons why Kent should be favoured, not least that it is closest to the European mainland. The crossing from Boulogne to the Solent is about twice the distance from Boulogne to Richborough.
It is generally accepted that the prime reason for the invasion taking place when it did was the desire of the newly annointed Emperor Claudius – whom even his own family considered something of a wimp – for a great military triumph. But the official reason was a worthier one. It was to restore Verica, the refugee king of the Atrebates, to his kingdom, from which he had been driven by the encroachments of the Catuvellauni. Had the Romans been NATO, the spin doctors would have described the operation as one of liberation rather than conquest. In fact, one contemporary scholar, amiably tossing a spanner into the works, has recently suggested that, since southern Britain was already so Romanized, it was perfectly natural for the inhabitants to look to Rome for relief from a native aggressor!
The political situation in southern Britain was fluid, ill-defined and remains, to say the least, obscure; but it revolves around the ascendancy of the Catuvellauni. Their homeland was, roughly, Hertfordshire, north of the Thames, but by 43 they were dominant throughout most of south-east England. It is likely that their expansion began under Cassivelaunus, Caesar's chief opponent. Part of the agreement with Cassivelaunus that concluded Caesar's campaign in 54 BC promised security for the Trinovantes of Essex, who had sought Roman aid against the aggression of their Catuvellauni neighbours to the west. Nevertheless, the rise of the Catuvellauni continued, notably under Cunobelinus, or Cunobelin (Shakespeare's Cymbeline), the length of whose rule, nearly 40 years, alone, attests to unusual capacity. In AD 5 or soon after, the Catuvellauni took over the Trinovantes' oppidum at Camulodunum, which became their own 'capital'. They absorbed several small tribes, on both sides of the Thames, and dominated larger ones. Suetonius's description of Cunobelin as Britannorum rex was not unreasonable (Cunobelin's son Caratacus, in flight after the Roman victory, apparently had no trouble in establishing his leadership over the Welsh tribes to continue resistance to the Romans).
There is no reason to assume (though many do) that this ascendancy of the Catuvellauni was inimical to Rome. Caesar, after all, was long dead and with him the Roman obligation to the Trinovantes, while Cunobelin's relations with Rome, commercial and diplomatic, may well have been perfectly satisfactory to both sides. However, in 41 or 42 Cunobelin died, and his inheritance was divided between two sons, Togodumnus and Caratacus, wild, headstrong young men who lacked their father's moderation. One immediate casualty was Verica, ruler of the already much diminished territory of the pro-Roman Atrebates, which spanned the Sussex/Hampshire border. Driven out, he sought refuge in Rome. Earlier displaced Britannic kings had followed the same course, but none had succeeded in securing active Roman intervention on their behalf. But Togodumnus and Caratacus were bold enough to demand Verica's extradition and, when this request was ignored, caused 'disturbances', presumably armed raids, on the coast of Gaul. This furnished the reason, or the excuse, for the Roman invasion.
The territory of the Atrebates was a long way from Richborough. On the face of things, a landing in the Solent would have made more sense, as it would have taken place on Atrebatic territory, although it is not certain that the Romans' reception would have been friendly even there if the Atrebates had been conquered. Verica himself disappears from the story; we do not know if he was restored or not, but if he were he died very soon afterwards. His successor, Cogidubnus (possibly the instigator of Fishbourne palace), remained a firm Roman ally for the next 30 years.
However, the ultimate Roman objective was not to rescue the Atrebates but to crush the power of the Catuvellauni princes. That was best done by an attack on their power centre – Camulodunum – and for that purpose, says the Kent school, a Richborough landing, and a route following that pioneered by Caesar, was the sensible option. Thanks to the proximity of the coast and the Roman command of the sea, maritime support could be utilised practically the whole way.
Whether the scene of the Roman advance was Kent or Sussex, the evidence suggests that Roman operations afterwards shifted westward, to Dorset and the Isle of Wight. This could be an illusion, arising partly from the fact that the division involved in that area was the Second Legion (Legio II Augusta), whose commander was the future emperor Vespasian; his exploits naturally engaged the attention of later writers. He is said to have fought 30 battles against the Britons, he was probably the victor over the Durotriges of Dorset, and the conqueror of the great hill fort of Maiden Castle, near Dorchester, where startling evidence of the fierce fighting has survived in a Celtic skeleton penetrated by a Roman bolt. On the basis of a remark by the 4th-century historian Eurotropius, that command of the invading army was shared between Plautius and one Sentius Saturninus (not mentioned by Dio), it was suggested many years ago that Saturninus might have commanded a subsidiary division, which landed in the eastern Solent to secure the kingdom of the Atrebates. But the presence of the Second Legion in Dorset and the Isle of Wight in late AD 43 or, more likely, the following year, in itself cannot be taken as evidence for a landing in the Solent.
Clearly, the route taken by Plautius's army to its undisputed destination on the Thames is a crucial question. Archaeological evidence is very scanty (it is worth remembering that in spite of assiduous searching for evidence of Caesar's movements in Britain a century earlier, not a trace of them has been found), and what little there is, such as the Bredgar hoard, can be interpreted in more than one way. On the central issue – the identity of the river where the two-day battle was fought – we are thrown back on Cassius Dio.
The river, says Dio, was so formidable an obstacle that the Britons believed the Romans could not cross without a bridge (they were wrong; some aquatically skilled German auxilliaries swam across fully armed and took them by surprise). Clearly, then, this was a large and strong-flowing river. Dio also implies, though he does not actually state, that the river was fairly near the Thames. His description fits the Medway perfectly well.
There is no river of comparable size to the Medway on the route between the Solent and the Thames. The Sussex alternative is the River Arun, with modern Pulborough as the tentative site of the battle. Today, the Arun at Pulborough hardly looks likely to hold up a troup of Boy Scouts, let alone a Roman army, but it still occasionally floods even now, and in the 1st century it would have been unchannelled, forming a floodplain over half a mile wide (easily conceived from a viewpoint on the stone bridge at Pulborough today). The Arun is, though, a very long way from the Thames.
In the argument over the identity of the river, the stronger argument seems to lie with Kent (the county was known to the Romans as Cantium, which incidentally is a name, as the Sussex school points out, that is never mentioned by Dio although it was employed by Caesar). Another incident, occurring before the river battle, appears to favour Sussex. After the early skirmishes, in which both Togodumnus and Caratacus were separately defeated, Plautius received the support of 'a group of the Bodunni'. This tribe is otherwise unknown, but it is quite widely agreed that they were the Dobunni, Dio having perhaps confused their name with that of the current ruler, Boduocus. The Dobunni were a large tribe who had also suffered under Catuvellauni hegemony (the 'group' of them who approached the Romans may have represented an unconquered section of the tribe), but their territory was centered on Gloucestershire, far away to the west. It is very suprising to find them seeking out the Romans in east Kent, still less likely that Plautius would, as Dio says he did, despatch a force for their protection. On the other hand, the Dobunni were neighbours of the Atrebates, south-east of them, and, if the Romans were present in Atrebatic territory north of the Solent, Boduocus' eagerness to come to terms with them is understandable. It is difficult to see how this incident can be explained to fit in with the Kentish approach unless the presumption that the Bodunni were the Dobunni is incorrect. But if they were actually a small Kentish tribe that has otherwise escaped notice, why should Dio bother to mention them?
The distance to the lower Thames from Fishbourne is, as the crow flies, slightly less than the distance from Richborough, but that does not necessarily mean that the route taken was shorter. Roman armies, as we know, liked to travel direct, and took pride in demonstrating their supremacy over Nature, no less than over lesser human beings, by overcoming natural obstacles on their way, sometimes building bridges far more massive than needs warranted. But they were not so foolish as to march straight over or through an obstacle if there were an easier way around it, or to ignore an established track because it meandered. The countryside of southern England is hardly rugged but in the 1st century, besides the rivers and some steep slopes, it contained another barrier to an invading army: the primeval forest.
The Weald, an Old English term for forest, stretched across south-east England from eastern Kent to the Sussex/Hampshire border, a dense and roadless forest, a soggy wilderness of thick and thorny undergrowth, of rotting timber and swamp . . . or so the Kent school sees it.
A line from Fishbourne to the Thames around London passes through the Wealden Forest for up to about 30 miles. For an army carrying vast quantities of baggage on wooden-wheeled carts, says the Kent school, the forest must have been impenetrable. On behalf of Sussex, it must be admitted that we cannot be certain exactly how serious a barrier the forest presented. Evidence of pre-Roman settlement in the Weald is slight, but was it really trackless? In view of the quantity of cross-Channel commercial communication in the century before the invasion, it is possible – highly probable, according to the Sussex school – that a trackway through the forest already existed. And, of course, the Romans overcame much greater obstacles than this. Given time, they would drive a road through the Weald (Stane Street, which recent research has shown extended south of Chichester to somewhere very close to Fishbourne). In AD 43 the time was not available, but if it is assumed that the forest was indeed as formidable as it looks from Kent, could they have gone around it? Might they not have outflanked the forest to the west? This would have required a long, strategically undesirable, and perhaps dangerous diversion, say the Kentish men. Yet the diversion need not have been so very great, perhaps only twenty miles or so, and since it would have been largely through Atrebatic territory, it is not obvious where the danger of it lay.
The main objection to the Richborough site has long been that the defensive ditches, traced for about 600 metres and certainly dug about AD 43, enclosed far too small an area for the invasion force. The area appears to be about four hectares (ten acres), about half the size to be expected for even a single legion. However, Brian Philp, director of the Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit, who has been actively excavating Roman sites in Kent for more than thirty years, has recently resolved this apparent problem. His work at the Roman fort at Reculver, constructed about AD 210, demonstrates that almost a mile of land to the north has been removed by coastal erosion in succeeding centuries. Similar if less dramatic erosion is clear at other sites in Kent, notably at Richborough itself. There, half the large mansion built about AD 100 has been washed away, and even the eastern quarter of the great stone fort, built about AD 279, has gone; the remains of its great east wall now lie on the beach below the eroded cliff. Indisputably, substantial erosion has taken place at Richborough, and the original defended area was almost certainly far larger. Projecting the lines of the ditches, Brian Philp has tentatively identified a rectangle at least 600 metres square (36 hectares or 90 acres). That is easily large enough to accomodate the whole invasion force, and is close to the Wantsum Channel, which divided the Isle of Thanet from the Kent mainland and could have provided safe anchorage for Plautius's fleet.
At Fishbourne, the situation is rather different. The shoreline of Chichester Harbor, and even the stream that runs past the Roman palace (though its course was diverted slightly by the builders of the palace), appear to have changed little in the past two thousand years. The Fishbourne site was first excavated in the 1960s under the direction of the present professor of European archaeology at Oxford. Some remains of military structures of Claudian date (i.e. predating the palace) were found then, but all the interest centered on the magnificent Roman palace with its astonishing mosaics, the finest Roman site in Britain. In the early 1990s, projected highway construction to the east of the palace prompted hasty digging of trial trenches which revealed evidence of Roman structures. Excitement mounted as, beginning in 1995, there emerged the foundations of a very large building. The depth of the foundations suggest that it was of stone, not timber, construction, and it is now tentatively identified as a military principia, a major headquarters. Obviously, no such building could have been built at the time of the invasion; 'Building 3' at Fishbourne is assigned to the decade beginning AD 50 and may be slightly later than that. However, it was preceded by another – timber – building, of which, unfortunately, most traces were obliterated during the construction of Building 3 but which can be dated to about the time of the invasion (methods of archeological dating, in spite of the near-miraculous advances of recent years, cannot locate a structure within a particular year, nor, except in special circumstances, within less than four or five years).
The issue remains undecided. The argument and – more importantly – the digging continues. Deep in the saloon bars of old Kentish pubs, where you cannot raise your head for fear of cracking it on a beam, you may, in the long summer evenings, hear the rumbles of conspiracy theories. Is it a coincidence, murmur the Kentish men over their glasses of dark ale, keen to stimulate the interest of the innocent investigator who has just bought them a pint, that recent publicity about the Fishbourne site almost coincided with an application for a grant from National Lottery funds by the Sussex Archaeological Society?
We may never find the answer, but – who knows? – decisive evidence could yet turn up. Perhaps someone will discover an inscription that will provide unarguable proof, one way or the other. Not long ago, in a deep chamber at Fishbourne, thought to have been a treasury, a large and promising stone slab was found. It was face-down and, before turning it, the directors of the excavations had the foresight to set up a video camera to capture the momentous event. The slab was blank.
Meanwhile, perhaps the most reasonable conclusion is a compromise, dividing the honours as evenly as possible between Kent and Sussex. Might it not have been the case that the main army, under Aulus Plautius, landed at Richborough, and the expedition of the Emperor Claudius, arriving only a few weeks later, landed at Fishbourne? Or, indeed, vice-versa.
The author wishes to express grateful acknowlegment of the advice and assistance, sometimes on site, of several scholars, in particular Brian Philp, director of Kent Archaelogical Unit, and David Rudkin, director of the Roman Palace at Fishbourne.
About the author
Neil Grant is the author of many books on history for adults and children, and is probably best known for accounts of the history of exploration. Recent publications include an Illustrated History of 20th-Century Conflict; his children's books include the award-winning Children's History of Britain, as well as books about the Greeks and Romans, Famous Battles, Conquerors, etc. He was formerly a teacher and an editor and now lives in south-west London.
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