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Roman Britain?s most notable characteristic?at least in the eyes of the Romans?was that not only was it the most remote province, but it was also the most recalcitrant. The rebels of Roman Britain came in many forms from, most famously, Boudica and Caratacus, who wanted the Romans out, to Allectus and Carausius, whose rebellions were inspired by gaining power within the empire. Weaving together archaeology and contemporary documents and literature, Guy de la B?doy?re reveals why Britain was such a hotbed of ...
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Roman Britain’s most notable characteristic—at least in the eyes of the Romans—was that not only was it the most remote province, but it was also the most recalcitrant. The rebels of Roman Britain came in many forms from, most famously, Boudica and Caratacus, who wanted the Romans out, to Allectus and Carausius, whose rebellions were inspired by gaining power within the empire. Weaving together archaeology and contemporary documents and literature, Guy de la Bédoyère reveals why Britain was such a hotbed of dissent under Roman rule.
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Cassivellaunus is the first major British tribal leader and monarch to appear in history. This makes him an exceptionally significant individual, though we know tragically little about him. Cassivellaunus stands at the end of Britain's prehistory. In him we meet a man whose personal prestige put him into a position where he could take charge of resistance to the first recorded invasion of Britain. Cassivellaunus' anonymous ancestors stretch back remorselessly into an unknown and unknowable fathomless past, while the names and actions of his descendants would echo down the ages to come. The first to face the full weight of an organised, literate and historical foe, he comes down to us through the words of the Roman world, and specifically those of Gaius Julius Caesar, one of the most famous witnesses to the age of Roman conquest that ever lived. Necessarily then, any account of Cassivellaunus is really an account of Caesar's invasions as Caesar wanted to describe them.
By the mid-first century BC, Cassivellaunus ruled territory in what we now know as Hertfordshire, but his influence extended across much of south-east Britain. He controlled peoples whose origins were closely linked with tribes in northern Gaul and, appropriately enough, they had absorbed practices and a lifestyle that reflected their close links with the continent. But at this stage, Cassivellaunus had no inclination to see his or her tribe's future in a Roman idiom. Bent on expanding his own power, he had already killed a neighbouring king. The arrival of Julius Caesar both helped and hindered him. The prospect of a Roman war meant that some tribes scuttled to seek the protection of Cassivellaunus, while others took one look at the opposition and decided that sucking up to Rome was altogether more promising a prospect than subjecting themselves to a tribal leader who did not hesitate to wipe out the opposition. This anticipated problems that people like Caratacus and Boudica would face later.
In the mid-first century BC the Roman Republic was in a precarious state. Power was now in the hands of Roman generals who had capitalised on personal wealth and position to accumulate influence on an unprecedented scale. The old Republican system of magistracies, based on election in colleges and the protective force of veto, was simply impotent in the face of vast private armies whose loyalty was exclusively directed at their generals, not the Roman state. In 60 BC the First Triumvirate was established between the three most powerful men in the Roman world: Gaius Julius Caesar, Marcus Licinius Crassus, and Cnaeus Pompeius Magnus. In essence they had parcelled up Rome's universe between them though in practice each of them watched the others like a hawk and missed no chance to promote their own interests.
Caesar's conquest of Gaul exhibited his own military brilliance, his spectacular ability to harness the loyalty of his troops, and the box-office consciousness of a one-man publicity machine. Not only was he allocated legions by the state, but he also used his own wealth to raise others. This tied them firmly to Caesar the man, and not in his guise as a representative of the Roman people. He even went as far as raising a legion from Gauls and awarded them Roman citizenship himself. This brought him colossal prestige but bringing Gaul under Roman power also exposed the extended dominions to remote frontiers and interference from more distant territory. Gaul was linked by tribe and tradition to Britain. Not only did British warriors fight alongside Gauls, but also Britain provided a refuge for the Bellovaci who escaped across the Channel in 57 BC. The Belgic Veneti tribe took on Caesar's ships because they were worried their trade with Britain would be disrupted if he crossed over there.
Britain thus was easily presented as a 'legitimate' military target. The United States used the same justification for bombing Laos in the Vietnam War. But Caesar was equally mindful that Britain presented a brilliant opportunity to grab headlines. Britain's exotic remoteness was already established in popular lore, and the sheer excitement of taking a military force across the Channel could not have failed to excite interest at home. Of course, in one sense it was a reckless gamble, but Caesar's whole life had been based on gambles and living on the edge. It was what made him different from the lesser, ordinary, mortals of his time, just as it marks out the inspired lunatic brilliance of men like Napoleon or Lawrence of Arabia, driven by an 'ambition which swell'd so much that it did almost stretch the sides o' the world' (Cymbeline III.iii). All of course we know in the end is that Caesar did not stay in Britain, so we are none the wiser about whether he had actually planned to conquer the place and had to abandon this. As a people ignotos antea, 'unknown before', the Britons would make an excellent publicity tool (Suetonius, Julius Caesar xxv.2). Looking back around 150 years later, the historian Plutarch thought the British campaign extraordinarily 'daring' for going into the unknown to establish Britain as 'fact' rather than fantasy, in spite of the fact that the Britons turned out to be so 'wretched' they had not been worth the trouble (Caesar xxiii).
Whether or not Caesar had his eye on historians of later centuries, by 55 BC his position as military commander in Gaul was the most important position he held for maintaining prestige at home. In that year Crassus and Pompey were serving as consuls in Rome. It would have been easy for Caesar, with the bulk of the fighting over, to have faded out of the limelight. Without an excuse to continue fighting, in theory Caesar would have had to give up his position. As Suetonius said, Caesar 'did not let slip any excuse for a war' (ibid. xxiv.3). In other words, since Caesar needed a war, the only question was where to fight it. Britain was perfect. Going there at all was something to brag about, and it minimised compromising his hold on Gaul though he still had to take chances.
Caesar's first effort to invade Britain was a virtual debacle though he took care to modify his account so that it seemed otherwise. The pretext was that Gaulish resistance had been actively supported from Britain. Of course, Caesar wrote about the event afterwards so he was bound to dress it up appropriately. For this reason he took care to claim that despite it being late summer, even if there was no fighting to be had he could at least reconnoitre the place. This was apparently essential since the only people with any information were traders, and they knew nothing about inland Britain and certainly nothing about how the tribes were organised or how they fought.
To prepare the way, Caesar sent Gaius Volusenus to see what he could find out, though as it turned out the scout was disinclined to land anywhere and spent less than five days off the coast of Britain. In the meantime news of Caesar's plans was getting around, and as a result some of the British tribes sent representatives who reputedly promised advance capitulation and hostages. This was a conventional spoiling tactic to put invaders off their guard and buy time. About 250 years later, Septimius Severus would find a northern confederation of tribes called the Maeatae trying the same trick. Caesar also sent his own puppet king, Commios, of the Gaulish Atrebates across to Britain to try and break down resistance on the spot. It backfired. The quisling Commios was instantly imprisoned in Britain and was not returned until the peace negotiations on the beach a few days later.
The campaign was to be prosecuted with just two legions and cavalry. The legions embarked at one port, probably Boulogne (used the next year for certain), and the latter following from a different port. Caesar initially faced cliffs lined with British warriors, a hopeless place to land and had to wait for the whole fleet to gather before moving on to a level beach seven miles away. This is now thought to have been somewhere near Deal. Just offshore here is The Downs, a place later used as a sheltered mooring thanks to raised areas of seabed. The landing was almost a disaster. The Britons attacked the landing troops, who were confounded by trying to beach heavy ships on too gradual a slope. This made it impossible to sail in fast enough to let the boats ride up onto the shore under their own momentum. The Roman troops were terrified by the thought of wading in through deep water. If it had not been for the famous standard-bearer of the X legion leading the way, and the use of warships to bombard the Britons with artillery, it is doubtful if the invasion would have got much further than the shingle.
Caesar painted a fairly promising picture of the initial fighting, but Dio (writing 250 years later) was less convinced and pointed out that since the Britons were either on horseback or in chariots and could make a rapid get-away, few were captured or killed. Nevertheless, the Britons were apparently struck by the fact that the Romans had crossed at all, and they must have heard plenty about Caesar's wars in Gaul. The Britons sued for peace and handed over Commios, but within a few days, the whole campaign nearly went under - literally. The ships already in Britain were wrecked by a high tide, and the cavalry's transports were forced back to Gaul by a storm. The British tribal leaders spotted their advantage and instantly started to melt away from the Roman camp. The VII legion was promptly assaulted while foraging by Britons who had waited for them by hiding in woodland. This theme would be played out constantly during the centuries of campaigning ahead. The problem was that although Caesar arrived to take control, the highly mobile enemy was able to escape easily. At the same time, tribal contacts were being used to seek help much more widely across Britain. These were used to publicise the small size of the Roman force, and the prospect of easy pickings for any warriors who could come and join in. Caesar claimed that when the Britons gathered to attack the Roman camp, they quickly gave up and offered peace once more. Both sides were trying to fight two different wars and neither could defeat the other on its own terms. Thus the elusive charioteers confounded Caesar, but the Britons had no strategy to cope with a fortified Roman camp. Caesar was in no mood to argue the toss, fully aware that his fleet was damaged and winter was approaching. He lacked either the forces or the supplies to do any more. Since the weather was now good, he decided to take advantage of it and made for Gaul.
In this first campaign, Caesar provides no detailed evidence about the British tribes or their leaders. He may not even have been party to the information. At this time, Roman influence had had little impact on the way the tribal leaders portrayed themselves, so there is not much we can add to the picture. Celtic tribal coinage was still anonymous, and it would not be for at least another generation that we have any numismatic verification of historically-testified leaders. Coins of Commios are known, but because a few are marked 'COM COMMIOS' (for Commi Commios, 'Commios, son of Commios'), it is believed he was a son of the Commios Caesar knew. The following year Caesar decided to revisit Britain and finish off the business. This time he was considerably more prepared, and he provides a great deal more information.
Caesar's plans to invade Britain again were delayed. Some of the Gaulish Treveri were said to be 'inciting the Trans-Rhine Germans' (Gallic War v.2). This turned out to be connected with a dispute within the Treveri between two of the chieftains. Indutiomarus and Cingetorix. To prevent the trouble compromising the British campaign, Caesar took hostages from Indutiomarus (the source of the problems) and set off for Boulogne.
It was a mark of the relative insecurity of his hold on Gaul, and a portent for what lay ahead, that Caesar had to take a number of Gaulish chiefs with him to Britain to prevent them starting rebellions while he was away. One of them, Dumnorix of the Aedui, even absconded and the efforts to bring him back delayed sailing even more. This makes the idea of invading Britain all the more curious, since it could only have added similar problems, and suggests Caesar can have had no intention of occupying Britain. He could not possibly have managed to control both Gaul and Britain in the same way at the same time. Five legions and a body of cavalry set off in around 800 ships, only to find themselves becalmed and at the mercy of what we now call the Gulf Stream. The current sent the fleet towards the North Sea, with Britain off to port. When the tide turned, the opportunity was made to land, probably somewhere on Kent's east coast.
The Britons had been waiting for the invasion but vanished when they saw how big it was - or at least that was how Caesar put it. It is perfectly possible that they knew their best defence lay in drawing Caesar inland, away from supplies and help. Caesar took the bait, and although he initially engaged the Britons with some success his fleet was partly wrecked by the force of the tides. Caesar had to sort this out, allowing most of the Britons the opportunity to regroup and making the radical decision to abandon unilateral tribal action and combine instead under one commander. It was something their descendants might have profitably thought about a century or more later.
The Britons threw in their lot with Cassivellaunus. Caesar says he controlled land to the north of the Thames. This ties Cassivellaunus firmly to the area we know later belonged to the Catuvellauni, a name that does not appear again until the mid-second-century Geography of Ptolemy, and Dio's early third-century account of the invasion of AD 43. The suffix -vellaunus, shared with the tribal name, means 'good' or 'excellent'. The prefix is thought to invoke a magnification of that quality. Thus Cassivellaunus is 'exceptionally good', while his tribe bore a name that meant something like 'very good warriors'.
They lived up to their name, which was just as well under the circumstances. Caesar found that Britons on horseback or in chariots constantly harassed his troops. The charioteers continually engaged the Roman cavalry, which were trying to protect the slower and more cumbersome infantry. Using woodland to their advantage the Britons drew the Roman escorts off and resisted in fighting in small, dispersed, groups. As the fighting progressed, the Britons simply deployed fresh warriors so that the others could withdraw and rest.
Excerpted from DEFYING ROME by GUY DE LA BÉDOYÈRE Copyright © 2003 by Guy de la Bédoyère . Excerpted by permission.
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|1||The Battle of Britain: Cassivellaunus||19|
|2||The Bitter Bread of Banishment: Caratacus||29|
|3||Bleeding from the Roman Rods: Boudica||42|
|4||Damned in a Fair Wife: Venutius||74|
|5||Band of Brothers: XIV Gemina Martia Victrix||83|
|6||The Fog and Filthy Air: The Northern Tribes||90|
|7||Ambition's Debt is Paid: Clodius Albinus||107|
|8||From Here to Eternity: St Alban||119|
|9||The Old Pretender: Postumus||127|
|10||Total Recall: Carausius and Allectus||139|
|11||The Empire Strikes Back: Magnentius||154|
|12||Ill-Weaved Ambition: Magnus Maximus||173|
|13||End of Days: Constantine III||186|
|14||Abominable and Noxious Teaching: Pelagius||198|
|15||Patriots and Tyrants||207|
|Principal Dates in Romano-British History||216|