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Roman Conquest of Britain

Updated on February 19, 2012

Claudius Conquers Britain

The Emperor Claudius began his invasion of Britain in AD 43. This was nearly one hundred years after Julius Caesar's landings. As with Caesar, there were a number of possible reasons why Claudius wanted his troops to cross the Channel.

He may have needed a military victory to win the loyalty of the public and the army. The merchants and generals in Rome, who had most to gain from the conquest of Britain, may have talked him into it. Britain could produce wheat, metals and taxes for Rome. The Druids (a group of religious leaders among the Britons and the Gauls) had been causing trouble in Gaul, and Claudius may have wanted to strike at their base, which was in Britain.

The Rhine frontier was peaceful, so there were troops available in Germany. The Britons were divided; in AD 42 war broke out between rival British tribes, and one of them asked Rome for help. The time seemed right to invade.

The invasion almost failed before it set off. When the Roman ships gathered in Doulogne, the troops refused to get on board. Rumors had spread that Britain was full of demons and that the fleet could fall off the edge of the world- the Romans called Britain 'the islands at the end of the Earth'. Mutiny was near. But when a silly-looking lieutenant called Narcissus stood up to shout at them, the men fell about laughing, the tension broke and the troops poured on board.

Aulus Plautius was the general in charge of the invasion.

His force of more than 40,000 men landed in the sheltered harbor of Richborough before moving inland. The leader of the Catuvellauni, Caractacus, was the legions' main opponent. The Romans won a hard two-day battle at the river Medway, then a shorter fight near the Thames, before they reached the new base of the Catuvellauni at Colchester. There the Roman army paused.

The Emperor Claudius arrived with important Roman public figures and a troop of elephants to add to the importance of the occasion and then the legions quickly overran British resistance. Claudius stayed in Colchester only sixteen days -long enough to accept the surrender of some of the British kings. He made Plautius governor of his new province, and returned in glory to Rome. The Emperor's two-year-old son was given a new name: Britannicus.

The conquest of Britain followed in four more waves.

Between AD 43 and 47 the Romans advanced forward to a line running across the country from about Exeter to the Humber. Their most famous victory was by troops led by Vespasian at Maiden Castle in Dorset. They built the Fosse Way to help defend this frontier.

Between AD 48 and 51 the Roman Second Legion went after Caractacus, who had fled to join allies in the West. The legion defeated the British tribes in Gloucestershire, North Wales and then Yorkshire before they captured Caractacus.

Another stage in the conquest came when Suetonius Paulinus marched into North Wales and massacred the Druids in Anglesey. But this advance came to an end because of the dangerous rebellion in the South-East led by Queen Boudicca.

Roman control grew between AD 71 and 84, mainly under the new governor of Britain, Agricola. Agricola reconquered North Wales, northern England and southern Scotland.

The Romans never advanced further into the Highlands.

Instead they decided to defend their northern border first with Hadrian's Wall, started in AD 122, and then with the Antonine Wall, begun in about AD 142. Roman control of Britain south of Hadrian 's Wall stayed firm until about AD 360, when invaders from the Continent began to attack the coasts in large numbers. By this time, Rome itself was also under attack , and troops were often called back to Italy to defend the Empire's capital city. The last Roman soldiers left Britain in about AD 410.

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