The Great Events by Famous Historians/Volume 2/Roman Invasion and Conquest of Britain

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B.C. 55 - A.D. 79


(When Julius Caesar received the province of Gaul as his government, B.C. 58, it was only a small portion of the territory inhabited by the Gauls or Celts, being almost conterminous with the mediaeval Provence. It was also at peace, and there seemed no excuse for making an extension of Roman territory among the three tribes or races between which Northern and Western Gaul were divided. But the Helvetii, who occupied that part of the Alps known to-day as Switzerland, meditated an emigration into the plains of Gaul, and, as their shortest route lay across the Roman provinces, they asked leave of Caesar to pass three hundred and sixty thousand souls in all, counting women and children, through the imperial territory.

The Roman commander, after giving them an evasive answer, met them in the territory of the Sequani and Aedui and defeated them, driving them back to their mountains. He next went to the aid of the Aedui, ancient allies of Rome, against the Arverni and Sequani, who had invaded the Aeduan territory under a German chieftain, Ariovistus. The result was that Ariovistus was defeated and driven eastward across the Rhine. He then defeated the Belgae, who, in B.C. 57, took up arms against the garrisons which he had left in the country of the Sequani [dwellers on the Seine]. He continued his conquest of the Belgic territory, and subjected the three nations who occupied it, finally entering the country of the warlike Nervii, whom he only conquered after a stubborn and bloody battle. As soon as he had subjugated the whole of Gaul, he crossed the Rhine for the purpose of intimidating the Germans and teaching them to keep within their own boundaries.

He pursued the same policy with regard to the Britons, who, according to information received by him, had sent aid to the Gauls in their struggle with Rome. His ships were brought round from the Loire to that part of the French coast now known as Boulogne, and he set out for Britain, where he landed, and eventually received the submission of the British chieftains.)

The Britons in their rude and barbarous state seemed to stand in need of more polished instructors; and indeed whatever evils may attend the conquest of heroes, their success has generally produced one good effect in disseminating the arts of refinement and humanity. It ever happens when a barbarous nation is conquered by another more advanced in the arts of peace, that it gains in elegance a recompense for what it loses in liberty.

The Britons had long remained in this rude but independent state, when Cæsar, having overrun Gaul with his victories, and willing still further to extend his fame, determined upon the conquest of a country that seemed to promise an easy triumph. He was allured neither by the riches nor by the renown of the inhabitants; but being ambitious rather of splendid than of useful conquests, he was willing to carry the Roman arms into a country the remote situation of which would add seeming difficulty to the enterprise and consequently produce an increase of reputation. His pretence was to punish these islanders for having sent succors to the Gauls while he waged war against that nation, as well as for granting an asylum to such of the enemy as had sought protection from his resentment.

The natives, informed of his intention, were sensible of the unequal contest and endeavored to appease him by submission. He received their ambassadors with great complacency, and having exhorted them to continue steadfast in the same sentiments, in the mean time made preparations for the execution of his design. When the troops designed for the expedition were embarked he set sail for Britain about midnight, and the next morning arrived on the coast near Dover, where he saw the rocks and cliffs covered with armed men to oppose his landing.

Finding it impracticable to gain the shore where he first intended, from the agitation of the sea and the impending mountains, he resolved to choose a landing-place of greater security. The place he chose was about eight miles farther on (some suppose at Deal), where an inclining shore and a level country invited his attempts. The poor, naked, ill-armed Britons we may well suppose were but an unequal match for the disciplined Romans who had before conquered Gaul and afterward became the conquerors of the world. However, they made a brave opposition against the veteran army; the conflicts between them were fierce, the losses mutual, and the success various.

The Britons had chosen Cassibelaunus for their commander-in-chief; but the petty princes under his command, either desiring his station or suspecting his fidelity, threw off their allegiance. Some of them fled with their forces into the internal parts of the kingdom, others submitted to Caesar; till at length Cassibelaunus himself, weakened by so many desertions, resolved upon making what terms he was able while yet he had power to keep the field. The conditions offered by Caesar and accepted by him were that he should send to the Continent double the number of hostages at first demanded and that he should acknowledge subjection to the Romans.

The Romans were pleased with the name of this new and remote conquest, and the senate decreed a supplication of twenty days in consequence of their general's success. Having therefore in this manner rather discovered than subdued the southern parts of the island, Caesar returned into Gaul with his forces and left the Britons to enjoy their customs, religion, and laws. But the inhabitants, thus relieved from the terror of his arms, neglected the performance of their stipulations, and only two of their states sent over hostages according to the treaty. Caesar, it is likely, was not much displeased at the omission, as it furnished him with a pretext for visiting the island once more and completing a conquest which he had only begun.

Accordingly the ensuing spring he set sail for Britain with eight hundred ships,[1] and arriving at the place of his descent he landed without opposition. The islanders being apprised of his invasion had assembled an army and marched down to the sea-side to oppose him, but seeing the number of his forces, and the whole sea, as it were, covered with his shipping, they were struck with consternation and retired to their places of security. The Romans, however, pursued them to their retreats until at last common danger induced these poor barbarians to forget their former dissensions and to unite their whole strength for the mutual defence of their liberty and possessions.

At a later period than the epoch to which our present note attaches, when Constantius removed from Heliopolis to Rome an enormous obelisk, weighing fifteen hundred tons, the vessel on board of which it was shipped also carried eleven hundred and thirty-eight tons of pulse; but such vast and unmanageable masses were regarded as monsters, and owed their existence to the absolute urgency of a remarkable purpose, backed by the despotic institutions of the times.]

Cassibelaunus was chosen to conduct the common cause, and for some time he harassed the Romans in their march and revived the desponding hopes of his countrymen. But no opposition that undisciplined strength could make was able to repress the vigor and intrepidity of Cæsar. He discomfited the Britons in every action; he advanced into the country, passed the Thames in the face of the enemy, took and burned the capital city of Cassibelaunus, established his ally Mandubratius as sovereign of the Trinobantes; and having obliged the inhabitants to make new submissions, he again returned with his army into Gaul, having made himself rather the nominal than the real possessor of the island.

Whatever the stipulated tribute might have been, it is more than probable, as there was no authority left to exact it, that it was but indifferently paid. Upon the accession of Augustus, that Emperor had formed a design of visiting Britain, but was diverted from it by an unexpected revolt of the Pannonians. Some years after he resumed his design; but being met in his way by the British ambassadors, who promised the accustomed tribute and made the usual submissions, he desisted from his intention. The year following, finding them remiss in their supplies and untrue to their former professions, he once more prepared for the invasion of the country; but a well-timed embassy again averted his indignation, and the submissions he received seemed to satisfy his resentment; upon his death-bed he appeared sensible of the overgrown extent of the Roman Empire and recommended it to his successors never to enlarge their territories.

Tiberius followed the maxims of Augustus and, wisely judging the empire already too extensive, made no attempt upon Britain. Some Roman soldiers having been wrecked on the British coast the inhabitants not only assisted them with the greatest humanity, but sent them in safety back to their general. In consequence of these friendly dispositions, a constant intercourse of good offices subsisted between the two nations; the principal British nobility resorted to Rome, and many received their education there.

From that time the Britons began to improve in all the arts which contribute to the advancement of human nature. The first art which a savage people is generally taught by politer neighbors is that of war. The Britons thenceforward, though not wholly addicted to the Roman method of fighting, nevertheless adopted several of their improvements, as well in their arms as in their arrangement in the field. Their ferocity to strangers, for which they had been always remarkable, was mitigated and they began to permit an intercourse of commerce even in the internal parts of the country. They still, however, continued to live as herdsmen and hunters; a manifest proof that the country was yet but thinly inhabited. A nation of hunters can never be populous, as their subsistence is necessarily diffused over a large tract of country, while the husbandman converts every part of nature to human use, and flourishes most by the vicinity of those whom he is to support.

The wild extravagances of Caligula by which he threatened Britain with an invasion served rather to expose him to ridicule than the island to danger. The Britons therefore for almost a century enjoyed their liberty unmolested, till at length the Romans in the reign of Claudius began to think seriously of reducing them under their dominion. The expedition for this purpose was conducted in the beginning by Plautius and other commanders, with that success which usually attended the Roman arms.

Claudius himself, finding affairs sufficiently prepared for his reception, made a journey thither and received the submission of such states as living by commerce were willing to purchase tranquillity at the expense of freedom. It is true that many of the inland provinces preferred their native simplicity to imported elegance and, rather than bow their necks to the Roman yoke, offered their bosoms to the sword. But the southern coast with all the adjacent inland country was seized by the conquerors, who secured the possession by fortifying camps, building fortresses, and planting colonies. The other parts of the country, either thought themselves in no danger or continued patient spectators of the approaching devastation.

Caractacus was the first who seemed willing, by a vigorous effort, to rescue his country and repel its insulting and rapacious conquerors.[2] The venality and corruption of the Roman prætors and officers, who were appointed to levy the contributions in Britain, served to excite the indignation of the natives and give spirit to his attempts. This rude soldier, though with inferior forces, continued for about the space of nine years to oppose and harass the Romans; so that at length Ostorius Scapula was sent over to command their armies. He was more successful than his predecessors. He advanced the Roman conquest over Britain, pierced the country of the Silures, a warlike nation along the banks of the Severn, and at length came up with Caractacus, who had taken possession of a very advantageous post upon an almost inaccessible mountain, washed by a deep and rapid stream.

The unfortunate British general, when he saw the enemy approaching, drew up his army, composed of different tribes, and going from rank to rank exhorted them to strike the last blow for liberty, safety, and life. To these exhortations his soldiers replied with shouts of determined valor. But what could undisciplined bravery avail against the attack of an army skilled in all the arts of war and inspired by a long train of conquests? The Britons were, after an obstinate resistance, totally routed, and a few days after Caractacus himself was delivered up to the conquerors by Cartismandua, queen of the Brigantes, with whom he had taken refuge. The capture of this general was received with such joy at Rome that Claudius commanded that he should be brought from Britain in order to be exhibited as a spectacle to the Roman people. Accordingly, on the day appointed for that purpose, the Emperor, ascending his throne, ordered the captives and Caractacus among the number to be brought into his presence. The vassals of the British King, with the spoils taken in war, were first brought forward; these were followed by his family, who, with abject lamentations, were seen to implore for mercy.

Last of all came Caractacus with an undaunted air and a dignified aspect. He appeared no way dejected at the amazing concourse of spectators that were gathered upon this occasion, but, casting his eyes on the splendors that surrounded him, "Alas!" cried he, "how is it possible that a people possessed of such magnificence at home could envy me an humble cottage in Britain?" When brought into the Emperor's presence he is said to have addressed him in the following manner: "Had my moderation been equal to my birth and fortune, I had arrived in this city not as a captive, but as a friend. But my present misfortunes redound as much to your honor as to my disgrace; and the obstinacy of my opposition serves to increase the splendor of your victory. Had I surrendered myself in the beginning of the contest, neither my disgrace nor your glory would have attracted the attention of the world, and my fate would have been buried in general oblivion. I am now at your mercy; but if my life be spared, I shall remain an eternal monument of your clemency and moderation." The Emperor was affected with the British hero's misfortunes and won by his address. He ordered him to be unchained upon the spot, with the rest of the captives, and the first use they made of their liberty was to go and prostrate themselves before the empress Agrippina, who as some suppose had been an intercessor for their freedom.

Notwithstanding these misfortunes, the Britons were not subdued, and this island was regarded by the ambitious Romans as a field in which military honor might still be acquired. The Britons made one expiring effort to recover their liberty in the time of Nero, taking advantage of the absence of Paulinus, the Roman general, who was employed in subduing the isle of Anglesey. That small island, separated from Britain by a narrow channel, still continued the chief seat of the Druidical superstition, and constantly afforded a retreat to their defeated forces. It was thought necessary therefore to subdue that place, in order to extirpate a religion that disdained submission to foreign laws or leaders; and Paulinus, the greatest general of his age, undertook the task.

The Britons endeavored to obstruct his landing on that last retreat of their superstitions and liberties, both by the force of their arms and the terrors of their religion. The priests and islanders were drawn up in order of battle upon the shore, to oppose his landing. The women, dressed like Furies, with dishevelled hair, and torches in their hands, poured forth the most terrible execrations. Such a sight at first confounded the Romans and fixed them motionless on the spot; so that they received the first assault without opposition. But Paulinus, exhorting his troops to despise the menaces of an absurd superstition, impelled them to the attack, drove the Britons off the field, burned the Druids in the same fires they had prepared for their captive enemies, and destroyed all their consecrated groves and altars.

In the mean time the Britons, taking advantage of his absence, resolved, by a general insurrection, to free themselves from that state of abject servitude to which they were reduced by the Romans. They had many motives to aggravate their resentment—the greatness of their taxes, which were levied with unremitting severity; the cruel insolence of their conquerors, who reproached that very poverty which they had caused, but particularly the barbarous treatment of Boadicea, queen of the Iceni, drove them at last into open rebellion.

Prasatagus, king of the Iceni, at his death had bequeathed one-half of his dominions to the Romans, and the other to his daughters; thus hoping by the sacrifice of a part to secure the rest in his family; but it had a different effect; for the Roman procurator immediately took possession of the whole, and when Boadicea, the widow of the deceased, attempted to remonstrate, he ordered her to be scourged like a slave, and violated the chastity of her daughters. These outrages were sufficient to produce a revolt through the whole island. The Iceni, being the most deeply interested in the quarrel, were the first to take arms; all the other states soon followed the example, and Boadicea, a woman of great beauty and masculine spirit, was appointed to head the common forces, which amounted to two hundred and thirty thousand fighting men.

These, exasperated by their wrongs, attacked several of the Roman settlements and colonies with success, Paulinus hastened to relieve London, which was already a flourishing colony; but found on his arrival that it would be requisite, for the general safety, to abandon that place to the merciless fury of the enemy. London was therefore soon reduced to ashes; such of the inhabitants as remained in it were massacred; and the Romans with all other strangers to the number of seventy thousand were cruelly put to the sword. Flushed with these successes the Britons no longer sought to avoid the enemy, but boldly came to the place where Paulinus awaited their arrival, posted in a very advantageous manner with a body of ten thousand men. The battle was obstinate and bloody. Boadicea herself appeared in a chariot with her two daughters and harangued her army with masculine firmness; but the irregular and undisciplined bravery of her troops was unable to resist the cool intrepidity of the Romans. They were routed with great slaughter; eighty thousand perished in the field, and an infinite number were made prisoners, while Boadicea herself, fearing to fall into the hands of the enraged victor, put an end to her life by poison. Nero soon after recalled Paulinus from a government where, by suffering and inflicting so many severities, he was judged improper to compose the angry and alarmed minds of the natives.

After an interval, Cerealis received the command from Vespasian, and by his bravery propagated the terror of the Roman arms. Julius Frontinus succeeded Cerealis both in authority and reputation. The general who finally established the dominion of the Romans in this island was Julius Agricola, who governed it during the reigns of Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian, and distinguished himself as well by his courage as humanity.

Agricola, who is considered as one of the greatest characters in history, formed a regular plan for subduing and civilizing the island, and thus rendering the acquisition useful to the conquerors. As the northern part of the country was least tractable, he carried his victorious arms thither, and defeated the undisciplined enemy in every encounter. He pierced into the formerly inaccessible forests and mountains of Caledonia; he drove onward all those fierce and intractable spirits who preferred famine to slavery, and who, rather than submit, chose to remain in perpetual hostility. Nor was it without opposition that he thus made his way into a country rude and impervious by nature.

He was opposed by Galgacus at the head of a numerous army, whom he defeated in a decisive action, in which considerable numbers were slain. Being thus successful, he did not think proper to pursue the enemy into their retreats; but embarking a body of troops on board his fleet, he ordered the commander to surround the whole coast of Britain, which had not been discovered to be an island till the preceding year. This armament, pursuant to his orders, steered to the northward, and there subdued the Orkneys; then making the tour of the whole island, it arrived in the port of Sandwich, without having met with the least disaster.

During these military enterprises, Agricola was ever attentive to the arts of peace. He attempted to humanize the fierceness of those who acknowledged his power, by introducing the Roman laws, habits, manners, and learning. He taught them to desire and raise all the conveniences of life, instructed them in the arts of agriculture, and, in order to protect them in their peaceable possessions, he drew a rampart, and fixed a train of garrisons between them and their northern neighbors, thus cutting off the ruder and more barren parts of the island and securing the Roman province from the invasion of a fierce and necessitous enemy. In this manner the Britons, being almost totally subdued, now began to throw off all hopes of recovering their former liberty, and, having often experienced the superiority of the Romans, consented to submit, and were content with safety. From that time the Romans seemed more desirous of securing what they possessed than of making new conquests, and were employed rather in repressing than punishing their restless northern invaders.


  1. With regard to these Roman ships, let not our readers be misled by a familiar notion or a pompous name. They were but little more than rowboats, as may be easily imagined from the fact that Cicero instances for its uncommon magnitude a ship of only fifty-six tons! These ancient vessels were occasionally sheathed with leather or lead, and had the prow decorated with paint and gilding, while the stern was sometimes carved in the figure of a shield, elaborately adorned. Upon a staff there erected hung ribbons distinctive of the ship and serving at the same time to show the direction of the wind. There, too, stood the tutela, or chosen patron of the ship, to whom prayers and sacrifices were daily offered. The selection of this deity was guided by either private or professional reasons, and as merchants committed themselves to the protection of Mercury, or lovers to the care of Cupid, warriors, it will at once be surmised, made Mars the object of their pious supplication
  2. The character of this hero has been powerfully depicted by Beaumont and Fletcher, in one of their noblest dramas.