The Roman invasion: Whose side were the Britons on?

By Gillian Hovell


The Roman invasion of Britain is an old, old story. However, the reconstruction and display of the Hallaton helmet – a ceremonial Roman helmet found in an Iron Age shrine – in 2012 reminds us that relations between the invaders and the Britons were more complex than we normally imagine. Did Britons really, as the helmet’s discovery implies, fight side by side with the Romans against their own people? Why might they have swapped their loyalties? And, even with local support, was it really an easy ride for the Romans? 

By combining the latest archaeological discoveries – such as the Hallaton helmet – with reports written by ancient historians, we can piece together the events and motives of the time. From these, startling questions arise: were the Britons more prepared than the Romans who first marched into this unexplored world?

And what opportunities for personal advancement did some Britons seize, while others continued to put up such a determined resistance that, in 400 years of Roman occupation, Britain never truly lost its identity as a military frontier province? Just what was the real story?

What led Claudius to invade?

It was nearly 100 years before Rome invaded Britain again. After Caesar’s expedition, the geographer Strabo had written, rather defensively perhaps, that “although the Romans could have held Britain, they scorned to do so, because they saw that there was nothing at all to fear from the Britons (for they are not strong enough to cross over and attack us), and”, he continued, “they saw that there was no corresponding advantage to be gained by seizing and holding their country”.

Nonetheless, the limping, trembling and militarily inexperienced Emperor Claudius knew (like Caesar) that he needed military success to thrive in power, and that a prestigious invasion could provide him with the greatest honour any Roman could hope for: a triumphal procession in Rome and all the glory and popularity that went with it. A victorious invasion of a barbarian land would also serve to boost Roman morale and to distract from troubles at home. 

He was well equipped. Three years earlier, Emperor Caligula had drafted legions specially to invade Britain but had never used them. They were idle and dangerously restless, so, when a request for help came from Verica of the Atrebates tribe (who had been ousted from power by Caratacus, king of the Catuvellauni tribe), Claudius was ready. 

How did the invasion commence in AD 43?

The emperor gave command of the invasion to the general Aulus Plautius, who led legions, cavalry and auxiliary troops across to Britain. They arrived unopposed in three groups – though it is not clear where they landed: Richborough and the Solent have been suggested – defeated Catuvellaunian attacks and reached a river, perhaps the Medway or the Thames. The Britons were carelessly encamped on the west side, thinking the Roman army couldn’t cross the fast, wide river without a bridge, but the Romans had recruited Celts who were practiced at swimming in full armour. These auxiliary troops crossed to the enemy camp and maimed the horses that drew the formidable battle chariots. The Roman advance towards London continued and the Catuvellaunian king Caratacus fled to Wales (where he instigated opposition to Rome for years).

No other tribe could come close to the military strength of the Catuvellauni and, one by one, they surrendered to Rome. Aulus Plautius now sent a message to Claudius, inviting him to come to Britain and to personally make a triumphal entry into Colchester. Some weeks later, Claudius arrived, together with war elephants. This wasn’t just for show, for their smell was known to drive enemy horses mad and the Britons’ skill in chariots was likely to be a real threat, even now. Colchester was taken, and Claudius declared Britain conquered. After just 16 days, he headed home to receive the applause and glory of a triumphal entry into Rome. Plautius was left to consolidate the conquest across the rest of Britain.

Did the Romans have support from native Britons?

The traditional view of the invasion is a straightforward tale of the organised Romans sailing over, marching across the land, and subduing the primitive Britons. The reality appears less clear-cut. 

The Britons’ loyalties were divided: a warrior people, they sought status by violently taking other tribes’ lands and their people as slaves, and their inability to abandon the traditional in-fighting of these tribal rivalries weakened them and indirectly helped the Romans. 

While the Britons were certainly tough and warlike, they were also opportunistic and capable of changing loyalties as it suited them: the cut-throat inter-tribal conflicts often provided the Romans with allies. Celtic soldiers even served in the Roman army, either to help to defeat a tribal enemy or to get ahead personally – a conscious decision to side with the potential winners and to receive a reward (such as the Hallaton helmet, perhaps?). Indeed, some tribal chiefs openly surrendered to the Romans in order to share the victory and to acquire power and status, for being a puppet chief of the Romans would rake in the material benefits and luxuries of the empire and could be preferable to honourable defeat and slaughter. 

Despite this, the Britons were no walkover: their warriors’ skills in chariot warfare and guerrilla tactics were highly effective in reducing the efficiency of the trained Roman units. It was only in the south-east that the Romans really silenced the opposition. 

The Roman conquest of Britain was never a foregone conclusion though: even nearly 20 years on, an excessively heavy Roman rule would prompt the rebellion of the Iceni, led by Queen Boudica, whose followers would raze the new Roman towns of London, St Albans and Colchester to the ground in an uprising in which 70,000 people would be killed before the Romans regained control.

Further north and in Wales, the Britons continued to resist violently. They were never really settled or Romanised at ground roots level, and the army remained an active presence throughout the occupation. 

Because we talk of ‘Roman Britain’ we tend to forget that most of Scotland, despite some Roman incursions, remained unconquered and was never truly won over. And Ireland was never invaded. ‘Roman Britain’ was essentially only Roman England and (less securely) Wales.

How much do we really know about this story? 

The archaeological evidence for the invasion years is sparse, yielding little more than shadows of wooden forts and echoes of violent warfare, such as the artillery bolts that litter Maiden Castle. This is why the Hallaton helmet, ritually buried at a Leicestershire Iron Age shrine within a mere two years of AD 43, is so important. This rich gift from Rome, heavy with ‘victory’ symbols, suggests serious collaboration by the locals. 

Of course, it could have been stolen, a trophy of a raid, but archaeology combines with Roman literature (there were no writers in the illiterate British Iron Age) to reveal that some ambitious Britons were quick to seize opportunities for personal advancement. The Greek historian of Rome, Cassius Dio, recorded that Celtic soldiers served in the Roman army, but even before Claudius’s invasion, Strabo reckoned that dues from British trade were richer pickings than any invasion might supply. 

Through such trade, Roman culture seeped in. Iron Age coins mimicked Roman coinage (one chief’s coins bore the image of a Roman-style helmet – an interesting symbol when we consider the Hallaton helmet) and archaeologists found fine Roman dining ware even in the royal huts of the northern Brigantian stronghold at Iron Age Stanwick. 

Within a few years of the invasion, buildings like Fishbourne Palace and Brading Villa and towns like London and St Albans would appear, but the Romans didn’t have it all their own way. Even as victors they recorded continuing tales of frightened Roman soldiers and terrifying resistance. The Britons were clearly fierce, headstrong and independently minded. 

Rome may have declared herself the master of Britain, but many Britons made Rome serve their own purposes. As more details, like the Hallaton helmet, emerge from archaeology, each new clue adds to the complex and fascinating story that is the Roman invasion of Britain.


Last modified: Friday, 18 November 2016, 9:18 AM