The Romans in Britain

The Romans in Britain

The Romans arrived in Britain in 55 BC. The Roman Army had been fighting in Gaul (France) and the Britons had been helping the Gauls in an effort to defeat the Romans. The leader of the Roman Army in Gaul, Julius Caesar, decided that he had to teach the Britons a lesson for helping the Gauls – hence his invasion.

Julius Ceasar 

In late August 55 BC, 12,000 Roman soldiers landed about 6 miles from Dover. Caesar had planned to land in Dover itself, but had to change his plan as many Briton soldiers had gathered on the cliffs ready to fight off the invaders. Even so, the Britons followed the Romans to their landing place and a fierce fight took place on the beach. The Romans were forced to fight in the water as the Britons stormed down the beach. Caesar was impressed with the fighting qualities of the Britons:

“The Romans were faced with serious problems. These dangers frightened our soldiers who were not used to battles of this kind, with the results that they do not show the same speed and enthusiasm as they usually did in battles on dry land.”

However, the Romans fought off the Britons who withdrew. But it was clear to Caesar that the Britons were anything but a pushover and by the end of the year, the Romans had withdrawn to Gaul. If a full-scale invasion was to take place, the Romans would need far more men in their invasion force.

Caesar returned the next year in 54 BC. This time he had 30,000 soldiers and the Britons were not prepared to fight the Romans on the beach. This gave the Romans an opportunity to establish themselves as a military force in Britain. Once they had done this, they took on Briton tribes one by one.

Caesar’s success in Britain meant that he neglected Gaul. This encouraged the Gauls to rise up against the Romans and Caesar had to leave Britain with his army to put down the rebellion in Gaul. The Roman Army did not return to Britain for over 90 years.

However, traders from Rome did come to Britain and traded with the tribes that lived there. They realised that Britain was potentially a very wealthy place and if the island was properly controlled by the Romans, Rome itself could do very well out of it.

The Romans invaded Britain in AD 43. This was not as a punishment for helping the Gauls. It was to take over the island. The Romans were to stay for many years. The emperor Claudius sent an army of 40,000 men. It landed safely. The emperor sent not only foot soldiers but cavalry as well. Many tribes in Britain realised the sheer power of this army and made peace quickly with the Romans. Some took on the might of the Roman army. These clashes went on for many years and in parts of Britain, the Romans never actually gained full control. Though the Roman army has achieved fame for its effectiveness as a fighting force, the Britons were skilled and ferocious warriors. Caesar, in particular, was impressed by their skill with chariots:

“Chariots are used like this. First of all, the charioteers drive all over the field hurling javelins. Generally, the horses and the noise of the wheels are enough to terrify the enemy and throw them into confusion, as soon as they have got through the cavalry, the warriors jump down from their chariots and fight on foot. Meanwhile, the charioteers then move away and place their chariots in such a way that the warriors can easily get back on them if they are hard pressed by the size of the enemy. So they combine the easy movement of cavalry with the staying power of foot soldiers. Regular practice makes them so skilful that they can control their horses at a full gallop, even on a steep slope. And they can stop and turn them in a moment. The warriors can then run along the chariot pole, stand on the yoke and get back into the chariot as quick as lightening.”  

While the Romans thought highly of Britain as a colony, they were less happy about the Britons themselves.

“They are tall and bandy-legged with crooked bodies” (Strabo)

“Savages” (Tacitus)

“Creatures which are half-man and half-beast live there.” (Anon)






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