03:01. Claudius.

What follows is very much a ‘work in progress’. I began writing what I thought might become a narrative history of Roman Britain in the late 1980s, and quickly realised that such a thing is not possible. The very best that could be done would be to build up a speculative history; which is to say a narrative that, to the best of my knowledge, could be the way things did actually occur. This, then, is neither fiction nor non-fiction, but intermediate between the two, in the same way that the sources are neither history nor prehistory but what can be termed proto-history. I left things to gather dust from about 2000 to 2011, but I have since taken matters up again and I have been pottering on. I have made additions and alterations, and I have straightened out the footnotes and bibliographies. If you are really interested, leave a message in the comment box below and I will email you an updated version of the text that you require.


Stephen Symons.

Britannia Capta Part 3:

Aquilae Tanqunt. 

Chapter 03.01.


 03:01:01. The Man.

            According to Suetonius[i], Tiberius Claudius Drusus was born on 1st August 10 BCE at Lugudunum (Lyons), one of three surviving children of Antonia Minor and Drusus Major. His mother was the daughter of Octavia, the sister of Augustus the Princeps, and of Marcus Antonius the Triumvir. His father, Drusus, was the son of Livia Drusilla and her first husband Tiberius Claudius Nero, and the brother of that Tiberius who would follow Augustus as Princeps. 

            Drusus Major held office both as quaestor and praetor, and in the course of a successful military career campaigned against both the Rhaetians and the Germans. He became the first Roman general to command a naval expedition on the Mare Germanicum (the North Sea), and built a canal connecting the Rhine and the Yssel to facilitate his campaigns against the Germans. Defeating them in several engagements he was granted the distinction of an ovatio with triumphal regalia and was elected consul following his tenure as praetor. To immortalise his victories in the north he took the cognomen Germanicus. At the end of his term of office as consul he returned to Germany where he shortly died, poisoned, it was thought by some, on the orders of Augustus who viewed his republican sentiments as tantamount to rebellion. Notwithstanding that, Augustus professed a deep affection for his step-son, delivered a moving eulogy for him in the Senate and even wrote his biography. Drusus major was thirty-one years old when he died, his wife twenty-nine. Young Germanicus, their elder son was five, little Claudius was barely one and their sister, Livilla, somewhere in between. 

            Claudius’ youth was not a happy time. He suffered from ill-health and became ultimately a shuffling semi-cripple, although Suetonius’ assertion[ii] that he became dull-witted is palpably untrue. As for his appearance, we have only a description from his mature years. Let Suetonius speak for himself: 

“Claudius had a certain dignity of presence, which showed to best advantage when he happened to be standing or seated and expressing no emotion. This was because, though tall, well-built, handsome, with a fine head of white hair and a firm neck, he stumbled as he walked owing to the weakness of his knees; and because, if excited either by play or by serious business, he had several disagreeable traits. These included an uncontrolled laugh, a horrible habit, under the stress of anger, of slobbering at the mouth and running at the nose, a stammer, and a persistent nervous tic – which grew so bad under emotional stress that his head would toss from side to side”[iii]

            Interestingly, Suetonius adds in the next paragraph:


   “His health was wretched until he succeeded to the throne, when it suddenly became excellent, except for violent stomach-aches which often, he said made him think of suicide”[iv].


Claudius was keenly intelligent and inclined to bookishness. While still a boy he started preparing a history of Rome[v] under the guidance of no less an authority than the great Livy, assisted by the historian Sulpicius Florus. The work apparently began with the assassination of his kinsman (his great-great-great uncle) Julius Caesar and covered the early years of the Principate, but sadly all copies were lost in antiquity. He also produced an eight volume autobiography, a scholarly work entitled “A Defence of Cicero against the Aspersions of Asinius Gallus, a twenty volume Etruscan History and an eight volume History of Carthage. The latter two were written in Greek and received critical acclaim that seems to have been sincere. His stammering and the nervous tic almost may have been over-emphasised by Suetonius as he quotes a letter written by Augustus to Livia as follows:


“My Dear Livia,

I’ll be damned if your grandson Tiberius Claudius hasn’t given me a very pleasant surprise! How on earth anyone who talks so confusedly can nevertheless speak so well in public – with such clearness, saying all that needs to be said  – I simply do not understand”.[vi].


            Claudius would have had a thorough training in rhetoric, like all upper class young Romans, and from the best exponents of the art available, but there is perhaps more at work here than mere technique.


            Young Claudius’ early years were an almost constant gauntlet of humiliation and rejection by all around him from Augustus down to the slaves of the household. His family treated him appallingly. His mother Antonia  would often say, if accusing anyone of stupidity “He’s a bigger fool even than my son Claudius!” His sister Livilla, on hearing that someone had predicted that he would one day become Emperor, prayed aloud that Rome would be spared so cruel a fate. Even Augustus himself expressed grave doubts about the young man’s intelligence and seriously considered that he might be mentally defective. In a letter to Livia, Claudius’ grandmother he discussed the problem of “what we should do about Claudius” as it seemed to the Princeps that his wife’s grandson posed the real threat of making the entire Imperial Family a laughing stock[vii] if he was allowed to undertake public duties. Obviously Augustus decided that Claudius should remain out of the public eye as far as was possible as the only honour he conferred on him was a seat in the College of Augurs, and he barely mentioned him at all in his will. When Tiberius, elderly, reluctant and embittered, finally acceded to the purple his treatment of his nephew was equally cavalier. When Claudius begged his uncle to give him public office Tiberius sent him the consular regalia but refused him consular authority or duties. Claudius could pretend to be consul, but no more[viii]. Bitterly disappointed, Claudius rejected the sham and retired from view for some years, burying himself in his elegant town-house or his villa in Campania.


            Claudius’ love-life was complex, turbulent and fraught with problems, to say the least. According to Suetonius[ix] he was twice betrothed when still a boy. The first time was to one of Augustus’ great-grand-daughters, Aemilia Lepida, but her parents said something to offend the Princeps and the engagement was cut off. He was then engaged to Livia Medullina Camilla, a descendent of the famous dictator Camillus, but the unfortunate girl fell ill and died on what should have been her wedding day. Eventually Claudius was married to Plautia Urgulanilla, the daughter of his grandmother Livia’s good friend and confidant Urgulania, and a member of the influential gens Plautii. Urgulanilla bore Claudius two children, a son, Drusus, and a daughter, Claudia[x]. Urgulanilla, however, was indiscreet with one of her husband’s freedmen, a certain Bota, and Claudius became aware of the affaire. He divorced Urgulanilla and disowned little Claudia (who was born five months after the divorce) as the daughter of Bota, leaving the infant naked on her mother’s doorstep. Soon after this Claudius married Aelia Paetina of the ancient and noble gens Aelii Tuberones and a relative of Tiberius’ favourite Lucius Aelius Sejanus. Aelia bore Claudius a daughter, Antonia, who later married well, but the marriage did not long survive the meteoric fall of Aelia’s sinister and manipulative brother. Claudius then married Valeria Messalina, daughter of a cousin, Messala Barbatus, from which union came a daughter, Octavia, who would eventually wed the future Emperor Nero, and a son, Germanicus who was later called Britannicus in honour of his father’s great victory.


            When at last Tiberius died Rome rejoiced and the purple passed not to Claudius but to his undoubtedly peculiar nephew Gaius, the son of Claudius’ brother Germanicus and Agrippina Minor. Known universally by the nickname Caligula, the young Emperor – he was only twenty-five – was welcomed with relief by the populace and plaudits by the Senate who unanimously voted him absolute power. For the first few months all was well and Caligula became greatly popular, in part because anything other than Tiberius had to be a change for the better, in part because he was the son of the very popular Germanicus, in part because he made a real effort to please the people and the Senate. Then in the September after his accession he suffered a severe bout of illness.


            What the disease was is not known, but the effects were disastrous as they turned a rather unpleasant young man into a sadistic monster. Over the ensuing months and years his rule became increasingly capricious, despotic and bloody. His treatment of Claudius was equally erratic. He took his uncle as his colleague for his first consulship, thus fulfilling Claudius’ long-held desire for public office, and frequently allowed his to stand into for him at the Games, an enormous honour. On the other hand, on Caligula’s orders Claudius was relegated to the bottom of the list of the speaking order of consulars in the Senate. Caligula humiliated Claudius on many further occasions, once having him tossed fully clothed into the Rhine when he arrived as part of a Senatorial delegation. He caused several vexatious accusations to be levelled against Claudius, including one in which the Senate found that a will that he had witnessed was a forgery. Again, Caligula ordered that he pay one hundred thousand aurei, a vast sum, for the privilege of admission to the Emperor’s new priesthood. Claudius borrowed the money from the Public Treasury but could not meet the repayments and was nearly impoverished as a result.


            When at last it came, Claudius’ accession to the purple was dramatic and arguably one of the most peculiar such events in Roman, or, indeed, any other history.


            Caligula has spent the morning at the theatre and was persuaded by a group of friends to take lunch[xi] (Suetonius: Caligula:58). They strolled along a covered, pausing to admire a group of boys practising the Troy Game, but then events became confused as here Suetonius offers two slightly different versions. In the first, two senior Praetorian officers attacked Caligula, Cassius Chaerea stabbing him in the neck from behind which Gaius Sabinus thrust into his chest. In the second version, other Praetorian officers, co-conspirators, cleared the crowd from around the Emperor and demanded the day’s watch-word. The Emperor replied “Iuppiter!”, whereupon Chaerea, from behind, shouted “So be it!” – for Iuppiter deals out sudden death through his thunder-bolts, and struck. A melee ensued as the Emperor’s litter-bearers dashed to their master’s aid, using their poles as spears, and his German bodyguard leapt into the fray as well. Caligula’s wife Caesonia was cut down beside her husband, and their little daughter, Livia Drusilla, then perhaps two years old, had her brains dashed out against a wall. The German soldiers killed several of the conspirators as well as a few perfectly innocent bystanders, but their onslaught was too late. Caligula was dead.


            The result of the brief but savage moment in history was instant confusion in Rome. Although the conspirators has achieved their immediate purpose in the removal of Caligula, they do not appear to have thought much beyond that. They do not seem to have a had a replacement in mind, and certainly there was no heir-apparent to be hoisted shoulder-high and paraded through the streets[xii]. Most of the Senators seem to have been in favour of restoring the Republic, and thus their own authority and privileges, and indeed there were calls to obliterate all memory of the Caesars and to pull down all their temples. The Consuls summoned the Senate to the Capitol, where there was much to-ing and fro-ing and much impassioned rhetoric and argument. For two days chaos reigned as people pontificated and ranted, and the fate of Rome hung in the balance.


            Having disposed of Caligula, the conspirators ordered Caligula’s courtiers to disperse and Claudius, not knowing quite what had happened and as confused as everyone else, retired to a room known as the Hermaeum somewhere in the Imperial palace[xiii]. Here he shortly received news of the fateful events. Supposing that a massacre of the Julio-Claudians was imminent and that he, as the last surviving adult male of the family, would be the next target, Claudius promptly fell into a panic. He slipped out onto a balcony and hid behind an arras. A passing Praetorian Guardsman noticed toes peeping out from under the material, swept the curtain aside and dragged the terrified nobleman out from his hiding place. Claudius immediately dropped to the floor, clasped his captor’s knees and began gibbering for mercy. The soldier recognised his captive at once and shouted for his mates. They immediately acclaimed the slobbering creature as Emperor and rushed him down to the guard-room where more Praetorians were milling around, confused, angry and quite at a loss as to what to do next. The arrival of Claudius immediately galvanised them: they had a course of action that, if successful, would see their privileged positions preserved. Moreover, those who could be of service to a new Emperor would be well placed to receive advancement and preferment as the new regime bedded itself in.


            Claudius, terrified and bewildered, was placed in a litter and carried by the Praetorians to their barracks. No attempt was made to close the litter or keep the identity of the passenger secret, and many who saw him pass marked his look of despair and pitied him as an innocent man being borne to his execution[xiv]. Once in the barracks, however, Claudius was treated cordially. The danger of immediate murder seemed to have passed and he was able to relax somewhat and, probably, to confer with senior officers of the Guard. He could begin to do a bit of manipulating himself but as all was still confusion elsewhere, and he could be by no means sure of anything. The Consuls and the Senate, with the aid of the Urban Cohorts, had seized control of the Capitol and the main Forum Romanum, but little else and matters were starting to move in Claudius’ favour. The Senate itself was bitterly divided against itself. Recriminations, accusations and acrimony rent the air as various factions began to coalesce, but they were unable to reach any sort of agreement, let alone issue decrees. Increasingly they came to be aware of Claudius’ presence. The Tribunes of the People arrived at the Barracks and invited him to come to the Capitol to address the assembly and to “clarify the situation[xv] but he fobbed them off with the excuse that he was detained by forced and could not come.


            Meanwhile, word of Claudius’ situation was spreading rapidly throughout the City. Crowds began to gather outside the praetorian barracks  calling for a monarchy, and demanding that Claudius be proclaimed Emperor. While the senate dithered, the Praetorians decided. The realised at once that they were, first and foremost, the Emperor’s guard and without an Emperor there could be no guard. The continuation of the Principate was very much in their own interests; it was simply a matter of choosing the best candidate. The senior member of the Julio-Claudian house, a son of the great Drusus and a brother of Germanicus of revered memory[xvi], even if he was about as non-military as it was possible for a Roman aristocrat to get, was the only logical choice. The promise of a donative of 150 aurei per man clinched the decision. Claudius was acclaimed as Emperor by the Praetorian Guard. The Senate made a last feeble attempt to hold their own and demanded that Claudius submit to their will but it was too late. Deserted by the Urban Cohorts who rallied to the new Emperor this was no more than bluster. The wily Herod Agrippa, Claudius’ long-time friend and confidante, acted as an intermediary and diplomatically clarified the reality of the situation. In the face of this strength the resolve of the Senate crumbled and on 25th January 41 CE it recognised Claudius as Princeps, immediately bestowing on him all the titles, privileges and powers of his predecessors[xvii].


            This is not the place for a detailed examination of the reign of Claudius save to note that comment has long been on the reports of his detractors, both ancient and modern. Historians have long focussed on his drinking and gluttony, his capriciousness and his apparent domination by his wives and freedmen, but these are more features of the last period of his reign. By and large he did as well as any and better than most. His reign began well and he avoided the purges and proscriptions that he could have imposed. He made a real and successful effort to work with the Senate and the many antagonistic elements of his subjects, and his deep knowledge of history, together with his great admiration for Augustus and his achievements, gave him insights into the nature of Roman power that were denied his predecessors and most of his contemporaries. He was a conscientious ruler with a real talent for administration. The conspirators who murdered Caligula were punished as regicide, for whatever reasons and for whatever provocation, could not be tolerated, but he made no move to punish those who may have acted against him. Clearly there were effective and lasting reconcilations. Claudius worked closely with the Senate, although he introduced many reforms and innovations that gradually and irremediably circumscribed its authority. These changes seem to have been made out of a genuine desire for increased administrative efficiency, rather than any deliberate programme to reduce the power of the Senate[xviii].


His most significant achievement, one that would have huge repercussions in the centuries to come, was the creation of what amounted to Rome’s first true, professional Civil Service. Previous Emperors had, naturally enough, maintained huge households and had employed large numbers of trained staff, free and servile, to administer them. By the time of Claudius the imperial household had grown huge and the Empire as well had grown larger and much more complex to administer. Under the new regime more and more of the imperial administration was taken over by Claudius’ freedmen. Increasingly his personal staff assumed, in the interests of administrative efficiency, public responsibilities that hitherto had been the preserve of the Senate and the Knights. The household was divided into specialised areas equivalent to ministries, each of which was capably run by an imperial freedman. These people, talented, non-Italian ex-slaves, owed their positions and fortunes to personally to Caesar, not to the Senate and people of Rome. This was to cause much friction a little further down the time line, and would have unforeseen ramifications.


            Claudius, meanwhile, the least military of his illustrious family, threw himself into the running of his Empire, but the times and his unique position demanded that he involve himself in military matters directly. This involvement would lead to the most carefully planned military operation ever set up, and the establishment of the westernmost of all the provinces of the Empire.




03:01:02. The Reasoning.

It may have been something as simple as pride. Verica had not long been in Rome when Caratacos and Togodumnos sent a letter to the Senate demanding the extradition of certain malcontents back to Britain [xix]. The demand specified those who had fled to Gaius some time before, which is to say Adminios and his little band, but it may have included all political refugees of whom there now quite a number in Rome. The request was denied, naturally, but there was debate both in the Curia and, more importantly, in Claudius’ mind. The demand, however, is indicative of some arrangement between Cattuvellaunia and Rome. That diplomatic channels were followed in the first instance would strengthen the argument for a formal treaty relationship in that the brothers clearly assumed that the demand would be at least listened to and possibly complied with. Cattuvellaunia was unable to force compliance on Rome through military pressure, so she obviously expected compliance based on previous good relations, relations based on a long-standing agreement [xx].


Britain was no longer quite the mysterious land that it had been a century before. The questing ships and sharp eyes of Roman merchants and traders had penetrated far and wide into areas previously completely closed to Roman gaze. Roman commerce, both directly and through Gaulish middlemen, had wormed its way up the Thames, the Severn, the Trent and the Humber, and along the entire southern littoral from South Wales to East Yorkshire. Although not exactly spies as such, these men would have kept their eyes and ears open for any information that would enhance their understanding of the region and hence their chances of profit, and for any information that might reduce or damage those profits, for example anti-Roman behaviour. Without doubt this information would have been happily passed on to the authorities in Rome for a consideration, as information is as much a negotiable commodity as grain or slaves and in times of unrest can command a handsome premium from the appropriate market. Military intelligence would have had a large pool of sharp-eyed and well-informed travellers from whom they could glean all sorts of interesting facts and figures. Such gaps as may have appeared in the intelligence reports would have been amply filled and expanded upon from another source: the steadily increasing trickle of disaffected British aristocrats who sought asylum in Rome would have been only too happy to provide political commentary at length and in detail.


Britain would have been examined and Rome would have seen the island ripe for full annexation. The Cattuvellauni and the other Belgic peoples were themselves relative newcomers who had dominated earlier Brythonic peoples, and these latter would have had little affection for overlords who had usurped their lands, stolen their wealth and reduced them to peasantry: Celtic memories are long. Fear of the Cattuvellauni weighed heavily on the Iceni, still independent in Norfolk and parts of Cambridgeshire but sorely pressed. The Coritani to the north would also have been worried. The Trinovantes of Essex and Suffolk had been a subject people for a generation or more, and the Dobunni to the west were under pressure. The tribes of the south west were smarting with the shame of defeat. All could be counted on as potential allies, or, at the very least, neutrals. Rome could arrive on the shores of Canterbury as a liberator.


Feelings amongst the British were very mixed. The Cattuvellauni would have seen Rome as an enemy to be resisted at all costs. The Atrebates, Trinovantes and the Cantii would have seen her as a liberator to be hailed. The Iceni and Dobunni would have seen her as the provider of a welcome respite from the continual and debilitating wars that they were rapidly losing. Many minds would have considered conditions across the Channel, pondering the relative peace and order that had come with the imposition of the universal rule of Rome. No doubt the question in many minds and many areas would have been: would the devil we do not know be preferable to the devil we do? In Gaul loyal chieftains and retained their rights and their property, becoming increasingly Romanised and sophisticated. How much freedom much be sacrificed as the price of liberation from the Cattuvellauni? What price security? What of the long term, when Britain was under Roman rule? When once Rome had unleashed her legions, there would be no turning back.


Even at this point, when Rome was well aware of the weaknesses and strengths of her potential prey, no decision had been made to actually invade. Why should it have been? Despite the growing hegemony of the Cattuvellauni, Britain hardly presented a danger to the Empire. The Channel itself was a formidable barrier to military operations in either direction, and Gaul was both stable and loyal as the abortive attempt at rebellion, led by Julius Florus and Julius Sacrovir in 21 CE[xxi], had demonstrated. A British invasion of Gaul was inconceivable, and the cost of mounting such a major operation as the conquest of the island would have been staggering. Moreover, Rome had exercised a subtle absentee landlord control over much of southern Britain, the only really prosperous part, for nearly a century. The trade between Rome and Britain was brisk and lucrative, and had made many people wealthy. As Strabo rightly pointed out[xxii] enormous wealth was flowing out of Britain into Roman coffers, so why bother with the enormous cost of mounting an invasion and thereafter supporting a large garrison to police the place? The cost of the garrison would have been greater than the wealth obtained. Quite simply, the proposition of invasion made no economic sense.


Certainly the wealth of southern Britain would have given the Roman administration pause for thought. The firm rule of Cunobelinos had ensured great prosperity for his people. The tribes of the south were far wealthier materially than they had been in Caesar’s day, and the prospect of wealth was a primary motive for Roman aggression. While peace endured, however, and cordial relations were maintained, more revenue was gained from customs duties than tribute would bring in[xxiii]. In the Roman perception, this wealth was based primarily on a rich and well-organised agricultural productivity, and exploitation of mineral resources does not seem to have been a factor in the equation. Caesar, after all, had commented that whereas tin was found inland and iron on the coast, both were in small quantities and bronze was imported[xxiv] , although the Cornish tin deposits were the largest in Western Europe. The Continental provinces of the west of the Empire, particularly Iberia, were especially rich in minerals and there is no evidence to suggest that anyone regarded Britain as being exceptionally well provided in this respect[xxv]. The rich lead deposits seem to have been disregarded probably because they were as yet unknown: Iron Age technology had little use for lead and little seems to have been used in Britain, whereas Rome had two great uses for this material as a source of silver and for plumbing[xxvi]. The case for the acquisition of mineral wealth as a motive for invasion is negligible[xxvii].


But now anti-Roman elements had taken the reins of authority in the most powerful of the British realms, and their forces had swept away the pro-Roman states of the south coast. A nice political balance so carefully built by Augustus and so diligently maintained by Tiberius was in tatters. Nor is it hard to detect the guiding hand behind this sudden eruption of animosity and belligerence. Whilst the old king’s hand had held the sceptre and a political balancing act had been maintained, the Druidic Order could be kept in check by the sheer power of Cunobelinos’ authority and prestige. The new kings, young, ardent and ripe for war, could be prevailed upon. Rome and the Druids were as compatible as fire and water as the Druids represented the nearest thing that ever existed to a pan-Celtic identity: the faith over which the Druids held absolute control was the cement that held Celtic society together. Their influence was ubiquitous and supra-tribal. Rome was quite aware of this political power and had sought, successfully, to cripple that authority in Gaul by proscribing rituals, destroying sacred places and subsuming the popular faith into something analogous to Roman religious practice. The Druids were prepared to resist Rome by any means available.


The demolition of the Order in Gaul and the desecration of the sacred sites had sent shock waves throughout the free Celtic world. Sacred pools had been dragged for their vast collections of votive objects of gold and silver, an act punishable by death amongst the Celts of old. Sacred sites had been converted to Gallo-Roman worship and the sacrifice of humans was outlawed. The Romans had long held human sacrifice for augural purposes to be not only illegal but a heinous act to be extirpated at all costs. This attitude may well have been a hypocrisy of the same order as the casus belli variety in that it provided a good and convenient excuse to attack an otherwise peaceable neighbour: moral indignation at someone else’s supposed outrages is, and always has been, a common excuse to set the legions marching and many examples could be cited even within our own era.


But perhaps the worst of it was that the Romans did not really have any argument with the Druids themselves, only with the authority that they exercised. Druids continued to exist under Roman rule, serving their communities as priests, judges and healers. It may be that the more conservative members of the Order saw such people as tame dogs, creatures of Rome ready to lick the hand that beat them in return for a few morsels of their ancient privileges. Such sentiments would breed an even greater anger, and without doubt many of the Order would have fled to Britain in the wake of the Roman advance, there to stiffen the resistance and the determination of their brethren.


Yet despite the wealth of Britain, despite the new and ominous anti-Roman sentiment, despite the proliferation and concentration of hard-line Druids, the invasion of the islands was still only a possibility, and a relatively minor matter on a very busy imperial agenda. It was by no means inevitable at this point.


Then the British did something that, in retrospect, was either extremely stupid or extremely naive. Suetonius records that the British “were now threatening vengeance because the Senate refused to extradite certain deserters”[xxviii]. There are at least two interpretations of this statement. It may be that there were disturbances in Britain that threatened the lives and property of resident Roman citizens[xxix], but the more probable meaning is that British privateers began raiding and making disturbances on the coast of Gaul[xxx]. Such high-handed and aggressive action would sit well with the temper of the new potentates. They had been overwhelmingly successful in battle and now the power, and hence the pride, of the Cattuvellauni was at its zenith. The experience of Gaius may well have convinced the brothers that Rome had become confused and cowardly and could thus be assailed with impunity. It may be argued that the British lacked the resources to inflict what amounted to Viking raids on the coast of Gaul, but the fact is that we have no idea what ships they had. The probability is quite good that a substantial merchant marine was based in Britain and that a large pool of experienced men was available to man the boats. Not enough, perhaps, to mount a full-scale invasion of conquest, but more than enough to cause a lot of trouble. Despite the destruction of the Venetic fleet a hundred years before, trade with the Continent was by now far greater than it had ever been in the past, and it was by no means one way. There are bound to have been a large number of British vessels waiting in British ports, vessels that could easily have been commandeered by Caratacos and Togodumnos. The number of ships and men need not have been very large at all. Indeed, half a dozen ships full of armed men instead of merchandise would represent a very unpleasant afternoon’s activity for an unsuspecting and undefended Gaulish coastal town.


The appearance of British privateers would have been cause for considerable administrative alarm. The lucrative Channel trade (foreign imports and exports attracted customs duties of about 25%) was being threatened by the actions and policies of these independently minded British kinglets.


There is a strong suspicion that, if this scenario is correct, all the furore may have been deliberately provoked by Rome. A casus belli was needed, and the rejection of the Cattuvellaunian demands may well have been calculated to provoke retaliation from the British. Roman merchants and entrepreneurs tended to gravitate to the frontiers of the Empire, where political constraints were weak or non-existent and profits were highest. It is precisely under these conditions, on or beyond the frontier and where the rule of law is minimal, that abuses are likely and clashes between Roman and foreigner would occur. Thus the state was drawn in to intervene to protect the interests of its citizens and their property, leading to military occupation and ultimately to annexation. Rome was cynically aware of this situation and was well prepared to take full advantage of it.


Roman dignity had been impugned by the arrogant demands of a barbarian chief. Roman profits and Roman citizens were under threat of armed violence. Rome and her Emperor could not simply sit on their hands and allow such a situation to continue. A relatively simple bickering thus escalated into a politico-military problem that could, potentially, have far reaching effects on the delicate balance of Imperial power.




03:01:03. The Decision.

Augustan policy was based on a nice balancing of the power of the main military commands along the periphery of the Empire. The various military formations and their commanders were spread along the Rhine and the Danube, in Asia, Syria, North Africa and elsewhere in a way in which each was a potential rival of all the others. Augustus knew only too well, none better in fact, the power of the army, and the ambitions of the commanders of the various army groups had to be kept very carefully in check. The creation of a British province would mean the creation of a further powerful army group under a new command which would, in turn, create yet another potential rival. Further, Augustus had decreed that the Empire should remain within the boundaries that he had set, and his policies were as studiously followed by his Julio-Claudian successors as the careful handling of a cherished family heirloom. The incursions of the rumbustuous British were no more than pirate raids, pin-pricks really and no more than an annoyance at the time. But they might well grow in size and number if encouraged with undue success, and they presented the point of a potentially much broader problem that could conceivably escalate into a major upheaval.


If Britain was to be left to its increasingly strident and anti-Roman devices, it was clear that a new frontier along the Atlantic coast would have to be created and manned. This would require a more or less permanent garrison of several legions and a substantial naval force, which would upset the careful balance of military power along the other frontiers as legions would have to be redeployed or new legions raised. More, the cost of those legions would have to be borne by a province and an Empire that was no larger and no more productive than before. Something would have to be done, of course, as raiding by barbarians from beyond the borders could not be tolerated. The offenders would have to be slapped down good and hard as anything else would present a dangerous precedent for other extraliminal nuisances. But what to do?


On the other hand, it could be argued that Britain was not really outside the Empire. Caesar had invaded, after all, had seen and conquered. He had imposed Roman authority on the natives and had exacted a tribute that had been paid, in one form or another, ever since. Later generations of native princes had been recognised as reges socii and had paid homage to various Augusti in their turn. Roman sentiment looked upon Britain as a de facto province. Caesar had conquered it for Rome, and the fact that it had not been formally annexed and integrated into the Empire was merely a temporary lapse due to the pressures of business elsewhere. A Claudian invasion would not be an invasion as such, but the reordering of a province that had temporarily slipped away, the tidying up of a piece of unfinished business so to speak. An invasion of Britain would not cut across Augustus’ policies.


As for the legions to guard the Atlantic coast, there were, in fact, two spare formations in Germany. Gaius had raised XV Primigenia and XXII Primigenia for his German war nearly three years before and they were still active. This caused a dangerous imbalance in the Army of the Rhine, so they would have to be moved somewhere. Even if they were moved to Gaul, however, that province would still have to pay the cost of their upkeep. Nor would two legions, even at full strength and with auxiliaries, have been sufficient for the task of guarding the coast. It has been estimated [Wacher 1978: p27] that as many as 85,000 men – eight to ten legions at full strength – would have been needed to adequately patrol the Atlantic littoral, a clearly insupportable number.


However, if Britain was invaded and occupied, this would present a very neat solution to all three problems. The British would be suitably punished and further raiding prevented by a garrison which would be paid with the revenues from the new territories that it had conquered. The extra military power thus created would, moreover, be quite literally isolated and unable to intervene in political action on the Continent save by suborning a fleet subject to a separate command [Morris 1982: p41]. This solution would leave the Continent very much as before and the threefold problem – political, military and fiscal – would be tidily addressed at one stroke.


The matter was by no means this simple, of course. No such major politico-military initiative derives from such simple and direct causes, and much may be made of the intangible and propaganda elements of this extremely complex equation. For all the information that had accrued over the previous hundred years, and despite that many Romans now had had direct and sometimes extensive experience of the southern regions of the main island, Britain still remained a mysterious land. It was unique in the eyes of the Mediterranean world: a vast, largely unexplored island on the edge of Ocean, peopled by strange and savage tribes of unknown numbers and unguessable powers. It was a misty, densely forested land at the extreme edge of the world, the dark and turbulent waters surrounding it inhabited by fabulous monsters and dreadful supernatural perils. It was a land at once fascinating and fearsome.


Britain, too, was the heartland of the mysterious and blood-thirsty Druids. The peoples of Gaul could never be said to have been truly conquered until their native spiritual inspiration had been tamed and broken to submissiveness. The demolition of the authority of the Druids and of their fastnesses and sacred places would forge the last link in the chain of the subjugation of both lands.


Then there were the Emperor’s own personal motives, which may well be the most significant factors in the equation.


Claudius had had a minor campaign in Germany, for which the Senate voted him triumphal regalia, but he had decided that such an artificial honour was no honour at all, and that a real triumph was necessary [Suetonius: Claudius 17]. Britain seemed to be the place to conduct a real campaign and thus win real triumphal honours. The pride of the Julio-Claudians was extreme and well known, but perhaps Claudius can be excused an exercise in vanity. An uxorious man dominated by a succession of Machiavellian and unscrupulous wives (Plautia Urgulanilla, Aelia Paetina, Messalina and finally the strong-minded and ambitious Agrippina the Younger) and, reputedly, by the many freedmen that he had placed in the highest positions of the Imperial administration and upon whom he relied implicitly, perhaps he felt that an exercise in manly adventure would enhance his authority. Certainly the conservatives of the Senate would have thought so, welcoming a revival of the military glory that had been denied them since the time of Augustus. The cautious foreign policy of Tiberius and peculiar antics of Gaius had meant that a whole generation of Romans had grown to middle age without a single genuine triumph being celebrated in the City. Morale was flagging and a really decent bit of gung-ho militarism would bolster the authority and dignity of the Emperor and provide a marvellous spectacle to divert public attention from political problems at home. Then, as now, nothing really pulls the people together, rallies public support for politicians, ignites patriotic fervour, and allows awkward questions to be swept under the political mat, like a jolly good jingoistic war. The prospect of an easy (but not too easy) triumph over important enemies promised to strengthen the Emperor and add the conventional dignity of a successful soldier to the novel and untried ingenuity of a scholarly ruler [Morris 1982: p52].


Accession to the purple had come quite late in life and completely unexpectedly to Claudius when the Praetorians dragged him from the cupboard where he was hiding after the death of Gaius. He may be forgiven for what was in many ways an exercise in personal vanity, an attempt to live up to the epoch-making exploits of his ancestors and to add his touch of glory to their proud names. A desire to expunge the futile and probably rather embarrassing episode of Gaius’ peculiar adventure on the Atlantic coast a few years previously may also be an element to consider.


The matter of Verica was a most convenient casus belli, but it was much more than a simple, expedient legalism to give a semblance of righteousness to Roman hypocrisy. That Verica enjoyed treaty recognition as rex cannot really be in doubt, and by virtue of his status there was a reciprocal agreement pivotal to Roman foreign policy. The status of the rex socius is unclear, and there was no set pattern to the many arrangements of this nature that were made. As with so much of Roman policy, it was very much of an ad hoc nature and varied from individual to individual, but there certainly were common factors. The client king was obliged to promote Rome’s interests amongst his people and his neighbours, he could not ally himself with enemies of Rome, and he was obliged to defend Roman territory that abutted to his own. Verica was but one of many such native potentates on the fringes of the Empire, and it was upon such people that Rome depended in considerable part for her peripheral defences. The Augustan policy of keeping the military establishment to twenty-eight legions scattered along the perimeter meant that economies of manpower had to be made. The standing army numbered perhaps a quarter of a million men, a large number to be sure, but very few to defend some sixteen thousand kilometres of border. Compared to medieval and modern armies, it was small indeed, far too small to police such a huge area unaided.


The shortfall was made up by the judicious use of reges socii and allied kings in remote regions who would act as buffer states. But if these people had an obligation to defend Roman interests, they would have considered Rome had an obligation to defend them in their turn. This was certainly not true, of course, but Claudius was a man of principle and could well have thought it a duty to help this man Verica, even though the by now elderly monarch, when assailed by Cunobelinos, had quite clearly been spurned in his hour of need by Tiberius. If Claudius simply allowed the Cunobelinii to oust Verica, every client king would have started to look closely at his own obligations. If Rome refused to honour her agreement with one, could she be expected to honour her agreement with anyone? It had been no great problem before when Tiberius had refused to aid Verica because that had been an internal British affair and could be overlooked. The situation had now changed and things were becoming perhaps rather embarrassingly public. Rome’s first priority was to Rome, and she would not have thought twice about throwing a client king to the wolves if it suited her purposes and interests, but in this case the Empire could afford to put on a very public display of its integrity and prove to one and all what a benign and powerful master it was.


It may be that this was a crucial factor, and it may be that at this point the invasion of Britain became inevitable.


Rome did not jump immediately. This was but one of many of the problems of Empire, and by no means the most important. Nevertheless it have to be addressed. Wheels were set in motion and the first of two phases begun. The seaborne invasion of a distant land presented unprecedented logistical problems that would have to be sorted out. But first a covert campaign of psychological warfare began: the victim had to be fully ripe for the plucking, and the Romans knew only too well that the battle for men’s minds is as important in conquest as the actual clash of armies. Agents in Britain were contacted and key individuals received visits. Adminios, Cogidubnus and Verica (if the latter still lived), as well as any other British noblemen as may have been in refuge at Rome, were consulted and agreements made. Possibly intelligence was exchanged between the embattled Iceni and Dobunni. Time and again Rome had seen the barbaric northerners form coalitions only to have them fall apart in bloodshed and acrimony. Time and again Rome had been able to conquer piecemeal peoples who, had they been able to unite, would have been invincible. Political wedges long stockpiled against just such a contingency were hammered home, favours called in, pledges insisted upon, honours and privileges promised, gifts distributed. The potential target had to be as divided as possible, as factious and argumentative as only the Celts could be.


The prime targets of this programme of divide et impera were, of course, Caratacos and Togodumnos. That no rift was able to be driven between these two speaks not so much against the persuasiveness and tenacity of the agents of Rome as for the integrity and courage of these two brave men. The Romans tried, it may be suspected: Caratacos may have hinted at such an offer in his speech before Claudius in Rome after his capture [Tacitus: Annals xii:37]. Fortunately, some men are above corruption.


The softening up process having begun, the military build-up also had to be organised, a process of many months of painstaking work. But Claudius was a scholar, an expert on Etruscan history and a philologist of note, not a military man. He decided to hedge his bets and leave the actual mechanics of invasion to those who had military experience, and Claudius was fortunate in that he commanded some of the best soldiers the Empire ever produced. An army group was ordered to assemble. The Emperor bestowed upon Aulus Plautius the imperium to proceed with the invasion of Britannia with orders to summon the Augustus himself when victory was assured to administer the coup de grace.


[i] Suetonius, Claudius 1.

[ii] Suetonius, Claudius 2.

[iii] Suetonius, Claudius 30.

[iv] Suetonius, Claudius 30.

[v] Suetonius, Claudius 41.

[vi] Suetonius, Claudius 4.

[vii] Suetonius, Claudius 4.

[viii] Suetonius, Claudius 5.

[ix]  Suetonius, Claudius 26.

[x] Suetonius, Claudius 27.

[xi] Suetonius, Caligula 58.

[xii] Suetonius, Caligula 60.

[xiii] Suetonius, Claudius 10.

[xiv] Suetonius, Claudius 10.

[xv] Suetonius, Claudius 10.

[xvi] Scullard 1992, p288.

[xvii] Scullard 1992, p288.

[xviii] Scullard 1992, p281.

[xix] Suetonius: Claudius 17.

[xx] Black 1987 p7.

[xxi] Tacitus: Annals iii: 40-42.

[xxii] Strabo: iv:5,3.

[xxiii] Strabo: iv: 5,8.

[xxiv] Caesar: Gallic Wars v:12.

[xxv] Manning 1979: p113.

[xxvi] Manning 1979: p113.

[xxvii] Manning 1979 p113 and see also Pliny, Natural History 34:17:164.

[xxviii] Suetonius: Claudius 17.

[xxix] Frere 1967: p53.

[xxx] Richmond 1955: p18.


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