03:02. The Storm Breaks.

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.

Cheers,

Stephen Symons.

Britannia Capta Part 3. 

Chapter 03.02.

The Storm Breaks. 

03:02:01. The Conqueror of Britain.

Aulus Plautius, the governor of Pannonia and one of Rome’s most respected generals, departed his post at the command of his Emperor and, together with his own IX Legio, headed for the remotest west. At Gessoriacum on the shores of the Mare Britannicum he halted and there oversaw the assembly of a huge expeditionary force preparatory to the invasion of the great island known as Britannia. Not for him a mere exploratory expedition, a glorified pirate raid. The legacy of Julius Caesar was about to be reclaimed. His mission was no less than the conquest of the independent states native to the island and the construction of a new Imperial Province beyond the sea, a Province of which he would be the first governor. Plautius was one of the most senior senators of his day, having held the consulship under Tiberius in 29 CE. He had family connections with Claudius himself by virtue of the Emperor’s first wife, Plautia Urgulanilla.

 

But who was this man, this would-be conqueror of Britannia? Let us allow the legions to muster in their own time for a moment and look at this man Aulus Plautius, a man who would alter the course of the history of Europe.

 

Aulus Plautius, contrary to current Roman usage, had no known cognomen, following the ancient tradition favoured by a small and decreasing number who used the dua nomina only. He was the son of Aulus Plautius and Vitellia and was born in about 10 BCE. The family appears to have derived from the town of Trebula Suffinas in Sabine territory, and began their rise to power during the late republic. The gens Plautii was ancient indeed, plebian nobiles of that name having held high office in the fourth century BCE. C Plautius Venox had been censor with Appius Claudius Caecus in 312 BCE, but there is no known connection been the latter and our man, and it is doubtful if Aulus Plautius claimed descent from this exalted line [Birley 1981: ii:1]. It was not until the principate that this family of Plautii began their advance to the highest echelons of power and as usual it was due as much, it seems, to influence as to talent.

 

During the last decade of the last century BCE and the first decade of the new millennium, several leading families moved into closer contact by virtue of shared background and mutual interests, and a common loyalty to Antonia Minor and her sons Claudius and Germanicus. This grouping did not constitute a political party by any stretch of the imagination [Nicol 1978: p17], but it did form a very powerful alliance amongst a small group of families that became increasingly interrelated over the next fifty years or so. They may be described as the Vitellian group [Ibid p20] and were composed of the Petronii, Plautii, Vitellii, and, to a lesser extent, the Pomponii.

 

Sponsored by Germanicus and favoured by Tiberius, members of this group gained appointment to the ultimate office of consul many times, the true index of the power and influence of a Roman aristocratic clan. Between 16 and 19 four members of the group, Pomponius Graecinus, Pomponius Flaccus, Publius Petronius and Vibius Marsus (a connection of the Plautii Silvani), attained the consulship [Nicol 1978: p16]. Between the years 19 and 31 only two, C. Petronius and our man Aulus Plautius, held the fasces, possibly as a result of a refusal to side with the sinister Lucius Aelius Sejanus [Nicol 1978: p16]. The death of Sejanus may have seen something of a restoration to favour, but for some reason the group kept a fairly low profile during the reign of Gaius Caligula. The accession of Claudius to the purple saw the group reach the zenith of its power, with no less than seven consulships between them from 41 to 48. Their influence grew, and with it the complexity of their family ties.

 

Marcus Plautius Silvanus, first cousin of Aulus Plautius’ father, had been consul ordinarius under Augustus in 2 BCE. The mother of Silvanus was Urgulania, a very close friend of the almost omnipotent Livia Drusilla, second wife of Augustus. So close a friend was she indeed, that she considered herself to be “above the law” [Tacitus: Annals ii:34] to the extent that she would arrogantly ride rough-shod over the ordinances and regulations. Her influence at court was formidable and it is doubtless though her machinations that the Plautii began their advance. Marital links with the Claudii over several generations helped their cause all the more. The full extent of the linkages is, of course, lost in time, but the little that can be reconstructed is enlightening.

 

The daughter of Plautius Silvanus and Urgulania was Plautia Urgulanilla, who was the first wife of Claudius and to whom she bore two children, Drusus and Claudia. Claudius divorced her on charges of adultery and suspected murder [Suetonius: Claudius: 26], the former with the freedman Botra who was considered to be the natural father of Claudia. So convinced of the infant’s true parentage was Claudius that when she was born some months after the divorce, he refused to recognise her and sent her back to her mother. Urgulanilla’s brother Marcus murdered his second wife Apronia and pleaded insanity. His first wife, the aristocratic Fabia Numantina, was charged with driving him mad but was acquitted [Birley 1981: ii:1]. This little family kerfuffle does not seem to have harmed the relationship between the Plautii and Claudii, and it is suspected that Claudius was rather relieved to be rid of the burden of his first wife, whom he had disliked. Aulus’ sister Plautia married Publius Petronius, who was consul in 19 CE, and their daughter later married a son of Lucius Vitellius, who was consul when Claudius visited his new province of Britannia. Both Petronius and Vitellius were close friends of Claudius. The web of alliances thus created was strong enough to shrug off the occasional murder or maniac. Even Urgulanilla’s attempt to foist off a love-child (if indeed that was what little Claudia was) on Claudius did not seem to impair an otherwise cordial and pragmatic relationship.

 

Plautius’ wife was Pomponia Graecina, the daughter of Gaius Pomponius Greacinus, suffect consul of 16 CE, and the niece of that Lucius Pomponius Flaccus who was ordinarius the following year. She was also a close personal friend of Tiberius’ grand-daughter Julia Livilla. The youngest daughter of Germanicus, Julia was one of the great beauties of her day and married Marcus Vinicius in 33. The two women, Livilla and Graecina, may even have been distantly related [Birley 1981: ii:1: note 13] as Julia’s grandmother Vipsania (the first wife of Tiberius) was herself the grand-daughter of Graecina’s ancestor Titus Pomponius Atticus. Although remote by the standards of modern society, such ties were highly valued by Roman families and would have formed a bond that, in turn, could have been used for advancement. Like so many aristocratic Roman marriages, the union of Plautius and Graecina was more of a political alliance than a love-match.

 

A certain Quintus Plautius was consul in 36 CE [Tacitus: Annals vi:38], and it is assumed that this man was the brother of Aulus [Birley 1981: ii:1], but this is not known for certain. Aulus Plautius himself was consul suffectus in the latter half of 29 CE, but his career prior to this is conjectural. Presumably he held military posts, perhaps in 6 – 9 CE in Illyricum under Tiberius, and perhaps under Tiberius and/or Germanicus in Germany in 10 – 16 CE [Ibid: ii:1], and he may have been praetor in 24 CE when he is known to have put down a slave revolt in Apulia [Ibid: 11:1]. He was consular governor of Pannonia from 39, succeeding the unfortunate Gaius Calvisius Sabinus who was forced to commit suicide in that year, and during his term of office he supervised the building of a road from Trieste to Rijeka [Ibid: 11:i: note 19]. His wide experience, undoubted administrative ability, his position high in the web of imperial patronage, and his family links with such influential gentes as the Claudii, Petronii and Vitelii, conspired to make him the logical choice for the position of Commander-in-Chief of the expeditionary force to Britain.

 

His service in Britain was workmanlike rather than brilliant, but he was able to fulfill the task laid out for him quickly and competently, and he was well rewarded for his efforts, as shall be seen below. His honours included an ovatio, a remarkable distinction for that era and the last known outside the Imperial family. Plautius’ prestige thereafter was immense. The respect in which he was held by Claudius and even by Nero was very great, and two known anecdotes are instructive. His nephew, Plautius Laternus, had been a lover of Claudius’ wife Messalina. When the vengeful Emperor, hastening from Ostia at the news of her bigamous marriage in Rome to Gaius Silius, ordered the executions of a whole platoon of Messalina’s lovers and fellow debauchees, Laternus escaped the ultimate penalty thanks to the reputation of his uncle [Tacitus: Annals xi:36].

 

The execution of Messalina in 48 seems to have caused something of a crisis for the Vitellian group, various parties backing different protagonists in the ensuing dynastic struggle. The question was: who would succeed Messalina as wife of the Augustus? Some, such as Narcissus, favoured a return to favour of Claudius’ former wife Aelia Paetina even though she was tainted by association with her brother Lucius Aelius Sejanus. Others, including Pallas and Lucius Vitellius, favoured Agrippina. It was the latter who finally won the battle to become Claudius’ fourth and final wife, with unpleasant consequences for the supporters of the other contenders [Tacitus: Annals: xiii:1].

 

There is no record of any Plautian involvement in the Messalina affair, but it would have been impossible for them to have stood aloof and it seems likely that they may have favoured Aelia Paetina. Certainly, neither branch of the Plautii enjoyed the prestige under the reign of Nero that they had under Claudius [Nicol 1978: p21], and attacks on the family were not long in coming after the death of the latter.

 

In 57 CE Plautius’ wife Graecina was accused of following “a foreign superstition” [Tacitus: Annals: xiii:32] which could perhaps have been Christianity although its nature is unspecified (the theory, once mooted, that she was an adherent of Druidism, is not worth the effort of examination). Plautius was allowed to try her himself, and he duly acquitted her without any known subsequent acrimony. The matter was a relatively trivial one, more of a nuisance than a real menace, but while it was an ominous sign of the times it was also a signal recognition of Plautius’ fides and dignitas.

 

This is the last known reference in literature or epigraphy to Aulus Plautius, and it is assumed that he was dead by 65 [Birley 1981: ii:1] when his nephew Plautius Laternus was executed for his (Laternus’) part in the conspiracy of Piso. (Laternus’ residence, later known as the Lateran Palace, lasted for a very long time and was eventually put to other uses). Graecina lived, for the times, to a ripe old age. Her dear friend and kinswoman Julia Livilla was murdered on the orders of Messalina in 43, and Graecina thereupon “wore mourning and grieved unceasingly for forty years” [Tacitus: Annals xiii:32], ie, until 83 CE.

 

Nero attempted to seduce a certain “young Aulus Plautius” [Suetonius: Nero 35] in about 57. He was apparently unsuccessful, as he had the young man executed immediately afterwards, explaining that his mother Agrippina had been in love with the youth and was attempting to induce him to make a bid for the purple. Whether or not anyone seriously believed him is hard to say, but it is assumed [Birley 1981: ii:1] that this A Plautius was a member of another branch of the Plautii, as, surely, if he had been the son or near relation of the Conqueror of Britain old Plautius himself would have become embroiled in all sorts of unpleasantness. He was possibly [Nicol 1978: p21] the son of Plautius Pulcher of the Plautii Silvani (a brother of Claudius’ first wife Plautia Urgulanilla), and Vibia, which was getting fairly distant but still a little too close for comfort and a sure sign that the Plautii were no longer on the list of imperial favourites.

 

It is not known that Aulus and Graecina had any offspring, and there is no record of the immediate family continuing. The name itself continued for some generations in the line of the Plautii Silvani Aeliani, and maintained excellent connections: the last trace of the name is the son-in-law of Antoninus Pius, Plautius Lamia Silvanus [Birley 1981: ii:1: note 34], and the bloodline continued even further into the most exalted of circles. By way of Plautia, the aunt of Lamia Silvanus, the heritage flowed on and the blood of Aulus Plautius mingled with a large proportion of the Antonine dynasty of Emperors.

 

 

 

03:2:02. The Gathering of Eagles.

It was April of the year 43 CE. The eagles were gathering on the shores of the Mare Britannicum.

 

Plautius’ forces consisted of four regular legions and a large but unspecified number of auxiliaries, including substantial formations of Gaulish and Thracian cavalry. Exactly how many men Plautius had at his command is conjectural, but 40,000 to 50,000 would be a reasonable guess. Besides Aulus Plautius’ own IX Legio Hispana, which had accompanied him from Pannonia, Claudius summoned from their stations on the Rhine II Augusta from Argentoratum (Strasbourg) under its commander Titus Flavius Vespasianus, XIV Gemina from Mogontiacum (Mainz) and XX Legio (the Twentieth Legion was unusual in that at that point in time it had not yet acquired any cognomina [McPake 1981: p293ff]) from Novaesium (Neuss). By withdrawing these formations from the Rhine command, Claudius may well have been killing two birds with one stone: he was both mustering an army group from positions relatively close at hand and he may also have been breaking up a potential breeding ground for insurrection. The Rhine was over-garrisoned and fairly peaceful, a recipe for disaster in the Augustan book of policy.

 

VIII Legio, also transferred from Pannonia, was brought up but held in reserve. In good time it, or units of it at least, would accompany Caesar when he arrived to consummate his victory over Britain. The identities of the auxiliary units are open to question, but certainly there were Batavi, perhaps as many as eight cohorts. Caesar’s experience with British chariots had been carefully considered, and a strong mounted contingent had been mustered amongst whom was numbered Ala I Thracum and that Ala Indiana that had been raised by Julius Indus in circa 21 CE amongst the Tongri. So important did the High Command consider the cavalry to be that a special office, that of praefectus equitatus, a general officer of cavalry, was created to assume overall command of the mounted units. This command was given to another very able man, one Aulus Didius Gallus, who, ten years later, would become the third Roman governor of Britannia.

 

But perhaps the most important man in the expedition, with the exception of Plautius himself, was Gnaeus Sentius Saturninus. Quite what position he held is unknown, but later records would appear to bracket his name with that of Plautius as the conquerors of Britannia. Indeed, Eutropius’ note puts Saturninus first [Eutropius vii:13:3]. He may have been co-commander with Plautius, a rather strange situation to modern thinking but one which the collegiate nature of Roman politics could well allow, or he may have been his second-in-command. It is also possible that he was plenipotentiary in the restoration of Verica [Frere 1987: p52]. Whatever his position, he was certainly in the top echelon of command. Also amongst Plautius’ staff were Gnaeus Hosidius Geta, Titus Plautius Silvanus Aelianus, T. Flavius Sabinus the elder brother of Vespasianus, and Marcus Licinius Crassus Frugi, all experienced and capable men, although exactly what positions they held is lost. Titus Plautius, being a relation of the Commander-in-Chief, was almost certainly on the general staff as a military tribune. Flavius Sabinus was almost certainly a legionary commander (he could hardly have been outranked by his younger brother Flavius Vespasianus), as was probably Geta and possibly Frugi.

 

All these people did not, naturally, arrive all at the same time but gathered gradually over a period of days and weeks. Simply housing such an enormous number of people was a major headache in itself: a vast encampment would have had to have been built to accommodate the expeditionary force prior to embarkation, which would have taken time. Housed they were, however, and fed and watered. The legions arrived and set up camp, detachments of auxiliaries arriving day after day to swell the numbers.

 

The problem was not, perhaps, quite as horrific as it might seem at first sight. Much of the basic planning for this vast operation had been completed several years before for Gaius’ abortive expedition. Indeed, the Claudian expedition was really the Gaian one, logistically speaking. There had been a long delay, plans had been shelved, men had been redeployed. But the basic framework was still in place. It was simply a matter of redeploying the men and replenishing the stores. The camps were already laid out and in need of little more than refreshing, the basic paperwork intact and adaptable to this latest venture. Quite possibly many of the non-perishable stores were still on site.

 

Despite this helpful start, the logistics of this enormous enterprise were, naturally enough, quite horrendous. Being early spring, the expedition could not budget to live off the land of the newly conquered territory as the harvest would not yet be ripe and, moreover, last year’s stores would be getting low. Virtually everything would have had to have been taken with them, and the shopping list was formidable: examples speak for themselves. The legionary diet included bacon-fat and cheese, together with such meat, vegetables and other edibles could be acquired, but the staple was corn, of which the basic allowance was about 330 kg per year [Wacher 1978: p173], near enough a kilo a day. Thus, between 48 and 50 tonnes of corn was needed every day to feed the fifty-something thousand men, not to speak of the thousands of litres of wine needed to wash it down. Legionaries on campaign camped in cumbersome leather tents, eight men to a unit, and it has been estimated [Ibid: p174] that each tent required some fifty calf-hide panels, one calf yielding two panels. The expeditionary force, therefore, needed at least 6250 tents, which in turn would have required the hides of 156,150 calves! The thousands of mules needed to transport the baggage and supplies would also have to be fed, as would also the tens of thousands of cavalry horses, and working mounts need hard tack. Simple forage is not enough. They need a diet rich in carbohydrates: oats and rye as well as chaff. All this would have to be collected from Gaul and then transported across the Channel. Fortunately for the planners there was one bright spot: much of the fleet that Gaius had assembled for his strange expedition was still available. The Classis Britannica was already in port.

 

And then there was the baggage and all the paraphernalia and gear of war needed by an army in the field: siege equipment and artillery, builders’ supplies for erecting camps and depots and repairing ships, the tools and materials for the hundred and one varieties of tradesmen and specialists who marched with the legions. The list of such people was huge: surveyors, medical orderlies and dressers, ditchers, farriers, architects, pilots, shipwrights, artillerymen, glass fitters, smiths, fletchers, coppersmiths, helmet-makers, wainwrights, tile-makers, sword cutlers, plumbers, blacksmiths, stonecutters, lime burners, woodcutters, charcoal burners, butchers, huntsmen, keepers of sacrificial animals, clerks who could give instruction, granary clerks, clerks responsible for monies left without heirs, clerks responsible for monies left on deposit, orderlies, grooms, horse trainers, heralds and trumpeters [Watson 1969: p76] to name but a few. Then there was the personal baggage of tens of thousands of men. The whole business was a quartermaster’s nightmare and quite possibly threatened to scuttle the expedition before it was even launched.

 

The logistical problem was one that could be solved with hard work and application of the Roman genius for organisation. It was time consuming rather that difficult, and Claudius had chosen his staff with great care: some of the finest military minds of the time were looking after the shop. But there was another problem of a very different and potentially very dangerous nature that would soon beset Plautius, a problem the threat of which was an ever-present fear in the mind of the Roman military commander: mutiny.

 

Three of the legions had been on the Rhine for many years. Although legionaries were not allowed matrimonium – legal marriage – they would none the less have formed less formal relationships with local women and during peacetime would have lived more or less normal lives. Such liaisons were winked at as nobody expected the troops to be celibate. Children would have been born, families raised. Now the legions were on the march again, perhaps never to return. Families were broken up, with all the accompanying heartache of such disruption. No doubt many of the men were quite relieved to be free of the constraints of domesticity, but a large number would have been deeply distressed. They would have been unenthusiastic about a change of posting of any sort, let alone an invasion of the very ends of the Earth. A good proportion of the men, especially old hands who were starting to look forward to retirement in familiar surroundings amongst a network of friends and contacts built up over a period of years would have been disaffected even before they began to march.

 

To make matters worse, rumours, planted, quite probably, by British agents, that the Roman army was about to be ordered to sail over the end of Ocean and thus fall into the bottomless abyss, began to spread. Britain lay at the very end of the known world beyond which, popular superstition would have it, lurked perils unimaginable. This is the report of Cassius Dio, and it is likely that British agents played on the fears of the ignorant and superstitious peasants who made up the ranks. Although geographical knowledge was very limited, such a tale may not have frightened quite everyone as Britain was not the remote and mysterious land that it had been in Caesar’s day and was familiar to quite a few. The island was in plain view of a Roman province and had been for four generations. Roman traders had explored the coasts and inland waterways of the south east for at least that long, and a lively and regular cross-channel trade had been pursued for a century. There had been much coming and going between the Continent and Britain for a long time, and some measure of familiarity, at least with increasingly Romanised southern Britain, had blunted much of the fear of the unknown.

 

Despite the familiarity of some, Britain was still a place of terror, in the common mind the home of the dead and a land somewhat removed from this world. This belief was deep-seated and persisted long after Rome departed the shores of Britain. Procopius reports that, even in the fifth century, the “island of Brittia (sic)” [Procopius: De Bello Gothico viii:20:47] was a place of strange rumour. It was said, even then, “that the souls of men who die are always conveyed to this place” [Ibid: viii:20:48]. Fishermen and sailors who lived on the coast of the North Sea were said to carry the souls of the dead from Europe to Britain in their boats. They could not see the souls of the dead, but even though their skiffs were heavily laden they rowed from Frisia to Britain in an hour, “and yet when they make this voyage (without the souls of the dead), not using sails but rowing, they with difficulty make this passage in a night and a day” [Ibid: viii:20:55]. So ancient and deeply rooted was this belief, and so widely spread that, although under the political control of the Franks, they were not required to pay tribute “that burden having been remitted to them from ancient times on account (of their carriage of the souls of the dead)” [Ibid: viii:20:49]. It is possible that the name of the island of Thanet is connected with that of the Greek chthonic deity Tanatos, a connection that may go back as far as Pytheas of Massilia. Thus deeply was embedded the belief in the other-worldliness of Britain. 

 

Superstition dies hard, and there were many other stories to stir the back hairs of a young legionary facing the British Channel. The Druids were held in horrified awe by the Romans and gruesome stories of their treatment of captives abounded. Magicians of great power and priests of horrid cults, they mutilated and tortured those taken in war, ripping them open to examine the quivering, still living entrails as they sought to divine the future. Several writers [Caesar DBG: vi:16. Strabo (after Posidonius) vi:5] had graphically documented the dreadful “wicker men”, the great wooden cages constructed in the likeness of a man that were filled with hapless victims, human and animal, and set ablaze. There is good reason to suppose that these and other horror stories were gross exaggerations put about by Roman propagandists to justify the destruction of the Druids, but that is neither here nor there. The fact is that the tales were based on something approaching real life and they were believed. Fact or fiction, they provided first class grist for the mills of the rumour-mongers.

 

Again, the British warriors were reputed to drink the blood and eat the roasted flesh of their enemies, a tale that could well have some basis in fact as there is some reason to believe that ritual cannibalism was practiced by the warrior caste of pre-Roman Britain. And then there was the cult of the head, pivotal to Celtic spirituality, which required warriors to collect the severed heads of their enemies. The Celtic penchant for head hunting was a habit that even the Romans, no bleeding heart liberals themselves, found rather too robust for their taste.

 

Men harked back to the lessons of Germania. In 9 CE three whole legions under Quinctilius Varus had been cut to ribbons by the German Cherusci under Arminius. Gaius’ otherwise pedestrian campaign into Germania a few years before 43 CE had turned up a few survivors of that debacle, and tales of the horrific treatment of Roman captives, of massive and gruesome sacrifice, had spread like wildfire throughout the Empire. No matter that the Germans and British were different peoples with very different religious practices. The legionaries were not students of anthropology or comparative religion. British, German, Gauls, all were much the same in the popular mind. All were barbari, uncouth barbarians, towering blond savages slavering for blood. The terrible disaster of 16 CE, when Germanicus had made his ill fated attempt to transport his army back from Germany to Gaul by sea, was also remembered. In that disaster the suffering and loss of life had been appalling, not to mention the loss of ships and gear of war. Rome had good reason to treat with respect the wrath of the mighty western ocean.

 

All these tales, and more, were circulated through the legions. No doubt nothing was lost in the telling. Horror stories never lack for an audience and gain embellishments at each repeating. The British agents would have kept the kettle of terror boiling merrily, and mutinous rumblings began to echo around the vast encampment.

 

Plautius was deeply worried, perhaps even terrified. He was a most able and competent commander, but no more than that. He was known to and respected by the men of the IXth and perhaps the VIIIth, but to the rest he was an unknown quantity. He had not had the time to cement his command into place, and he dared not enforce harsh disciplinary measures. There was really only one thing that he could do: he sent to Rome.

 

In due course Narcissus, one of the Emperor’s secretaries, arrived. A freedman, a former slave of Greek birth, Narcissus was one of the top three civil servants, being ab epistulus to the Emperor, a position that has no real modern analogy, but, as his title implies, he was in charge of the imperial correspondence which meant that he determined what information Claudius received and to whom he gave audience. No senior appointment was made without the recommendation of Narcissus, and thus he held in his hands the fate of the career of every citizen. He was the Emperor’s alter ego, with the power to make or break lives. His word was as good as a nod from the Emperor, and he was utterly loyal to his master [1]. He took the rostrum to address the men and reassure them, but the men were in no mood to be reassured, and certainly not by a freedman. The general feeling at the time was that Claudius’ freedmen were puffed up, arrogant sycophants, and were deeply resented. The Emperor’s elevation of his creatures over the heads of reputable men of equestrian rank to the highest offices of state was a source of considerable acrimony amongst Rome’s free-born citizenry. Freedmen were unpopular and the butts of many vulgar contemporary jokes. Narcissus was aware of this prevailing sentiment, of that there can be no doubt, and his actions speak of a considerable measure of courage in facing the angry, frightened and resentful men in the cause of his master.

 

He had moral support, however, both from Aulus Plautius as Commander-in-Chief, and from Vespasian. The latter owed him a debt of honour, for Narcissus had long before been struck with that young man’s abilities and it was through his intercession that  Vespasian had been given command of II Legio [Suetonius: Vespasian 4] on the accession of Claudius in 41 CE. Both men would have been at his side when he mounted the rostrum to address the troops.

 

But when Narcissus tried to speak, he was shouted down. The troops jeered and cat-called. His position then was very, very dangerous.

 

Eventually someone saw the humour in the situation and raised a lighthearted cry. Before long, the ranks of men were able to cry in unison “Io Saturnalia” [Dio: lx:19], the greeting to slaves at the great midwinter festival of Saturn and the nearest pagan Roman equivalent to “Merry Christmas”. The Saturnalia was a very ancient Latin festival that celebrated the golden age before the overthrow of Saturn by Iuppiter, an age in which there had been neither servants nor masters. It was one of the many role-reversal and king-for-a-day festivals in which slaves donned the attire of their masters, and the masters took up the tasks of servants. The assembled troops took the joke and laughter broke the tension; the mutiny was averted.

 

No doubt Narcissus, Plautius and Vespasian also took the point of the joke, but they nevertheless heaved a collective and heartfelt sigh of relief. Being the butt of a joke was a cheap price to pay for order and discipline. The men took up their stations and went about their duties.

 

Why? What changed their minds? Surely not the speech of a former slave. Because of a direct appeal from the Emperor? Perhaps. Because of promises made by the Emperor though Narcissus? Even more likely. But we shall never know, the words of Narcissus having been lost forever. Whatever had happened, discipline and hope were restored. The stores were loaded onto the ships, the men embarked, the standards and eagles were ceremonially brought aboard.

 

Mutiny had been averted, but at the cost of a long delay; it could have been as much as two months from the time of Plautius’ message to the arrival of Narcissus. But such are the fortunes of war and politics. Despite all, by July the expedition was ready. Four mighty eagles rose and hovered, ready to strike.

 

 

 

03:02:03. The Invasion Begins.

The only extensive narrative of the Claudian invasion that has survived from antiquity and from which the above anecdote has been drawn, is the account of Cassius Dio, who wrote his monumental history over a century and a half after the event, but who no doubt had access to contemporary material. He continues to chronicle the course of the campaign but, as is often the case with Roman authors, his account is infuriatingly vague and uncluttered with geographical fixes. The precise course of events thenceforth is largely conjectural.

 

Once begun, the voyage was not devoid of problems: setting sail from Gessoriacum the fleet was soon blown backwards by contrary winds. This would have had a dual effect. Firstly, the recently circulated reminiscences on the fate of Germanicus’ fleet would have been revived with all their dire implications. Secondly, many would have seen this turn of events as a portent. To ancient peoples, the world and everything in it was meaningful. All events were directly ordained by the higher powers, and for those with the eyes to see, something of the divine will could be perceived in everything that happened. The waving of grass, the movement of clouds, the flight of bees and birds, the manner in which a handful of pebbles or sticks fell on the ground, all had meaning. Nothing was random. Perhaps the gods had sent contrary winds to blow them back home again, a sign of divine disapproval of the venture and an omen of impending disaster. Then a bolt of lightning (or perhaps a meteor) flared across the sky, streaking from east to west [Dio: lx:19], the direction of their ambitions. Augers aboard the ships took this as a most auspicious omen, the winds swung about and the fleet continued on its way with easier minds on board.

 

No doubt Plautius had gathered the by now considerable intelligence that was available on the geography of the south coast and on the numbers, disposition and battle-readiness of British forces. He would have been thoroughly familiar with Caesar’s account of his earlier expeditions and without doubt had access to far more historical data than has survived. He would have consulted travellers and traders, and probably had Armorican pilots on board his ships. He was determined not to repeat Caesar’s mistakes. There were many other and far safer landing places on the south coast than the open beaches where Caesar had come ashore a century before and which had been so bitterly contested. The treacherous weather of the Mare Britannicum was well known to Plautius, and he was not going to let his precious fleet suffer the same fate as those of Gaius Julius or Germanicus. He would have been painfully aware that the south east of Britain was now to all intents and purposes a single polity ruled by a sophisticated and militaristic warrior caste who had enjoyed considerable success in war, and that his own force was not a great deal stronger than Caesar’s had been. Moreover, unlike Caesar’s war-hardened veterans, his men did not have extensive battle experience against Celts.

 

He would have been aware, too, that he was no Caesar. A capable soldier and an excellent administrator, Plautius lacked Caesar’s charisma and boundless self-confidence as his hesitation during the threatened mutiny at Gessoriacum had shown. He did not have Caesar’s powers of leadership or the personal magnetism that had enabled the great man to demand of – and receive from – his troops effort and loyalty beyond that given to other commanders. The ugly spectre of mutiny had already loomed up once to be narrowly averted as much by good luck as by good management, and what had happened once could happen again. Plautius had only one chance. He could not afford even one mistake.

 

On the other hand, if the polity of southern Britain was not what it had been in Caesar’s day, neither was the Roman Empire. Gaius Julius had had nothing at his back but a freshly conquered, uncivilised and very restive territory seething with resentful and rebellious tribespeople. Plautius was buttressed by an Empire that stretched along the Atlantic littoral from the Rhine to Gibralter, and had at his beck and call the resources of a rich, docile and superbly administered hinterland. The organisation of the Empire was quite different to the organisation of Caesar’s world: it was under a strong central authority that brooked no dissent and was run by an increasingly professional civil service of formidable efficiency.

 

Also working in his favour was the fact that the British seem to have been lulled into a false sense of security. There had been several threats of invasion from Rome in the past and they had come to nothing. Dio asserts that “the British had not expected them to come, judging from what they had heard” [Dio: lx:19]. Even the presence of a powerful army on the opposite coast may not have caused undue alarm: only three years before, Gaius had assembled a large force ostensibly to invade and had then marched home again. The incipient mutiny of the legions at Gessoriacum may also have had something to do with this apparently casual attitude on the part of the British. The time taken for messages to reach Rome, for a decision to be made, and then for Narcissus and his entourage to reach the troops could not have been less than several weeks.

 

During this whole time the army would have sat idle, or would at best have performed housekeeping duties and engaged in drills and weapons training. Perhaps the Cattuvellauni thought that this was just another false alarm, ready to break apart in mutiny or some strange exercise involving the collection of sea shells in helmets. Even if the legions did invade, there was still the memory of Caesar: he had left Britain intact after winning almost every battle in a war that he lost. A hundred years had passed since that time, and now a much stiffer resistance could be mounted by a far better co-ordinated and more numerous body of defenders. Without doubt Roman agents and pro-Roman elements – and there were many of these – would have been hard at work allaying fears and ridiculing any threats of invasion. If the above scenario is indeed accurate, full marks are to be given to Roman military intelligence for what must have been a truly masterful propaganda exercise.

 

Meanwhile, the fleet ploughed on and Plautius seems to have made no contingency arrangements for a naval contest. Despite that the British might have been able to mount seaborne raids on the coast of Gaul, they were manifestly incapable of resisting an armada such as now bore down upon them. So numerous, so powerful was this force that it would not be rivalled for another nineteen centuries, when, sailing in the opposite direction, the armed might of Britain and her allies set forth to challenge Nazi Germany in the expedition known as Operation Overlord. Although a substantial merchant marine may have been stationed in Britain, the Lords of the Cattuvellauni clearly felt that any such force as they might be able to raise would be hopelessly outclassed by the Roman fleet. Again, they may have felt that they had a better chance to stand and fight on land. Or they may have made no naval preparations, thinking that Plautius’ ships would never sail anyway. Or, and this is perhaps the most likely suggestion, the thought of a naval confrontation may never have occurred to them. Whatever the reasons, such a prospect was of no great interest to Plautius. His horror was a strongly contested landing. His forces would never be so vulnerable as when they were trying to disembark, and a powerful and well ordered force of British, knowing where he would make landfall, could spell the destruction of his entire army.

 

Accordingly, Plautius divided his fleet into three squadrons to enable him the better to secure a landing in the face of fierce opposition. Probably the first squadron comprised the two most experienced legions, including his own IX Hispana whom he knew and trusted, who would have the best chance of establishing a beach-head should the shore prove to be defended after all, while the second squadron containing the balance of the fighting force could well have been a decoy ordered to attempt a feint at some other point. Presumably the third squadron carried the bulk of the stores and heavy equipment, and would have remained at sea until a secure beach-head had been established. There could be many permutations on this basic pattern, but it is unlikely that the fleet would have spread out too far.

 

But the expected opposition failed to materialise. Why? All that Dio has to offer on this curious situation is the terse statement: “They landed without opposition” [Dio: lx:19].

 

Why had Togodumnos of the Cattuvellauni failed to assemble a force to contest the landing? The British would have been only too aware of the build up of troops at Gessoriacum and of their purpose. It was something that had been expected for many years by those with the eyes to see, and the general refortification of strongholds across the south is indicative of the fact that someone took Rome very seriously. When the expeditionary force finally began to muster, it could not have been done covertly. Such a huge body of men cannot be hidden, nor would Plautius have even bothered to try and hide it. It is possible that that he hid his true intentions by a programme of disinformation.

 

Almost a hundred years before, Caesar had landed in the Walmer-Deal area, the shortest distance between Britain and Europe. The coast of Kent had subsequently been reconnoitred in detail and the potential of Rutupiae noted quite early. Contingency plans for a later and permanent invasion had been laid, possibly launched from the mouths of the Rhine, and with Rutupiae forming a key strategic element in the equation. The care with which pro-Roman, or, at least, anti-Cattuvellaunian, potentates had been manoeuvred into the rule of the Kentish promontory indicates the vital importance that Rome attached to the area. The speed with which the wheels of invasion had been set in motion after the news that Kent had been seized by Caratacos suggests that the authorities perceived that a “now-or-never” situation had arisen. Togodumnos and Caratacos themselves, like their father before them, were probably quite well aware of the strategic value of Rutupiae and the interest it held for Rome. They, quite reasonably, would assume that when the hammer blow finally came it would land on the north-east coast of Kent.

 

Plautius, meanwhile, and perhaps unknown to all except his most senior staff, prepared an agenda and his agents worked on the British from another angle again, persuading them that the landing – if it ever came at all – would be on the coast of Kent as expected.

 

And where did Plautius land? Again, Dio states no more than the fairly obvious fact that the army landed. He does not say where, and we simply do not know. The usual assumption has long been that Plautius landed in Kent at or not too far from Richborough. While there is nothing to refute this theory, there is nothing to support it either. Historians may well have been following the same logic as the Cattuvellauni, and the notion may be based on nothing more than the syllogism that as Caesar landed in Kent, so Plautius must have done the same, albeit in the excellent harbour on the north coast. There is no archaeological or literary evidence to assume that the landing was in Kent and there good – if circumstantial – reasons for assuming that he landed quite a bit further away.

 

Cogidubnus was the heir of Verica, a son, grandson or even a great-grandson of Commios. Verica was a chieftain of the Atrebates and a victim of Caratacos’ expansionism. An unwilling vassal of Caratacos, he was pro-Roman, anti-Cattuvellaunian and he based his oppidum at Selsey Bill. The Sussex coast had been the last area to withstand Caratacos, and it was at the time of the collapse of this final bastion of independence that Verica had fled to Claudius. The circumstances of the elderly chieftain’s flight are quite unknown: they may have been due to the advancing Cattuvellauni, or they may have been the result of an internal coup that may or may not have been helped along by Rome. Nor are the whereabouts of Cogidubnus known. Plautius may have slipped him in, well indoctrinated, to co-ordinate the fifth column. Or he may have been in Selsey all along and was now, on the eve of invasion, a hostage or at least a vassal under the duress of Caratacos. Again, he may have sailed openly with Plautius, wearing Roman armour and surrounded by his men, bound on a legitimate and honourable crusade to regain his heritage.

 

What is certain is that there was connivance between Cogidubnus and Plautius and that arrangements had been made for the Roman fleet to arrive at the hospitable and sheltered anchorages offered by the Solent. Dio states that the fleet was headed west – the direction in which the thunderbolt was travelling – and as they were departing Gessoriacum, provided they maintained a more or less straight course, they would have sailed straight into Southampton Water. Further, Dio states that Plautius had difficulty even finding an enemy, which presumably in this context means a more or less coherent force ready and willing to meet the Roman army in open battle. The British did present some troops, but these “fled into the forests and marshlands, hoping to wear the Romans down” [Dio: lx:19]: hopelessly outnumbered and unprepared Cattuvellaunian garrisons.

 

Interestingly, the redoubtable Geoffrey of Monmouth has something to say:

 

“Claudius, who had been raised to the position of Emperor, crossed over to the island. With him came his Chief-of-Staff, who in his own language was called Lelius (Aulus?? or Plautius??) Hamo. It was this man who planned all the battles which had to be waged. Hamo landed at the city of Porchester (sic) and began to block up its gates with a wall, in order to stop the citizens from coming out.” [Monmouth HRB: iv:12].

 

What all this may mean (if it means anything at all) is open to interpretation, but Porchester may mean the Portchester that guards Southampton Water. There was certainly no city there of any description at the time of the invasion, let alone one big enough to invite a siege, not to speak of “citizens”. But the locality is interesting. Could this be the echo of some genuine tradition?

 

The scenario for the arrival of Plautius is thus:

 

Thanks to the efforts of Roman agents, Caratacos and Togodumnos were convinced that the build-up of troops in Gaul was just another false alarm that would fail to materialise into an invasion but troops were mustered just in case. The long delay caused by the incipient mutiny at Gessoriacum then placed the war-lords in a difficult position: they did not have the infrastructure to maintain a large army in the field for a long time and each day the need to hold the men ready seemed to recede. The men themselves, mostly peasants drawn from their farms and workshops, begged to be allowed to return to their homes and Caratacos and Togodumnos could hardly refuse them. The vast majority of the fighting men drifted away, leaving the princes with no more than their own aristocratic companions and household warriors.

 

Meanwhile there was extensive and urgent communication between Cogidubnus and Plautius concerning the manner in which Cogidubnus would open his territory to the Romans and provide food and supplies for the army and quite probably auxiliary military support. In return, he would receive Roman protection and the status of rex socius, client king: he would almost certainly have offered formal submission to Claudius by this time and may already have become a Roman citizen. The fleet sailed west from Gessoriacum and in the next day or two – contrary winds held them back for a while – they sailed into Bosham and Fishbourne Harbours near the Atrebatean settlement that would eventually become Noviomagus (Chichester). Plautius had divided his fleet into three the better to meet any resistance, as he was not, after all, one hundred per cent certain  of Cogidubnus and wanted some insurance in case things went wrong. Perhaps the precedent of Commios was in his mind: he would certainly have studied his Caesar. To his relief, this contingency was not needed, as the Cattuvellaunian domination of the Atrebatean lands was not quite as strong as he had been led to believe. The army duly embarked at Bosham Harbour.

 

Leaving troops to build a fort at Noviomagus and a port and supply base at Fishbourne, the army headed slowly but steadily east along the coast, their ultimate destination the citadel of Togodumnos at Camulodunon. They followed the open and densely populated country along the coast, as this would provide supplies and they were not willing to attempt the dense forests of the Weald. The dark woods were much like those where Varus had suffered his disaster, and in them the legions lost their advantages of formation fighting. In the Weald the British could cut them to pieces.

 

The fleet followed, a floating supply base.

 

Some troops of Cattuvellaunian warriors were in the area, but not enough to offer battle. Now messengers raced like the wind to Togodumnos and Caratacos with the dire news. The brothers were caught on the back foot, but they reacted as swiftly as possible, sending out urgent calls to muster. The scattered strength of the British, so recently gathered together and even more recently dispersed, was quite unlike a standing army. It required time to gather together again as the levies were summoned from village and farm at their Lords’ need. The brothers would have defined their strategy very quickly, but an agonisingly long time was needed for the muster. In the meantime, something had to be done and to fill the gap and perhaps slow down the advancing legions, the brothers gathered the men that they had and headed west.

 

Leading highly mobile units of cavalry and chariots, the brothers chipped away at the legions while the main body of their army assembled on the north bank of the Medway. They and their bands of warriors made daring strikes against the advancing columns, causing considerable damage and frustration as they would hit quickly and retreat as fast before the heavily armoured legions had time to counterattack. The object was to wear the Romans down, to tire them and to inflict as much damage as possible with as little as possible injury to themselves: guerilla tactics that had worked so well before. But for all their valour, the attacks were gadfly bites, no more than an irritating nuisance and for the moment all they could do was to force Plautius to proceed a little more cautiously. They could not stop him.

 

Bad news travels fast. The Romans had landed, counterattacks by Caratacos and Togodumnos were being beaten back, and the legions were advancing steadily and relentlessly. Word reached the ears of the Dobunni. They had enjoyed a cordial relationship with Cunobelinos, but Caratacos and Togodumnos had destroyed that, invading their lands, burning their strongholds and enslaving their people. Boduocos was quick to send emissaries to Plautius offering submission to Rome. Evidently anyone who struck his tormentors had to be a friend and he could see quite clearly which side of the bread had butter on it. The legions had taken Sussex with hardly a blow struck. Kent was falling to them fast. The territory of the Dobunni in Gloucestershire and Somerset was now subservient to Rome. The Empire of the Cattuvellauni, so many years in the building, was falling apart in days.

 

 

 

03:02:04. The Battle of the Medway.

British warriors continued to harry the advancing legions on their steady progress through Cantium, but it was only upon reaching the Medway near the British settlement that would soon become known as Durobrivae (Rochester), that Plautius met his first real resistance. An army under the two sons of Cunobelinos barred the road to the north. The British numbers are unknown, but they are unlikely to have been less than the Roman force of 40 to 50,000: a figure of 80,000 or even 100,000 would not be unreasonable.

 

Durobrivae was a Cantian town of some importance, almost certainly the seat of one of the several Cantian chieftains as it was large enough to have had a mint. The Romans, were, of course, following the old Brythonic roads, not having had time to build their own masterly versions, and this would be reason enough for Plautius to reach the river at this spot. But the size and importance of the settlement might also have been a factor in his decision to take this path. Not only did the Cantian settlement overlook and command the point where the main north arterial road crossed a significant and navigable river, it was also the largest centre in the area. Its strategic importance would not have been lost on the General.

 

The Medway runs deep here and is tidal, so the British, thinking that the Romans would be unable to cross unless they first built a bridge (there may have been one at that point, but it would have been destroyed beforehand), camped carelessly and openly on the far bank, taunting their enemies. As had so often been the case with their Continental brethren, and as would be learned again to the woe of their more northerly and westerly kindred, the Cattuvellauni were to discover that the Romans did not view natural obstacles in the same light as the Celts. They grossly underestimated Roman engineering and resourcefulness, and overestimated the worth of those natural barriers – rivers, swamps, mountains – that they themselves would have had considerable difficulty in overcoming. The mistake is a natural one.

 

Plautius sent a detachment of Belgic auxiliaries, Batavi from what is now Holland and men who prided themselves on their swimming prowess, over during the night to obtain the maximum surprise. The Batavi swam the river in full armour, but instead of attacking the British themselves they got amongst the chariot horses, killing and wounding many and setting the rest to panic-stricken stampeding amongst the encamped warriors, creating such confusion that even the incoming cavalry was overwhelmed. This assault was not a full confrontation. Rather it was a feint designed to create as much confusion as possible and to draw attention away from the real source of danger. This came in the form of Titus Flavius Sabinus, the future Emperor Vespasian, and his brother Sabinus who were sent at the head of II Legio upstream. Probably they found an intact bridge, or at least a manageable ford, for they were able to cross the river and return along the north bank to Durobrivae, outflanking Caratacos’ men and inflicting heavy casualties.

 

But the battle was by no means over. Only one legion was on the British-held north bank and they would have quickly come under siege from the defenders as they desperately tried to hold their bridgehead. No doubt there was furious activity on the Roman south bank as a pontoon bridge was hastily assembled [Webster & Dudley 1965: p68]. The engineers had come prepared for a major river crossing, being aware from Caesar’s accounts that they would have to cross several major rivers with the Thames the greatest problem.

 

Rather than fleeing, however, the British stood their ground and fought on for two more days, with considerable success. Gnaeus Hosidius Geta, commanding another formation, made his way over the bridge but a British charge drove a wedge through the ranks [Webster & Dudley 1965: p69]. Geta found himself trapped at one point and was very nearly taken. Finally, however he managed to beat off his attackers by sustained assault. More and more legionaries poured over the bridge until there were enough of them to mount a full attack on the British ranks. The defenders were broken at last and fled the field. For his efforts, Geta was awarded the ornamenta triumphalia, and both Geta and Sabinus were awarded the consulate shortly after, no doubt as a reward for their gallantry on the Medway.

 

The British fell back towards Flumen Thamesis, the river Thames, after their defeat on the Medway, but although precipitous the retreat was not entirely a rout. Demoralised and deeply shocked, as Celts so often were after heavy defeats in battle, Caratacos and Togodumnos managed to retain some sort of order. No rearguard was left to defend the retreat, but, like Cassivellaunos before them, the brothers gave the order for a scorched earth  policy to begin. Plautius would need all his sophisticated logistical infrastructure and he was well aware of the fact, as were the princes of the Cattuvellauni. The supply of food, its collection, protection and unhindered movement, was the greatest weakness of the Roman general. Caratacos may have felt unable to attempt an attack in force on the supply bases, but he could, and did, deny them the chance of picking up more food by foraging, and he very probably sent out bands of raiders to do as much damage to the Roman commissariat as possible.

 

With this in mind, Plautius did not try to pursue the retreating British in full force immediately. Contingents were told off to consolidate the rear and secure the lines of supply. A fort must have been built at Durobrivae, on the ashes of the Cantian settlement. Where is not known, but the present site of Rochester castle would seem to be the obvious position. In particular the supply depot at Rutupiae was swiftly built to ensure safe haven for the supply ships and a strong protection for the vital stores. Plautius was well aware of the problem of Cattuvellaunian raiders and of the possibility of terrorist attacks, as is evidenced by the design of the great military depot.

 

In its original conception, Rutupiae was certainly not designed as a fortress, and was quite unlike the normal legionary stronghold. It had a long ditch and a bank, and a single narrow entrance, and would have been a death trap for a garrison attacked in force since it lacks the gateways that permit sallies and counter-attacks. It does constitute a most efficient defence against robbers and raiders who might try to steal or fire the stores [Morris 1982: p56]. Its enclosure covers ten acres, sufficient for a force of about 2500 men and hence strong enough to withstand anything but the most overwhelming onslaught. Plautius was very confident of his rear: he was quite aware of the threat posed by guerillas and terrorists, but had no worries about an attack in force. He obviously considered the people of the south east to be reasonably reliable, thanks, probably, to the reassurances of Cogidubnus and the number of garrisons that now held strategic points along the line of advance.

 

But the pursuit was only briefly delayed, and the orders for the consolidation of the rear and the construction of Rutupiae may have taken no more than a couple of days to arrange. Time was vital and speed was the answer to all problems. Plautius’ army, considerably reduced by casualties and the need to detach men to guard the rear, was still a devastating and efficient force. It began to move swiftly in pursuit of Togodumnos and Caratacos along the ancient road that Caesar had followed a hundred years before.

 

Plautius was able to move with good speed as far as the North Downs, the ground cover being light and he had the advantage of a formed road to march along. He was in a strong position tactically and he was probably in haste to turn matters to his advantage before the barrier of the great river and its attendant wetlands turned the tables against him. He had a secure rear with the base at Rutupiae rapidly filling up with the fleet, and to his right was the sea which he now commanded. To his left was the dense forest of the Weald. Truly, the thick woods could give good cover to whole armies of Britons gathered under the leafy gloom, but the Cattuvellauni were putting much emphasis on their chariots and these vehicles, robust and manoeuvrable as they were, were useless in the undergrowth. The Weald, too, was backed by the Atrebates of Cogidubnus, who would have now taken up arms to defend the western flank. Plautius’ intelligence was good: the British were fleeing for the Thames, and he knew it.

 

The Cattuvellaunian forces, with their local knowledge, were able to ford the Thames more or less in the region of modern London or even further east for although the river is not now fordable at London City, in 43 CE the tide reach was at least 14 feet lower than today. Ferries plied from Gravesend and may have brought many fugitives to the north shore. The British, canny in the ways of forest and marsh and unencumbered by heavy body armour like their opponents, crossed the river and considered their next move. The Romans began to lose their advantages to the swampy ground and were unable to overtake the British before the latter were safely assembled on the north bank.

 

Here the Lords of the Cattuvellauni were able to pause and take stock briefly. They conferred and a decision was reached. They would part company. Caratacos, together with a few men, fell back on Camulodunon to raise new fighting men and prepare for a Roman assault on the royal seat. Togodumnos, together with the bulk of the men, prepared to defend the crossings of the river Thames.

 

 

 

03:02:05. The Battle of the Thames.

Plautius was not far behind, and the battle that followed was a repeat of the Medway. Again German troops swam the river, fully armoured presumably, and probably by night. Another contingent moved upstream and “crossed by a bridge” [Dio: lx:20]. Where this bridge might have been, and what was the nature of its construction, remain conjectural. It might have been a Belgic bridge, a suggestion that has been rejected by many modern authorities, although Celtic engineering was quite equal to such a project and recent excavations at the Eton Rowing Lake at Dorney in South Buckinghamshire show that such structures were built not only in the Iron Age but in the Bronze Age. The Dorney bridge spanned a now extinct channel of the Thames, was 35 metres in length or more and provided a carriageway at least two metres across [Allen & Walsh 1996 p124ff] to judge by the surviving timbers. The Iron Age bridge is dated to between 800 – 400 BCE, an early date in this context. The technical advances that were derived from Continental influences, together with the greater manpower (and perhaps the need for greater urgency?) of the first century CE plus its logical geographical position would suggest that an Iron Age Westminster Bridge capable of carrying considerable foot traffic and possibly even wheeled vehicles such as chariots is not only feasible but a strong possibility.

 

The existence of any such Brythonic bridge would have been well know to Roman merchants for whom the Thames was a well-worn highway. Its whereabouts would have been reported to Plautius and his staff, and there is the intriguing possibility [Webster & Dudley 1965: pp70-71] that the Romans deliberately sought it out beforehand. A strong mounted force, possibly of both Roman and Atrebatean cavalry, could have ridden directly from Noviomagus through the densely forested Weald and taken the bridge by surprise. The formerly Atrebatean territory through which they rode would have been sparsely populated, and it would have been no great feat for a body of determined men to ride the distance in a couple of days. Taken by surprise, the Cattuvellaunian warriors holding the bridge would have been scattered. The main body of the British army, meanwhile, fleeing the debâcle on the Medway, would not have wasted their time on a roundabout route to the east and the bridge. Lightly clad, they would have had no trouble fording the river further downstream at the nearest point to the shelter of the mouth of the Lea and the surrounding Essex marshes.

 

Or it could have been a pontoon bridge thrown across by Roman engineers. Unfortunately, Dio’s wording is ambiguous. The layout of the roads would suggest that pre-Roman traffic passed along Watling Street to cross the Thames at Westminster, which would be the most sensible route as it bypassed the swamps of Southwark and kept to the hard ground, but there is nothing to indicate now whether the British crossing was by ford, ferry or bridge [Morris 1982: p56], or a combination of all three. Here, then, was the most probable site of the main Roman crossing where a small patch of gravel rose above the surrounding shallows and mudflats at the point where the Tyburn joined the main river [2]. The little island of firm ground thus presented a base for a bridgehead, and had the further advantage of a natural moat on the far side. The Romans were well aware of the river and the need to cross it if they were to take the shortest land route to Camulodunon. It is likely that they came prepared to throw up a pontoon bridge, and if indeed they already had prefabricated sections, a dryshod crossing could have been erected within hours.

 

The legions crossed the river, by bridges of one sort or another, or by fords such as those at Fulham, Battersea and Westminster, and they crossed as several points simultaneously. Once upon the northern shore they fell upon Togodumnos and his people “on all sides, and cut many of them off” [Dio: lx:20] somewhere in the region of Kensington and Hyde Park. The British sustained heavy losses, and fell back into the swampy land to the east, the Hackney and Stratford marshes and the boggy mouth of the Lea at the Isle of Dogs. Here the British were able to take some measure of revenge: flushed with victory, the legionaries followed them enthusiastically “but rash pursuit lead them into trackless marshes where many were lost” [Ibid: lx:20].

 

The casualties were heavy on both sides but only one named victim is known: Togodumnos, High King of the Cattuvellauni and brother of the Prince Caratacos, sleeps yet somewhere in the Lea Marshes.

 

But as was so often the result of the slaying of a Celtic chieftain, the British, rather than fleeing, were inflamed at the loss of Togodumnos. They regrouped and attacked the invaders, seeking revenge for their fallen lord. Dio says almost nothing of the state of affairs at this point beyond the typically terse observation that “the British did not surrender but rallied to avenge (Togodumnos)”. Plautius, it seems, was overcome with apprehension and decided to consolidate his gains, advance no further, and send for Claudius. He had been ordered to do this, if difficulties arose, “for substantial reserves, including elephants, had been prepared” [Ibid: lx:21]. The inference here is something that a loyal historian might gloss over: the expeditionary force was fought to a standstill. Despite an initial victory on the Thames, a victory that had taught the British considerable caution and caused them great loss, the Cattuvellauni were starting to fight back effectively from the dense forests of the London basin and the swamps to the east.

 

Plautius had every reason to feel apprehensive. His forces were now spread out over a large area, with substantial numbers posted from Noviomagus to Rutupiae to the North Downs. He held a strategically vital river crossing, but felt unable to risk crossing in force. The British had fallen back on the earlier, and much more successful, guerilla tactics that enabled them to make the best use of the densely forested and swampy lands to the north and east of the river. They were also slavering for blood in revenge for Togodumnos, and it is probable that they were trying to take prisoners for the Druids. The nightmare tales that had circulated on the Continent would have enjoyed a new and horrible immediacy.

 

Plautius, then, was in a very awkward position: he could not go forward with any confidence and he could not go back. He could have made a determined push over the river and headed eastwards towards the Colne, and the British, for all their tenacity and hot-blooded valour, could not have stayed him. But by so doing he would have been exceeding his mandate in the terms of which Claudius had specifically required him to prepare the way and allow the Emperor the privilege of the death blow, id est the destruction of Camulodunon. On the other hand, the men would have been starting to become restive. Victory, with all its spoils, was in sight and they had fallen comrades to avenge. They had shown once before that they were quite prepared for mutiny.

 

The steamroller had, temporarily, run out of steam. Plautius chose a compromise: sit tight and consolidate the gains.

 

Plautius was no fool. He was a very experienced soldier, and the senior general of his time. No fool, but no Caesar either, and once again he displayed the same infirmity of purpose than he had showed at Gessoriacum when under threat of mutiny. Fortunately for him, he had definite orders for just such a contingency, and he repeated his earlier course of action. He sent word to Claudius begging him to come, and informing him that victory was in sight provided that the reinforcements could be brought up. Then he set about the consolidation of his gains swiftly and efficiently, keeping the men working and too busy to plot mutiny. But what was he to do? Where should he plant his standard?

 

He could hardly withdraw to the Medway. To do so would be dishonourable, an admission of defeat. Besides, the crossing of that river had been bloody and protracted, and there were no defensible positions  between the Medway and the Thames on that line of advance. Therefore a large camp of 40 – 60 hectares was constructed south of the river somewhere between Southwark and the bank opposite Westminster at a site that has never been ascertained. Bridgehead forts were built on the northern bank. Forts and encampment were probably connected by an easily dismantled (in the case of concerted attack) pontoon bridge. Men were detached from the main force to patrol and probably garrison the upper reaches of the Thames. The road from Rutupiae to the Medway to the Thames was built to allow the swiftest possible passage between the army and the supply base, and (perhaps more importantly) to provide a surface commensurate with the imperial dignity of Claudius and his troops. The entourage of the Augustus would also need a more substantial crossing than a pontoon bridge. Another, solid, bridge using the gravel deposits on both sides of the river as a base, was constructed to accommodate the weight of the elephants and of the huge wagons. This, the first (Roman) Westminster Bridge, was probably closely similar in construction to that built by Caesar over the Rhine a century before.

 

The reactions of the various British groups to the latest developments, although completely speculative, are crucial to later events. On the death of Cunobelinos, Togodumnos assumed his father’s mantle and became paramount of the combined territories, remaining also overlord of the premier group, the Cattuvellauni. Caratacos, his younger brother and junior colleague, may well have become chieftain of the Trinovantes. With the death of Togodumnos, there was no time for Caratacos to formally assume authority over the Cattuvellauni, and there is no particular reason to assume that succession was automatic. Thus the confederation of peoples that Cunobelinos had gathered and held together by sheer force of personality and a web of affiliation fell apart, and tribal groupings began to reassert themselves. Caratacos, then, was no High King by some automatic right of succession, but became simply what he had been before: chieftain of the Trinovantes. In his absence, and without Togodumnos, the Cattuvellauni were leaderless.

 

It is probable that Cattuvellaunian magistrates began to surrender and land to the north of the Thames was annexed. Belgic peoples, descendants of the Nervii and Eburones who had fled before Caesar a hundred years before, had settled along the formerly sparsely populated lands of the upper Thames and around Bedfordshire and northern Hertfordshire in the vicinity of Welwyn, Braughing and Verulamion. Seeing the juggernaut advance of Plautius’ army group sweeping all resistance before it, the High King dead and his brother in flight to no-one knew where, these peoples now sued for peace. Truly, the Roman army had stalled, but such was the power of their arms and the insuperability of their organisation that the eventual outcome could not be in doubt. The Nervii and Eburones, and the older tribes such as the Bibroci, Ancalites and Segontiaci had long been subject to the Cattuvellauni. They felt little loyalty for their former overlords and an accommodation with honour was reached.

 

Leaderless and realising the futility of further resistance, the Cattuvellauni decided to cut their losses and salvage what could be remained. They sued for peace. Roman troops, a hundred years late but now all-conquering, marched again along the banks of the little river Ver and received the surrender of Verulamion. No further mention of Adminios, the third son of Cunobelinos, is known after his arrival in Rome, but it may be that he, travelling with Plautius, was instrumental in obtaining grace for the oppidum and its people [3]. He would certainly have offered submission to Claudius while in exile as the price for Roman help, and quite probably would have been allowed to take over the rule of his people under Roman supervision. Thus the Cattuvellauni became a subject people and obtained imperial pardon, retaining their own lands and living under their traditional laws. The fate of the Trinovantes was to be rather different.

 

Meanwhile, vexillations were sent to Bagendon to establish a garrison in the now friendly territory of the northern Dobunni. It is probable that at least part of II Legio was sent south and west to feel out the defenses of the Durotriges. Effective British resistance was now split right up the middle: the Durotriges, the Dobunni of Somerset and the Atrebates of western Hampshire, Wiltshire and the Isle of Wight formed a western core of opposition. To the east  lay only the shreds and tatters of Caratacos’ army around the great fortress of Camulodunon.

 

With detachments spread over the entire south east, and perhaps as far as Gloucestershire, Plautius was in no position to risk the advance on Camulodunon. Casualties and the dispersal of garrison forces over a wide area had reduced his original complement by as much as half. He contented himself with consolidation and building. Londinium, perhaps, was established as a bridgehead and a supply base for the troops at this time, and it is probable that, after a camp and a bridge had been built, the very next task would have been the construction of wharves and waterfront facilities.  Its position adjacent to the intersection of the major roads and its potential as a port soon made it a strategically significant position and it would not be long before it became commercially important, and then politically important.

 

In the meantime, Plautius awaited his Emperor.

 

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