Some considerations by Alan Abbey
Following the recent ongoing debate in previous issues of the Archive regarding the site of the Roman invasion of AD 43 the Chairman adds his own thoughts on the matter.
The above question, seems straightforward enough. An simple enquiry that could be answered with the name of a town or even a stretch of beach. Given what is currently known about Roman Britain where they actually landed should be a point of little doubt. Thanks to the contemporary literature, we know what the Romans ate, even how they prepared the food. We have the names of Provincial Governors and administrators and even details of their work and lives. The archaeology has shown us glimpses of Roman daily life, letters discovered at the Vindolanda Fort on Hadrian’s Wall show a level of social activity previously unimagined. One letter even tells us that the troops received parcels from home; one contained warm underwear! We know how they built and even how they carried out their ablutions. One would be excused therefore, for believing that where the Romans landed in 43 AD was of little doubt. It is, however, a point of the utmost contention. Few subjects have caused as much debate or been the trigger for as many years of research and archaeological interest as this deceivingly innocuous question.
As the Britons were a preliterate society no records or documentary evidence were ever produced by them. For such evidence we must look to the Romans themselves and therein lays the first problem. A question of ‘bias’ occurs, the socio-political affiliation of the Roman author of contemporary or near contemporary accounts of the invasion should be considered. Who commissioned the work or who were its intended audience? The details may have been of less importance than the ‘message’ being purveyed or the part played in it by a given individual. This lack of detail, whatever its cause, is highly evident in the Roman accounts. None of the Roman writers mention the landing area and make only the most scant of references. Some clues are given however, referring to local topographical features or noting tribal lands of the Celtic peoples conquered. Unfortunately, these lands and their boundaries were quite transient and their exact borders vague. Today they remain quite conjectural and whilst the conjecture is considered as accurate as it could be given the archaeological evidence, a few miles either side of any given point could place you in a different tribal area than that assumed. Many rivers are mentioned, usually as barriers to be fought over and crossed, but the ambiguity of their locations has caused many to claim a local river as that described. This then centres the action in a specific area or County; the kudos that this brings the area and its historian is jealously guarded. Not the best position from which to start an impartial consideration of a question.
Documentary and Literary Sources. The AD 43 invasion was actually the third Roman expedition to Britain, the first two being in 55 and 54 BC by Julius Caesar. Caesar’s own account of these earlier invasions could supply valuable insights. By AD 43 the Romans knew far more about Britain than Caesar did in BC 55, thanks to Caesar’s accounts and the systems of Tribute he had exacted upon the Tribes he conquered and trade opportunities opened up. It provided many points of contact between the two peoples, providing the political connections that were used to account for the final invasion. Here then, in Caesars accounts, could be a clue to the possible landing site used by Claudius.
It is safe to say that Caesar landed in Kent. His own account clearly states that in 55 BC he sailed to Britain using the shortest possible crossing point from Gaul. This is quite reasonable given what little was known of Britain at that time. We are also told that Caesar’s forces could not land at first as the enemy were occupying cliffs that controlled the landing site. This narrows the field, especially as Caesar continues that the Romans then had to sail for seven miles where they landed at an evenly sloping beach, free from obstacles. One must take into account how much the coastline of Kent has changed over the last two thousand years. Erosion, land reclamation and changing sea levels have altered the Kent coastline, but cliffs close to gently sloping beaches possibly indicate the Deal area. The reasons for Caesars expeditions were quite straight forward, to conquer Britain, an equivalent to the nineteenth century ‘Dark Continent’. The variables involved in calculating a risk assessment for such a venture to the unknown would be impossible to predict. So, to reduce the already high element of risk involved, the shortest possible route was taken to locate the first suitable landing site. That storms severely damaged Caesars fleet after landing the troops, highlight the risks. If Caesar had kept his troops on their transports for longer, such a storm would have resulted in high casualties. Any invasion would have then been impossible and politically damaging.
Caesars second invasion, a year later, headed straight for the same landing site. It is logical to assume that Caesar now knew the lie of the land at this point, understood its defensive capabilities. This expedition took with it far more troops than the first, in these expeditions the goal was clear, the point of landing not as important as the time taken to reach it and the only political motivation was one of personal status.
Would the Claudian invasion have followed Caesars earlier tried and tested plans? Caesar left no occupying forces or even stayed for any serious length of time. However, the Tribes of Britain were subdued and a system of tribute payable to Rome exacted upon them. Some Tribes, those that offered little or no resistance to Caesar, prospered. The trade links that were formed by the more subservient Tribes led to their having more political affiliations with Rome. This evolving relationship, despite no physical Roman presence in Britain, did form the basis of Britain’s eventual occupation and provincial status.
By 43 AD the socio-political position in Britain was far different to that encountered by Caesar. The reasons behind this third invasion were also quite different and were to some degree based upon that socio-economic position.
Cassius Dio is the Roman writer from whom we learn of the Claudian invasion. Again, one must consider whom the work was intended for and its raison detre. Cassius Dio was also writing about events some one hundred and fifty years after they happened. He has also been criticised in recent years for a lack of critical analysis of his sources. If the sources Cassius used were questionable, how questionable are the writings based upon them and written a century and a half after the fact? One must be prepared to keep an open mind when considering Cassius’s work, however, he still remains our only major source for the 43 AD invasion.
‘Cassius does give us much information that can be of use, the reasons given for this expedition for example show a depth of political interaction that offers a different perspective. We are told that a British Prince, Verica, had been forced to flee to the court of Claudius and he persuades Claudius to assist him regain his position. This rather implies that there was a relationship with Rome for Verica to fall back on. Vericas’ tribe, the Atrebates, were based on the coast of what is now Hampshire and Sussex. Such a coastline was highly conducive to trade, an introduction to diplomatic connections.
This meeting was between two people for whom the invasion of Britain by Rome was of mutual benefit. Verica would regain his position and lands whilst Claudius would gain a reputation as a warrior Emperor and, by completing the work of the great Caesar himself, as Caesar’s true successor.
Here then, it is possible to see a different set of circumstances and socio-political drives behind the Caudian invasion than that of Caesar’s with just these few facts. The facts, however, do offer information pertinent to the study. Far more contact had clearly occurred between Britain and Rome and a degree of political interaction had taken place, it was not quite the ‘Dark Continent’ it once was although a martial expedition would be far from straight forward. Caesar took the shortest route to Britain to reduce the known risks balanced by the fact that the people of Britain would be an unknown variable wherever he landed. Claudius had the benefit of having a greater knowledge of Britain and, as shall be discussed later, a possible friendly area to land on. Such a strategic asset as a friendly shore would far outweigh the need for a short route; a longer route to a known safe harbour is a reasonable trade off. It would also make tactical sense that if a major part of the overall plan were to reinstate the head of a given coastal area that that would be the place to start the invasion. Vericas’ was forced from his lands by an enemy not his people; it is quite reasonable to consider that his return, supported by a Roman army, would be welcomed. These points would indicate an invasion point along the South Coast rather than Kent. A Kent landing would increase the already major logistical and tactical issues involved with martial expeditions overseas. Even today, armies of the most powerful nations will still look for a friendly area to martial their forces in before launching an invasion. The recent Gulf wars are a point in question. The higher cost in resources and casualties of more direct assaults where such a friendly shore is not available, such as with the Falklands war of the 1980’s, illustrate the point further. The Roman army was very experienced and not prone to taking unnecessary risks. Not many years previously a Roman army had been destroyed in a German forest by armies not dissimilar to the Britons, much to the embarrassment of Rome. Kent and much of the South East was covered by similarly heavily wooded terrain, terrain the Romans would have been well aware of through Caesar’s experience and through ‘friendly’ British sources. The risk of a similar encounter against troops that knew the terrain could not have failed to be considered, especially when the logistics of communications and reinforcement from the continent to Britain were added to the equation.
Whilst nothing has been offered as to a definitive landing area at this point a reasonably considered regional ‘zone’ of operations has become a possibility.
Archaeological evidence. Considering the size and extent of the Roman forces involved in AD 43 some physical evidence would be expected. This is simply not the case. Where such ‘evidence’ has been discovered it has been quite ambiguous. A fact to consider here is that if a Claudian period helmet or coin is found, one cannot say with any degree of certainty that it came from the first legionary to step ashore. A mere six months from the landing in AD 43 the South was under effective Roman control and reinforcements, or the redeployment of existing forces, to new positions was a common event. The chronology of such archaeological evidence is impossible to interpret safely. The more evidence, the more possible it becomes to venture an opinion, but one must be aware of the next discovery. New evidence is discovered yearly and can muddy the waters as often as it supports existing theories.
Kent archaeological claims for the site of the invasion have for some time been based upon several points. Richborough, with its many Roman finds and archaeology has always been considered the point of invasion. Early earthwork features have continued to support that claim. A hoard of Roman gold coins, some of which were Claudian, was discovered in Bredgar. This single find was immediately hailed as proof positive of Kent’s claim.
Both of these points, however, are chronologically ambiguous, construction or deposition a few archaeologically indistinguishable months after the invasion could destroy any claim. Such evidence only shows that contemporary activity took place at these locations.
Kent has also had a new excavation at Bredgar at a site between the parish church and School. Here was found first and fourth century domestic pottery and, importantly, a section of early military ditch. It was the consideration of the Archaeologist however, that the ditch was in fact only constructed in the style of a military ditch, perhaps to delineate and defend a small area of settlement, perhaps by a retired soldier. The Kent Archaeological Field School also found a similar ditch in 2003 at Syndale, near Faversham. Follow on work carried out during filming of the Channel Four programme ‘Time Team’ later found that the ditch was similarly a more domestic version of the military ditch. This perhaps would indicate that retired Roman soldiers cautious of local inhabitants, not unlike the post 1066 Norman settlements and their moated manors, settled parts of Kent. This is far from evidence of an invasion route. On the South coast there is a similar story, no definitive evidence to claim or counter claim. However, recent excavations at the Roman villa at Fishbourne, within the territory of Verica, have made some interesting discoveries.
In 1999 excavations revealed a military ditch containing pre Claudian Atrebattic Pottery. The early date of the pottery hints at an early ditch. This ditch was further excavated in 2002 and revealed not only pre Claudian Coarseware from Gaul, but a piece of Roman sword scabbard dating to the earlier Augustinian period and dated to c. AD30. The same site also revealed several Roman storage buildings with evidence of their belonging to one of the Legions that took part in the initial invasion, the II Augusta. Bryn Walters, of the Association for Roman Archaeology, also supported the evidence of Dr. Rudkin that the Roman fort at Alchester had an annex constructed with timbers dendrochronologically tested, giving a result of 44 AD. This indicates, but by no means proves, that Rome had some presence in Britain before 43 AD. This is no more proof of the invasion point being in the South than the evidence for Kent, but it does indicate strongly that there was some early activity predating AD 43 along the south coast. This knits well with the documentary evidence that suggests the Romans could have expected a friendly shore along the South coast, Verica’s own kingdom. Perhaps client kingdom could be a better description?
In conclusion, there is no definitive answer to the question. Given the ambiguity of the documentary and archaeological evidence and the question chronology, it would be foolhardy to even claim one region as that which may have contained the invasion point. One may weigh the odds given the evidence at hand but given the paucity of solid, undisputable, evidence it would take a brave gambler indeed.
The answer, however, may still be awaiting discovery. The rate at which new evidence is being uncovered and dating technology improved, this ancient mystery will be solved once and for all. If forced to hazard an opinion I would suggest that the evidence, and perhaps the logic, would favour a landing at some point along the south coast. There is little evidence here that could not however be formed into a very plausible history by any novelist worth his salt. Caveat emptor. (Buyer beware!)