Britain before the coming of the Romans
People generally seem to think that when Julius Caesar landed on our shores, half a century before the birth of Christ, he was met by a savage horde of capering “ancient Britons,” who lived a sort of prehistoric life and had never seen a civilised man nor ever heard of Rome. That, is what was taught when I was in school; but it is very distant from the fact.
The inhabitants of Britain at the time of the coming of the Romans had been more or less civilised for at least 1,500 years; and this period may be divided roughly into the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. The objects which have been found belonging to the Bronze Age shows that a high standard of living had been attained at that time, and the mighty temple of Stonehenge reveals the fact that great enterprises requiring both skill and organisation could then be undertaken.
The Bronze weapons of the pre-Roman period are magnificent, and the specimens which have been found are in no way inferior to those then in use in highly civilised countries such as Egypt. There is a beautiful dagger, for instance, with a hilt of red amber inlaid with gold; and there is another with a wooden handle exquisitely inlaid with thousands of gold rivet smaller than the smallest pin, the workmanship being such as could not be surpassed by the best craftsmen of today
The finding of numerous razors has shown that the men of these far-off times shaved themselves; and fragments of their woollen and linen clothes, ornamented with finely wrought buttons of gold, jet, bone, and wood, have made it clear that they were well and richly dressed.
They wore necklaces of gold and amber or jet beads, and gold bracelets encircled their arms; while the women`s hair was held up by gold or bronze pins of delicate workmanship.
A collection of no fewer than 36 gold bracelets was discovered in one place, and in another a hoard of gold ornaments of various kinds, weighing 11lb/4kg., was turned up. Several beautiful Greek or Etruscan vases of the fourth century B. C. have been found in England and France, and this seems to show that such works of art were appreciated and bought from travelling merchants. A coin from Carthege, of about 200 B. C., has been found at Market Overton, in Rutland.
In the succeeding Iron Age there was a gold coinage based on a Greek standard; and the fact that British coins have been found in France and Gallic coins in Britain shows that a foreign trade was maintained at this time. The better class Britons were now beginning to read and write, Greek letters being used; and the high state of their civilisation is shown by their weapons, their splendid bronze shields ornamented in repousse work, the rich trappings of their horses, their excellent and numerous chariots, their beautiful mirrors of bronze, their richly wrought tankards and cups, and their brooches and other ornaments.
The country`s resources of gold, iron, tin, and lead were extensively worked; and in regard to the working of the tine mines of Cornwall there is evidence to carry it back at least a thousand years B. C. and to show that it was exported to the far end of the Mediterranean.
Egyptian beads of the time of Tut-ankh Amen have been found at Stonehenge and in the Salisbury Plain district, and this shows that from at least 1,000 B. C. Britain was linked by trade with the world`s centres of civilisation. In Upper Egypt finds such as objects made from tin well before the time of Christ, have been found of which the tin they made from more than likely came from Cornwall.
The country was peopled in the main by tribes which came over from France in successive waves, and in the period just before the arrival of the Romans there were British kings who ruled on both sides of the Channel, just as did William the Conquerer; while some of the British tribes bore names which were also those of tribes living in France.
The inhabitants of Britain thus participated in the general advance of civilisation in Gaul, and long before the time of Caesar they were aware of the rising power of Rome and had passed to some extent under the influence of her culture. There was a constant coming and going of great ships between the French and British coasts, and Caesar complains that the Britons kept sending troops over to France to help the Gauls against him.
A British personage of importance at the time of Caesar`s invasion must have presented a most imposing figure, altogether remote from anything that could be called savage. He wore a linen tunic and trousers; a brilliantly coloured cloak was thrown over his shoulders and fastened on the right side of his neck by a glittering brooch; on his feet were leather shoes; his sword, in its richly ornamented scabbard, hung at his side, attached to a handsome belt; his gleaming shield of bronze, exquisitely decorated, and sometimes inlaid with enamel, was carried on his arm; and here and there about his person were rich ornaments of gold. His horses` harness was decorated with shining bronze, and the cheek pieces were sometimes enamelled in bright colours.
Toilet articles have been found, such as razors, tweezers for removing superfluous hairs, mirrors, ointment pots, and even rouge for colouring the cheeks of the ladies; while countless necklaces, jewels, hairpins, and other articles of personal adornment have come to light.
When Caesar first began to talk about making an expedition to our shores the Gallic merchants were in a great state of mind, fearing that the Romans would seize the trade with this wealthy and prosperous nation; and they did their best to dissuade him, even to the extent of coming to blows with him on this account. It may be, indeed, that it was they who put about the rumours of the great stature and warlike qualities of the Britons which so troubled Caesar`s men; and from them, too, may have come the story that Britain was made impregnable by those “astonishing masses of cliff” of which Cicerone nervously writes.
At any rate, while the Roman cupidity was aroused by thoughts of the booty which might be obtained by an invasion of this wealthy and densely populated island of ours, they were not a little scared at the prospect of the invasion; and the Senate in Rome was so uneasy about it that when Caesar was at length able to announce that he had landed in Britain, though the expedition was a fiasco and hardly a yard/metre of territory beyond the actual camp on the sea shore was won, a solemn thanks-giving of twenty days` duration was proclaimed.
CAESAR`S FIRST EXPEDITION TO BRITAIN
The trim village of Walmer, some two miles/three km from Deal on the Dover side, from which it is separated by as quiet and park-like an area of spreading trees, luxuriant meadows, tidy roads, and well-built houses rising amid beautiful gardens, as you will find in England. Walmer Castle, the official seat of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, built in the 1539, is one of the sights of the place, and here, too, is the little old church of St. Mary, which stands in a meadow of the great Duke of Wellington, who used to worship here.
This gracious and old-world neighbourhood, a corner of the traditional England we love, is historic ground; for here the Roman legionaries, from many of whom we are directly descended, first many of whom we are directly descended, first set foot on British soil. Here, across these parks and gardens, and in the quiet graveyard where generations of the men of Kent lie sleeping, the invaders of nearly two thousand years ago first struggled with these British ancestors of ours with whom the Romans eventually married.
In these days, then, when England, after much tribulation, seems to have taken on a new lease life, let us listen once more to the story of the coming of the Romans which the surge of the waves seems to tell us as they beat upon the shingle of the Walmer shore. True, it is the story of a brief visit, a fiasco in a military sense; but it is the beginning of the history of our connection with the Eternal City, which ultimately introduced into our blood that something of “the grandeur that was Rome” which has helped to send us forth adventuring and conquering over the face of the earth, plus being an island people the seas was our highway to the world.
Half a century before the birth of Christ the outstanding figure in Europe was that of Caius Julius Caesar, who, in those days, was a dashing and recklessly brave military commander, a superb horseman, a graceful swordsman, an excellent athlete, a prodigious spendthrift, and an incorrigible wooer of fair women. In Gaul, so the early writers state, he had taken 800 towns by storm, subdued 300 tribes, killed a million men, and sent another million into slavery; and now, though formerly he had been regarded as an effeminate flop, he was become the idol of Rome and the army, for his men had found that he was not only brilliant general but was willing to share with them all the hardships of warfare, and they were prepared to follow him wherever he should lead them.
When he began to talk about invading Britain, people said that he probably wished to do so because he had been told that good pearls could be obtained there, and it was well known that he liked giving pearls to his lady friends. Others, having heard that Britain was a very wealthy and prosperous State, supposed that he was impelled by a desire to enrich himself and his men; but Caesar himself stated that his real object was to stop the British sending troops over to Gaul/France to help the Gauls against him. Actually one may say that a spirit of adventure, a love of exploration, and a continuous desire for new worlds to conquer were his chief motives.
During the fighting in Gaul he had made much use of the friendly King of the Atrebates, a tribe which lived on both sides of the Channel, the north of Gaul/France being its earlier home and the south of Britain around what is now Southampton and up into Berkshire being the land where it had more recently settled. This monarch, whose name was Commius, realised that Caesar, if opposed, had the power to inflict untold suffering on Britain; and he felt that he ought to persuade the rulers of the other British states to offer no resistance to Rome.
Probably at his instigation, therefore, a deputation of British nobles came across the channel in August 55 B.C. to meet the great Roman general and to offer terms of peace; and Caesar asked him to go back to Britain with these ambassadors and try to arrange with all the British tribal kings to acknowledge the suzerainty of Rome. Commius agreed to this, but no sooner had he broached the subject to Cassivellaunus, the powerful King of the Catuvellauni, who reigned in much splendour at St. Albans (Verulam) in Hertfordshire, than he was denounced as a traitor and imprisoned.
Thereupon Caesar, who was at Boulogne, hastily collected his ships and men, and meanwhile sent one of his officers, a certain Gaius Volusenus, across the Channel in a war-galley to reconnoitre the coast and try to find a good landing-place.
When this officer returned to Boulogne with the necessary information Caesar decided to start at once, although he was not ready and would have to muddle through as best he could. The expeditionary force consisted of two legions, the famous Tenth and the Seventh; a body of slingers from the Balearic Isles, off the coast of Spain; and some North African and Cretan archers. These men over 9,000 in number all told, were sent aboard the war-galleys and transports and meanwhile a force of 500 Gallic cavalry stationed at Ambleteuse was told to embark and join him at sea.
The expedition was ready to sail on the evening of 25th August, five days before full moon; but the tide was high at 1800 hrs, on that day, and the naval officers seem to have advised Caesar to wait for the ebb. This he did, and soon after midnight, when the moon had set, the fleet quietly weighed anchor and headed across the ink-black sea towards Cape Grisnez; but as they passed Ambleteuse in the darkness the lanterns in the harbour told them that the cavalry transport had not yet made a start.
During the night the galleys got far ahead of the transports from Boulogne, and by 0900 hrs on the morning of the 26th they were close under the white cliffs of Dover and could see the British forces gathering on the grass on the summit. The sea was calm, and here the ships rode at anchor all day, nor was it till about 1700 hrs that the transports arrived, though there was as yet no sign of the cavalry division. Caesar, however, would wait no longer, and the fleet therefore moved eastwards to Walmer, where the menacing cliffs came to an end, while the British troops hurried along the coast to keep them in sight.
The landing seems to have taken place just in front of the grounds of Walmer Castle, where today, if you stand with your back to the sea, you will have in front of you a field/garden surrounding the castle, while in the distance to your right are the houses and pier of Deal, and to your left are the nearer the homes of Kingsdown. The waves are here continuously throwing up banks of shingle, so that there is now a wide stretch of loose pebbles between the fields and the water`s edge. In Caesar`s time this belt of shingle was much narrower, but the slope down to the water was just as steep as it is today; and on this bank of pebbles the ships grounded just before sunset in water which was so deep that the soldiers feared to jump into it, and meanwhile the British forces were drawn up on the edge of the shingle and were directing a hail of missiles at them.
At last, however, the standard-bearer of the Tenth Legion sprang into the water, shouting to the others to follow him unless they wished to see the eagles captured; and thereupon the Romans went overboard into the surf in a crowd, and, splashing ashore under the cover of their shields, scrambled up the shingle and drove the British back to the fields and woods after a desperate fight. They then pushed forward and hastily entrenched themselves, probably on the slope which forms the tail end of the downs at the Walmer side of kingsdown and which has a protecting valley behind it; and darkness must have fallen while they were still digging themselves in.
Next morning the British sent envoys to the camp to sue for peace, asking Caesar to forgive the imprisonment of King Commius; and during the next two days the Romans had the satisfaction of seeing the richly dressed local chieftains come in and surrender. Then suddenly their luck failed them, and the rest of the story is one of disaster.
On the morning of the 30th August the cavalry transports were sighted trying to make the shore in the teeth of a gale, but their efforts to reach land were in vain, and at last they were seen to turn about and run the storm back towards Gaul/France.
That night the moon was full, and an exceptionally high tide and rough sea at Walmer bumped and ground the ships upon the shingle, wrecking twelve of the transports and damaging several of the galleys, with the result that during the next few days the British chiefs, taking new heart, slipped away one by one, obviously to collect their forces for a second attack, while the Romans feverishly patched up their vessels and prayed for better weather.
One day in the first week in September some men of the Seventh Legion were out reaping the corn in the field not far from the camp, perhaps on the high ground in the vicinity of Walmer church, or, maybe, up towards the railway station, when from behind an adjacent wood a great force of British chariots suddenly swept down upon them. Fortunately for the Romans, the dust thrown up by the chariots was observed by the sentries at the camp; Caesar was informed, and, guessing what had happened, raced off to the cornfield with his men and arrived just in time to avert a complete disaster.
During the next few days it poured with rain and the drenching and disheartened Romans, squelching about on the grassy slope or scrunching over the shingle where their ships were lying, could do nothing. But at length the British made a wild attack on the camp, and were so completely defeated that for the second time they sued for peace. Thereupon Caesar hastily made terms with them, embarked his army, and sailed back to Gaul/France, heartily thankful to be cut of that typically British mess into which his reckless spirit had landed him.
CAESAR`S SECOND EXPEDITION TO BRITAIN
After the fiasco of the first expedition to Britain, related in the previous chapter, Caesar went back to Italy; but before he left he made arrangements at Boulogne for the building of a vast fleet of transports and for the collection of troops, stores, and materials, so that a really overwhelming invasion of the island could be accomplished.
He returned to the northern coast of Gaul/France in June, 54 B.C., and there he found assembled an army of at least 35,000 men, consisting of eight legions, 4,000 Gallic cavalry, and a strong force of slingers and archers, while in the harbours of Boulogne and elsewhere more than 800 transports and galleys were in readiness.
Meanwhile, in Britain, Cassivellaunus (Caswallon), King of the Catuvellauni, who reigned at St. Albans, in Hertfordshire, had come to blows with Imanuentius, King of the Trinovantes, who reigned at Colchester, in Essex, and the latter had been killed.
His son, Mandubracius, thereupon fled to Gaul/France and presented himself at Caesar`s camp, where Commius, King of the Atrebates, who ruled a part of the Gaulish/French coast besides parts of Sussex, Hampshire, and Berkshire, was already in residence.
In the camp there was also Dumnorix, a chieftain of the Aedui, the most important of the Gallic tribes of Northern Gaul/France; but this personage, refusing to go with the expedition, on the pretext that he was such a bad sailor, finally made a bolt for it and was caught and executed as a deserter.
At the last moment Caesar decided to leave three legions and 2,000 cavalry in Gaul/France to protect his base from a Gallic attack; and on 6th July at about sunset the fleet set sail on the ebb tide before a light south-westerly breeze and steered towards Britain, carrying the other five legions, 2,000 cavalry, and the auxiliary force of archers and slingers.
By noon on 7th July they had landed without opposition between Sandown Castle and Sandwich, and during the afternoon they dug themselves in, probably on the high ground near the village of Worth, to which the sea then penetrated, though now it is two miles/three km away.
A few peasants were at once arrested and brought into the camp, and these men stated that a large British army was concentrated at Canterbury; and thereupon Caesar decided to march against them at once, and then to push onto St. Albans, the capital of King Cassivellaunus. He therefore left about 4,000 man and 300 cavalry at Worth, and, at midnight, set out upon the Canterbury road. At dawn, when he had covered nearly a dozen miles/20 km and was about to ford the Stour, his scouts reported that the British cavalry and chariots were collecting on the left bank of the river, probably near the village of Thanington. A flanking movement, however, soon dislodged them, and they retired to a fortress, the earthworks of which still exist, about a mile and a half/two and half km of Canterbury.
Against this stronghold Caesar launched the Seventh Legion, and by midday the place was captured with small loss, the British forces scattering in all directions. In the afternoon the camp was pitched; but during the night the wind got up and by daybreak was blowing with such terrific force that the Romans must have felt considerable anxiety in regard to the safety of the fleet. Then, just after the cavalry had been despatched to round up the retreating enemy, and preparations for the forward march to St. Albans were being made, messengers galloped into the camp, bringing the news that the gale had totally wrecked forty of the transports and that many other ships had been damaged.
Caesar instantly recalled the cavalry and the whole army marched back in the greatest dejection to Worth. There, on the windy sea coast, he remained for ten wretched days, while work was carried on, night and day, first in throwing up defensive walls around a wide area, then in hauling the ships up beyond reach of the tide within this fortified space, and finally in repairing the damage and making the vessels seaworthy once more.
At last, in the third week in July, the march inland could be begun once more, and again the British forces were encountered near Canterbury; but this time very serious fighting took place. In the first place engagement the Gallic cavalry were badly cut up, and shortly afterwards part of one of the legions was overwhelmed by the British chariots. A third attack, at first successful, led the enemy, however, to advance too recklessly, and the Romans inflicted a great and decisive defeat upon them, which was the only pitched battle of the campaign, the British thereafter adopting guerrilla tactics.
Caesar then marched upon St. Albans, crossing the Medway above Rochester, perhaps between Aylesford and Halling; and, passing probably through Bromley, he reached the Thames near the Chelsea Suspension Bridge, London being at this time a town of no importance. The Thames at this spot was just fordable, though the water was up to the men`s necks, but the passage of the river was a difficult operation, being made in the face of a large enemy force gathered on the north side behind a formidable array of sharp stakes concealed under the water. Many relics of the fight have been recovered from the north side of the river bed, where the main struggle took place. These include skulls and bones, several weapons, a beautifully wrought British shield, part of a Roman military boot, and so forth.
During the whole length of the march from Kent, the British had harassed the invaders, and as Caesar pushed on towards St. Albans he was dogged by hostile bands and was constantly ambushed. In revenge, he had at first destroyed houses and villages on either side of the road, but now when he entered the western fringes of the country of the Trinovantes, north of London, he refrained from these reprisals and obtained the friendship of that tribe through the efforts of the above-mentioned Mandubracius.
The Roman army arrived before St. Albans some time in the last week of July, and the town quickly fell. Its king, Cassivellaunus, however, was not there: he had slipped back to Kent, and had there organised an attack on the invaders` base at Worth; but the assault was unsuccessful, and the Kentish prince, Lugotorix, who led it, was captured.
Meanwhile Caesar did not remain at St. Albans, but at once marched back by the way he had come, taking with him a number of prisoners and great herds of cattle. Before 5th August he was back at Worth, for on that date he wrote a letter to Marcus Cicero from there, which letter, by the way, reached Rome in a little over three weeks. Here, at his base, he remained until the middle of September, and, through the mediation of King Commius, he had the satisfaction of receiving the submission of Cassivellaunus and the other British kings.
On 15th September, at about 2100 hrs., he embarked on a dead calm sea, and reached Boulogne at day-break. After that Britain was left in peace for almost a hundred years; but its Romanisation had begun, and Roman culture rapidly spread throughout the southern part of the country. Tacitus wells sums up the extent of the value of Caesar`s work when he says that “he indicated, rather than transmitted, the acquisition of Britain to posterity.”
BRITAIN AFTER CAESAR`S EXPEDITION
After the abortive invasions of Britain by Caesar in 55 and 54 B.C., the outstanding figure in our island history is that of King Commius, who, it will be remembered, ruled the tribe of the Atrebates on both sides of the Channel.
Realizing that Britain could not withstand the Roman invaders, he had acted as mediator between Caesar and the British kings; but now that the Romans were come and gone again, he began to display some hostility towards the legions.
This came to the ears of Labienus, who was commanding in Gaul during /Caesar`s absence, and in the easy-going manner of the time he at once instigated a plot for the assassination of the disaffected king. The attempt was made and failed, and Commius, escaping with a nasty wound, not unnaturally became one of the most bitter enemies of Rome.
In 52 B.C. the great Vercingetorix led an insurrection of the Gauls against Caesar, and the embittered Commius threw in his lot with him, carrying on the war long after his leader had been captured. For some time he lived the life of an outlaw, occasionally capturing a Roman convoy or ambushing a party of legionaries; but at last, after a second attempt had been made to assassinate him, he submitted, making one stipulation, however, in the bitterness of his heart, namely, that he should never again be asked to meet a Roman.
He then retired to his dominions in Britain, and there is some evidence that one of his main residences was situated on that low-lying spit of land known as Selsey Bill, where the summer bungalows now stand.
The sea has been encroached about a mile/1 ½ kms all round the Bill, and when the winter gales have stripped the sand and shingle from the clay along the present line of the beach between Selsey and the village of West Wittering, coins may often be found in the runnels which drain to the sea, some being of gold. More than 300 are known to have been picked up, and some of these belong to Commius, and to his three sons, Tincommius, Verica, and Eppillus, each of whom is called “King,” and seems to have ruled a portion of his father`s realms in Sussex, Kent, Hampshire, Berkshire, and Surrey. At one point a coastguard found a hoard of more than 200 coins, together with bars of gold, gold wire, gold plate, ring-money, and `other gold objects.`
So much for Commius, whose chequered career appears to have ended in peace and prosperity on our own happy side of the Channel. Meanwhile Cassivellaunus was succeeded at St. Albans by his son Tasciovanus, somewhere about 30 B.C., and this monarch reigned until about 45 A.D., when he was succeeded by his two sons Epaticcus and Cunobeline.
The latter is an interesting figure for us, because he has been immortalised by Shakespeare under the name of Cymbeline; and the fact that many of his coins have been found at Colchester may indicate that he had conquered the Trinovantes, the Essex tribe which was once under Caesar`s protection.
These different British kings, with the exception of the irreconcilable Commius, kept in close touch with the Romans; and Tincommius and another monarch named Dubnovellaunus are known to have visited Rome in the time of the Emperor Augustus and to have obtained his friendship. When Cunobeline was an old man he quarrelled with his son Adminius, and in 40 A.D. the latter fled to France/Gaul, where he presented himself to the Emperor Caligula, who was then in that country, inviting him to invade Britain.
The eccentric Caligula was tickled by the idea, and marched a large army to the coast, but there, losing heart, he paraded his legions on the beach, told them to fill their helmets with sea-shells as a souvenir, and marched them back again.
Another son of Cunobeline, named Bericus, made a journey to Rome a few years later; and indeed, Strabo says that so many princes either sent embassies to the capital or came there themselves that “almost the whole island was made familiar to the Romans.”
Roman merchants seem to have travelled freely in Britain at this time; and, under Germanicus, some Roman soldiers who have been shipwrecked on the British coast were well treated and provided with another vessel.
The head of a colossal statue apparently of Augustus or Germanicus has been found near Chichester; and some Roman money of this epoch has come to light throughout the country. At Chichester an inscription has been found which speaks of a certain Roman, whose half-obliterated name may have been Pudens, and who gave the site for a temple to Neptune and Minerva in the reign of the British King Cogidubnus, perhaps in the time of the Emperor Tiberius Claudius (14-37 A.D.)
When Cunobeline died in 42 A.D. he was succeeded by his two sons, Caratacus (often wrongly written Caractacus) and Togodumnus; but his other two sons, Adminius and Bericus, who, apparently, were living in Rome, seem to have persuaded the Emperor Claudius that the time was ripe for the capture of Britain.
At this period our country was being very much talked about at the Roman Court. It was such a rich land, so very civilised, and the many British princes and nobles who had visited or were living in Rome, seem to have been regarded as `such nice young men.` There was a British lady, too, called Claudia, who was married to a Roman named Pudens, just possibly the same man who had given the land for the temple at Chichester, as recorded above; and this Claudia had caused such a sensation in Rome by her beauty and charms that Martial had written an ode in her honour.
(I must mention in passing that St. Paul, in his second epistle to Timothy, iv., 21, speaks of Pudens and a Claudia as being among the Christian Brethren, and it has been suggested that the former is identical with the Pudens of Chichester, and the latter with the Claudia, wife of Pudens, of Martial`s poem; but there is no convincing evidence for the identification, though it is not impossible.)
Britain, in fact, was very much in fashion in Rome, and it seems to have been the smart thing for men to drive about in British chariots, and for the ladies to dye their hair golden like that of some of the British women. Everybody wanted to see the island annexed and made an accessible part of the Empire; and the Emperor, therefore, gave orders that a large army should be collected on the Gaulish/French coast, where the cliffs of Dover were in sight on a clear day. In the summer of 43 A.D. he sent his general, Anlus Plautius, to take up the command and to lead the legions in a great invasion of the island. This expedition, as shall be related in the next chapter, was completely successful, Britain thereafter becoming an integral part of the Roman Empire; and from that time right into the sixth century the bulk of the British people, our ancestors, or part of them, were proud to call themselves Romans.
THE CONQUEST OF BRITAIN BY THE ROMANS
The great Roman invasion of Britain, which led to the complete conquest of the main parts of the island and introduced the strain of Roman blood into our veins, took place in 43 A.D., nearly 2,000 years ago, in the reign of the Emperor Claudius.
The general in command of the expedition, as has been said, was named Aulus Plautius, and under him were 50,000 men, including the Second, Ninth, fourteenth, and Twentieth Legions, the Second being commanded by Vespasian, who later became Emperor, while his son Titus, also afterwards Emperor, was one of the officers.
In a vast fleet of ships, they set sail from Boulogne, intending, apparently, to make for the neighbourhood of Deal, where Caesar had landed nearly a hundred years before; but as the leading galleys were crossing the Channel in the darkness a meteor shot across the starlit sky towards the west, and thereat the Romans, regarding it as an omen, turned westward, and at length arrived, so it would seem, before the flat lands of Hayling Island, near Portsmouth, the Isle of Wight being on their left, or port side, Selsey Bill on their right, or starboard, and the distant Sussex Downs bounding their view ahead.
Nobody knows exactly where they landed, and, indeed, it may not have been in this part of the country at all, but the probability is that they pushed up the inlet which leads towards Chichester and disembarked at Itchenor or Bosham, or at some other point on the creek where the low-lying fields and the clumps of trees come down to the water`s edge at high tide, and at low tide to the edge of the mud flats which are the haunt of multitudes of sea birds.
Chichester, or Regnum, as the Romans called it, was an important British city, standing amid flat pastures backed by the Downs; and the waterway, which when the tide was full led almost to its gates, must have been well known to the pilots employed by the invaders.
For three days the landing was so hotly opposed by British forces, who held the flats each low tide, that the legions could not get away from their ships; but at last, when the tide was ebbing, some Gallic troops who were good swimmers slipped into the water, carrying their weapons in their teeth, surprised the enemy, and killed a large number of their chariot-horses. Then, as soon as the tide was out, Vespasian led the Second Legion on to the flats, and, after a stiff fight, a landing was affected and the British retired.
The army thereupon marched inland to the Thames, probably by way of the road which was later made into the famous highway known even to this day as the Stane-Street, running from Chichester to the London neighbourhood, crossing the Sussex Downs by Bignor Hill, west of Amberley, and passing through Pulborough, Slinfold, Ockley, Dorking, Ewell, and Tooting.
At the Thames the Romans were held in check by the British, who were led by king Caratacus (Caradoc); but at last the advance was resumed, now eastwards towards Colchester, the royal city of Caratacus. The Emperor Claudius then arrived in person, bringing large reinforcements, including a great number of elephants, the tanks of those days; and one can imagine the consternation of the British villagers as they watched these strange and fearful monsters pounding down their lanes and crashing through their woods in pursuit of the flying soldiers.
The back of the resistance had already been broken when the Emperor crossed the Thames, and he remained only sixteen days in the country, just long enough to enter Colchester in state, elephants and all, after which he returned to Rome, where he held a great Triumph, thereafter calling his infant son Britannicus and having the name of Britain stamped upon his coins. In the Palazzo Barbarini in Rome there is an inscription which states that Claudius “received the surrender of eleven British kings, and for then first time reduced foreigners from across the sea under the power of the Roman people.”
Meanwhile the army in Britain was split up into four divisions. One division, of which the Second Legion was the nucleus, operated in the south and easily subdued the whole country from Kent to Exeter. Another division, containing the Ninth Legion, marched north to Leicester and Lincoln, and finally went into permanent quarters at York. The third division, consisting of the Twentieth Legion and its auxiliaries,
worked westwards to Wroxeter, near Shrewsbury, and at length established itself at Chester. The fourth division, meanwhile marched into Wales and set up its headquarters at Caerleon-on-Usk, near Newport, the place where important excavations have taken place.
Altogether, these armies fought thirty pitched battles with the British, and there were still sporadic outbreaks when, in 50 A.D., Aulus Plautius was recalled and Ostorius Scapula took over the command.
Caratacus had now fled to Yorkshire, where he had sought the help of Cartismandua, Queen of the Brigantes, the tribe which inhabited the country north of the Humber; but at length that lady handed him over to the Romans together with his wife and children, and he was taken to Rome, where he was led through the streets in chains, the townspeople crowding to see this brave British leader who for nine years had kept up the fight against the legions. The Emperor Claudius was touched by his noble bearing, and gave orders for him to be treated with respect; and that is the last we hear of him.
In 53 A.D., Ostorius Scapula`s health broke down and he died, being succeeded by Aulus Didius, who led the command until 58 A.D., when he was replaced by the energetic Suetonius Paulinus. In 61 A.D., this general marched into North Wales for the purpose of exterminating the Druids, that ancient priesthood being evidently at the bottom of all the intrigues against Rome. The wild island of Mona, now called Anglesey, was the chief seat of these priests whom Valerius Maximus describes as “long-trousered philosophers”; and there, in weird sacred groves, amid dense and gloomy forests which have now entirely disappeared, they are said by some Roman writers to have practised their terrible rites of human sacrifice, though other authorities deny this and give them credit for having been very quiet and learned men, of civil and courteous manners.
To reach this island the Romans had to cross the Menai Straits near Bangor, and this meant a scramble down the wooded slopes of the great chasm which separates the island from the mainland, then the passage across the deep but narrow waters, and finally a climb up the precipitous rocks and cliffs on the other side. The enemy was ready for them, and Tacitus graphically describes how the adherents of the Druids were gathered on the opposite shore in dense array, “with women dashing through the ranks like furies, their dresses funereal, their hair dishevelled, and carrying torches in their hands,” while the priests, with arms raised to heaven, poured curses on the invaders.
The whole thing was uncanny, and the Romans were so nervous that their general had to address them, telling them “not to be scared by a rabble of women and fanatics.” At last, however, a large body of phlegmatic Dutchmen, who formed part of the Roman army, swam the straits and surprised the enemy, capturing an area of ground which could be used as a landing place; and thereafter the whole expedition went across in boats and on rafts.
Then followed a great massacre of the Druids, accompanied by the destruction of their strange sacred places and shrines amid the woods, and the last survivals of this ancient religion of prehistoric Britain went up in flame and smoke.
But while this campaign was in progress a widespread rebellion broke out in Norfolk and Suffolk, the next chapter will be describing Beodicea, the ferocious queen of that part of the country, very nearly succeeded in wiping out the entire Roman army.