Roman Battles in England

There where of course several fights in England between different tribes before the arrival of the Romans. However these tribes did not keep records, so we know nothing about them. Most of the records about Roman battles, in England, where written by the Romans and they where rather blatantly bias. Something you should keep in mind when reading Roman accounts of the battles.

The Romans fought 3 major campaigns in England. In this article we will take a close look at them.

  1. Julius Caesar's expeditions 54-55 BC
  2. Claudian invasion 43 AD
  3. Bouddica revolt 60-61 AD

Julius Caesar's expeditions in Britain 55BC

Caesar's reason for leading the expeditions into England was the spoils. He collected pearls, gems, art and slaves. Caesar led 2 expeditions into what is now East England. The first in 55 BC and the second in 54 BC.

The first expedition was probably planned in 56 BC when the Armorican tribes from Britanny revolted against Rome, they received help from the tribes in England.

Caesar crossed the channel with 2 legions, 10,000 Roman troops. His ships approached the Cliffs of Dover, but the shores where lined with British soldiers. So they sailed further North East and landed on the shore of Deal. Five days later 500 Roman cavalry also attempted to cross to join the soldiers. The weather forced them to turn back. The storm also damaged the boats that landed at Deal.

The soldiers at Deal scavenged for food, fixed the ships and fought small battles with British soldiers. The British frequently used chariots in the fights, a tool of war the Romans considered antiquated. The British chariots would charge at the Romans throwing spears from the chariot. When they reached the Romans they would climb off the chariot and fight on, on foot.

After the ships where repaired Caesar ordered a return to Gaul.

Map of Julius Caesar's second expedition to Britain

Map of Julius Caesar's second expedition to Britain
The path taken, is my best guess based on the available facts

54 BC

In July 54BC Julius Caesar return with a larger force. He had 800 ships, 5 legions and 2,000 cavalry. They landed unopposed between Sandwich and Deal. The Britons withdrew inland.

Caesar left 300 cavalry troops and less than a legion of soldiers, drawn from his 5 legions, to secure the landing area. The rest of the force marched inland for 12 miles until they came to a river, probably the Great Stour river. The Romans started to cross the river. The forces on the other side was harassed by British cavalry and chariots. Once the Roman horse troops crossed, they where quickly able to drive the British mobile forces away. On the West bank there was an old unused fortification, that the British had prepared for battle, they then withdrew to this fortification.

Caesar ordered the seventh legion to break down the fortifications. The seventh legion used the testudo or 'tortoise' formation to approach the British and then built a ramp over the defensive trench. They then quickly overran the defenders inside. The British that fled the battle where not pursued as night was falling and the Roman soldiers where fatigued.

The next morning Caesar sent out troops to look for the British. The troops he sent out made contact with some British stragglers. At this point bad news reached Julius Caesar and he recalled the scouts because of it. The English weather had struck again destroying 40 vessels and damaging many more. The Romans spent 10 days fixing the damage to their boats. This allowed the Britains time to organise a large force.

All the tribes of North East England temporally united under the warlord Cassivellaunus. Cassivellaunus allowed the Romans to advance back to the Stour crossing. There they fought a large difficult battle. Eventually the Romans managed to push the Britains back forcing them to retreat into the direction of the Thames

In the area North of the Thames Cassivellaunus engaged the Romans using guerrilla tactics. He burned the food and harassed the troops using horse and chariot troops.

At this point some tribes that resented Cassivellaunus's power went over to the Romans. From informants, the Romans where then able to learn where Cassivellaunus's secret stronghold was. As Caesar approached the fort, allies of Cassivellaunus attacked the Romans guarding the boats, but failed. Cassivellaunus surrendered, but the terms the Romans imposed where moderate as there where problems in Gaul that Caesar had to deal with.

The information gathered by Caesar was used 97 years later, when the Claudian invasion took place.

Roman tortoise formation

Roman tortoise formation

Claudian invasion 43 AD

In the 97 years after Julius Caesar's expeditions, a trade relationship was built between Rome and the tribes in England. The Britons traded silver, iron and tin, while the Romans exported pottery and wine. Some tribute was also paid by the Britons. Additionally lead ore had been discovered, just before the invasion. Over time the relationship between the 2 had deteriorated and the Romans could not afford to be cut off from England.

Aulus Plautius a former governor was appointed as the head of the Roman forces. It was not unusual for Roman politicians to move between the army and political jobs. He was given four legions, 20,000 combat soldiers, with the same number of support troops.The initial landing was in the Rutupiae (Richborough) area. The landing was unopposed. Richborough would become the main port of entry for the Romans.

Plautius's strategy was was to divide and conquer the Britons. The larger tribes bickered over control of their combined army, while many smaller tribes aligned with the Romans, in the hope of attaining more power.

The resistance was organised under Caratacus the king of the Catuvellauni, and also his brother Togodumnus. The first and most important battle between them took place at a Medway river crossing. Caratacus and Togodumnus had significant numbers of soldiers and they where confident that they could hold their ground. The battle raged for 2 days. Plautius defeated the Britons' superior numbers by using a clever tactic. He used his legionnaires to distract the Britons, then special soldiers (Batavi) that trained to swim with all of their equipment, crossed the river.The Batavi attacked the Britons' rear guard killing many of their horses. This neutralized the Britons' chariot tactics.

Caratacus withdrew to the Thames. Togodumnus was killed in a skirmish with Roman soldiers. Togodumnus was so popular that his death reinvigorated the resistance to Rome. This forced the Plautius to order his troops to dig in and request help from Emperor Claudius. Claudius arrived six weeks later with 38 war elephants, a great deal of siege equipment and a division of soldiers. Claudius took control of the war effort and quickly subjugated the south of England. Over the next 20 years Roman control would slowly spread northwards.

The Bouddica revolt 60/61 AD

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Roman soldiers

Roman soldiers

Roman shield wall

Roman shield wall

Want to know more about the Romans in Britain read Where did the Romans settle in Britain.


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