Why Claudius invaded Britain

Author: H Wake, 07 Apr 06

Despite the famous claim that he had come, seen and conquered Britain ("Veni, Vidi, Vici"), in 55BC, Julius Caesar's attempted invasion of Britain was more of an armed visit. He led raids on the southeast coast in 55 and 54 BC and managed to gain some tribute in exchange for hostages. Although the Romans won their battles, the "invasion" force was more or less defeated by the weather in the channel. There were a few aborted invasion attempts during Augustus's and Caligula's reigns, but it was not until 43 AD that the Romans, under Emperor Claudius, really invaded Britain.

Claudius, was the uncle of the much-hated Caligula. When Caligula was finally assassinated (after a reign that was murderous even by the standards of Roman emperors) Claudius came to power. He was generally seen as a stuttering old fool, but proved to be an effective emperor. After two years, he ordered the invasion of Britain. There were several factors contributing to this decision. They include:

  • Claudius had to prove himself in the role of Emperor. Roman leaders traditionally achieved glory and popularity through military success that led to expansion of the Empire. Claudius had begun to show himself capable of restoring internal peace after Caligula's rule. However, the maintenance of internal stability in Rome depended on the Emperor's strength. Claudius' reputation as a weakling was likely to encourage constant challenge to his position if were not able to demonstrate his success in the type of actions that Romans expected of their leaders.
  • Britain's wealth made it an attractive target. British mines produced metals, including iron, tin, silver and gold, which were traded for Roman goods long before the invasion. Other exports were slaves, hides and hunting dogs. (Strabo, 1st century BC). The addition of Britain to the Empire promised to bring a good source of income for Rome. The more plunder and tax income he brought to teh roman treasury and the pockets of Roman soldiers, the more easily an Emperor could remain popular with all classes.
  • As a consequence of the trading relationships between the British tribes and the Empire, there was an existing Roman influence on the tribes of the southeast. Alliances made since Julius Caesar's time continued to influence the internal politics of British tribes. Tribal leaders had called for Roman support in their wars. However, according to Strabo, the British already paid more in duties than could be gained from them in taxes if they became part of the Empire. The Romans had little motive for invasion while trade continued uninterrupted.
  • However, British tribes were constantly at war with each other. "Divide and rule" is the usual recipe for imperial expansion. The Romans could take advantage of the tribal battles to gain allies while having British help in eliminating any potential local opponents, by supporting one tribe against its enemies. In AD 98, Tacitus wrote that "It is rare that two or three tribes join up to fight a common danger. So, fighting in separate groups, all are conquered."

An immediate cause for the invasion in AD 43 was that war between the Celtic tribes of the southeast threatened to disrupt trade with Rome. This situation offered both a reason for invading and an opportunity to build an alliance with one tribe by offering military aid. Roman military superiority combined with local fighting skills would ensure victory for the chosen tribe and create a British ally, who could be disposed of later, if necessary.

The Atrebates (a Roman ally since Julius Caesar's time) were threatened by the Catuvellauni and appealed to Rome. Claudius sent 4 legions (20,000 men) with about another 20,000 auxiliaries, commanded by Plautus. The Romans are thought to have landed near Richborough (which still has the remains of a Roman shore fort.) The British were led by Caractacus, Togodumnus and Cunobelinus. After a two day battle near present-day Rochester, the Romans drove the British back as far as Essex. Claudius himself arrived with a force that included war elephants, supposedly to finish off the battle, but, more likely, to ensure that the already-certain victory was accredited to him, in support of his Imperial reputation.

According to Ian Andrews, in Boudicca against Rome, 1972, many tribes surrendered without fighting or actively welcomed the Romans. All the tribes of the Southeast surrendered to Rome. Over the next 16 years, Rome completed the conquest of the rest of England, having successfully defeating the only serious threat to their power, Boudicca's rebellion.


Sources Used

Mantin, P & Pulley, R, 1992 "The Roman World, Frome republic to Empire " Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

Tacitus, AD 98 "Agricola,"

Cite this work

Wake, H., "Why Claudius invaded Britain," http:// romans.etrusia.co.uk
, 7 April 2006.

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