Britain in the Early Empire

So the Roman Republic dissolved, amid much bloodshed and corruption, and re-emerged as the Roman Empire after Octavian’s decisive victory at Actium. The story of Britain’s relationship with Rome during that period up to the Claudian invasion is one of procrastination, hesitation and false starts descending, under Caligula, into nothing short of farce. Nevertheless, much good diplomatic work was achieved, not least, as noted, the establishment of a number of client kingdoms and the beginnings of the process we call Romanisation in the south-east corner of Britain. When Claudius did invade his progress was rapid, because a number of the noblemen and decision makers already enjoyed a cordial relationship with Rome and were only too happy to facilitate Claudius’ progress. Indeed, Claudius was fortunate enough to be able to benefit from and exploit Caesar’s diplomatic and commercial legacy.

Imperial Aspirations

The emperor Augustus, as Octavian, (r. 27 BC–AD 14) toyed with the idea of invading in 34 BC: ‘he had set out to lead an expedition into Britain also, and had already advanced into Gaul . . . when some of the newly-conquered people and Dalmatians along with them rose in revolt’ (Dio 49, 38). In 27 BC we hear that:

These were the actions of Augustus at that time. He also set out to make an expedition into Britain, but on reaching the provinces of Gaul hesitated there. For the Britons seemed likely to make terms with him, and the affairs of the Gauls were still unsettled, as the civil wars had begun immediately after their subjugation. He took a census of the inhabitants and regulated their life and government. From Gaul he proceeded into Spain, and established order there too.

(Dio 53, 22)

And in 25 BC:

Augustus was planning an expedition into Britain, since the people there would not come to terms, but he was detained by the revolt of the Salassi and by the hostility of the Cantabri and Astures. The former dwell at the foot of the Alps . . . whereas both the other tribes occupy the strongest part of the Pyrenees on the Spanish side, together with the plain below.

(Dio 53, 25)

Cassius Dio (c. AD 155–c. 235) interestingly gives us another explanation for Octavian’s first projected invasion, claiming that he was anxious to emulate his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, particularly after the success in Illyricum seemed to give him an opportunity to add to his military triumphs. However, trouble in Pannonia, Dalmatia and northern Italy put a stop to that.

To this we can add Strabo’s comments made about the same time. First, he says that the Romans were loath to invade because they believed the Britons to be too weak a force to cross over and threaten Roman rule on the European mainland; and second, that the potential return on exacting tribute was already outweighed by the tax revenues payable from the island (Geographica 2, 5, 8). Strabo repeats this assertion at 4, 5, 3, adding that British leaders had been in Rome making offerings to Augustus at the capitol – in effect giving over the whole island to Rome. The significance of this being that these influential Britons represented a powerful pro-Roman faction in the island. It would be interesting to know what the Brigantes and other, less compliant, tribes made of all of this.

But there was another source of information, at least for the literate and chattering classes. We have seen how Lucretius and Catullus reference Britannia, and, in the case of Catullus, Julius Caesar himself, in the late republic. In the early empire two pro-Augustan poets, Virgil and Horace, mention the island in the context of imminent or accomplished invasion; it was everybody’s expectation that Britannia was going to fall to the Romans. We have ultima Thule from Virgil in the Georgics (1, 30) as an example of Augustus’ global suzerainty: ‘the boundless ocean’s God thou come, Sole dread of seamen, till far Thule bow Before thee’ and ‘Even now I long to escort the stately procession to the shrine and witness the slaughter of steers; and see how Britons raise the crimson curtain they are woven into’ in the same poem (3, 25). Horace gives us much the same: ‘O shield our Caesar as he goes To furthest Britain, and his band, Rome’s harvest! Send on Eastern foes Their fear, and on the Red Sea strand!’ (Odes 1, 35, 29-31) – in ultimos orbis Britannos. Far off Britain was within the reach of Augustus and spoken of in the same lines as other outposts of empire. Augustus, however, may not have thanked Horace for verifying that he would not become a god unless or until he conquered the Parthians, the Persians and the Britons.

Moreover, the debacles visited on the Romans by the Clades Lolliana (17 BC) and at Teutoburger Wald (AD 9) were eloquent reminders of the huge risks involved in oversees aggression and most likely deterred Augustus from further risky expansionism in the north west.

So, all the plans of Augustus came to nothing and relations with Britannia and its tribes proceeded on the basis of diplomacy and trade agreements. Sporadic references to Britannia include British kings who sent embassies to Augustus in Rome, and kings received by Augustus as exiles – Dubnovellaunus and Tincomarus. Tacitus (Agricola 13) gives an example of cordial relations and at the same time rekindles the mystique of Britannia in his reports that some of Tiberius’ (r. AD 14–37) ships were blown off course to Britain during his German campaigns in AD 16; they were promptly sent back whence they came by local rulers, the startled Romans telling tales of hurricanes, strange birds, monsters and figures half man half animal, imagined or otherwise. The diplomacy and commerce continued until AD 40 when an exile from the Catuvellauni, Adminius, son of Cunobelinus, fled to the court of Caligula and led the ever-unpredictable Emperor Caligula (r. AD 37–41) to plan an invasion of Britain. The gossipy imperial biographer Suetonius (c. AD 69–after 122) tells that, characteristically for Caligula, it was a complete shambles and that the ‘invaders’ never actually left Gaul. Caligula ranged his siege engines on the Gallic coast facing Britannia, then, to everyone’s astonishment (or maybe not), ordered his troops to gather seashells from the beach – such was the booty due to Rome (Suetonius, Caligula 44-46; Dio Cassius, Roman History 59, 25). This they did, a lighthouse was erected, a bounty of four gold pieces was announced and he bid the troops ‘go rich and go happy!’

Verica and Client Kingdoms

Verica was a British client king in the years before the Claudian invasion of AD 43. Numismatic evidence suggests he was king of the Atrebates tribe and a son of Commius. He succeeded his elder brother Eppillus as king in about AD 15, reigning from Calleva Atrebatum, Silchester. He was recognised as rex, king, by Rome and appears to have had longstanding and amicable trade and diplomatic links with the empire.

His territory was threatened from the east by the Catuvellauni, led by Epaticcus, brother of Cunobelinus, who conquered Calleva in about AD 25. After Epaticcus’ death c. AD 35, Verica regained some territory, but Cunobelinus’ son Caratacus assumed power and conquered the entire kingdom some time after AD 40.

Cassius Dio (60, 19) says that Bericus (Verica) was exiled from Britain around this time and fled to Claudius. Suetonius (Claudius 17) refers to demands by the Britons that Rome return ‘certain deserters’. As rex, Verica was nominally an ally of Rome, so his exile gave Claudius a pretext, if he needed one, to invade Britannia and restore Verica to power.

The Roman client kingdoms in Britain were indigenous tribes who had elected to ally themselves with the Romans, seeing, no doubt, that discretion was the better part of any valour. It protected them from Roman aggression by assuming Roman protection, protection which at the same time deterred land-grabbing expansionist interference from other hostile tribes. The Romans sometimes created or enlisted client kingdoms when they felt arm’s length influence without direct rule was appropriate or desirable.

The system, as we have seen, began when Julius Caesar restored Mandubracius as king of the Trinovantes, after he had been deposed by Cassivellaunus and then supported Caesar’s second invasion of Britain in 54 BC. The arrangement ran from 54 BC–c. AD 39. Caesar also established the Catuvellauni as a tributary state of Rome. Since AD 10, both areas were ruled by Cunobelinus, who lost control to an anti-Roman faction led by his son Caratacus around AD 39; this was to prompt that farcical ‘invasion’ of Caligula’s.

We have established that it seems likely Augustus adopted a policy of client kingdoms with regard to Britain as being sufficient to keep the island under control, in preference to a full-scale invasion with its financial and manpower costs; at the same time it chimed well with his general foreign policy of containment rather than expansion of the Roman Empire. Financially, the treasuries of Augustus and Tiberius after him would continue to benefit from the customs duty brought in by the flood of imports from the continent as evidenced by excavations of pottery and grave goods around Colchester and other places including Silchester with the Atrebates; Bagendon (Cirencester), Dobunni; Leicester, Coritani; and North Ferriby, Parisi.

Client kingdoms were particularly successful in the south east and included those ruled by Cogidubnus of the Regnenses (55 BC–AD 70s), Prasutagus of the Iceni (roughly Norfolk; c. AD 47–60); Cartimandua of the Brigantes and Boduocus of the Dobunni. The antecedents of the Regnenses, the Atrebates, had been client kingdoms of Rome since Caesar’s first invasion in 55 BC. Following the Roman conquest, Cogidubnus, who at some point received the Roman names Tiberius Claudius, ruled what had been the lands of the Atrebates. His people were now referred to as Regni or Regnenses. Cogidubnus was especially loyal to the Romans and after his death, probably in AD 73, the kingdom was absorbed into the Roman province of Britannia.

AD 47 saw the measured governor and commander in chief Aulus Plautius giving way to Ostorius Scapula, a belligerent hawk if ever there was one; Ostorius Scapula exemplifies what happens when client kingdoms go wrong. Tacitus describes his uncompromising policy to ‘tame everything this side of Trent and the Severn’ (Annals 12, 31-40) as ill-advisedly ‘reducing the nearest part of Britain into a province’, which involved disarming those tribes which Plautius had trusted to retain their weapons. Result: the first Iceni rebellion which Ostorius put down only after a close-fought battle. Prasutagus was installed as king after the revolt of the Iceni. The Iceni were allowed quasi-independence, with the expectation that the kingdom would revert to Roman control on Prasutagus’ death. However, the king, invoking an agreement made with the Romans earlier, insisted on leaving control of his kingdom to his daughters. When he died in AD 60, the Romans denied all knowledge, choosing to skate over any small print or codicil, and seized control, thus inciting a second, more challenging, Iceni rebellion under Prasutagus’ wife Boudica. After ruthlessly quashing Boudica’s revolt, the Romans simply administered the territory as part of Britannia.

Much later when the Romans withdrew behind Hadrian’s Wall in AD 164, they left the Votadini as a client kingdom, a buffer zone against the Picts to the north. The Votadini were a Brythonic people who lived under the direct Roman rule between Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall from AD 138 – 162. They maintained their client status until the Romans withdrew from Britain in AD 410.

Client states were a critical element in what we now call Romanisation.

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