The Roman Invasion of Wales

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The island of Britain was a mysterious place to the ancient Romans as it was beyond the great river Oceanus, described by Homer as encircling the world. For a long time, the idea of reaching the island was just a dream and some doubted it even existed, but by the first century AD, the conquered parts of the island would become the most westerly part of the Roman Empire.

Julius Caesar was the first to invade, first in 55 BC then a year later when he landed in Kent with five legions and 2,000 cavalrymen. After defeating the Catuvellauni tribe and gaining tribute from them, he was forced to return to Gaul to put down a rebellion and never returned.

The Romans would not come back to Britain for almost a century, when, in 43 AD, Emperor Claudius sent four legions, each containing around 5,500 professional Roman soldiers and around 20,000 auxiliaries, to invade Britain. Senator Aulus Plautius faced a large British force led by Catuvellauni kings Caratacus and his brother Togodumnus in the South East of Britain.

In the ensuing battles, Togodumnus was killed and Caratacus was forced to withdraw to his power base in the west. Later that year, the Catuvellauni tribe were defeated again and Caratacus fled further west to join the tribes in what is now Wales. Following the fall of the Catuvellauni, many tribes submitted to the Romans and Aulus Plautius was made the first Roman Governor of Britain.

After around five years, most of the country was subdued, with Southern and Central England forming the new Roman province and the North of England held for them by the client kingdom of the Brigantes.

The mountainous region of Wales however, proved much more challenging to the invaders. There, the tribes put up a fierce resistance. Led by Caratacus, they fought a guerrilla war winning victories over the Romans with lighting strikes, fast, decisive attacks followed by swift retreat to the hills when the damage was done. Caratacus refused to be drawn into pitch battles against the superior force, and for 10 years held of the enemy in this way until he was defeated and captured in 51 AD.

Following his defeat at the hands of Roman Governor Publius Ostorius, he managed to escape but was betrayed and captured in the lands of the Brigantes, whose queen, Cartimandua, handed him over to her Roman allies. After being paraded through Rome, he was allowed to address the crowd before his fate was decided. According to Tacitus, a Roman historian, the speech he gave was enough to win him and his family their lives and they were allowed to retire in Italy. Caratacus told Emperor Claudius and the baying crowd;

Caratacus, led through Rome in chains

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“Had my moderation in prosperity been equal to my noble birth and fortune, I should have entered this city as your friend rather than as your captive; and you would not have disdained to receive, under a treaty of peace, a king descended from illustrious ancestors and ruling many nations. My present lot is as glorious to you as it is degrading to myself. I had men and horses, arms and wealth. What wonder if I parted with them reluctantly? If you Romans choose to lord it over the world, does it follow that the world is to accept slavery? Were I to have been at once delivered up as a prisoner, neither my fall nor your triumph would have become famous. My punishment would be followed by oblivion, whereas, if you save my life, I shall be an everlasting memorial of your clemency.”

The Silures tribe from South Wales and Gloucestershire carried on the fight after Caratacus was captured but by 58 AD, the region was all but pacified and a network of roads, forts and garrisons built by the new Governor Quintus Veranius, divided the territory. Anglesey, an island and most northerly part of the region was the home of the Druidic Celtic leaders and was the last strong hold in Western Britain. In 61 AD, they were beaten by a Roman army. Tacitus said of the battle;

“The novelty of the fight struck the Romans with awe and terror. They stood in stupid amazement, as if their limbs were benumbed, riveted to one spot, a mark for the enemy. The exhortations of the general diffused new vigor through the ranks, and the men, by mutual reproaches, inflamed each other to deeds of valor. They felt the disgrace of yielding to a troop of women, and a band of fanatic priests; they advanced their standards, and rushed on to the attack with impetuous fury. The Britons perished in the flames, which they themselves had kindled. The island fell, and a garrison was established to retain it in subjection. The religious groves, dedicated to superstition and barbarous rites, were leveled to the ground. In those recesses, the natives [stained]their altars with the blood of their prisoners, and in the entrails of men explored the will of the gods.”

Romans massacring the Druids

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However, the campaign against the druids was cut short as the Romans had to pull out of the area to deal with the Boudicca revolt, giving the remaining Druids time to reorganise themselves and the western tribes.

Things quietened down in the area for a number of years but the Romans had all but conquered Wales under the governorship of Sextus Julius Frontinus in the summer of 78 AD. For three years, he had campaigned against the tribes, first the Silures then the Ordovices in the north, he placed auxiliary forts on the hills and linked them with roads and was supported by two legions, one in Caerleon in the south east and another in Chester in the north east.

In autumn of the same year, Gnaeus Julius Agricola became the new governor and immediately had to deal with a revolt by the Ordovices. Agricola quickly crushed the revolt, all but wiping them out and followed it up with a devastating campaign in Anglesey. Destroying Druid power in the area would end any hope of a new Celtic uprising in the future and the island itself was a valuable strategic asset.

The Celts would have probably fought using foot soldiers, chariots and mounted horsemen and probably in a relatively disorganised fashion. Although they would have had a larger fighting force, the organised, disciplined style of fighting of the Romans was designed to defeat hoards of ‘barbarians’ and more often than not was successful. Like the Ordovices, the Druids were defeated and slaughtered, effectively destroying what was left of the Druid leadership and ending the resistance of the people of Western Britain.

Over time, the defeated British population, like so many others before them, began to accept the Roman overlords, especially those of the wealthy classes who saw the benefits the invaders brought such as roads, bath houses and thriving city environments. Tacitus tells us that;

“And so the population was gradually led into the demoralising temptations of arcades, baths and sumptuous banquets. The unsuspecting Britons spoke of such novelties as ‘civilisation’, when in fact they were only a feature of their enslavement.”

After the initial success of the invasion of Britain, the Romans would not have anticipated such difficulties in subduing the western tribes, believing they were fighting against a nation of inferior people. But with the mountains to protect them, and a spirit and strong will for independence that would be a reoccurring theme in Welsh history, the natives of Western Britain managed to hold off the might of the Roman army for almost thirty years before finally succumbing to the immensely superior force of the Roman Empire.

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