Against Rome, Part 1
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
For centuries, the island known to the Romans
as Albion provided tin to the Mediterranean
world, a metal vital for manufacturing bronze.
Rome also became a major customer, and in
turn sold huge quantities of wine to the island's
eager consumers. Julius Caesar became even
more interested during his Gallic campaigns,
when fierce tribal warriors from Britain came
to the continent to fight against the Romans
alongside the local tribes of Gaul. Roman
practice was clear: a potential threat must
be crushed and could never be ignored. And
Britain's vibrant commerce assured enough
loot to enrich Caesar even further.
failed attempts by Caesar to conquer the island,
in 55 and 54 B.C., delayed Roman conquest
for almost a century. During that time commercial
contact grew, and Romans saw opportunities
to enrich themselves from Britain's tin mines
and from the Britons' insatiable thirst for
wine. The Roman conquest of Britain, and the
fierce resistance of the Catuvellauni led
by the legendary Caratacus, is the theme of
most scenarios in our Rome
at War: Queen of the Celts game. Though
Boudicca draws the most attention as the famed
warrior-queen, Caratacus was one of the best
"barbarian" military leaders faced
Rome's excuse for invasion came when the three
sons of Cunobelin, king of the Catuvellauni,
fell out over their people's future. Adminius
hoped to make his father's realm a Roman client
state and thereby become enriched himself.
His brothers Caratacus and Togodumnus distrusted
the Romans and believed that any foothold they
gained on the island would quickly be used
to exert domination over all of its tribes.
Adminius fled to Rome, where he managed to
gain the ear of the insane emperor Gaius Caligula
(though it's likely he had already been plotting
with the Romans). Caligula gathered a fleet
and an army, and when they mutinied over missing
pay he made the troops march along the beach collecting
seashells. He had a lighthouse erected in
honor of this triumph, and then went back
to Rome where he was assassinated two years
The new emperor, Claudius, inherited the
fleet prepared for the crossing as well as
the still-scheming Adminius. Caratacus and
Togodumnus demanded that he return Adminius
and other exiles who had fled to Roman territory.
Already seeking a military triumph to seal
his accession, Caludius now had an excuse
for war — barbarians did not make demands
In 43 A.D. he named Aulus Plautius, military
governor of Pannonia, to lead the invasion.
Plautius brought the IX Hispania Legion with
him from the Danube frontier, and drew three
others from the Rhine garrisons: II Augusta,
XIV Gemina and XX Valera. He also had a large
number of auxiliary troops — light infantry
and cavalry mostly from the continental tribes.
In all his army numbered between 40,000 and
50,000. It's possible he also had the use
of VIII Augusta Legion in Gaul as a strategic
reserve, but this is not clear. The Roman
Navy's northern squadron, the Classis Britannica,
provided transport and support.
Catuvellauni were expected to resist, but
the Romans figured they would get at least
some support from tribes like the Atrebates
and Trinovantes who the Catuvellauni had defeated
in recent years as they expanded their kingdom.
Rome had not conducted a campaign of conquest
in decades, and the slave traders exulted
at the profits to come. Knowing the folly
of launching an invasion without planning
for its aftermath, Plautius also gathered
exiled British chieftains and organized them
in order to have ready-made puppet governments
for the conquered tribes.
Caratacus and Togodumnus learned of the
preparations from their contacts in Gaul and
mustered their tribe's warriors to repel the
landing while calling in their client tribes'
forces as well. In Gaul, however, the legions
once again mutinied and refused to sail. Britannia,
they believed, was a magical island inhabited
by strange and fearsome beings. The former
slave Narcissus, Claudius' private secretary
and close personal friend, gave a rousing
speech that somehow convinced the soldiers
to board the ships. But word of their refusal
had reached the island, and the Catuvellauni
had disbanded their army — Celtic armies
did not have the logistical support of Rome's
complex military bureaucracy, and warriors
came with what food their personal slaves
could carry. When it was exhausted after a
few days, they had to go home or starve. Celtic
armies therefore usually only gathered when
action was imminent.
action was definitely imminent. Plautius brought
his army ashore in eastern Kent in three waves,
seizing the port of Richborough as his base.
Though well inland today, in those days it
sat on the Wantsum Channel (long ago filled
by silt) that protected it from the storms
that had twice devastated Caesar's expeditions.
The Catuvellauni skirmished with the Romans
but lacked the strength for a major battle,
and Caratacus mustered his army again behind
the barrier of the river Medway. With the
bridges destroyed the position seemed secure,
but the Romans found locals to show them a
ford some ways south of the Celtic positions
while several cohorts of Batavii auxiliaries
swam the river to attack the northern flank.
A chariot attack against the Batavii only
restored the situation partially. As Germans,
the Batavii did not share the Celts' mystical
attitude towards horses and did something
no Celtic enemy would have dreamt —
they loosed both spears and arrows on the
horses rather than the charioteers, shocking
the Celts and breaking their charge.
Plautius got his XIV Legion across the river
in the center during the confusion, but still
Caratacus held his ground. British morale
apparently still held firm and the fighting
continued until darkness fell. When combat
resumed with dawn, the Celts still showed
considerable spirit in one of the very few
battles against Roman armies to continue into
a second day. But a surprise attack by XX
Legion led by the Roman legate Gnaeus Hosidius
Geta turned the tide when his near-capture
caused his men to rush the Celts in an effort
to rescue him. With the Catuvellauni southern
flank crumbling thanks to Geta's assault,
Caratacus finally ordered a retreat and his
army moved in good order back from the Medway
and across the Thames.
had a hard-fought victory, but the brothers
had shown outstanding leadership themselves.
However, the other tribes began to fall away
from the alliance as old resentments flared.
The Celts probably expected to be able to
hold the line of the Thames, but the Romans
crossed quickly behind them thanks to the
skills of the Batavii and the ships of the
Classis Britannica. The loss of the chariot
force — what was not shot up by the
Batavii would have been difficult to evacuate
across the river — limited Celtic mobility
and made open ground dangerous.
Caratacus made his stand in marshy ground
but was overcome by Roman numbers and mobility.
At some point during this struggle his brother
Togodumnus either was killed in the fighting
or died of wounds suffered at the Medway and
morale took a serious blow. The Celtic army
broke up, with even Caratacus unable to organize
an orderly retreat.
With two major victories and the Celtic army
crumbling, Plautius apparently had very clear
orders about what to do next. He held his
army somewhere around the Thames and sent
word to Rome that the fall of Camulodonum
(modern Colchester), the enemy capital, was
near. The Romans paused for about six weeks,
awaiting the arrival of Claudius himself for
the triumphal entry. The emperor brought reinforcements
including, according to Dio Cassius, elephants.
"Major combat operations" were
at an end in Britain. As in other conflicts,
however, the real fighting was just beginning.
your leadership see the Celts to victory?
Find out in Rome at War: Queen of the
Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.