Magazine article History Today

Ruling Britannia: Archaeologist Miles Russell Describes Recent Discoveries Which Overturn Accepted Views about the Roman Invasion of Britain

Magazine article History Today

Ruling Britannia: Archaeologist Miles Russell Describes Recent Discoveries Which Overturn Accepted Views about the Roman Invasion of Britain

Article excerpt

NEW ARCHAEOLOGICAL EVIDENCE from Sussex suggests that the history of Britain will have to be rewritten: the invasion of AD 43 never happened, at least not in the way that the Roman emperor Claudius would have had us believe.

Like 1066, 1588 or 1940, AD 43 is considered one of the most defining dates in British History. This was the year that the Roman emperor swung his gaze across the northern seas and claimed Britain for Rome. 40,000 heavily armoured Roman soldiers, one of the largest invasion fleets ever to assemble against Britain, swept ashore on the coast of Kent, before cutting a bloody path north towards the Iron Age city of Camulodunum (modern day Colchester). In AD 43 Britain was forcibly incorporated into one of the largest and most successful empires ever. But was it really like that?

Recent fieldwork conducted by David Rudkin, John Manley and the Sussex Archaeological Society at Fishbourne to the south-west of modern Chichester has uncovered evidence of a significant Roman presence in Britain well before this date. Excavations located a V-shaped Roman-style enclosure ditch containing Roman pottery dated to between 10 BC and AD 10. The pottery, although broken, crucially appeared to have been unweathered, suggesting fairly rapid deposition. Elsewhere in the ditch were fragments of a very early first-century Roman scabbard.

Military finds such as this are not uncommon at Fishbourne. In the 1960s, excavations beneath the palace site found a similar range of first-century pottery, coins and military equipment all in association with a series of straight gravel roads and at least two Roman military buildings (thought to be granaries). The pottery suggested that at least one of the structures dated to before AD 20, but because received wisdom stated that the fort could not be earlier than AD 43, the evidence was interpreted to suggest a post-invasion supply base that was issued with out-of-date stock. Early first-century military kit and late first-century BC/early first-century AD pottery have also been found in Chichester harbour and surrounding areas.

There is a wealth of evidence to support claims of trade contact between Britain and Rome during the last century BC and early years AD. Wine and oil amphorae from the Mediterranean are found across the south and east coasts of Britain and we know a number of British kings were minting Roman-style coins and styling themselves 'REX'. All this implies imperial patronage, or at least a two-way trade whereby Britons bought into a Roman lifestyle while Roman traders acquired iron, gold, slaves and hunting dogs at a reduced price. No one has seriously suggested that Roman involvement in Britain may have been more direct than this, but it is now clear that the Roman army was in Britain at least three decades before Claudius.

The current view is that Claudius directed four Legions and associated auxiliary soldiers at Britain in an attempt to conquer the island. Foremost in his mind would have been the desire to outdo Julius Caesar, who had led two prestigious, though ultimately futile incursions into Britain in 55 and 54 BC. Claudius's predecessor, the emperor Caligula, had also attempted an invasion in AD 39, possibly for similar reasons. …

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