Printer Friendly


The main outline of the events and chronology of the Claudian invasion of Britain are familiar enough, despite the loss of Tacitus' Annals for the period in question. A Roman force of four legions was assembled, along with auxiliaries, at Boulogne and crossed the channel under the command of Aulus Plautius. Dio states unambiguously that this occurred in A.D. 43. He provides no explicit information on the month, but certain assumptions can safely be made.(1) It is inconceivable that the Romans would have attempted a crossing of a dangerous stretch of sea like the English Channel before the sailing season technically opened, on 10 March, and it is almost inconceivable that they would have ventured to transport a large army over that passage before the seas were considered safe, on 27 May.(2) Moreover, the expeditionary force was delayed by two unforeseen factors. Suetonius tells us that the expeditionis Britannicae dies was postponed because of the illness of Galba.(3) Also, the troops initially refused to embark from Gaul, and if Dio's account is correct, this led to a delay while Narcissus was summoned from Rome to the Gallic coast.(4) How long these two factors might have held back the invasion cannot be known. Even after the successful landings the Claudian forces faced another hold-up. The Britons refused to engage the Romans, hoping to wear the invaders out, and Plautius had great difficulty tracking his enemy down.(5)

Eventually, after one major battle, probably at the Medway, Plautius drove the Britons back to the Thames. At this point he brought the operations to a temporary halt and in a famous dispatch summoned the emperor to his assistance. Claudius arrived with a considerable entourage, including prominent Romans, praetorians, and even, we are told, elephants. He was present at the forcing of the Thames, and the subsequent capture of Camulodunum and submission of a number of tribes. Dio, supported by Suetonius, tells us that Claudius was away from Rome for six months, of which he spent sixteen days in Britain. Dio places the return to Rome securely in A.D. 44.(6)

Beyond this general framework the timing of Claudius' presence in Britain has been a matter of some uncertainty, since he could presumably have departed the island at any point up to 10 November, at which date the seas were considered closed, and he would most likely have left before 14 September when they were no longer considered secure. Within this time frame there is no direct evidence to guide us, and various reconstructions have been offered. Claudius' visit has been placed in July (Levick), mid-August (Frere), early September (Halfmann), late September (Dudley/Webster), and `very late in the campaigning season' (Salway).(7) Each of these dates is based on a reasonable reconstruction of events and each is in its own right plausible. It should be noted that Levick argues cogently that Claudius was already in Gaul when Plautius' appeal was sent and that we therefore do not need to allow a lengthy period between the appeal and his arrival. Beyond this, there has been no specific information to provide a more definitive dating.

The recent publication of the Roman imperial coins of the Wulfing collection of Washington University has brought to light a potentially significant piece of evidence relating to this problem (Figure 1).(8) Item 238, an Alexandrian diobol, depicts on the obverse a youthful bare head and is described in the catalogue as follows:

Obv. BPETANNIKO[Sigma] KAI[Sigma]AP Claudius head, bare, r. Rev. L [=Year] ?? to 1. and r. Winged caduceus and ears of grain tied together. Year 3 = A.D. 42/3.


The year on Alexandrian coins begins on August 29; the third year of Claudius' reign there thus began on 29 August A.D. 42 and ended on 28 August 43. In fact, the coin almost certainly depicts not Claudius, but Britannicus. Claudius always appears laureate on the coins of Alexandria, and although he was entitled to the honorific of `Britannicus', there is no evidence that he ever chose to use it, reserving it instead for his son. The portrait might seem mature for Britannicus, who was probably born in February 41 and could thus have been only two and half years old at the most when the coin was minted.(9) But this is not a serious problem. Roman coinage had difficulty in depicting the heads of children, and this lack of skill was especially manifest on provincial issues. Most provincials are undated, but a time frame is available for relevant Tiberian bronze pieces struck for Cyrenaica, depicting Tiberius Gemellus and Germanicus, the twin grandsons of the emperor. The twins look surprisingly grown-up, if not positively middle aged, yet could have been no more than three, since they were born at the end of A.D. 19 and one of them, Germanicus, died in the same year as his father, A.D. 23. Britannicus' profile appears frequently on provincial coinage, similarly looking very mature, in fact on occasion as old as his father; unfortunately, with the exception of the item under discussion, all examples are undated. The issues of Alexandria are generally superior to most other provincials in their depictions but not consistently so. There are no other full heads of children to make a test comparison, but one might note the Alexandrian bronze with obverse head of Augustus (over 60) and reverse of the roughly eighteen-year-old Gaius Caesar, where the two seem almost to be coeval.(10) The alternative, that the coin is Neronian, can be all but ruled out. The reverse type is exclusively Claudian, and by year three of Nero's reign Britannicus, who in any case is never depicted on Neronian coinage, had been dead for two years.

This coin offers potentially valuable evidence for the timing of Claudius' intervention. On the surrender of the Britons the emperor despatched his sons-in-law Pompeius Magnus and Lucius Silanus immediately to Rome with news of the victory. Dio implies that the Senate acted without delay ([GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) in voting him a triumph (which he celebrated the following year), with triumphal arches and an annual festival, as well as the title of `Britannicus' both for him and his son.(11) The significance of the coin's date is self-evident. The victory must have been achieved in time for the message to be sent to Rome, the senatorial decree to be passed and communicated to Alexandria, and the coin to be engraved, by no later than 29 August 43. This indicates that Claudius had to have achieved the surrender of the British chiefs shortly before mid-August at the very latest, which would require an arrival in the island no later than the closing days of July.(12) The existence of a unique coin must always be treated with caution and reservation, even if the editor of the collection raises no doubts. Even where the piece is undoubtedly genuine, there is always the possibility that it might have been altered by retooling. With these cautions, we can now supplement Dio's general observations, with concrete evidence for a terminus ante of late July for Claudius' personal intervention in the British campaign.

(1) Year of invasion: Dio 60.19.1. For the chronological problems, see A. Barrett, `Chronological errors in Dio's account of the invasion', Britannia 11 (1980), 31-3.

(2) On the sailing seasons, see Vegetius, De Re Mil. 4.39. E. de Saint-Denis, REL 25 (1947), 196-215 and J. Rouge, REA 54 (1952), 316-19 list exceptions, but they are at times of military crisis.

(3) Suet. Galb. 7.

(4) Dio 60.19.2.

(5) Dio 60.19.5-20.1.

(6) Six-month absence: Suet. Claud. 17, Dio 60.23.1; sixteen-day stay: Dio 60.23.1, cf. Suet. Claud. 17; return in A.D. 44: Dio 60.23.1.

(7) B. Levick, Claudius (New Haven and London, 1990), p. 142; S. Frere, [Britannia.sup.3] (London, 1987), p. 51; D. Halfmann, Itinera Principum (Stuttgart, 1986), p. 172; D. R. Dudley and G. Webster, The Roman Invasion of Britain A.D. 43-[57.sup.2] (London, 1973), p. 77; in his revised version of this work Webster, The Roman Invasion of [Britain.sup.2] (London, 1980), does not speculate on the detailed chronology; P. Salway, Roman Britain (Oxford, 1981), p. 85. J. G. F. Hind, in his detailed account, `The invasion of Britain in A.D. 43--an alternative strategy for Aulus Plautius', Britannia 20 (1989), 1, judiciously places the invasion 'some time in the high summer'.

(8) Kevin Herbert, Roman Imperial Coins. Augustus to Hadrian and Antonine Selections, 31 B.C.-A.D. 180, The John Max Wulfing Collection in Washington University Vol. III (Wauconda, 1996).

(9) Britannicus' birth: Tac. Ann. 13.15.1 indicates that had Britannicus survived he would have become 14 in 55, thus placing his birth in 41. Suet. Claud. 27.2 puts the birth on the twentieth day of Claudius' imperium (i.e. February 41). The situation is somewhat confused by Claudius' further statement that it was in his second consulship (which did not begin until 42). Dio first mentions Britannicus' birth under 42 (60.12.5) but without explicitly dating the event to this year.

(10) Grandsons of Tiberius: RPC 946-9, cfi [RIC.sup.2] 42 (on the dates, Tac. Ann. 2.4.1,15); Claudius and Britannicus together: RPC 2314 (Ilium); Augustus and Gaius Caesar: RPC 5019 (Alexandria).

(11) Dio 60.21.5-22.2.

(12) Suet. Iul. 57 cites 100 miles a day as a record land speed; Pliny N.H. 19.3 cites nine days for a fast journey by sea from Puteoli to Alexandria.

ANTHONY A. BARRETT University of British Columbia, Vancouver
COPYRIGHT 1998 Cambridge University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Publication:The Classical Quarterly
Date:Jul 1, 1998

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters