Aulus Plautius, the indomitable Roman general, carved his legacy into history by leading the formidable invasion that brought Britain under Roman rule in 43 AD. As the first governor of the newly-conquered Britannia, his iron will and strategic prowess shaped the political, cultural, and economic landscape of the island for centuries to come.
Before the Roman conquest, Britain was a land of diverse tribes with no single cultural or political identity. Each had complex hierarchies and social structures and the tribes controlled their own lands, often coming into conflict with one another. These conflicts created power vacuums which opened them up to the vulnerability of external forces.
In 55 BC and the following year, Julius Caesar made incursions into Britain and the Romans learned much about the country’s natural resources and tribal politics. But it wasn’t until 43 AD that emperor Claudius launched a massive invasion. Some of the British tribes were staunchly opposed to the Roman arriving on their shores, others welcomed them.
Led by Aulus Plautius, Britannia, as the Romans called it, profoundly and permanently changed the country’s political, cultural and economic landscape for almost four hundred years. Some would argue, permanently.
The Early Life of Aulus Plautius
Very little is known about the early life and career of General Plautius. He was the son of Aulus Plautius, a senator and consul during the reign of Augustus, the first emperor of Rome and the older brother of Quintus Plautius, consul in 36 AD.
It has been suggested that he was involved in the suppression of a revolt in the modern-day Italian town of Puglia, due to an excavated inscription reading A·PLAVTIO but it’s now believed that was a reference to his father.
In the latter part of 29 AD, Plautius the younger was suffect consul, a consul elected to complete the one year term of one who vacated the office before the full year had been completed. Later, during the first years of the reign of emperor Claudius in around 41 AD, he may have served as the governor of Pannonia, parts of modern-day Hungary, Slovakia and Croatia. Just two years later, Aulus Plautius’ invasion of Britain changed the course of British history.
The Roman Conquest of Britain
While the Roman conquest of Britain in 43 AD was a major event, there are no contemporary surviving accounts of the invasion itself. Indeed much of what we know was written in Greek around 150 years later by the historian Cassius Dio. What we do know is that Claudius appointed General Plautius to lead the Roman troops into battle.
The justification for the invasion, known in Latin as casus belli, was to re-install Verica, the king of the Atrebates, one of the native tribes loyal to Rome.
It’s believed four legions were tasked with the conquest: IX Hispania, II Augusta – commanded by future emperor Vespasian – XIV Gemina, and XX Valeria Victrix. Tens of thousands of men in hundreds of ships. However, despite their careful planning, the invason didn’t get off to a great start.
The soldiers under the command of Aulus Plautius mutinied, reluctant to cross the water into lands unknown. After some careful negotiations, they returned to their duties and the invasion force got underway. The most likely point of departure was Boulogne, though other sources have suggested additional landing forces left from the mouths of the Somme and the Seine.
Again, there is disagreement among historians and scholars as to where the forces landed. The most likely candidate is Richborough on the Kent coast, but Chichester harbour on the south coast is another possibility.
The Beginning of Roman Britain
It’s generally accepted that after a probable landing at Richborough, General Plautius and his army immediately found themselves faced with Togodumnus and Caratacus, the two leaders of the powerful Catuvellauni tribe whose capital was Camulodunum, or modern-day Colchester. Plautius defeated both, first on the River Medway and next on the Thames.
Camulodunum was now under Roman control and General Plautius became Governor Plautius, the first governor of Britannia.
Aulus Plautius: Governor of Britannia
After Aulus Plautius’ invasion of Britain, he worked hard to establish and maintain Roman control over the newly-conquered territory. He oversaw the construction of roads and towns as well as forts and military bases to reinforce who was in charge.
These large-scale infrastructure projects strengthened the Roman hold on the region and facilitated communication, trade and military movement as well as having the ability to respond quickly to potential threats or uprisings.
Perhaps most importantly, Plautius and those who ruled with him promoted the idea of Roman ideals, customs and culture. Latin was introduced as the official language and Roman laws took effect. In addition, Roman-style architecture became a common sight all over the country.
It’s said that Governor Plautius was a firm but fair leader. He developed alliances with a number of tribes and dealt swiftly and harshly with others. During his reign as governor, the first years of Roman Britain were seen as relatively stable and peaceful.
In 47 AD, Plautius was replaced as governor by Publius Ostorius Scapula who ruled for five years until his death.
Aulus Plautius: Legacy & Death
When Aulus Plautius returned to Rome, he was granted an ‘ovatio’, or an ovation. This is a form of triumph and he had the honour of having emperor Claudius walk by his side on the route to and from the Capitol. The date, place and cause of his death is unknown.