Roman conquest of Anglesey
The Roman conquest of Anglesey refers to two invasions of the Welsh island that occurred during the early decades of the Roman conquest of Britain in the 1st Century CE. Beginning in 43 CE under Emperor Claudius, Aulus Plautius led the Roman legions and supporting auxiliary troops into Britain in order to subjugate the British tribes, something Julius Caesar had attempted to do in 55 and 54 BCE.
Anglesey, which was recorded in Latin as Mona by the Romans, was an important religious centre for Celtic druids and its peoples. The Romans first came into contact with the Welsh tribes in 47 CE yet only invaded the island of Anglesey in 60/61 CE and again in 77 CE. The invasion in 60/61 CE was undertaken by Suetonius Paulinus governor of Britannia, but was drawn away from the island because of the Iceni tribe revolt, led by Boudicca. The next invasion in 77 CE was led by then governor, Gnaeus Julius Agricola. Both of the invasions of Anglesey were recorded by the Roman historian Tacitus. The first can be found in his last work The Annals, written as a history of the Roman empire from Tiberius' reign until Nero's. The second invasion is detailed in Tacitus' work The Life of Gnaeus Julius Agricola, which was written to record the life and accomplishments of Tacitus' father-in-law.
Tacitus' two works The Annals and The Agricola are the only written works that discuss the invasions and provide a fairly succinct account of the conquest of Wales; however, the descriptions of the invasions in each book are brief. Archaeological discoveries from the island provide supplementary evidence of the Roman presence in Anglesey following the two invasions. Archaeologists have uncovered important Roman sites and artifacts from Anglesey in recent years. One important discovery was the first-century crop mark found near Cemlyn Bay - on the northern coast of the island - in 2015, which appears to be a typical Roman fortlet. There have also been other discoveries on the island, possibly relating to the invasions of Anglesey, such as a settlement at Tai Cochion and a watchtower at Pen Bryn-yr-Eglwys.
First invasion (60 CE)
According to Tacitus, Anglesey was a place of refuge for the Celtic tribes during the invasion of Wales and had a significant population, which included the Druids. The Romans believed Anglesey was the home-base for the Druids. The Druids were priests and powerful figures of the Celtic religion and what little is known about them comes only from outside sources. Professor Ronald Hutton explains that these sources vary in their description of the Druids, some claiming they were wise and compassionate while others portray them as blood thirsty priests of a gory religion. Hutton explains that this second description of the Druids gave the Romans a reason to invade Anglesey, especially because they believed it was the Druids home-base. While it is true that the Celtic religion emphasized the importance of water and their have been religious deposits found on Anglesey, the largest hoard having been found in Llyn Cerrig Bach a small lake, the findings suggest that Anglesey was the site of smaller deposits over a long period of time which would most likely not be consistent with a major Druidical religious site.
The Druids were an important part of Roman reasoning for attacking Anglesey but this was probably not the practical reason. Paulinus had already been campaigning throughout Britain and Wales and his invasion into Anglesey was simply the next step in his attempt at securing the Celtic territory. Author and historian David W. Moore supports this theory, explaining it was probably not a casual decision to invade but was probably motivated by a wealth of information, including the presence of copper mines. The Druids merely gave the Romans a reason to "liberate" Anglesey. According to Tacitus, Suetonius Paulinus had aspirations of military glory in Britain that would rival the recovery of Armenia by Corbulo.
The Roman forces had to cross the Menai Strait, a narrow strip of water that separates the island of Anglesey from the rest of the Welsh mainland. The exact place where the Roman forces would have crossed the Menai Strait is not recorded, William Manning has suggested that a possible site of their crossing is around the city of Bangor. Tacitus describes the crossing claiming that they used flat-bottomed boats because of uncertain water depths and that the cavalry managed to make it across by swimming and fording.
After the army made it across the Menai Strait they faced a mass of armed warriors. Tacitus states that women and Druids were among them and that the women were dressed in all black, whom he likens to the Furies. The Druids were chanting and raising their hands to the sky, while the women were waving brands and wore their hair disheveled. Tacitus explains that this combination of sights and sounds was quite frightening for the Roman army, causing them to stop in their tracks with fear. Tacitus claims that the army was roused out of their fear by their general who told them "not to quail before a troop of frenzied women." Tacitus then describes the armies attack, saying they destroyed the enemy and sent a force through the conquered area to destroy their sacred groves, which Tacitus describes as places "devoted to inhuman superstitions." Right after this Suetonius Paulinus received word of the Boudiccan revolt that called him away from Anglesey, which ended the first invasion.
Tacitus account of the first invasion states:
- "Britain was in the hands of Suetonius Paulinus, who in military knowledge and in popular favour, which allows no one to be without a rival, vied with Corbulo, and aspired to equal the glory of the recovery of Armenia by the subjugation of Rome's enemies. He therefore prepared to attack the island of Mona which had a powerful population and was a refuge for fugitives. He built flat-bottomed vessels to cope with the shallows, and uncertain depths of the sea. Thus the infantry crossed, while the cavalry followed by fording, or, where the water was deep, swam by the side of their horses.
- On the shore stood the opposing army with its dense array of armed warriors, while between the ranks dashed women, in black attire like the Furies, with hair dishevelled, waving brands. All around, the Druids, lifting up their hands to heaven, and pouring forth dreadful imprecations, scared our soldiers by the unfamiliar sight, so that, as if their limbs were paralysed, they stood motionless, and exposed to wounds. Then urged by their general's appeals and mutual encouragements not to quail before a troop of frenzied women, they bore the standards onwards, smote down all resistance, and wrapped the foe in the flames of his own brands. A force was next set over the conquered, and their groves, devoted to inhuman superstitions, were destroyed. They deemed it indeed a duty to cover their altars with the blood of captives and to consult their deities through human entrails.
- Suetonius while thus occupied received tidings of the sudden revolt of the province...
- Suetonius, however, with wonderful resolution, marched amidst a hostile population to Londinium..."
Second invasion (77 CE)
The second invasion of Mona was undertaken by Agricola, the Provincial Roman Governor of Britannia, in late 77. It was part of his campaign to subjugate the Ordovices, a British tribe that held lands across modern-day Gwynedd. Prior to Agricola's governorship he served in Britain once as a junior officer under Suetonius Paulinus and once as a Legion commander. After the Boudiccan revolt, the conquest of Wales had been put on hold. There were five British governors between Suetonius and Agricola, and there is little discussion about Wales and Anglesey. Only when Vespasian ascended the throne in 69 CE was the conquest of Wales resumed, which Tacitus records in his book The Life of Gnaeus Julius Agricola.
Tacitus briefly discusses Agricola's predecessor Julius Frontinus who arrived in 74 CE to resume the conquest of Wales. Tacitus only says one line about Frontinus' campaigns claiming he subdued the powerful Silures tribe and possibly, William Manning argues, part of the Ordovices tribe. Tacitus moves onto his description of the invasion of Anglesey by providing some background information about the state Britain was in prior to Agricola's arrival. He describes conflict between the British tribes and the Romans, and he particularly notes the Roman squadron of cavalry that was wiped out by the Ordovices. The instability brought by these conflicts, Tacitus claims, gave those in the country who wished for war, hope. The change in leadership combined with the previous conflicts, between the tribes and the Romans, and the timing of Agricola's arrival created a precarious environment for the new governor that needed to be solved quickly. Tacitus claims that Agricola was determined to face the instability head first, even though the traditional time for campaigning was over and his advisors suggested he wait and watch the weaker areas. Thus, Agricola gathered a force and according to Tacitus put himself at the front of his army and marched up a hill to draw the Ordovices out. Agricola and his army completely wiped out the tribe and it was this victory which led him to turn his attention to Anglesey. Agricola's journey to Anglesey is probably similar to Suetonius' and Tacitus claims that Agricola's crossing into Anglesey was so unexpected that the inhabitants surrendered without a fight.
Manning suggests that Tacitus' account of the invasion is dramatized and that its reliability should be carefully considered, especially considering Tacitus' relationship to Agricola. However, Tacitus' account is it is the only written record of the second invasion:
- "Such was the state of Britain, and such were the vicissitudes of the war, which Agricola found on his crossing over about midsummer. Our soldiers made it a pretext for carelessness, as if all fighting was over, and the enemy were biding their time. The Ordovices, shortly before Agricola's arrival, had destroyed nearly the whole of a squadron of allied cavalry quartered in their territory. Such a beginning raised the hopes of the country, and all who wished for war approved the precedent, and anxiously watched the temper of the new governor. Meanwhile, Agricola, though summer was past and the detachments were scattered throughout the province, though the soldiers' confident anticipation of inaction for that year would be a source of delay and difficulty in beginning a campaign, and most advisers thought it best simply to watch all weak points, resolved to face the peril. He collected a force of veterans and a small body of auxiliaries; then as the Ordovices would not venture to descend into the plain, he put himself in front of the ranks to inspire all with the same courage against a common danger, and led his troops up a hill. The tribe was all but exterminated.
- Well aware that he must follow up the prestige of his arms, and that in proportion to his first success would be the terror of the other tribes, he formed the design of subjugating the island of Mona, from the occupation of which Paullinus had been recalled, as I have already related, by the rebellion of the entire province. But, as his plans were not matured, he had no fleet. The skill and resolution of the general accomplished the passage. With some picked men of the auxiliaries, disencumbered of all baggage, who knew the shallows and had that national experience in swimming which enables the Britons to take care not only of themselves but of their arms and horses, he delivered so unexpected an attack that the astonished enemy who were looking for a fleet, a naval armament, and an assault by sea, thought that to such assailants nothing could be formidable or invincible. And so, peace having been sued for and the island given up, Agricola became great and famous..."
Following the two invasions of Anglesey the Romans administered the island from Segontium (Caernarfon), a fort in mainland Wales just across the Menai Straits. In the first few centuries, the island saw little to no Roman building. It can be presumed that life on Anglesey would have remained largely unchanged following the two invasions, especially with the base of Roman control being across the Menai Straits. Copper would have been mined and smelted for Roman use, but granaries and farms would have functioned normally, dispersed across the island. Typical 'Romanization' that can be seen in other parts of Britain, was not successful in Anglesey which remained under military control. A number of centuries passed with little change to the island, but by the mid-fourth century Roman rule was in disarray and a shore-fort, Caer Gybi, facing Ireland, was created following threat of attack by the Irish. The fort walls still remain, encircling a church in Holyhead. This fort however, did not last long under Roman rule as the legions quit Britain in 410 CE.
Gwynedd Archaeological Trust and Coflein, the National Monuments Record of Wales, provide information about the archaeological finds in Anglesey. A number of archaeological finds from Anglesey have been connected to the Roman occupation of the island, and provide evidence for the Roman presence in Anglesey. David Hopewell discusses three important Roman sites on the island. These sites provide an understanding of how the Roman invasions of the island impacted life on Anglesey and demonstrate Roman control of the island.
The Cemlyn Cropmark is the most important site in relation to the invasions of Anglesey because the details of the cropmark strongly suggest it was constructed around the time of the second invasion in 77CE and it is the first military site to be found on the island from this time period. The cropmark was first discovered in 1990 when an aerial photographer captured an image of the landscape during drought conditions. In 2015 David Hopewell and John Burman performed a geophysical survey of the cropmark, and this revealed characteristics of a typical Roman fortlet. Two coins were found at the site one from Nerva's reign and one from Hadrian's supporting the dating of the fortlet to post-invasion consolidation. The fortlet overlooks Cemlyn Bay, a good landing place on the north-coast of the island, and would have most likely served as a guide for landing seacrafts as well as a policing station for those wanting access to Anglesey. The fortlet also lies on a major shipping route.
The settlement at Tai Cochion sits close to the Menai Straits across from Segontium (the auxiliary fort that oversaw the island). There is evidence of a complex settlement and excavation of one of the buildings revealed what appears to be a basic Roman corridor house. Considering the settlements closeness to Segontium it was most likely established as a trading point after the political and military situation settled down after the second invasion. Tai Cochion has characteristics similar to other 'Romanized' settlements in England and would have most likely had a large civilian population. Hopewell explains that "Roman customs and building styles were not adopted by the majority of the population," and claims many in Wales would have lived in mutual indifference of the Romans. Tai Cochion reveals clear signs that it was a Roman-style settlement but as of now their is not enough evidence to determine whether it was an outgrowth of Segontium or an unrecognized product of 'Romanization'.
Pen Bryn-yr-Eglwys is a low lying mountain with traces of a building on the top. Excavations of the site done in 2012 suggest that this building might be a Roman watchtower, which suggests a Roman naval presence on the north-west side of the island. The archaeological remains consist of a square platform measuring 9m by 7m stands on the highest point, and has traditionally been assumed to be remains of a chapel. However, the positioning of the platform, its small size, and the excavation of a similar site on Holyhead strongly suggests Pen Bryn-yr-Eglwys was a Roman watchtower.
These three sites demonstrate the importance of maritime transport and coastline control to the Roman occupation of Anglesey. The Cemlyn fortlet, probably built shortly after Agricola's invasion, would have served as a point of control and navigational aid for incoming ships, provided protection from possible incursion most likely from the Irish, and would have been able to exert control over trade. Hopewell notes that there has been a possible second fortlet on the eastern end of the north coast of the island. The watchtower could have served as a naval lookout or an early warning system and the Tai Cochion settlement located on the coast of the Menai Straits would most likely have been important for trade between the island and mainland Wales.
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