Tag Archives: invasion
The new TV series Britannia airing now (produced for Sky Atlantic in the UK, screening on Foxtel’s Showcase in Australia) is undoubtedly influenced by the scale and success of Game of Thrones. Created by acclaimed English playwright Jez Butterworth, the nine-part series is an ambitious exploration of a profoundly important era in British history.
It tells the story of the second Roman invasion of Britain in 43 AD, when the Roman fleet under the control of the ruthless general Aulus Plautius (a real historical figure played in the series by David Morrissey) lands on the coast of the near-mythical island. It is the story, too, of Celtic Britain tribalism and the Machiavellian interplay with the new Roman arrivals.
Although reviews to date have been mixed, the series is a bold undertaking exploring the clash of cultures. It is the second significant pop cultural exploration of key historical moments in the relationship between Britain and Europe since the Brexit vote. (Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk was the first). It also comes at a time when the relationship between historical fact and fiction is being hotly debated, particularly in relation to the Netflix series The Crown.
Most of what we think we know about the Briton’s religion was proposed by later writers; no contemporary accounts survive. In Britannia, the role of druids, the Celtic priests, within society is presented in an otherworldly, trance-like way. The main druid character Veran (played by MacKenzie Crook) feels like a hallucination.
This renewed popular cultural interest in the establishment of Roman Britain and the Celtic response to the Roman arrival coincides with an exciting and profound period of archaeological discovery and historical reinterpretation of this historical event.
A nod to Caesar
Plautius’s invasion of Britain on orders of Emperor Claudius established Roman rule in much of Britain for nearly 400 years. But it was not the first time Rome came into contact with the tribes of the island.
Julius Caesar’s invasions of Britain in 55 BC and 54 BC are mentioned briefly in an opening title of the TV series, which suggests that fear of the Celts drove the Romans to abandon ideas of permanent occupation of the island. The real reason is far more complex. Caesar’s account provided the Romans with their first description of the island and its inter-tribal fighting.
In 2016 and 2017, excavations by the University of Leicester demonstrated that Caesar’s 54 BC fleet was blown off course and landed on the sandy shores of Pegwell Bay in Kent.
Although Caesar left without leaving a military force on Britain, he established a series of client relationships with British royal families in the south-east. These allegiances may have assisted the later Claudian invasion. At the very least, they mean the arrival of Roman forces wasn’t the surprise it is presented as in Britannia.
The Claudian Invasion
The real general Aulus Plautius was regarded highly in Rome, but like his fictional counterpart he did struggle against soldier rumblings. Roman historian Cassius Dio writes that he “had difficulty in inducing his army to advance beyond Gaul. For the soldiers were indignant at the thought of carrying on a campaign outside the limits of the known world”.
Why did the emperor Claudius choose to invade Britain? It seems most likely that, like a number of modern political leaders, the invasion allowed Claudius to distract public attention from domestic political issues.
No contemporary account survives of the real invasion. It seems most likely that as depicted in the show, Plautius landed 40,000 men on the coast of Kent, and attempted to negotiate truces and restore Roman friendly monarchs. These ultimately failed. The Romans then undertook a campaign of “shock and awe”, even bringing war elephants to the fight, and established their first provincial capital at Camulodunum (today’s Colchester).
A Roman view
Most of what is known about the Britons, including the dubious druids, was written not by them but by the Romans. The main literary source was written in the late first century AD by Tacitus, whose father-in-law, Agricola, served as governor of Roman Britain (after the events of the series).
The traditional Tacitian historical narrative is now being questioned, by both archaeological evidence and new historical interpretation. These point out that in creating a biography of Agricola, Tacitus was presenting a heroic figure, freed from the moral corruption of Rome. In this narrative, he needed worthy adversaries in the form of rebels such as the British chief Calgacus.
It was obviously a complex relationship between native and conqueror, politically and culturally. Mary Beard has famously described Britain as “Rome’s Afghanistan”, an endless struggle to wins hearts and minds in the four centuries that followed Plautius’s forces. Hers is a provocative, but valid description.
The brawling Britons
In the first century AD, Britain was politically fragmented, with a series of constant wars between various tribes, (at least according to Roman sources). In the series tribal warfare is represented by the fictitious Cantii (led by King Pellenor, played by Ian McDiarmid) and Regni tribes (led by Queen Antedia, played by Zoë Wanamaker).
This plotline reflects the Roman literary trope of the brawling Britons; but it appears the reality of the internal political structure was far more complex than Roman writers could ever comprehend. Many of the political groups of the south-east of England had already adopted some Mediterranean cultural traits before the invasion through trade and other contacts with the Roman World. New archaeological excavations at Silchester for example, demonstrate urban planning during the Iron Age, prior to Roman occupation.
British society certainly seems to have been more egalitarian than Roman, with both men and women holding political and military power. The character of the warrior Kerra (played by Kelly Reilly) appears to be presented as some sort of precursor to a figure like Boudica, a Celtic queen who would lead a rebellion within decades.
What about Stonehenge?
Trailers for forthcoming episodes suggest Stonehenge will play a significant role in Britannia’s plot . (It has beenfilmed using a scale replica constructed in the Czech Republic). Meanwhile, the real Stonehenge has undergone a series of recent excavations supervised by Mike Parker Pearson, which have revolutionised the way we think about the site, and destroyed many myths as well.
Again, ultimately, very little is known about the use of Stonehenge at the time of the invasion, nor about Roman conceptions of the structure. (Despite this, modern druids have associated themselves with the structure.)
Irrespective of the quality and historical accuracy of Britannia, the series is a dynamic presentation of an important period of British history. But the real story being slowly teased out by the archaeologist’s trowel is just as dynamic and in many ways, more dramatic and exciting than the fictional one.
Much has been made in the last few days of the University of New South Wales’ “diversity toolkit” offering teachers guidelines on Indigenous terminology.
The most controversial directive was a line about using the term “invasion” to describe Captain Cook’s arrival here:
Australia was not settled peacefully, it was invaded, occupied and colonised. Describing the arrival of the Europeans as a “settlement” attempts to view Australian history from the shores of England rather than the shores of Australia.
This story made the front page of the Daily Telegraph. Radio personality Kyle Sandilands quickly condemned it as an attempt to “rewrite history”.
But detailed historical research on the colonial frontier unequivocally supports the idea that Aboriginal people were subject to attack, assault, incursion, conquest and subjugation: all synonyms for the term “invasion”.
This was particularly the case in Queensland, where the actions of the Native Mounted Police were designed to subjugate Aboriginal resistance to European “settlers” on their traditional lands, and to protect pastoralists, miners and others from Aboriginal aggression.
The UNSW guidelines are not “rewriting” history – they are simply highlighting a history that has never been adequately told in the first place. This history is one that certain sections of Australian society are determined to deny, led by conservative media commentators who recently whipped up an indignant storm about how a university chooses to educate their students.
It is telling that Sandilands suggested people “get over it – it’s 200 years ago” when we so revere the notion of Lest We Forget when remembering our role in a foreign war (WW1) 100 years ago.
It is also worth remembering in this context that large scale massacres of Aboriginal people were still being carried out through the 1920s and early 1930s in some parts of Australia.
A newly begun project focusing on the archaeology of the Queensland Native Mounted Police and Indigenous oral histories will look at the physical evidence of frontier conflict, including the range of activities undertaken by the Queensland Mounted Police, and the effects of their presence on both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.
The first step will be to listen. As Jangga Elder Colin McLennan, from Central Queensland, said in a recent project meeting:
this subject has been left idling too long. Aboriginal people are very sensitive about what happened. We need to investigate these places and we need to talk about them openly and honestly … I’ve kept a lot of this knowledge in my head about Aboriginal people being slaughtered and the locations of the killing fields in my country. It’s like an open wound that needs to be healed and it needs to be dealt with. This history belongs to all of us. We need to share it with each other.
In a way, Sandilands isn’t trying to deny the scale of frontier conflict (although many do) – he just wants us to forget about it. But who we, as Australians, choose to remember and what events we commemorate are inherently entwined with how we view ourselves and how we want the world to see us as a nation.
Official records of the Coniston massacre, which took place in the Northern Territory in 1928, admit to 31 Walpiri, Anmatyerre and Kaytetye men, women and children being killed by Constable William Murray and his men. Is not an event on this scale – which happened just 88 years ago – worth remembering? Is not a Walpiri man’s death defending his way of life just as worthy of remembrance as a World War I digger’s ten years earlier?
Why are we as a nation so reluctant to face up to this part of our past? Inconvenient truths that risk tainting the white “pioneer/settler” narrative are, it seems, not to be commemorated but forgotten.
Although the historical record documenting frontier conflict is a powerful and unequivocal record of our colonial past, it is mostly limited to written records that largely exclude Indigenous voices.
Yet the magnitude, persistence and near-universality of Aboriginal oral narratives of frontier violence are surely telling.
Combining the material evidence for frontier conflict through archaeology with written records and Aboriginal oral tradition and memory, might be the one way to track events and their repercussions more clearly.
Along with oral tradition, monuments and sites are powerful tools in remembering. They are physical markers on the landscape of events that happened.
For many Indigenous communities, the physical evidence of frontier conflict in Queensland in the form of Native Mounted Police camps and locations where people were killed are — just like Gallipoli — important places of remembrance that should never be forgotten.
Hopefully one day non-Indigenous people will be able to visit these sites and reflect on our collective history, rather than being threatened by it.
Professor Bryce Barker is part of an ARC-funded archaeological study into the activities and legacies of the Queensland Native Mounted Police, along with Assoc. Professor Heather Burke, Professor Iain Davidson, Dr Lynley Wallis, Dr Noelene Cole, Elizabeth Hatte and Professor Larry Zimmerman.
The link below is to an article that reports on the status of Varosha in northern Cyprus. The region of Varosha in Famagusta has been abandoned since the Turkish invasion of Cypress in 1974.
The link below is to an article that looks at the US invasion of Canada during the War of 1812, 200 years ago.