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Fishbourne Palace is the largest building excavation in Roman Britain. And it has revealed evidence that the Romans were our liberators not unwelcome invaders.

Elegant Mosaic of Fishbourne Palace
Elegant Mosaic

At the heart of a tale about a boy and the magical sword, I found evidence that ancient British traditions survive the Roman invasion. A new series of archaeological discoveries are beginning to rewrite the story of the Roman invasion of Britain.

This elegant Mosaic adorned on the floor of one of the most luxurious buildings in Roman Britain. This was not the overseas residents of some extravagant governor, but the home of a wealthy, Romanised Brit.

Fishbourne Palace is the largest building ever excavated in Roman Britain. Martin Henig helped excavate the gardens.

Martin Henig “It was absolutely amazing digging along, your trowel couldn’t help sinking in, and you are actually uncovering the bedding trenches, probably for box. You see similar gardens on a much smaller scale if you go to Pompeii. What you’ve got here is something equivalent to the palaces of the greatest Roman aristocrats.”

Fishbourne Palace

Fishbourne Palace covers a larger area than Buckingham Palace. 160 stone columns support the roof which is constructed from 100 tonnes of imported Italian tiles. Corridors surround over 100 rooms, some of which are decorated with elaborate mosaics.

Martin Henig Fishbourne Palace Excavation
Martin Henig

When Fishbourne was discovered, it was assumed this was a palace of the Roman governor, a symbol of the imperial regime that was forced on Britain. But during excavations, archaeologists found a gold signet ring with an unusual inscription – the seal of Tiberius Claudius Catuarus the ring belonged to a wealthy Briton, but what was it doing at Fishbourne? To understand why a Briton might be living in a Roman Palace, we must look again at the events leading up to the invasion of A.D. 43.

Maybe because we haven’t been invaded since 1066, we British have a simplistic attitude towards invasions. We see them as inevitably oppressive, so we imagine that when the Romans wiped out British culture and customs, but it wasn’t a straightforward process of colonisation.

Fishbourne Palace
Fishbourne Palace

Archaeologists are starting to radically rethink the Roman invasion of Britain.

I would imagine the Britons, faced by the might of Rome, would have been quaking in their boots.

Emperor Caligula

Martin Henig “I don’t think it was quite that. The previous attempt to, er, invade Britain was that of the bad and mad Emperor Caligula, who had marched a large army up to the Channel coast. He then put all his catapults in a row and the fired enormous rocks into the sea. After a time, he told them he had won a great victory over a nation. You can imagine how that got about – the great Roman Empire was run by a lot of Charlies, and it completely destabilised the situation, of course.”

Pre=Roman Britain
Pre=Roman Britain

Pre-Roman Britain was, in fact, a collection of often feuding tribal kingdoms. There is very little written evidence about early British tribes, but John Creighton showed me a burial from the period, which contained some intriguing items.

John Creighton “Lexden tumulus is a burial found just outside Colchester. It dates to about 10 BC so this is still about 50, 60 years before the Roman conquest. Containers of Roman wine, a small, little Cupid, bronze work coming in from the Italian world. This stuff just isn’t being produced in Britain at all. Here’s a little medallion of the Roman Emperor, the Emperor Augustus, so a really nice personal gift from the Emperor.”

John Creighton
John Creighton

But why would an iron age king in Britain want to have a Roman emperor’s head in his grave?

John Creighton “They’re associating themselves to Rome. Like the satellite states around the Soviet Union, or the influence America had in central America. Big powerful empires have close relations with states around them.”

Friendly Tribal Leaders

Certain British tribal leaders were friendly with Rome for decades before the invasion. Their coins reflect the glory of the Empire.

John Creighton “Coinage is never politically neutral and it’s always meaning something. It has its own native style, then around the time of this burial classic imagery starts to appear.”

So they would have been familiar with classical literature?

John Creighton “Certainly, yes, and that can’t be a coincidence. Kings in Britain are tightly bound in with power politics in Rome. We see them adopt the same imagery, showing their affiliation to the new world order.”

One British king, known as Verica, was on particularly good terms with Rome. His tribe was the Atrebates. In the most complete version of the Roman invasion, the historian Cassius Dia describes Verica inviting the Roman troops in.

A certain Verica had persuaded the Emperor Claudius to send a force to Britain, led by the distinguished Senator Plautius.

Martin Henig “It wasn’t subservience. Verica would help the Romans if he was able to do so, and they would help him if need be.”

In A.D. 43, the need did arise, when Verica’s kingdom was invaded. The Atrebates had been effectively under military occupation by tribes from the North. That implies, to people down here at least, the Romans weren’t unwelcome.

King Verica of the Atrebates

Martin Hennig “The Romans arrived as liberators.”

This is a revolutionary idea, but can it be supported by archaeology?

Verica Rex
Verica Rex

Cassius Dio on the invasion. “On the way across, they were discouraged, but recovered when they saw a flash of light across the sky east to west, the direction they were travelling in. When the fleet reached the island, there was no one to oppose them.”

Dio, however, omits to mention where the invasion took place.

Why was I taught as a student, that the Romans landed on the Kent shore at Richborough?

Martin Henig “There had been excavations at Richborough which discovered some early military evidence. They read the third-century account and added topographical detail, so that the battle on the Medway became almost a historical fact, though, actually, the River Medway is nowhere mentioned.”

So archaeologists invented it?

Martin Henig “Yes, it’s a total invention.”

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Fishbourne Palace largest building excavation

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