This week: Fortresses and invasions

Roman and Saxon shore forts in South East England. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Those with even a cursory knowledge of ancient history will recall that Julius Caesar made his first expedition to Britain in 55 BC, landing on the Kentish coast before returning home with relatively little to show for his efforts. Others may also be aware that the process of Rome’s permanent conquest of Britannia did not begin until 43 AD, during the reign of Emperor Claudius.

What is more mysterious. however, is what happened to Rome’s invasion plans in the almost 100 years between those two dates.

As we learn this week on The Past, one tantalising snapshot is that presented by the surviving ancient sources, which record that four years before Claudius’ legions finally reached these shores, his predecessor Caligula also plotted a cross-Channel invasion – but that it descended into bizarre farce as he lined up his troops along the shore of ‘Oceanus’.

What the historian Suetonius tells us – in his evocative but largely incomprehensible account – is that rather than leading his men across the sea to Britannia itself, the famously depraved emperor briefly sailed forth in a ship, before returning and ordering his waiting legions to collect seashells instead. This booty, which Caligula claimed as spoils of his victory over the sea, was eventually taken back to Rome in triumph.

It’s a wonderfully surreal scene – though the frustrating lack of detail means it was always unlikely that we could ever be sure where precisely it was supposed to have taken place. That is still the case – but as we discover in the new issue of our sister magazine Current World Archaeology and on the latest edition of The PastCast, our unmissable podcast, a plausible new location has emerged with the exciting discovery of an unsuspected legionary fortress on the Netherlands coast at Valkenburg. Archaeologist Wouter Vos and his team introduce us to a site already known for its Roman remains, but where fresh excavations are shedding surprising new light on its possible role in the invasion of Britain.

Also this week on The Past, we delve deeper into the archives of our sister magazines to bring you a more complete understanding of the history of fortresses and invasions: David Breeze and others investigated the naming of Roman frontier forts, and uncovered the complex steps taken to ensure that men and supplies were sent to the right place; Carly Hilts searched for traces of the invading Viking army of Cnut the Great, who conquered England fifty years before the Normans; and Nikolaus Hochstein Cox travelled to the Solomon Islands to discover how Japan prepared to repel an anticipated Allied invasion during the Second World War.

And finally, if all that leaves you still hungry for more, why not have a go at our latest quiz, which this week is designed to test your knowledge of Roman defences. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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