Caligula Attempts to Conquer Britain (40 A.D.)
The subject of today’s post is an aside to the serious-minded dissection of the Romano-British era in Britain. I find it to be one of the more comical stories related to the Roman occupation of Britain, and it didn’t even happen on Britain’s shores. By 40 A.D., Rome had begun to seriously contemplate the degrading situation in Britain. Augustus had even planned to invade on three separate occasions, though none of the plans ever came to fruition. Our story today happens in the summer of 40 A.D.
The story comes to us from two separate sources, Suetonius and Cassius Dio, both of them Roman historians. I’d wager that the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius is the more widely known of the two, but Cassius Dio mentions the same story in his 80 volume history of Rome. The central figure of our story is Caligula, emperor of Rome, and all-around loony (think Arthur of the Britons in Monty Python’s Holy Grail.)
Our story begins when Caligula decides that he will be the first to bring the entire British island under Roman rule. He probably had this idea planted in his mind after he captured the son of a Briton king. The son had been banished from Britain, and led a small contingent of warriors in a region somewhere within Gaul. Suetonius writes that the capture of this small-time warlord made Caligula feel as though “the entire island had submitted unto him.” He sent a grand letter to the Senate to extol his victory, and then promptly marched his legions to the Gallic shore of the English Channel. This is where the story gets good.
Cassius Dio relates that Caligula drew up the legions in battle formation, facing toward Britannia as it lay across the channel. He then boarded a boat, sailed out a little ways, made an about-face, returned to shore and got back out. There “he took his seat on a lofty platform and gave the soldiers the signal as if for battle, bidding the trumpeters urge them on.” Stab the water; really? Not a moment too late, “he suddenly bade them gather shells and fill their helmets and the folds of their gowns.” In one fell swoop, we go from fighting water to gathering sea shells? Hail Caesar!
To take the cake, we are told that Caligula became “greatly elated, as though he had conquered the entire ocean.” He planned to use the seashells as “spoils from the ocean, due to the Capitol and Palatine.” In commemoration of his oceanic conquest, he ordered the soldiers to build “a lofty tower,” a lighthouse to guide the ships in the channel. He then gave the soldiers gifts of “a hundred denarii each.” I sure hope those seashells had a few pearls inside. That is how Caligula conquered Britannia; in his mind, at least.