In 41 CE, Roman emperor Claudius’ position in Rome was weak. He needed a military victory to assert his authority after predecessor Caligula’s assassination. No Roman leader had conquered Britain—the fabulous land set in the endless waters of “Ocean.” Julius Caesar was the first to cross Ocean to invade Britain in 55 and 54 BCE but had not been able to conquer the island, instead establishing an annual tribute to be paid to Rome. Claudius chose Britain as the venue for his ambitions of conquest.
Why did the island of Britain hold such an appeal to the Roman imagination? In Greek mythology, as inherited by the Roman elite, Ocean was endless and surrounded the inhabited world. Oceanus, the Greek god of the sea was one of the Titans and, as the Romans gained experience of the Atlantic Ocean, the domain of this ancestral god was pushed further to the north. Britain, as a vast island set within Ocean, had a special and unworldly identity that reflected the lack of knowledge of its peoples and lands. This gave the invasion of Britain a particular status for Roman generals and emperors looking to increase their power—hence the invasion of Britain. Therefore “Ocean” is capitalized here, to indicate its personification in the Greek and Roman tradition.
Claudius invaded Britain in 43 CE, exploiting the political instability following the recent death of the most dominant king of southern Britain, Cunobelin (Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline”), to achieve a famous victory. The initial phases of the conquest of southern Britain progressed speedily under the leadership of the general Aulus Plautius, who won several battles before many of the Britons surrendered. Plautius then summoned Claudius to travel from Rome to Camulodunum (Colchester)—the most important political centre (oppidum) in Britain prior to the Roman invasion—after these initial victories. Other information from a classical writer indicates that Claudius spent only 16 days in Britain, and probably spent most of his time travelling to Camulodunum from Kent and back again. At Camulodunum, Claudius received the submission of the “kings” of around 11 peoples. After the initial weeks of the invasion, much of southern Britain appears to have surrendered without serious fighting within a few months. The propaganda of Claudius played up the degree of fighting in what was a fairly swift campaign of conquest.
The triumphal arch
The Roman senate awarded Claudius with the honorary title “Britannicus” and granted him a triumph in Rome. An annual festival was proclaimed, indicating the importance attached to the conquest of south-eastern Britain in 43 CE, and the senate decreed the construction of a triumphal arch in Rome to celebrate Claudius’s victory.
The arch was a material expression of the importance of the conquest of Britain to the senatorial elite in Rome. It was built into the Aqua Virgo aqueduct over the road leading north out of the city, the Via Lata, as part of a rebuilding programme. There are a number of triumphal arches in the city of Rome, including the famous examples of Titus and Constantine, which still exist. Only fragments of Claudius’ arch survive, but we have some antiquarian drawings of lost fragments and image on Roman coins.
The arch bore an inscription, which only survives in part, which provides very important information of the conquest that is not recorded in the available classical accounts of Tacitus and Dio. The surviving inscription tells us that Claudius had received the surrender of a number of kings of the Britons, conquered without loss, and was the first to bring the barbarian peoples across the Ocean under the authority of Rome. Unfortunately, the number of kings that submitted is uncertain due to the fragmentation of the inscription but is usually interpreted as 11.
It also helps provide the date of the arch. It appears to have taken several years for the arch to be constructed and there may have been an earlier arch constructed a few years after 43 CE, which might then have been modified in 51–2. By the time the arch was completed, Rome had come into conflict with the people named the Silures and Ordovices in western Britain. These battles resulted in a Roman victory in central Wales where the leader of the resistance, Caratacus, a son of Cunobelin, was captured and the Britons defeated. Caratacus and his family were paraded in Rome in 52 and this may be when the arch was finally completed (or reconstructed).
The significance of water in the design of the arch
The inscription on the arch refers to the control that Claudius had established over people beyond Ocean and the arch itself had a fascinating relationship to water.
Oceanus, the Greek god of the Ocean, was the father of water in all its forms, including rivers, springs, wells and rainfall. This meant that the divinities who were felt to inhabit them were seen as children of Ocean. The Aqua Virgo, one of the 11 aqueducts supplying Rome, carried water into the city by a channel that ran over the top of Claudius’ arch. Numerous works in Rome and Italy during Claudius’ reign built upon the idea that he was master of water in all its forms. Other celebrations across the empire also commentated the emperor’s role, including the marble relief from Aphrodisias in Turkey showing Claudius receiving the submission of the land and sea in the form of two divinities.
The original design concept of this triumphal arch was fundamentally concerned with the control of flowing water by being constructed into the Aqua Virgo aqueduct. It complemented the arch of Drusus, the father of Claudius, which celebrated his triumph over Germania, constructed over the road south from Rome, the Via Appia. Travellers arriving and leaving the city by these routes would be affected by the powerful impact of these magnificent gateways.
It seems probable that the decoration of Claudius’ arch included scenes derived from the idea of conquering “Ocean,” including sea monsters and ships. No fragments depicting these beings are known to have survived, while the most impressive battle scene thought to be derived from arch was recorded in a sixteenth-century drawing showing Roman soldiers fighting Britons.
Though it no longer survives, there is enough information about the monument to undertake a colour reconstruction.
The reconstruction image is intended to convey the impact of Claudius’ British conquest at his powerbase in Rome. Although the exact original appearance of the arch is unknown, the reconstruction brings together the information from different types of material records and remains and draws upon the symbolic significance of water to Claudius’ conquest.
Building the reconstruction for Conquering the Ocean was greatly assisted by information in Anthony Barrett’s article in the archaeological journal, Britannia, which considered the composition of the general design of the arch and the evidence for its imagery and materials in some detail. Barrett reviews the surviving sculpted fragments that have been attributed to the arch, and others that have only been recorded in drawings made during the sixteenth century. Following the first recorded excavations on the site of the arch in 1562, the Neapolitan architect and antiquarian Pirro Ligorio recorded that the arch lay in a heap of marble fragments. He reconstructed an elevation of the arch, built into the aqueduct, noting the locations of some sculpted details. After this, all traces of the arch were removed but parts of the Aqua Virgo aqueduct survive.
The starting point for reconstructing the arch was planning the scale of the edifice. This was generally informed by surviving examples, such as the triumphal arch at Orange in France, and in more detail by the dimensions of the main inscription slab that was originally displayed over the gateway; this measured around six metres long and stood around three metres high.
As all classical sculpture was at least partly coloured, either by painting or through the use of particular media, it was essential to reconstruct the arch in colour to convey the dramatic visual impact of the original design. The use of yellows and reds was informed by the fragments of the fluted marble columns referred to by the antiquarian Giacinto Gigli in the seventeenth century. These were carved from a deep yellow marble veined with red that may have been sourced from North Africa, fragments of which were found near the site of the arch in 1923. A blue-based green was also used for contrast, similar to the reconstruction of a column capital in green, red and yellow on display at the Harbour Museum at Xanten in Germany.
Bringing all this information together while filling the conceptual gaps—to build an entire architectural design with a dramatic appearance appropriate to the subject—was an engaging challenge. Every image reflects our stances (intentional or unintentional) and current agendae. If we know this, we can articulate these things in our image-making, to critique and question, as well as try out new “ways of seeing” things.
Although the arch does not survive, the conquest of southern Britain was the greatest achievement of Claudius’ successful reign. Because of the way that the Roman conquest of Britain played on the island’s status as an Oceanic realm, we felt it was important to reconstruct the arch in colour to communicate its significance. Much of the information for the conquest of Roman Britain is highly fragmentary and derives from a combination of classical texts and archaeological information. The reconstruction of the arch helps exemplify the challenges involved in piecing together the story of Roman conquest of Britain from Julius Caesar to Hadrian.
Feature image by Scailyna – own work, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0