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Romans on Anglesey

The main reasons quoted to invade Anglesey was to rid the country of Druids, although the second time may have had more to do with securing a firm supply base ahead of their planned invasion of Ireland, and mineral resources present.

To the Romans, Druidism was a potential for trouble and therefore had to be brought under control. There's no evidence that Druidism was common throughout the majority of Britain or that the people of Britain at that time were particularly interested in it. The Romans reported its stronghold was in Anglesey and nowhere else. Like all war reports we only have the records of the winning side, so perhaps not a fair report of what happened. Druid was a general term, including those that can foresee the future, healers, and more. The Romans also saw them as administrators and judges, the agents of others rule that theirs and perhaps the support of, if not involvement in, freedom fighting. They make few actual references to them except in the spin to justify their actions in some places.

Once in Anglesey there are a few known small Romano British hut groups, a small fort and 1 possibly 2 look out posts. Plus their involvement in the mining.

Anglesey was, as it is now, rich in food of all type, including grain and fishing, it had copper mines so could make weapons and ornaments. Anglesey would be completely capable of standing on its own, and except for defence could survive well without mainland Wales or the rest of Britain. Later it was said that you could feed the whole of Wales as long as you had Anglesey.

The Romans conquered Anglesey twice, led first by Paulinus and later by Agricola.

1st Conquest

The first attack by Paulinus in 60AD, is said to have been one of the most brutal of Roman action in Britain.

Suetonius Paullinus, was faced with the challenge that Anglesey was separated from the mainland, and although the strip of water, (Menai Strait), is not very wide for much of the time there are dangerous currents and shifting sands. Without an accurate knowledge of these hazards, an accurate understanding of the tides, an attack from this direction must have seemed foolhardy to the inhabitants and Druidic priests. So we can assume they felt secure, and would have expected to have destroyed any enemy that braved the sea and sands.

Prior to the attack on Anglesey, the fighting in Wales had been sporadic, intermittent and on occasions heavy. The Roman Army faced two tribes, The Silures of the southeast and the Ordovices, led by Caractacus, the son of  King Cunobelinust of the Catuvellaunian. The II Augusta moved against the tribes in the southeast under another command leaving, while  Paullina's was leading 2 legions, the XIV Gemina and a vexillation of the XX through northwest Wales with heavy fighting with two local tribes the Ordovices and Deceangli, until the opposition on the mainland was effectively ended, some having escaped and gone to Anglesey. For many years the mostly hit and run tactics from these tribes had been a major problem for the Romans, generally they did not stand and fight as a large band but would strike, and melt away. Paullina's could not leave these, but needed to complete the job and also at the same time wanted to destroy the Druids, who were encouraging rebellion.

Paullinus had brought with him, as well as his legions, artillery to support them in the form of Ballistae and Onagers.

  • Ballistae are a type of large catapult capable of throwing flaming missiles up to 2000 feet. These could also be adapted to shoot rocks, chunks of metal or anything else handy, cutting down massed ranks or earthwork fortifications. 

  • Onagers are more of a sling shot device able to hurl boulders or bags of stones accurately.

These would have to have been dismantled for the journey and re-erected, generally these were siege weapons, but would also have been useful in pushing the enemy back from the shore and giving some cover to his forces while crossing. The Legions also brought crossbows and spare weapons as part of the huge logistics train vital to support the invasion itself.

Its clear that Paullinus was aware that he was to cross to Anglesey as he had also brought small flat-bottomed boats.

Paullinus knew the opposition was made up of lightly armed tribesmen, who had armour that hardly existed, that they had no battlefield support, so he could assume he could defeating them, once he managed to get over the water.

His plan was to use the boats as landing craft for his infantry, crossing at slack water, supported by cavalry swum across, and to provide these with cover by a bombardment of fire and stones. With this in mind, and in full view of the Celts on the far shore, Paullinus made his camp at what is known today as Llanfairisgaer, outside of modern Caernarfon.

We don't know how long it took to get ready and prepare, but the morning of the invasion arrived and the boats were carried down to the edge of the water, the infantry loaded and awaiting the order to row across. The crossbows primed and set, the ballistae and onegers were loaded and cavalry formed up ready to swim their mounts over during the slack tide.

The Roman reports say that on the far bank, thousands of tribesmen had gathered, the tribesmen beat their shields with the flat of their swords and cheered, jeered and insulted the Romans. Painted nude women danced through them wavering torches of fire, and shrieking to warn their men folk to the heat of battle and the Druids invoked dark forces on the invaders. The reports say this was enough to cause concern amongst the Roman ranks with many noticeably shaking. They would, looking at both the water to cross and the fact that the enemy were on higher ground. It says that Paullinus knew his troops were apprehensive, so he rode amongst them, reminding them of their honour as Roman soldiers. He reminded them too of what they would face when they returned to Rome and probably told them of the disgrace they would face for having been intimidated by a people no less than savages, guerrilla fighters who did not know the honour of full battle. It is recorded that he began to win his men around, stirring them eventually into a battle frenzy and filling them with a sense of duty and obligation.

The right point on the tide must then have been reached, and the boats were launched and the cavalry swam their horses over. We can assume before they had landed, there would have been, inevitably, casualties. Boats capsized, sending the heavily armed troops to the bottom of the Straits to drown. Arrows, fired in ranks against the invaders, would have struck men and horses, its possible the Celts threw their javelins as the first of the legion landed and gathered waiting for sufficient numbers before advancing, and for the overhead bombardment to cease.

The coast at this point now is low, gently sloping up from the beach, once the troops were clear of the water's edge, the ground would have been firm. Any height advantages the Celts had would become insignificant and as the Roman numbers increased the chance of the Celts surviving this was minimal. It is documented that the Romans, fought with ferocity and a fury that became legendary throughout Britain and began to cut and slash their way forward to establish their foothold leading to large scale slaughter, reports say those fleeing, men, women and children were killed and the Druids and their groves destroyed.

At this point toady field names still record the burials that followed.

While this was happening another revolt started in East Anglia, and spreading far wider was gaining ground lead by Boudicca, and Paullinus and his men had to leave at once, before fully securing the island.

Over the next 15 years Roman rule existed but there would be a series of problems throughout this area.

2nd Conquest

The second conquest was by Gnaeus Julius Agricola, again we have Roman records of what happened, and while we cannot rely on one sides report, it is a good guide. Argicola's son in law was Roman historian Tacitus, so his exploits were well recorded.

Agricola took up the post of governor of Britain in 78AD. Soon after, news reached Agricola of an attack on a small fort in North Wales that had almost wiped out the cavalry regiment stationed there. These forts had been set up far earlier and were small garrison settlements which provided intelligence on events within the provinces, so had a strategic value.

Agricola saw the opportunity to both show others that it was not wise to take him on and at the same time to complete the control of the Ordovices tribe, started 15 years before, but with Paulinus’s withdrawal from the area to crush the Boudiccan revolt, left uncompleted. Since then the Ordovices and their Druids had again gathered strength, had become a hazard and was tying up troops and resources.

We can assume that the dissident numbers were not large as Agricola took one legion, Legio XX while Paulinus had taken two. However we know from what you will see below that he also had some auxiliaries with him as well, although not originally documented.


Tacitus records:

The Ordovices, shortly before Agricola’s arrival, had destroyed nearly the whole of a squadron of allied cavalry quartered in their territory. Such a beginning raised the hopes of the country, and all who wished for war approved the precedent, and anxiously watched the temper of the new governor. Meanwhile Agricola, though summer was past and the detachments were scattered throughout the province, though the soldier’s confident anticipation of inaction for that year would be a source of delay and difficulty in beginning a campaign, and most advisers thought it best simply to watch all weak points, resolved to face the peril.      Tacitus. Agricola 18.

Tacitus goes on to account that Agricola gathered together a force of veterans and some auxiliaries and immediately went to do battle with the enemy. He says that Agricola found the Ordovices would not meet him on the level field of battle but preferred, instead, to attempt to take advantage by remaining on a hilltop. This did not appear to bother Agricola, who - leading his men from the front, advanced up the hill to fight.


Tacitus Records

The tribe was all but exterminated.
Tacitus. Agricola 18.

Previous Governors had gathered together armies and started campaigns in the warm summer months but this was in the autumn, so its likely the Celts, in destroying the Roman fort thought that their timing would not result in immediate action. Having won the initial battle, Agricola now turned his attention towards Anglesey again this being the island stronghold from which the enemy not only operated but also could retreat to.

Divided from the mainland by the treacherous waters of the Menai Straits, a source of readily available food and rich in natural resources for weapon making, it was a tempting target. The opportunity to stamp out the threat once and for all was before him and, while he had the impetus, he took it. But he still had the problem that  Suetonius Paulinus faced. How to get across from the mainland.

He had no fleet available to him, he could have used elements of the Roman Navy but this would have taken time to gather and to plan and now, it being early autumn, weather conditions could be problematic.  He knew how Paulinus during the first invasion, forded the Straits.


Tacitus records that:

He picked a body of native auxiliaries who knew the fords and that had a facility for swimming which belongs to their nation..... he then launched them upon the enemy so suddenly that the astonished islanders, who looked for fleets of ships upon the sea, promptly came to the conclusion that nothing was hard and nothing invincible to men who fought in this fashion.               Tacitus. Agricola 18

The assault, according to Tacitus, was quickly decided. But he had reported earlier that the depleted tribe were nearly completely wiped out.

Some historians have said that the crossing of the main body of the legion was made via the Lavan Sands, which  at low tide, almost span the Menai Straits from the mainland. This is feasible, as the sands can dry enough to provide a firm surface for movement, but only if you know the area. They shift, being changed by the strong tides, and there is never a guarantee that what was once a safe crossing will remain the same.  But by now 15 years has passed and by this time the Romans had had plenty of time to have seen how Ordovices and others to had gained access Anglesey. A definite assault point is hard to find, we know it was not the route used by Paulinus, near to Llanfairisgaer. The most likely point is just south of Llanfairfechan and Lower Bangor.

Once the auxiliary had control of the ground the commandeered boats could have ferried the main force across. The shortest boat route across would have been Lower Bangor to the village of modern day Menai Bridge.

A legion is around 5000 men, mostly infantry, organised into ten cohorts of six centuries each. There would also be cavalry within the legion itself, figures of which vary but the most likely being 18 troops of 32 mounted men each. Auxiliaries numbers are often questioned, but an auxilia could comprise three distinct sections. Alae (cavalry), cohorts (infantry) and numeri. In terms of total numbers, the auxilia could match the legion it supported in also having a total of 5000 men. So we are talking about 10,000 men, plus transport, medical aides, pack animal handlers, caterers, and armourers, support, supplies and the like. Plus administrators, the writers and messengers.

We don't know much about the battle.


Tacitus records that:

..launched them on a surprise attack.
Tacitus. Agricola 18.

Its fair to assume that the first conquest took time to put together, bringing up and assembling large artillery devices, manhandling boats, and waiting for the right tidal conditions. By then the Celts would know the Roman military forces were large scale, very structurally organised and generally predictable. They would have thought there were days before an invasion was going to happen, and look outs, if any were probably posted, where they had come across previously.

There is no record of any defence or stand, and the building of the larger Segontium Roman Fort at Caernarfon plus look fortlett at Aberffraw, are from this time and the Caer y Twr Hillfort,  and a small fort at Caer Gybi Roman Fort and would have better held and controlled the area, although these last two are thought to have been built later.


Tacitus records:

And so, peace having been sued for and the island given up, Agricola became great and famous as one who, when entering on his province, a time when others spend in vain display and a round of ceremonies, chose rather toil and danger. Nor did he use his success for self-glorification, or apply the name of campaigns and victories to the repression of conquered people....Yet by thus disguising his renown he really increased it, for men inferred the grandeur of his aspirations from his silence about services so great.
Tacitus. Agricola 18

There are suggestions by some of a complete slaughter of the population but the rest of history does not bear this out.

Once he had garrisoned the island, he then imposed quotas on the people, as he did throughout Britain.

It had become common practise for the Britons to have to purchase back from the Romans the grain they had paid as taxes, and at a much higher price than they had been given for it, and to deliver their taxes (grain) to military posts, some of which were miles away. Agricola all but put a stop to this, and came to be seen as a fair man by the local population. He also ensured a military presence remained and built forts in strategic locations and controlled the area of his conquests by separating tribes into small units, keeping them constantly under surveillance.

Many tribes surrendered rather than fight, partly due to his reputation for winning but also though a feeling that he would be fair to them.

The Romans and Copper Mining

It is said that the Romans used the defeated Druids to work the copper mines at Parys Mountain in the north of Anglesey, and the copper that was mined at this time was forged into bronze tools and weapons.

The Romans new about copper and had found a way of recovering it from the chalopyrite which was based on leaching rather than smelting. There is evidence for Roman copper mining at Parys Mountain as two copper cakes were found near the Trysglwyn Farm, each weighing 25-30 pounds and one was stamped IVFS, these are now in the British Museum. Up to 18 cakes have been found in different locations around Anglesey and from one piece that was found near Llanbedre Goch in 1971 it could be seen that it had been collected in a round bottom bowl after the smelting process, it also showed signs of being broken by hammer and chisel after it had been cast.

Most of the copper ingots that have been found on Anglesey have been unbroken and at least 8 bear Roman stamps, two of these were found at Parys Mountain. It is thought the ingots being manufactured here were for export to other areas of Britain.No copper ingots have been found at the other Copper Mine of the Roman period on the mainland of Wales at Great Orme. It is also thought that the Roman Fortlet at Caer Gybi (Holyhead) was built in the 4th century to protect the mineral reserves of Parys Mountain.  The mining for Copper on Parys Mountain stoped when the Romans left Britian and was not extracted again until the middle ages. See our location guide on the Amlwch Copper Kingdom to find out more on copper mining on Anglesey and Parys Mountain.


Tacitus reports later on the work of Agricola

And so the population was gradually led into the demoralising temptations of arcades, baths and sumptuous banquets. The unsuspecting Britons spoke of such novelties as ‘civilisation’, when in fact they were only a feature of their enslavement.
Tacitus. Agricola 21.

After the Romans left pirates from Ireland conquered Anglesey, and it became known as an area  under the influence of the Kings of Dublin, these being driven out by people from Scotland, raided by Vikings and far later the island was captured by Edward 1st, and he twice launched campaigns against Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the last Prince of Wales. In both cases Llywelyn was defeated, in part because Edward cut off grain shipments from Anglesey that were feeding the Welsh aArmy. After the final defeat Edward built a series of castles around the coast of Wales.

Roman sites on Anglesey

Caer Gybi Roman Fort, Holyhead, Anglesey

Caer Leb, nr Brynscienyn, Anglesey

Caer y Twr Hillfort, Holyhead, Anglesey

Din Lligwy Hut Group, Moelfre, Anglesey

Amlwch Copper Kingdom


By: Keith Park Section: Roman Britain Section Key:
Page Ref: Romans_anglesey Topic: Roman Britain Last Updated: 07/2010

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