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The Velsen I Roman fort in the Netherlands. Source: Graham Sumner / Livius.org

Roman Fort Used During Conquest of Britain Found in the Netherlands

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Between 43 AD and 410 AD, large parts of Britain were under Roman occupation. Part of the Roman empire’s eastwards occupation, these conquered territories had the status of a Roman province. The Guardian reports that archaeologists have recently discovered the remains of a large Roman fort in Velsen in the Netherlands, that they believe was used during the launch of the successful attack on Britannia by Emperor Claudius in AD 43.

A Tale of Two Roman Forts

Located on the Dutch coast in north Holland, Velsen is the site of an earlier Roman fortress that has been designated Velsen 1. Velsen 1 was discovered in 1972 and is believed to have been operational from 14 to 30 AD. It has been tentatively identified as the fort called Flevum mentioned by Roman historian Tacitus, according to Livius.org. Tacitus wrote of Flevum that it all but fell during the revolt of the Frisians, a Germanic tribe populating the coastal regions of the Netherlands, in 28 AD. It had to be rescued by the troops of V Alaudae, which had come from Xanten.

Although Velsen 1 remains the most likely candidate for the Roman fort Tacitus writes of, the link between the two has not been fully established as yet. Nevertheless, exhaustive excavations of the site have revealed that it had been abandoned sometime around 30 AD following attacks by the Frisians. This has been corroborated by the discovery of human remains in some wells at the site, a tactic frequently employed by retreating Romans to poison the wells.

The later Roman fort, built on the banks of the Oer-IJ, a tributary of the Rhine, lies 20 miles (32 km) from Amsterdam and is believed to have been used between 39 and 47 AD. Its first traces were found way back in 1945 when schoolchildren found fragments of pottery in an abandoned World War II anti-tank trench. Exploratory research began in the 1950s during the building of the Velsertunnel, under the Nordzeekanaal or North Sea Canal. Archaeological excavations were carried out at the site in the 1960s and 1970s.

It was in 1997 that archaeologist Arjen Bosman discovered Roman ditches at three different places at the site as well as a wall and a gate. This discovery led to the site being declared a state protected monument. However, it was initially believed to be a small fort, not much different in size from Velsen 1. The fact that both Roman forts lie within a few hundred meters of each other, led to the conclusion that both were most likely castellum, small military camps 1 or 2 hectares (2.5 to 4.9 acres) in size.

Velsen Roman Fort Was Far Bigger Than Initially Thought

In November 2021, Bosman combined his research over the last couple of decades with finds of the 1960s and 1970s that were not recognized as Roman at the time, to arrive at a new conclusion. “It is not one or two hectares like the first fort in Velsen, but at least 11 hectares (27 acres),” explained Bosman. “We always thought it was the same size but that is not true. It was a legionary fortress and that’s something completely different,” said Bosman in The Guardian report .

The fortress was used to house a legion of several thousand soldiers and was the Roman Empire’s northernmost castra (fortress), Bosman believes. It was built to keep the Germanic tribe of Chauci in check as the Romans prepared to cross over from Boulogne in France to the southern coast of England.

The fortress was likely built by Roman Emperor Caligula (12 to 41 AD) as he prepared to launch his failed attack on Britannia around 40 AD. It was taken over by Emperor Claudius after he had killed Caligula and was used in his own successful attack on the island in 43 AD. “We know for sure Caligula was in the Netherlands as there are markings on wooden wine barrels with the initials of the emperor burnt in, suggesting that these came from the imperial court,” highlighted Bosman.

The Roman fort was likely built by Emperor Caligula, depicted above. (Bobbex / Adobe Stock)

The Roman fort was likely built by Emperor Caligula, depicted above. ( Bobbex / Adobe Stock)

Base Camp For Preparations to Invade Britannia

“What Caligula came to do were the preparations for invading England – to have the same kind of military achievement as Julius Caesar – but to invade and remain there,” stressed Bosman, the archaeologists who made the discovery. “He couldn’t finish the job as he was killed in 41 AD and Claudius took over where he left off in 43 AD.”

What followed was the Roman conquest of Britain. Claudius’s troops safely held off the Germanic tribes and made their landing in Kent. By the summer of 43 AD the emperor himself reached Britain, entering Camulodunum (Colchester) to preside over the surrender of 12 chieftains.

Within three years, the Romans had claimed most of Britain as part of their empire. The Roman occupation lasted until 410 AD, when the empire began to collapse due to internal dissensions and the perpetual depredations of the Germanic tribes. The Velsen 2 Roman fort fell into disuse after 47 AD when Claudius ordered his troops to retreat behind the Rhine.

Top image: The Velsen I Roman fort in the Netherlands. Source: Graham Sumner / Livius.org

By Sahir Pandey

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