The final battle between the Roman legions and Queen Boudica’s rebel army in AD 60 or 61 (we are uncertain even of the precise date) determined the future of Britain for 350 years. Had the Romans been defeated, they would have had to mount a new invasion. They might well have chosen not to do so – leaving Britain outside the Roman Empire, as Ireland and Scotland were to be.
The odds on a Roman victory did not look good on the day of the battle. When Boudica raised the banner of revolt in Norfolk, tens of thousands joined her, not only in her own tribal territory, but far beyond. The rebel army defeated a legion and destroyed three towns in succession, Colchester, London, and St Albans. Then, swollen to perhaps 80,000 or more, the rebel host moved north-westwards into the Midlands.
The Roman army, in contrast, was reeling. The Ninth Legion had been defeated, losing heavily and falling back on its base. The Second Legion had been ordered to march to effect a junction with the forces under the direct command of the Roman military governor, Suetonius Paullinus, but its commander had refused (for reasons that are obscure) and it had remained at its base in the West Country. This left Paullinus perilously weak.
Little wonder that he chose a strong defensive position for his little army as the rebel host approached. Tacitus says it was ‘a narrow defile blocked off at the rear by a wood’. Its purpose was to deny the rebels opportunity to use their vastly superior numbers to envelop and surround the Roman force: ‘he made sure that there were no enemy anywhere save to his front, where the ground was open and there was no risk of ambush’. Everything was to hinge on the frontal collision of two dense masses of armed men.
For reconstructing this, we have two ancient accounts. That of Dio Cassius written about 150 years after the event, and that of Tacitus who had access to first-class primary sources: his father-in-law was a veteran of the battle
So what do we know? Dio Cassius says that Paullinus deployed his army in ‘three divisions’, each ‘in close formation’ and ‘hard to break up’. Later, he appears to have these three divisions operating independently on the battlefield. We cannot make sense of this, since it does not conform to any known Roman military organisation, deployment, or manoeuvre. It may be a confused reference to the three elements identified by Tacitus when he describes Paullinus’ conventional deployment: legionaries in the centre, auxiliaries on either side, cavalry on the flanks.
What follows appears to have been fast, violent, and decisive. The Britons advanced and were showered with Roman javelins. The whole of the Roman line – legionaries, auxiliaries, and cavalry – then charged. The legionaries attacked in wedge formation. The British line broke under the impact, but the escape route was blocked by the baggage-train, and the result was a massacre.
Everything, it seemed, hinged on events which may have lasted only a few minutes, during which time javelins were thrown, swords drawn, the Romans charged, there was frantic close-quarters hacking and stabbing, and then panic spread down the British line as sections of it caved in. How long did it take? Five minutes? Ten minutes?
The future of Britain for 350 years decided in minutes. Here we reach the heart of the matter. For what decided the outcome was the difference between the Roman legionary and the Celtic warrior in close-quarters action.
The Celtic warrior was essentially an individualist. Prowess in battle meant seeking out opponents and duelling with them using a long, double-edged slashing sword. On the other hand, most Celts were relatively poor, and though most probably had helmet, shield, spear, and sword, very few had any body-armour. Chariots, horses, and chain-mail were restricted to the aristocratic elite.
Rome, by contrast, was a centralised imperial state, whose professional army was committed to pitched battle, all-out war, and total subjugation of its enemies. The legionaries were highly drilled, heavily armoured, trained to fight as a team, and possessed of perhaps the best infantry weapons-system in the ancient world. It is most easily grasped by considering what Boudica’s men faced as they approached the Roman line.
Confronting them, perhaps 25 yards ahead, was a wall of shields with several ranks of steel-clad men behind. Then, suddenly, a shower of javelins, each with a small, triangular, armour-piercing tip at the head of a long metal shaft. The Roman pilum could bore through a shield and skewer the man behind it. Then, amid the chaos and panic of the first throw, a second shower…
To read more about the Roman war machine that reduced Boudica’s army to panic stricken mob, and the aftermath of this battle, pick up a copy of Military Times issue 1
Boudicca's Revolt Against Roman Rule In Britain
Boudicca was and still is in the eyes of many a national hero. Boudicca is an extremely important part of English and Roman history as she led the only revolt that actually threatened the Roman rule in Britain. Boudicca’s attitude was a true reflection of the way all Celtic people felt about the Roman rule. It is because of this that she was able to unit many Celts on a common cause, during a time of a great cultural and national change. Yet, like all humans Boudicca had her flaws, and though rare on occasions she made irrational choices.
Boudicca lived and died in the first century, a time when the Roman Empire was continuing to expand. Although the Romans first expedition to Briton (modern day Britain) was carried out by Julius Caesar in 55 BC it was nearly one hundred years later that the Romans under Emperor Claudius in 43 AD that a full scale invasion was launched.
When the Romans Invaded Briton each Celtic tribe was treated differently. The Celtic Iceni tribe kept out of the violent conflict, and because of this they were awarded ‘client kingdom’ status by the Romans. Being a client kingdom meant that the Iceni tribe maintained a considerable amount of independence. They were allowed to keep their rulers, and they were allowed to mint coin. They were bound by treaty to Rome, who in return would back them up, often against rival tribes. Yet the Romans took the view that they had the authority, to at any time intervene in the internal affairs of their client kingdoms. On the other hand the main city of the Trinovantes tribe, which was located just south of the Iceni tribe, was declared by Emperor Claudius as the capital of his British province. The Trinovantes people lost their freedom as well as having most of their land confiscated, and were made to pay taxes used to finance the occupation and building of many Roman structures.
For the Iceni people, being a client kingdom meant that that they were allowed to keep their king and queen, and they didn’t have to pay taxes. Yet in 60 AD after Seventeen years of Roman Rule this all ended for the Iceni people. Queen Boudicca's husband King Prasutagus, in an attempt to secure a future for his family and his people, made a will leaving just half of his wealth to his family while the other half went to the Roman Empire. However when Prasutagus died the Romans took no notice of his will, instead they sent soldiers to his home. These soldiers confiscated all of the family wealth including the royal home, and announced that the Iceni nobles were to be enslaved and striped of their estates. Boudicca took this matter to a higher Roman authority. Instead of having her case heard she was publicly stripped and lashed, and her two daughters were raped.
This led to the reason why Boudicca is still remembered today. All of the Celtic people in Briton were under direct Roman rule and had no freedom, rights or land of their own. They were prisoners in their own land. Boudicca led a bloodthirsty...
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