The Iceni Revolt


Boudicca (also known as Boedicea) is the woman whose image astride a chariot spear in hand has come to represent English defiance in times of mortal danger.

Emperor Claudius was murdered in AD 54 and was succeeded by Nero. Suetonius said that the new emperor considered withdrawing from Britain but refrained because he did not wish to belittle his adoptive father’s glory. Too much money and military manpower, however, had probably been committed to Britain to consider a withdrawal and, when Didius’s term of office finished in AD 57, Quintus Veranius, who had been involved in mountain warfare in southern Asia Minor, replaced him. It was clear that the Roman government intended him to move into the mountainous regions of Wales and the north of Britain.

Unfortunately Veranius died in his first year of governorship. His successor was Suetonius Paullinus (AD 57–61), who had subdued the tribes of the Atlas Mountains in Mauritania. This experience of mountain warfare certainly stood him in good stead. Tacitus said in the Agricola that he enjoyed two seasons of success establishing strong forts and conquering tribes, presumably the Silures and the Ordovici. The remnants of these tribes had taken refuge in Anglesey, but this was not the only reason why Paullinus decided to attack the island. Anglesey was rich in minerals, especially copper. It provided a corn supply for the Ordovici that would be useful for the troops. Above all, it had become a haven for Druidic resistance. The Druids had been outlawed in Gaul by Tiberius and Claudius but had become notorious in Britain for their hostility to Rome. Paullinus determined to put an end to this. He constructed flat-bottomed boats to transport the infantry, probably from Legions XIV and XX, across the Menai Strait and sent the cavalry part wading, part swimming across. These may have been Batavians who were used to this type of action. Other troops crossed by fords, possibly near Bangor where the water is relatively shallow.

At first the Romans were dismayed by their hostile reception. Women dressed in funereal black brandished torches and wailed loudly; Druids poured out curses. Then the Romans moved, urged on by the generals and the threats of the centurions, smashing into the mass awaiting them and burning them with their own torches. The groves, which Tacitus said were devoted to their savage rites, were cut down but the occupation of the island was halted by news from the east of Britain.

Prasutagus had kept the peace amongst the Iceni and been a loyal client king. He had hoped to continue this peace after his death by leaving his kingdom half to the Emperor Nero and half to his daughters in his will. Whether this would have worked is uncertain and it is equally unclear why he did not include his wife Boudicca in his will as women rulers appear to have been acceptable to Celtic tribes. The Romans were having none of this. Suetonius stated that Nero seized ‘the whole estates of those who had shown ingratitude by not bequeathing him enough’. The Roman procurator, Decianus Catus, probably on orders from Rome, sent slaves from his office and centurions from the governor’s staff, together with troops, into the kingdom to secure it for Rome. Outrages followed. Boudicca was whipped, her daughters raped and the property of the Icenian nobility was seized.

Resentment led to open revolt and the Iceni were joined by the Trinovantes who resented the confiscation of their lands by the veterans in the Colchester colonia. They had also been harshly treated, being forced to quarry stones and make tiles for the building of the town and to pay taxes for the upkeep of the Temple of Claudius. To pay these many had taken out loans from moneylenders and other Romans. Amongst these, according to Dio Cassius, was Seneca, Nero’s tutor, who had lent 10,000,000 drachmas, a considerable fortune. These debts were now called in ‘all at once and in a heavy-handed manner’. This may have been contrary to what many of the Celts believed for so great was their belief that death in this world would result in a new life in the real world that, according to Valerius Maximus, an early first-century AD writer, the Gauls lent money to each other to be repayable in the next world. Decianus, however, also demanded repayment of subsidies, possibly gifts, which Claudius had given to friendly Britons, claiming these were also loans. That the actions of the Romans were unjust was commented on by Tacitus in the Agricola when he said that the Britons were willing to be recruited into the army, pay tribute and have other obligations imposed by the government provided that they were not abused for ‘they have been broken to obedience but not to slavery’.

Dreadful warnings were noted. The statue of Victory at Colchester fell down for no reason and with its back turned as if fleeing from the enemy. A clamour of strange voices was heard in the Senate House; the theatre resounded with wailing; frenzied woman prophesied destruction. In the Thames estuary an apparition of a colonia in ruin appeared while the sea turned blood red and threw up shapes like human corpses. The mention of a Senate House, a theatre and the Temple of Claudius shows that the colonia had progressed with its Romanizing policy and was trying to involve the Britons in this.

Even so, there may have been another reason for this revolt – a desire for booty, which had always been a factor in Celtic warrior raids. The attraction of a rich settled town, without much protection, may possibly have revived a latent Celtic craving for a style of life and a yearning for a combatant past before the Romans had taken control. As it was the Iceni and the Trinovantes were ready for rebellion and they found their leader in Boudicca. With many of the tribespeople she swept down on Colchester, destroying the undefended colonia, including those who made a last stand in a two-day siege of the temple. She then intercepted Petillius Cerealis, Legate of Legion IX, who was probably hurrying from the Longthorpe fortress, and annihilated his infantry. Petillius was then forced to retreat.

On hearing this news Paullinus immediately moved towards London, but this was 402 km (250 miles) away. Leaving Legion XIV and some auxiliary troops to follow he moved along the line of Watling Street. Needing reinforcements he summoned Legion II Augusta to join him from their base in the south-west but their legionary commander was away and Poenius Postumus, the Praefectus Castrorum, was ridden with uncertainty and refused to give orders to move.

Paullinus decided that London, then, according to Tacitus, an important and busy centre for trade, had to be abandoned. Refusing to listen to the pleas of the inhabitants he moved out together with as many of the citizens who could leave. The rest were left to their fate, which was not long in coming as the Britons invaded the city. They then moved on to Verulamium where they again exacted revenge. Tacitus gives a figure of 70,000 people killed, as the Britons took no prisoners. Even if this is halved or reduced to a third, this indicates the severe defeat that the Romans had suffered. Excavations at Silchester have revealed extensive burning in parts of the town between AD 60 and 80, which may indicate that some of Boudicca’s forces reached this area and exacted their revenge.

Paullinus decided to make one last stand, gathering together troops from Legions XIV and XX and some auxiliaries, probably about 10,000 men. This may have been either near Mancetter or High Cross in Warwickshire. Recent research using computerized generated tactics has suggested that the battle may have been fought farther west. If the Boudiccan forces did destroy Silchester or parts of the town, the possible site of the battle may have lain in the Kennet Valley or near the Goring Gap, near to Silchester, which could also relate to the evidence of burning in the town.

Wherever the battle took place, it was a disaster for the Britons. Boudicca’s army was stated to be about 250,000, a number probably exaggerated to give prominence to a Roman victory. This was not two disciplined armies fighting each other, but a well-trained military fighting machine against an illdisciplined crowd. It was not that the Britons were not brave. Individually Celtic warriors fought as well as any Romans but the emphasis was on individuals. Strabo had said, somewhat contemptuously, that the whole race, which is now called Gallic or Galactic,

is war-mad, high-spirited and quick to battle … when they are stirred up they assemble in bands for battle, quite openly and without foresight so that they are easily handled by those who desire to outwit them. For at any time or place and whatever pretext you stir them up, you will have them ready to face danger, even if they have nothing on their side but strength and courage.

This, as Strabo implied, meant that they ignored tactics and strategy, which were implicit in the Roman army.

Boudicca led her army into battle in a chariot, riding round to harangue each tribe to urge them to victory and avenge their loss of freedom. The chariots swooped down on the Romans, throwing them into confusion. The Romans used archers to shoot at the charioteers, only to be surrounded by chariots and being forced to retreat, before regaining the advantage. Gradually the discipline of the Roman army began to bear down on the Britons. Boudicca had also drawn up women and children and the baggage train behind the fighting men so that when the Romans made a breakthrough and her army began to flee they became entangled with their followers and the baggage train so that the resulting slaughter was appalling.

Tacitus gave the British casualties as 80,000 and the Roman as 400. The first figure is impossible; the second indicates that the Romans encountered some fierce resistance. He said that Boudicca took poison; Dio said that she sickened and died. There was another casualty. Poenius Postumus, realizing the disgrace that had befallen him and that he had cheated his legion of a share in the glory of victory, fell on his sword. For their part in the battle Legion XIV Gemina received the title of Martia Victrix and Legion XX were probably given the title Valeria Victrix.

That the Romans were shaken by this rebellion is indicated by the fact that 2,000 legionaries, most of whom were added to Legion IX, 8 auxiliary cohorts and 1,000 cavalry were sent to Britain. Paullinus intended to take revenge. Several natives sites in the territories of the Iceni and the Trinovantes were laid waste. This included the religious site at Thetford (Norfolk) where the buildings were torn down and the ramparts slighted with the debris filling the ditches; the site was not in use again for 200 years. Forts were refortified and military government was imposed. Evidence of the unrest can be noted in the number of hoards that have been discovered. These included 217 silver denarii at Sutton (Suffolk) and 872 silver Iceni coins dated to AD 60–70 at Fring (Norfolk). Metalwork hoards include at least four around Thetford, a large number of silver cups that had been beaten out of shape to provide scrap metal from Hockwold-cum-Wilton (Norfolk), and others found at Brandon and West Hall in Suffolk, and Saham Tracy and Santon in Norfolk. These were buried either to save them from Boudicca’s rebels or from Roman vengeance.

Paullinus may have intended to take further measures but his actions were checked by the arrival of a new Procurator, C. Julius Alpinus Classicianus. Classicianus died in AD 65 and his tombstone (now reconstructed in the British Museum, although not necessarily as it was first erected) reveals further details about him. It was erected by his wife, Julia Pacata, daughter of Julius Indus, a Celtic noble from the area round Trier, who had helped to subdue a revolt in Gaul in AD 21. He had raised a cavalry auxiliary regiment, the Ala Indiana, which later served in Britain. Both Classicianus and Julius Indus were from the Celtic areas of the Roman Empire but were Roman citizens in imperial service. Classicianus’s background would therefore lead him to be sympathetic to the plight of the Britons.

Classicianus protested to Rome about Paullinus’s harsh measures, concerned not only about the destruction taking place but also because he feared that these would lead to a reduction of tax revenues from a battered province. He also had to make certain he secured Nero’s share, if not the greater part, of Prasutagus’s will. Polyclitus, a freedman of Nero, was sent to ascertain the facts. Tacitus sneered, saying that to the enemy he was an object of derision because they still hungered after liberty and they were amazed that a general and an army engaged in a great war should be so obedient to slaves. Polyclitus, however, reported unfavourably on Paullinus’s conduct because soon afterwards he was recalled on a charge that he was responsible for the loss of some ships and their crews. Consequently, P. Petronius Turpilianus (AD 61–3) was sent as governor.

Tacitus, hostile as usual, said that this man was a novice in handling the crimes of an enemy, had no military experience and kept control of the province by easy-going administration. Turpilianus, however, realized that Britain needed a period of recuperation and both he and his successor, M. Trebellius Maximus (AD 63–9), concentrated on restoring the province. They ensured that Legion II Augusta was established at Gloucester to supervise the Silures, probably in preparation for a prolonged campaign. Colchester was provided with adequate defences and London began a rebuilding programme, including a large forum and a major new quay at which ships could dock to unload cargoes from all parts of the empire. Forts were added in East Anglia to keep a watchful eye on the Iceni. Forts in the midlands, including that at Baginton (Warwickshire) guarded the route to the north-west. Baginton is now regarded as a training area for a unit of cavalry preparatory to them moving further north. The rebellion had made the Roman forces even more determined to continue the advance northwards.

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