In 60 AD the Roman governor of Britannia, Suetonius Paulinus, was campaigning against the Ordovices in north Wales and busily subjecting the island of Mona (1) to the full force of Roman arms when he received the news that the tribe of the Iceni had revolted once more against Roman rule.
The immediate cause of the revolt was the death of the Iceni king Prasutagas, who in his will bequeathed a share of his property to the emperor, who was now of course, Nero. He had done this in the belief that it would afford some degree of protection to his widow and daughters.(2) However the Procurator Catus Decianus (3) sent in his officials who promptly set about expropriating the entire kingdom of the Iceni. Or as the historian Tacitus wrote,
"(Prasutagas') kingdom was plundered by centurions, his house by slaves, as if they were the spoils of war....All the chief men of the Iceni were stripped of their ancestral possessions as if Rome had received the whole country as a gift, and the king's relatives were made slaves."
The Conduct of the Revolt
When Prasutagas's widow, Boudicca protested at these events, the local officials promptly had her flogged and then raped her daughters. Incensed at this treatment Boudicca encouraged the Iceni to revolt and persuaded significant elements of the neighbouring Trinivantes tribe (4) to join her. Their first target was Camulodonum (Roman Colchester). Decianus sent a force of two hundred men to defend the city but this was unsufficient to protect a city without defensive walls. Camulodonum was sacked and burnt to the ground, its defenders and inhabitants alike were indiscriminately slaughtered.
The commander of the Legio IX Hispana, Petilius Cerialis, came south with a vexallation of legionary troops in a belated effort to relieve the city; he was ambushed just north of Camulodonum; his infantry were wiped out and Cerialis just managed to escape with some of his cavalry.
Meanwhile Suetonius Paulinus had managed somehow
to march his troops across the country to Londinium. There he rapidly reached the decision that Londinium was indefensible and "resolved to save the province at the cost of a single town". He therefore withdrew his troops westwards and left the town to its fate.
Boudicca's forces descended on Londinium and burnt and sacked it before proceeding on to Verulamium ( modern St Albans) and repeating the exercise. According to Tacitus,
About seventy thousand citizens and allies, it appeared, fell in the places which I have mentioned. For it was not on making prisoners and selling them, or on any of the barter of war, that the enemy was bent, but on slaughter, on the gibbet, the fire and the cross, like men soon about to pay the penalty, and meanwhile snatching at instant vengeance. (5)
The forces of the allied tribes it seems were
intent on killing every Roman
sympathiser they came across, and concentrated their anger not against Roman
military outposts or stations but rather against the civilian settlements.
Suetonius Paulinus gathered together what forces that were available; he had the bulk of Legio XIV which together with some veterans from Legio XX and auxiliary troops amounted to some ten thousand armed men. He had summoned the Legio II Augusta from the southwest, but growing impatient for their arrival he decided to engage the enemy.
He succeeded forcing a battle with the British allied tribes somewhere in the midlands, the exact location of which has not been recorded but is believed to be somewhere in the vicinity of Manduessedum or modern Mancetter.
So confident were the British of victory that they bought their families with them to witness the destruction of the Roman Army. However the Romans, having carefully selected the ground for the battle soon cut through the British lines and commenced to slaughter all and sundry that they came across. As Tacitus puts it,
Our soldiers spared not to slay even the women, while the very beasts of burden, transfixed by the missiles, swelled the piles of bodies. Great glory, equal to that of our old victories, was won on that day. Some indeed say that there fell little less than eighty thousand of the Britons, with a loss to our soldiers of about four hundred, and only as many wounded.
Boudicca herself took poison rather than face capture, according to Tacitus or simply died (if you prefer Dio Cassius)
The revolt itself was a serious set back to Roman rule in Britain; three major towns destroyed and the countryside ravaged by war. Tacitus essentially blamed Catus Decianus and stated that it was his greed that had goaded the province into war; and clearly it required political ineptitude of a quite staggering nature to provoke the essentially pro-Roman Iceni to such a fit of genocidal anger that bought the infant province to the brink of disaster and extinction.
Reinforcements were sent by the emperor Nero from Germany to bolster the depleted British garrison (6) and "whatever tribes still wavered or were hostile were ravaged with fire and sword". Which of course, was the standard Roman response to any challenge to their authority. It also appears that the Iceni and their allies had neglected to sow any crops that season, having planned on surviving on captured Roman stores, and therefore
had famine to add to their woes.
Since Catus Decianus had fled to Gaul shortly after the fall of Camalodonum, he was replaced by one Julius Classicanus as Procurator. Classicanus formed the view that Suetonius Paulinus was being over harsh in his treatment of the defeated British. He wrote to the imperial authorities telling them as much and to inform them that in his opinion the fighting would continue until Suetonius Paulinus was replaced (7). They seem to have listened to him, as Nero sent an envoy Polyclitus to survey the state of Britain.
Attempts by Polyclitus to smooth over the differences between Classicanus and Suetonius Paulinus were unsuccessfull, and when Suetonius Paulinus subsequently lost a few ships this was taken as a pretext for his recalled (ostensibly to celebrate a triumph) and replacement by Publius Petronius Turpilianus, who seems to have busied himself with
repairing the damage done and reforming the local administration
rather than engaging in further military conquest. (And thereby earning the criticism of Tacitus who accuses him of laziness.) (8)
(1) Mona or Ynys Mon, better known as Anglesey.
(2) Apparently a fairly common Roman practice; an attempt to ensure that the provisions of the will were actually put into effect.
(3)The Procurator being the chief financial officer for the province.
(4) The Trinivantes themselves were in a rebellious mood, as the Roman colonia at Camalodonum had been established within their tribal land, some of which had been appropriated by the Roman settlers.
(5) The historian Dio Cassius provides a more colourful description of the fate of the inhabitants of Londinium at the hands of Boudicca's forces, when he says that
They hung up naked the noblest and most distinguished women and then cut off their breasts and sewed them to their mouths, in order to make the victims appear to be eating them. Afterwards they impaled the women on sharp skewers run lengthwise through their entire body.
(6) Being two thousand legionaries, eight cohorts of auxiliaries, and a thousand cavalry.
(7) An indication perhaps, that intermittent fighting was continuing.
(8) "Petronius neither challenged the enemy nor was himself molested, and veiled this tame inaction under the honourable name of peace." Tacitus
Sourced from Roman Britain by Peter Salway - Oxford University Press (1991) together with a translation of Tacitus Annals 14 chapters 29 to 38 found at http://188.8.131.52/THOMAS/netscape/boudicca.htm