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Calling all armchair generals! Boudica's Last Stand.
Time for a recap (and, perhaps, some new ideas). Not entirely unbiased, I admit, but I hope helpful.

The Revolt

This was a major rebellion. We know of only two of the tribes involved by name, the Iceni and the Trinovantes, but it is clear that there were others. Dio speaks of a terrible disaster in Britain in which “the island was lost to Rome” (Loeb); Tacitus, in the Annals, speaks of a grave disaster (gravis clades) and the revolt of “the province” and, in the Agricola, of everyone (universi) taking up arms, of Paulinus being recalled from Anglesey by the rebellion of the whole of Britain (rebellione totius Britanniae) and of his having the glory of recovering the province (recuperatae provinciae gloria). In his march south from North Wales, Paulinus had to pass through the midst of the enemy (medios inter hostes), from which one may infer that the territories through which he passed, if not in open revolt, were at least unfriendly. Some tribes will have held back from immediate rebellion to see if the uprising prospered. In the aftermath of the rebellion, Paulinus devastated the lands not only of those who had openly revolted and but also of those who had been doubtful in their loyalties (quodque nationum ambiguum aut adversum fuerat). We can point with some confidence to only one British ruler, Cogidubnus of the Atrebates, who may be assumed to have remained loyal and who was to be praised by Tacitus, in the Agricola, for his constancy. One may conclude, therefore, that, although Dio and Tacitus were undoubtedly exaggerating in saying that the island was lost and that the whole of Britain rebelled, a substantial part of the province was in open or potential revolt and that, in Roman eyes, this was akin to its loss.


The Rebel Army

Apart from the Iceni and the Trinovantes, an unknown number of tribes contributed to the rebel army. In his description of the build-up to the revolt, Tacitus speaks of the Iceni inciting to rebellion the Trinovantes and others not yet crushed by servitude (alii nondum servitio fracti) with a view to regaining their former freedom. Before the final battle, he has Boudica taking her chariot to each of the tribes to exhort them. This is possibly a rhetorical invention by Tacitus but serves the purpose of emphasising that the Romans faced a variety of disaffected tribes.

There is disagreement as to whether, in the early stages of the rebellion, the rebel army consisted of a single horde which attacked first Colchester and then London, before following the same route as Paulinus to the eventual site of the final battle, or whether it was divided, with part of the Icenian force remaining in its homeland to guard against Roman retaliation, while the remainder proceeded to Colchester. While it may seem sensible to modern eyes for the rebels to have adopted the latter course, it is doubtful that they did. The sources give no indication of such a strategy and it may be doubted whether a substantial number of Icenian fighters would have been content to remain behind against a threat that might not materialise, while their colleagues seized all the glory and booty expected from attacking and pillaging the Roman towns. The families of rebel fighters were present at the final battle and Tacitus says that those of all ages took to the field but this is not to say that entire tribes took part in the invasion, leaving their territories uninhabited. Many would have been unable or unwilling to leave and would have remained behind to protect their farmsteads (they would, of course, have been no match for the Romans, had they chosen to attack). However, one might expect that all, or at least most, of the men of fighting age would have made up the rebel army. Dio gives a figure of 120,000 for the force gathered by Boudica at the beginning of the revolt, which is probably intended to represent the number of men contributed by the Iceni. The army had almost doubled in size to 230,000 by the time of the final battle, no doubt including the number said to have been added by the Trinovantes and other tribes. The figures are probably grossly inflated but the proportions may be about right. Nathan suggests that, if (pace Dio) these figures include non-combatants and if the ratio of non-combatants to combatants is 4:1, the actual number of fighting men in the final battle would have been 57,500. However, the model upon which his calculation is based is not entirely applicable to the situation and the basic figures may be exaggerated in any case. It is, therefore, difficult to estimate the strength of the rebel army.


The Roman Army

Paulinus had four legions, the Second, Ninth, Fourteenth and Twentieth, and several units of auxiliaries to call upon, yet he had only the Fourteenth, the veterans of the Twentieth and the auxiliaries from the nearest forts at the final battle. Where were the others? The answer may lie in the composition of the force with which Paulinus attacked Anglesey and in the possibility of local circumstances which may have tied an individual legion to its area of responsibility. The Ninth Legion was clearly not with Paulinus, as its legate was with it in the east. I have postulated that the other three legions were involved in Paulinus’ campaign but left their veterans to guard their fortresses. This may seem too large a force for a limited campaign but Paulinus, being a cautious general, may have wished to attack with overwhelming force to achieve a speedy and complete victory. Deryk and Nathan have respectively argued that the Twentieth remained in South Wales and the Second in the south-west, presumably to guard against possible local unrest. They would, however, need to explain why only the veterans of the Twentieth were sent to reinforce Paulinus and why the Second had been left under the command of its praefectus castrorum. If they are both right, only the Fourteenth was with Paulinus on Anglesey and, if so, he must have abandoned his conquest immediately in order to counter Boudica’s rebellion. If I am right, he will have left the Second and Twentieth to consolidate his conquest and taken only the Fourteenth because, perhaps, he underestimated the extent of the revolt and, in any event, expected to be supported by the Ninth. We know from Tacitus that Agricola had to re-conquer Anglesey because Paulinus had been recalled from its occupation by the rebellion but it is not entirely clear whether this relates to the withdrawal of troops to deal with the revolt itself or for the subsequent mopping-up operations for which Paulinus concentrated his entire army.


The Progress of the Rebellion

Tacitus states that the Iceni and other tribes formed a secret conspiracy to regain their freedom. Nathan has plausibly suggested that this would have taken place at a tribal assembly attended, I would infer, by various tribal chiefs and their nobles. Such a gathering is unlikely to have passed unnoticed and its purpose would have to be concealed in some way. Celebration of the vernal equinox in mid-March could, perhaps, have provided a pretext for the meeting. It is reasonable to suppose that, after such an assembly, the chiefs intending to join the revolt would disperse to their homelands to raise their armies and to eliminate any centres of Roman influence there. The Iceni, apparently, overran the Roman military posts in their territory and moved into the lands of the Trinovantes to attack Colchester. This attack was, no doubt, carried out by the combined forces of the two tribes plus any others that may have joined them by that stage. After the fall of Colchester, the rebel horde moved on towards London. There is disagreement as to whether the rebels paused beforehand to gauge the Roman response and advanced on London only when Paulinus left it or whether they set off immediately after sacking Colchester. The sources give the impression of a continuous course of action without a delay and, indeed, if there were such a delay, Paulinus would have been able to put a considerable distance between himself and the rebels before they resumed their advance, not to mention the further delay likely to have been caused by the sacking of London. The sources, on the contrary, indicate that the distance between the two forces was comparatively small.

An unexplained occurrence is the destruction of Verulamium. If, on leaving London, the rebel force moved up Watling Street, the town would be a natural target and, indeed, the specific intention to pillage it could provide a motive for the rebels to take that route. Alternatively, Deryk has suggested that Boudica’s “second army”, that left behind to guard the Icenian homeland, may have been responsible, while making its way to join the main force. The town is not on the direct route to London but the army may have diverted from that route to assault the town or it may have intended to link up with Boudica somewhere west of London and attacked the town en route to the rendezvous. There are alternative explanations, however, that do not involve Boudica’s forces at all. It could have fallen victim to a local uprising; the local tribe could have destroyed the town as a centre of Roman influence prior to joining the main revolt; or a tribe travelling down Watling Street from further north may have attacked it on the way to join the rebellion.


The Roman Response

Upon hearing of the revolt, Paulinus’ first instinct would have been to march on East Anglia with his available troops and, with the support of the Ninth Legion, to quash the rebellion there. He will have taken the Fourteenth from his campaign force; the veterans of the Twentieth may have joined him later. When he learned of the fall of Colchester and the defeat of Cerialis, he changed his plans and, anticipating that London was likely to be the rebels’ next target, proceeded there at his best speed. Cerialis, in the meantime, had set off to relieve Colchester. Whether he did so on Paulinus’ orders or on his own initiative is uncertain. I suspect the latter, arising from his having received news of the critical situation in the colony. At some stage, he encountered a rebel force which defeated him. Deryk would argue that this was Boudica’s “second army”, pouncing upon him as he passed by or through Icenian territory. From Tacitus’ description, I infer that it was the force, or part of the force, that had just stormed the Temple of Claudius and extinguished the last resistance in Colchester. The personification of the “victor Briton” could apply to either but my feeling is that this description refers to the force that had actually achieved the victory. The encounter is often referred to as an ambush but there is little in the sources to justify this. In the Annals, Tacitus applies the adjective obvius to the “victor Briton”, which implies that the enemy was ‘meeting’ Cerialis. In the Agricola, he speaks of intercepted armies (intercepti exercitus) – the plural is rhetorical – which, again, implies that Cerialis was met on the march, rather than attacked from ambush. After the rout of his legion, Cerialis and his cavalry escaped to a camp. The consensus seems to be that this was his last marching camp. If so, it should not be too close to Colchester or to the site of his defeat. I have suggested that he was not pursued or, if he were, it was by the rebel cavalry alone. If the camp were near enough for the rebel infantry to pursue him there, it would surely have been overrun. The cavalry force that escaped with him would, I suggest, have been comparatively small and certainly not sufficient to man the perimeter of a camp built to house half a legion.

On arriving in London, Paulinus assessed the situation and concluded that he did not have the manpower to attack the rebels or to defend the town. It is postulated that the Second Legion was supposed to have rendezvoused with him there but failed to do so. Paulinus decided to abandon the town to the rebels and left, taking with him such of the civilian population as was able and willing to accompany him. His reasons for taking the civilians are not explained and the only explanation that I can offer is that they were those whose wealth and expertise would be needed in reconstructing the province after the defeat of the rebellion.


Withdrawal and Pursuit

After Paulinus had left London and the rebels had sacked it, both forces found themselves moving in the same direction. This may have been deliberate or coincidental and, if the former, would have been a decision of the rebels. It is necessary to consider the direction of travel and the considerations that may have caused either side to choose it. Two alternatives have been examined: northwards up Watling Street and westwards into the territory of the Atrebates. It is likely that Paulinus’ principal concern would have been to seek reinforcements for his force, which he had already decided was inadequate to challenge the rebel horde and to defend London. If he moved north, there are three possible sources of reinforcement, all of which have their difficulties. First, he might have ordered troops remaining in North Wales to follow him down Watling Street and to meet him somewhere on the way. We have no evidence in the sources to indicate that he did this and, if he did, one might expect them not to have been too far behind him and that a rendezvous would have taken place before he was obliged to engage the rebels. Secondly, he might have hoped that the remnants of the Ninth Legion would proceed along the Icknield Way to Watling Street and join him at or south of Dunstable. We hear nothing of the Ninth after Cerialis’ disastrous encounter with the rebel army. We know that approximately half the legion had been lost and nothing of the morale of the remainder. This must be regarded as a very dubious source of assistance. Thirdly and most likely would be troops coming from the south-west and South Wales. These could reach him by three possible routes, depending upon where he was at the time: along Akeman Street to north of St Albans, along the western section of the Icknield Way to Dunstable, or along the Fosse Way to High Cross, south of Mancetter. The problem is that, the further north he went, the further his reinforcements would have to travel to join him. However, the principal objection to his taking a route along Watling Street is that the territory was hostile, as he would have known from his journey south. Withdrawal into hostile territory would have been militarily unwise and the more so without the certainty of reinforcement. Nathan has suggested an initial withdrawal to St Albans and, when reinforcements did not arrive and the enemy approached, further withdrawal to Dunstable. St Albans would have provided a temporary safe haven but, with the rebel band to the south and hostile or potentially hostile tribes to the north, he would have been in danger of being cut off there without adequate forces to defend the town. To withdraw northwards would only take him deeper into hostile territory, without the certainty of any help from the remnants of the Ninth. If he had gone to St Albans and had been obliged to withdraw from there, his safest escape route would have been westwards along Akeman Street, which would also have brought him closer to his potential reinforcements.

The alternative withdrawal route from London to the west, on the other hand, would have had several advantages. It would take him into the territory of the friendly king of the Atrebates, Cogidubnus; it would bring him nearer to the Second Legion and the auxiliaries in the south-west, as well as troops stationed in South Wales; and it would have put him in a position to call for reinforcements from the Continent who could land at the southern ports. He would have been well-placed there to gather the forces with which to mount a counter-attack and to regain the province.

As noted above, the route taken by the rebels on leaving London was the same as that taken by Paulinus. If this was a deliberate decision on the part of Boudica, it would indicate that the rebels were actively pursuing the retreating Romans with the intention, presumably, of destroying Paulinus’ force before it could be reinforced and launch a counter-attack. In doing so, they could dispose of the one Roman army actually in the field and then deal with the other scattered elements piecemeal. However, if that were the intention, it is unlikely that they would have encumbered themselves with a slow-moving wagon train which the Romans could easily outpace. This could have been left behind under guard, while the warband conducted the pursuit. If they were not prepared to do this, as the eventual outcome indicates, they would effectively be abandoning the idea of active pursuit. If taking the same route as Paulinus was coincidental, the objectives of the rebels would depend upon the direction in which they were moving. If they were going north up Watling Street, the intention, in the case of the Iceni, would no doubt have been to return to their homelands via the Icknield Way for the autumn planting. The objection to this is that Watling Street is not the most direct route for them to have taken and, of course, would have been of no use at all to the Trinovantes. On the other hand, if they were travelling west into the territory of the Atrebates, their objectives may have been to exact revenge upon Cogidubnus for his pro-Roman sympathies, to seize whatever stocks of food they needed to see them through the winter, and to raid the tribal capital at Silchester and also, possibly, Cogidubnus’ royal complex.

It has been suggested that, in his conduct of the withdrawal, Paulinus was engaging in Fabian delaying tactics and that, in so doing, he remained relatively close to the rebels. As their rate of progress is likely to have been considerably slower than that achievable by his army, in matching his pace to theirs, he would inevitably have been delaying the time when he might have linked up with his reinforcements. He would also have made himself vulnerable to a sudden advance of the faster warband, which indicates that he is unlikely to have adopted such a tactic while still accompanied by the civilians. When and if he divested himself of the civilians is not mentioned in our sources. The precise purpose of such a tactic is somewhat unclear. It may have inhibited the rebels in foraging for food, for instance, and by drawing out the campaign Paulinus may have hoped to induce numbers of the rebels to desert and return home. However, if he did adopt such tactics, it is doubtful whether he gained any substantial advantage by doing so.

Eventually, Paulinus felt obliged to halt his withdrawal and stand and fight. Dio states that he did so against his better judgement because he was running short of food and the enemy was pressing relentlessly upon him. Tacitus says that he simply decided to put an end to delay. I have expressed some doubt as to why Paulinus was unable to outstrip a slower-moving enemy but Deryk has plausibly suggested that Dio’s statement does not necessarily mean that the rebels were close to him but rather that their advance was simply relentless. On this analysis, Paulinus may have assessed that the rebels were not going to stop their advance, whereas the reinforcements that he had summoned would take too long to join him. He, therefore, chose a battle site and waited for the rebels to catch him up.


The Battle Site

Tacitus’ description of the site chosen by Paulinus may be trusted as reasonably accurate, as he no doubt obtained his information from his father-in-law, Agricola, who had been on Paulinus’ staff at the time. He says that Paulinus drew up his forces in traditional fashion with the legionaries in the centre and auxiliaries and cavalry on the wings in a narrow defile (artis faucibus) with a wood behind him, to ensure that the enemy did not circle round and attack him in the rear, and with an open plain to the front. This is a classic position for an army numerically inferior to its foe, blocking a defile, with its rear protected and rising ground at its sides preventing the enemy from outflanking it. The rebels massed in the plain, placing their families in their wagons on the extreme edge of the plain to watch the fun. There is no need to describe the battle, save to say that Tacitus probably makes light of it and that Dio’s hard-fought contest is likely to be nearer the reality.

Various sites have been proposed for the battle, depending upon the route thought to have been taken by the combatants. Those favouring the Watling Street route have suggested Dunstable, Church Stowe and Mancetter, while, in the west, Cunetio and sites in the vicinity of Virginia Water and east of Crowthorne have been put forward. The proponents of some of these sites have recently argued their cases in detail and I will not attempt to summarize them. However, those on the northern route are all subject to the objection previously stated that Paulinus is unlikely to have gone in that direction because it would have involved withdrawing into hostile territory. That said, if I understand the arguments correctly, the battle plans drawn up for the sites at Mancetter and Church Stowe require the rebels to attack across the defile, rather than along it, which would defy the logic of Paulinus having chosen such a position. Mancetter would also have the rebels attacking across a river which is not mentioned by Tacitus. Both sites are too far along Watling Street, in my opinion. Nathan’s latest plan for his site near Dunstable closely follows Tacitus’ description.

Of the western sites, only that for Cunetio has been argued in detail. Deryk has extolled its advantages from a communication point of view and these make it a plausible candidate for Paulinus’ rallying point for his reinforcements. However, its claim to be the final battle site is questionable. Again, it requires the rebels to attack across the defile and across a river not mentioned by Tacitus. It is also west of Silchester, which the rebels may well not have reached. Nathan has argued strongly for the merits of a site in the vicinity of Virginia Water (his second choice after his preferred site near Dunstable) and has also identified a possible site near Crowthorne. He mentions the presence of streams there as a possible disadvantage and also comments on the wetness of Virginia Water. These problems need not necessarily be insuperable. The climate at the time may have been different from that at present (I believe that there is evidence that it was warmer) and the season, probably late summer, is also relevant. When the battle took place, the streams may have been dry or, at least, substantially reduced in size. However, if the ground was actually boggy, this would be a major objection.


The Aftermath

Paulinus did not have the manpower to follow up his victory and a large number of Britons escaped and vowed to continue the war. There is little evidence that they actually did so, however, and the death of Boudica may have put paid to any such ambitions. Paulinus brought his whole army together for the subsequent mopping-up operations and it may have been at this point that his conquests on Anglesey were abandoned. The territories of those tribes who remained hostile or whose loyalties were suspect were devastated with fire and sword, and the fear of further retribution may have deterred any continued resistance. If so, his policy was to that extent successful. However, Paulinus was too much the soldier to secure the peace. The Britons still under arms feared to surrender, expecting savage punishment if they did, and consequently remained a threat, even if they did not engage in any military action. Deryk has suggested that the Roman forces were overstretched at the time of the revolt but the evidence of subsequent action taken by the authorities offers little support, at least so far as legionary troops are concerned. 2000 legionaries were transferred from Germany but these served only to bring the Ninth up to strength. Eight cohorts of auxiliary infantry and 1000 cavalry were also brought in and stationed in new winter quarters. Their role, no doubt, was to maintain watchful control of the previously hostile tribes. If they replaced any units lost in the revolt, we are not told and it may be that any such losses were made up by normal recruitment. Eventually, Paulinus was replaced and the more conciliatory policies of his successors, Petronius Turpilianus and Trebellius Maximus, secured the peace that his harsh methods had failed to achieve.

More immediately, Poenius Postumus, praefectus castrorum of the Second Legion, committed suicide because, as Tacitus tells us, he had cheated his legion out of its share of glory and, in breach of military discipline, had disobeyed the orders of his commander (quia pari gloria legionum suam fraudaverat abnueratque contra ritum militiae iussa ducis). That is all that Tacitus says and we are not told what form his disobedience took. However, it has been long considered that his fault lay in failing to join Paulinus in confronting the rebels when ordered to do so. Neither are we told the reasons for his disobedience. One theory is that, concerned with local issues, his military background prevented him from seeing the broader picture and realising that, if Paulinus were defeated and the province lost because of his failure to support him, his own local difficulties would become irrelevant. Tacitus’ use of the verb abnuere and his comment that Postumus’ inaction was in breach of military discipline (literally, ‘against the rule of military service’) indicates that this was an outright refusal to obey, not a tardy or incompetent attempt to comply.

The Twentieth and Fourteenth Legions were granted the cognomina of Valeria Victrix and Martia Victrix respectively. Previously, the Twentieth had been known by its number alone (see, e.g., the tombstone of the centurion, M. Favonius Facilis, at Colchester (RIB 200)) and the Fourteenth by the single cognomen of Gemina. It has been suggested that these additional titles were awarded as a result of their part in the defeat of the revolt (R. Mcpake, ‘A Note on the Cognomina of Legio XX’, Britannia 12 (1981), 293-295). It is possible, however, that it could have been because their role in Paulinus’ Anglesey campaign. If so, they would have been the only legions involved and the whole of the Second would have remained in the West Country. This raises again the question of why that legion had been left under the command of its praefectus castrorum and where the legate and the tribunus laticlavius were at the time. Against this, it may be argued that the commemoration of Paulinus’ achievements was kept low-key (see G. Gambash, ‘To Rule a Ferocious Province: Roman Policy and the Aftermath of the Boudican Revolt’, Britannia 43 (2012), 1-15 at p.6) and that, consequently, they are less likely to have been reflected in honours bestowed upon his legions. One might also add that, if additional titles were habitually conferred upon units involved in successful campaigns, these two legions, as well as the Second and the Ninth, should perhaps have received them after the invasion in AD43 and that the legions taking part in Agricola’s campaigns in Scotland might have expected to be similarly honoured. In addition, the prevailing practice was to give the minimum of publicity to provincial revolts (ibid., p.7), so this to some extent militates against McPake’s theory. One may also wonder whether the success of a comparatively small section of a legion, in this case the veterans of the Twentieth, would justify the honouring of the whole unit. That said, the sheer scale of the success of the men of the Fourteenth and Twentieth, a victory against overwhelming odds that saved an entire province, may well have been thought sufficiently remarkable as to warrant special recognition.
Michael King Macdona

And do as adversaries do in law, -
Strive mightily, but eat and drink as friends.
(The Taming of the Shrew: Act 1, Scene 2)
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Messages In This Thread
Re: Calling all armchair generals! - by Ensifer - 03-11-2010, 03:13 PM
Re: Calling all armchair generals! Boudica\'s Last Stand. - by Steve Kaye - 02-18-2012, 06:26 PM
Re: Calling all armchair generals! Boudica\'s Last Stand. - by Steve Kaye - 02-19-2012, 12:02 AM
Re: Calling all armchair generals! Boudica\'s Last Stand. - by Steve Kaye - 02-19-2012, 02:50 PM
Re: Calling all armchair generals! Boudica\'s Last Stand. - by Steve Kaye - 02-19-2012, 05:40 PM
Re: Calling all armchair generals! Boudica\'s Last Stand. - by Steve Kaye - 02-19-2012, 11:26 PM
Re: Calling all armchair generals! Boudica\'s Last Stand. - by Steve Kaye - 04-24-2012, 05:11 PM
Re: Calling all armchair generals! Boudica\'s Last Stand. - by Steve Kaye - 04-24-2012, 09:42 PM
Re: Calling all armchair generals! Boudica\'s Last Stand. - by Steve Kaye - 04-24-2012, 10:10 PM
Re: Calling all armchair generals! Boudica\'s Last Stand. - by Steve Kaye - 04-25-2012, 03:11 PM
Re: Calling all armchair generals! Boudica\'s Last Stand. - by Steve Kaye - 04-25-2012, 03:25 PM
Re: Calling all armchair generals! Boudica\'s Last Stand. - by Steve Kaye - 04-25-2012, 08:36 PM
Re: Calling all armchair generals! Boudica\'s Last Stand. - by Steve Kaye - 04-26-2012, 02:57 PM
Re: Calling all armchair generals! Boudica\'s Last Stand. - by Steve Kaye - 04-27-2012, 01:50 PM
Re: Calling all armchair generals! Boudica\'s Last Stand. - by Steve Kaye - 08-05-2012, 02:24 PM
Calling all armchair generals! Boudica\'s Last Stand. - by antiochus - 11-07-2014, 02:18 PM
Calling all armchair generals! Boudica\'s Last Stand. - by antiochus - 11-08-2014, 01:50 AM
Calling all armchair generals! Boudica\'s Last Stand. - by antiochus - 11-11-2014, 02:03 AM
Calling all armchair generals! Boudica\'s Last Stand. - by antiochus - 11-18-2014, 07:54 AM
Calling all armchair generals! Boudica\'s Last Stand. - by antiochus - 11-20-2014, 02:37 AM
Calling all armchair generals! Boudica\'s Last Stand. - by antiochus - 11-25-2014, 08:29 AM
Calling all armchair generals! Boudica\'s Last Stand. - by Renatus - 11-08-2012, 06:58 AM

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