This, the legionaries of the 14th told themselves as they marched down the lush Welsh valley toward the British army in the summer of A.D. 50, would be the final battle. The 14th Gemina Martia Victrix Legion had been chasing British resistance leader Caratacus around Wales for six years. With the legion due to undergo its twenty-year discharge in the new year, the latest Governor of Britain, Lieutenant General Publius Ostorius, was determined to finally eliminate Caratacus while he still had these experienced G.M.V. men under his command. For the 14th’s legionaries, it would be a fitting way to bow out before they hung up their swords.
Already, the men of the legion’s senior cohorts had been detached from their unit. Veterans of around fifty-nine years of age, with thirty-nine years service in Germany and Britain to their credit, they’d originally been drafted back in A.D. 11 when Germanicus was just arriving on the Rhine. Now, to free up the 20th Valeria Victrix Legion cohorts that General Ostorius had been holding back at Colchester to provide a legionary presence at the province’s capital—cohorts made up mostly of youngsters—the Palatium had decided to make Colchester the first military colony in Britain. And its first citizen settlers would be the retirees of the 14th G.M.V. Legion.
That settlement process had already begun. The second-enlistment men of the 14th’s senior cohorts now occupied the permanent camp on the western outskirts of Colchester, allowing the youngsters of the 20th V.V. to join the rest of their legion for this campaign in Wales. And in the new year, once the Welsh campaign was at an end, men of the 14th’s junior cohorts who chose to retire at the end of their twenty-year stint would accept their 12,000-sesterce discharge bonus, withdraw their accumulated savings from the legion bank, receive their bronze record of discharge and a land grant title, and join their comrades in well-earned retirement at Colchester.
The idea of making Colchester a colony would have come from the emperor’s latest wife. Of Germanicus Caesar’s nine children, just two, daughters both, had outlived Caligula: Julia, born on the island of Lesbos as Germanicus and Agrippina sailed to the East in A.D. 17, and Agrippina the Younger, born at Cologne in A.D. 15. Claudius had executed Julia, for supposedly plotting against him. But Agrippina had an altogether different fate. She won the heart of her uncle, Germanicus’s brother, after he had executed third wife Messalina for her infidelities. Pushing legislation through the Senate that made it lawful for an uncle to marry his niece, fifty-eight-year-old Claudius had wed his thirty-four-year-old, twice-married niece, Agrippina, in A.D. 49.
Agrippina was soon playing a leading role in Palatium policymaking. She suggested establishing a military colony at her birthplace on the Rhine, to accommodate the men of the 16th Legion’s A.D. 51 discharge and to provide Cologne, which had lost its military garrison back in A.D. 30, with a local Evocati militia force of retired legionaries as a defense against threats such as a recent trans-Rhine raid into the area by the ever troublesome Chatti. That colony, created on the Rhine in A.D. 50, was named jointly in honor of the emperor and his new wife—Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium, shortened over time to Colonia Agrippinensium, eventually mutating into Cologne.
But before they headed for the new colony of Colchester and a new life as citizen settlers, the intending retirees in the 14th G.M.V.’s junior cohorts had to overcome Caratacus and his defiant Britons. The 14th now marched with a new commander, identity unknown. Major General Sabinus had been recalled to Rome after three years in Britain to become a consul, and now he was governing Moesia, modern Bulgaria.
As the 14th Legion’s men advanced down the Welsh valley with the rest of General Ostorius’s army, they could see frantic activity in the tree line ahead. What they couldn’t see were thousands more Britons skulking in the forest and preparing to give them a hot welcome. Marching with the 14th G.M.V. was the 20th V.V., commanded by Gaius Manlius Valens. He was forty-four, unusually mature for a brigadier general. But Claudius regularly appointed older men to commands, perhaps to show that rather than youth, maturity, like his own, was what Rome needed in responsible positions. And Valens had a reputation for vigor.
The 14th’s usual companions, the Batavian light infantry and the Batavian Horse, were there, and probably four cohorts from the 2nd Augusta Legion. The 2nd also had a new commander, identity unknown—General Vespasian had been replaced by A.D. 48. There were possibly also cohorts of the 9th Hispana Legion from the north. That unit’s commander, Brigadier General Caesius Nasica, was well advanced in years and a lazy campaigner who sent his subordinates to do his job. While he remained in Lincoln, his senior tribune or camp prefect would have led the 9th Hispana detachment.
Tacitus describes task force commander General Ostorius as a fine soldier. From the beginning of his appointment as Governor of Britain in A.D. 48, Ostorius had set out to subdue the tribes of Wales, where Caratacus was still at large and mounting regular raids on forts along the frontier. The general had quickly extended the frontier thirty miles into Wales and set up new bases, including one for the 14th G.M.V. at Viroconium, present-day Wroxeter, on the Severn River. Jumping off from these new forward bases, the legions had quickly conquered the Cangi tribe of central Wales. The general himself penetrated almost to the Welsh coast, with Ireland not far away across the Irish Sea.
But the years that followed had been filled with distractions and frustrations. First there’d been internal strife among Rome’s northern allies the Brigantes of Yorkshire. Once Ostorius had settled that and left auxiliaries with Queen Cartimandua, longtime ruler of the Brigantes, to secure the peace and maintain the alliance, he’d refocused on Wales, the Silure tribe, and Caratacus and his shoot-and-scoot campaign.
It had been galling to the men of the 14th G.M.V. after they’d achieved so much early in their British campaigns to be tied up in small-unit actions without victory, booty, or glory, year after year. Then, while going dejectedly into winter camp in A.D. 49, they’d heard an amazing story that lifted their spirits. That summer, Lieutenant General Lucius Pomponius of the A.L.R. had pursued Chatti raiders deep into Germany, and at a Chatti camp his troops had found a group of slaves, elderly men of sixty-nine or so who greeted them as brothers. These were survivors of General Varus’s massacred 17th, 18th, and 19th legions, prisoners of the Chatti for the past forty years. The repatriated men were not permitted to set foot in Italy, due to the shame of their A.D. 9 surrender.
Determined to corner Caratacus once and for all, General Ostorius had implemented a troop buildup that lasted into May of A.D. 50, when he’d launched the current offensive, driving into southern and central Wales. Using his usual hit-and-run tactics, Caratacus led Ostorius’s force a merry chase in South Wales for weeks before drawing the Romans up into the north, home of the large Ordovice tribe. There he’d prepared an ambush along the lines of Hermann’s Teutoburg trap, convincing thousands of men from surrounding tribes to join him. As Caratacus lured the legions north with his skirmishers, his main body assembled in the hills. Totaling possibly as many as thirty thousand, these Celtic warriors would have come from the Ordovices, the Deceangli, the Demetae, the Cornovii, and the tribe Tacitus describes as the fiercest in Britain, the Silures.
The location chosen by Caratacus for his ambush is thought by some historians to have been in the Severn River valley in the vicinity of Llanidloes, in central northern Wales. As the men of the 14th G.M.V. and the other Roman units came down the valley, they saw a river of varying depth slicing across their path. Beyond that, Caratacus had built a tall wall of stones along the lower, exposed slopes of the surrounding, thickly forested hills. This wall seems to have been in a U shape, designed to wrap around any force coming down the narrow valley, so that they had only one way out, to their rear. Caratacus probably intended sealing off the open end with a sudden materialization of troops once the Romans had been sucked into the trap.
The tribes formed up in their clans in front of the wall and waited, with more tribesmen lurking out of sight in the trees above the wall. Caratacus had only infantry at his disposal—no chariots, no cavalry—so he was intending to fight an infantry action in a fixed position, which eliminated the Romans’ cavalry advantage.
The G.M.V. men would have felt confident of success here. They knew their force was twenty-two thousand strong, with eleven thousand legionaries from four legions and a similar number of auxiliaries. And they would have wondered why, after evading the Romans for six years by using guerrilla tactics, Caratacus was committing to a full-scale battle. Not that the 14th minded. If Caratacus wanted to invite disaster, they would gladly deliver it.
Perhaps, as young Gnaeus Pompey had found back in 45 B.C. in Spain, there comes a time when the patience and resilience of your supporters run out and they demand a decisive battle. Later events suggest that an aspiring war leader among the Silures, Caratacus’s hosts for the past six years, may have delivered Caratacus an ultimatum to give the tribes a decisive victory over the Romans or move aside.
As for General Ostorius, Tacitus says that he was both confounded and daunted by the sight of the Britons massed in front of the stone wall. As the men of the 14th G.M.V. and their comrades came down the valley in marching order, Ostorius refused to issue the command for battle to be joined. His men began to mumble complaints. With the ragtag British force calling them on, scruffy tribesmen without helmets or breastplates shaking their weapons at them and beckoning, and with the chiefs of the tribes moving among the Welsh and exhorting them to fight or die, legionaries of the 14th began to call out to their general, demanding he send them to the attack. All the legions joined the call. Even centurions and tribunes called for action. But they were all ignored.
With the river directly in front of his column, the general ordered a halt. He then cautiously sent scouts ahead to study the lay of the land and report back. His waiting legionaries grew more and more restless, eyeing the increasingly agitated tribesmen on the slopes across the valley as Caratacus himself became clearly visible, riding back and forth among the different bands, firing them up. Tacitus says that Caratacus invoked the names of long-dead British forefathers who fought Julius Caesar to give his people the strength to recover their freedom from the invaders. And in response, the pumped-up tribesmen cheered and applauded.
The frustrated men of the 14th watched as the cavalry scouts returned. They saw the scouts dismount and speak animatedly to General Ostorius and his staff, pointing to the river, to the wall. A groan ran through the ranks as Ostorius still didn’t give the order for the attack and instead convened a meeting of his senior officers. Impatiently the men in the ranks watched as the generals and colonels and first-rank centurions huddled, deep in conversation. The scouts had painted a vivid picture for General Ostorius of the terrain ahead, indicating the best places to ford the river, the most accessible routes for an assault on the stone wall. The general passed on this information to his officers and told them how and where he wanted the army to go about the task that lay ahead. As the officers were returning to their units, the general’s purple standard went up, the signal for battle. At last. The trumpets of the legions sounded “Battle Order.” A cheer rang out from the thousands of legionaries.
Prefects and centurions barked orders, trumpets sounded, standards inclined to left and right. For a moment it looked as if chaos reigned, as men and horses moved in a flurry of action this way and that. And then order emerged as two battle lines formed up facing the Britons, extending across the valley. Auxiliary units filled the front line. A hundred yards back, the legions formed a second line, in depth. At the double, the men of the 14th G.M.V. moved into position and neatly dressed ranks. In their centuries, their maniples, and their cohorts, each separated by a gap, they were soon standing stock still, shields raised, javelins at the ready.
As the cavalry formed up on the wings, General Ostorius took up his position in the middle of the second line, on foot. He gave an order. The general’s standard inclined forward. Trumpets sounded “Advance at Marching Pace.” Ostorius’s army stepped out. Following the advice of the scouts, the Roman troops funneled to the best fording places at the river. Once his men had splashed across and re-formed their battle lines on the other side, the general’s standard dropped, and frontline trumpets sounded “Charge!” With a roar, the Batavians and other auxiliary light infantry of the front line dashed forward. The legionaries of the second line held their position.
Throwing light javelins as they ran up the slope toward the British line, the auxiliaries came under a hail of stones and spears. Some men fell, bleeding, screaming in pain, or dead. But most drove on. The tribesmen in front of the stone barrier hurriedly retreated to the wall after they’d loosed off all their ammunition. Using ladders that they drew up after them, they scrambled onto the top of the wall. Now they were joined by thousands of tribesmen waiting in reserve in the trees. As the auxiliaries reached the wall, the reinforced tribesmen on top rained missiles down—spears, stones, anything they could lay their hands on. Among those wounded at this point was, in all likelihood, Colonel Julius Civilis—the Batavian cohort commander received a severe battle wound to the face while serving in Britain.
A trumpet call was repeated up and down the legionary line: “Form Testudo.” The men of the 14th closed up and locked their curved shields together, some at their sides, some over their heads, as they were trained. Then another trumpet call: “Advance to the Attack.” The auxiliaries parted, and the legionary cohorts came pushing through their ranks in tortoise formations. Under cover of the testudos, and with missiles clattering down over their tortoise “shell,” legionaries industriously began removing stones from the bottom of the wall. In perhaps just ten or fifteen minutes, the tough, no-nonsense soldiers of the 14th Gemina Martia Victrix and their less experienced colleagues pulled down part of the wall.
Centurions bellowed orders, then led a charge. A crimson tide of legionary uniforms flowed up and over the shattered wall from one direction; the auxiliaries scrambled forward from another. In hectic hand-to-hand fighting, the tribes’ front ranks were broken, and the Britons behind them fled up into the trees. In the heights, some tribesmen re-formed and tried to make a stand. The auxiliaries came up and kept them under constant javelin fire from one direction while the legions closed in for in-your-face combat from another. Between them, they slaughtered every Welshman who resisted.
The tribes were routed. Thousands died, many surrendered. Caratacus’s two younger brothers were among the numerous chieftains who threw down their weapons and begged for their lives. Among the trees, legionaries found the tents of the British camp, where Caratacus’s men had gathered and waited for the Romans to come to them and no doubt shared many a lurid tale about what they were going to do the men of the 14th Gemina Martia Victrix and the other legions. In this camp, the legionaries found the terrified wife and daughter of Caratacus. Like Caratacus’s brothers and the other captives, his family was spared by General Ostorius.
The British resistance leader himself escaped, desperately fleeing through the forest, to hide in the hills and think about what had been and what might have been. Caratacus would not be heard of for another twelve to eighteen months. In the interim, he probably hid out on Anglesey Island, off the northern coast of Wales, with Druid priests who were notorious for sheltering fugitive British partisans.
With the Severn victory, men of the 14th G.M.V. were able to take their discharges. In early A.D. 51, those men of the A.D. 31 enlistment who chose to leave the legion marched to Colchester to join the veterans of the 14th’s senior cohorts and to accept their retirement benefits. With the legion down to about forty-five hundred able-bodied men by A.D. 50, some three thousand men from the first and second enlistments would now go into retirement, with the remainder volunteering to sign on for a new enlistment and automatically moving up into the legion’s senior 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Cohorts.
To make the transition from soldier to settler as swift as possible, the pragmatic General Ostorius forced thousands of British tribesmen living around Colchester from their farms, distributing their lands to the retiring 14th G.M.V. legionaries. The size of the legionaries’ land grants is unknown. It had been sixty acres per man after the Jugurthine War of 111-105 B.C., but that had been before the days of 12,000-sesterce retirement bonuses, so smaller land grants may have become the norm in the imperial era.
That spring of A.D. 51 a new enlistment of recruits arrived to join the 14th G.M.V. Legion, replacing the recent retirees and the casualties suffered over the past twenty years to bring the unit back up to full strength. As usual, the new recruits had been enrolled in northern Italy. Some were volunteers—the hungry and the homeless, says Tacitus. Most were conscripts, such as Publius Flavoleius Cordus from Modena and his soon-to-be best friend, Gaius Vibennius. Then there was Titus Flaminius. And Marcus Petronius from Vicenza. They had no time to overcome their long march from Italy, or their crossing of the stormy Channel, or the final march to Wales. They were thrown straight into the thick of the Welsh campaign. General Ostorius, who’d been voted T.D.s by the Senate for his victory on the Severn the previous year, was embarking on a drive into South Wales this campaigning season, with the stated intention of wiping out the numerous and defiant Silure tribe once and for all.
The next two years did not bring the sort of success the general had experienced at the Severn battle. The Silures had found themselves an energetic new leader, one who reverted to guerrilla tactics. But instead of the stinging, hit-and-run style of attack that Caratacus had specialized in, this unidentified Silurian leader planned operations in strength against isolated targets that he quietly encircled, cut off from the outside world, then assaulted in ferocious attacks that had the goal of their annihilation. The camp prefect of the 20th V.V. was killed when his fort was surrounded. Eight centurions and a number of the best 20th Legion rank and file died with him before the raid was repulsed. A foraging party was wiped out, and the cavalry dispatched to their aid was forced to retreat. Two auxiliary cohorts cut off for a time went close to going over to the Silures, tempted by offers of payment for deserting. For all Caratacus’s fame, his replacement, this anonymous “Silurius,” was succeeding where he had failed.
Then General Ostorius died, apparently of natural causes. Perhaps it was a sudden heart attack. Or perhaps a terminal illness had been invading his body all the time that Publius Ostorius was invading Wales. With the Welsh campaign halted while the Palatium chose a new propraetor, then sent him out from Rome to take charge, the legions pulled back, returning to their bases along the Welsh frontier. And there they heard that Caratacus had been captured at last.
In A.D. 52, exhausted, dispirited, and no doubt in disguise, Caratacus arrived at one of the chief towns of the Brigantes, either Aldborough, the Roman Isurium, or Eboracum, the future city of York. Finding his way to Queen Cartimandua, he begged for help in a continued war against Rome—in the name of their common gods, their common cause, and in defiance of their common foe. The queen didn’t quite see things that way. Conscious of her treaty with Rome, and of the Roman auxiliary troops stationed at her capital, she clapped Caratacus in irons and handed him over to the colonel commanding the auxiliary detachment. The Battle of the Severn had been Caratacus’s last stand.
King Caratacus was taken to Rome, and that summer of A.D. 52 was paraded like a sideshow attraction. Tacitus says that his fame had spread throughout the Roman world, this guerrilla leader who had evaded capture for so long. Even at Rome, Tacitus says, the name of Caratacus was no obscure one. A vast crowd came to the Field of Mars outside the city walls to witness a show staged by the emperor, eager to see “the great man who for so many years had defied our power,” as Tacitus puts it.
Cohorts of the Praetorian Guard were drawn up on the flat outside their barracks, fully equipped with shields and javelins as they were allowed outside the city. Claudius was resplendent in gold-plated armor and the crimson cloak of a Triumphant as he and his wife, Agrippina the Younger, sat enthroned in front of the Praetorian standards. Members of Caratacus’s household were led by in chains, their heads bowed. Next came carts bearing the spoils of General Ostorius’s campaigns, the ornaments, torques, and gold that Caratacus had acquired from other British tribes as tribute in peace and spoils in war. His brothers came next, followed by his wife and daughter. Finally, Caratacus himself was paraded before the wide-eyed Roman public. Yet, unlike the Celts who had gone before him, the British king held his head high, undaunted.
Claudius permitted his captive to deliver a speech, a plea for his life. But Caratacus didn’t beg. Bravely, he stood by his right to defend his homeland. “Just because you Romans choose to lord it over the world,” Tacitus records him saying to Claudius, “does it follow that the world has to accept slavery?”
The emperor spared Caratacus and his family. They would spend the rest of their days in Rome, under house arrest in one of the imperial mansions. Cassius Dio says that while being conducted on a later guided tour of the city, Caratacus asked why people with such magnificent possessions would want the humble tents of the Britons. On the day of their exhibition and pardon, once Caratacus and his family members had been released from their chains, they were required to kneel and pay homage before Claudius and his empress, Agrippina. Enjoying these proceedings from a royal enclosure were Claudius’s twelve-year-old son Britannicus, and Agrippina’s fourteen-year-old son, who had been adopted by Claudius and made his heir. Accompanied by Lucius Anneius Seneca, his tutor of the past three years, Agrippina’s boy was wearing a full military uniform and the scarlet cloak of a general who’d been awarded a Triumph, just like the emperor. Only the previous year, Agrippina’s son had been given the title Prince of the Youth of Rome. The young man had grown up with the name Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, but that was about to be changed, to recognize the fact that he was Claudius’s adopted son and heir. In full, he became Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus. Or, as history would know him, just plain Nero.