A pattern of garrison duty had emerged for the youngsters of the A.D. 51 enlistment of the 14th Gemina Martia Victrix, men such as Legionaries Cordus, Vibennius, Flaminius, and Petronius. The Roman governors who immediately followed General Ostorius preferred to contain the Welsh tribes rather than go after them. There was just an occasional probe west during summer, with long months spent in permanent wooden barracks, meaning there were few opportunities for the glory or the booty the old-timers boasted of when they were sitting around in camp and talking nostalgically of past campaigns.
During this period the 14th’s Marcus Petronius was promoted to standard-bearer, equivalent to a modern-day corporal. Standard-bearers also acted as bankers to the men of their subunits, keeping a record of their savings in liaison with the legion’s camp prefect, who was paymaster and bank manager. A legionary didn’t have much on which to spend his pay, booty, and bonuses. Some invested in local businesses. Others spent on whores. Some drank themselves poor when on leave. Others didn’t have to leave camp to go broke, gambling away every penny on illegal dice games and distant chariot races.
Rome’s race results were posted in camp when the latest handwritten copies of the Acta Diurnia, Rome’s Daily News, arrived. Via the Acta, too, they learned that at noon on October 13, A.D. 54, Claudius had been pronounced dead at the Palatium and that seventeen-year-old Nero, grandson of the still revered Germanicus Caesar, had been proclaimed emperor. What they wouldn’t have read was that Agrippina had poisoned Claudius so her son could become emperor. Nor would they have read over the next few years that while Nero’s chief advisers, Seneca and Praetorian Prefect Afranius Burrus, steered Rome on a steady, progressive course, Nero’s mother had tried to control her son, even offering herself as his bed partner to manipulate him.
In A.D. 59, the men of the far-flung legion read that the emperor’s mother had been executed at Anzio by officers of the Tyrrhenian Fleet after it was discovered that she’d sent an assassin to kill Nero. But the legionaries heard the rumors that soon abounded, that Nero, determined to marry Poppaea, attractive wife of his best friend, Marcus Otho, against his mother’s wishes, had arranged for Agrippina to be murdered to rid himself of her interference. And that the guilt of his bloody deed had begun to affect his mind.
At about the same time in A.D. 59 that Nero’s mother died and lost an empire, another woman, in Britain, lost a husband and became a queen. She was the widow of Prasutagus, king of the Iceni tribe. Her Celtic name was Boudicca—appropriately, it meant “Victory.” The Romans called her Boadicea.
Boudicca’s tribe occupied modern Norfolk and part of Suffolk in the East Anglia region of England, north of Colchester. Boudicca probably had married Prasutagus in the late 40s A.D., after the Roman invasion. If she’d wed in her early teens, as Roman women often did, she may have been only in her twenties by A.D. 59. More probably, she was in her thirties. Tacitus says she descended from noble ancestry. Either her father was an Iceni noble or she came from the nobility of another tribe such as the neighboring Trinovantes and was given in marriage to Prasutagus to cement an intertribal alliance.
Boudicca had borne Prasutagus two daughters, who by A.D. 59 were still not of marrying age, were virgins approaching teenagerhood. We don’t know Prasutagus’s age or when he took the Iceni throne. Tacitus says that by the time of his death, which was apparently due to natural causes, Prasutagus was famed for his long prosperity. A reign of twenty years or more is not unlikely.
The Iceni were farmers, cultivating wheat and vegetable crops and running livestock, including horses. As in Gaul and Germany, and just as with the Plains Indians of North America in the nineteenth century, a Briton’s prestige and worth were tied up in the number of horses he owned. In times past, too, each noble would have possessed a British-style chariot, another symbol of his position in society.
Tacitus says that the Iceni didn’t participate in resistance to the A.D. 43 Roman invasion, neither fighting the Romans nor surrendering to them. They later signed a treaty that gave the Iceni the status of Roman allies, although they weren’t exempted from taxation, like some allied nations in Europe. Partial Iceni disarmament, including destruction of the tribe’s war chariots, would have been a Roman treaty requirement.
The tribe enjoyed mostly amicable relations with the Roman authorities. As the price of peace they paid taxes and supplied young men to serve as auxiliaries in the Britannic cohorts of the Roman army. And instead of sending their boys to be trained by priests of the Celtic religious order, the Druids, as they had before the Romans came, the Iceni nobles now sent their older sons to train as Roman priests at the Temple of the Divine Claudius at Colchester. As a consequence, the tribe’s east coast homeland was a peaceful backwater, with no Roman troops stationed in Iceni territory.
The Romans called the Iceni capital Venta Icenorum. It’s the out-of-the-way village of Caister St. Edmunds today, just a few miles south of the city of Norwich, itself not settled until Saxon times. In A.D. 59, Caister’s buildings would have been built from wood and mud. There would have been a forum with a weekly market and a Roman-style basilica, or meeting hall, and a small temple with an altar to the Roman counterparts of Celtic gods. Celtic religious habits, such as the maintenance of sacred groves and divining omens from rivers that were considered sacred, were officially discouraged.
Tacitus describes the home of the king of the Iceni as a villa, a country estate, which would have been on the best farmland outside Caister. It would have been built in the Roman style, with courtyards and a number of spacious wings plus stables and other outbuildings. Romans bathed every afternoon, commoners at public baths, the wealthy in baths in their own homes. Rigorous exercise was followed by a series of hot, warm, and cold baths. Dio indicates that cold baths were the norm for the hardy Iceni, of all ranks.
Boudicca would have grown up with servants around her, but no slaves. Tacitus complained that Britain’s Celts had no interest in slaves, or in the monetary rewards to be gained from selling prisoners as slaves. Boudicca’s clothes would have been ordinary by Roman standards, woolen for warmth in the harsh British winter. She had jewelry, of gold. She would have used toiletry articles—horsehair brushes made by her own people, other items imported from the Continent. The British were trading with France long before the Romans came on the scene. Now the British were also trading with Dutch and German tribes along the North Sea coast. Perhaps Boudicca used the face creams and perfumes of the East available, at a price, to any well-to-do Roman lady. But such feminine indulgences seem out of character with the Boudicca the Roman world would soon come to know.
Dio says Boudicca’s hair was thick and tawny-colored, falling to her hips. Like all Celtic women, she let her hair grow long. Roman women went to great trouble to have their hair plaited and tied up in elaborate styles. The wealthier ladies had hairdressers on their staff and would spend hours every day on their coiffure. By comparison, Boudicca probably had maidservants who brushed her luxuriant long, reddish hair for her.
Most Iceni only saw Romans when the tax collectors made their annual visit in the summer, collecting a per-head poll tax and the death tax levied on the tribes, in gold and in grain, and when Roman army conquisitors came to assess young Iceni men for service as auxiliaries and to take recruits away. Otherwise, the Iceni were left alone.
The exception had been over the winter of A.D. 47-48. Lieutenant General Ostorius had only just arrived at Colchester to take up his appointment as Governor of Britain when a force of unidentified raiders broke into the territory of British tribes allied to Rome, knowing, says Tacitus, that the legions had gone into camp for the winter and that the new governor hadn’t had a chance to familiarize himself with his command. After plundering farms and villages, the raiders had disappeared. General Ostorius wasn’t sure which tribesmen were involved, but he had his suspicions. To show he wasn’t to be messed with, he dispatched auxiliary units based at Colchester to disarm all the tribes of the region and to set up camps of occupation in every allied tribal area west to the Severn River and as far north as the Avon River. When young Iceni hotheads heard of Ostorius’s heavy-handed order they sent messengers to surrounding tribes urging them to join the Iceni in armed resistance, naming an assembly point on their western border.
Tacitus says nothing about the king of the Iceni being involved in this. It seems that his young men took the action on themselves, against his advice. It also seems that as they rushed off to the congregation point, King Prasutagus sent a messenger south to Colchester to warn General Ostorius of what was taking place.
Determined to nip the revolt in the bud, the general didn’t waste time summoning the legions from their camps on the western frontier, at least a week’s march away. Collecting auxiliary units in the vicinity of Colchester, and putting his son Colonel Marius Ostorius “Scapula” in charge of his cavalry, he hurried north to the Iceni assembly point. It’s clear that Ostorius had information that the revolutionaries numbered only a few thousand at most, and this convinced him he could handle the problem with auxiliaries alone. His force reached the rebel area undetected, and, leaving his troops a little way in the rear, Ostorius himself crept forward with scouts for a reconnaissance.
The general observed, says Tacitus, a tall bank of earth encompassing a large open area, reached by a narrow approach, with the surrounding countryside impenetrable to cavalry. Dikes of the Dutch kind were common in flat, low-lying Norfolk, with the Fens of western Norfolk then filled with hundreds of square miles of watery, boggy marshland. The rebels appear to have made their camp in the Fens, possibly at a place near Hilgay Fen called today Ten-Mile Bank. Returning to his troops, Ostorius made his dispositions, ordering the cavalry to dismount to fight on foot alongside the infantry.
On General Ostorius’s signal a trumpet sounded and his troops splashed forward. The tribesmen, busy making weapons and ammunition, were taken by surprise. The auxiliaries climbed the sloping barrier’s earth walls before the Britons had time to organize resistance. Only once the Roman troops were inside their camp did the warriors begin to put up a fight. Surrounded, many of the rebels refused to surrender or take a backward step, going down fighting, for which Tacitus was to commend them. At one point the Britons managed to launch a counterattack, their charge isolating the prefect of a cohort. Broad-shouldered young Colonel Marius Ostorius went to the rescue of his fellow colonel, an act for which he was to earn the highly prized Civic Crown on his father’s recommendation, for saving the life of a fellow Roman citizen. We know it was a prefect he saved because the rank-and-file auxiliaries were all noncitizens.
We don’t hear of reprisals being imposed on the Iceni for this short revolt. Survivors of the battle in the Fens would have been led away in chains to slavery, while King Prasutagus retained his throne. Now, aware of how tenuous his family’s hold on power was, he made a will in the Roman fashion and deposited it with the priests at the Temple of Claudius at Colchester. In that will he left half his estate to the emperor, and half to his two daughters, in the hope of pleasing both the emperor and his family.
There was a basic problem with the terms of Prasutagus’s last will and testament. Some British tribes, like the Iceni, were early women’s liberationists, recognizing the rights of women. Celtic wives and daughters could inherit part of the estate of the deceased head of their household, and some tribes also allowed women to inherit their ancestral thrones. But under Roman law, while a woman could inherit the property of her mother or grandmother, she couldn’t inherit the estate of her husband or father. At best, a Roman wife could expect to be refunded the dowry given to her husband by her family at the time of her wedding. So, under Roman law, the law now governing Roman Britain, King Prasutagus’s will was invalid. That law said that without a male heir, a head of household’s entire estate went automatically to the emperor. Prasutagus could have overcome the problem the same way many Romans did, by adopting a son and heir, in the way author Lew Wallace had his character Quintus Arrius adopt Judah ben Hur in his 1880 novel Ben Hur. Junius Gallio, elder brother of Seneca, Nero’s chief secretary, had been adopted by Junius Gallio Sr. in this way; his original name had been Lucius Annaeus Novatus.
But, determined that his daughters should inherit his kingdom, the king of the Iceni wasn’t prepared to adopt a male heir. It was a risky course, hoping that Nero would acknowledge his loyalty over the years and recognize the terms of his will; Augustus had set the precedent by, in special cases, allowing women to inherit from their menfolk. As it turned out, Nero may not have even had the opportunity to rule on the king’s will.
It’s likely that King Prasutagus died in the winter of A.D. 58-59, at a time when the province of Britain was without a governor. Two governors had succeeded General Ostorius—Didius Gallus for six years, and then, in A.D. 58, Quintus Veranius, who died in office the same year. Caught by suprise by Veranius’s death, the Palatium scrambled to find a suitable replacement. They came up with the well-qualified Lieutenant General Gaius Suetonius Paulinus. A native of Fréjus, Roman Forum Julii, in southern France, General Paulinus was renowned for a crushing victory over Moors in Mauretania with a small force when Governor of Africa in A.D. 41-42. But in the many months between Veranius’s death and his replacement’s A.D. 59 arrival at Colchester, Britain was governed by the province’s procurator, or chief financial administrator, Decianus Catus.
The name Catus can mean both wise and sly. This Catus was definitely not the former. King Prasutagus’s will would have been opened in front of Procurator Catus, and he took a cold, hard financial administrator’s view of it. The will was illegal; the king’s property was now the emperor’s. End of story. Following Prasutagus’s funeral, Catus sent a party to take possession of the king’s worldly goods.
Riding at the head of the party, carrying sidearms, were several legion centurions on attachment to the governor’s staff, who exercised powers similar to our police today. They were followed by civil staff from the procurator’s office, as many as two hundred of them, who would have been armed with wooden staffs. Catus’s personnel were slaves. Men of Greek background were the usual choice for these gubernatorial staff positions, as the Greeks were considered the intellectuals of the Roman world. They went first to the late king’s villa. There, Boudicca was stripped, then beaten with wooden rods, a traditional punishment for slaves that the procurator had the power to order. That Boudicca was punished indicates she had probably earlier defied an order to surrender her husband’s property. The form of the punishment was designed to show that she was considered to only possess the status of a slave. For good measure, and apparently on their own authority, the procurator’s men then raped Boudicca’s two virgin daughters. After ransacking the house—as if its contents were the spoils of war, says Tacitus—they departed, no doubt using the king’s own wagons to carry their plunder.
All the late king’s male relatives were arrested, chained, and hauled away to be sold as slaves, to ensure that there could be no claimant to Prasutagus’s throne. Remaining Iceni nobles were stripped of possessions that had been in their families for generations. When the procurator’s men marched away, taking their prisoners and their loot, they left Boudicca and the Iceni in shock. As became clear from later events, in their wake, Boudicca, bleeding and outraged, clutched her violated daughters to her and made a vow to Andreste, Celtic goddess of war, to revenge herself, her family, and her people.
When Governor Paulinus arrived in Britain, the rape of the Iceni was a done deed. Tacitus indicates that Paulinus and Catus frequently argued, and perhaps the first argument broke out when the governor learned of his procurator’s heavy-handed actions in East Anglia. But a tough, proud man, there was no way Paulinus could or would compensate the Iceni. The letter of the law had been observed. The fact that the servants of the law had exceeded their authority could not be corrected, for the Iceni were not Roman citizens, and without citizenship they had the same rights as slaves: none.
As General Paulinus turned his attention to subduing the tribes in Wales, the Iceni were forgotten. Now, like the Catuvellauni of Colchester, the Iceni were considered a subject people, not an allied tribe, without the right to their own leader. In the vacuum this created, Boudicca rose to the occasion. She called meetings of Iceni elders and told them of her vow to Andreste. The Iceni must wreak vengeance, she declared, and she was prepared to personally lead an uprising of the tribes of southern Britain that would utterly destroy the legions and throw the Romans out of Britain.
By her very physical stature she would have been a dominating presence, but that alone wouldn’t have been enough to convince her people to go to war against the greatest military power on earth. Boudicca also had a fine tactical mind, and she shared a plan with her nobles designed to take advantage of the very way the legions worked. It would have been no secret that two of the four legions in Britain, the 9th Hispana and the 20th Valeria Victrix, were to undergo their twenty-year discharges the following year, A.D. 60, a year, coincidentally, when half of Rome’s legions would reenlist. At markets throughout the region, tribesmen would have spoken of seeing the new enlistment of the 2nd Augusta arrive the previous year, remarking how green the fresh-faced recruits from the south of France looked as they marched through southern England to their bases in the west. The legionaries Britons were accustomed to seeing were mature, experienced soldiers, and many a budding British hero would have made a wine-soaked boast about how easy these new boy legionaries would be to cut down if the tribes had the will and the way. Here, said Boudicca, was the opportunity to turn boast into action. When the tough old soldiers of the two legions had left their legions, and their raw, untried replacements had barely pitched their tents in Britain, that was the time to strike.
The Iceni were excited. Not only would two of the four legions be re-enlisting, but also, in the spring, General Plautius could be expected to lead his army on a campaign in the west as usual, leaving isolated auxiliary detachments in the east. If the tribes combined, they could sweep through England behind the governor’s back and trap his legions between themselves and the Welsh. The Iceni had lost their possessions, their young men, their freedom. What else could they lose, apart from their lives? And what value was life without freedom? The Iceni voted to go to war, and elected Boudicca their war leader.
Invitations to join Boudicca and the Iceni in rising next spring went out to British tribes smarting at having to pay back a 40-million-sesterce personal loan from Chief Secretary Seneca, reputedly worth 300 million sesterces, who’d resorted to harsh repayment measures when he’d called in the loan early, says Dio. The Trinovantes, Iceni neighbors to the south, were the first to join Boudicca’s rebel coalition. Soon, tribes throughout southern England were stockpiling wood, leather, iron, and bronze for arms manufacture. And to provide intelligence from in and around the governor’s headquarters while the revolution was readied, Boudicca planted secret agents in Colchester.
But, Boudicca stressed, secrecy was imperative. According to Tacitus, the rebel leadership told the tribes: “We’ve already taken the most difficult step by starting to plan. In an enterprise like this there’s more danger in being caught than in taking the plunge.”
The tribes waited for Procurator Catus’s tax collectors to pay their annual summer visit. Then, once Roman backs were turned and the wheat harvest was in, they began arming and training. They would not sow or reap in A.D. 60. Boudicca’s strategic plan called for the seizure of government granaries at Colchester, the port of London, Roman Londinium, on the Thames, and the wealthy town of Verulamium, modern St. Albans, in Hertfordshire, north of London. This would permit the tribes, once the spring of A.D. 60 arrived, to ignore their fields and concentrate on arms and ammunition production.
A principal British weapon would be the war chariot. But, contrary to popular myth, Boudicca did not personally drive a chariot, nor did she possess a Roman-style chariot, like the one represented in the statue by Westminster Bridge near the Houses of Parliament in London today. Neither was the chariot she did use equipped with scything blades jutting from the wheels, like those of Middle Eastern kings. Boudicca did ride in a chariot, but one piloted by a driver who sat with his legs dangling over the open front. The rear also was open, and the sides were of wicker in a half-moon shape. Low and light, with wheels three feet across, British chariots were drawn by a pair of nimble ponies and were built for speed. Behind the driver stood a noble with an armory of light spears and a sword and shield. The British chariot was a mobile arms platform. As Julius Caesar had discovered, they were ideal for lightning dashes against legion formations, unleashing clouds of spears, and also could deliver their nobles to different hot spots in a battle, where they would jump down and fight on foot while their drivers waited nearby to speed them out of trouble if required.
How many chariots the tribes constructed in the arms buildup of A.D. 59-60 is not known, but the number probably was in the hundreds. Through the fall and winter, too, chariot crews trained, relearning old skills lost since the Roman invasion. As the spring of A.D. 60 approached, Boudicca and her war council listened to reports from their spies at Colchester with satisfaction. General Plautius had ordered logistical preparations to be made for a drive into North Wales in April, and over the winter the legions had been hard at work building small, flat-bottomed boats for the campaign. His new operation would involve the complete 14th Gemina Martia Victrix Legion, part of the 2nd Augusta, and a number of auxiliary infantry and cavalry units, including the 14th’s Batavian consorts.
With Roman eyes fixed firmly on the west, the British rebel leaders made their final plans. Assembly points were agreed on. And the target for the first attack of the war was confirmed: a unanimous and popular choice, the symbolic and administrative heart of Roman occupation, the provincial capital, Colchester.
Colchester had grown into a handsome city since becoming the Roman capital of Britain fewer than seventeen years back. Now the former Catuvellauni capital boasted grand public buildings in stone: a fine local senate house; a public bathhouse; a theater in the Greek style where dramas, comedies, mimes, pantomimes, and musicals played to packed houses; and a massive colonnaded temple built to honor the late emperor Claudius, who, by decree of the Roman Senate, was now a god.
Like most Roman military colonies throughout the empire, Colchester was not surrounded by defensive walls. As Tacitus says, this was from a desire to do what was agreeable to Rome’s local subjects rather than what was expedient. Colonies were located inside friendly territory, so, in theory, they had no need of defenses. Colonies were intended, not as symbols of occupation or domination, but as open communities that would blend into the local world, showcasing the benefits of cultivated and sophisticated Roman society. More than once, Roman colonists would pay the price for this policy of openness, a policy that rendered their hometowns defenseless.
The men of the 14th G.M.V.’s A.D. 51 discharge had made themselves at home at Colchester. Some had leased out their land grants—retired veterans weren’t permitted to sell their grants for twenty years—and moved into the city, going into business, opening stores or taverns, becoming merchants or moneylenders. Other veterans came into town regularly from their farms, for the weekly market in the forum, for court sittings, for entertainment at the theater or chariot races and gladiatorial shows—the Senate at Rome permitted a set number of contests in each province annually. And they came for the religious festivals that occupied a third of the Roman calendar each year, festivals during which the former centurions of the 14th and legionaries awarded the top bravery decorations during their years in the legion led the processions in ceremonial dress.
Some of the veterans of the 14th had died by this stage, but upward of two thousand were living in and around Colchester. The youngest of them were around forty-nine in the spring of A.D. 60, while most of their second-enlistment colleagues were in their seventies. We know little of how the Evocati militia worked in peacetime, but like reserve units today, the veterans of the 14th G.M.V. probably had regular parades, and weapons drills to keep up their military skills. The cohort and maniple standards they’d marched behind while serving with the legion had come into retirement with them and were housed at an altar in the town’s principal temple—in Colchester’s case, the Temple of Claudius. The uniforms, weapons, and personal equipment they’d brought into retirement were stored at home, ready to be brought out in an emergency.
For the past nine years the retirees had led a quiet life. They’d married local British girls of the Catuvellauni, Trinovantes, and Iceni tribes and raised families, with none of their children being yet ten years of age. They’d enjoyed their postlegion days, with just an occasional hankering for the excitement of the past in hard-drinking reunions with their comrades. But the previous year, after the death of King Prasutagus of the Iceni and the lawlessness of Procurator Catus’s men had set them an unsavory example, some of the veterans had found their old arrogance, and had made themselves unpopular with the locals by treating them no better than slaves. They were about to be repaid for their arrogance and unpleasantness.
In March, General Paulinus rode out of Colchester and headed west, to assemble the units allocated to the new year’s campaign. After conducting the religious formalities of the Lustration Exercise, the purification of the legion standards that preceded every campaign, he invaded North Wales. The general left only a small auxiliary garrison back at Colchester’s permanent military base, on the western outskirts of the city, most likely just a single cohort of infantry and a couple of squadrons of Thracian cavalry. We know from archaeological evidence that originally this fortified camp covered fifty acres. This was large enough to accommodate 12,500 men, which it would have done when much of the 20th V.V. and numerous auxiliary units had been based there. By A.D. 60 the camp had been scaled back with the transfer of units farther north and west. Within five years it would be closed altogether.
The absence of the governor had no impact on daily life at Colchester, which continued with its commercial bustle. Sometime after General Paulinus’s departure for Wales, the city’s statue of Victory, the winged Roman goddess based on the Greeks’ Nike, one night tumbled from its pedestal in the town forum. It was found next day, face down on the paving stones and facing east. This was considered an ill omen by the townspeople, a portent of some dreadful event. But of what event, they could not know. The statue probably had been toppled by rebel agents in the town. Perhaps they were impatient for the uprising, or just intent on unsettling the highly superstitious Romans.
Finally, the day that Boudicca had been planning toward arrived, a day in the late spring of A.D. 60. The tribes would have waited until after an important Celtic fertility festival that took place in Britain at the beginning of May, turning it this year into a war festival. Dio says that when the tribes assembled, Boudicca used a form of Celtic divination, letting a hare escape from a fold of her gown. When the hare bounded off in an auspicious direction, this was a sign that the tribes could expect to be victorious.
“We have no fear of the Romans,” Dio says Boudicca declared from an earthbank in the assembly area as she looked out over the massed warriors. “We’ll show them that they are hares and foxes trying to rule over dogs and wolves!”
Full of confidence, the tribes marched on Colchester.
A bored, yawning auxiliary on sentry detail in a guard tower at the Colchester camp would have been the first to see signs that something was not right that morning, as smoke rose up from several different points on the northern horizon. Farmhouses of 14th G.M.V. veterans were going up in flames, strewn with the bodies of their occupants. Alerted by the guard centurion, the prefect commanding the Colchester garrison would have sent a cavalry detachment to investigate, and waited for their report. When the patrol failed to return, the colonel would have become worried. When the fields to the north and west began to darken with thousands of moving shapes generating a cloud of dust that rose into the hazy sky, he would have realized with sudden terror that his patrol wasn’t coming back, and why. Ordering “To Arms” sounded, he sent men scurrying throughout the city and riders galloping to outlying farms to call the veterans of the Evocati militia to arms. And he ordered the camp’s four gates closed.
The 14th G.M.V. retirees quickly grabbed their weapons and herded their families to the militia assembly point, the Temple of Claudius, a massive building on a rise that dominated the city and that Tacitus describes as a virtual citadel, there to form up behind their old legion standards, which were taken down from the altar. By the time the majority of veterans had assembled at the temple, thousands of civilians were milling around in their midst, in a state of panic and begging the militiamen to save them. By that time, the first elements of the army of the Britons had reached the city. Dio puts the number of rebel warriors following Boudicca at this early stage in the revolt at 120,000.
Boudicca would have established the priorities for the attack. The military camp was quickly surrounded and sealed off by one large group of warriors. Others went through the streets of Colchester, pulling down Roman statues, especially the statue of Marsyas, a naked figure bound to a column in the whipping position, a statue that stood in the Forum of every Roman colony as a symbol of its autonomy. But most of all, the rampaging rebels were looking for blood, looking for Romans and their sympathizers. Civilians and militia latecomers were cut down wherever they were encountered. Some rebels began looting stores and houses.
Arriving in her chariot, Boudicca was informed that the Roman militiamen were at the Temple of Claudius. She ordered it sealed off. At the temple, the former first-rank centurions in charge would have planned to force their way through the streets to the military camp and link up with the garrison. But that would have left their families at the mercy of the attackers. Deciding to make a stand where they were, the veterans began to barricade themselves inside the temple.
The night sky above Colchester glowed orange. The buildings of the city had been progressively plundered by the rampaging rebels during the day, then set alight. Now, only the military camp and the Temple of Claudius remained intact, still occupied by their defenders, and separated by flame and smoke. The tribesmen erected their tents around Colchester, then stood back, gleefully watching the city they hated burn fiercely.
As the Britons enjoyed the fiery show, the colonel in charge at the camp was able to slip riders out the western gate in the darkness. Couriers galloped south to London, where Procurator Catus was engaged in financial business. Others rode west for Wales and General Paulinus’s campaigning army. Several rode hell for leather to the nearest legion station, Longthorpe, rear base of the 9th Hispana Legion, to the north. Procurator Catus was the first Roman official to receive news of the uprising, and the first to react. From London, Catus sent two hundred men to aid the defenders. Tacitus says they were without regular arms, suggesting these were men from the procurator’s own department, bailiffs, probably the same men who had sparked this affair in the first place with the rape of the Iceni, who were normally armed merely with wooden staffs. As soon as these men were within sight of Colchester, the tribesmen gobbled them up. The Britons probably didn’t kill them all right away. As perpetrators of the original crime against Boudicca and the Iceni, some would have been reserved for special treatment.
For two days the 14th Gemina Martia Victrix veterans and the townspeople sheltering with them were surrounded at the Temple of Claudius, without food, without water. Tacitus says the rebels were only interested in plunder and slaughter and had neither the skill nor the desire to storm fortified positions. There would have been a few early attempts to break into the temple compound, but the tough old soldiers of the 14th G.M.V. stood firm and showered attackers with missiles, forcing them to withdraw.
Now, rebel fifth columnists inside the temple played their hand. We only know from Tacitus that the defenders were betrayed by British agents from within. These may have been townspeople who slipped out information. It’s more likely the betrayers were priests of the temple, young men of the Iceni, whose parents, nobles of the tribe, had been deprived of their treasured possessions by Procurator Catus the previous year. Tacitus says the young British men who were chosen to serve as priests of the Claudian order were required to spend their personal fortunes on a religious ceremony—probably public games to celebrate the inauguration of new members of the priesthood. Not surprisingly, new Iceni priests greatly resented this financial burden. These young men had every reason to want to revenge themselves on their foreign overlords, for their sakes and their families’ sakes. Now opportunity knocked. With legion veterans holed up in their very temple, what better way to contribute to the Roman overthrow? The priests knew their temple intimately. If anyone was aware of the location of a secret entrance or entrances for the use of members of the priesthood only, they would have.
Now, two days into the siege, when Boudicca sent her tribesmen in a surprise attack, probably at night, they quickly stormed the defenses, probably using entrances opened to them by priests. With the colonnades resounding to the screams of thousands of women and children cringing in the underground basement, which still exists today beneath the Norman castle built on the site, the temple fell. Overwhelmed by weight of numbers, doughty veterans from northern Italy, angry at betrayal by Britons they’d been protecting, threw down their weapons and surrendered, expecting to be treated as POWs.
Thousands of prisoners were taken, both militiamen and civilians. Now the Britons began exacting their vengeance on Romans and the Romanized Britons with them—native Britons who had chosen the Roman side and who were traitors in the eyes of the tribes. The worst traitors were local women who’d married retired Roman soldiers. And worst of all were those who’d married centurions.
As the temple was engulfed in flames, prisoners were led to the open expanse outside the military camp. What took place over the next few days was intended to be witnessed by the Roman auxiliaries in the camp. Tacitus says that some Roman prisoners suffered death by flame; others were hanged; others, crucified on wooden crosses the way the Romans executed slaves. Dio says that men and boys had their genitals cut off and thrust in their faces before the victims were boiled alive or impaled on red-hot skewers.
The fate of female prisoners was even worse. Dio says the Britons strung up the leading Roman women—the wives of retired centurions of the 14th G.M.V. would have been at the top of their list—then cut off their breasts and sewed them onto their mouths, to make the victims appear to be eating them. Not content with that, they then impaled the women on sharp skewers run lengthwise through the body.
These horrific tortures lasted for days, accompanied, says Dio, by sacrifices, banquets, and what he describes as wanton behavior—wild sex, it might be assumed—all in the name of Andate, Celtic goddess of victory. We don’t know whether this barbarity was just a fun idea at the time or whether there was some genuine religious significance to it, just as the Germans grilled Roman officers over open flames after the Varus disaster of A.D. 9 as offerings to their gods. Human sacrifice did play a role in the religion of the Druids, but torture seems to have been for the gratification of the mobs, not the gods.
No one was spared. Children suffered the same fate as their parents. Tacitus commented on the stupidity of it all, quite apart from the barbarity. Anyone else would have retained prisoners, he said, to ransom them for gold, or to sell them to slave traders. But not the Britons. Boudicca’s followers had embarked on an orgy of vengeance and destruction that transcended practical considerations. And they had only just begun.
Brigadier General Quintus Petillius Cerialis had only recently taken up his posting as commander of the 9th Hispana Legion, after spending more than a decade working his way up the promotional ladder through Rome’s unique combined military and civil service ranks. Before this promotion he’d served as senior tribune, second in command, with another legion. It’s probable that the previous year, when he’d entered the Senate, Cerialis had stood for election as a praetor and was one of three excellent candidates who, after failing to be elected, were compensated by Nero with legion commands.
Married to a cousin of Lieutenant General Vespasian, the Roman commander famous for conquering southern England with the 2nd Augusta in A.D. 43, thirty-one-year-old General Cerialis would have been eager to also make his name with a dashing victory. So when an exhausted courier reached him at his headquarters at Longthorpe on the Nene River, in the present-day county of Cambridgeshire, with an urgent request from the Colchester garrison for help, he didn’t hesitate to order the assembly of a force that would march almost at once. He either wasn’t informed of the size of the rebel forces, or he discounted the numbers and the threat the tribesmen posed. Cerialis, by one account a striking man with red hair and blue eyes, also had an impatient streak. He could have sent to General Plautius for orders, but as the general nearest to the scene of the uprising, Cerialis chose to act himself.
Longthorpe, near modern Peterborough, just to the west of the watery expanses of the Fens, was close by Ermine Street, the Roman military highway from London to the northern frontier and beyond, to Queen Cartimandua’s realm of Brigantia. The 9th Hispana Legion’s major permanent base at Longthorpe could house twenty-five hundred men, and it was here that young General Cerialis put together his relief force. Only days or weeks before, the latest enlistment of the 9th Hispana Legion had arrived in Britain from its recruiting ground in eastern Spain, and the unit’s retiring veterans had left the island for land grants on the Rhine, probably using the same vessels of the Britannic Fleet that had brought the new enlistment to England. The recruits, youngsters with shiny new equipment and tired legs after marching through eastern Spain, over the Pyrenees, and through France to Boulogne, had barely completed basic weapons and formation training by the time the East Anglia emergency arose.
More than half the 9th Hispana’s men were sitting in forts along the northern frontier. In his hurry, General Cerialis didn’t even bother to send for the 1st Cohort of the legion, which normally accompanied the commander. His relief force comprised four cohorts of raw new 9th Hispana recruits, marching behind a cloth vexillum standard, plus some or all of his legion’s 124 cavalrymen, and several squadrons of auxiliary cavalry. With two thousand heavy infantry and perhaps five hundred mounted troops, he set off at forced-march pace to travel the hundred miles to Colchester.
At best, the rider bringing General Cerialis the plea for help had taken fourteen hours to reach him, changing horses at outposts along the way. Taking several hours to assemble his troops, equipment, ammunition, food, and pack animals, the general would have set off in the middle of the afternoon of the second day of the Colchester siege. Without heavy baggage, the relief force could have made twenty-five miles a day by usual legion forced-march standards. Even so, by the time General Cerialis was into the second day of a four-day march, the Temple of Claudius at Colchester had already fallen.
The relief force tramped down the straight paved stretch of Ermine Street that the 9th Hispana recruits had marched up not long before, then swung hard left when they reached the Colchester road. As the relief column hurried east through Essex, Trinovantes locals on watch for Roman reinforcements would have kept them under surveillance all the way and sent messengers to Colchester to warn Boudicca that legionaries were coming. In response, tens of thousands of tribesmen stopped their victory celebrations and prepared a bloody greeting for the approaching Romans.
On the fourth day of their march, within an hour or two of Colchester, the relief column walked into a wall of screaming British warriors. On the rolling Essex countryside there was no opportunity for the legionaries to use the advantage of high ground. It appears that General Cerialis had no choice but to form an orbis, the legions’ circular formation that the original draft of the 14th Legion had resorted to outside Atuatuca back in 54 B.C. Cerialis seems to have put the cavalry horses in the middle of the ring, ordering their riders to dismount and fight on foot. Surrounded by a sea of terrifying half-naked tribesmen sporting the heads of dead Romans on spears, the 9th’s green Spanish youths went to pieces. Not in their units long enough to be instilled with the rigid discipline that made legions fighting machines, the young recruits became deaf to the orders of their experienced centurions. Many broke formation; others begged Britons for their lives. Only their centurions fought like soldiers, and with their entire force outnumbered twenty to one or more, they had no chance. The 9th Hispana recruits were progressively massacred.
As the defensive ring disintegrated around him, General Cerialis ordered his surviving cavalrymen to mount up. Bunched close together, hacking at uncovered British heads to left and right, and led by the young general, the riders drove their terrified horses through the British ranks. A number of them, including Cerialis, made it through, as the tribesmen surged over the remnants of the orbis behind them and annihilated the Spanish youths. Cerialis sent several troopers galloping south to London, carrying the news that two thousand men of the 9th Hispana Legion had been wiped out and that Cerialis himself was pushing on to Colchester to take command of whatever forces he found there.
General Cerialis and his troopers made it to Colchester. Probably approaching the capital’s military camp at night, through fields littered with the gory corpses of men, women, and children the rebels had tortured and killed over the past few days, Cerialis identified himself to the terrified auxiliaries inside, and he and his men gained admittance through a gate that was quickly closed behind them. The Britons made no attempt to storm the camp, then or later. For now, General Cerialis was safe.
The riders whom Cerialis sent south succeeded in making it through to London. When Procurator Catus heard of the bloody fate of the men of the 9th Hispana relief force, and knowing how eager the rebels would be to lay hands on him in particular, he boarded a ship docked at London and ordered its master to get under way at once. Catus sailed the forty miles down the Thames to the North Sea and escaped to Gaul. It wasn’t an inspiring act. All the merchants in the town followed his example, and before long not a single ship lay at London’s normally bustling docks.
The east of England now lay open to Boudicca and her rebels.