Lieutenant General Gaius Paulinus stepped from the small, flatbottomed boat, scowled at the Roman troops lined up on the Welsh beach, and demanded to know what the men of the 14th Gemina Martia Victrix Legion thought they were doing.
Warriors of the Deceangli and Ordovice tribes had retreated ahead of the Roman advance without offering battle, but now, joined by the Insulae, the local population, they formed up on the southern shore of the island the Romans called Mona Insula, or Mona for short, the island of Anglesey just off the northwestern coast of Wales. The warriors waited in their clans, armed with shield and spear as the legionaries of the 14th G.M.V., the 2nd Augusta, and their auxiliary colleagues clambered from their small landing craft. Suddenly women came dashing through the assembled ranks of Welsh warriors, dressed all in black, their hair disheveled, waving burning firebrands and shrieking as if they were deranged. All around, Druid priests raised their hands to heaven and babbled pleas to their Celtic gods to bring the wrath of the heavens down on the heads of the invaders.
To the Roman troops, this was like a scene from hell. Dazzled, superstitious legionaries from northern Italy and southern France froze in their ranks, not even raising their shields to protect themselves as they watched with eyes wide. They’d heard this island was the home of heathen gods, and campfire tales of witches with supernatural powers and terrifying beasts lurking in the groves of Mona quickly filled their minds.
“The men are scared, General,” a staff officer would have said. Maybe it was officer cadet Gnaeus Julius Agricola, who turned twenty on June 13 of this year. Born at Fréjus, Paulinus’s hometown, Lieutenant Colonel Agricola had been taken under the general’s wing and brought onto his personal staff that spring when he arrived in Britain for his first military posting. Agricola would command the 20th Valeria Victrix Legion in years to come, later returning to serve as governor of Britain for seven years. He also would become father-in-law of historian Tacitus, who describes what follows.
“Scared!” General Paulinus exploded. He strode out in front of the troops. “You mean to tell me your knees are knocking at the sight of a troop of frenzied women?” he called to them. “You? Men of the 14th Gemina? The 2nd Augusta? Scared of women?”
The legionaries laughed self-consciously, feeling suddenly ashamed. They began telling each other that there was nothing to be afraid of.
“Well, then?” Paulinus called. “What are you waiting for?”
“Come on, 14th Gemina!” yelled a standard-bearer, perhaps Standard-Bearer Marcus Petronius from Vicenza, before charging forward. Other standard-bearers followed suit, and then the entire legion surged past their commander in chief and charged the waiting tribesmen. The 2nd Augusta and auxiliaries swiftly followed.
Since marching into Wales in the spring of A.D. 60, General Paulinus had pushed all the way to the northwestern coast. Hardworking and sensible—in the judgment of his young aide Gnaeus Agricola—Paulinus also was ambitious. He had come to Britain in A.D. 59 with a big military reputation, popularity in Rome, and something to prove. As a young major general seventeen years earlier he’d cleared Mauretania of raiding Moors in a swift, bloodily effective campaign, and Tacitus says he was determined to use his new posting to challenge Field Marshal Domitius Corbulo, who had just recovered Armenia for Rome in the East, for the mantle of the empire’s leading soldier.
To achieve his goal, Paulinus had to complete the conquest of Britain, just as his predecessor Quintus Veranius had hoped to do before he died in the middle of his first campaign. As he lay dying of natural causes, General Veranius had dictated his will, in which he’d lamented that if he’d lived another two years he would have overrun all of Britain for the emperor Nero. Paulinus knew it wouldn’t be as easy as that. An essentially cautious, pragmatic, methodical man, like his rival Corbulo, Paulinus wasn’t targeting British war leaders; he was going after the Druidic priesthood. Paulinus knew that there was one unifying strand running through the disparate tribes of England and Wales: the order of the Druids, who served the Celtic gods. All the tribes of Gaul and Britain appealed to the same Celtic gods to give them the power to defeat their enemies. Before the Romans came, the children of British nobles had been educated by Druid priests, and many themselves became priests, while others went on to lead their tribes. The Druids were the lawgivers, recognized by the tribes as the final arbiters in the settlement of intertribal disputes, and this gave them great power and influence. To curb this seditious power, Augustus had made it illegal for Roman citizens to follow the Druidic religion. Claudius had gone a step farther and banned citizens and noncitizens alike throughout the empire from involvement with the order.
No longer could the British tribes send their young men to be educated by Druids, no longer could Gauls make pilgrimages to the sacred island of Anglesey, the order’s spiritual home. Julius Caesar says Druidism was believed to have originated in Britain, and anyone in Gaul who wanted to make a profound study of the cult had gone there. Despite the imperial edicts, the Druids continued to strongly influence British tribes, with the priests encouraging the fight for independence and giving leading resistance fighters sanctuary on Anglesey. General Paulinus’s A.D. 60 campaign was designed to seize the island and snuff out the Druidic fire at the heart of British resistance.
All through the winter the men of the 14th G.M.V. had been busy building boats to General Paulinus’s design—small, flat-bottomed craft for river and in-shore work. These were carried in the task force’s baggage train and unloaded each time they came to a river in their progress up through North Wales. As their jumping-off point they used the new legion base at Chester, Roman Castra Devana, or Deva, as it was soon known. After that there were several major waterways to cross—first the Dee, and later the Clwyd and the Conway. The task force that reached the narrow Menai Strait that spring launched its small boats once more and began the crossing to the island of Anglesey.
Although the strait is broader at its southern end, the sandbars here made for a much better landing place than the steep shore facing the shorter crossing to the north, opposite modern Bangor. General Paulinus’s task force made the crossing in several places, the infantry rowing themselves across first, while some cavalry units searched out a shallow ford, and the squadrons of the Batavian Horse swam across with their horses.
Now, without waiting for the cavalry to join them, the men of the 14th G.M.V. charged forward after their initial hesitation on the beach and cut down the Welsh—warriors, witches, and priests alike. Traditionally, the people of Anglesey have always called the countryside that runs down to the strait from Porthamel Hall opposite Caernarvon the Fields of Blood, but there’s no telling whether this was because it was the site of the 14th G.M.V.’s landing and the subsequent short, sharp, bloody battle.
Despite the pleas of the Druids, the gods of the Celts failed to come to the aid of their followers. Tacitus says that piles of British bodies were soon being consumed in the flames of funeral pyres lit by their own firebrands. Roman troops ranged from one end of Anglesey to the other, capturing the rest of the priests and the island’s population, and searching for the sacred groves of the Druids. They found the altars at the center of these forest clearings bathed in dried blood. Prisoners told them it was human blood, that it was the duty of the Druids to conduct human sacrifices and to divine the future of their people by examining the entrails of human victims. The Romans were appalled. After all, they merely consulted the entrails of sacrificed animals to determine omens for the future!
Anglesey had been taken without a single Roman casualty. As General Paulinus was congratulating himself on his success and composing a report to Rome about the operation, a party of dirty, exhausted cavalrymen arrived from the mainland bearing an urgent dispatch. These were the messengers from the garrison commander at Colchester. How quickly the general’s mood would have changed as he read the dispatch, then questioned the troopers about the events of the first day of the rebel assault on his capital. He then summoned his senior officers to a council of war.
As his worried officers gathered around him in his praetorium tent, a grave General Paulinus told them what had taken place in the east and issued his marching orders. Everything points to his task force’s three or four cohorts of the 2nd Augusta Legion being led by the legion’s unnamed brigadier general and his deputy, a senior tribune. General Paulinus apparently left the two 2nd Augusta officers in charge on Anglesey. From Tacitus we know that the Anglesey commander’s orders were to garrison the island and prevent the tribes from reoccupying it, and to destroy the sacred groves and eliminate all traces of Druidism. To accomplish this task the brigadier general was given the men of his own legion and four cohorts of the 14th G.M.V.’s Batavian light infantry under prefects including Julius Civilis, plus a detachment of cavalry.
It’s probable that at this stage General Paulinus didn’t realize the scope of the rebel uprising in the east. If he had, every soldier he possessed would have marched with him. Taking the 14th G.M.V. Legion, the remaining four Batavian cohorts, and two cavalry wings, Paulinus recrossed the Menai Strait. At the same time he sent couriers galloping ahead. He sent to Colchester to say he was on his way. He sent to Procurator Catus at London with a similar message, unaware that Catus had fled the province.
Another message, reaching Paulinus as he hurried through North Wales, revealed the fate of General Cerialis’s 9th Hispana cohorts. How he must have cursed Cerialis, maybe using a Greek proverb popular in the past with the emperor Augustus: “Give me a safe commander, not a rash one.” Realizing for the first time the full extent of the revolt, Paulinus dictated a flurry of orders for dispatch riders to take away. One dispatch was for the commander of the 20th Valeria Victrix Legion at Gloucester. Paulinus had allowed the 20th V.V. veterans being discharged this year to go into retirement a few months before, without waiting for their replacements to arrive. Those new 20th V.V. recruits were still somewhere between Britain and their recruiting ground in the Liguria and Transpadini regions of northwestern Italy. Perhaps storms on the English Channel had prevented them from sailing. Whatever the cause, the recruits had yet to reach their legion, which now consisted of just a few second-enlistment cohorts sitting in forts facing the fierce and as yet unsubdued Silures of South Wales. General Paulinus couldn’t afford to pull those troops out of their garrisons; if the Silures were allowed to flood out of Wales behind his back he would be in real trouble.
Fortunately for Paulinus, while a thousand to fifteen hundred retiring men of the 20th V.V. had left Britain for retirement along the Rhine, two thousand had been given land grants in the west of England. Now the commander at Gloucester was ordered to round up the local veterans and send them marching behind their Evocati standards to meet Paulinus outside London. Paulinus would have consoled himself that at least these were mostly forty-year-old men who were still fit, had two decades of legion experience, hadn’t lost their feel for military discipline, and wouldn’t fold under pressure like rash young General Cerialis’s raw 9th Hispana recruits.
The general also sent a dispatch to Exeter, to the officer in charge at the 2nd Augusta’s headquarters, the legion’s camp prefect, Major Poenius Postumus. The major was the youngest member of his family, and a native of the legion colony at Carthage in Africa initiated by Julius Caesar. And, as it turned out, he also was a coward. By the time he received the dispatch, Major Postumus also would have received reports from the east describing the rebel uprising in lurid detail. One of those reports, repeated by Cassius Dio, put the number of tribesmen now participating in the revolt at 230,000. When the major read General Paulinus’s dispatch, he found himself being ordered to march with the 2nd Augusta’s remaining cohorts to link up with the governor’s main force outside London and take on the rebels. Major Postumus, a former first-rank centurion with a long career with the legions, burned the orders and pretended he’d never received them.
Out of Wales from the northwest, General Paulinus’s task force came marching at the double, heading across country for Chester and then joining Watling Street, the stone-paved, cambered, drained Roman via militaris or military road that sliced across England all the way to London and the Thames. We don’t know what the Romans called the road, as the name Watling Street was applied to it by later Anglo-Saxon settlers. The Roman military roads in Britain, principally Watling Street, Fosse Way, and Ermine Street, had been constructed to give a firm footing to legions on the move, so they could march rapidly from one part of the province to the other in all weather. Watling Street, carving through the English countryside straight and true, was so well sited that today its course from London to North Wales is still followed by the A5 highway.
Traveling light, without artillery, siege equipment, or the boats they’d taken into Wales, the 14th G.M.V. made record time on the march south. On Watling Street, they were met by the hastily recalled veterans of the 20th V.V. Legion—several cohorts, a total of two thousand men, marching behind their Evocati standards. Combined with the 14th G.M.V., which was close to full strength with a little over five thousand men, plus two thousand Batavian auxiliary infantry and a thousand cavalry, General Paulinus’s force now numbered ten thousand fighting men, says Tacitus. The little army marched on, toward London. At the Ver River they passed through the town of St. Albans, which was in turmoil. The terrified Roman population there told General Paulinus that the rebels were now rampaging through Essex not far to the east and drawing other tribes from throughout southern England into their rebellion. They told him the rebel army had mushroomed to a quarter of a million men. Paulinus pressed on to London. When the general reached the Thames, he found that city in chaos, too.
London had grown out of the A.D. 43 forts of the 14th G.M.V. and the other legions that had camped beside the Thames following their landing in Kent. A wooden bridge had soon been built across the river by Roman engineers where the modern London Bridge stands today, and a settlement quickly blossomed on the northern side of the river opposite the bridge. Today’s Gracechurch Street leads from the original Roman bridge site up to Cornhill, where the hub of the settlement lay. The Bank of England today occupies pretty much the center of Roman London, which by A.D. 60 had spread as far west as the hill where St. Paul’s Cathedral now stands. At the site of the present-day Leadenhall Market on Gracechurch Street, a stone’s throw from Lloyd’s of London, the Romans built their basilica, the town’s multipurpose meeting hall. On the eastern side of London Bridge the riverbank was lined with docks, which normally were crowded with trading vessels from Gaul and the Rhine. Even though the city had not been granted colony status, it had quickly attracted settlers, merchants, and shipowners, and in the seventeen years since its foundation had become the main trading center of Britain.
When General Paulinus arrived at London from the northwest, the docks were eerily deserted. All the merchants who could flee to the Continent had done so and put the rebellion at their back. Certain that the governor would save them, most of the common people had stayed in London in expectation of the arrival of the legions. Now they flocked around Paulinus as his weary column filed into the city, urging him to put his soldiers to work preparing defenses for the city, which, like Colchester, had no walls. It had a small fort in the northwest, but London’s first walls wouldn’t be built until a century later.
The general and his staff did a quick survey of the settlement. All agreed that even when the men of the 2nd Augusta joined them it would be impossible to defend London with the few troops at their disposal. And the example of young General Cerialis was fresh in their minds. His underestimation of the enemy had cost Rome several thousand men. Tacitus says that General Paulinus decided to sacrifice a town to save a province. The people of London begged him to stay, but the general’s mind was made up. He sternly shook his head, offering a place in his column to anyone who wanted to leave. But that was all he was prepared to do. Many tearfully accepted his offer, and as the 14th G.M.V.’s trumpets sounded “Prepare to March,” instant refugees bundled up those few belongings they could carry and ran to fall in behind the soldiers. Others remained in the city—women, the aged, people who couldn’t bear to leave their businesses or who refused to believe the atrocity stories that were circulating. These local Celts and settlers from Gaul all hoped Boudicca and her followers would do them no harm. After all, they would have rationalized, they had never personally done harm to the Iceni or their fellow Britons.
As General Paulinus pulled out of London and retraced his steps up Watling Street, he would have anxiously sent cavalry scouts southwest to find the approaching 2nd Augusta column and guide it to him. He quickly passed through St. Albans again. As he had at London, he refused any attempt to defend the town. Accepting frightened townspeople into his train, he abandoned St. Albans and continued his withdrawal.
Back at London, shortly after the Roman column departed, Boudicca and tens of thousands of Iceni, Trinovantes, and warriors from other tribes who had joined their ranks descended on the city like a plague of rodents. The rebel army had continued to grow with each passing day, as more tribesmen arrived to join the uprising after hearing of the destruction of Colchester. The rebels even brought their wives with them, in a baggage train of wagons and carts for booty, a train that stretched to the horizon.
None of the civilians who’d remained in London were spared, despite their pleas for mercy or pledges of allegiance to the cause of British independence or offers to support the rebels. Anyone in a Roman city was considered a collaborator—the tribesmen tortured and killed every soul they found, men, women, children, in another orgy of revenge, religious ritual, and personal pleasure-taking. They looted the city. And then they burned London to the ground. Charred remains from that fire have been found during building work and archaeological digs to this day. Once they had glutted themselves on all the pleasures and treasures that London had to offer, the rebels turned north. Following the retreating Roman troops up Watling Street, they fell on St. Albans and spent a day or two doing to it what they had done to London and Colchester, leaving it another smoking ruin strewn with mangled corpses.
In little more than a week, Boudicca and her followers had destroyed the three main Roman settlements in Britain. According to Tacitus, in the process they had killed seventy thousand Roman citizens and allies. Dio would put it at eighty thousand. Tacitus was to liken the Britons’ killing frenzy to a man seeking vengeance for his own imminent execution.
As the tribes resumed a lumbering pursuit up Watling Street, cautious General Paulinus retreated farther and farther. Still there was no sign of the 2nd Augusta cohorts. By the time the general reached Warwickshire, it had dawned on him that these reinforcements weren’t coming. As his officers urged him to send more messages to Exeter and to summon the garrison troops from the northern and western frontiers, he realized that there was no point in delaying the inevitable any longer. Within a day he would be at the Welsh frontier, and the rebels behind him would be in possession of virtually all of Roman Britain in the wake of his withdrawal. In a few weeks he would have gone from victor at Anglesey to the man who had lost an entire province. It was time to make a stand. General Paulinus called a halt to the retreat.
The exact Watling Street location of the confrontation between Paulinus and Boudicca is disputed. Some historians suggest it was near the present-day village of Fenny Stratford in Bedfordshire, not far north of St. Albans. Others believe it was where Watling Street dissects the Anker River in the vicinity of Mancetter, on the present-day Warwickshire/ Leicestershire border. The former site seems too close to St. Albans. The latter, fifty-five miles farther north, is not far from the Welsh border, and it’s easy to imagine General Paulinus finally, resignedly stopping the retreat, with Wales, and enemy territory, just another day’s march away. One more night on the run and there’d be nothing left to defend. Besides, the town of Mancetter, near the Anker River site, grew from a later settlement the Romans called Manduessedum—“Place of War Chariots.”
Sending the thousands of civilians who’d been traveling with his column ahead to the fortress at Wall, just fifteen miles up the straight, paved highway, and probably also to Wroxeter a little farther on, General Paulinus decided to choose a place to face the barbarians and do battle, despite the huge odds against him. Better to die fighting and preserve a little honor than to keep running. With a strong cavalry screen in position some distance down Watling Street to give plenty of warning of the approach of the huge, slow-moving British column, General Paulinus and his staff rode around the local area while their legionaries built a camp for the night and the auxiliaries went foraging. Beside the Anker River, on the southern side of Watling Street, General Paulinus chose a battle site that would enable the Roman troops to take full advantage of the landscape. Tacitus tells us the location was approached by a narrow pass though the hills, closed in at the rear by a forest, and opening out onto a plain.
Boudicca and her army came up Watling Street, drawn on by the retreating Roman cavalry, and camped not far from the site chosen by Paulinus for the battle. Next morning, only after he had sent his cavalry out and made sure that not a single enemy warrior was in his rear, General Paulinus gave orders for his troops to form up for battle at the chosen place. The Britons would have laughed among themselves as they watched the Romans silently march out in their neat ranks behind their standards, assuring each other that the puny force would be swiftly annihilated, just like the cohorts of the 9th Hispana outside Colchester.
According to Tacitus, Paulinus placed the 14th G.M.V. Legion at the head of the defile in close order, facing the plain, with the veteran cohorts of the 20th V.V. joined with them. According to Dio, the Roman forces were in three divisions. Tacitus describes the 14th and the veterans of the 20th in one large group in close array in the center, with the auxiliary cohorts beside them, while the cavalry squadrons were equally divided on each wing, again in tight formation.
As the tribesmen massed expectantly for the battle, their wives came up in their booty-laden wagons and parked in a huge semicircle behind them, to watch the fun. Estimates of the number of warriors involved vary. By this battle, says Dio, the British war queen’s forces had grown to 230,000 fighting men—odds of 23 to 1. Even if it was only the 120,000 he’d given her earlier in the revolt, the Roman troops were outnumbered 12 to 1. The warriors formed up in loose order in front of the wagons, separated into the clans of blood-related men in which the Britons, Gauls, and Germans traditionally fought, which in turn were grouped by tribe. Each clan was commanded by a leader, sometimes hereditary, sometimes elected. The average British warrior was about the same size as the typical legionary, and naked to the waist. In Caesar’s time some had fought buck naked. Many had painted their skins with woad in designs like Maori tattoos, but that custom had died out in southern Britain with the Romanization of the island.
The principal armament of the warrior was the spear, like the Roman pilum, with stone, bone, or metal points. Each warrior carried a massive shield, longer than the legionary counterpart. It was flat, rectangular, but with curved corners, made of oak planks covered with hide, roughly five inches thick at the center, thinner at the edges. The nobles of each tribe were better equipped, and would have armed themselves with the armor and swords of the 14th G.M.V. veterans who died at Colchester and of the officers and men of the 9th Hispana who fell outside the town. The tribes also had the famous British chariot in their arsenal. In design and purpose it hadn’t changed since Caesar first encountered it in 55 B.C. Back then, four thousand chariots had been put into the field against him. How many chariots were now in Boudicca’s force we can only guess. In the time available perhaps they’d been able to produce several hundred. There were some British cavalrymen, too, using their own and captured Roman mounts, and as they formed up on the wings in Roman fashion the chariots would have raced up and down in front of the massed infantry, their drivers seated, a noble standing behind each brandishing spears, cursing the Romans, and inciting their countrymen.
Boudicca appeared, in a chariot, her waist-length, red-brown hair flowing behind her like a cape. Her people cheered as, with her two defiled daughters sitting or kneeling in front of her, the war queen cantered from tribe to tribe, delivering a prebattle speech to her warriors. Folk tales would come down through the ages that Boudicca’s daughters had sliced off their own breasts in protest at their rape by the Romans, or that the Romans had done the evil deed to them. But these anecdotes grew out of Dio’s account of the atrocities inflicted on female Roman captives by the Britons.
The warriors fell silent as the queen’s chariot drew to a halt in front of them. According to Dio, she wore a multicolored tunic; a thick robe over her shoulder was secured in place by a brooch. There was a large golden necklace around her neck. And, Dio says, the tall woman shook a spear as she addressed her warriors in a harsh voice and with a fierce, frightening look in her eye. “I know it’s unusual for Britons to fight under a woman’s leadership,” Tacitus says she called. “But forget that I am a woman or the member of a royal family. Now I am one of you, regaining my freedom, avenging my scourged body and the lost chastity of my daughters.” As the massive crowd yelled its angry accord, she went on: “The gods are on the side of a righteous vengeance. In this battle you must conquer or die! This is a woman’s resolve. As for you men, you can choose to live, and be slaves, if you wish.”
A roar went up from the tribesmen. As the air filled with yells, chanting, and singing, across the field General Paulinus also was addressing his troops, riding from cohort to cohort with his staff. He had seen the wagons laden with booty across the plain, and so had his men. Now he applied a little psychology. Signaling total confidence in his troops’ ability to win, Tacitus says he urged them to think about fighting, not looting. “That will come in due course,” he went on. “First secure the victory. The enemy you see before you are more like women than warriors. Go forward, to the business of bloodshed and destruction, and win fame normally only accorded an entire army.”
According to Dio, the general said to one unit, “It would be better for us to fall fighting bravely than to be captured and impaled.” To another he said, “You’ve heard what atrocities these despicable Britons have committed against us.” Among the troopers on one wing he’d spotted the men who’d brought him the first news of the revolt from Colchester. He nodded to them. “Some among you have witnessed those atrocities. It’s your choice. All of you. Do you want to suffer the same treatment as our comrades? Or, by conquering, do you want to avenge those who’ve been killed, and at the same time set the rest of the world an example?”
With the cheers of his men ringing in his ears now, General Paulinus took his place between the lines with his staff. One of his officers, teenaged Lieutenant Colonel Agricola, would years later tell his son-in-law Tacitus that he and his comrades felt they had to fight for their lives before they thought about victory that day. But Paulinus seems confident he had what it took to win—the chosen ground, the tactics, the men for the job.
Those men included twenty-nine-year-old Standard-Bearer Marcus Petronius. Standing behind the 14th Legion’s front line, with his bearskin cape of office over his helmet and shoulders, and with a small oval shield strapped to his left arm, Petronius held his standard high with two hands. The standard’s bottom end was sharpened, so Petronius could jam it into the ground to make a stand and defend it with his life, or jam it into an enemy as a last resort. Petronius would have heard about Eagle-Bearer Calpurnius of the 1st Legion, famous for saving Senator Plancus’s neck in Germanicus’s Rhine camp in A.D. 14; Calpurnius had complained that during the Battle of Long Bridges against Hermann the ground had been too soggy for him to plant his standard and defend it with his sword. Here, today, the Anker plain in front of the 14th Gemina was firm and dry, solid enough for Petronius to plant his standard if worse came to worst. In the 14th’s ranks behind Standard-Bearer Petronius stood Legionary Titus Flaminius as well as thirty-one-year-old legionary Lucius Naevius from Turin, and a little distance away, twenty-nine year-old Legionary Publius Cordus from Modena, with his best friend, Gaius Vibennius, right behind him, all thinking about home and loved ones, and offering a silent prayer to their gods.
Across the field, with a wave of her arm, Boudicca sent her chariots forward. Then she gave the infantry the signal to advance. British horns sounded, and, with a roar, the sea of warriors washed forward at the rapid walk in the chariots’ wake. Boudicca had just launched the largest battle that would ever be fought on British soil. The noise from the mass of approaching Britons was deafening to the ears of the waiting men of the 14th.
“Stand your ground!” bellowed the centurions of the 14th. And instead of advancing to the attack, the men of their cohorts stood stock still. General Paulinus was deliberately keeping all his troops stationary, waiting for the enemy to come to him. While the legionaries occupied the foot of the hill pass it would be difficult for the Britons to maneuver around behind them.
Once the chariots had completed their missile pass, and with the British infantry breaking into a run as they came on, Paulinus gave an order. Trumpets blared. With drilled precision, the Roman troops moved into three large wedge formations, point to the fore, with the 14th G.M.V. wedge in the middle and the 20th V.V. and Batavians on either side. General Paulinus’s standard dropped. Again trumpets sounded. “Advance!”
With a cheer, the three tightly knit wedges strode forward, and met the mass of oncoming warriors on the move. The wedge was just one of a number of formations that legionaries were trained to use. But on the receiving end, the Britons had never come across anything like it, and they didn’t know how to counter it. With shields pumping in and out and swords slashing and jabbing over the top, the Roman wedges were like giant threshing machines, breaking up opposition lines and chewing up divided groups of men.
At the same time, the Roman cavalry went charging down the wings. The troopers were under orders to hold onto their javelins and use them as lances, moving into close quarters and thrusting them into the faces of the Britons. Riding down all who stood in their way, they closed off the flanks, hemming in the tribesmen. To many a cavalryman, such as Trooper Genialis from Frisia, it would have been like herding sheep.
In the face of the advancing wedges the bravest of the tribesmen tried to hold their ground. Britons were able to spear an infantryman here, to drag a cavalryman from his horse there, but, disoriented and unnerved by the unstoppable Roman wedges, the vast majority of warriors at the front of the sea of Britons tried to turn away, pressing into the men coming up behind them. The tribes’ very numbers now told against them, as the turning tide at the front compressed against the huge mass pushing forward from the rear. There was no organization in the British ranks. This was no army, just a seething, uncoordinated crowd of humanity. Without leadership, training, or discipline, panic set in. Tribesmen began to break in terror, trying to escape, as, all the while, others farther to the rear strove to keep them going forward. Thousands were trampled by their own men.
On the flanks, the Roman cavalry bore in. Up front, the threshing machine came relentlessly, bloodily on. More and more warriors threw away their cumbersome shields and pushed back the way they had come. Even the most courageous Britons that day couldn’t resist the tide of terror and were caught up in the crush toward the rear, a crush that met the semicircle of wagons, which acted like a prison wall. Tens of thousands of Britons were trapped, and fell victim to the legionary killing machine as it pressed all the way to the wagons, walking over a field of dead. The slaughter was terrible. And it wasn’t confined to the warriors. Women with the wagons, desperately trying to disengage themselves from the turmoil, yet hell-bent on preserving their loot, also were cut down. Everywhere, too, lay their horses, drilled with Roman javelins.
It was over within an hour or two, as long as it took the men of the 14th Gemina Martia Victrix and their colleagues to kill seventy thousand British warriors and ten thousand of their women. Dio says that many Britons also were taken prisoner. Boudicca, seeing the day lost before her eyes, seeing the massacre, seeing once-boastful men discarding their weapons and fleeing, terrified, in their thousands, into the forest with Roman troops in hot pursuit, turned her chariot around, and with her daughters clinging on, urged the driver to speed them away from the site of the disaster.
The battlefield was littered with British dead. As Roman troops went from body to body, delivering the coup de grâce to severely wounded warriors and stripping the corpses of their weapons and valuables, General Paulinus was brought a report on Roman casualties. According to Tacitus, the combined total was four hundred dead among the 14th G.M.V., 20th V.V. militia, Batavians, and cavalry, with a similar number wounded.
According to Tacitus, too, Boudicca took poison following the British defeat on Watling Street, a battle that was never given a name by the Romans or by later British historians. Dio says that Boudicca’s people gave her a costly funeral and that the tribes mourned her deeply. Ironically, the Boudicca statue on London’s Thames Embankment today celebrates the woman who destroyed London. Her revolt had lasted only weeks. It had been, perhaps, what the Romans called “a senseless thunderbolt.”
As British survivors of the Battle of Watling Street scattered back to their farms and villages, news of the Roman victory spread throughout the island, and beyond. When Camp Prefect Postumus of the 2nd Augusta Legion at Exeter learned of the victory, rather than face the wrath of General Paulinus, a court-martial, and an inevitable death sentence for disobeying orders, he took his own life, falling on his sword in the camp.
At Rome, the news of the victory on Watling Street was greeted with amazement and excitement by the general public as people realized how close the empire had come to losing Britain, and how a single legion had fought impossible odds to claim one of the most famous victories in Roman history. Overnight, from the markets to the baths, from the taverns to the crowds clustered around city notice boards and reading the Acta Diurnia, all talk was of the incredible bravery of the 14th Gemina Martia Victrix Legion. The 14th Gemina, as it became popularly known, was overnight the most famous legion of Rome. General Paulinus’s 14th, people said, was braver than Caesar’s legendary 10th or the famous 5th, the legion that had taken on Scipio’s elephants at Thapsus.
Sensing the popular mood, the emperor Nero joined in the adulation by, Tacitus says, announcing that the 14th Gemina would henceforth be known as his “most effective” legion. Even Rome’s enemies came to hear of how a single Roman legion had destroyed an army of 230,000. For centuries to come, the 14th Gemina would be known as “Conqueror of Britain.” It was a reputation they were to carry proudly, even haughtily, a reputation that encouraged the men of future enlistments to stand their ground when others might have run as the going got tough, knowing that the clinging shame of Atuatuca had finally given way to everlasting fame.
But there was still work to be done. General Paulinus was determined to ensure that never again would there be a revolt by the tribes of southern Britain. After permitting his troops to claim the contents of the tribes’ booty train as their own spoils, he marched the 14th Gemina east to clean up the mess left by the rebels. At Colchester, as tribesmen left on guard fled in all directions, Paulinus found a chastened General Cerialis and his auxiliary and cavalry companions, still sheltering behind the walls of the capital’s military camp beside the blackened ruins of the city; Tacitus says they remained in the camp during the Watling Street battle. Before long, Cerialis was recalled to Rome.
General Paulinus took the British revolt personally. He probably felt responsible for all the death and destruction served up by the rebels, criticizing himself for not taking more precautions, for not being on his guard. From prisoners interrogated under torture he would have compiled a list of names of leading rebels who’d succeeded in fleeing the Watling Street battlefield. Tacitus says that many of the rebels didn’t lay down their weapons after their escape, being conscious of their guilt and dreading what the avenging governor might do. They knew they were on Paulinus’s blacklist.
Nero’s Palatium moved quickly to make up for the military losses of the revolt and to bolster General Paulinus’s efforts to keep a lid on the British province. While Paulinus himself recalled the troops he’d left on Anglesey, eight cohorts of auxiliary light infantry and a thousand cavalry were immediately dispatched to Britain from the Rhine. Tacitus says that two thousand legionaries also were sent to Britain from the Rhine. They came to join the 9th Hispana Legion and bring it back to full strength, a highly unusual step for any Palatium, but one required by highly unusual circumstances. These men were new recruits who’d just arrived on the upper Rhine from Spain to join the 21st Rapax Legion. Like the 9th, the 21st was a Spanish legion, with a similar recruiting ground. It underwent its reenlistment at the same time, making it the ideal source of replacements. As later events were to prove, fresh recruits weren’t levied by the Palatium for the 21st Rapax—it would spend the rest of this enlistment four cohorts understrength.
General Paulinus’s total victory over Boudicca, a victory snatched from the jaws of defeat, was to fire young Julius Agricola with a passion for military glory that would drive his later famous career, according to his son-in-law Tacitus. Paulinus kept his reinforced army in the field, under canvas, all through the summer and fall of A.D. 60 and then through the winter of A.D. 60-61, as he conducted a single-minded crusade to find every rebel and eradicate any potential for a repeat of Boudicca’s revolt.
Procurator Catus, catalyst of the revolt, was dismissed from his post. We never hear of him again. His replacement, Julius Classicanus, fell out with General Paulinus almost as soon as he arrived in Britain. The new procurator felt that the governor was treating the Britons too harshly. The tribes would have readily agreed. Paulinus certainly didn’t pussyfoot around with the British. Throughout southern England, any town or village that wavered or was hostile when General Paulinus came demanding the handover of locals on his long list of outlaws suffered the penalty—its leading men were executed and their homes and farms burned to the ground. Outlawed rebels, faced with execution as the only option if they surrendered or were captured, continued to hide out and fight a hit-and-run guerrilla war in small groups.
The auxiliary infantry and cavalry newly arrived from the Rhine became forces of occupation, building new permanent camps in towns and villages throughout East Anglia and elsewhere, in areas that had never before seen Roman garrisons. Even as the locals tried to resume their old lives, mourning their dead and their lost freedom, they would have been hounded by edgy auxiliaries rigorously policing every movement on every road and suspiciously breaking up meetings of even a handful of tribespeople.
On top of all this, the Britons also had to contend with a famine that swept the countryside. Tacitus says this famine was the worst hardship of all for the Britons in the wake of Boudicca’s revolt. The tribes had neglected to sow wheat so they could prepare for war. Now their people paid the price. And General Paulinus refused to help by dipping into the government grain supply, much of it regained from the rebels after Watling Street. He preserved it instead for his troops and the surviving Roman settlers.
When the governor’s new deputy argued that “high-spirited nations like those of the Britons inclined more slowly to peace” under martial law, General Paulinus told him to mind his own business. The seething Classicanus began spreading word around the tribes that it would be to their benefit to wait for a new governor rather than enter into a peace deal with Paulinus. A new governor, said the procurator, would not possess Paulinus’s thirst for vengeance or the pride of a conqueror, and would be more lenient in his terms. Procurator Classicanus then wrote a report to Rome saying that the revolt could not be expected to be wrapped up while Paulinus was still governor.
A surprised Palatium sent a senior secretary to Britain in the spring of A.D. 61 to check out the procurator’s report, to settle differences between the governor and his deputy, and to pacify the Britons. Arriving with a huge entourage, Secretary Polyclitus was courted by both governor and procurator but was laughed at by the Britons, who had no idea how much power a former slave could wield at Rome when that former slave was a Palatium secretary. Polyclitus returned to Rome with a toned-down version of events for Nero, and General Paulinus was retained in his post by the emperor.
But shortly after, a rebel raiding party destroyed several ships of the Britannic Fleet as they lay beached in a British bay, and killed their crews. Seeing this as an opportunity to bring in new blood, the Palatium ordered Paulinus to hand over his army to one of the current consuls, Lieutenant General Petronius Turpilianus, and then return to Rome. General Turpilianus resigned his consulship and hurried to Britain to take over from Paulinus. Turpilianus terminated the hunt for rebels and the reprisals, and bloody Britain sighed with relief. As the legions went back to base and the new governor concentrated on rebuilding towns and relationships, the province lapsed into an uneasy but undisrupted peace.
Like the 14th Gemina, General Paulinus was famous now. Returning to Rome a national hero, within five years he would be appointed to his second consulship by a grateful emperor. But this was not the last the men of the 14th were to see of Paulinus. The general and the legion that had famously won the Battle of Watling Street for him would be reunited before the decade was out, in very different circumstances.