Pictures from Roman Life and Story - Alfred J. Church

A Struggle for Freedom

It was a common practice for wealthy testators under the empire to leave a part of their property to the Emperor, and so to purchase his forbearance for the rest. Prasutagus, the King of the Iceni, (a tribe inhabiting what is now Norfolk and Suffolk) had thus endeavoured to save a part of his wealth for his family. The bribe was given in vain. The agents of the Emperor, possibly under the pretence of making a valuation, ransacked the palace, and treated the widowed queen and his daughters with the cruellest indignities.

This act was the signal for the outburst of a hatred which had long been gathering strength. The headquarters of the Roman power in Eastern Britain was the Colony of Camalodunum (Colchester). A Roman colonist was, in theory, a veteran soldier turned into a farmer, still wearing his sword, so to speak, while following the plough. As a matter of fact, he often lived in insolent idleness and profligacy on the labours of the native cultivator of the soil. Camalodunum seems to have had many of these absentee landlords, who were as useless as they were mischievous. They had even neglected the commonest precautions of defence. Walls make a town less agreeable as a place of residence, and so walls had been dispensed with. The only place resembling a fortress was the temple of the deified Claudius. This had itself been made a curious engine of tyranny. It was served by a college of priests, and the honours of this priesthood were forced on wealthy Britons. An enormous fee was demanded from them for admission, they had to support an expensive ritual, and to give extravagant banquets.

The strange portents, of which Roman history is so full, and which it is so difficult either to believe or to disbelieve, were not wanting. The statue of Victory fell, apparently without any cause, and fell in such a way as to seem in the act of flight. A sound of wailing was heard in the streets. There were terrible sights in the sky and the sea. A more reasonable cause of fear was the defenceless state of the colony and the absence of available help. The main body of the legions was in the extreme west of the island, where Suetonius, the governor, was attacking Mona (Anglesea) the great stronghold of the Druid superstition. This was, of course, the opportunity for which the British chiefs had been waiting. The colonists begged for help. The civil governor sent them two hundred half-armed soldiers. They took refuge in the temple of Claudius. It might have been successfully defended against an unskilful enemy, if proper precautions had been taken. But the place was crowded with non-combatants, who ought to have been sent away long before. For this some excuse might be urged; but the failure to provide the outer defence of a ditch and rampart was absolute folly. The temple held out for two days only. It was then taken by storm and burnt to the ground. The ninth legion was hurrying up to the relief of the colony when it was met by the victorious Britons. Probably the officer in command had expected that his countrymen would make a more obstinate resistance, and was taken by surprise. Anyhow the result of the engagement was disastrous. The cavalry, indeed, escaped to the nearest camp, but the infantry was cut to pieces.

By this time Suetonius had returned from the west. He had hurried on in advance of his main body, and was not strong enough to fight. And yet to fight was necessary, if London was to be saved. It was a difficult situation, for London was the most populous and the wealthiest city in Britain. The instincts of the soldier prevailed. The Roman power must be saved from further disaster, even at the sacrifice of the town. Resisting the entreaties of the inhabitants, he evacuated the place. It fell, without resistance, into the hands of the Britons. Verulamium (St. Albans) shared the same fate. As many as seventy thousand Romans and friendly Britons were massacred in the two towns, for there was no thought either of giving quarter or taking prisoners. When Suetonius found that he could muster as many as ten thousand troops, he resolved to fight. His position was skilfully chosen, with hills on either side and a forest in the rear. The heavy-armed infantry, in close ranks, occupied the centre, the skirmishers and the cavalry were on the wings. The Britons, who had collected an army more numerous than had ever before been seen in the island, crowded the level ground in front of the Roman position. On two rows of waggons, in the rear, stood the wives and daughters of the combatants, placed there at once to witness their valour and to encourage it.

Tacitus records the speeches with which, as he tells us, the rival commanders raised the courage of their followers. The words which he attributes to Boadicea are just what she might have uttered—more than can be said of the learned oration which a later historian (Dio Cassius) puts into her mouth. She reminded them of the wrongs that she and her children—they rode beside her in the royal chariot—and they themselves had suffered. The day of vengeance was at hand. One legion had been already cut to pieces; the others would share their fate. So tremendous were the odds that the enemy would not endure the mere noise of their onset, much less their active attack. "At the worst," so she concluded, "we must conquer or fall. Men may live to be slaves; but this is what a woman has resolved." Suetonius's harangue it is needless to give. He appealed to the memory of victory after victory won over the same enemy, and appealed, it will be seen, with a confidence that was only too well grounded.

With the steady patience that has decided so many battles, the Romans held their ground till the first force of the British attack was over, and their stores of missiles fell short. Then there was a simultaneous advance along the whole line. Heavy armed, light armed, and cavalry charged together. The really active portion of the British host was small, and even these could not resist the well armed, highly disciplined legionaries. As for the rest of the multitude, it fell an easy, almost unresisting prey to the swords of the Romans. The array of waggons made flight impossible, and the slaughter was fearful. As many as eighty thousand are said to have fallen, while the Roman loss was but four hundred, and as many wounded. Boadicea poisoned herself, and the most hopeful effort that Britain had ever made to shake off the yoke of the conqueror ended in utter failure.