The Battle of Watling Street (sometimes called the Battle of Paulerspury) took place in Roman-occupied Britain in 60 or 61 C.E. between an alliance of indigenous Brythonic tribes, led by Boudica, and the Romans led by Gaius Suetonius Paulinus. The precise location of the battle is not known, but most historians place it between Londinium and Viroconium (Wroxeter in Shropshire), on the Roman Road now known as Watling Street. This name for the road originated in Anglo-Saxon times, thus the modern name of the battle is anachronistic as well as being somewhat speculative. Although outnumbered by more than 20 to 1, the Romans held their ground against the British hordes and gained victory in this final battle of a protracted opposition to their rule. Approximately 80,000 Britons are said to have died in the decisive battle. The formidable revolt had shaken Rome's hold on its new province, but victory secured Roman rule in Britain, a period that lasted until 410. Both the street and the Battle of Watling became part of Britain's Roman Legacy, symbolic of her incorporation into a wider civilization.
When Britain acquired an Empire of its own, reference to His or Her Britannic Majesty and to a Pax Britannica all paid homage to the Roman legacy. At the time that Britain was exporting its own culture throughout its empire, education still stressed the classics and those who administered the colonies were familiar with the great works, historians, generals and thinkers of the Greek-Roman world. Like the Romans, the British wanted to govern their empire efficiently. Although centuries separated Britain's experience of Roman rule from its own imperial period, these two episodes and English literature frequently invoked comparison with the Romans. Like the Romans, they spread education and learning. They also adopted Rome's divide and rule tactics, and often rode roughshod over what other people valued. Loss of this Battle, arguably, changed Britain's destiny for better rather than for worse. Building on its own Roman legacy, Britain, like the Romans, drew numerous people into consciousness of occupying a single planet. Ultimately, only when people across the globe are aware of their inter-dependence can they cooperate to make the world an equitable, just, and sustainable habitat.
In 43 C.E., Rome invaded south-eastern Britain. The conquest was gradual. While some kingdoms were defeated militarily and occupied, others were for the time being allowed to remain nominally independent as allies of the Roman empire.
One such tribe was the Iceni in what is now Norfolk. Their king, Prasutagus, secured his independence by leaving his lands jointly to his daughters and to the Roman emperor in his will. But when he died, in 61 or shortly before, his will was ignored. The Romans seized his lands and violently humiliated his family: His widow, Boudica, was flogged and their daughters raped. Roman financiers called in their loans, which must have placed an increased burden of taxation on the Iceni.
When the Roman Governor of Britain, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, was campaigning on the island of Mona (Anglesey, north Wales), the Iceni, led by Boudica, revolted.
The Iceni allied with their neighbors the Trinovantes, whose former capital, Camulodunum (Colchester), was now a colony for Roman veterans. To add insult to injury, the Romans had erected a temple to the former emperor Claudius in the city, built at local expense. The rebels descended on Camulodunum and destroyed it, killing all those who could not escape.
Boudica and her army headed for Londinium (London). So did Suetonius and a small portion of his army, but, arriving ahead of the rebels, concluded he did not have the numbers to defend the city and ordered it evacuated before it was attacked. It, too, was burnt to the ground and every inhabitant who could not get away was killed.
While Boudica's army continued their assault in Verulamium (St. Albans), Suetonius regrouped his forces. According to Tacitus, he amassed a force including his own Legio XIV Gemina, parts of the XX Valeria Victrix, and any available auxiliaries, a total of 10,000 men. A third legion, II Augusta, near Exeter, failed to join him; a fourth, IX Hispana, had been routed trying to relieve Camulodunum. The size of Boudica's army is given at almost a quarter of a million.
Heavily outnumbered, Suetonius chose his battleground carefully. He selected a narrow gorge with a forest behind him, opening out into a wide plain. The gorge protected the Roman flanks from attack, whilst the forest would impede approach from the rear. This removed Boudica's advantage of numbers by preventing her from bringing large numbers into close combat, and the open plain in front made ambushes impossible. Suetonius placed his legionaries in close order, with lightly-armed auxiliaries on the flanks and cavalry on the wings.
As their armies arranged, the commanders sought to motivate their soldiers. The Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote of the battle no more than fifty years later, recorded (or invented) Boudica's speech to her followers: "Nothing is safe from Roman pride and arrogance. They will deface the sacred and will deflower our virgins. Win the battle or perish, that is what I, a woman, will do."
The Britons placed their wagon train in a crescent at the large end of the field, from which point their families could watch what they expected to be an overwhelming victory. Two German leaders, Boiorix of the Cimbri and Ariovistus of the Suebi, are reported to have done the same thing in their battles against Gaius Marius and Julius Caesar respectively.
Tacitus also wrote of Suetonius addressing his legionaries: "Ignore the racket made by these savages. There are more women than men in their ranks. They are not soldiers—they're not even properly equipped. We've beaten them before and when they see our weapons and feel our spirit, they'll crack. Stick together. Throw the javelins, then push forward: Knock them down with your shields and finish them off with your swords. Forget about booty. Just win and you'll have the lot." Although Tacitus, like many historians of his day, was given to invent stirring speeches for such occasions, Suetonius's speech here is unusually blunt and practical. Tacitus's father-in-law, the future governor Gnaeus Julius Agricola, was on Suetonius's staff at the time and may have reported it fairly accurately.
Boudica led her army forward across the plain and into the narrowing field in a massive frontal attack. As they advanced, they were channeled into a tightly packed mass. At approximately forty yards, their advance was staggered by a volley of Roman pila, the Roman javelin. The pilum was designed to bend when it hit a shield, making it impossible to pull out; the enemy would either be encumbered with a heavy iron spear weighing down his shield, or have to discard it and fight unprotected; very few if any of the Britons would have had any armor. A second volley followed, as each Roman legionary carried two pila. This tactic destroyed any organized advance by the Britons.
With the Britons in disarray, Suetonius ordered his legionaries and auxiliaries to push forward in the standard Roman wedge formation, creating a front line that took the appearance of the teeth of a handsaw. With their superior discipline, the Romans were able to continue fighting as fiercely as ever. With a clear advantage in armor, weapons, and discipline, this gave them a decisive edge in the close quarters fighting against the tightly packed Britons. The cavalry, lances extended, then entered the fray. As their losses mounted, the Britons tried to retreat, but their flight was blocked by the ring of wagons and they were massacred. The cavalry also attacked the Britons from the flanks as the Roman infantry advanced. The Romans killed not only the warriors but also the women, children, and even pack animals. Tacitus says that according to one estimate, 80,000 Britons fell compared to only 400 Romans.
Boudica is said by Tacitus to have poisoned herself; Cassius Dio says Boudica fell ill and died and was given a lavish burial. Poenius Postumus, prefect of the 2nd legion, which had failed to join the battle, having robbed his men of a share of the glory, committed suicide by falling on his sword.
The site of the battle is not given by either historian, although Tacitus gives a brief description. A wide variety of sites, all consistent with an army attacking from the area of London toward the Roman forces concentrating from the direction of Cornwall and Wales, has been suggested. One legend places it at Battle Bridge Road in King's Cross, London, although from reading Tacitus it is unlikely Suetonius returned to the city.
Most historians favor a site in the West Midlands, probably along the Roman road of Watling Street between Londinium and Viroconium (Wroxeter in Shropshire), now the A5. Plausible suggestions include Manduessedum (Mancetter), near Atherstone in Warwickshire, a site close to High Cross in Leicestershire a small dip at Cuttle Mill, two miles south-east of Lactodorum (Towcester) in Northamptonshire, or a site at Kings Norton close to Metchley Camp in Birmingham.
It is said that the emperor Nero was so shaken by these events that he considered withdrawing from Britain altogether, but with the revolt brought to a decisive end, the occupation of Britain continued.
Fearing Suetonius' punitive policies would provoke further rebellion, Nero replaced the governor with the more conciliatory Publius Petronius Turpilianus.
This, however, was not the end of resistance to Roman rule: Venutius of the Brigantes would lead another less well documented, but possibly more successful, revolt in 69 C.E.
Although proud of Boudica's resistance and spirit, which the British took as symbolic of their love of freedom, as their own history progressed they would increasingly regard themselves as direct heirs of the Roman Empire. When Britain acquired an empire for itself that stretched across the world, it self-consciously tried to administer this with Roman-style efficiency. Across this empire, the British also tried to maintain the peace, as Rome had across its empire. In spreading its own culture throughout their vast domain, Britain was also a conduit through which the learning of the ancient world was transmitted. It was defeat at the Battle of Watling Street that led to the first sustained contact between the off-shore island of Britain and the world of classical learning. Yet they were as intolerant of rebellion in the name of freedom as the Romans were; once they had self-identified with their own conquerors, they though that their own conquered should be grateful to be ruled by a people who brought them order and the benefit of civilization. They crushed revolts in their empire just as the Romans had crushed Boudica's at Watling Street.
What became known as the "civilizing mission" of the Empire, the task of enlightening and uplifting other cultures may have often failed to recognize worth in these cultures but in many respects this was an imitation of Roman policies. Just as Roman rule served to knit the ancient world together with shared values and ideals, so the British empire, for all its failings, did much to knit the world of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries together. It was, says Grant, "too much to expect that the classically trained British would not equate Salamis and Plataea with Trafalgar and Waterloo, and the Pax Romana with their own nineteenth century empire?" Indeed, wrote Stobart, "The modern Englishman … cannot help drawing analogies from Roman history and seeking in it 'morals' for his own guidance'. The "Roman Empire," he continued, "bears such an obvious and unique resemblance to the British that the fate of the former must be of interest to the latter." Hingley argues that that English national identity was shaped by memory or the Roman legacy: "Rome was felt to have introduced civilization and Christianity to Britain and also to have helped to form the imperial character of the British … English civilization, religion and the imperial spirit are all traced back to the Roman past." "In this context," says Hingley, "some popular pictures of Roman Britain gave a nationalist view of a civilized distinctly British province—a linear forbear for modern England" on the assumption that the English had not merely "adopted Roman civilization" but in "improving upon it in" had transformed themselves from subjects into masters.
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