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Britannia – the failed state (Part 2)

© – Simon J Kyte


At the end of the 50s AD Rome faced an unstable situation in both the north and west of Britain. Caractacus had been defeated in Wales in 51 where Rome both the Silures in the south and the Ordovices in the north had been overcome. [Gaius Suetonius] Paulinus was poised to attack Anglesey – home to the druids and probably also full of refugees from further south in Wales. In the North, Rome had the hardest fighting yet to come. It had already had to step in to assist Cartimandua against her ex-husband, Venutius (and was to do so again in 69 – although she would be less lucky this time, being evacuated by Rome, leaving the kingdom to venutius at war with Rome). [The two are actually linked to the events in Wales since the first time we hear of them it is in the context of handing Caractacus over to the Romans. I suspect Laycock has missed something about Venutius as well – but i will come back to that in a later period.] Eventually Rome managed to fully annex the Brigantes in 71.

In the Southeast they thought things were fairly settled. So, the events of 60/61 must have come as a shock. We have dual sources on Boudicca: Tacitus and Cassius Dio. But Tacitus was writing sometime around 100 and his father-in-law had served, whereas Cassius Dio was writing about 229.

Prasutagus, king of the Iceni, had been a Roman client. When he died his left his estate to his two daughters and the Emperor. The dispute with Presutagus’ wife, Boudicca, saw Boudicca whipped and her daughters raped, the remainder of the Iceni elite ‘treated like spoils of war’.

When the Iceni rose in 60/61, they chose a moment when Roman forces were still busy in Wales. A critical question is whether the Trinovantes were also involved or not. The sacking of Camulodunum was the first major act and it may have been that the expense and symbolism of the new Temple of Claudius helped bring them on side. Catus Decianus did not spare enough resources to defend the city. The Ninth Legion moved south but the opposing forces encountered one another somewhere and the Romans were forced back.

Paulinus marched back from Wales towards London but initially only brought his cavalry and decided that he could not defend the growing commercial centre [it was unwalled at the time]. Therefore, he let Boudicca take it and she slaughtered the city. Verulamium (St Albans) was also destroyed although Tacitus is unclear on the sequence.

Laycock argues that everything points towards border raid strategies rather than a serious attempt to get the Romans from the islands. Colchester was a Roman colony but it was also still capital of the Trinovantes. Note here that one of the other two cities sacked, Verulamium, was the traditional capital of the other half of the confederation. Furthermore, it was Paulinus, not Boudicca, who forced the final (set piece) battle.

Tacitus is rather over-sympathetic to Boudicca presenting her as freedom fighter, encapsulated by her ‘lover of liberty’ speech – even though he had little chance of knowing what she had actually said. He also avoids the gory details of her human rights atrocities. Dio is less cautious.

We need to question whether Tacitus is correct in saying that the Trinovantes joined the rebellion. It was not just Roman targets which suffered, there was clearly the British Sheepen site as well. There is no evidence that the Trinovantes leadership was treated in any fashion akin to the Iceni by Rome. Tension between the Iceni and the Catuvellauni probably had a long history. Mile Ditch on the Icknield Way near Cambridge may be evidence of this. Burgh by Woodbridge hillfort shows signs of burning too. Whilst the Catuvellauni adopted Roman culture enthusiastically, the Iceni – whilst nominally client – seem to have been more in two minds about it and continued to issue coins using British symbolism.

Whatever the truth, the damage to stability in the core Southeast was substantial as were the implications for tribal relations between the Iceni, Catuvellauni and Trinovantes for generations – perhaps, as we shall see, for centuries. It may also have generated a new source of conflict in the Fens as Rome sought to limit Iceni access to salt resources.

The Romans now introduced a new form of administration in Britain based on the civitas. Most – but not all – were based on ethnic territories. However, Bath – in Dobunnic ethnic territory – suddenly found itself in the Atrebatic Belgae civitas. In the Mendips Togidubnus may have gained control of the silver and lead mines. Later it would have huge ramifications.


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