Chariots of fire - The Essex Magazine - May 2003

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Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni, led an uprising against the Roman military that nearly drove them out of Britain. Chris Penhall narrates the bloody seige at Colchester.

The statue is familiar to us all: a fierce, imposing figure, standing tall in her chariot, flanked by her two daugh­ters, preparing to go into battle against the hated enemy.

Boudicca, the first British freedom fighter, leader of a revolt which almost drove the mighty Romans out of Britain . In her wake she left rivers of blood and towns razed to the ground. Her anger and thirst for revenge knew no bounds . But what was the catalyst and why was Colchester the first and most important victim of this brutal retribution?

Boudicca was the wife of Prasutagus, King of the Iceni tribe which occupied  modern  day Norfolk  and  parts of Suffolk and  Cambridgeshire. He died in 60AD and left Emperor Nero his heir with Boudicca’s two daughters, hoping to keep his kingdom and household safe. The arrangement meant that part of the Icenian territory would become Imperial Estate and the Emperor would receive a proportion of the royal treasure.

However, the Romans reneged on the agreement and set about incorporating the whole kingdom into the province: centurions were sent by Catus, the provincial procurator and plundered the royal household. When Boudicca protested that she was a Roman ally being treated no better than a slave, she was flogged and her two adolescent daughters were brutally raped.

Up until then the Iceni had en joyed a relatively good relationship with the Romans – Boudicca and her people were doubly outraged, and bent on revenge it was easy for her to assemble an army from neighbouring tribes. The Trinovantes, in particular, had very good reason to hate the Romans.

Their former capital Camulodunon (Colchester) had been taken over and a Roman Colonia was built there – the most important type of Roman settlement. Their land had been taken from them and given to the new settlers and some Trinovantians had also been imprisoned and enslaved. Property could only be held by Roman citizens and eligibility for membership of the town council depended on a minumum level of property ownership, therefore excluding any natives. Camulodunon was essentially a Roman city on British soil. The locals could be forced to work on civil engineering projects, supplies of food could be commandeered for soldier s and farmers had to give up cattle or livestock on demand.

A specific focus for ha red, as the half-buil Temple of Claudius, base for the Imperial Cult in Britain where the Emperor was wor shipped as a God. The cost of this was borne mainly by the Trinovantes – those “chosen” to be its priests were forced to pour their fortunes into its maintenance. It symbolised the servitude of the natives to Rome.

The Roman chronicler, Dia, also claims that the sudden calling in of loans by Catus was another important motivator for discon tent. Seneca, a close aid of Nero had also lent money and decided suddenly that he wanted it back, with interest. The loans had not actually been sought by the Britons in the first place: they were needed to pay taxes.

So, an already inflammatory situation was set alight when news spread of the terrible treatment of the leader of the Iceni and her daughters. A huge rebel army of 120,000 assembled in Norfolk ready to march on Colchester with the warlike Boudicca  at  its head; the Romans had always been wary of the fearsome fighting spirit of the Celts, especially the fact that women fought alongside the men. According  to  the  historian  Plutarch  describing  a battle in 102BC “the women charged with swords  and  axes  and  fell upon their opponents uttering a hideous  outcry”.  They  had  no idea , however, that they were about to fall victim to the wrath of the Britons: feelings  were  running  so  high  that  although  there were spies in every tribe, the Romans had no advance  warning until  the  first  of  the forts along  Peddars  Way were attacked. No one dare betray the Iceni cause.

At this stage circumstances were on the side of the rebels. The majority of the army based in Colchester had been moved to Wales under the command of the governor Seutonius Paullinus to continue the battle against dissenting tribes there, and were replaced by the retired Roman soldiers who populated the colony. Once the 20,000 settlers in the Colonia were warned of the wave of vengeful Britons about to overwhelm them they did little to prepare – non-combatants were not evacuated and only 200 semi-armed men were sent from the procurator to assist. The city had no walls as money had been spent on civic amenities rather than defence. As the terrifying horde moved closer Tacitus claims that suddenly “The statue of Victory fell down”, women, influ­ enced by druids or Boudicca’s agents, sang songs of doom, and there  were  hysterical  reports  that  the sea  by the harbour had turned red with blood.

When the Roman Ninth Legion attempted to relieve the town it lost its entire infantry to the Britons, with the commander escaping with his cavalry back to Peterborough. Colchester was now isolated and left to its fate.

The trapped inhabitants were overrun almost immediately by the  Britons. They took  no  prisoners –  they did  not go in for the normal trading of war, and sold no captives as slaves – and the Colonia was destroyed in an orgy of  slaughter , looting  and burning.  No one  was spared. A group of Roman troops  made a last stand in the hated Temple of Claudius , but after a two-day siege, they too were massacred.

The rebels had not yet finished with the Romans – they headed to London  , already the biggest town in Britain. Paullinus had travelled  there from Wales, but realising it was a lost cause abandoned it. The Britons razed it to the ground , massacring the inhabitants as they did so. The same fate befell Verulanium (St Albans) shortly afterwards, although by this time the Romans were prepared and the tide was about to turn in their favour.

Boudicca and her army headed north along Watling Street where they knew they would now have to engage the Romans in battle. The Romans were laying in wait in the Midlands, well pre pared and tactically practised under Paullinus . Although his army numbered around 10,000 compared to the Britons 230,000, they were superior in every way to the raw anger of the rebels. As they prepared to fight   at   Mancetter or Towcester, Tacitus reports Boudicca’s speech to her army: “Look and see how many you are fighting and what you are fighting for – and why. Then you will win this battle – or perish”. 8,000 Britons died that day compared to 400 Romans. As for Boudicca, she survived and fled back to Nor folk, but died shortly afterwards. As befits such a mythical creature the cause of her death is unclear – she either poisoned herself to avoid capture and resultant ritual humiliation and death at the hands of her enemy, or rather less romantically, simply  became  ill  and died   as  a result.

The rebellion was over as sud­denly as it had begun. Roman retribution was swift, effective and brutal. Paullinus lay waste the territory of the Britons who had joined the rebellion as well as those who had simply remained neutral, and extra troops were moved from Europe to Britain. Just as bad as the Roman backlash, however, was the famine that followed: during prepa rations for the revolt farming in East Anglia virtually ceased and as a result there were no crops to harvest. The result was widespread starvation.

The situation did not improve until Paullinus was removed – the Romans eventually realised that the only way to  ensure  there  were no further rebellions in Britain was to adopt a more conciliatory approach to the native population. Under a new Governor, Publius Petronius Turpilianus, the Britons and the Romans slowly began to accept the benefits of integration.

As for Colchester it had been completely destroyed, and not for the last time had to rebuild itself. And learning from the mistakes of the past, it got the first town wall in Britain.

So, Britain’s first freedom fighter had failed, the Romans remained in Britain, but their approach to the conquered land changed. The rebellion had erupted in a wave of vengeance, righteousness and the need of the Britons to have control over their land and their destiny. Desperation and anger were powerful things – and still are today.