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This webpage reproduces a section of
The Annals


published in Vol. V
of the Loeb Classical Library edition of Tacitus, 1937

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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(Vol. V) Tacitus

Book XIV (continued)

 p153  29 1 In the consulate of Caesennius Paetus1 and Petronius Turpilianus,2 a grave reverse was sustained in Britain; where, as I have mentioned,3 the legate,  p155 Aulus Didius, had done nothing but retain the ground already won, while his successor Veranius,4 after harrying the Silurians in a few raids of no great significance, was prevented by death from carrying his arms further. Famous, during life, for uncompromising independence, in the closing words of his testament he revealed the courtier; for amid a mass of flattery to Nero he added that, could he have lived for the next two years, he would have laid the province at his feet. For the present, however, Britain was in the charge of Suetonius Paulinus, in military skill5 and in popular report — which allows no man to lack his rival — a formidable competitor to Corbulo, and anxious to equal the laurels of the recovery of Armenia by crushing a national enemy. He prepared accordingly to attack the island of Mona,6 which had a considerable population of its own, while serving as a haven for refugees; and, in view of the shallow and variable channel, constructed a flotilla of boats with flat bottoms. By this method the infantry crossed; the cavalry, who followed, did so by fording or, in deeper water, by swimming at the side of their horses.

30 1 On the beach stood the adverse array, a serried mass of arms and men, with women flitting between the ranks. In the style of Furies, in robes of deathly black and with dishevelled hair, they brandished their torches; while a circle of Druids, lifting their hands to heaven and showering imprecations, struck the troops with such an awe at the  p157 extraordinary spectacle that, as though their limbs were paralysed, they exposed their bodies to wounds without an attempt at movement. Then, reassured by their general, and inciting each other never to flinch before a band of females and fanatics, they charged behind the standards, cut down all who met them, and enveloped the enemy in his own flames. The next step was to install a garrison among the conquered population, and to demolish the groves consecrated to their savage cults: for they considered it a duty to consult their deities by means of human entrails. — While he was thus occupied, the sudden revolt of the province7 was announced to Suetonius.

31 1 The Icenian8 king Prasutagus, celebrated for his long prosperity, had named the emperor his heir, together with his two daughters; an act of deference which he thought would place his kingdom and household beyond the risk of injury. The result was contrary — so much so that his kingdom was pillaged by centurions, his household by slaves; as though they had been prizes of war. As a beginning, his wife Boudicca9 was subjected to the lash and his daughters violated: all the chief men of the Icenians were stripped of their family estates, and the relatives of the king were treated as slaves. Impelled by this outrage and the dread of worse to come — for they had now been reduced to the status of a province — they flew to arms, and incited to rebellion the Trinobantes10 and others, who, not yet broken by servitude, had entered into a secret and treasonable compact to resume their independence. The bitterest animosity was felt against the veterans; who, fresh from their settlement in the colony of  p159 Camulodunum, were acting as though they had received a free gift of the entire country, driving the natives from their homes, ejecting them from their lands, — they styled them "captives" and "slaves," — and abetted in their fury by the troops, with their similar mode of life and their hopes of equal indulgence. More than this, the temple raised to the deified Claudius11 continually met the view, like the citadel of an eternal tyranny; while the priests, chosen for its service, were bound under the pretext of religion to pour out their fortunes like water. Nor did there seem any great difficulty in the demolition of a colony unprotected by fortifications — a point too little regarded by our commanders, whose thoughts had run more on the agreeable than on the useful.

32 1 Meanwhile, for no apparent reason, the statue of Victory12 at Camulodunum fell, with its back turned as if in retreat from the enemy. Women, converted into maniacs by excitement, cried that destruction was at hand and that alien cries had been heard in the invaders' senate-house: the theatre had rung with shrieks, and in the estuary of the Thames had been seen a vision of the ruined colony. Again, that the Ocean had appeared blood-red and that the ebbing tide had left behind it what looked to be human corpses, were indications read by the Britons with hope and by the veterans with corresponding alarm. However, as Suetonius was far away, they applied for help to the procurator Catus Decianus. He sent not more than two hundred men, without their proper weapons: in addition, there was a small body of troops in the town. Relying on the protection of the temple, and hampered  p161 also by covert adherents of the rebellion who interfered with their plans, they neither secured their position by fosse or rampart nor took steps, by removing the women and the aged, to leave only able-bodied men in the place. They were as carelessly guarded as if the world was at peace, when they were enveloped by a great barbarian host. All else was pillaged or fired in the first onrush: only the temple, in which the troops had massed themselves, stood a two days' siege, and was then carried by storm. Turning to meet Petilius Cerialis,13 commander of the ninth legion, who was arriving to the rescue,14 the victorious Britons routed the legion and slaughtered the infantry to a man: Cerialis with the cavalry escaped to the camp, and found shelter behind its fortifications. Unnerved by the disaster and the hatred of the province which his rapacity had goaded into war,15 the procurator Catus crossed to Gaul.

33 1 Suetonius, on the other hand, with remarkable firmness, marched straight through the midst of the enemy upon London;16 which, though  p163 not distinguished by the title of colony, was none the less a busy centre, chiefly through its crowd of merchants and stores. Once there, he felt some doubt whether to choose it as a base of operations; but, on considering the fewness of his troops and the sufficiently severe lesson which had been read to the rashness of Petilius, he determined to save the country as a whole at the cost of one town. The laments and tears of the inhabitants, as they implored his protection, found him inflexible: he gave the signal for departure, and embodied in the column those capable of accompanying the march: all who had been detained by the disabilities of sex, by the lassitude of age, or by local attachment, fell into the hands of the enemy. A similar catastrophe was reserved for the municipality of Verulamium;17 as the natives, with their delight in plunder and their distaste for exertion, left the forts and garrison-posts on one side, and made for the point which offered the richest material for the pillager and was unsafe for a defending force. It is established that close upon seventy thousand18 Roman citizens and allies fell in the places mentioned. For the enemy neither took captive nor sold into captivity; there was none of the other commerce of war; he was hasty with slaughter and the gibbet, with arson and the cross,19 as though his day of reckoning must come, but only after he had snatched his revenge in the interval.

34 1 Suetonius had already the fourteenth legion, with a detachment of the twentieth and auxiliaries from the nearest stations, altogether some ten thousand armed men, when he prepared to abandon delay and contest a pitched battle. He chose a position approached by a narrow defile and  p165 secured in the rear by a wood, first satisfying himself that there was no trace of an enemy except in his front, and that the plain there was devoid of cover and allowed no suspicion of an ambuscade. The legionaries were posted in serried ranks, the light-armed troops on either side, and the cavalry massed on the extreme wings. The British forces, on the other hand, disposed in bands of foot and horse were moving jubilantly in every direction. They were in unprecedented numbers, and confidence ran so high that they brought even their wives to witness the victory and installed them in waggons, which they had stationed just over the extreme fringe of the plain.

35 1 Boudicca, mounted in a chariot with her daughters before her, rode up to clan after clan and delivered her protest:— "It was customary, she knew, with Britons to fight under female captaincy; but now she was avenging, not, as a queen of glorious ancestry, her ravished realm and power, but, as a woman of the people, her liberty lost, her body tortured by the lash, the tarnished honour of her daughters. Roman cupidity had progressed so far that not their very persons, not age itself, nor maidenhood, were left unpolluted. Yet Heaven was on the side of their just revenge: one legion, which ventured battle, had perished; the rest were skulking in their camps, or looking around them for a way of escape. They would never face even the din and roar of those many thousands, far less their onslaught and their swords! — If they considered in their own hearts the forces under arms and the motives of the war, on that field they must conquer or fall. Such was the settled purpose of a woman — the men might live and be slaves!"

 p167  36 1 Even Suetonius, in this critical moment, broke silence. In spite of his reliance on the courage of the men, he still blended exhortations and entreaty: "They must treat with contempt the noise and empty menaces of the barbarians: in the ranks opposite, more women than soldiers meet the eye. Unwarlike and unarmed, they would break immediately, when, taught by so many defeats, they recognized once more the steel and the valour of their conquerors. Even in a number of legions, it was but a few men who decided the fate of battles; and it would be an additional glory that they, a handful of troops, were gathering the laurels of an entire army. Only, keeping their order close, and, when their javelins were discharged, employing shield-boss and sword, let them steadily pile up the dead and forget the thought of plunder: once the victory was gained, all would be their own." Such was the ardour following the general's words — with such alacrity had his veteran troops, with the long experience of battle, prepared themselves in a moment to hurl the pilum — that Suetonius, without a doubt of the issue, gave the signal to engage.

37 1 At first, the legionaries stood motionless, keeping to the defile as a natural protection: then, when the closer advance of the enemy had enabled them to exhaust their missiles with certitude of aim, they dashed forward in a wedge-like formation. The auxiliaries charged in the same style; and the cavalry, with lances extended, broke a way through any parties of resolute men whom they encountered. The remainder took to flight, although escape was difficult, as the cordon of waggons had blocked the outlets. The troops gave no quarter  p169 even to the women: the baggage animals themselves had been speared and added to the pile of bodies. The glory won in the course of the day was remarkable, and equal to that of our older victories: for, by some accounts, little less than eighty thousand Britons fell, at a cost of some four hundred Romans killed20 and a not much greater number of wounded. Boudicca ended her days by poison; while Poenius Postumus, camp-prefect of the second legion, informed of the exploits of the men of the fourteenth and twentieth, and conscious that he had cheated his own corps of a share in the honours and had violated the rules of the service by ignoring the orders of his commander, ran his sword through his body.

38 1 The whole army was now concentrated and kept under canvas, with a view to finishing what was left of the campaign. Its strength was increased by the Caesar, who sent over from Germany two thousand legionaries, eight cohorts of auxiliaries, and a thousand cavalry. Their advent allowed the gaps in the ninth legion to be filled with regular troops; the allied foot and horse were stationed in new winter quarters; and the tribes which had shown themselves dubious or disaffected were harried with fire and sword. Nothing, however, pressed so hard as famine on an enemy who, careless about the sowing of his crops, had diverted all ages of the population to military purposes, while marking out our supplies for his own property. <Still, hatred of Rome was persistent>; and the fierce-tempered clans inclined the more slowly to peace because Julius Classicianus, who had been sent in succession to Catus and was not on good terms with Suetonius,  p171 was hampering the public welfare by his private animosities, and had circulated a report that it would be well to wait for a new legate; who, lacking the bitterness of an enemy and the arrogance of a conqueror, would show consideration to those who surrendered. At the same time, he reported to Rome that no cessation of fighting need be expected until the supersession of Suetonius, the failures of whom he referred to his own perversity, his successes to the kindness of fortune.

39 1 Accordingly Polyclitus,21 one of the freedmen, was sent to inspect the state of Britain, Nero cherishing high hopes that, through his influence, not only might a reconciliation be effected between the legate and the procurator, but the rebellious temper of the natives be brought to acquiesce in peace. Polyclitus, in fact, whose immense train had been an incubus to Italy and Gaul, did not fail, when once he had crossed the seas, to render his march a terror even to Roman soldiers. To the enemy, on the other hand, he was a subject of derision: with them, the fire of freedom was not yet quenched; they had still to make acquaintance with the power of freedmen; and they wondered that a general and an army who had accounted for such a war should obey a troop of slaves. None the less, everything was reported to the emperor in a more favourable light. Suetonius was retained at the head of affairs; but, when later on he lost a few ships on the beach, and the crews with them, he was ordered, under pretence that the war was still in being, to transfer his army to Petronius Turpilianus, who by now had laid down his consulate. The new-comer abstained from provoking the enemy, was not challenged himself,  p173 and conferred on this spiritless inaction the honourable name of peace.22

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 For his inglorious career in the East, see XV.6 sqq.

2 He vacated his office about March, and succeeded Suetonius in Britain (chap. 39).

3 XII.40.

4 II.5674; III.10‑19; XII.5. — He died within a year (Agr. 14) of his arrival in Britain (58 A.D.), and Suetonius had thus been in command for two full years before his attack on Anglesey.

5 A score of years previously, he had quelled a Mauretanian rising and penetrated a few miles beyond the Atlas range (Plin. H.N. V.1.14). Later, he commanded for Otho against the Vitellians, but was hardly equal to the occasion — cunctator natura et cui cauta potius consilia cum ratione quam prospera ex casu placerent (Hist. II.25).

6 Anglesey. — Paulinus' headquarters must have been at Chester (Deva).

7 The subdued part of the island.

8 XII.31 n.

9 Since Haase the accepted orthography, though preserved by the Mediceus only in chap. 37. The familiar "Boadicea" of the Bipontine and Cowper has no warranty.

10 In Suffolk and Essex, their capital being Colchester (Camulodunum), the old identification with Maldon being now abandoned.

11 In his lifetime (Sen. Apocol. 8).

12 The title of the colony was Victrix — colonia victricensis (CIL XIV.3955).

13 A near relative and trusted lieutenant of Vespasian (Hist. III.59, etc.); suppressed Civilis' rising (Hist. IV.68 sqq.); active and successful as legatus of Britain in 71‑74 A.D. (Agr. 817). It is in his mouth that Tacitus puts the most famous of his speeches — the apologia for Roman dominion of Hist. IV.73 sq.

14 The legion (nona Hispana) was probably stationed at Lincoln (Lindum), and Cerialis — contemnendis quam cavendis hostibus melior (Hist. IV.71) — marched at once by the Ermine Street for Colchester. Where the Britons encountered him is uncertain: Wormingford, near Colchester, comes into consideration.

15 He had revoked and was reclaiming the grants made by Claudius to the leading tribesmen and formally confirmed by the Senate (D. Cass. LXII.2 init., LX.23 fin.).

16 The starting point was doubtless Chester. The objective, it is presumed, was Colchester; the road followed, the Watling Street, which led through London. The probable course of events seems to have been roughly this:— Suetonius hurried ahead with his light troops, while the fourteenth legion and part of the twentieth followed by forced marches: the second had been summoned to join him, probably at Wroxeter (Viroconium), but its commander Poenius Postumus refused to leave his own front defenceless against the Silures of S. Wales. At London, the situation was found to be desperate, with the rebels in overwhelming force and the ninth legion virtually exterminated. Suetonius, therefore, fell back along the Watling Street until he met the legionaries, was forced to an engagement "somewhere in the Midlands," and only survived through being allowed to choose his own ground.

17 Adjoining St. Albans.

18 The estimate is probably valueless.

19 There are atrocious details, whatever their worth, in Dio (LXII.7 fin.).

20 The figures for both sides are equally incredible.

21 See Hist. I.37; II.95.

22 The true reason for the supersession of Suetonius was the harshness of his punitive measures (Agr. 16): the sneer at the conciliatory policy of Petronius seems totally unjustified.

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