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Battle of Watling Street

(61 CE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Watling Street marked in red
Watling Street marked in red | Author: Neddyseagoon | Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Watling Street – this is where one of the bloodiest clashes in ancient times on British soil took place. The fury of the Britons engaged in a murderous battle with the iron discipline of the Romans. But why did this battle take place? How was it going? What were the soldiers of both sides really fighting and dying for?

Historical background

It all started with the Roman invasion and occupation of Britain. The Iceni king, Prasutagus, was an ally of Rome. Very indebted, with the Romans anyway. Due to the fact that he did not have a male heir, he bequeathed his kingdom to Rome and his two daughters. Nothing seemed to threaten the peace between the Iceni and the Roman Empire. But then Prasutagus died and the drama of his wife, Boudicca, began.

The Roman governor, Catus Decian, decided to grant Rome the right to the kingdom of Iceni, in other words, he intended to deprive the daughter of Prasutagus of this right. But he did it in the worst way he could choose to do. Due to her husband’s debts, he confiscated Boudica’s property. When she protested, he ordered her to be whipped in public and then – also in public – to rape her daughters. In the British customs, only a virgin could marry a man of a similar or superior social position. So the Iceni could no longer claim their state – it fell to Rome. Disgraced by the Romans, Boudicca now only wanted revenge. The horrendously high taxes imposed by the invaders were another factor that caused more tribes to gather around the red-haired queen. Thus, in 60 CE, a mighty rebellion was born, later called the Boudica Rebellion.

The insurgents grew stronger every day. Meanwhile, soldiers from the infamous XIV Gemina Legion were stationed in Wales. Soon the news of the anti-Roman rebellion of the young Iceni queen reached them. Boudicca united the surrounding tribes and they joined the uprising. Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, commanding the 14th Legion, moved east to suppress the British rebellion. On the way, he joined the Legion XX Valeria Victrix. However, when Paulinus found out about the numbers of the barbarians, he began to withdraw. He knew that to defeat Boudica he would need reinforcements, and he had nothing to expect of these. The rebels were occupying new areas of Britain with every moment. Their prey fell to Londinium and Verulamium (today’s London and St. Albans). What’s more, the insurgents also stormed the provincial capital, Camulodunum (today’s Colchester) and blew the city up in smoke. The Britons had no mercy. They heartlessly murdered not only the Roman population, but also their kin, a total of about 80,000 people. Paulinus realized that there was no point in further withdrawing and risking repression and the death of Roman citizens. He decided that it was necessary to face destiny and end everything on the battlefield. So in 61 CE, there was a battle near the Roman road, now called Watling Street. The soldiers of the fourteen and twenty faced off against the barbarians who had a terrible lust for murder.

For honor and in the name of Rome

Let’s go back a bit in time. The 14th Gemina Legion was certainly not a favourite of Mars. Misfortunes trailed behind him like shadows. He was established on the initiative of Gaius Julius Caesar in 58 BCE. The first battle of the fourteen took place during the Gallic campaign. In the summer of 54 BCE, young legionaries reached Belgium, where they were to set up a camp for the winter. Then, however, the king of Eburones – Ambiorix – decided to oppose Rome. The commander of the fourteen, Sabinus decided to leave as much as the established camp to reunite with the closest legion. It was a fateful decision. During the march, the soldiers were ambushed by the Gauls. Arranged in a circular defensive formation, orbis, they tried to oppose the barbarians. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. The 14th Legion was defeated and, what was worse, it lost its legionary eagle, which meant the entire unit was brought into disgrace. When Caesar learned of the devastating defeat of his squad, he became furious. When he managed to cool down a bit after a while, he reformed the fourteen. Mars, however, was against her again. The legionaries clashed with Pompey’s forces at Ilerda, but again, also due to the inept command, were defeated suffering heavy losses. As a result of this defeat, Caesar removed them from hostilities. They returned to them only after the death of the great leader. They fought, suppressed rebellions, did very well, doing a great job for Rome. Still, it was missing something. Something to wipe out this terrible disgrace. Something to make up for the loss of the legionary eagle, which, regardless of the composition of the unit, still followed her like a ghost. Something to bring these soldiers the glory they wanted. Just like that, as early as 43 CE, the Legion of the XIV, along with three others, landed in mysterious and dark Britain, which was full of treacherous swamps and peat bogs, with there could be a murderous barbarian lurking over whom, according to the beliefs, the magic of druids hovered like a fog…

Way of Blood

The armies of Rome and the rebels faced each other near Watling Street. Suetonius Paulinus placed his soldiers in a defensive position in a ravine between the wooded hills that protected the flanks and rear of the Roman army. The Britons wanted to humiliate the Romans, give them a blow that they would not recover. Then they could take over all of Britain. It was going to be a great victory. The rebels were so confident that they brought their families to watch the great clash from the carts arranged in a semi-circle without taking part in it. Boudicca gave a fiery speech, perhaps about freedom and other similar beautiful ideas. Paulinus, on the other hand, gave his subordinates the battle plan and tactical guidelines. The armies faced each other. Number and tactics, fury and discipline, Britons and Romans, Boudica and Paulinus.

Watling Street – battle plan

There were about 230,000 rebels at Watling Street according to Tacitus. I suppose along with the British families. However, this figure is probably significantly overestimated. John Warry in “Armies of the Ancient World” writes that 40-60,000 Boudica warriors and an unspecified number of combat vehicles took part in the battle. The historian accuses Tacitus of certain inaccuracies. However, we can quite accurately assess the numbers of Paulinus’ troops. There were about 6,000 legionaries, 4,000 auxiliary, and 1,000 cavalry divided into two alae.

Boudicca gives the signal and the British army goes on a maddened attack. The chariots leapt forward, followed by countless warriors. The soldiers of the Roman Empire wait motionless for the incoming barbarians. The chariots are coming, they are very close now. Suddenly, the Romans shower the advancing Britons with a barrage of javelins. Pila was decimated by car crews. These are starting to retreat. The worst, however, is still ahead of the legionaries. Now only the infantry remained. Despite incomplete teams, fourteen and twenty are waiting for the enemy. Life or death, glory or damnation. The Britons are getting closer. Paulinus waits a moment longer. In a moment, however, he gives his soldiers a sign. They dropped the remaining piles, quickly formed into tight wedges, and set off with a wild impetus. The manoeuvre completely surprises the rebels, the Roman infantry tears the loose formation of warriors into several parts. At the same time, the cavalry of Paulinus’ army is flanking. The roadways hit the barbarians on their unshielded heads and chase them right under the ramming Roman wedges. The array of Britons was broken into smaller groups. The Romans press relentlessly forward. My Boudiki found themselves trapped. The raging Rome on the one hand, their families on the other. Paulinus’ army is not even going to stop. Eventually, the legionaries threw the terrified Britons into the crowd of spectators with their impetus, and the slaughter began. Morale fell. Panic. Fear. Screams. Screams of killed comrades. The Britons are fleeing, but the sword of Rome is everywhere. The Romans spared no one, in a way taking revenge for the 80,000 Roman citizens murdered by the rebels. Legionnaires massacre insurgents. Seeing a devastating defeat, Boudika ended her life by taking poison. The ravine beneath Watling Street ran down with blood. Probably 50,000 Britons and only 400-500 Romans perished. The entire Empire was thrilled, from slaves to Emperor Nero, who gave the Legion XIV Gemina the title of the most effective unit in the entire Roman army. Nobody remembered the eagle that had been lost over a hundred years earlier. The unlucky fourteen became the iron fist of the Empire.

Author: Bartosz Jaklik (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
Sources
  • Jewgienija T. Olejniczaka, Gra o honor. Burzliwe losy XIV legionu, "Świat Wiedzy Historia", konsultacja naukowa dr Igora Wypijewskiego z Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego
  • John Warry, Armie Świata Antycznego

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