On the eve of the Boudican revolt in AD 60, few of the soldiers who took part in the invasion were still serving. For those that were, the previous 17 years of campaigning had taken Roman forces north, west and southwest. The tribes made and broke alliances as seemed convenient, and denied Rome a single cohesive target. Instead, she was presented with elusive enemies who flitted in and out of woodland and marshes, and avoided set-piece battles. No wonder then that Tacitus could say the only region of Britain that been controlled was ‘the nearest part’.
Meanwhile, Vespasian had led II Augusta along southern Britain, fighting 30 battles and capturing the Isle of Wight and more than 20 native towns. He can thus be linked personally to the evidence of vicious fighting at Maiden Castle (Dorset), the Claudian fort huddled in the corner of the Iron Age hillfort at Hod Hill, and the Roman military occupation of the hillforts at Ham Hill (Somerset) and Hembury (Devon). Since Vespasian must have been supported by naval forces, it is obvious that the Romans would have established various landing points along the south coast as the campaign progressed. The military activity identified at Fishbourne is as likely to have belonged to this campaign as to the initial invasion, if not both. However, recent excavations of a fort built in the mid-40s at Alchester (Oxfordshire), and the discovery there of a first-century tombstone belonging to a veteran of II Augusta, suggest that the legion may in fact have spent a significant part of this time fighting further north than previously believed.
By now the Fosse Way had been established, running from Exeter right up into Lincolnshire. As a line of communication it was obviously of enormous importance, but whether or not it was intended as a frontier is unknown. The road was not fortified, although there were some forts and fortlets scattered along it. If there was ever any plan to halt here and make a province out of the more compliant (or so it might have been thought) south, it was shelved.
The mid-first-century fortress at Exeter, founded by c. 50, was probably II Augusta’s. With its vaulted legionary bathhouse, Exeter symbolized the impact of classical culture on a place where nothing like it had ever existed before. To the north, IX Hispana had possibly already reached as far as Lincoln, a strategically vital location, much closer to the sea then than it is today. Behind it the legion left a variety of vexillation fortresses along with Ermine Street, which carried communications back to the river crossing at London. XIV Gemina was heading towards the Welsh Marches. The road network fanned out from London, provoking the spontaneous development of a trading centre which was evolving into a significant town. Linking all of these sites was the Roman navy, which controlled much of Britain’s coastal waters and provided a means of supplying bases at Exeter and Lincoln, and elsewhere.
By 47, much of southern Britain had technically capitulated, giving Rome the vital allies she needed. Amongst these must have been Togidubnus, who was awarded ‘certain cantonal areas’ to rule. An inscription from Chichester locates him in the area, and it has long been assumed that he owned the remarkable palace at nearby Fishbourne. Whether he did or not, or whether or not it was the governor’s residence, does not alter the fact that parts of central southern Britain showed astonishingly rapid Romanization in this period. We know nothing of Togidubnus’ origins, but the geographical location makes it likely that he had some connection with the Atrebates, and indeed may even have been the dynastic beneficiary of Verica’s appeal to Claudius.
Further east, resistance increased when Plautius handed over control to Publius Ostorius Scapula in 47. Ostorius moved rapidly to disarm tribes in an area ‘on this side of the Trent and Severn’, meaning much of central, eastern and southern Britain. The Iceni of East Anglia objected. Being disarmed was more than a humiliating public castration; it cut right to the very heart of their existence. Nevertheless, their revolt caught Ostorius unawares, illustrating how little initiative the Romans had in this war. The known vexillation fortresses at Longthorpe, Great Casterton, Osmanthorpe and Newton-on-Trent all lay well to the west of Iceni territory.
Ostorius suppressed the rebellion with auxiliaries. Even so, the Romans were continually abandoning the task in hand to deal with more pressing problems. In Wales, Caratacus was organizing resistance amongst the Silures. This was extremely dangerous. The Welsh tribes’ total lack of interest in Roman comforts meant they were alienated from everything that Rome stood for. Their lack of cohesion might have compromised the natural advantages their remote and difficult territory gave them, but Caratacus was unifying them.
Ostorius marched against the Deceangli in north Wales. He was almost bound to do this. Had he failed to conquer additional territory, he would have looked like a failure, and his personal reputation as a general demanded a more conspicuous result. The attractions of defeating Caratacus by cutting him off must have driven him on, and he may also have had half an eye on Anglesey. Anglesey was the Druid centre, from which the Druid priesthood helped organize resistance to the Roman conquest.
Ostorius ravaged Deceangli territory, but failed to force them to a battle. The idea was to discourage Welsh tribes from supporting resistance in southern Britain. Whether or not there was any plan to hold Wales permanently is unknown, though by 49 the Romans were smelting lead and extracting silver (a by-product of lead) in the Mendips. The invasion of Wales was not just a punitive conquest; there was also gold in those hills. But Ostorius had acted too hastily, and failed to cover his rear flank. The Brigantes of northern Britain had officially capitulated to Rome, but not all the Brigantes agreed. An armed coup erupted and Ostorius had to withdraw to put it down, before returning to Wales to deal with the Caratacus problem. Ostorius took more precautions this time. The fortress at Camulodunum was given up and made into a colony of veterans, and the legion, probably XX, was released for war.
At this time, Caratacus enjoyed matchless prestige. He retreated, but avoided selling out. He exploited the narrow valleys of south Wales to lead the Romans further in, and eventually to Ordovician territory. But he was running out of places to pull back to, and made a crucial error. Caratacus consolidated his forces for a last stand, giving the Romans exactly what they wanted: a set-piece battle. He established himself behind ramparts overlooking a river. Behind him, steep hills covered the rear flank. In Tacitus’ description, the Romans were hankering for the chance to fight. This is unlikely, despite their frustration with Caratacus. Strategically, there was no advantage. They were exposed in every direction, and they faced a highly motivated enemy. Ostorius had been initially confounded by the obstacles, heightening the tension, and had to spend time looking for a suitable place to cross the river. At this stage, sheer numbers and hardware started to tell. The Britons had little hope in close hand-to-hand fighting, and the physical structure of their ramparts was too feeble to stand up to Roman demolition work. Both auxiliaries and legionaries were used in the battle, showing how tough the fight was. Caratacus was defeated but escaped, leaving his family and brothers behind to be captured.
Now Rome’s policy of patronage paid off. Caratacus fled for protection to Cartimandua, queen of the Brigantes. She handed him over and he was carted off to Rome, where in 51 he appealed to Claudius’ imperial magnanimity to spare his life. Duly reprieved, Caratacus was pensioned off in Rome and disappeared into obscurity. Claudius celebrated the climax of his conquest of Britain by erecting a triumphal arch in Rome. Part of the inscription survives, recording the ‘submission of 11 British kings’ and the first successful campaign to bring ‘barbarian tribes beyond the Ocean into the dominion of the Roman people’. It was, like most victory boasts, premature. The capture of Caratacus opened a destructive decade that climaxed in the virtual annihilation of the province.
Ostorius set out on an orgy of revenge. Stories spread amongst the Silures in south Wales that he had publicly announced they would be slaughtered or enslaved. This gave them nothing to lose. Legionary cohorts building forts in Silurian territory were quickly ambushed. The best troops were killed, along with eight centurions and their camp prefect, before help arrived. Other troops foraging for supplies with a cavalry escort were wiped out. Ostorius was forced to bring in auxiliaries and legionaries, but even then the battle only petered out as night fell. The Silures escaped with few losses, and continued to maintain a concerted guerrilla campaign. Their success began to encourage other tribes to consider rebellion. Then Ostorius suddenly died in post, and the Silures took the opportunity to rout the legion.
Aulus Didius Gallus arrived to replace Ostorius in 51 or 52. Tacitus thought Didius Gallus magnified the Welsh problem to exaggerate his own success at dealing with it, but there seems little doubt that things had quieted down. Like Ostorius, Didius Gallus found Wales had to take second place to the Brigantian problem. Cartimandua’s estranged husband, Venutius, was considered to be the finest British exponent of war. Not only did the divorce occasion a Brigantian civil war, but Venutius turned against Rome, too. Didius Gallus had to intervene to restore stability. Roman goods found at Stanwick, long thought to have been the principal Brigantian stronghold, indicate that Cartimandua welcomed Romanization, even if the price was the loss of independence. Like the client kings further south, she knew that her power depended on Roman support.
Tacitus accused the aged Didius of being content to let his legionary commanders organize the war while he rested on his laurels. The death of Claudius in 54 and the accession of Nero certainly diverted imperial attention from Britain. If Tacitus was correct, perhaps Didius Gallus was partly responsible for the disastrous events of the next few years. He left in 57, only to be replaced by Quintus Veranius Nepos, who died within the year, thereby escaping having to deliver his promise to conquer the whole of Britain within two years.
The governorship of Gaius Suetonius Paullinus (57/8–61) was probably the most decisive in the history of Roman Britain. Suetonius Paullinus, an experienced general, set out to destroy the Druid stronghold in Anglesey. It had been well known since Caesar’s time that the Druids operated apart from the tribal leaderships as a separate social caste. In an island politically fragmented by petty kingships, the Druids provided a vital cohesive force. They controlled law and order, and used excommunication to enforce their power. They were also literate, a fact that enhanced their control over an illiterate society. Anglesey’s pivotal role behind the resistance cannot have gone unnoticed, but it may have taken the work of Ostorius and Didius Gallus before a campaign could be undertaken.
Soldiers from the XIV and XX legions and auxiliaries crossed the Menai Straits to face a frenzied crowd of women and armed men, whipped up by Druids uttering strange incantations. The intention was to create intimidation and fear in a theatrical display of barbarian hysteria, and the soldiers were effectively transfixed with terror. Under pressure from Suetonius Paullinus, the soldiers recovered themselves, and the outcome was a foregone conclusion. The crowd was annihilated and the Druids’ sacred groves wiped out.