Roman Britain

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Part 4: Final battles

So the Romans, with a force of 10,000, arrayed themselves for battle in a narrow gorge, with a forest behind them and a wide plain in front of them. And on that plain in front of the Roman soldiers were the Celts, masses of them. They had inflamed the countryside and burned three big Roman settlements to the ground. They had so many warriors and were so confident of victory, Tacitus says, that “they brought their partners to witness the victory, installing them in carts at the extreme border of the field.”

The Celts likely conducted a big war chant and then a massive charge. But the Romans held their ground, slinging javelins designed to stick in the enemy’s shields, weighing them down. Paulinus also used his cavalry to attack the Celts from the flanks. So even though the Romans were heavily outnumbered, they turned the terrain to their advantage by making the Celts funnel down the narrow gorge to come at them.

The Romans were better equipped and better trained, and they weren’t daunted by the huge numbers arrayed against them. The Romans didn’t just stay in the gorge, however. At the first sign of retreat, they followed in close pursuit. The pursuit became a rout when the Celts fled headlong into their own wagon train.

The battle turned into full-scale slaughter. The number of Celts who died that day, Tacitus says, was 80,000.

Boudicca herself escaped the slaughter but was defeated. She killed herself rather than submitting to Roman caprice. That’s Tacitus’s story, anyway. The other popular historical account says that she fell ill and later died.

Nine years later, in 69, while civil war raged in Rome, Cartimandua's husband, Venutius, claimed a large part of the north of the island. Vespasian, the general who had led Claudius's invasion force to victory two decades earlier, secured himself on the Roman throne and then sent a large force to put down the latest British revolt.

Claudius, in his short visit to Britain, accepted the surrender of a dozen or so kings, at Camelodunum. One of those kings was said to be the King of Orkney. The Orkney Islands were certainly known to the Romans, who were also aware of the Hebrides, the Outer Hebrides, and the Caledonian Forest. But as the Romans worked their way northward, it became more and more apparent that Scotland would be a prime target.

A new governor arrived in Britain in the summer of A.D. 78. This was Gnaeus Agricola, the father-in-law of the famed historian Tacitus. Agricola got to work extending Roman influence far and wide, building forts and settlements and advancing the Roman cause ever northward.

Agricola’s crowning achievement, Tacitus writes, was a stunning victory at the Battle of Mons Graupius. Translators have recorded it as “the Graupian Mountain.”

Agricola and his forces marched farther and farther north, setting up temporary camps along the way. While the army was marching overland, the fleet sailed up the coast.

Sources say that in this battle, 20,000 Romans faced off against 30,000 Caledonians.

The strategy of the Britons in the face of superior Roman firepower had been to melt into the surroundings, harrying the advancing Romans as necessary, employing the now-familiar guerrilla tactics. This had certainly worked well against Caesar and, more recently, against the Roman northward advance.

This strategy didn't work so well in the south, particularly since it was called Roman Britain. But up north, the Romans had found a significant advantage by marching on the Caledoni granaries right after they had been filled to the brim with that year’s harvest. The Caledoni then had the choice of starving or fighting; they chose the latter.

For starters, the British hand soldiers had the high ground, with the front ranks of the infantry and the battle chariots on the plain at the bottom of the hill. The Romans had a mixture of infantry and cavalry.

Both sides had various airborne methods of attack, like spears and stones, and that’s what started the battle. Tacitus writes that the main force of the Roman cavalry put the Scottish battle chariots to flight, leaving the Caledoni foot soldiers alone. Tacitus writes that the Britons had longer swords but that the Roman short swords proved more effective in the close quarters battle that then raged. With the battle chariots no longer an option, the rest of the Caledoni forces raced down the hill and entered the fray.

It was then that Agricola sent in his reserve cavalry, which were able to turn the Caledoni flank and attack the defenders from the rear.

The result, Tacitus writes, was a resounding Roman victory. The casualty figures, as Tacitus had it, were 10,000 Caledonian dead and only 360 Roman dead.

Part 5: Governing

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David White