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Whilst I was on holiday I saw a television broadcast of a dramatised documentary about Boudicca's rebellion against Rome in AD60. Entertaining stuff, however biased toward the Roman account, which is admittedly our only source and written back in the day to conform to their readers expectations of an interesting and dramatic anecdote. But as I watched, I realised the presenter was making fundamental errors about Rome's provincial policies.

 

In short, I hereby examine three statements made during the program.

 

1 - That Rome ruled by violence and oppression

2 - That Rome relied on the invincibility of her army

3 - That the rebellion illustrates the truth of what life was like under Roman rule.

 

1 - Rome ruled by violence and oppression

This is a common conception. Rome is seen as a monolithic nation state that assimilates populations to produce indentikit citizens with a generation or two.

 

This was simply not so. Rome was at heart a city state with influence over a network of territories of varying status and native populations owing them loyalty and taxes. it is true that many regions were brought into the empire via conquest of one sort or another, but let's not forget that the realm of Iceni was a client state that Rome expected to inherit.

 

Tacitus tells us that...

 

The imperial agent Caisu Decianus, horrified by the catastrophe and his unpopularity, withdrew to Gaul. It was his rapacity which had driven the province to war

Annals (Tacitus)

 

Imperial agent? So Decianus was there at the orders of Nero to make sure the man the Senate had sent to make sure the province was doing fine, was doing fine. Whilst the habit of being rapacious, greedy, clumsy, and brutal was an unfortunate tendency of senior Romans in Provincial assignment, clearly not all of them were. Therefore violence and oppression was a policy pursued by individual Romans at their discretion rather than any tyrannical regime the Romans had foisted upon the unfortunate Britons. But then, the Romans didn't like tyrants all that much, never mind the Britons.

 

 

2 - Rome relied on the invincibility of her army

Rome's legions were not invincible and they knew it. The sources contain many references to utter defeats and indeed, some describe one legion or another as barely resembling a military unit at all. But let's read what Tacitus says about a military mission to relieve the sack of Camulodunum.

 

The Ninth Roman legion, commanded by Quintus Perilius Cerialus Caesius Rufus, attempted to relieve the town, but was stopped by the victorious Britons and routed. its entire infantry force were massacred, while the commander escaped to his camp with his cavalry and sheltered behind its defenses.

Annals (Tacitus)

 

Oh dear. The commander ran away with his horsemen, perhaps two or three percent of a full strength legion. How invincible was that?

 

 

3 - That the rebellion illustrates the truth of what life was like under Roman rule.

The 'savage' Britons ran riot, attacking Londinium, Veralumium, and eventually meeting another legionary force under the senatorial governor Suetonius, at the Battle of Watling Street. Tacitus kindly gives us the speech made by Boudicca - which is clearly invented since no-one would have recorded it for the benefit of a Roman historian. The Britons lose, and Boudicca is said to have poisoned herself - a standard Roman style fate. Nero sends replacements for the casualties suffered by the Ninth Legion. And hot off the boat is Decianus' replacement.

 

Still the savage British tribesmen were disinclined for peace, especially as the newly arrived Imperial Agent Gaius Julius Alpinus Classicianus, successor to Caius Decianus, was on bad terms with Suetonius, and allowed his personal animosities to damage the national interests.

Annals (Tacitus)

 

Should have all been sorted. Calmly, confidently, and decisively. But as happens in these anecdotes of Roman disorder, personality is the flaw rather than politics. Nero senses things aren't working out, and sends his freedman Polyclitus to investigate, who travelled with a seriously large entourage that stretched the patience of Italy and Gaul. it even intimidated the Roman legions. The Britons were, by all accounts, quite amused.

 

But all this was toned down in Polyclitus' reports to the emperor. Retained as governor, Suetonius lost a few ships and their crews on the shore, and was then superseded for not terminating the war. His successor, the recent consul Publius Petronius Turpilianus, neither provoking the enemy nor provoked, called this ignoble inactivity peace with honour.

Annals (Tacitus)

 

One imperial agent ran away, his replacement pursued intrigue rather than the rebels.. The senatorial governor got the sack, his replacement did nothing until the leaderless rebels gave up.

 

 

Conclusion

The television presenter stopped at the defeat of Boudicca, describing Rome as a tyranny that trampled rebellions with violence and oppression. What Tacitus describes is a catalogue of folly. Greed, cowardice, intrigue, indecisiveness, and clumsiness. The war is not won, merely left to fizzle out.

 

Violence and oppression? Truth was the Romans were too busy making mistakes.

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