Calling all armchair generals! Boudica's Last Stand. - Printable Version

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Calling all armchair generals! Boudica's Last Stand. - mcbishop - 03-11-2010

Having just listened to In Our Time on Boudica (see the thread here), it occurred to me that there may be some mileage in debating the old chestnut, Where Was Boudica's Last Stand? The programme duly unfurled the usual 'somewhere in the West Midlands' line (Mancetter being a favourite), but I would be interested to know what the resident RAT Armchair Generals think about this, given that Tacitus is so sparing with geographical information.

Tacitus has Paullinus and his army march down from North Wales to Londinium (it seems to be presumed down Watling Street), passing 'medios inter hostes'. He then gives up Londinium and retreats to fight her elsewhere. The traditional view is that he withdraws back up Watling Street whence he had come to make a stand somewhere near Mancetter. My question is this: why go back north-west? Why not head south-east, to put the Channel and the coastal ports at his back; or south-west to Noviomagus, also with a port (and, historically, a friendly ruler); or west towards Calleva, with II Augusta at his back (he wasn't to know they were going to sulk)? All of these could be interpreted as next in the line of the advancing Britons (Camulodunum -> Verulamium -> Londinium) whereas heading north-west meant going back through hostile territory (perhaps knowing by then that IX Hispana under the much-maligned Cerealis had been trounced) in order to turn and face them as they too head northwestwards. Since Tacitus is so vague about the geography (the only clues come from Mona and the three destroyed cities), I bet you could find a suitable defile on any of the roads out of Londinium that matched the description as well as Mancetter.

The only hint I can find that favours the north-west option is the mention of Paullinus collecting XIV Gemina and part of XX Valeria after the description of his abandoning Londinium (his path being Mona -> 'hostile area' -> Londinium -> battle site). Was Paullinus at the head of a 'flying column' prepared to penetrate hostile areas twice to get him back to the main army (Tacitus implies he at least considered making a stand at Londinium which would mean he already had the whole army with him)? Is the order of events in Tacitus being taken too literally? If you were Paullinus, what would you do? Points will be deducted of you refer to what George Shipway says in Imperial Governor.

Discuss ;-) )

Mike Bishop

Re: Calling all armchair generals! - Ensifer - 03-11-2010

Why do you have the Iceni sacking Londinium after Verulamium? It doesn't seem clear from Tacitus that that was their line of attack. If the traditional location in Mancetter is correct, I would think they were pursuing Suetonius Paulinus back up Watling Street, which would mean that they sacked Londinium first, then Verulamium. Tactitus actually mentions the sackings in that order, (although, to be fair, it's not clear that he's being chronological in his references). That's the only scenario that makes sense of Mancetter. The Iceni move on London, Paulinus pulls back up Watling Street past Verulamium, and finally stands at Mancetter. Both Londinium and Verulamium are sacked by the pursuing Britons, who are themselves destroyed when they reach Paulinus.

Such an interpretation could lend itself to a flying column hypothesis (he went back up Watling because that's where the bulk of his forces were), but I don't buy it. It's not clear from Tacitus that Paulinus "collected" the XIV and XX after Londinium (Iam Suetonio quarta decima legio cum vexillariis vicesimanis et <e> proximis auxiliares, decem ferme milia armatorum erant, cum omittere cunctationem et congredi acie parat. ); I assume he had them with him in Londinium. As you say, he does consider making Londinium his seat for the war; that would imply the forces were with him the whole time. Further, it makes little strategic sense to divide your forces in hostile territory and stage the bulk of your forces way back up Watling while you head on down to Londinium and an unknown and dangerous situation. That's not how rebellions are crushed. Morever, Tacitus specifically says he marched with mira constantia ("marvelous steadiness"). I take that as implying a certain battle-ready resolve; this isn't a scouting run.

The real question is from which place could Paulinus best defend the province? His decision to abandon Londinium is explicitly presented as a decision to sacrifice one town for the sake of saving the province. At first blush, it doesn't seem to me like moving into the Midlands is the best way to save the province. Tacitus says that the Iceni bypassed fortified garrisons to fall on soft targets like Verulamium and Londinium. That would lead one to believe that they'd rather pillage than tramp halfway to Whales (with wagons full of their families) to face off with the legions. But I'm not familiar enough with the strategic background to be able to say for sure whether or not moving up Watling would be the best way to save the province. I too would think withdrawing south would make more sense. The legions would then be better able to arrange relief, and the Britons would have to fight the legions if they wanted to be able to drive the coastal citizenry into the sea. Somebody who knows more about the distribution of the Roman presence in 1st-century Britain will have to comment.

Re: Calling all armchair generals! - Gaius Julius Caesar - 03-13-2010

I had read it as a flying column my self.
Perhaps the plan was for the sulking II to come up behing the Britons?
In the end, he was able to defeat them with out the delayed reinforcements(sorry couldn't resist that pun, for the RTW fans about),
but possilby it was his hope.
What searches have been made of the length of Watling street to search for any remains of a battle?

Re: Calling all armchair generals! Boudica\'s Last Stand. - PhilusEstilius - 03-14-2010

I suppose that apart from whatever Tacitus may or may not be telling us we have to consider just what was in the mind of Paulinus at this time, might he not have been considering just what could be the outcome if Boudica had got into contact with Cartimandua and the Brigantes.
Therefore was his move back to the north so that he could keep his army between these two very powerfull women, with his order that the II Aug' move up from the southwest so that he could have time to reinforce the VIIII Hisp' to help control the Coritani area.
This way he knew very well that he was not going to mess around trying to defend two cities that were lost anyway, and his idea may have been to stay in the middle knowing he had or should have had support on each of his wings to left and right however Pomponius Postumus let one of the sides down and so he had to fall on his sword poor old devil.

Re: Calling all armchair generals! Boudica\'s Last Stand. - John1 - 03-18-2010

Mancetter doesn't seem terribly compelling, try this theory that the site was at Church Stowe, Northamptonshire;

Re: Calling all armchair generals! Boudica\'s Last Stand. - Gaius Julius Caesar - 03-24-2010

Someone e-mailed this to me this morning. It certainly seems a good set of topographical likelyhoods.

Re: Calling all armchair generals! Boudica\'s Last Stand. - M. Demetrius - 03-25-2010

Amazing how the terrain features remain, while the surface features change. The farm-field areas are probably all different, but it's likely that the same creekbeds and such were things the people then had to deal with. Reminds me of how temporal we are as residents, while earth abides. Humbling. At least for a Colonial fellow.

Re: Calling all armchair generals! Boudica\'s Last Stand. - John1 - 03-31-2010

another paper on one of the sites in the Church Stowe document;

fig 1 shows a better extent of the ridge that could have acted as a "rampart" i.e. steep on all sides and pinched to almost nothing in the west.

fig 5, are there any collelations between this iron work and 1st century Roman or Britsh spears that these guys weren't aware of?

How does the box rampart construction square up as a British or Roman technique?
i.e. could this site be Roman rather than the iron age univallate hillfort that it is currently written up as here;

all views appreciated

Re: Calling all armchair generals! Boudica\'s Last Stand. - Ron Andrea - 03-31-2010

Sounds good to me.

Paulinus may have back-tracked up Watling Street from London because, arriving there with the van, he learned how formidable the threat was and how poorly suited London was for defending. He would go where he knew dependable forces were, not off seeking the hope of reinforcements.

Re: Calling all armchair generals! Boudica\'s Last Stand. - Gaius Julius Caesar - 03-31-2010

Quote:Sounds good to me.

Paulinus may have back-tracked up Watling Street from London because, arriving there with the van, he learned how formidable the threat was and how poorly suited London was for defending. He would go where he knew dependable forces were, not off seeking the hope of reinforcements.

I think he was hoping for the best, but planned for the worst.
The reinforcements he would have hoped for would be the best case scenario, but he planned to cope without them if he had to.
Any realistic commander would.

Re: Calling all armchair generals! Boudica\'s Last Stand. - Ron Andrea - 03-31-2010

Correct. The most--perhaps, only dependable forces would be those marching down Watling street right behind him.

Re: Calling all armchair generals! Boudica\'s Last Stand. - MARCvSVIBIvSMAvRINvS - 03-31-2010

Was it not written somewhere by some classic author that the Iceni tribe had nowhere to run because of the baggage train, and that the battle took place in mountainous terrain with either the legionaries or the Iceni themselves having a mountain behind them? dont remember correctly i presume.


Re: Calling all armchair generals! Boudica\'s Last Stand. - Ron Andrea - 04-01-2010

A "defile" backed by woods was what I remember.

Re: Calling all armchair generals! Boudica\'s Last Stand. - Gaius Julius Caesar - 04-01-2010

Yes, the narrow defile backed by woods preventing the Icenii flanking them.

Re: Calling all armchair generals! Boudica\'s Last Stand. - John1 - 04-01-2010

The relevant sections from the two site descriptions I know of are these;

Cassius Dio Book LXII“Paulinus could not extend his line the whole length of hers, for, even if the men had been drawn up only one deep, they would not have reached far enough, so inferior were they in numbers; nor, on the other hand, did he dare join battle in a single compact force, for fear of being surrounded and cut to pieces. He therefore separated his army into three divisions, in order to fight at several points at one and the same time, and he made each of the divisions so strong that it could not easily be broken through.

Late in the day, the Romans prevailed; and they slew many in battle beside the wagons and the forest, and captured many alike.”

The Annals of Tacitus (AD 110-120), Book XIV“Ch 34. The fourteenth legion, with the veterans of the twentieth, and the auxiliaries from the adjacent stations, having joined Suetonius, his army amounted to little less than ten thousand men. Thus reinforced, he resolved, without loss of time, to bring on a decisive action. For this purpose he chose a spot encircled with woods, narrow at the entrance, and sheltered in the rear by a thick forest. In that situation he had no fear of an ambush. The enemy, he knew, had no approach but in front. An open plain lay before him. He drew up his men in the following order: the legions in close array formed the centre; the light armed troops were stationed at hand to serve as occasion might require: the cavalry took post in the wings.
Ch 35. A Roman legion dared to face the warlike Britons: with their lives they paid for their rashness; those who survived the carnage of that day, lie poorly hid behind their entrenchments, meditating nothing but how to save themselves by an ignominious flight.
Ch37. The engagement began. The Roman legion presented a close embodied line. The narrow defile gave them the shelter of a rampart………The Britons betook themselves to flight, but their wagons in the rear obstructed their passage.”

1) Dio, three divisions, one for the centre and one on each ridge, i.e. north and south
2) The open plain would have been the Nene Valley which is now canalised but would have probably been rather more marshy east of Watling Street.
3) Ch 35 the Boudica speech suggests the Romans may have been behind “entrenchments”
4) A forest would not have protected the flanks and rear from infantry attack to the extent that the “narrow defile giving the shelter of a rampart” would, so topography is surely a more likely defence that a forest although the two may have been combined in this case
5) What would the extent of the battle front have been? If one speculates the auxiliaries and Twentieth took the high ground, flanks and fortifications, the Fourteenth was left to form the main battle front. That would be 5000 men, occupying 1metre of front each, that’s 5000m. The base of the Church Stowe valley ranges in width from about 500m to 1000m. Would a Legions front be 8 men deep? So a battle front of 600m ? The valley seems the right sort of scale for this.
6) The valley is pretty much in the centre of Britain. Is it possible that, because of it’s excellent defensive topography, the site was known already to the Roman military? possibly used as a base/safe haven during the original advance through Britain and the building of Watling Street? It would certainly be in the living memory if it were.