Did Boudica destroy Silchester?

The British revolt against Roman rule led by Boadicea (Boudicca) may have had
a wider impact than previously thought. New evidence from the Roman town at
Silchester, near Basingstoke, shows that there was a significant episode of
destruction between AD50 and AD75, followed by a realignment of the urban
plan.

There is evidence of burning over the entire area of the current excavations
close to the centre of Silchester, according to Professor Michael Fulford,
of the University of Reading. “The most striking evidence of this
dislocation in the settlement’s life is the destruction of buildings and the
abandonment and backfilling of wells,” he said. The destruction at
Silchester (Calleva Atrebatum in Roman times, the capital of the Atrebates
tribe) was substantial: the fact that the city was rebuilt on a grid
orientated by 45 degrees from the earlier town “simply reinforces the scale
and extent, over more than a hundred acres, of that destruction”, Professor
Fulford said. “It inevitably leads us to an association with the Boudiccan
rebellion of AD60-61. The problem with this is that Classical sources only
mention between them the destruction of three towns — London, Colchester,
and Verulamium (St Albans).”

Boadicea, widow of the Iceni ruler Prasutagus in East Anglia, was deposed by
the Romans in spite of her husband’s alliance with them.

Her rebellion targeted centres of Roman rule: both the trading centre of
Londinium and Southwark opposite, and the military base of Camulodunum under
modern Colchester have yielded dramatic evidence of burning.

“To bring Silchester into this equation significantly extends the area
affected by the revolt, further to the west as well as south of the Thames.
In the 1950s a small area of burning at this period was found at Winchester,
which lies even further south,” Professor Fulford said.

“Proposing significant destruction by the rebels south of the Thames would
radically alter our perception of the scale and impact of the revolt and its
consequences.”

One reason why Boadicea might have targeted Calleva Atrebatum is that it seems
to have been part of the kingdom, and perhaps the personal headquarters, of
the client king Togidubnus, who ruled a large area in southern England and
was noted by Tacitus for his unswerving loyalty to Rome after the conquest.
Boadicea would have regarded him as a quisling, in spite of her own
husband’s formerly friendly relations with the Romans.

Other possibilities include destruction by local elements opposed to
Togidubnus’s pro-Roman stance, or on the other hand a pre-emptive
strike by the Romans themselves. Tacitus writes of the later stages of the
revolt, without naming names, that “any tribe that had wavered in its
loyalty or had been hostile was ravaged with fire and sword”, Professor
Fulford noted.

Calleva was utterly changed by these events: the earlier settlement, with Iron
Age origins, was orientated northeast-southwest: Professor Fulford points
out that this aligns with midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset, the same
orientation important to the builders of Stonehenge more than two millennia
earlier. This prehistoric alignment, for dwellings and not just ceremonial
sites, may have survived several decades into Roman rule.

The prosperity of this hybrid community, in which circular Iron Age timber
houses sat alongside rectangular Roman ones , is shown by a discovery this
summer. One of the wells was lined with a barrel made from silver fir, a
species found in the Alps and Pyrenees but not in Britain. The barrel
probably came to Calleva filled with more than 900 litres of French or
Rhenish wine.

The destruction that followed, whether by Boadicea, other disaffected Britons,
or the Romans, came to a town which seems to have been a model of adaptation
to a new regime and a wider world.

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