Possible ‘chemical warfare’ in later Roman times

A couple of Indian papers are reporting a presentation given by Simon James from Leicester to the Archaeological Institute of America, in which he interprets a number of skeletons in a tunnel in such a way as to give a vivid and fairly detailed description of the conflict.

I don’t think it will be relevant to our teaching, so I shan’t copy it here, but here is one of the links (the stories are identical, down to the typos).

Sindh Today

Sixth form half-day school – OCR Latin set texts

Look here for the application form for the Manchester A level texts day on Wednesday 11th February.

“Brittunculi” demand an apology

gladis · non utuntur equites · nec residunt  Brittunculi · ut · iaculos mittant

Vindolanda Letter no. 164

I call on the Italian President to apologise to the British people for the offensive and belittling language used by his countryman in the above letter. To call us Brittunculi is indefensible. I should also appreciate a lesser apology – from the mayor of Rome, say – for the disrespect shown earlier in this same letter by the term Brittoni. We demand to be called Britanni, properly spelled.

If at any time in the present century people of other nations dare to shorten the name British, or even Briton, to the first four letters, they must fear the International Court of Justice. This would bring back painful memories of howling mobs shouting “Brits out!”

It would also recall the shame of “Brit Art” and “BritPop”.

After all, no one would think of shortening the names of other respected nations to their first four letters, for example “Pakistani”.

Walking in Boudica’s footsteps

The Daily Mail publishes a version of the Boudica chapter from a new book, by Charlie Connelly. Apart from one hanging participle (pedant!) it is well written and holds the interest, and sticks to the facts. I was impressed by the way Ms Connelly brings home the crassness of the Romans’ treatment of Boudica and her daughters. When she puts it like that, you can see that rebellion was inevitable. All too reminiscent of UK/US treatment of prisoners in this century.

BTW, the sub-editor who produced this wonderful caption to a panorama of central London deserves a medal:

Big change: London’s skyline today – Boudicca would have seen a totally different view of the city then called Londinium

Really? You amaze me! Anyway, here’s the piece:

Early on a Norwich autumn morning, and I was standing naked in a hotel room.

On the bed lay my new walking clothes: walking trousers, expensive pants at the cutting edge of underwear technology, assorted base layers, fleeces and waterproofs.

All items of clothing I’d never owned before yet would spend the next goodness knows how many weeks wearing nothing but.

I was about to embark on the first in a sequence of journeys tracing routes taken by some of the most famous and not-so-famous figures in the history of these islands.

We’re surrounded by history, it’s alive and everywhere, yet we take it for granted.

Determined to immerse myself in our past, and to break away from my sedentary lifestyle, I was going to recreate some of these great journeys that have shaped our island story. On foot.

On this particular walk I would be following in the footsteps of Boudicca who, in AD60, led a rebellion against the Roman overlords, marching on Colchester, London and what is now St Albans, laying waste to each in turn.

Which is how I found myself in a Travelodge in Norwich, contemplating my pants.

I had a good 25 miles ahead of me that day, much farther than I’d ever walked before, but I had a sense of bravado.

I mean, it’s only walking. How hard can it be?

As soon as I set out, things started to fall apart. I realised I didn’t actually know which way to turn. I needed to head south, but I had no idea which way was south. While I had the best clothing available to man, I didn’t have a compass.

I found a map in the hotel lobby and discovered that I was, in fact, facing the right way.

I set off with a determined stride and within an hour-and-a-half was strolling into the village of Caistor St Edmund, where I would take up the trail of my first historic fellow-traveller.

We know very little about Boudicca. We don’t even know whether her name really was Boudicca, or where she lived.

But we do know that she came as close as anyone to driving the Romans out of Britain, fired by vengeance, injustice and the cruellest sense of grievance induced in any mother from any period in history.

‘She was very tall in build,’ wrote the Roman historian Cassius Dio, ‘most terrifying in her demeanour, the glint in her eye most fierce. A great mound of red hair fell to her waist, around her neck was a large golden torc and she wore a tunic of many colours upon which a cloak was fastened with a brooch.’

She was, he added, ‘possessed of a greater intelligence than is usually found in women’.

Boudicca was the wife of Prasutagus, king of the Iceni, a wealthy tribe whose lands covered most of what is now Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire at the time of the Roman conquest.

Archaeological finds of fine clothing and jewellery suggest they were big on ostentatious displays of opulence, just as in centuries from now East Anglian archaeologists might turn up hoop earrings, sovereign rings and thick gold chains.

Prasutagus was a client king, permitted to retain his status as long as he didn’t resist Roman rule.

Around AD60 he died suddenly and the trouble began. In his will he left half his estate to his two daughters and the other half to the Emperor Nero. When this news reached Catus Decianus, the Roman procurator of Britain, he was furious.

As far as Catus was concerned, the Iceni lands were not Prasutagus’s to bequeath to anyone other than the Roman Empire.

He overreacted to a quite unbelievable degree, sending soldiers into the Iceni lands to pillage the property of their nobles.

For the late king’s family, things were to get much, much worse. Catus had Boudicca, queen of the Iceni, flogged while her daughters were raped in front of her by Roman soldiers.

It was an inexplicable act: Boudicca, by virtue of her marriage to a client king, would have been officially a Roman citizen, and any corporal punishment of a woman was almost unthinkable in the Roman Empire.

Rape was an offence punishable by execution.

The burning sense of injustice felt by Boudicca and her people was so intense you can almost sense it today – this was one of the most despicable episodes in the history of these islands.

The resentment that had festered against Roman rule for the best part of two decades exploded into angry rebellion.

The Iceni gathered into a huge, seething mass of people to rise up against the oppressor that had taken away their freedom and violated their queen.

Under Boudicca’s leadership, the Iceni and their neighbours would set off for the Roman capital at Camulodunum, modern Colchester, for an orgy of destruction and murder.

We don’t know from where Boudicca’s army set out, so I had chosen the village of Caistor St Edmund, close to the main route to Camulodunum.

Most of the road along which Boudicca would have passed is now the A12, but on the map there was a stretch marked ‘Roman road’ running parallel to the main thoroughfare for a good distance just south of Ipswich.

Once I was through the suburbs I passed beneath the A12 through a foot tunnel and emerged on the old road. This had once been the main road south from Ipswich, but nothing came up here any more. Some plastic bags whipped around in circles in the wind. It was quiet; I was all alone.

For the first time, I felt like I was peeking through the curtains of time. This was the very same route as Boudicca and her army would have taken.

The trundling carts passed along here. The Iceni, grimly determined and driven by vengeance, would have walked with Boudicca at their head, a vast procession of men, women, children and horses spread wide across the road and beyond into the fields, knowing that with every step, they were closer to justice, or at least their version of it.

Walking in their footsteps, I could feel the butterflies in my stomach, the feeling that every step was into the unknown.

That evening, as I soaked in a hot bath at a Colchester hostelry, I reflected on what Boudicca and her cohorts did to the Roman capital when they reached it.

Camulodunum had all the trappings of a major Roman town – a senate building, shops, a theatre and a temple dedicated to the late Emperor Claudius, conqueror of Britain.

For a capital, Camulodunum was curiously lax in its defences.

It was home to hundreds of army veterans who, having completed their 25 years of military service, were given plots of land.

Most of the Roman military forces in Britain were engaged in a concerted attempt to wipe out the druids on Anglesey. Hence Camulodunum had at best a skeleton defence force.

When news of Boudicca’s travelling hordes reached the town, the locals pressed Catus Decianus, the man responsible for triggering the uprising, to provide military assistance.

He mustered barely 200 troops then hitched up his toga and hotfooted it to Gaul before Boudicca could get hold of him.

Boudicca’s forces approached Colchester meeting no opposition. Nevertheless, they fell upon the place in a storm of aggression and destruction. Property was looted and burned to the ground.

The soldiers would have provided only token resistance to the thousands of screaming, blue-painted warriors descending on the town. Nothing and no one would have been spared.

Those who remained barricaded themselves inside the Temple of Claudius, until the Britons scaled the walls and began to dismantle the roof, dropping on to the survivors and killing them where they stood.

It’s likely that Boudicca’s forces would have hung around Camulodunum for a couple of days, celebrating, praying and dividing up the loot, before heading south to the port of Londinium.

Londinium was a lesser focus of Roman power, but economically important to the occupying people. The Roman road from Colchester to Chelmsford and thence to the outskirts of London is again the A12, so I struck out on a parallel path and was delighted to find, at one stage, that I was crossing Boadicea Way.

I passed through Chelmsford, eventually arriving on the outskirts of Brentwood. After days in the countryside, I’d hit suburbia.

Huge mock Tudor mansions lined the road. Blonde women with big earrings drove past me in four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Suddenly I had my breath taken away. I crested a hill while looking at the map, and when I looked up there, before me, was the London skyline with its familiar NatWest Tower, Gherkin and St Paul’s Cathedral. Boudicca would have come over this hill – albeit to witness a very different skyline.

Londinium was a fairly new settlement of 30,000 inhabitants. Goods and slaves were exported here, while imports were unloaded in what would have been a lively, noisy place. It would have been distinctly muted that day, though, as Suetonius Paulinus, the commander of the Roman forces, had arrived with his cavalry.

He had two options. The first: to assemble as many soldiers as he could to defend the town. However, he’d heard about the devastation of Camulodunum and knew that the Britons would be arriving in even greater numbers.

The alternative was to evacuate Londinium, leave it to the mercy of the Iceni and their allies, and muster a large Roman force to meet them at full strength somewhere down the road. He chose the latter option.

Londinium was doomed. I followed the route of the old Roman road through Romford and Ilford and on beyond Stratford. When Boudicca’s forces arrived, Londinium would have been almost deserted.

Cassius Dio describes what the rebels did to the locals who were left. The city’s most distinguished women were hung up naked, their breasts cut off and sewn into their mouths, before being impaled on stakes.

When the Thames was running red with blood, the rebels torched London. Many people were burnt alive. Boudicca’s rebellion had no political cause at its heart: this was sheer, visceral vengeance.

Once Londinium had been ransacked, the rebels made for the road to Verulamium, a major seat of the wealthy Catuvellauni tribe, now St Albans.

The Romans had routed Watling Street, a major thoroughfare, through Verulamium. It was an obvious target.

The road is the A5, starting at the bottom of London’s Edgware Road, and it’s fairly certain that Boudicca would have joined it where it met the road from Camulodunum.

It’s a spot now occupied by Marble Arch, where I found myself early one blustery morning.

It was about 20 miles to St Albans, a journey that would have taken Boudicca and her cumbersome caravan two days, if not more. I was aiming to do it in one.

The coffee shops and sandwich bars soon gave way to a procession of Turkish and Arabic emporia. I passed within a hefty six of Lord’s cricket ground and then, at Maida Vale, the spot where the headmaster Philip Lawrence was killed in 1995.

On through Cricklewood and its synagogues, Wembley Stadium to my left, then Edgware and the general hospital where I was born.

By six o’clock that evening, I was in St Albans. The next morning I headed to Verulamium Park, the site of the old town sacked by Boudicca. It was a peaceful morning, the sun glinting off the damp grass.

By the time Boudicca arrived, Verulamium was deserted. The locals had legged it, taking everything of value with them. The wind direction made it harder to burn down the town.

The destruction was still extensive, but there was a sense that the fun was going out of all this looting and burning.

The lack of a ‘real’ battle was leaving some sections of the mob bored and unfulfilled. The sacking of Verulamium would prove to be the Boudiccan revolt’s last success.

I made my way to the edge of town. My step was slowing tangibly, too, as my first historical journey was coming to an end. This is where I would leave Boudicca; where the historical trail goes cold.

The inevitable big battle between Boudicca’s mob and the Roman army did take place, but nobody can say for sure where it was. Mancetter, near Atherstone in Warwickshire, seems the most likely location.

Either way, the Britons were defeated and Boudicca was never heard of again. Many surmise that she chose to take her own life by drinking poison rather than suffer the ignominy of being taken to Rome and paraded through the streets. Nothing is known of what became of her daughters.

There was a groundless rumour in Victorian times that Boudicca is buried beneath Platform 8 at King’s Cross Station in London, while in 2006 Birmingham archaeologists claimed they’d found her grave in King’s Norton, next to McDonald’s.

I stood for a while, looking along Watling Street, picturing a noble, charismatic queen standing proud on her chariot at the head of her warriors, their carts rumbling along the track, heading towards her destiny.

Then I turned around, retraced my steps and began to walk forward almost a thousand years. I had an appointment with a man whose epic journey changed Britain’s history for ever.

I was about to follow in the footsteps of Harold, the man who could have been, and so nearly was, one of Britain’s greatest ever kings.

• ADAPTED from And Did Those Feet by Charlie Connelly, published this week by Little, Brown at £12.99. To order a copy (p&p free), call 0845 155 0720