Battle of Watling Street (61 AD)
When Prasutagus, King of the Iceni, died in 60 AD, the local Roman procurator Catus Decianus confiscated Iceni lands, and had his soldiers flog Prasutagus' wife Boudicca and rape her daughters. This outrage, coupled with repressive Roman taxes to recover previous loans to the Iceni and tributes levied on the neighboring Trinovantes to build a Roman temple at Colchester, prompted a revolt of the two tribes lead by Boudicca.
Boudicca's host first sacked Colchester, massacring the inhabitants and tearing down the new temple. A vexillation of the 9th Legion (Legio Hispania) from Lincoln rushed to the region to suppress the rebellion, but was ambushed in line of march, with over 2000 Roman legionaries killed. Boudicca's army continued their march of retribution, torching Chelmsford and then Verulamium (near St. Albans). Londinium (London) was next, its buildings set to the torch and its inhabitants put to the sword. At this point, rather than dispersing with their loot, Boudicca was able to convince her host of the need for a decisive battle against the Romans in Britain before reinforcements could arrive from Gaul. Boudicca's army continued their advance northwest along the Watling Road to seek battle against the army of the Roman governor Seutonius Paulinus, as the war of retribution had become a war of liberation.
Seutonius had been campaigning with the 14th Legion against the Druids at Mona on the Isle of Anglesey. Returning at first news of the revolt, he was forced to abandon St. Albans and Londinium to their fate for lack of available troops. Instead, he gathered his forces at a defensible position along the Watling Street, which has been tentatively identified with the Roman fort at Mancetter (Manduessendum or "Place of Chariots"). Here he purportedly positioned his legions at the head of a wide defile (the valley of a small tributary to the River Anker), with thick forest and the fort itself to guard his flanks and rear. The River Anker also ran parallel across the front of the Roman position, although its effect on the subsequent battle is not clear.
Tactitus (Annals XIV) described the position as follows: "...He chose a position approached by a narrow defile and secured in the rear by a forest, first satisfying himself that there was no trace of an enemy except in his front, and that the plain there was devoid of cover and allowed no suspicion of an ambuscade."
According to Tacitus (Annals XIV), Seutonius had a total of 10,000 men, including his 14th Legion, a vexillation of the 20th Legion, and auxiliaries. Other estimates put the Roman force at 7000-8000 legionaries and 4000 auxiliaries (including cavalry). The size of Boudicca's army is more speculative, with Tacitus reporting 100,000 and Cassius Dio estimating a quarter of a million. Both sources agree, however, that the British forces had brought their families along to witness the decisive battle, and that their carts and wagons were arrayed encircling the rear of the British position, forming a signficant barrier to movement.
As the armies arrayed for battle, the commanders sought to motivate their respective soldiers. Boudicca is reputed to have told her followers, "win the battle or perish, that is what I, a woman will do; you men can live in slavery if that is what you want." Suetonius' remarks, recorded by Tactitus from the recollections of Agricola who was present at the battle, were more business-like: "Ignore the racket made by these savages. There are more women than men in their ranks. They are not soldiers - they're not even properly equipped. We've beatten them before and when they see our weapons and feel our spirit, they'll crack. Stick together. Throw the javelins, then push forward: knock them down with your shields and finish them off with your swords. Forget about booty. Just win and you'll have the lot."
The accounts indicate a fairly straight-forward battle along the lines encouraged by Seutonius. Boudicca lead her army forward across the plain and into the narrowing defile in a massive frontal attack. As they advanced, they were channeled into a tight mass. At approximately 40 yards, their advance was staggered by a volley of Roman pila. The Roman army then advanced, their superior discipline, tactics and equipment giving them a decisive edge in the close quarters fighting against the tightly packed British. As the British losses quickly mounted, the warbands began to give way, only to find that their encircling wagons provided an almost impassable barrier. The overall impression of the battle is of a "Cannae" effect, with the British wagons and carts providing the decisive containment.
The Roman army cut down an estimated 80,000 Britons, including women and children spectators in revenge for depredations committed at Colchester and London. Only 400 Roman soldiers (and an unknown number of auxiliaries) lost their lives. Fearing capture, Boudicca poisoned herself, and the great Iceni revolt was brought to a decisive end.
Order of Battle
Seutonius Paulinus (Early Imperial Roman) -- 1x4Bd (Gen), 7x4Bd, 2x4Ax or 2Ps, 2x3Cv or 2Lh
Boudicca (Ancient Britons) -- 1xLCh (Gen), 1xLCh, 18x3Wb, 2x2Ps, 2x2Lh
Terrain and Deployment
Romans deploy normally taking the wooded board edge. Then Britons deploy in the shaded area and take the first move.
Since the accounts do not mention the effect of the River Anker on the battle, it is assumed that the river is paltry.
It should be noted that Dr. Graham Webster in his work on Boudicca describes a more advanced Roman position, with the Roman legionary line arrayed along the River Anker, fronted by ditches to their front and flanks, and with the fort at Mancutter anchoring their left flank and the woods still to their rear. This position would not encompass the defile described by Tactitus, but would still be strong and well-suited to the close-order Roman tactics. The fact that the Roman flanks were relatively secure and Boudicca's approach was direct, would have forced the British to channel their large mass into the narrower Roman frontage regardless of terrain.
For this battle, to reflect the lack of cohesion caused by the hemming in of the British forces and their apparent loss of impetuous after the Roman pila volley, British warband do not receive a +1 bonus for second rank support.
The line of wagons and carts indicated on the battle map at the rear of the British position substitute for a camp element, but is not defended by camp followers and may not be "taken" for purpose of victory points. This line constitutes impassable terrain for purposes of this battle. Fleeing British elements must stop at the impassable line, but recoiling or pushed back elements are destroyed if forced into the line.
The Roman army does not have a camp, but draw their logistics from the fort (BUA) at Mancutter, which is positioned off the board to the Roman left.
The first side at the end of any bound who has lost either its general or (4 Roman or 8 British) elements and has lost more such elements than the enemy, loses the battle.
This battle experiments with unequal forces, with the Britons enjoying a 2-1 advantage in number of elements (as compared to their estimated 10-1 historical advantage in warriors) but attempts to provide a balanced game by use of the terrain board, elimination of the second rank support for Warband, and treatment of the British wagons/carts as impassable terrain. The author welcomes feedback on whether these and/or other adjustments succeed in producing the balance desired.
Heath Avery: We played the above scenario last night at the club to see how it worked. A few points arose. It was very interesting seeing 24 vs 12 elements on a board and drew attention if nothing else. We used a 36x24 board instead of the 24x24 which I think cost the Romans (my guys) any chance of victory...the field was too easy for the massed Brits to use. I feel it should be crammed into a regulation board without doubt. The warbands aren't as tough without their +1 supported value, that's for sure. In our refight, the Romans lost their 4 elements, they did kill 3 warbands as well before being overrun. I feel a better balance would be 18 British elements vs. the standard 12 Roman. Even on a 36-24 board, the Brits never used their psiloi or chariots (total 4 elements), 1 Light Horse had scampered around the flank but did nothing by the end of the games, and several Warband didn't fight either. On a 24x24 board, 24 elements would be too many. Of course it is designed for the big push back onto their womanfolk, etc., so maybe the extra elements are only there to be pushed back and crushed against the wagon wall. That's a tick for the 24 elements, maybe a special rule that recoiling warbands must recoil twice normal distance when beaten to represent their quickly faltering morale. Anyway, some food for thought.
Last Update: June 21, 2002
Scenario by Chris Brantley. Image of Boudicca in chariot features Corvus Belli miniatures and provided courtesy of Fernando Liste. Comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome. Send them to IamFanaticus@gmail.com.