Boudicca: Television or Tacitus?

caldrail

Ad Honorem
Feb 2012
5,303
#1
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.
 
Aug 2018
192
America
#2
"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"

What the hell kind of description is this? "Influence over a network of territories"? You talk as if Rome was the European Union of the ancient world or something. This could partially describe the Carolingian or the Holy Roman empires, but not the Roman Empire since the semi-divine absolute monarch had complete control over the entire land and what few (a literal handful) autonomous client kingdoms existed still were completely subordinated to his will. Also, your description of Roman expansion gives a very false impression because the vast majority of Roman territory was indeed acquired through violent military conquest, not just "many" and "of one sort or another" when conquest is purely military to begin with.

"describing Rome as a tyranny that trampled rebellions with violence and oppression "

This has been a standard Western, particularly Northern European description of Rome. The Dutch rebels said it, Montesquieu said it, even Gibbon agrees partially with it. Read the work "The Goths in England" by Samuel Kilger for the well-attested British tradition of demonising Rome as a tyranny of violence and oppression. Christopher B. Krebs' "A Most Dangerous Book: Tacitus's Germania from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich" also describes the history of Germanic nationalists, including English, German, Scandinavian and even French who identified as Germanic, who described the Roman Empire as a tyranny that was overthrown by Teutonic freedom.
 
Likes: Son of Athena
Nov 2018
347
Denmark
#3
The Romans didn’t rule only by blunt force, they never had that many soldiers.
The highest number of soldiers the Roman Empire had was in 211 AD and amounted to about half a million.
When thinking about the area they should cover and at the same time guarding the borders against invasion, it is not an overwhelming size.
No one will accuse the Romans of being peace and love-loving hippies; they could be extremely brutal if it served a purpose.
However, one of the ways they governed their subjects was to offer the blessings of civilization. As Monty Python so aptly showed in the Life of Brian.

 
Aug 2018
192
America
#4
The Romans didn’t rule only by blunt force, they never had that many soldiers.
The highest number of soldiers the Roman Empire had was in 211 AD and amounted to about half a million.
When thinking about the area they should cover and at the same time guarding the borders against invasion, it is not an overwhelming size.
No one will accuse the Romans of being peace and love-loving hippies; they could be extremely brutal if it served a purpose.
However, one of the ways they governed their subjects was to offer the blessings of civilization. As Monty Python so aptly showed in the Life of Brian.

Monty Python presents: Imperialist and Colonialist Propaganda

Also, for someone with a Germanic name, you surely sound like you love the same empire that Germanics condemned, fought against and helped overthrow.
 
#5
The Romans didn’t rule only by blunt force, they never had that many soldiers.
The highest number of soldiers the Roman Empire had was in 211 AD and amounted to about half a million.
When thinking about the area they should cover and at the same time guarding the borders against invasion, it is not an overwhelming size.
No one will accuse the Romans of being peace and love-loving hippies; they could be extremely brutal if it served a purpose.
However, one of the ways they governed their subjects was to offer the blessings of civilization. As Monty Python so aptly showed in the Life of Brian.

I have read that actually the Roman army did get larger under the Tetrarchs (I think it was in: Strobel, K. 2007: Strategy and Army Structure between Septimius Severus and Constantine the Great, in Erdkamp, A Companion to the Roman Army, 267-285). But I agree that, all things considered, the Roman army wasn't actually very large. Until the Tetrarchs the imperial administration was also ludicrously small in terms of manpower. The administration of the pre-Tetrarchic empire was very much a hands-off administration. Emperors intervened when petitioned, and the cities of the empire were mostly left to their own devices. To quote Smith (2011: Measures of Difference: The Fourth-Century Transformation of the Roman Imperial Court, American Journal of Philology 132: 125–51) 135-6: 'In the mid third century, it has been estimated, there had been around three-hundred salaried senior civil servants to administer the empire, working with clerical assistance of (at most) 10,000 slaves and freedmen of the imperial household. Estimates of the total size of the bureaucracy of the mid to late fourth century, by contrast, put it at around 35,000, of whom perhaps as many as 6,000 held "upper-level" posts that presupposed senatorial status or automatically conferred it.'

The Roman Empire became an appealing concept for many. It incorporated different peoples through the offer of citizenship, provision of arable land, membership of the aristocratic classes, service in the armies and employment in imperial administration. Even before the foundation of Constantinople, a general born in Trier and employed on the Rhine was as much a Roman as a senator in Rome itself. 'Rome' became an ideology. It was bigger than the city from which it had originated. This is why the concept of being Roman remained alive in the eastern empire, and even before that, in the Gallic, Palmyrene and British empires of the third century.
 
Likes: Runa
#7
I have read that actually the Roman army did get larger under the Tetrarchs (I think it was in: Strobel, K. 2007: Strategy and Army Structure between Septimius Severus and Constantine the Great, in Erdkamp, A Companion to the Roman Army, 267-285). But I agree that, all things considered, the Roman army wasn't actually very large. Until the Tetrarchs the imperial administration was also ludicrously small in terms of manpower. The administration of the pre-Tetrarchic empire was very much a hands-off administration. Emperors intervened when petitioned, and the cities of the empire were mostly left to their own devices. To quote Smith (2011: Measures of Difference: The Fourth-Century Transformation of the Roman Imperial Court, American Journal of Philology 132: 125–51) 135-6: 'In the mid third century, it has been estimated, there had been around three-hundred salaried senior civil servants to administer the empire, working with clerical assistance of (at most) 10,000 slaves and freedmen of the imperial household. Estimates of the total size of the bureaucracy of the mid to late fourth century, by contrast, put it at around 35,000, of whom perhaps as many as 6,000 held "upper-level" posts that presupposed senatorial status or automatically conferred it.'

The Roman Empire became an appealing concept for many. It incorporated different peoples through the offer of citizenship, provision of arable land, membership of the aristocratic classes, service in the armies and employment in imperial administration. Even before the foundation of Constantinople, a general born in Trier and employed on the Rhine was as much a Roman as a senator in Rome itself. 'Rome' became an ideology. It was bigger than the city from which it had originated. This is why the concept of being Roman remained alive in the eastern empire, and even before that, in the Gallic, Palmyrene and British empires of the third century.
Now, certainly Roman expansion was mostly built upon conquest, but it seems to me that Cadrail's point is that it is simplistic to think that the subjects of the Roman Empire were all itching to break free if not for the Roman army. And I agree with Cadrail: that would be too simplistic a take.
 
Likes: Runa

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