Today’s installment concludes Romans Conquer Britain,
our selection from The History of England: from Earliest Times to the Death George II by Oliver Goldsmith published in 1814.
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Previously in Romans Conquer Britain.
Time: 60 – 79 AD
Notwithstanding these misfortunes, the Britons were not subdued, and this island was regarded by the ambitious Romans as a field in which military honor might still be acquired. The Britons made one expiring effort to recover their liberty in the time of Nero, taking advantage of the absence of Paulinus, the Roman general, who was employed in subduing the isle of Anglesey. That small island, separated from Britain by a narrow channel, still continued the chief seat of the Druidical superstition, and constantly afforded a retreat to their defeated forces. It was thought necessary therefore to subdue that place, in order to extirpate a religion that disdained submission to foreign laws or leaders; and Paulinus, the greatest general of his age, undertook the task.
The Britons endeavored to obstruct his landing on that last retreat of their superstitions and liberties, both by the force of their arms and the terrors of their religion. The priests and islanders were drawn up in order of battle upon the shore, to oppose his landing. The women, dressed like Furies, with disheveled hair, and torches in their hands, poured forth the most terrible execrations. Such a sight at first confounded the Romans and fixed them motionless on the spot; so that they received the first assault without opposition. But Paulinus, exhorting his troops to despise the menaces of an absurd superstition, impelled them to the attack, drove the Britons off the field, burned the Druids in the same fires they had prepared for their captive enemies, and destroyed all their consecrated groves and altars.
In the meantime the Britons, taking advantage of his absence, resolved, by a general insurrection, to free themselves from that state of abject servitude to which they were reduced by the Romans. They had many motives to aggravate their resentment — the greatness of their taxes, which were levied with unremitting severity; the cruel insolence of their conquerors, who reproached that very poverty which they had caused, but particularly the barbarous treatment of Boadicea, queen of the Iceni, drove them at last into open rebellion.
Prasatagus, king of the Iceni, at his death had bequeathed one-half of his dominions to the Romans, and the other to his daughters; thus hoping by the sacrifice of a part to secure the rest in his family; but it had a different effect; for the Roman procurator immediately took possession of the whole, and when Boadicea, the widow of the deceased, attempted to remonstrate, he ordered her to be scourged like a slave, and violated the chastity of her daughters. These outrages were sufficient to produce a revolt through the whole island. The Iceni, being the most deeply interested in the quarrel, were the first to take arms; all the other states soon followed the example, and Boadicea, a woman of great beauty and masculine spirit, was appointed to head the common forces, which amounted to two hundred and thirty thousand fighting men.
These, exasperated by their wrongs, attacked several of the Roman settlements and colonies with success, Paulinus hastened to relieve London, which was already a flourishing colony; but found on his arrival that it would be requisite, for the general safety, to abandon that place to the merciless fury of the enemy. London was therefore soon reduced to ashes; such of the inhabitants as remained in it were massacred; and the Romans with all other strangers to the number of seventy thousand were cruelly put to the sword. Flushed with these successes the Britons no longer sought to avoid the enemy, but boldly came to the place where Paulinus awaited their arrival, posted in a very advantageous manner with a body of ten thousand men. The battle was obstinate and bloody. Boadicea herself appeared in a chariot with her two daughters and harangued her army with masculine firmness; but the irregular and undisciplined bravery of her troops was unable to resist the cool intrepidity of the Romans. They were routed with great slaughter; eighty thousand perished in the field, and an infinite number were made prisoners, while Boadicea herself, fearing to fall into the hands of the enraged victor, put an end to her life by poison. Nero soon after recalled Paulinus from a government where, by suffering and inflicting so many severities, he was judged improper to compose the angry and alarmed minds of the natives.
After an interval, Cerealis received the command from Vespasian, and by his bravery propagated the terror of the Roman arms. Julius Frontinus succeeded Cerealis both in authority and reputation. The general who finally established the dominion of the Romans in this island was Julius Agricola, who governed it during the reigns of Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian, and distinguished himself as well by his courage as humanity.
Agricola, who is considered as one of the greatest characters in history, formed a regular plan for subduing and civilizing the island, and thus rendering the acquisition useful to the conquerors. As the northern part of the country was least tractable, he carried his victorious arms thither, and defeated the undisciplined enemy in every encounter. He pierced into the formerly inaccessible forests and mountains of Caledonia; he drove onward all those fierce and intractable spirits who preferred famine to slavery, and who, rather than submit, chose to remain in perpetual hostility. Nor was it without opposition that he thus made his way into a country rude and impervious by nature.
He was opposed by Galgacus at the head of a numerous army, whom he defeated in a decisive action, in which considerable numbers were slain. Being thus successful, he did not think proper to pursue the enemy into their retreats; but embarking a body of troops on board his fleet, he ordered the commander to surround the whole coast of Britain, which had not been discovered to be an island till the preceding year. This armament, pursuant to his orders, steered to the northward, and there subdued the Orkneys; then making the tour of the whole island, it arrived in the port of Sandwich, without having met with the least disaster.
During these military enterprises, Agricola was ever attentive to the arts of peace. He attempted to humanize the fierceness of those who acknowledged his power, by introducing the Roman laws, habits, manners, and learning. He taught them to desire and raise all the conveniences of life, instructed them in the arts of agriculture, and, in order to protect them in their peaceable possessions, he drew a rampart, and fixed a train of garrisons between them and their northern neighbors, thus cutting off the ruder and more barren parts of the island and securing the Roman province from the invasion of a fierce and necessitous enemy. In this manner the Britons, being almost totally subdued, now began to throw off all hopes of recovering their former liberty, and, having often experienced the superiority of the Romans, consented to submit, and were content with safety. From that time the Romans seemed more desirous of securing what they possessed than of making new conquests, and were employed rather in repressing than punishing their restless northern invaders.
This ends our series of passages on Romans Conquer Britain by Oliver Goldsmith from his book The History of England: from Earliest Times to the Death George II published in 1814. This blog features short and lengthy pieces on all aspects of our shared past. Here are selections from the great historians who may be forgotten (and whose work have fallen into public domain) as well as links to the most up-to-date developments in the field of history and of course, original material from yours truly, Jack Le Moine. – A little bit of everything historical is here.
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