Monday, August 13, 2012

Underdog Battles 2: Battle of Watling Street

Battle of Watling Street

Where and When: England, AD 60/61
Who: The Iceni vs Roman legion in England

What will you do if your local douchebag ruler make sure that your late husband's will was ignored, your land was confiscated, your body was flogged, and your daughter was raped? What will you do if you know that most of your neighbors and even your rivals share similar experiences? And lastly, what will you do knowing most of the ruler's army was not nearby, since they are currently fighting faraway from your territory? It's a no-brainer of course, you screamed your rage and started a rebellion to revenge all of those humiliations.

That was what happened to the leader of Iceni tribe in ancient England, Boadicea/Boudicca, who rebelled against Roman rules. Since this happened in ancient time, she also slaughtered every single Romans she met. More and more Englishmen joined her ranks.

Boadicea first target: Camulodunum/Colchester. He quickly burned, looted, massacred that city, and wiped out the 9th Legion who tried to relieve the city. Next target: Londinium/London. The Romans swiftly evacuated the city, but what remains in the city shared the fate of Camulodunum. Boadicea and her tribes were still furious, they totally slaughtered Verulamium/St Albans next.

The Opposing Forces:
Meanwhile, the England governor, Suetonius scrambled scrambled to gather all Roman legions and auxillaries he could get. He managed to muster around 10.000 soldiers. Compare that with Boadicea who managed to gather at least 80.000, at most 230.000 warriors. He was not eager to fight the enraged Iceni, especially when he heard how they wiped out the 9th Legion.

Here I have to stress the different between SOLDIERS vs WARRIORS. They are not the same. Samuel Huntington said in his "The Soldier and the State" book that soldiers emphasize DISCIPLINE and TEAMWORK while warriors emphasize BRAVERY and SINGLE COMBAT. An empire like Rome, the Persian, the ancient Chinese usually used soldiers as the backbone of their military, like modern states in contemporary era. A tribe like the Iceni, the Xiongnu, the Goths, etc usually have their forces consisted of warriors.

Another differences between the Romans and the Iceni was their weapon. The Iceni was equipped with long and broad swords, designed primarily to slash. This is consistent with their warrior-like nature, that prefer spread formation where each warrior could swing their sword freely. On the other hand, the Romans used gladius, a short sword. Its primary function is to stab. This is also consistent with soldier-like nature of the Romans who fight in tight formation, so they can't swing their sword freely. Important note: neither type of styles and weapons could be regarded as an advantage per se, they limited the user's capability in their own ways.

Another crucial differences was, the Romans were fully armored and shielded, while the Iceni only used shield. This difference also could not be regarded as automatically give an advantage to one side. An armored soldier could withstand more arrows, stabs, and slashes, but an unarmored warrior has better speed, mobility, and agility.

There is another difference too. Boadicea bring her whole tribe to watch the battle. Yup, she brought the wagons full of her warriors family and relatives into the battlefield. Her logic? It is only fitting for a tribe to see and take pride when their warriors crushing their enemies! To be fair, she was not alone. Tribes everywhere did this, even those who fought the Chinese Empire in Far East.

The last difference was in their motivation. The Iceni literally fought for their freedom, while the Romans fought for their life. And this last difference were even more articulated when the battle was about to begin.

Preparation for the battle:
Suetonius know exactly the disadvantage of his forces: he could be easily surrounded and overwhelmed by the Icenis. But, he also knew his advantage well: in battle of endurance, the discipline and well-armored men had distinct advantage. That's why he choose to positioned his forces between 2 forests, facing a large field. That means, Boadicea would be force to commit her warriors piecemeal. 

Then, both Suetonius and Boadicea gave inspirational speech to their troops. This was the time when the difference between their motivation was articulated in extrimis. Boadicea spoke about how this fight was literally the fight to revenge the humiliation they have received, the fight for the freedom of their land, their family, and their life from the Roman yoke. Not for her, but for all of them. In essence: a typical fight for freedom, a "Hero speech" done by the heroes in many movies.

On the other hand, Suetonius' speech was "Fuck those barbarians. They are only women, pussies, and beasts. YOU slaughter them everyday, YOU rape them everyday. Today is a good day to kill and rape them all! Once again: fuck them all!" In essence: a typical misogynistic, racist, contemptuous "Tyrant speech" from the bad guy in many movies. 

Seriously? He even gave his motivational speech as a douche? Yes, and it is the Roman historians who said so. One of them is Tacitus whose father-in law was one of Suetonius' legionnaire, so they based it on first-hand experience.

After those 2 speeches, the battle begun.

The Battle
A Pilum. From wikipedia
Boadicea's warriors rushed to the Roman's position. The Roman legions throw their spear at them. The Roman spears, pilum, plural: pila, was a very unique result of military engineering. It's point was more or less a large needle. It could kill anyone they hit, but even if they hit their shields, the spear would stuck and damaged, so the shield bearer had to discard the shield to move comfortably. When the Iceni warriors approached the Roman positions, they were hammered by stones, arrows, and other projectile weapons shot by the Roman Auxillaries.

When the weakened warriors finally reached the Roman lines, they hit a wall of shield, protected armored Legionnaires who blocked all their slash and suddenly busted their face with their shield, or stab them with the Gladius. Oh yeah, the legionnaires also rotate their frontline with legionnaires from behind, to make sure every single legionnaire shared the same burden of the battle, increasing their durability even more. They fought in a situation where the warrior's speed and agility didn't mean much, while the legionnaire's durability means everything.

Boadicea repeated this attack several times. She even threw the Berserker: scary naked warriors with axes on both hands, and tattoes or blood or both covering their bodies. It didn't work too. Unnerved by the berserker, the Roman army simply stand their ground, butchered every naked warriors that approached their front line, just like they butchered ordinary warriors.

When Suetonius saw the warriors already demoralized, he ordered his troops to march forward. Unlike the warrior who rushed in open formations, the Roman legions keep their formation tight, but change their front-line formation from a simple line to saw-tooth. They systematically cut down all warriors on their path.

The warriors panicked and tried to flee. The problem is: their escape path was blocked by their own wagons and families. In typical ancient war scenario, the Romans killed almost everyone, including children, and enslaved those who survived. Only 400 Romans were killed.

The Aftermath
Boadicea escaped the massacre but later killed herself. Despite the massacres she had done, until today, she is considered as freedom fighter and hero.

Emperor Nero in Rome was surprised by the massacres of the 3 cities, and even contemplated to give up England. Suetonius' victory erased his doubt, and he decided to stay.

Despite his victory, Suetonius was recalled. The Romans recognized that this rebellion was caused by Suetonius being a douchebag toward the local people, so they decided to send nicer governor to govern the island.

Finally: this battle is an evidence that a cliche speech is not enough to win a war, even when you also have a cliche just cause. Battles and wars are not won by the most righteous one, but by the one who can employ better power.

Previous underdog battle: The Battle of Tassafaronga


  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  2. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.