The Roman Invasion of Anglesey
by John Griffiths
Some military historians have argued that the murderous attack on Anglesey in
AD60 could be likened to butchery whilst history itself records that the
assault on the island was particularly vicious, with little quarter given. It
has been said to have been one of the bloodiest campaigns undertaken by the
Romans in Britain, acknowledging that the purpose of the campaign and its
leader - Suetonius Paullinus - were both well matched. In reality there were
only ever two ways in which to bring other civilisations under the pax Romana;
assimilation within the Roman way – or annihilation. History shows that Roman
achievements were won ruthlessly, even to the extent of destroying whole
civilisations in the process. Within the oft recalled expression concerning the
glories of Rome one must not forget that this same achievement was often won by
the Empire flexing its considerable muscle.
Initiated by Augustus Caesar, Pax Romana meant, in the most simple of terms,
'Peace of Rome'. Lasting some 200 years in total, it was a time of prosperity
allowing law, culture and economic growth to flourish throughout the empire.
During this period conflicts with those outside of the empire were both few and
far between for, by fairly governing the conquered and the vanquished alike, it
allowed those under Roman rule to become citizens. It was, at its height, a
time of real stability, a period when it could truly be said all roads led to
Rome. However to maintain it, it needed the might of the legions and the
strategic thinking of their commanders.
Like many periods of unrest throughout history, the prime mover for the Roman
assault and invasion of Anglesey lay in the religious significance posed by
Druidism. The Celts were not a fanatically religious people but the Romans saw
Druidism as a serious menace - and Anglesey, spiritual home of the Druids, as
the centre of that threat. The Romans were hostile to Druidism as it not only
banded together individuals in a common focus but also allowed for an
infrastructure of rebellion to flourish. So long as there were Druids in
Britain, then rebellion and resistance would continue amongst the tribes and
this, in turn, threatened the expansionism of the Empire itself. This challenge
was seen as a significant - as well as strategic - threat as Anglesey remained
the last bastion of Druidism in the British Isles. Its importance in any future
Roman planning in terms of occupation and control could not, therefore, be
The Celts, as a race of people, had been around at the dawn of European
civilisation and can be said to be one of the great founding peoples of Europe.
They came to Europe from their original homeland, situated around the
headwaters of the Danube, the Rhine and the Rhone – rivers that still carry
their Celtic names. This took place around the First Millennium BC and by the
Third Century BC, settlements were established across Europe – from the Turkish
Central Plain to Britain and Ireland. When we talk of Celts today however, we
can refer to only six peoples who have survived over this time. These are the
Scots, Irish, Manx, Cornish, Breton and Welsh peoples. Each has its own
indigenous language - Gaelic or Brythonic - with individual localised
variations peculiar to the region though sharing an overall common likeness.
These languages are still spoken in Britian today.
In terms of religion the Celts did not have what we perceive nowadays to be a
sense of worship nor, for that matter, did they have any formal God structure.
The Celts believed that the environment and many objects had magical links and
this resulted in both ritual and sacrifice to appease these myriad deities –
including, according to Roman records, human sacrifice. Their sacred places
were situated in woods or simple groves. The priestly class, the Druids, were
the only tribe members permitted to carry out any of the ceremonies involved as
they had been chosen at birth to follow this path. The Druids were also
responsible for the telling of sacred myths, whose legacy lives on today in
traditional Celtic literature. However, the Celts were orators – they did not
commit these legends and myths to paper; that came much later on in history
long after the Celts had vanished as a distinct group of people. It is to the
Romans we must turn for accounts of this period.
In terms of ritual, the Roman historian Pliny mentions one such ceremony
conducted by the Druids involving the oak tree, still considered sacred to
modern day Druids. Mistletoe was ritually cut from the oak, and accompanied by
the sacrifice of a bull. There are arguments as to whether the ritual was
agrarian based – a farming blessing - or whether it had a deeper cultural
significance though the exact purpose of this is both obscure and yet to be
accurately determined. Within Druidic lore however, the mistletoe symbolises
life through death. Pliny stated:
' It was gathered with due religious ceremony, if possible on the sixth day of
the Moon when the influence of the orb was said to be at its height ' Pliny
also record that the mistletoe, when taken in drink 'imparts fecundity to
barren animals and that it is an antidote to all known poisons'.
The position of the Druids was closely interwoven within Celtic life and their
influence was very powerful. Whilst Britain had a reputation as being home to
the Druidic movement, Anglesey played a significant part in British and tribal
cohesion being, as it was, the centre for Druidism in Britain. This importance
as a central focus within both the Druidic belief system and as a strategic
source of angst to the Romans could not be underestimated.
Situated off the mainland of North Wales and surrounded by sea, the only
realistic approach available to any would-be invader was from the sea itself.
Although the strip of water dividing Anglesey from mainland Wales is narrow, it
is flushed by strong tides and peppered by quicksands. Without an accurate
knowledge of these hazards, without an accurate understanding of the tides, an
attack from this direction must have seemed foolhardy to the inhabitants and
Druidic priests. As such, they must have felt secure. Anglesey is known in
Welsh as Mam Cymru, which means Mother of Wales. It is also a bountiful island.
As well as its religious status, it was rich in grain and had good farmland. It
had copper mines where ornaments and weapons alike were fashioned. There were
few hills, large expanses of lush plains, good streams. Forests straddled the
whole island and the sea that surrounded it provided good fishing. Anglesey
could theoretically survive without mainland Wales. Mainland North Wales itself
is an area covered by mountains and valleys. The terrain allowed local tribes
to successfully engage and skirmish with any Roman soldiery sent in to the
district - so much so that the area was regarded as being extremely hostile
militarily. The indigenous tribes (mainly the Ordovices) that occupied the area
had been a thorn in the side of succesive Roman leaders ever since Caratacus
escaped - reputedly to lead the tribes in northern Wales - after Claudius had
invaded southern England in AD 43.
The Romans named Anglesey Mona Insulis, perhaps affording the island a more
accurate nomenclature than that given it by its inhabitants. However, the
insularity enjoyed by the Druids and the tribes on the island was to be short
lived. Rome would see to that.
Rome itself had long since considered the area of Wales - and certainly
Anglesey - as being key to any succesful occupation of Britain. Its importance
lay in it being the centre of a common religion, a religion that preserved
national consciousness across many tribal divisions. Anglesey therefore
presented the continuing possibility of a unified threat, of a resistance, to
Resistance was something the Romans did not take lightly.
A Brief History of Rome and Britain
The Romans invaded Britain in AD 43, under the command of Aulus Plautinus. The
Emperor Claudius visited the isles briefly to view the new province but
returned to Rome soon after. Perhaps the climate did not appeal to him?
In military terms nothing had been seen to match the Roman Army. Indeed, it was
not until a thousand years after the end of Empire that anything appeared to
equal them. They were a well-organised, well-disciplined and well-trained force
of men whose tactics and methodology in warfare were to be the mainstay of
military tacticians for centuries after. Even today, we still marvel at the
brilliance of the campaigns and at the way they were instrumental in pushing
Rome's expansionism far beyond its natural borders.
When the Romans landed in Britain it was in the guise of offering help to
Verica, King of the Atrebates, in what is now Hampshire. Verica had contacted
Rome to assist him in repelling the powerful Catuvellauni tribe. Claudius had
four legions and their auxiliaries shipped from Gaul under the command of Aulus
Plautinus. Landing at Richborough and at other points on the Kent coast, the
Roman Army established a base with no significant interference from the local
tribes. Soon they moved inland, crossing the River Medway and pushing the local
tribes back as far as the River Thames. They met resistance here – answered by
Plautinus committing his specialist Batavian troops to the fore by fording the
river and quickly establishing a beachhead. With the local tribes promptly
subdued, the Romans built a fort and waited for the arrival of Claudius.
Claudius duly arrived but before he left in August of that year, he flexed his
muscles as asked by Verica – though his intentions were more than an answer for
help. The army marched on the Catuvellauni – their capital was at Camulodunum,
which is modern Colchester - and captured it without difficulty. There Claudius
received a formal surrender of a number of tribes and then returned to Rome. He
left orders to the army in Britain to crush the inland tribes and bring the
province under the 'protection' of Rome. Against the seasoned and experienced
army there was little put up in the way of stubborn resistance.
By AD 47, the army had given the emperor almost half of the island of Britain.
Between AD 59 and AD 61, Wales itself was to feel the full power of Rome.
History records that three legions were probably dominant in Britain around
this time. These were:
II Augusta, probably stationed at Exeter and under the command of Poenius
Postumius at the time of the Anglesey invasion. During the invasion of AD 43,
Vespasian - who later became emporer - had commanded the legion. The II Augusta
was reformed, by Augustus, from an earlier legion. It remained in Britain
throughout the Empire, being last recorded at Richborough in the late 4th and
early 5th Century. This legion were from Strasbourg.
XIV Gemina - later Gemina Martia Victrix - which was the backbone of the army
in Britian and considerably experienced. Hailing from Mainz, they were based at
Wroxeter. The term Gemina serves to imply that it was made up of either two
legions made from one original or one made from two legions. The legion is
reported to have left Britain in AD 66, returning temporarily in AD 70, but
thereafter leaving permanently.
Vexillations of the XX probably based at Deva (Chester) and later known as XX
Valeria Victrix. This legion was part of the invasion army, hailing originally
from Nuess, and was last recorded as being in Britain towards the end of the
3rd Century. The main base was probably at Kingsholme near Gloucester but this
has not been fully confirmed. Some elements of this legion remained at
Colchester during the Welsh campaign
The XIV Gemina were commanded by Quintus Veranius until his death, when he was
succeeded by Gaius Suetonius Paullinus, the man responsible for the first
invasion of Anglesey and, later, for the defeat of Boudicca. Paullinus was well
versed in the arts of command, strategy and warfare. He had been a legate in
Maurentania during its conquest by Rome and was noted as being the first Roman
to cross the Atlas Mountains. He had even written a book describing his
experiences. Around AD 57, Suetonious Paullinus took part in the settling a
general uprising in south east Britain. Here the Trinovantes and Iceni had
revolted, inflicting heavy damage on the colony at Camulodunum, where they had
massacred the colonists. Both London and Verulamium also fell to the native
tribesmen. Paullinus, mustering only some ten thousand men, took on the
uprising gaining a decisive victory in the process. 80,000 of the rebellious
Britons perished against Paullinus's troops - some ten thousand more than had
been killed in the three sacked colonies. For this deed, Suteonius Paullinus
was commended, his prowess and leadership acknowledged by Rome.
A hint of what sort of man Paullinus was can be seen in the complaint made
about his brutal reprisals against those who had dared to stand against Rome. A
Procurator, C. Julius Alpinus, protested to the Emporor about the manner in
which Paullinus was acting. In response, Nero sent Polyclitus, a freedman, to
examine the case. On completion of the examination of the facts, Paullinus was
recalled to Rome and relieved of his British command - but did not lose either
his prestige nor the favour he had gained amongst the powerful in Rome. On the
death of Quintus Veranius, sometime around 58-9, Suetonius Paullinus returned
Initially commanding the IInd Augusta, he fought many battles, conquered two
tribes, took 20 towns - and, under Vespasian, captured the Isle of Wight. He
was still seen by his superiors as a loyal and experienced soldier, a man who
got results. By late AD 59, Suetonius Paullinus was established as commander of
the XIV Gemina. His fame was established and his star was still rising - and he
knew this. Now he looked at Wales and in particular at Anglesey. Centre of
Druidism, grain store for the mainland with its rich copper mines for metalwork
and weapons, it was a strategic target that he planned to capture and garrison.
By doing so he knew that Rome would be able to control Wales and thus annexe
even more of Britain to the Emporor.
The Legionary and the Legion
A legionary was required by law to be a Roman citizen on enlistment. As such he
enjoyed privileges 'before the law' and not ordinarily available to other
citizens. However, in times when manpower was short, conditions were relaxed to
the point where non-Roman citizens were recruited and enlisted being afforded
citizenship as a result. Signing up for 25 years, the recruit was put through a
particularly gruelling period of basic training in order to provide him with
not just military skills but also the sort of skills needed on campaign. In
modern terms, this would be similar to a specialist rank such as Combat
Engineer. Life in the ranks was tough, even during training, and was not
relaxed when the recruit became a fully fledged legionary. The Romans were
noted for their harsh discipline - stoning to death, for example, being the
punishment for anyone found asleep on guard duty.
Advancement for the exceptional legionary was good. Specialist training was
available, and any individual with promise could rise through the ranks
achieving high status relatively quickly. Advancement was encouraged and
individuals showing promise nurtured and supported to achieve more.
In terms of personal weaponry, the legionary was well equipped. They carried
two pilums, a javelin designed to be hurled at the enemy ranks. This weapon had
a heavy iron head fitted to the end of an untempered iron spike itself secured
to a wooden shaft by a thin peg of wood. On impact, the peg would break or the
thin iron spike would bend - rendering the pilum useless - though its purpose
was fulfilled. If thrown at an enemy shield for example, then the weapon would
affix itself and add weight to the shield which in turn disadvantaged its
bearer. This tactic had a distinct advantage for the legionary - as, drawing
closer to his enemy, he would have the superior advantage in terms of mobility.
The legionary was also equipped with a gladius - a short sword designed mainly
for stabbing. This weapon was particulary useful in close quarter fights and
was very effective in battlefield melees. Even the shield issued to the
legionary was designed to be fought with. Fitted with a solid iron or bronze
boss and edged with metal, it could be used to smash into an enemy who,
distracted, would then fall victim to the well aimed thrust of the gladius.
Each legionary was also issued with a broad leafed dagger as a side arm.
Personal protection was provided by body armour and by a helmet fitted with
cheek and neck guards. Chain mail fitted over a wool jerkin was typical of this
period - the more familiar segmented body armour coming later. In some cases,
metal leg guards fitted from ankle to knee may have been worn - there is no
distinct proof of this, however.
The rank and file legionary therefore were troops trained not just in
battlefield infantry skills but in the myriad skills needed to sustain a
campaign in the field. They worked as engineers constructing roads, marching
camps, outposts, bridges. Individuals trained as artisans, as surveyors -
resulting in little outside specialist help being needed on campaigns - all
vital in ensuring the legion was wholly self-supporting.
The legion was made up of some 5500 infantry. Each was divided up into ten
cohorts comprising six centuries of 80 men each. However, the first cohort had
five double centuries. In order of rank, each century had its own Centurion and
Optio, the senior of which was a Primus Pilus who was the Centurion of the
first century of the first cohort. Cohorts also had a Tesserarius, Signifer and
Cornicularius. These equate to NCO ranks in modern terms but have no real
direct opposite. In terms of NCO status, the Optio was second-in-command to the
Centurion and had been identified as promising in terms of promotion. As well
as fulfilling his role as ordinary soldier, the Optio would also learn
administration and leadership skills to prepare him for possible advancement
within the Centuriate. One other role of the Optio was the keeping of records
of men within his particular century.
The Centurions were without doubt the backbone of the legion. Chosen by virtue
of their long service and experience, they reinforced discipline throughout the
lower ranks and were also often first in line themselves for severe reprimand
and punishment if there was trouble within the ranks themselves. In terms of
rank advancement, a Centurion who showed promise could be promoted to command
an auxiliary unit. However, the position most aspired to was that of Chief
Centurion - commanding the first century of the first cohort ( and thus the
cohort itself ) - the Primus Pilus. Once military service was completed, the
Centurion could either retire or take on further service as camp prefect. This
role fell to men with considerable experience in combat who had also served
within the ranks. Seniority was such that the rank also allowed the prefect to
serve as second in command of the legion itself, deputising control when the
Legate was absent. The most senior figure was known as the Praefectus Castrorum
literally a camp prefect.
Each legion had its own standard bearer, known as an Aquilifer. They also had
120 scouts as ala or cavalry available to them and much in the way of artillery
and logistics support.
There were also six Tribunes and a legate attached to each legion. The role of
the Legate is interesting in that men appointed to this role had previously
served in the position of Tribune. The Legate relied heavily on his Centurions
and other regulars for advice. The position was also one suited to those with
political aspirations as many Legates returned to Rome to seek, and occupy,
high political office. Politics played a key role in individual aspirations
within the army. Senatorial status was afforded to the most senior Tribune,
known as Tribunus Laticlavius. Route of ascencion here was via this post,
advancing to Quaestor before being given command of a legion. Other tribunes,
such as the Tribuni Angusticlavii, could expect to go on to command other
units, normally auxilliaries.
It is also interesting to note that whilst in Britain the army also performed
another role It also acted as a police force, enforcing legislation and
committing itself to providing an administrative service. It served to patrol,
to keep law and order and peace between tribes - and to uphold the long arm of
the Empire and the word of the individual Emperor in power.
History records that the Romans, from the most junior rank to its most senior,
were highly trained and thoroughly professional soldiers. There is no doubt
that the Roman army was without equal at this period in history. In terms of
those legions involved during the Anglesey campaign, the XIV Gemina was battle
hardened, seasoned and wholly professional. The vexilla from the XX - a
vexillation comprised 2200 men on detachment from a legion - were also
seasoned. It was this very experienced army that Suetonuis Paullinus took with
him into Wales and later to defeat the Iceni Queen Boudicca.
The fighting in Wales had been sporadic, intermittent and heavy. The army faced
two tribes – the Silures of the southeast and the Ordovices led by Caractacus -
the son of the Catuvellaunian King Cunobelinus. Whilst another commander moved
against the tribes in the southeast ( II Augusta ), Paullinus led his legions -
the XIV Gemina and a vexillation of the XX - into northwest Wales where they
encountered heavy resistance from the locals - both Ordovices and Deceangli.
Despite this, the army made its mark until the opposition on the mainland was
effectively ended. Veranius had planned for a two year long campaign in Wales
but had died before he had seen its end. It would fall to his successor,
Paullinus, to complete. Having moved swiftly and decisively into North Wales,
there was only Anglesey to contend with.
Their opposition on Anglesey, whilst lacking the discipline and training of
Paullinus' Legions, did not lack courage. The tribes in Wales were,
essentially, guerilla fighters - hitting fast and hard at outposts and supply
convoys but never willingly engaging in open field warfare. In fact, the
Silures had taken over a dozen years to subjegate and had cost the Army a great
deal in terms of men and military committment. The inhabitants of North Wales
were certainly not going to be an easy foe to bring to their knees. However,
whilst they excelled at using the mountainous terrain to their advantage - and
had become a thorn in the side of the Romans as a result - what was to happen
on the bloody shores of Anglesey was to be an extreme example of how ruthless
and militarily efficient the Romans were.
The open battlefield tactics of the Celtic tribes were well known to the
Romans. The awesome, massed charge of the Celts in face to face combat -
designed to smash a path through an enemy - had been overcome within the Roman
ranks by the use of tight discipline, plentiful reserves and artillery and
cavalry support. The historian Strabo, writing around the 1st century AD said:
'The whole race, which is now called Celtic or Galatic, is madly fond of war,
high spirited and quick to battle, but otherwise straightforward and not of
evil character. And so, when they are stirred up they assemble in their bands
for battle, quite openly and without forethought; so that they are easily
handled by those who desire to outwit them. For at any time or place, and on
whatever pretext you stir them up, you will have them ready to face danger,
even if they have nothing on their side but their own strength and courage.'
No one can accurately say whether those who massed on the banks of the Menai
Straits did so as an organised foe or whether they answered a call to arms to
stand and defend the island. In typical Celt fashion, we can assume that they
spent a lot of time boasting across the water to the Romans - banging the flat
of their swords on their shields, shouting abuse and sounding off their war
trumpets. If they had charioteers then these would fly up and down their ranks,
the drivers taunting the enemy with displays of their skill.
In terms of personal weaponry and armour, the Celts were - by comparison -
lightly armed. The chief weapon was the sword, with some of the infantry
carrying javelins or spears. Some of the infantry would also have carried
daggers for personal defence in close combat. Shields would be large, fairly
narrow and oval or oblong in shape or smaller and round - we cannot be
historically sure given both the period ( which is not as well documented as
later Roman expeditions were ) and different tribes involved. Body armour would
have been scant for the Celts wore no breast plate. They would have had helmets
however - although the use of body armour must surely have depended on
individual ownership. It is likely that most of the defenders possessed no more
than basic weaponry with no personal armour of any substance.
In terms of tactics, if the Anglesey army had been organised then the Romans
could expect to meet javelin volleys followed by close hand to hand fighting in
which the use of chariots was key - dividing the legionarys, engaging with the
Roman cavalry and then withdrawing, coming in again and again until the divided
ranks of their foe could be dealt with by the men on the field - the infantry.
The battle would continue like this - charge, engage, retire. Re-group, charge,
engage - until the enemy was defeated or had withdrawn. Yet history does not
record how the Anglesey Celts stood and engaged the Romans so we can only
assume that the stand would have been based on tactics employed in earlier,
large scale confrontations. Whatever, there can be little doubt that the
tactics which would be used were already known and had been planned for by
Suetonius Paullinus. Having fought battle after battle in Britian, he would
have been aware of his foe - and how best to deal with them.
Whilst the island facing Paullinus was known to be heavily and fiercely
defended - it also presented Paullinus with a unique problem. Divided from
mainland Britain by the treacherous waters of what is now known as the Menai
Straits, he was faced with not only crushing the Celts and their religious
leaders on Anglesey – he also had the problem of getting his army across.
He had, as one would have expected, come prepared.
Paullinus had brought with him not only his legions, but also artillery to
support them. Ballistae – catapults capable of throwing flaming missiles up to
2000 feet were very much in evidence. They could also be adapted to shoot iron
bolts or rocks, devastatingly effective against massed ranks or earthwork
fortifications. He also brought Onagers – which were able to hurl boulders or
small bags of stones accurately. These would have to have been dismantled for
the journey but, once erected, would provide artillery support that would be
devastating against massed ranks. Onagers were siege weapons but, used in this
campaign, their use in firing across the water, laying down a barrage in
support of the amphibious operation, would not have escaped Paullinus's
attention. The Legions also brought crossbows and spare weapons as part of the
huge logistics train vital to support the invasion itself.
All the machinery of war that had been used successfully throughout Europe was
thus brought to the field of coming battle. Paullinus had also brought small
flat-bottomed boats which he planned to use to support his advance into
Anglesey. Unlike the previous assualt on the Isle of Wight, which had been
aided by vessels of the Roman Navy, the situation concerning Anglesey was
different. The Menai Straits is a narrow strip of water dividing Anglesey from
mainland Britain - but it is tidal and fast flowing on both flood and ebb
tides.. Under other circumstances, the Romans would have connected bridgeworks
to these boats to enable to infantry and cavalry to land on the far shore. The
spot chosen by Paullinus was some 250 yards across - but Paullinus had
reasoned, correctly, that bridges would be useless. They would be wrecked in a
very short time by the action of the swift flowing currents. His plan was to
use the boats as landing craft for his infantry, crossing at slack water,
supported by cavalry swum across - and all covered by a bombardment of fire and
stones. With this in mind, and in full view of the Celts on the far shore,
Paullinus made his camp at what is known today as Llanfairisgaer, outside of
Paullinus knew that the Anglesey Druids and the people who occupied the island
had held out against Rome for too long. He also knew their arrogance and sense
of strength would have to be smashed completely if the invasion was to be a
success. To this end he had with him veteran soldiers who had fought not only
in Britain but also across Europe – seasoned troops whose worth in battle was
beyond question. Paullinus also knew the opposition was made up of lightly
armed tribesmen, including many refugees from the mainland advance, whose
armour was non-existent and who did not have the battlefield support he and his
army possessed. Whilst he reasoned that they would be no easy adversary it is
reported that he anticipated there being little trouble in defeating them; but
first he had to get across.
On the fateful morning, the preparations for the invasion began in earnest.
Boats were carried down to the edge of the water, the infantry awaiting the
order to row across. The ballistae and onegers were charged and ready, the
crossbows primed and set. Having formed his cavalry up to swim their mounts
over during the slack tide, Paullinus addressed his troops.
Meanwhile, on the far bank, thousands of tribesmen had gathered. Whilst the
Druids invoked dark forces on the invaders, the tribesmen beat their shields
with the flat of their swords and cheered, jeered and insulted the Romans.
Women – wild painted, shrieking madly – danced naked through the irregular
ranks and waved torches of fire to warm their men folk to the heat of battle.
The melee must have sounded like the very harpies of Hades to the disciplined
Roman troops. Many of the Romans were riveted in terror, others – perhaps more
seasoned – looked both at the occupied ground and the water they must cross and
debated their chances of success. The tribes on the opposite bank held the
higher ground. To gain it, the Romans had to ford the Straits, make the shore –
and only then would they be able to meet their enemy in battle. Tacitus
recorded that many of the soldiery stood 'watching fearfully, their limbs
shaking in terror'.
Paullinus knew his troops were apprehensive. He rode amongst them, chiding them
for their unfounded fears and reminding them of their honour as Roman soldiers.
He reminded them too of what they would face when they returned to Rome and
probably told them of the disgrace they would face for having been intimidated
by a people no less than savages, mere guerilla fighters who did not know the
honour of full battle. It is recorded that he began to win his men around,
stirring them eventually into a battle frenzy and filling them with a sense of
duty and obligation. He would have urged them on to victory, speaking of the
glory that would be theirs when the battle was won, telling them of the honours
they would receive for defeating the foe on the far bank. Whatever he said to
them, it worked. The army that took to the water that day did so with a vigour
bordering on a blood frenzy.
The boats were launched. Accompanied by the cavalry who swam their horses over,
the legions began their assault on Anglesey. What a sight it must have been!
The beetle like craft slowly making their way across the slate grey waters of
the Menai Straits. Armed cavalrymen on horseback breasting foam as they swam
over to meet the enemy. More cavalry swimming across between the many boats
containing the heavily armed legionaries. The air filled with the whine and
shrieks of missiles as they flew from one bank to the other, their dull impact
raising both earth and the shrieks and moans of the enemy when they landed. The
shouting of Centurions and Principales. The screams of the tribesmen and their
supporters, the clash of metal swords on shield the mad martial music of
Yet, even before they had landed, there would have been, inevitably,
casualties. Boats capsized, sending the heavily armed troops to the bottom of
the Straits to drown. Arrows, fired in ranks against the invaders, would have
struck horse and rider, would have landed in the small boats killing many and
leaving the survivors to try and paddle for the shore - their work hindered by
the deadweight of their fallen comrades. Perhaps the Celts threw their javelins
as the first of the legion landed in an effort to stem the tide of invasion -
but it would have been of little use. One can only summise that the first
troops ashore would have waited until they were of sufficient number before
starting to make their move. The coast there is low, gently sloping up from the
beach, and the going - once the troops were clear of the water's edge - would
have been firm. The gradient is also gentle, not hilly, so any advantages the
Celts may have thought they had would have been very quickly dispelled by the
sheer number of troops coming ashore to form up for battle.
When they landed, the slaughter began in earnest. It is documented that the
Romans, perhaps goaded on by the shame they had shown before they had started
their transit across the waters, fought with ferocity and a fury that became
legendary throughout Britain. Slowly they established a beachhead, prepared the
ground for those who followed them – and then began to cut and slash their way
forward to establish their foothold.
The might of Rome must have looked awesome to the rabble-like tribesmen that
opposed them. The Romans knew that breaking into the enemy line was the only
way to start a rout – which was always advantageous as it incurred heavy enemy
losses. After the fear and uncertainty of the river crossing the Romans would
have ordered their lines in to fight as they had always done – close combat
after having thrown their pilums to thin out the enemy line. With organised
efficiency, supported by cavalry and with their artllery having done a great
deal of work to thin out the enemy ranks and fortifications, they slowly - but
surely - began to take to the killing ground.
In routing the enemy – it is inconceivable that the tribesmen would have been
sufficiently organised enough to withstand such an assault – the killing began
in deadly earnest. After the uncertainties earlier in the day, after the river
crossing and initial contact with the enemy, the sight of a breaking line must
have appeared like a release to the tense Roman soldiers. Killing an enemy who
has run away is easier than killing one that stands to fight – and the Romans
exploited this weakness to the full. It is said that they spared none they met
on that bloody field of battle. Men, women and children were slaughtered,
butchered by an army spurred on by its earlier shame. Many of the Druids and
their followers were thrown into their sacred groves of oak and then burned
alive. There were, it is said, few prisoners taken.
How long the battle lasted is not known. What is, however, is the fact that the
Romans showed no quarter in the fight for Mona Insulis.
In contrast, whilst Suetonius Paullinus made his mark on Anglesey as the
bloodiest of the invaders, Agricola took the island 15 years later, garrisoning
it completely. Unlike Paullinus, Agricola used the Lavan Sands opposite
Beaumaris as his entry point. The swim was shorter, the landing easier. That he
met resistance goes without saying, that he quelled it is certainly true – but
if historical memory recalls any of the Romans it is Suetonius Paullinus whose
name is synonymous with the desperate and bloody butchery that was the first
invasion of Anglesey. Tacitus, the eminent Roman historian said of him:
" He proceeds always against the vanquished, even after they have surrendered,
with excessive vigour. Justice under his administration had frequently the air
of personal injury. ''
Today, the bloody shore runs from Moel-y-Don to the sou'west of Llanfair PG to
Tal-y-Foel opposite Caernarfon. Even today, the shore bears testimony to the
carnage of that day's events. Place names such as Bryn-y-Beddau, the Hill of
Graves, still appear on modern maps of the island. Here the islanders who
survived after Paullinus had left to fight Boudicca buried their dead. Above
the village of Llanidan, are two fields still known as The Field of the Long
Battle and the Field of Bitter Lamentation. There is also Plas Goch, the Red
Place; its name giving a hint to the story behind it.
Standing on the foreshore below Tal-y-Foel it wouldn't be hard to try and
picture the scene. Think of half naked men, dark haired and dark eyed, fair
skinned and blue eyed. Young and old. Small, wiry in stature, their bodies
decorated in blue woad. Carrying small shields made of leather skin and swords
made of iron. Around them, wild shrieking women and white robed Druids
lamenting and wailing to the heavens above. Hear the stattacco beat of metal on
leather, a stuttering heartbeat of defiance. Listen, on the wind, for the
screams and the shouting. The whistles and the jeers. Listen for the defiance.
Stand on that bloody shore, with your ear cocked to the sighing wind. Close
your eyes and see if you can catch again the horror of that long day. Imagine
what the island's defenders must have felt as they looked across the slate grey
waters of the straits, seeing the might of Rome displayed like a taunt on the
far bank. Tents and campfires, huge unknown tower-like machines. The glint of
sunlight on polished weapons, the whinnying and neighing of horses. Listen to
the first screams of the dying, the lamentations of the wounded. The pounding
march of Roman sandals, the jarring singing slash of sword against sword. The
drumbeat hooves of the cavalry. The trumpets….
…and then, the first sight of the dreaded foe. An armoured man, with shining
helmet, and huge shield. Approaching you under a hail of stones and short
spears thrown to decimate the very ranks you stand in. A man who advanced,
shoulder to shoulder with his comrades in a long unbroken line. Who fought you
with a disciplined ease, thrusting his shield boss against your face and then
stabbing upwards from the protection of the shield itself for your stomach,
slashing sideways to deflect a blow from one of your own ranks before coming at
…and behind him, more of the same supported by cavalry who thrust and stabbed
with spears and hacked indiscriminately at your own comrades with their swords.
The whole monstrous army moving against you like an unstoppable, human tide.
Dividing your ranks, scything down all who stood before them. Trampling over
the dead and the dying and moving with a merciless advance, driving you
backwards across the muddy field until you have no option but to stand, to
fight and to die or to flee -
- flee from the hot, coppery smell of blood. The scents of leather and sweat.
The animal grunting of the unstoppable foreigners who moved amongst you,
killing, butchering. Run from the carnage and the shrieking. Leave those whom
you once called friend dead or writhing in unspeakable agony on the muddy
Yet there would be no sanctuary that long bloody day. If you were lucky you
died in battle, facing the enemy. Those who managed to flee and run far enough
away would have made for the forests that then covered the island, using their
local knowledge to hide away from the invaders. Those who were caught were, so
history states, either put to the sword - or thrown alive into the many funeral
In a very short while, a brutal while, the tribes of Anglesey were decimated
and shattered, their holy men murdered and their sacred groves destroyed. Those
who survived probably fled to the forests which then covered the island or
perhaps further afield to the neighbouring island of Holyhead. Those left
wounded were butchered by the Legions who now dominated the land. Paullinus's
campaign for total victory in North Wales was done and the jewel in his crown
was the taking of Anglesey.
His triumph, however, was to be short lived. Not too soon after his victory he
and his legions were called away to fight Boudicca - another bloody chapter
that would be a decisive victory for Rome and an echoing defeat for the British
tribes. Anglesey would slumber, never quite awakening from the horror of the
assault, until Agricola landed 15 years later to garrison the island and bring
it fully under the pax Romana.
What is left today to attest to the Roman invasion of Anglesey? Not much, for
time has taken its toll – yet there is still enough.
Examples of later Roman occupation can be found in a small signal or
watchtower, situated on the coast overlooking the Irish Sea on Holyhead Island.
It is known by its Welsh name of Caer y Twr. It probably dates from the 4th
Century. Near to this also are the remains of a small hut village, which was
Roman-British. The signal tower at Caer-y-Twr is probably a defensive structure
and parts of the wall are over ten feet thick. If it was a defensive structure
then its role may well have been to alert the fortlet in Holyhead town of the
imminent arrival of Irish raiders, overlooking - as it does - a splendid view
of of the Irish Sea. Speculative historians have said it may also have been a
Pharos, a lighthouse, situated to warn Roman warships and merchantmen of the
dangers close in to the coast.
To visit Caer y Twr requires stamina and a map because it is situated at the
rear of Holyhead Mountain. It is not on the tourist trail. The views from such
a vantage point are well worth the exertion needed to reach it however, and a
smaller pull upwards to the summit of Holyhead Mountain will reward the visitor
with a glimpse of Ireland on an exceptionally clear day. The views of Holyhead
and Anglesey from this vantage point are also worth the effort.
In a good season, with few people around to spoil your thoughts, one could be
forgiven for imagining the lot of a Roman soldier charged with guard duty at
such a hostile spot. For here, when the wind brings in the freezing fog from
the Irish Sea or gales blast the coastline, one's mind could be forgiven for
wandering. The high sea cliffs amplify the rollers that crash against the land
and the shrieking cries of the hundreds of seabirds must sound like the
tormented wailings of lost souls. With the wind finding every nook and cranny,
and the isolation at this far edge of the Empire evident, the soldier's lot
must have been far from a popular posting.
Also in Holyhead town are the remains of a fortlet, overlooking the harbour.
Standing on the West side of the port, it consisted of three massive walls
sited to the north, west and south of the port. Three circular towers stood at
each corner with the sou'east side being omitted. Today, only the northwest
tower is wholly Roman, the other two having been rebuilt over time by other
cultures. The fortlet was built around 300AD to guard against Irish pirates and
– it is thought – was also part of a naval port, home to a small fleet of
warships – though there is no evidence to support this. It is also thought that
a quayside was incorporated into the fort, under the northeast tower. When the
Irish were not raiding, did they trade with the locals and the garrison here?
Considering the fact that Anglesey was invaded twice during the occupation of
Britain, little remains to testify to this. Later occupation and garrisoning
can be seen in the ruins mentioned above - and Caernarfon, on the mainland, has
an excellent museum which records these times. However, in terms of evidence
based history there is little to show of the campaigns, one of which must rank
as one of the bloodiest operations in the Roman occupation of Britain - whilst
remaining an outstanding example of Roman leadership, logistics and planning.
Legatus Legionis ( via Senatorial Magistracies.
Primus Pilus Iterum
Centuriones 1st Cohort.
Centuriones Cohorts 11 - X
- - -
© John Griffiths 2002.
The author retains the copyright to both pieces bearing his name. No
reproduction, copying or other forms of retrieval without permission. If you
have any questions, then please contact me at: