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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 underestimated.

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 Rome.

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 to Britain.

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.

Battle lines

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 modern Caernarfon.

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.

The Fight

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 warfare.

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.

Silent witness

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 you again…

…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 ground

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 pyres.

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.

Rank Structure

Legatus Legionis ( via Senatorial Magistracies.

Tribunus Laqticlavius

Primus Pilus Iterum
Praefectus Castorum

Tribuni Angusticlavii

Primus Pilus

Centuriones 1st Cohort.

Centuriones Cohorts 11 - X





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© 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:  ddraigmor@aol.com