Life In Old Cambridge – The Romans

IN the Teeth’s time the great Roman Empire, under those Caesars who commanded that ” all the world should be taxed,” had spread northward and westward from Rome till it reached the English Channel. Across the water the men of Gaul had been fighting hard for their freedom with Julius, the first Caesar. They sent for help to their brothers in Britain.

Reinforcements slipped over from the island to their aid, not as they go now, to France in great steam transports, but in tiny wooden boats, rigged with queer sails of skin or leather. Caesar himself wrote down what they were like.

” The keels somewhat flatter than our ships,so that they can take the shallows more easily at ebb tide ; the prows and the sterns too very upright, suited to the great waves and storms. The ships are made of wood throughout to bear strain and hard use to the utmost ; the rowers benches fixed with iron nails as thick as my thumb to beams a foot wide ; the anchors bound with chains instead of rope ; skins for sails, the leather tanned fine, either because they have no linen or don’t know how to use it, or more likely because they have to bear such ocean storms and wind-storms and such weight of ships that they do not think it handy to manage with cloths.”

Wishing to see their land, Caesar gathered a fleet of galleys and sailed to the white cliffs of Kent. Despite resistance he marched his Caesar D.B.G. iii, Ships of the Veneti of South Brittany.

After this Britain was very loosely linked to Rome for a hundred years till Caswallon’s grandson, Cymbelinc, made East Anglia his own : his coins are often found here. But the Iceni hated his law, and later helped a Roman army to defeat his son Caradoc, and make Britain into a Roman province.’ The first orders the new subjects got were to lay down their arms and this no doubt they would have done but the fierce, keen Iceni, who had fought shoulder to shoulder with the Romans against the other tribes, expected better treatment. They thought themselves as good as any Romans, and rather than lay down the spears and swords which they had carried from boyhood they defied mighty Rome, the world-wide Empire, and called the other tribes to help them to turn out the foreigners. They rebuilt the Dykes ; strong fences of timber were no doubt reared along their crests and all the manhood of the tribes gathered behind them to withstand the enemy.

If we try to imagine what followed we may guess that the Roman forces, led by Ostorius Scapula, would march north from Ermine Street along the Icknield Way. Perhaps they crossed the Cam at Shelford and rested for the night in the grass at Granhams, where you may still trace three sides of a simple Roman Camp. On the Cogs, just above them, would frown the hill camp of the Iceni. Next morning no doubt the Roman trumpets blew to the attack, and Scapula led his soldiers out. Steadily climbing the long easy slopes they kept their ranks and poured over the earthworks of Vandlebury. But the main resistance had been prepared at the Fleam Dyke. Crowded together on the Dyke the Britons would look out eagerly, only to see stragglers fleeing to them and the enemy following swift behind. Like a steel wall the Roman legions would march up, shield locked in shield, and the rough arrows and spears of the natives rain down harmlessly for the most part on their solid front. Pierced by their javelins, smitten down by their short, keen swords, the Britons soon broke and fled out over the long nine miles to the Devil’s Dyke. As when a great sea-dyke bursts the waves pour through and spread along the plain, so men fleet-footed raced the ponies of their leaders for the last shelter. The great thirty-foot Devil’s Dyke, crowning the long climb to the moor looked indeed immovably safe, no doubt, for those who could slip in behind it ; but the one entrance was soon blocked, and then the fugitives crowding on one another could not even turn to defend themselves. The Romans coming hard after them found them as easy prey as a flock of sheep, penned for the shearing. They did not spare ; when evening fell hardly any of the Iceni was left alive and the rest were slaves.

Caradoc indeed escaped the slaughter, having earlier been driven away into the fastnesses of Wales to raise what help he could, but the next year the Romans had followed him even there and shattered the last hope of freedom.

The Roman rule was harsh. Roman money-makers bullied and robbed the Britons for 12 weary years till a last outrage against the Queen Bo udica brought revolt. The savagery of its short-lived success led to fearful revenge when Rome once more got the upper hand, and the men of Cambridgeshire, who had led the revolt, were wiped out. The Romans drove straight stone-paved roads through the land from camp to camp ; held fortresses at Colchester, at Godmanchester, at Chesterford and in Cambridge itself, which held down the feeble remnants of the warlike tribes till they grew quieter and learned the arts and civil ways of their rulers.