Gateway to the Classics: Stories from English History, Book I by Alfred J. Church
Stories from English History, Book I by  Alfred J. Church


O NE thing that my master learnt at Rome was this. It seems that many rich men leave part of their money to the Emperor, and the rest to their wives and children, or, it may be, to other relatives and friends. They think that if the Emperor gets a share for himself, he will, for very shame, let the others have what belongs to them.

Well, this was how my master arranged matters. The Emperor was to have a third of all his property; his wife, Queen Boadicea, was to have the same, and his daughters the same. Poor man! he was sadly mistaken if he thought that this would do them any good. As soon as the breath was out of his body, the Roman officers broke into the house. They must see, forsooth, that the Emperor had his proper share. I can't tell you the wicked and shameful things they did. They plundered the whole place; they beat the Queen most cruelly with rods; even that was not the worst.

Then the whole country broke out into a blaze of fury. As you may suppose, this was not the first wickedness or cruelty that the Romans had done; there was scarcely a village that had not suffered something at their hands. The Queen went through the country calling the people to arms, and they flocked in thousands after her. Other tribes joined us, and before that moon was out we had full twenty thousand fighting men, and it was just the right time for us to make an effort.

Almost the whole of the Roman army had been taken away by the Governor on an expedition against the Island of the Priests—it lies a little way off the western coast—and our part of the country was left almost without a single soldier. I myself thought that the time was come, though I ought to have known better. Sooner or later, the Romans were bound to beat us.

However, at first everything went well; we began by marching against Camalodunum. It is, as you know, what they call a colony, a place to which old soldiers are sent when their time is up. They are half soldiers and half farmers, living in the town, and farming the land round it, or rather making the people to whom it once belonged farm it for them. There had been a new batch of them just come to the place, and indeed it was the lawless doings of these new arrivals that had been the cause of a great deal of the trouble.

They were not in the least prepared for our coming. The walls had never been finished; in fact they had scarcely been begun. A walled town, you see, is not pleasant to live in, and they had no idea but what they were perfectly safe. They would have as soon expected their very cattle to turn against them as the people of whom they had made slaves.

Before long, deserters from the town came into our camp. They told us that the whole place was full of confusion and fear. It was not only the rebellion that made them afraid: there had been signs of some great trouble to come. The statue of Victory that stood in the great square of the town had fallen down, with its face turned in a strange way, just as if it had tried to fly. Curious sounds had been heard in the senate-house, and dead bodies had been found on the sea-shore when the tide was down. All this encouraged us, just as much as it discouraged them.

They told us, too, that they had sent to the nearest station for help, and the officer in command could let them have no more than a couple of hundred men, and these only half armed. No one tried to stop us on the way, and when we came to the town, we had only to walk in. The walls, as I told you, were little more than begun. There was only one strong place in the town, and that was the Temple of the Emperor.

C.  What do you mean, grandfather, by "the Temple of the Emperor"?

G.  Why, they make gods of their emperors when they are dead. Indeed they do something like it while they are still alive. So they had made a god of Claudius—that was the Emperor, you know, who conquered King Cunobelin—and built a temple to him, and had priests who sacrificed to him. That, by the way, was one of their ways of robbing us. They appointed the rich men in the country priests of the Emperor, and made them pay so much for the honour as pretty nearly to ruin them.

Well, as I said, this temple was the one strong place in the town, and it might have been made, with scarcely any trouble, very strong indeed. But nothing had been done; there was neither ditch nor rampart, only the bare walls. No one would have thought that they were old soldiers, who ought to have known all about these things. They hadn't even sent away the women and children. The temple was crowded with helpless people. The soldiers could hardly have moved for them. And, of course, the provisions could not have held out for any time. Anyhow, the place was taken on the second day. That night there was not a house standing or a soul living in all the colony. Oh, boy, it was an awful sight; I hope that I shall never see another such.

The same night our spies—of course we had spies everywhere, as the whole country was friendly to us—brought us the news that a Roman legion was on its way to relieve the colony. They knew nothing about its having been destroyed, for, naturally, while we heard everything they heard nothing.

So we laid an ambush for them in a wood, about five miles from the colony, through which they would have to pass. They came marching along without any scouts in front, just as if there was not an enemy within fifty miles. We rushed out on them, and it was all over in less than an hour. Hardly a single infantry soldier escaped, and we took no prisoners. The general and his horsemen had to ride for their lives.

The next day we began our march on London. When we had got about half way our scouts came racing up with the news that the Roman legions were on their way back. I was with the Queen when she heard it. I saw her eyes lighten. "Good," she said, "we will serve them as we served the legion to‑day. March on."

We marched, the people flocking in with arms in their hands at every village that we reached. We expected, of course, to find the Romans at London. It was by far the richest town in the province—what it is now does not give you any idea of what it was then—and we felt sure that the Governor would not let us get possession of it without a fight. But he did, and it was very well for him that he did. If he had tried to keep it, his army must have been destroyed. It was far too small to defend so big a place.

I heard afterwards that the London merchants—Roman citizens many of them—begged and prayed him to stand by them, but he would not. All that he could do for them, he said, was to let the able-bodied men come with him. All their wealth beyond what they could carry, all the old and the sick, and the greater part of the women and children were left.

Well, I don't like to think of what happened. I would give a good deal if I could forget it. Enough to say that what had happened to Camalodunum happened to London. It was said that seventy thousand poor creatures perished, many of them our own countrymen too, for no other fault than that they had made friends with the Romans. Of course our people had a great many wrongs to avenge, but to do it in such a fashion—and what that fashion was I should not like to tell you—was too horrible.

Another Roman town about twenty miles from London was destroyed, and then came the end. Of course the Queen could not keep her army together for a very long time. They ate up everything in the country round, and indeed were in a fair way to be as much hated by the people as the Romans themselves. It was necessary for her to get back to her own capital, and to do that she had to fight, for the Governor had posted himself in a strong place on the way. But I must put off telling you what happened to another day.

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