Boudica (26/30–60 CE)
Boudica (26/30–60 ce)
Queen of the Iceni tribe who fought to drive the Romans from British soil. Name variations: Boudicca or Boudicaa; the popular spelling, Boadicea, was derived from an error in an influential Renaissance manuscript. Pronunciation: (roughly) Boodika. Born as a member of the Royal House of the Iceni tribe probably between the years 26 ce to 30 in the modern shires of Norfolk and northern Suffolk, England; died around 62; married King Prasutagus of the Iceni prior to 49 ce; children: two daughters, whose names are unknown.
Made regent on behalf of her daughters upon the death of Prasutagus (59 or 60 ce); became queen and led revolt against the Roman occupation of Britain (60); won victories at the modern sites of Colchester, London, and St. Albans and ambushed a Roman force in the field before succumbing to the Romans in 60, the same year in which she is believed to have taken her own life.
During the course of the year 60 ce, one woman's leadership challenged the might of Imperial Rome. Yet, few written records exist which could illuminate the dramatic events of that year or the life story of the queen who stood at center stage. Only four documents from the hands of three ancient authors have survived the centuries. Two of these works, the Annals of Imperial Rome and the Agricola are from the stylus of the Roman historian, Cornelius Tacitus, who recorded the details of Queen Boudica's rebellion 50 years after the fact. Tacitus is considered the primary source concerning Boudica because, having served as Roman senator and consul, he had access to critical archives; above all, Tacitus had spoken at length with his father-in-law, Julius Agricola, who had been in Britain during the famous revolt and who had become governor of that province in 78. Additionally, Greek historian Cassius Dio covered the Boudican revolt in his late 2nd century work, the History of Rome. Dio, unfortunately for posterity, seems to have used the earlier writings of Tacitus as his main, although not only, source. Finally, a single sentence reference to Boudica by Suetonius Tranquillus in the Biographies of the Twelve Caesars exhausts the extant documentary sources handed down by the ancients. For further detail, 20th-century researchers must rely on archaeological evidence.
Boudica's tribe, the Iceni, inhabited the areas of Norfolk and northern Suffolk (East Anglia) in modern England. The first forerunners of the Iceni seem to have migrated around 500 bce from the modern-day regions of Belgium and Holland: sailing across the North Sea, they arrived in southeastern England, north of present-day London, and settled alongside the indigenous peoples, bringing with them a knowledge of iron-making. Southeast England was soon subjected to a second invasion after 450 bce, when warriors from the Marne Valley in Gaul (modern France) arrived with iron and bronze tools of war, tools superior to those which had been seen previously by the local population and which included the light wooden and wicker-work chariot drawn by horses. These groups, which were Celtic, were the ancestors of the Iceni.
Unfortunately for the historian, the Celts maintained an oral tradition and did not commit their culture to the written word. We therefore have to rely on the tracts of foreign chroniclers and to compare these words to what is known from archaeological evidence. The Roman chroniclers, Julius Caesar, the Stoic philosopher Strabo, and Tacitus agreed that the Celts were a war-like people adept at single combat. In the words of the distinguished modern British historian Antonia Fraser :
They also observed that the Celts fought naked, something they were well equipped to do; for this was a robust, well-muscled race who placed much emphasis on physical fitness. Furthermore, the Celts, as perceived by the Classical writers and depicted in Classical sculpture, were not only strong but tall and big-boned, with thick, flowing, fair or reddish hair.
This warrior people, cast in the Homeric mold, sported the image of the horse on its coins and produced swords and shields which were enameled and ornate with decoration. The high quality of artisanship evident among the Iceni also was demonstrated in more peaceful ways: bracelets, brooches, bronze mirrors, and above all heavy and beautiful golden necklaces (such as were worn by Boudica during her speeches to her people) have figured prominently among archaeological
finds. Nor was Iceni dress drab: "clothing (like Boudica's cloak) was generally stained and dyed in a variety of hues and stripes, making a kind of early tartan."
In demeanor, the Iceni were bold and funloving. Ancient writers have left us the image of a musical people who sang and played clappers and trumpets and who feasted at length. At least on special occasions, wine for the nobility and wheaten beer for the people flowed from large, communal cups which were laced with the spice, cumin. In comparison, Iceni homes were simple and appeared primitive to the Roman eye. The houses of the common people, which were remarkably durable given the vagaries of English weather, were circular with sloping roofs and perhaps averaged 50 feet across, each with a centrally located fireplace. The warrior aristocracy would have lived in larger but similarly shaped dwellings and the palace of King Prasutagus and Queen Boudica would have sported smaller, outlying roundhouses as well. Sadly, while archaeologists project the tribal center of the Iceni and Boudica's palace as probably lying near the modern English town of Thetford, neither has been located conclusively.
In at least two other ways the Iceni, and indeed the wider Celtic world which stretched from the modern countries of Germany across France to Spain and north to Britain, filled Roman chroniclers with curiosity and even disdain. While Roman society was unequivocally male-oriented, Iceni women lived a relatively "freer" life among the tribe. In large part, the role of women may well have been improved by the fact that Celtic society had worshipped goddesses. Roman records acknowledge the presence of Celtic women on the battlefield, and evidence points to the probability that women figured among the Druids, that priestly class of Celtic society which met to carry on religious rites in sacred groves. These Druids, in fact, have the distinction of being one of the only groups the Romans ever persecuted for religious belief: central to the Celtic religion, Boudica's religion, was the human head, which was considered the embodiment of the human soul. Celtic (and Iceni) warriors took the heads of their enemies in
battle and embalmed those of the more famous in cedar oil for religious display.
The Romans first had encountered the Iceni during the invasions of the island of Britain by Julius Caesar in the respective years 55 and 54 bce. These "invasions," in fact, were little more than raids in force launched for the purpose of punishing the Celts in Britain for the support of their tribal brethren on the Continent during the Roman conquest of Gaul. The real invasion occurred in 43 when the Roman emperor Claudius ordered four legions dispatched to Britain. From that year, as the empire's troops marched north and west from their initial base in southeastern Britain, Roman influence spread. The Celtic diplomatic and military response was uneven. In the words of historian Leonard Cottrell: "There was no standard pattern: resistance was piecemeal, loyalties local and personal, never national. There was no 'British nation.'" Between the years 43 and 50, the Iceni, under King Prasutagus, accepted Roman rule, at least temporarily. The Iceni, however, participated in the rebellion which occurred throughout East Anglia and Wales against the Romans in the year 50. The tribes of East Anglia were the first to be put down; the rebels in Wales, however, held out for several years under the charismatic leader Caratacus before surrendering.
Between 51 and 61, the Roman administration of what is today central and southern England (the Trent-Severn river line) encouraged the British to construct and move into cities and to become "civilized" according to the laws and culture of the empire. Unfortunately, Roman moneylenders, with more enterprise than scruple, targeted many of the British chiefs who were willing to attempt to accommodate themselves to the new order. Among these was Prasutagus, whom the empire accepted as an ally and clientking. Prasutagus had married Boudica, a member of the Royal House of the Iceni, shortly before the rebellion of 50, and in the ensuing years had fathered two daughters. Boudica, who seems to have been born somewhere between 26–30, was probably in her 30s. The historian, Cassius Dio, has described the queen as a tall woman with a mass of tawny red hair flowing to her waist who possessed a harsh voice and a fearsome countenance. Before his death in 60, the king placed Boudica in charge of his lands which he willed jointly to his daughters and to the Roman emperor Nero.
By this legacy, Prasutagus hoped to preserve his kingdom intact and to gain protection against the encroachments of the local Roman administration. The fate of the Royal House of the Iceni, however, was served poorly by this gesture. In the words of the Roman historian Tacitus:
Kingdom and household alike were plundered like prizes of war, the one by Roman officers, the other by Roman slaves. As a beginning, his widow Boudica was flogged and their daughters raped. The Icenian chiefs were deprived of their hereditary estates as if the Romans had been given the whole country. The king's own relatives were treated like slaves.
These brutal acts were obviously intended to symbolize the subjection of the British populace. Simultaneously, three other outrages were being committed by the empire against the Britons. Roman moneylenders already had begun calling in their considerable loans which the British chiefs found impossible to pay. Secondly, Roman colonists were persisting in land appropriations which seemed to the Britons as no more than being turned out of hearth and home. Thirdly, a Roman expeditionary force had marched through northwestern Wales and had put the Isle of Mona (modern Anglesey) under siege. Mona housed the sacred groves of the Druid priests and priestesses and was the religious font of the Celtic peoples.
Consider how many of you are fighting—and why. Then you will win this battle, or perish. That is what I, a woman, plan to do!—let the men live in slavery if they will.
The Iceni, fearing worse to come, revolted and were joined by the Trinovantes as well as other tribes. According to Tacitus, the leadership of the resistance fell to Boudica; when the Britons went to war, gender was not necessarily a barrier: "They hunted down the Roman troops in their scattered posts, stormed the forts, and assaulted the colony itself, which they saw as the center of their servitude; and there was no form of savage cruelty that the angry victors refrained from."
In addition to the random slaughter of Roman colonists carried throughout the countryside, Boudica specifically targeted three of the empire's cities for destruction: Camulodunum (Colchester), Verulamiam (St. Albans), and Londinum (London). According to Cassius Dio, Boudica's speech of war delivered to her assembled forces was full of high drama which portrayed the Romans as a civilized society gone soft while her Britons were a rugged breed filled with courage and honor. There can be little doubt her intent was to hurl the Romans back into the seas from which they had come.
Colchester, which in their improvidence the Romans had failed to fortify, was first to feel her wrath. Some scholars have estimated the tribal host at 120,000; in any event, after a two-day siege in which the defenders made their last stand in the temple of the hated foreign gods, Boudica had no difficulty overwhelming the tiny garrison and city which had been filled with Roman colonists as well as British settlers who had sought to acclimatize themselves to Roman rule.
The Roman response was swift if rash. Collecting some 2,000 infantry and 500 cavalry of the 9th Legion, Petillius Cerealis tried to relieve Colchester by forced marches. Intercepted in an ambush by Boudica's forces, most likely while taking the road through the thick forest, his expedition came to grief. In the words of historian Graham Webster:
By attacking them while in extended line of march, the Britons gave the enemy little opportunity to move into battle formation. The Roman legionaries were thus cut into isolated groups. Doubtless they sold their lives dearly, and the Britons lost many of their best fighting men that day.
Jubilant, Boudica's tribal masses forged onward and converged almost simultaneously on St. Albans and London. These cities fell as easily as Colchester. Tacitus recorded that the deaths of the Romans and their British allies had reached 70,000 at this point. No prisoners were taken. In the words of Tacitus, the Britons "could not wait to cut throats, hang, burn, and crucify." Subsequently, archaeologists have unearthed the telling layers of soot and ash underlying these modern cities and have been able to confirm the mass destruction.
Even as Boudica's forces grew over-confident, however, what was left of the Roman Empire in Britain was preparing to counter-attack. The governor, Gaius Seutonius Paulinus, had already advanced on London with a small reconnaissance force and had determined that the city had to be abandoned. Before this reconnaissance, he had organized the 14th Legion as well as sections of the 20th. Now he prepared to meet Boudica on a battleground of his own choosing.
Boudica met Suetonius for the final confrontation most likely in the west Midlands in Warwickshire, possibly near the modern locality of Nuneaton and Atherstone. Choosing wisely, Suetonius settled into a defile with a thick copse of woods to his rear, thereby depriving Boudica of her one strength; numerical superiority. Suetonius gambled that as her Britons advanced to the attack, as was their nature, they would be pressed into a bottleneck where Roman martial discipline and qualitative superiority in weaponry could tell to their maximum advantage. Even so, he realized his 10,000 legionaries would be pitted against some tens of thousands.
Before the battle, Boudica addressed her men and those women who chose to fight. Behind her battle masses were arrayed the families of her warriors who had turned out to watch this unparalleled spectacle from the relative comfort of their wagons. In rousing tones, the queen of the Iceni appealed to her people:
I am fighting as an ordinary person for my lost freedom, my bruised body, and my outraged daughters…. Consider how many of you are fighting—and why. Then you will win this battle, or perish. That is what I, a woman, plan to do!—let the men live in slavery if they will.
Surging forward amidst the great fanfare of trumpets, the Britons pressed into the defile. At 40 yards, thousands of Roman javelins or pila feathered Boudica's first wave. Then, the second. As the highly trained and uniformly armored legionaries stood their ground, reserve forces moved up and down the formation to relieve those comrades exhausted from the hot press of war. Disordered, the British warriors halted, then received the inevitable Roman counter-charge. Bunched in mass and unable to wield their long swords, the Britons fell back. Then, the Roman advance pressed Boudica's troops back against their own wagons where they were slaughtered trying to escape. Tacitus, almost surely with exaggeration, states that 80,000 of the British died in this armageddon. Neither man nor woman nor child was spared.
In the aftermath, the Romans received reinforcements from the empire and set about quelling lingering British resistance. The Britons themselves, not having been able to tend to the harvest during the campaign, now faced a cruel winter and the ugly face of starvation. Boudica, queen of the Iceni, surmising her fate if captured, survived the battle only to die of poison administered by her own hand. Dio Cassius recorded that her people gave her an expensive burial, although the site of her grave remains a mystery. The fate of her daughters is unknown.
In the 1850s, centuries after the Romans had evacuated British shores, Britons surveyed their own empire, which would eventually embrace one-fourth of the world's surface. Ruled by another queen, Victoria , they hearkened back to the age of Boudica and past glory. One of the leading European artists, Thomas Thorn-croft, was commissioned by Prince Albert and the British Government to sculpt a massive statue of Boudica mounted on her war chariot with her daughters. This colossal masterpiece, which stands today near the House of Commons and Big Ben, was not finished until 1902. Inscribed thereon are the immortal words of writer Thomas Cowper: "Regions Caesar never knew/Thy Posterity shall sway."
Cottrell, Leonard. The Roman Invasion of Britain. NY: Barnes and Noble, 1992.
Fraser, Antonia. The Warrior Queens. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989.
Tacitus, Cornelius. The Agricola and the Germania. Translation (revised) by S.A. Handford. London: Penguin Books, 1970.
——. The Annals of Imperial Rome. Translated by Michael Grant. London: Penguin Books, 1989.
Webster, Graham. Boudica: the British Revolt against Rome AD 60. London: B.T. Batsford, 1978, rev. ed., 1993.
Matthews, John, and Bob Stewart. Celtic Battle Heroes. Poole, Dorset: Firebird Books, 1988.
David L. Bullock , Ph.D., author of Allenby's War: the Palestine Arabian Campaigns, 1916–1918 (London: Blandford Press, 1988)