She was tall, had tawny (perhaps reddish) hair that hung down to her waist. She had a harsh, commanding voice and a quite piercing gaze when she looked at someone. She always wore a necklace of gold (probably what we call a ‘torc’), a very colorful tunic, and usually she wore a heavy cloak fastened at the neck by a brooch. So she was described by the ancient Roman historian, Cassius Dio (c. 155 A.D.-c. 235 A.D.), long after her death.
A queen of the Celtic Iceni people in eastern Britain, she led a rebellion—an uprising against the brutal and oppressive Roman occupiers of her homeland-- that almost resulted in her ejecting those Roman military forces and a large Roman population from Britain. She was described by her people as a ‘freedom fighter’, and by the Romans as a ‘violent insurgent’. She was BOTH, for she was dedicated to her own people’s freedom and way of life and survival, but was quite brutal to her enemies, seeking revenge for what they had done to her, her family, and her people. She was virtually forgotten by history until the surviving works of the Roman historians Tacitus (56 A.D.-c.120 A.D.) and Cassius Dio (both of whom wrote about her) were found and translated from Latin or Greek in the late 1300’s A.D. Today she is a “folk hero” to the British people (even though her forces burned Roman Londinium--modern London-- to the ground), and indeed is a hero to ALL of the free people of the world who have determined that their freedom is not negotiable. In modern English, her name is BOUDICA, also known as BOUDICEA. If you’ve never heard of her, you might be amazed at her story.
Boudica (c. 25-30 A.D.-61 A.D.) became known to history as Queen of the Iceni tribe in eastern Britain, approximately what we know today as Norfolk and Suffolk counties. Most historians believe that she was of royal descent, although there is disagreement as to whether she was born into the “Iceni Tribe” or later married into it. There is some speculation that she was born into the Trinovantes tribe, which occupied the territory just south of the Iceni around modern Colchester (Roman Camulodunum). During the 19th and most of the 20th centuries, her name was spelled “BOADICEA” (and English people I’ve talked with still use that pronunciation of her name), but this was probably based upon an early miscopying from one of Tacitus’ manuscripts during the Middle Ages. In the best manuscripts from Tacitus, her name was clearly written as BOUDICA, and that is the name I will use for her in this article.
Tacitus recorded that sometime in the early 40’s A.D. Boudica married a man named PRASUTAGUS, who was or became the King of the Iceni Tribe, after which she became Queen of the Iceni. They had two daughters, assumed to have been in their early teens at the time of Boudica’s revolt against the Romans. Tacitus’ and Cassius Dio’s account of Boudica’s rebellion differ slightly, particularly as to the causes of her rebellion, but Tacitus was closer in time to those events, and even had a father-in-law, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, who was a Tribune under the Roman Governor of Britain, General Gaius Suetonius Paulinus. Since both of these men had participated in putting down the Iceni revolt led by Boudica, I favor Tacitus’ version of this amazing story. According to an article in WikipediA, Boudica’s name “derives from the Proto-Celtic feminine adjective ‘boudika’, (meaning) ‘victorious’, that in turn is derived from the Celtic word ‘bouda’, (meaning) ‘victory’,…and that the correct spelling of the name in Common Brittonic—the British Celtic language—is Boudica.”
The historians among us know that in 43 A.D., during the reign of the Roman Emperor Claudius (10 B.C.-54 A.D.), he launched another invasion of Britain (Julius Caesar invaded Britain twice—once in 55 B.C., which failed due to insufficient forces, and again in 54 B.C., which supposedly resulted in Caesar’s conquest of several Celtic tribes, but came to nothing when Caesar withdrew ALL of his forces out of Britain within a year). Claudius concentrated on subduing southern Britain, and the Iceni and several other tribes initially allied themselves with Rome in hopes of avoiding the more oppressive treatment so often forced upon conquered peoples by the Roman military governors. But the Iceni Tribe were proud people and valued their semi-independent status with their Roman overlords. They and several other British tribes did revolt against Rome in 47 A.D., when the Roman Governor at the time, Publius Ostorius Scapula, tried to disarm all of the tribes that were under Roman domination, following a series of local uprisings against Roman authority. But under King Prasutagus the Iceni people remained relatively independent, although as with all of the subdued British tribes they were forced into providing food and other provisions for the occupying Roman military. Thus, an uneasy alliance between Rome and the Iceni and the Trinovantes lasted until the death of the Iceni King Prasutagus in 60 A.D. After his death, Roman arrogance and stupidity assured that whatever peace had existed between the Romans and the British tribes would soon come to an end.
King Prasutagus had made a will, in which he left his Iceni kingdom jointly to his two daughters and to whoever was the Roman Emperor at his death. Unfortunately, in 60 A.D. that emperor was one of the most treacherous, murderous, and debauched Roman Emperors of all of that long line of mostly sadistic, immoral, mentally disturbed, arrogant, cunning, and murderous rulers of the Roman Empire: Nero Claudius Germanicus (37 A.D.-68 A.D.), who “misruled” the Empire from the death (or possibly murder) of his adopted Uncle, Emperor Claudius, in 54 A.D. until he committed suicide in 68 A.D. Undoubtedly, King Prasutagus must have believed that his deferential sharing of his Iceni kingdom between his daughters and the Roman Emperor would assure lenient and respectful treatment by the Roman military government. Sadly, this was not to be the case.
Unfortunately for the Iceni people, upon their king’s death the Roman overlords merely ignored his will, refusing to recognize the inheritance of the Iceni kingdom by women. Using their usual “might makes right” method of governance, they immediately “annexed” the kingdom and confiscated all of King Prasutagus’ property, even seizing his own personal property, thus denying it to Queen Boudica and her daughters. Protesting vehemently over this mistreatment, Boudica was tied to a post, whipped mercilessly, and both of her daughters were raped by the Roman soldiers. Here is how Tacitus described the immediate reasons for the rebellion begun by both the Iceni and the Trinovantes people:
“The Icenian king Prasutagus…had named the emperor his heir, together with his two daughters—an act of deference which he thought would place his kingdom and household beyond the risk of injury. The result was contrary—so much so that his kingdom was pillaged by centurions, his household by slaves, as though they had been prizes of war.” Tacitus added that Boudica was lashed, her two daughters were raped, and that the estates of the leading Iceni men were confiscated. Was this mal-treatment sufficient cause for the violence and brutality that followed for the next year? Who can say, for this was a violent time, like most of our 20th century, and the adage that “to the victor go the spoils” was always in effect by the forces of Imperial Rome.
The Roman military governor of Britain at this time was General Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, one of Nero’s obedient and ruthless toadies. Sometime during the year 60 or 61 A.D., he was leading a military campaign on the island of Mona (today’s modern Anglesey) on the west coast of Britain (in northern Wales). This island had long been a sanctuary for British rebels against Rome and was the main stronghold of the Druid Priesthood, who exerted great power and influence (and anti-Roman sentiment) over most of the tribes in Britain. The island contained the Druid’s ‘sacred grove of trees’, which were a part of their religious beliefs. While Governor Seutonius Paulinus was rampaging on Mona, the Iceni Tribe allied themselves with the Trinovantes Tribe and arose in revolt against their Roman overlords. These tribes chose Queen Boudica as their leader, and within a short time she had raised an army estimated to have numbered between 150,000 to 250,000 (the lower number is probably more accurate). Unlike the Roman military, Boudica’s forces were not heavily armed, a long sword and shield, with no body armor, being the common offensive weapons, along with long spears. But they surely did vastly outnumber all of the Roman legions that were then stationed in Britain.
Tacitus recorded the words she was reported to have said as she stood before her army, prior to its first attack against the Romans (although some sources claim she said these words right before her final major battle with the Romans). “I am not fighting for my kingdom and wealth now. I am fighting as an ordinary person for my lost freedom, for my bruised body, and for my outraged daughters.” She supposedly concluded her rallying speech in front of her army by saying, “If you weigh well the strengths of our armies you will see that in this battle we must conquer or die. This is a woman’s resolve. As for the men they may live or be slaves.” Apparently her words did the trick, for her vast army of mostly men, but also some women warriors, determined to follow her to the death. Which is what they did.
According to Tacitus, Boudica’s army was inspired by the victory of Arminius, the Prince of the Cherusci, who had driven the Romans out of Germany in 9 A.D., and even more inspired by the example of their own ancestors, who had driven Julius Caesar and his legions and 2000 cavalry out of Britain in 54 B.C. Confident that their pagan “gods” would give them victory, Boudica’s first target was Camulodunum (modern day Colchester), which had been the capital of the Trinovantes but was then a Roman colony, filled with Roman veterans from all parts of the Empire who had confiscated the property of the local people and had mistreated them. Making matters more egregious, the Romans in Camulodunum erected a large temple named after their former emperor, Claudius, and had made the local people pay for it, causing bitter resentment.
When the Romans in Camulodunum discovered that they faced a major attack by Boudica’s army, they demanded reinforcements from the local procurator (a government financial agent who had minor authority), Catus Decianus, but he sent only 200 auxilliary troops, refusing to believe that an untrained army of poorly armed men and women would be a threat. Shortly thereafter, Boudica’s avenging forces overran the basically undefended city and completely destroyed it, burning all of the buildings and burning down the Temple of Claudius, into which hundreds of Roman citizens had barricaded themselves. It was reported that their screams were terrible to hear. The commander of the IX “Hispana” Legion, Quintus Petillius Cerialis, sent 2000 Roman troops to try to save Camulodunum, but Boudica’s army ambushed and annihilated them almost totally. Cerialis managed to escape with his life and some cavalry into his military camp, which was fortified. After this defeat, Procurator Catus Decianus fled into Gaul (now France) to avoid being punished by Governor Seutonius Paulunius. Boudica’s army destroyed the entire city, killed all of its inhabitants, horribly torturing many of them. They then turned their vengeful sights on the Roman city of Londinium (modern London).
As soon as the Roman governor received news of the rebellion and fate of Camulodunum, he began a forced march with only a small force of troops along the “Watling Road”, which went directly to Londinium. That city was less than 20 years old but had quickly grown into a thriving center of commerce with a large population. When he arrived, Governor Paulunius considered making a military stand in the city but decided that his force wasn’t large enough (two legions were marching from the Island of Mona toward Londinium, which would take them several days). The governor decided to sacrifice the city and make his military stand elsewhere. He fled with his small force, taking all of the inhabitants of the city that were able to leave with him.
Boudica’s army then attacked the city, entering it without resistance, burned it to the ground, tortured many of the unfortunate citizens and killed ALL who had not evacuated previously. No mercy was given by the avenging Britons. Turning northward, Boudica’s army next attacked the city of Verulamium (modern day St. Albans), and destroyed it totally. It has been estimated that of those three cities destroyed by the avenging Britons, 70 to 80 thousand people were killed, and some of them were horribly tortured. The Roman military government—in fact all Romans at this time—did not take defeat lightly. Vengeance (Roman ‘justice’) was ever in their minds. Governor Suetonius Paulunius reorganized his forces from different parts of Britain. Soon he had a formidable army of at least 10,000 highly trained Roman soldiers (almost two legions). I have to admire Paulunius in a way, because for the Romans it was conquer the rebelling Britons or all of them would be killed by those Britons, for there was no place to “retreat” to except the ocean. He chose to make his “last stand” at a location that has not yet been positively identified, but probably was somewhere in England’s West Midlands, along the Roman Road now called “Watling Street” (that still exists), in a large depressed area with heavy forested areas behind and on each side of him, and a large open area in front of him. And it was directly in the line of Queen Boudica’s march. Thus, Governor Paulunius utilized the terrain, and the training and experience of his legions, to his advantage.
Upon coming face to face with the Roman force, Boudica exhorted her army, standing in her chariot with her two daughters. Claiming that their cause was justified by the perfidy and mistreatment of the Romans, and assuring her force that the British “gods” were on their side, and reminding them that the one Roman legion that had done battle with them had been destroyed, she ordered her army to attack the Roman legions. Governor Paulunius was waiting for just this moment, and began to close his trap. Following is the account directly from Tacitus (writing in his “Agricola” c. 98 A.D., and in his “The Annals” c. 109 A.D.):
“At first, the (Roman) legionaries stood motionless, keeping into the defile as a natural protection: then, when the closer advance of the enemy had enabled them to exhaust their missiles (thousands of long, heavy javelins which killed huge numbers of Britons) with
certitude of aim, they dashed forward in a wedge formation (a special Roman legion formation which utilized a staggered wedge line, with hundreds of legionaries in each portion of the ‘wedge’ who would relieve each other periodically at the front—or killing edge—of the wedge, thus assuring rested fighters were always at the ‘killing edge’.) The auxiliaries charged in the same style; and the cavalry, with lances extended, broke a way through any parties of resolute men whom they encountered. The remainder (of Boudica’s force) took to flight, although escape was difficult, as the cordon of wagons (containing women, children, and supplies that Boudica had unwisely placed all across the open end of the field of battle, thereby blocking the retreat of her army) had blocked the outlets. The troops gave no quarter even to the women: the baggage animals…had been speared and added to the pile of bodies. The glory won in the course of the day was remarkable, and equal to that of our older victories: for by some accounts,…80,000 Britons fell, at a cost of some 400 Romans killed and a not much greater number wounded.”
Whatever the numbers, it is obvious that about HALF of Boudica’s army of Britons was totally decimated by the training, the discipline, and the equipment of the Roman legionaries, for they utilized body armor, heavy javelins, and the deadly SHORT Roman sword which allowed close combat thrusting into the stomach or chest of an enemy, as opposed to the long swords used by Boudica’s forces, which required more room to thrust and swing. Ten thousand Roman troops massacred at least 80,000 of their enemies, and totally broke the back of Boudica’s rebellion, which in my opinion was justified for its reasons of seeking justice and liberating her country from aggressive invaders, if not always for the brutality extended against innocent civilians.
Of the fate of Boudica and her two daughters, nothing is known with certainty. In his “Annals”, Tacitus claimed that Boudica poisoned herself to avoid capture by the Romans (the more likely scenario). Cassius Dio claimed that she fell sick and died, either from battle wounds or from some disease. He wrote that Boudica was given a grand burial by her people, but no one today knows where she is buried. Boudica and Her Daughers, a statue of the queen in her war chariot with her two daughters, was made by Thomas Thornycroft during the 1850’s and 1860’s, and was eventually cast in bronze in 1902. It was mounted by the London County Council next to Westminster Bridge, close to the British Houses of Parliament, where it stands today—the noble Celtic Queen Boudica, a spear in her right hand and driving her chariot—a brave rebel who is now identified with The United Kingdom itself, standing guard over the very city that she burned to the ground in 61 A.D. Boudica’s name meant “victory” and “victorious”. Even in defeat, she was that, for she was, and is, an inspiration and an unforgettable example to all who determine to resist tyranny, no matter the cost.
As William Cowper’s (1731-1800) 1782 poem, titled: Boadicea: An Ode (lines 29-32) reminded posterity:
“Regions Caesar never knew
Thy posterity shall sway,
Where his eagles never flew,
None invincible as they.”
(For an excellent video presentation of this historic event, enter “Iceni Queen Boudica UTube” on your browser. On the picture icons of videos available, click on “Boudica: The Warrior Queen”. This is the video upon which I based much of this story, and I highly recommend that you watch it. In addition I used the WikipediA article titled, “Boudica”, for further historical background and for the names of the Roman leaders involved in this confrontation between two different worlds.)