Boudica: Queen of the Iceni

By Edorix

It is Britain, AD 60.

The most famous rebellion in British history, led by the World's most famous warrior-queen, is on the verge of driving the Romans right out of the province of Britain.

Everyone knows the story. On the death of King Prasutagus of the Iceni, Boudica of the Iceni was whipped and her daughters raped when they tried to claim their inheritance. The lands of the Iceni were ravaged and looted. In response, Boudica raised up her people and many of the neighbouring tribes in revolt. She sacked and destroyed Colchester, London and St. Albans. Then her huge army was defeated by governor Suetonius Paulinus. Boudica had lost everything; she committed suicide.

But can you actually pronounce her name? How much of the story you think you know is actually true? And why is Boudica the most famous warrior-queen in all the length and breadth of history?

Boudica (or Boudicca, Boadicea or Buduica) is the name that Tacitus and Dio Cassius, the two key sources for this event, attribute to the Queen of the Iceni who drove Britain all the way to the brink of independence. The three names in brackets are all wrong: "Buduica" has some historical backing in the writings of Dio Cassius, but is used by nobody any more; "Boudicca" is a spelling mistake widespread in the works of Tacitus and is the form of the name most commonly used today; "Boadicea" was a spelling mistake on the part of a monk who copied out the manuscripts wrong, and gained widespread acceptance from then on until about the mid 1990's. "Boudica" is the version of the name given to us by Tacitus which is most probably linguistically correct. It is pronounced by most people as "Boo - dicker"; in fact, it would have been pronounced "Bow - dicker."

Tacitus, the most contemporary source, writing only about fifty years after the event, gives a very complete and quite fair account of the rebellion in his Annals of Imperial Rome (XIV:XXIX-XL). He also had close contact with a man named Julius Agricola, his father-in-law, who was ex-governor of Britain by the time Tacitus was writing and was actually present at Boudica's last battle. His account provides our universally accepted best source for the rebellion. However, he gives us no physical description of Boudica, being more interested in politics and the military. Dio Cassius, our other key source for the rebellion, gives a more or less thorough account in his Roman History. However, he was writing a good hundred and fifty years after the event, and, being a Roman senator from the Greek East, is unlikely to have had and first-hand experience to, or close relations with someone with any serious first-hand experience, of Britain. However, he does give us a more vividly descriptive account than Tacitus, including a description of the legendary queen:

"In stature she was very tall, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of her eye most fierce, and her voice was harsh; a great mass of the tawniest hair fell to her hips; around her neck was a great golden torq; and she wore a tunic of diverse colours over which a thick cloak was fastened with a brooch. This was her invariable attire."

However, this is likely to be highly romanticised. The picture he conjures up embodies the very spirit of barbarism. One must remember that to the Romans the very idea of woman in power was horrific (to quote Tacitus (Germania XLV): "Woman is the ruling sex. That is the measure of their decline, I will not say below freedom, but even below decent slavery."). Dio is trying to shock his audience; works such as these were written to be read aloud (performed if you like), and Dio had a habit of sacrificing history in favour of an emotional response. But, this is the only description we have, and we are used to it, so let us simply accept it and leave it aside.

The imperial governor of Britain for the year AD 60 was a man of popular distinction known as Gaius Suetonius Paulinus. Eager to achieve a quick and glorious victory for himself - I mean, for Rome, of course - he attacked the Isle of Mona; modern-day Anglesey, off the Northwest coast of Wales; stronghold of the druids, and spiritual heart of Celtic Britain. Tacitus describes the scene as the Romans prepared to cross the narrow strip of water.

"The enemy lined the shore in a dense armed mass. Among them were black-robed women with dishevelled hair like the Furies, brandishing torches. Close by stood the Druids, raising their heads to heaven and screaming dreadful curses. This weird spectacle awed the Roman soldiers into a kind of paralysis."

Eventually, the Romans got over their fear and attacked. They overwhelmed the defenders with little difficulty. Tacitus goes on to say that Suetonius destroyed the sacred groves of the druids, because they practised human sacrifice there.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the province, two hundred and fifty miles away to the East, trouble was brewing. Prasutagus, ally of Rome and king of the subject tribe of the Iceni, died. In his testament, he attempted to leave half of his kingdom to his wife Boudica and his two daughters, and half to the Roman People - that is, the Emperor Nero. But to the Romans this was unacceptable. Under the pretext of some Roman law forbidding women to inherit land, Catus Decianus, procurator of the province, along with his slaves and officers, moved in and began to loot, ransack and burn everything they came across. According to Tacitus,

"Kingdom and [Prasutagus's] household alike were plundered like prizes of war."

Boudica was flogged an her daughters raped; the chiefs lost their ancestral status and estate; "the king's own relatives were treated like slaves." Boudica was seeking personal vengeance; the Iceni feared even worse treatment. So she led them in revolt, along with the neighbouring Trinovantes, and several other tribes whose names we are not given (but certainly factions within the nearby Catuvellauni and Cantiaci at least). According to Dio, at this point Boudica had an army of 120 000. Tacitus claims that

"Servitude had not broken them, and they had secretly plotted to become free again."

Camulodunum, once capital of the Trinovantes and important crossroads of the Catuvellauni, was now capital of the Roman province. Fortunately for the rebels, especially the Trinovantes who sought revenge for being pushed out of their city, Camulodunum had no walls. Tacitus reports terrible omens seen by the inhabitants. This is my own (liberal) translation; the others I could find were not vivid enough.

"For no apparent reason, the statue of Victory fell face-down, as if it were fleeing the enemy. Delirious women wailed of destruction close at hand; they cried that in the senate-house hideous cries had been heard; the theatre had echoed with shrieks; at the river mouth, a phantom-town had been seen in ruins; the sea had turned blood-red; shapes like human corpses were left by the ebb-tide."

As Suetonius was far away, the people of Camulodunum appealed to the procurator for help. He sent them barely two hundred mal-equipped and under-trained men. The situation was hopeless. Hampered and misled by pro-rebel spies, they didn't even build a ditch or palisade, or evacuate the non-combatants. When the Britons arrived, the Roman defenders hid in the temple of Claudius. After two days' siege, the temple fell to storm. Dio Cassius describes what happened to the captured town.

"Those who were taken captive by the Britons were subject to every known form of outrage... They hung up naked the most noble and distinguished women and then cut off their breasts and sewed them into their mouths so that they might appear to be eating them. Afterwards they impaled them on sharp skewers run lengthways through the entire body."

The imagery of rape is obvious; Boudica's brutal revenge for her daughters' chastity. Londinium, a thriving Roman trading settlement at the mouth of the Thames, was also sacked, as was Verulamium, once tribal capital of the Catuvellauni, but now a centre of Romanisation (the abandonment of the old customs and the adoption of Roman ways). Tacitus says that the ninth legion, led by a man named Petilius Cerealis, attempted to retake Camulodunum, but was stopped and routed by the Britons. All the infantry was slaughtered, but Cerealis escaped with his cavalry back to his camp. Catus Decianus, the procurator, at this point fled to Gaul, even though it was his fault that the province was in the state it was in. Tacitus claims,

"The natives enjoyed plundering and thought of nothing else. Bypassing forts and garrisons, they made for where the loot was richest and the protection weakest. Roman and allied deaths at these places are estimated at seventy thousand.'

At this point Dio claims that Boudica had 230 000 men in her army. If we take this as the total of her fighting men and the camp-followers (women, children, parents of the actual fighters), then we can make an estimate of about sixty or seventy thousand warriors, which is much more reasonable. However Tacitus does not mention the children, saying only that the Britons brought their wives with them to see the fight; the number could also have been as much as 120 000 fighters. Let's stick with 70 000 as the best estimate.

Meanwhile, Suetonius was getting ready. He gathered the fourteenth legion, a few cohorts of the twentieth, and whatever auxiliaries were to hand. This gave him an army of nearly 10 000, according to Tacitus, which seems to represent quite accurately the troop disposition in Britain at the time. It is possible that he had as many as 20 000 men however. Let's stick with 10 000. With this army he advanced to meet Boudica; there is no doubt that he was outnumbered by a very large margin.

The site of the battle is not known; it is generally accepted that it took place not far Northwest of Verulamium, somewhere in the Chiltern Hills, or roughly along the line of Watling Street, the Roman road linking Verulamium and Viroconium. Various locations have been suggested; I will not speculate. It is known as the Battle of Watling Street, because it was probably somewhere along the line of that road. According to Tacitus,

"Their [the Britons'] confidence was such that they brought their wives with them to see the victory, installing them in carts lining the edge of the battlefield."

Dio makes Boudica give her speech just before she attacked Camulodunum; Tacitus makes her give the more famous (and plausible) version here, reporting it using indirect statement. Neither of the two is likely to be authentic. This is Tacitus's version.

"We Britons are used to women commanders in war; I am the daughter of mighty men. But I am not fighting for my power and wealth now; I am fighting as a normal person, for my lost liberty, my bruised body, and my dishonoured daughter. Roman rapacity spares no longer even our bodies; the old are slaughtered, the chaste raped. But the gods will grant us the vengeance we deserve!
"The lone legion that dared to resist us is destroyed. The others cower behind their camp walls, or wait for the slightest chance to escape. They will not be able to withstand the clashing of our weapons and the war cries of our thousands, much less the shock of our charge!
"If the numbers of our warriors, if the causes of war weigh out, whether we win or whether we fail will be decided in this field. This is my plan; a woman's plan. Let the men live in slavery if they will!"

Tacitus also reports Suetonius's speech, which is possibly authentic.

"Disregard the clamours and empty threats of the natives! In their ranks there are more women than fighting men! Unwarlike, unarmed, when they see the arms and the courage of the conquerors who have driven them to flight so often, they will break immediately. Even when a force contains many legions, few among them win battles - what special glory for your few numbers to win the renown of a whole army! Just keep in close order. Throw your javelin, and then carry on. Fell them with shield-bosses, kill them with swords. Do not think of plunder. When you have won, you will have everything."

Suetonius's position in a defile with a dense wood behind him meant that he could not be outflanked; the enemy could only attack him from the front, just as how the Spartans resisted for so long at Thermopylae.

Dio gives quite a thorough account of the battle; unfortunately, it conflicts markedly with Tacitus's version, upon which we must place more reliability. He says that the Romans charged forwards in wedge formation and simply steamrolled the Britons. Neither he, nor Dio, gives a precise strategic turning point, which would make the outcome more understandable. Dio makes out that the battle was much more hard-fought, dragging on for most of a day. Whichever you choose to believe, the result was the same. The Britons were defeated. According to Tacitus,

"The remaining Britons fled with difficulty as their line of wagons blocked the escape route. The Romans did not spare even the women. Baggage animals too, transfixed with weapons, added to the heaps of the dead.
"It was a glorious victory, comparable with bygone triumphs. According to one report, almost eighty thousand Britons fell. Our own casualties were about four hundred dead and a slightly larger number wounded."

The accounts differ again on what became of Boudica. Dio says that she fell ill and died, even while the surviving Britons were rallying, and this caused them to give up the cause. Tacitus says that she poisoned herself. Either or both may be correct. But these seem like a Roman's idea of how a woman should die; poison was supposedly the choice murder weapon of a woman, because it required no physical struggle. It seems more likely to me that Boudica either survived and escaped, or killed herself by falling on her sword. There is no literary or material evidence to support this theory though. If she committed suicide, it seems highly unlikely that she would have used the weapon of a Roman matron. It would have been far more attractive to a warrior-queen to stab herself to death.

Tacitus reports that the lands of all the rebel or wavering tribes were ransacked and plundered by fire and sword. But the worst of their troubles was famine. Expecting to defeat the Romans and seize their supplies, they had not sown their fields, and instead brought all their fit men into the army. This makes it seem likely that there were still roaming bands of warriors resisting the Romans all over the province that had not been with Boudica at the battle; perhaps they were not even under her command. The archaeological record ties in well with this period of instability and strife. Tacitus goes on to say that

"Still, the savage Briton tribesmen were disinclined for peace."


So why exactly is it that Boudica is so famous? There were other rebels, other warrior queens, who enjoyed much more success than her. Why is it that we remember Boudica above them all?

There are two key elements to the answer.

The first is the way in which Tacitus and Dio report her uprising. She was a woman; they are both shocked by this, and find it deeply humiliating that a woman should have caused so much trouble. Dio's first few lines on her rebellion include:

"Moreover, all this ruin was brought upon the Romans by a woman, a fact which in itself brought them greatest shame."

They are determined to shock their audience too, to make them remember just what a disaster this mere woman nearly caused, but how the Romans brought her to heel despite all the odds.

The second is Queen Victoria. It was only in the Victorian period that Boudica began to take on the legendary proportions for the British people that she has today. In Old Britonic (the British Celtic language), something like *bouda meant victory; so Victoria was identifying herself with, not just her namesake, but also a great warrior queen, and a true patriotic figure. The famous bronze statue in London shown below was sponsored by Prince Albert himself.

The inscription beneath it reads, as a sort of consolation for her defeat:

Regions Caesar never knew,
Thy posterity shall sway.

Sources:
http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cassius_Dio/62*.html
http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/tacitus/tac.ann14.shtml - 29
Tacitus - The Annals of Imperial Rome, translation by Michael Grant

Special thanks to Publius Cornelius Tacitus. Without you, the history of Roman Britain would be a very different place.

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