Boudica: scourge of the Roman empire

Vanessa Collingridge tells the story of the woman who raised and led a native army in revolt against oppressive Roman rule in Britain in AD 60...

This article first appeared in BBC History Magazine's Royal Women bookazine

Immortal warrior: the rebellion of tribes in AD 60 was a serious threat to the m
A freedom fighter, the woman who almost drove the Romans out of the country, Boudica is one of the most iconic queens of Britain. Despite being one of the first ‘British’ women mentioned in history, there is no direct evidence that she even existed. Instead, we have to rely on the accounts of two classical authors, Tacitus and Cassius Dio, both writing decades after the alleged battles between Boudica’s rebel army and their new Roman overlords. Their accounts were constructed with a specific political agenda, and a Roman audience, in mind but they are the only references we have. We don’t even know her real name: Boudica derives from bouda, the ancient British word for victory.
 
Any biography of the warrior queen is therefore a marriage of the classical histories with limited and circumstantial archaeological evidence. From these fragmentary sources, and what we know about Iron Age and early Roman Britain, we can weave together some of the strands of this woman’s achievements.
 
Boudica first appears in the historical record of AD 60 after the death of her husband, Prasutagus, ruler of the Iceni people. They lived in an area covering modern-day  Norfolk, north Suffolk and north-east Cambridgeshire. Prasutagus had become a ‘client king’ of the Romans shortly after they had invaded Britain in AD 43, allowed to keep his lands in exchange for supporting the Romans politically and paying them dues as a tribal leader. 
 
Prasutagus would doubtless have been granted Roman citizenship, along with his wife and two young daughters. As a client queen, chances are that Boudica would therefore have been a wine-drinking, fine-dining and possibly even Latin-speaking aristocrat, with her future, and that of her daughters, assured in relative luxury. 
 
According to Tacitus, the trouble began when Prasutagus died having bequeathed only half his wealth to the Roman emperor, Nero: the other half was signed over not to Nero or even to Boudica, but to his two young daughters. His reasons for doing this were unclear. Perhaps he was attempting to shore up the girls’ dynastic claim to rule the Iceni; perhaps he didn’t trust Boudica to support the Romans; perhaps he was trying to show his tribe that he was not a puppet leader of a foreign invader. The result was catastrophic. The Romans looted his palace, sacked his kingdom, enslaved his relatives and stripped all Iceni chiefs of their ancestral lands.
 
There was worse to come: the Romans flogged Boudica and gang-raped the young princesses. For a Roman audience, this defilement of the ruling class, Roman or Briton, was reprehensible; for the Iceni, Boudica was not just a queen, she was also a priestess and possibly the embodiment of their goddess Andraste. This was more than a violation of their earthly leaders – the rapes and floggings desecrated the Iceni’s entire culture and system of beliefs. 
 
The historian Cassius Dio gives a different root cause to the events that followed, focusing instead on the sudden recall of substantial Roman loans to tribal leaders, leaving them humiliated and in serious financial crisis. Whatever the trigger, the Iceni had a motive for rebellion; all they needed was a leader. Into this space stepped the outraged Boudica – a symbol that though they might be bruised, they still had their dignity, and it was time to fight back.
 
Boudica wasn’t the first Iron Age warrior queen to lead her people to war. Cartimandua, the first British woman to be named in the historical record, ruled the bellicose Brigantes tribe in what is now the north of England. Meanwhile, at Chedworth Roman villa in the county of Gloucestershire a portable Roman altar depicts a spear-wielding goddess entitled ‘Dea Regina’ – Queen Goddess. 
 

Boudica was a goddess as well as a queen to her people, a concept the Romans would have understood, as shown by this portable altar depicting their own queen goddess of war, Minerva, holding a spear. (Ian Shaw – National Trust Images)
 
With such earthly and divine sanction, Boudica plotted the Iceni’s revenge on their Roman overlords, aided by her southern neighbors, the Trinovantes. They were the first native Britons to sign a treaty with Rome – in 54 BC after Julius Caesar’s second attempt to invade. But that treaty was about to be broken: they, too, had seen their lands devastated. Their former capital, Camulodunum (modern-day Colchester), had been taken by the Romans as the seat of their new administration, with tribal lands redistributed to retired Roman soldiers. Even worse, the Trinovantes had been ordered to pay for, and build, a gigantic new temple to the Emperor Claudius. As fermenting hatred exploded into fury, Boudica gained her army.
 
The campaigning season of AD 60 saw the Roman forces busy in the western fringes of Britannia as they battled to suppress the political power of the druids on Anglesey. Boudica took her chance and swept down to destroy the very heart of Roman Britain. Tacitus calls the uprising a “sudden revolt”, suggesting it caught the Romans unawares. After years of collaboration, there was now no mercy shown to the few thousand Romans left defending their capital, not even when they fled for their lives into the sanctity of the temple. They were butchered or burned alive as Camulodunum was annihilated.
 
The classical accounts correspond with a grim discovery: a burned layer in the ground, from a few centimetres to half a metre deep. Whether the burning was by the Romans as they fled or by Boudica’s army has never been answered but the burned layer is evident in Colchester and in Boudica’s next targets: London and St Albans.
 
The relatively new Roman town of Londinium nestled on the banks of the river Thames, around 40 miles south-west of Camulodunum. A centre for trade, it offered rich pickings for Boudica’s army and very little in the way of defence. With the Roman governor of Britain Suetonius Paulinus around 300 miles away in the west and Catus Decianus the administrator in charge of the outrage on Boudica long fled to Gaul, the 30,000 people of the town knew they were on their own. Taking what they could, they abandoned their homes and fled.
 
Cassius Dio regales the savagery of the Britons’ attack: women with their breasts hacked off and sewn into their mouths, their bodies then skewered full-length on wooden poles. The mass executions, religious sacrifices and “indescribable slaughter” echoed Tacitus’s account of the sexual and religious violence meted out to Boudica and her daughters. Now, with London burning at temperatures of almost 1000C (1800F), Boudica could look back and smile at her second success.
 

Boudica’s victims?  A burned layer in the towns she sacked is thought to be evidence of Boudica’s uprising, and these skulls found in London may be those of victims unable to leave when the Iceni attacked in AD 60. (Museum of London)
 
Two of the largest towns in Roman Britain now lay in ashes; Boudica’s army had done its job well. But the thirst for revenge had not yet been slaked: to the north-west lay another symbol of the hated foreign rule – not a Roman town but a town of British collaborators who appeared to glory in everything Roman-style. For Boudica’s army, this cultural insult from their enemy Catuvellauni tribe was too much to bear. Slowly gathering their people around them, the tribes began their next journey northwest to their third target: Verulamium, the modern day town of St Albans, in Hertfordshire.
 
By the summer of AD 60/61, the Catuvellauni knew they were next. The third largest Roman settlement in the province, Verulamium had been designated a municipium – a status affording Roman citizenship with all its benefits to its local magistrates. But with no garrisons or Roman officials, they were left to face their fate alone. As Boudica mobilised her rebel army, drunk on their success and weighed down with plunder, the Catuvellauni had no option but to evacuate. While this might have saved the population, it didn’t save the town, which was burned to the ground before the hordes spread out into the surrounding countryside to devastate their old tribal enemy.
 
According to Tacitus, some 70,000 Roman citizens and allies had now been killed, plus 1,500 of their crack troops ambushed en route to Camulodunum. While the numbers are almost certainly exaggerated, this gave Suetonius Paulinus a problem: to lose thousands of troops and civilians not only looked bad in his despatches back to Nero, it weakened the might of the Romans in Britain and slowed his campaign to conquer and ‘civilise’ this barbarian land. But, worst of all, the Roman humiliation came at the hand of a woman. Not since Cleopatra’s seduction of both Caesar and Mark Antony had the empire suffered such shame.
 
Few details survive of Paulinus’s march south-east to confront Boudica. We don’t even know the location. Tacitus describes the site in the vaguest terms: the head of a valley with woods to the rear and an open plain in front where the enemy gathered. According to Cassius Dio, Boudica’s forces numbered 230,000 to the Roman’s 10,000 but the critical difference was in fighting style: while the Britons were expert at guerilla tactics, the Romans were a highly organised killing machine.
 

This coin, dating from c61 AD, is believed by some to show Boudica’s likeness. (SCRAN)
 
Boudica’s stirring speeches in both Tacitus and Dio’s accounts almost certainly owe more to hyperbole than history; however, they are of interest in how they portray her against her Roman oppressors. Tacitus describes how Boudica rallied her troops in warrior queen style, arguing she had morality, bravery and the gods on her side. In contrast, Cassius Dio’s prolonged battle speech for her draws upon Roman ideas of Britons as ethereal, almost mythical beings – brave but using ancient and secret arts, goddesses and an auspicious hare to beat their opponents in place of cold, hard steel.
 
Even the gods could not save the Britons this time: the Roman soldiers held their formations before unleashing a devastating attack. Boudica’s vast army was trapped on the plain with no way forward and any retreat blocked by their own families and possessions. With no space to fight and no way to flee, the Britons were massacred.
 
And Boudica? Tacitus says she killed herself with poison; Cassius Dio says she fell ill and died. Her daughters disappear from the record, while their tribespeople faced an onslaught little short of genocide. The lands and roundhouses of the Trinovantes and Iceni were destroyed. In their place was now a military landscape of forts, as much to assert the iconography of Roman power as any military might. 
 
However, far from losing her own power, Boudica lived on across the empire as a cautionary tale of what happens when you let a woman rule. It’s ironic then, that her legacy has endured whereas Paulinus’s name has faded. The idea of a British warrior queen battling a foreign enemy was invoked in the 16th century by Queen Elizabeth I to help legitimise her right to rule and to fight against the Spanish empire, and by Queen Victoria in the 19th century in her bid to rule an empire. 
 
For two millennia, Boudica has been reborn as hero and heretic, freedom fighter or dangerous red-haired virago. It’s the paradox of the warrior queen that endures: a woman who has the power to bring forth life but who can also bring death. 
 
Vanessa Collingridge is a broadcaster and the author of Boudica (Ebury, 2006). 
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