Alternate history: what if Boudica had defeated the Romans?

Iceni warrior queen Boudica came within one victory of ending Roman rule in Britain less than 20 years after it had begun. What if she had succeeded? Jonny Wilkes talks to historian and archaeologist Miles Russell about what triumph at Watling Street in AD 60 might have meant for Britain and for Rome

Illustration of Boudica, victorious over the Romans

Each month BBC History Revealed asks a historical expert for their take on what might have happened if a key moment in the past had turned out differently. This time, Jonny Wilkes asks Miles Russell what if… Boudica had defeated the Romans?

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There came a moment when Iceni queen Boudica had good reason to believe her uprising would end in victory over the Romans. Beginning with her warriors and an alliance with a rival tribe, the Trinovantes, her horde of bloodthirsty Britons had kept growing as more joined her march through southern England in AD 60 from one success to the next. As well as ambushing and obliterating the Roman 9th Legion, she had burned Camulodunum (Colchester), Londinium (London) and Verulamium (St Albans) to the ground.

“The three newly built Roman towns were all undefended,” says Miles Russell, historian, author and Senior Lecturer of archaeology at Bournemouth University. “Camulodunum, which housed ex-Roman soldiers and was the site of a temple dedicated to Emperor Claudius, was the main focus of Boudica’s anger.” Londinium, meanwhile, was a wealthy centre of trade and Verulamium had been built for the pro-Roman Catuvellauni tribe, described by Russell as “all traitors and quislings in the eyes of Boudica’s people”.

Now the warrior queen faced her greatest challenge. The Governor of Britain, Gaius Suetonius Paulinius, had raced back from putting down a druid rebellion in Wales at the head of 10,000 battle-hardened soldiers. They may have been far more disciplined and better armed than Boudica’s ragtag army, but they were heavily outnumbered – as much as four to one, according to Russell. When the two sides met at a place called Watling Street, Boudica had to avoid playing into Suetonius’s hands.“Suetonius was, as far as Rome was concerned, the right man in the right place; an experienced soldier and a no-nonsense individual who did not shrink from making tough decisions,” says Russell.

Not all Britons were on Boudica’s side – far from it. Many had thrown their lot in with the Roman government, seeing no benefit in siding with the anarchy and lawlessness of the rebels
Miles Russell, historian and archaeologist

Watling Street was where Boudica’s army was broken, but could it have played out differently? Boudica would have had to ensure that Suetonius did not choose the battleground, where the Romans could position themselves at a bottleneck so that her larger numbers counted for nothing. Then it could too easily have turned into a massacre of the disorganised and unarmoured Britons.

Illustration of Alexander the Great marching to war (Illustration by Sue Gent_

Breaking the bottleneck

We might imagine Boudica’s warriors rushing across a wide field before the Roman javelins, or pila, caused too much damage and swarmed the shield wall, breaking it apart by the ferocity of the charge. With Suetonius in retreat and his remaining soldiers scattering, Boudica would have claimed a remarkable victory over the Romans.

Boudica stands on cart giving a speech
Boudica, queen of the British Iceni tribe, led an uprising against the occupying forces of the Roman Empire (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

That would not mean she had rid herself of all her enemies, though. The people of Britain were in no way united, with deep-seated tensions permeating between the tribes. “Not all Britons were on Boudica’s side – far from it. Many had thrown their lot in with the Roman government, seeing no benefit in siding with the anarchy and lawlessness of the rebels,” Russell asserts.

Boudica would have had to contend with them, and also keep her own Iceni and ally tribes under some control, as many warriors simply wanted to loot and kill. “It is likely that the victorious Britons would have vented their anger upon the tribes allied to Rome, such as the Atrebates and Regni, before eventually turning on each other,” says Russell. “Boudica would have found it difficult to call a halt to the slaughter.”

There would not have been a Roman force left that was strong enough to retaliate, either, other than handfuls of soldiers in the west and north. “The Romans would have almost certainly been kicked out of Britain,” is Russell’s conclusion. “Emperor Nero could have done little more than order a full withdrawal of all forces from Britain, allowing him to regroup and consider whether to re-invade or plan punitive reprisals.”

The chances of a second invasion would have been small given the high cost, so the prestige of Rome would have been seriously tarnished. Russell goes even further when it comes to Nero’s reputation, which was already shaky due to his scandalous behaviour and lifestyle, and says the damage “would have been irreparable”. Nero’s reign may have been cut even shorter by intensified charges of corruption, extravagance and tyranny.

Statue of Boudica in her chariot in London
Boudica rides into battle on her scythed chariot in the sculpture ‘Boadicea and her Daughters’ by Thomas Thornycroft, erected in 1902 in London. (Photo by Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Britain makes an exit

Rome’s troubles with Britain, which had been within the trade orbit of the empire for around a century, would not be over even after they left, Russell claims. “It’s likely that, as in Germany after Rome’s army left in AD 9 following a massacre, the peoples of Britain would have become a constant problem at the edge of the empire, sending raiding parties, occasionally trading and sometimes even asking for help to resolve internal disputes.

“Rome may have sent troops across the Channel from time to time to quell the irritant, but it’s unlikely they would have launched another full-scale invasion,” Russell adds. “Eventually, British tribes may well have migrated into the collapsing Roman Empire, just as the various Germanic tribes did throughout the fifth century.”

As for Boudica, how would her legacy have survived over the centuries? The only sources relating to the uprising are written by two Roman historians – Tacitus and Cassius Dio – so it’s not unreasonable to assume she may have been left out of the histories altogether out of shame that a barbarian – a woman at that – had defeated the might of Rome. Russell, however, feels differently – after all, Tacitus and Dio had made Suetonius the hero of their narratives as a direct contrast to the ineffective Nero.

“Had Boudica won, her story would may have become more famous,” says Russell, “as the woman who successfully defied Rome and helped end the tyrant Nero’s reign. Her tale would have taken on a more moralistic slant in the Roman histories.”

What really happened

Emperor Claudius launched the conquest of Britain in AD 43. The Roman tactic of subduing each individual tribe, if not by military force, was by forcing an agreement whereby they nominally maintained their independence while allying with the conquerors.

The Iceni tribe, in modern-day East Anglia, became one of these ‘client kingdoms’, but when their king Prasutagus died, the Romans refused to recognise the rule of his widow, Boudica, and chose to rule the Iceni directly.

In AD 60, Boudica led a number of tribes in an uprising – destroying three cities and ambushing the Roman 9th Legion. The Iceni queen was finally defeated by 10,000 soldiers under Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, Governor of Britain, at the Battle of Watling Street.

The Romans made sure to improve defences so they never faced such a threat in Britain for the next 350 years.

While Boudica escaped the real massacre at Watling Street, the histories differ on her ultimate fate. Tacitus claims she poisoned herself to avoid capture and Cassius Dio makes out that she evaded the Romans long enough to die of illness.

Miles Russell is a historian, archaeologist and senior lecturer in prehistoric and Roman archaeology at Bournemouth University. He was speaking to freelance writer Jonny Wilkes

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This content first appeared in the April 2020 issue of BBC History Revealed