Boudicca: Queen of the Iceni

An ancient historian tells us that this queen of the Iceni “possessed greater intelligence than often belongs to women”. Not only that, she was taller than most, had a piercing gaze, her voice was harsh, and her general aspect was scary, from her waist-length, flaming red her down to her gold torque and colourful clothing.

That she was not only intelligent but also an extraordinary woman is quite obvious from the events that formed the rebellion that she led against the Romans. Whether she was tall and scary we cannot confirm, it may well have been simple rhetoric on the part of the historian to show the “wild” nature of the woman, whose description made her seem more like a male warrior, and who faced the much more orderly Roman legions. The only reason, it is claimed, why she was able to gather and lead an army, and kill 80,000 Romans, was because of her “great intelligence”.

Boudicca (or Boudica), who was born around AD 25, was a member of the aristocracy, and although she was perhaps not a member of the Iceni (exogamy was common among the Celtic elite), she did marry Prasutagus between AD 43 and 45, who was king of the Iceni until his death in AD 60.

There were many reasons why the Iceni (from southern Britain, present-day Norfolk) decided to revolt against Roman rule. All had been relatively quiet since the emperor Claudius’ Roman invasion and conquest of Britain in AD 43. Prasutagus, whose tribe was not directly under Roman control, knew that things might change and that he and his tribe might lose their independence, so he made a treaty with the Romans, as client-king, that allowed him to continue ruling the Iceni (there was a brief uprising in AD 47 when Ostorius Scapula, a previous governor, ordered the Iceni to disarm, citing a law which prohibited the possession of weapons except for hunting or for self-defense when on a journey).

But discontent among British tribes began to build. One reason was the attitude of veterans settled at Camulodunum (now Colchester), who were evicting legitimate property owners as if they were defeated enemies, not friendly subjects, and confiscating their property. Another reason was a temple built there to the deified emperor Claudius (between AD 56 and 60) as part of the newly-introduced imperial cult. Non-Romans, that is, the Britons, saw it as a citadel to perpetual tyranny, and as a reminder of the destruction of their own culture. A third reason was the arbitrary conduct of Roman administrators, and a fourth was excessive taxation (the Britons bitterly resented that abuse as well).

It was not only the Iceni and the Trinovantes who were unhappy with the Romans. In fact, one of the first things that Suetonius, the new governor of Roman Britain, had to do when he arrived at his post was to take his troops to the Isle of Mona (now Anglesey, off the northwest coast of Wales). The place was not only a centre for anti-Roman activities and generally a refuge for disgruntled Britons, but also a stronghold of the druids, who in the past had led rebellions against the Romans.

The island fell, all the Britons there were slaughtered, and the religious groves were razed to the ground. But not before the Roman legionaries wasted some time standing in awe, staring at the druids who, hands uplifted, were invoking their deities with unintelligible (to the Romans, at least) words, and staring also at women running through the ranks of the Britons. Ancient historians describe them in similar terms to Boudicca: they were wild. And they carried flaming torches, like raging Furies.

But for Boudicca and the Iceni, the last straw was all that happened to their tribe at the death of Prasutagus. The very wealthy king had had enough foresight to make a will, hoping to keep his kingdom and his family safe. He had left his kingdom jointly to the emperor Nero and his two daughters. But things did not turn out as he had hoped.

His will was ignored, because according to Roman law, royal inheritance could not be passed down to daughters. Also, the Romans and their emperor would not accept joint ownership with women. So the Iceni tribe was now going to be ruled directly by the Romans. The nobility lost their ancestral properties to confiscation, and Prasutagus’ relatives were treated like slaves. In addition, Roman financiers demanded the repayment of loans that they had made when Claudius was emperor.

As if that had not been enough, Boudicca was publicly flogged, as if she were a right-less slave and not a free woman allied to the Romans. Then she was forced to watch the rape and torture of her two daughters, who were about 12 years old.

So, Roman laws and customs aside, Boudicca’s people, and later their allies, considered her to be their natural leader. Taking up arms in rebellion (in AD 60) was their next step. First the neighbours to the south, the Trinovantes, joined in, then other tribes, until the Britons numbered about 100,000. They may well have been inspired by the Germanic prince Arminius, of the Cherusci, who had driven the Romans back in AD 9 at the Teutoburg Forest, slaughtering 20,000 of their troops.

So then, armed and dressed to kill, Boudicca and her daughters got on her small, light chariot, which had wicker screens for protection on all sides. They set out for Camulodunum (Colchester), former capital of the Trinovantes, now capital of the province, where Claudius’ temple was located.

The Roman veterans, desperate because there weren’t enough defenders at the place, asked the Roman procurator, Catus Decianus, for reinforcements, but he could only spare 200 auxiliaries. Boudicca and her troops destroyed the city, and Decianus, fearing for his life, fled to the continent (Gaul).

Next, the rebels proceeded to the Roman city of Londinium (London), a newly-established trade centre. Suetonius had by now finished his grim task at Mona, and marched to Londinium. But then he realized that (like Camulodunum) there were not enough troops to defend the settlement. All he had was the XIV legion, a few detachments of the XX legion, and some cavalry. The inhabitants begged him to stay and help, to no avail. He sacrificed the city to save the province. All those who stayed behind were slaughtered by the rebels. Londinium was burnt down. Verulamium (St Albans), northwest of Londinium, suffered the same fate.

Ancient historians delight in describing the atrocities allegedly committed by the Iceni and their allies. They are generally described as bloodthirsty barbarians, indeed worse than wild beasts, who had no intention of taking prisoners. We read that in Londinium, the rebels rounded up the noblest and most distinguished women, and marched them off to a grove sacred to the Celtic goddess of war and victory, Andraste. There they hung them up naked and cut off their breasts, which they then sewed to their mouths, making it appear like they were eating them. Their bodies were then impaled on sharp skewers. All this was done to the accompaniment of sacrifices, banquets, and generally wild behavior.

Since we don’t have the British side of the story, we must suppose that the rebels, fired up and ready for vengeance, committed the atrocities that were usual in ancient wars, although the cruel details offered by the ancient historian are suspect.

Suetonius, meanwhile, was gathering an army that amounted to 10,000 men. These were soldiers of the XIV legion, veterans of the XX legion, and a number of auxiliaries. He carefully chose a spot with good tactical advantages: it was one encircled with woods, with a narrow entrance, and protected in the back by a thick forest. There he could not be ambushed by the Britons. The enemy had no approach but from the front. To this date, experts are still uncertain as to the exact location of the battle that ensued, although it may have been fought at Mancetter, on Watling St in the west Midlands.

Boudicca brought an army of Briton rebels that may have numbered 100,000. One of the ancient historians tells us that they were so sure of winning that they had placed their families in wagons at the edge of the battlefield so that they could see the action. And in keeping with the intention of showing the Celts as savages, we read that there were many naked women running around frantically and screaming.

Although numerically far superior to the Roman forces, the Iceni and their allies did not have some of the advantages of the Romans, such as breastplates, greaves, and the short gladius. It appears that rebels only had a long slashing sword and a shield, and wore nothing except body paint and tattoos. In this kind of confrontation, that did not look good. As for Boudicca herself, we are told that, besides her spear, she had a shield and armour, but these were only “ornamental”. This is clearly not in keeping with her plans to lead her warriors by example.

When both sides were ready, and before the actual battle, each one of the leaders gave a speech to the troops. Boudicca, in her chariot, and with her daughters by her side, is said to have reminded the tribes about their lost freedom, and she made it clear that the Britons were superior to the Romans, if not in armour, then in bravery and hardiness.

Then Boudicca, who, as was common among the ancients, believed in divination, released a hare, which ran in a direction that was considered auspicious. She told the warriors that they would show the Romans that they were hares and foxes trying to rule over dogs and wolves. Then, raising her hands, she thanked Adraste for being on their side.

Next she reminded the Iceni and their allies that it was customary for them to be led into battle by women. But on this occasion she was not an aristocratic woman avenging her kingdom and her wealth. She was an ordinary woman, and a mother not only to her two children but also to the tribes under her command. She was out to avenge their lost freedom, and also the undeserved flogging she received at the hands of the Romans, as well as the violation of her daughters’ bodies.

She went on to say that they were fighting for a cause that was just both in the eyes of the Britons and of the deities, and that these were on their side. Further, she asked the rebels to look around and see for themselves that their numbers were superior to those of the Romans, which looked very encouraging. The Romans had certainly already realized their own small force. She finished by saying that she, as a woman, had already reached a decision: she would win, or else she would die. As for the men, she told them to make their own decision: if slavery suited them, it was their choice.

Map to indicate Boudicca’s movements against the Romans.

For his part, Suetonius told his men that he anticipated victory. He inspired them by saying that the Britons had more women than men fighting in their ranks (simple rhetoric intended to fire up the all-male Roman troops). Not only that, he added, they were savages, lacking discipline, and with no real weapons or training. So it should be easy to beat the rebels, despite the numerical disadvantage of the legions.

Then the battle began. The Romans attacked the approaching Boudicca and her Britons with volleys of javelins. As anticipated by Suetonius, their own position protected them well. Then the Romans advanced, and effectively used their shorter swords, perfect for stabbing in close-quarter combat; the Britons were crushed so close together that they could not use their longer swords (they were good for slashing, not stabbing). And in this setting, the chariots were completely useless.

The Britons who were not killed tried to flee. But the very wagons that they had placed at the edge of the battlefield, so that their families could see the action, obstructed their passage. Everyone was slaughtered; not even their cattle escaped. The numbers of British dead were 80,000. The Romans only lost 400 men, and more were wounded. However, in the three previous battles, at Camulodunum, Londinium, and, Verulamium, the Romans had lost 70,000 to 80,000, both citizens and allies.

As for Boudicca, she seems to have escaped and either killed herself with poison, or “died by sickness” (she was about 36). The historians cannot agree on what happened. If she did end her life, it was because she knew that a terrible fate awaited her. She may also have tried to avoid being chained and paraded in a triumph; after all, eighty years before, another queen, Cleopatra, also followed this route, and for the same reason. The Britons gave Boudicca a funeral worthy of a queen.

Unrest among the Britons continued, however, and Suetonius, with reinforcements from Germania, ravaged not only hostile tribes, but also some who had remained neutral. The emperor feared this might provoke further rebellion, so he replaced him with a governor who was more conciliatory, Publius Petronius Turpilianus.

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