Boudica is one of the most famous names in British history but what do we really know about her? We take a closer look at Ancient Britain, Boudica’s revolt against the Roman occupation, and get to the bottom of why everyone struggles to say her name correctly! Read on to find out more or have a listen to a free clip from our podcast episode (or buy the bumper edition episode for just $2).
We don’t know exactly when Boudica was born, nor who her parents were – in fact, it’s been pretty hard to agree how to even say her name! Many people know her best as Boadicea but this is due to a medieval scribe mistaking a ‘u’ for an ‘a’ and a ‘c’ for an ‘e’ from a Roman text which spelled her name as Boudicca. Renaissance historians also struggled with the name, with their efforts including names such as Voadicia and Bunduca. Either way, the name Boudica means ‘victorious’, from the Celtic word boudika, which could actually have been a soubriquet awarded after her victories against the Romans, so maybe she wasn’t even called Boudica!
Boudica is said to have been of royal assent, but we do not know who her parents were. However, what we do know is that she was the queen of the Iceni tribe in Ancient Briton, married to King Prasutagus, and she had two daughters who were old enough to join her in battle but too young to rule in their own right. From this, it could be surmised that Boudica would have been in at least her 30s when she rebelled against the Romans in 60AD. And, according to Cassius Dio, she was a very imposing figure:
“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 large golden necklace; and she wore a tunic of divers colours over which a thick mantle was fastened with a brooch.”
The Ancient Britons did not leave any written records, meaning that almost everything that we do know about Boudica is based on three Roman sources, of which two were written by Tacitus and one by Cassius Dio, both of whom were given to employing a large amount of poetic license in their accounts (particularly when it comes to pre-battle speeches) and vulnerable to Roman bias (particularly regarding the Roman horror at the notion of women in positions of power). However, they should not be completely disregarded: Tacitus was one of Rome’s greatest historians and was the son-in-law of Agricola, who was a senior Roman officer in Britain during the revolt and would have been able to provide a first hand account of events. Tacitus seems to have developed his account, providing more details in his second work (Annals) than in his first (Agricola). Cassius Dio was writing around 100 years later but was assiduous in his research and seems to have had access to other sources (now lost) which were not used by Tacitus.
Ancient Britain was not a cohesive country with a single political structure or identity but rather a variety of kingdoms with distinct communities and practices. Because they did not leave written evidence of their lives, there has been a tendency to accept the Roman depiction of them as barbarians but archaeology has revealed a much more sophisticated culture, particularly in the south-east where they were minting their own coins and had advanced industries such as pottery and metalworks. Ancient Britain was no backwater at the end of the earth but was engaged in trade with continental Europe and seems to have had an influx of Gauls from around 50BC as the Roman Empire expanded west.
The archaeology and the Romans do agree that the Ancient Britons had a love of ornamentation. Both men and women wore heavy gold bracelets on their arms, enamelled brooches and the richer members of society had beautifully decorated helmets and shields. Dio described Boudica as wearing a large, golden torc (or necklace) before battle – given how heavy this was, it is doubtful she war it while fighting so it may have been a ceremonial device or simply a status symbol. Indeed, war was at the heart of society, with the Britons being described by the Romans, as tall and muscular, fighting largely naked and being incredibly brave but tactically naive in battle
Boudica’s tribe was the Iceni, based in East Anglia and covering all of modern Norfolk as well as parts of Suffolk and Cambridgeshire (and maybe edging into Essex). Like modern Norfolk, Iceni land was largely agricultural without large urban centres, so most of the population would have been subsistence farmers. The Iceni seem to have had a strong sense of identity and were the only British tribe to bear the tribal name as well as that of the ruler. They also had images of horses stamped on the coins, with horses being a key component of Iceni culture as status symbols and for use in war, driving chariots. These were not the large and elegant horses that we might picture today but something more akin to Dartmoor ponies, used to enduring tough, boggy conditions. The chariots are also not quite how they tend to be imagined – light-weight and made of wood (sadly no scythes on the wheels!), they were used to rush important people into and out of the action during a battle.
Julius Caesar was not the first Roman to set foot in Britain, but when he wrote his account of his 55BC invasion he declined to mention the initial visit by Publius Crassus in 57BC! Caesar provides us with our first mention of the Iceni tribe (the Cenimagni – the great Iceni) but rather overplayed the significance of his time in Britain, presenting a stalemate as conquest. He may have intended to return to make a proper conquest but Rome fell into civil war and he himself was assassinated in 44BC. Order was finally restored under his nephew, Octavian (or Augustus, as he became) when he defeated Mark Anthony and the Egyptian pharoah, Cleopatra. Britain was largely forgotten by the Romans for the next century but in 43AD, Claudius (keen to prove himself to his army) ordered the invasion which led to the conquest of most of southern and eastern Britain. Some tribes were placed under direct control but many remained largely independent but in accord with the Romans (or under client kings), with one such tribe being the Iceni.
Most Romans had a negative perception of Britain, with many being almost fearful of it. The Romans saw the Ocean as a divine spirit and a natural boundary to their empire – Britain was beyond this boundary, a haven for druids and a place of mythical beasts and horrors at the end of the earth. However, one of the worst things about the Britons (as far as the Romans were concerned) was the prominence of women in society. Ancient Rome was very much a patriarchy and allowed no leading role for women in governance or religion. They were traumatised by the memory of Cleopatra (who died about a century before Boudica was born), who took both Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony as lovers and waged war against Augustus and Rome. Augustus introduced legislation severely limiting the freedoms of women in society, specifically excluding them from religion and statecraft. Contemporary with Boudica was Agrippina – sister of Caligula, wife of Claudius and mother of Nero, she murdered her way to the top and wielded enormous power before being murdered by Nero in 59AD. These examples convinced many Roman writers that allowing women power would lead to corruption, debauchery and chaos.
In Britain, however, women had much more freedom. Not only could they inherit property but they could also become tribal leaders. Boudica is one example but the first named British woman was Cartimandua, who was queen of the Brigantes (modern day Yorkshire) by birth and the only other client queen (after Cleopatra) with whom the Romans engaged. Women could also play a major role in religion and it is possible that women may have been able to become druids – certainly Boudica was able to act as a priestess and invoke a goddess. The accounts of Tacitus and (in particular) Dio are informed by this Roman gender bias – indeed, Dio’s description of Boudica having a “harsh voice” implies she is not properly feminine (a common slur on powerful women through history) and even his statement that she was “possessed of greater intelligence than often belongs to women” is actually to intended to cast a negative light on Boudica (and women in general!)
Boudica may have led the most famous resistance against the Romans in Britain, but the Iceni were actually one of Rome’s client kingdoms. They were probably one of the original 11 tribes who submitted to Claudius in 43AD, after which they retained their nominal independence in return for aligning themselves with the Roman settlers. So, how did Boudica go from Roman ally to rebel pariah?
Boudica’s husband, Prasutagus, was the king of the Iceni and according to Tacitus lived “a life of long and renowned prosperity”. It’s not clear when his reign began – possibly in 43 but more likely after parts of the Iceni joined the earlier rebellion of Caratacus in 47AD, when he may have been installed as a client king. When he died in 60AD, he wanted to ensure that the Iceni remained independent under his daughters, so to appease the Roman emperor of the time (Nero) he left half of the kingdom to the daughters and the other half to Nero. His plan was that his loyalty would be rewarded but, as Tacitus drily observed, “it turned out otherwise”. The Iceni suffered assault and humiliation. Boudica was flogged, her daughters were raped and prominent Iceni leaders saw their lands and possessions looted by Roman officers and slaves.
Interestingly, Cassius Dio does not mention these atrocities and provides a financial motive for the rebellion. Claudius had given various loans to the leading Britons after the conquest and now the procurator in Britain (the Roman officer responsible for the governance of the colony) was demanding the loans back. At the same time, the philosopher Seneca had also made various loans to various Britons (apparently 40,000,000 sesterces!) and was now calling in his loans with interest. Although they had coins, the Britons did not have a money culture and still relied on bartering and gift-giving, and probably had not really wanted the loans in the first place, so these demands were extortionate and offensive.
Whether due to atrocities, loan sharks or a combination of these and a a general dissatisfaction with the Roman occupation, Boudica did lead a revolt. According to Dio, she was both war leader and high priestess, undertaking a ceremony to the goddess Andraste by releasing a hare and observing which way it ran for a sign of good fortune. She had the support not just of her own Iceni tribe but also the neighbouring Trinovantes (largely based in Essex) and may have led somewhere in the region of 100,000 people (though numbers are difficult to quantify, with the Romans tending to exaggerate). The Trinovantes had seen their capital, Camulodunum, taken over by the Romans and were then forced to work and pay for all the building works. If Tacitus’ account of atrocities is true, it could be that the most likely culprits would have been the veterans in Camulodunum, so the two tribes would go to war in Essex.
Camulodunum (modern day Colchester) started off as a legionary base but later became a colonia, meaning it was officially a Roman town (and thus the oldest recorded town in Britain) and effectively the capital. Unfortunately for the Roman residents of Colchester, in becoming a town it had seen its defences removed – there was no resident army (besides retired veterans and a paltry force of 200 soldiers sent to defend the town by the Procurator) and no city walls, leaving it open for attack. When the attack came, it was brutal:
“On reaching Camulodunum, Boudica’s forces stormed the city, burning and plundering, before destroying the hated symbol of Roman rule, the Temple of Claudius. When all else had been ravaged or burnt, the garrison concentrated itself in the temple. After two days’ siege, it fell by storm.”
The temple was a grand affair dedicated to Claudius and the only refuge for the inhabitants from Boudica and her forces as they burnt the town to the ground. However, the stone walls and solid brass doors could only hold for two days before the Britons broke through and everyone inside was slaughtered. Archaeologists discovered the foundations of the temple beneath the Norman castle in Colchester as well as the stark evidence of Boudica’s attack, with a red layer under the soil revealing where buildings had been systematically burned down. Rather like Pompeii, Camulodunum is unusual in offering a snapshot of a moment in history (it’s unusual to be able to date finds to a precise year from such a long time ago), with plenty of evidence of a cosmopolitan diet with plums, figs and coriander as well as germinating barley deposits (i.e. the first evidence of ale making in Britain!)
Surprisingly, however, there has been no evidence found of bodies. This in spite of the Roman accounts of the townspeople being slaughtered and the fact that, once the attack was underway, the 9th Legion of the Roman army under Petilius Cerialis came from Peterborough to put the rebellion down only to be ambushed and around three thousand soldiers killed. It is possible that there are mass graves yet to be discovered or that most of the town’s population evacuated. Either way, the Roman capital had been destroyed and (thanks to a rather rash move by Petilius Cerialis) the Romans had been handed a morale-boosting victory. Alarmed by the situation, the Procurator, Catus Decianus, fled the country, taking much of the paperwork and administrative staff with him. Roman Britain was in danger of collapse.
One of the reasons that Boudica was able to enjoy this early success was that the Roman Governor (the man in charge of the army), Suetonius Paulinus, was busy fighting druids some 300 miles away in Mona (modern Anglesey in Wales) and in no position to intervene to save Camunlodunum. However, unlike Decianus, Paulinus was an experienced and capable officer and did not panic. Instead, leaving some of his forces to continue fighting the druids, he moved at great speed (either by horse or boat) and despite being much further away he reached the next big city, Londinium, before Boudica. In part this was a reflection of the greatly disciplined Roman army, while the Britons were not accustomed to marching across the country and may not have had a strong tactical sense of what to do. No doubt, after news of her victory spread, Boudica’s forces were inundated with new arrivals that would have made the army much harder to organise.
Unfortunately, the speedy arrival of Paulinus was of no benefit to Londinium. Unlike Camulodunum, there is little evidence of a pre-Roman settlement beyond nearby farmsteads. Although growing as a town (particularly for business and trade), Londinium was not the grand urban centre of later times (certainly no Camulodunum). It was a worthy and reachable target for Boudica, but for Paulinus it was a poorly defended town with a very limited population which (without a larger army), he had no hope of defending:
“He looked around on his scanty force of soldiers, and remembering with what a serious warning the rashness of Petilius had been punished, he resolved to save the province at the cost of a single town. Nor did the tears and weeping of the people, as they implored his aid, deter him from giving the signal of departure & receiving into his army all who would go with him.”
So Paulinus left, taking his army and anyone else who could (and would) leave with him. Those remaining, however, would face the same fate as Camulodunum: Londinium was burnt to the ground, another red layer of soil c. 13ft below the surface leaving a permanent mark on the landscape of Boudica’s attack. Archaeologists have estimated that the heat created would have been over 1,000°C (comparable to the firestorms suffered by cities like Dresden in the Second World War). As if this was not enough, Dio provides a rather grim account of the fate of those found in Londinium by the Britons:
“They hung up naked the noblest and most distinguished women and then cut off their breasts and sewed them to their mouths, in order to make the victims appear to be eating them; afterwards they impaled the women on sharp skewers run lengthwise through the entire body. All this they did to the accompaniment of sacrifices, banquets, and wanton behaviour, not only in all their other sacred places, but particularly in the grove of Andate. This was their name for Victory, and they regarded her with most exceptional reverence.”
Dio’s account may well have been exaggerated – he was keen to emphasise the barbarism of the Britons (particularly being led by a woman) and the horrific examples he provides often crop up in a similar fashion throughout history when seeking to depict the enemy as monstrous villains. However, even if he employed some poetic license, the impact must still have been devastating and another Roman town had been wiped out. Paulinus needed to do something, or Boudica was going to bring Roman rule to an end.
Verulamium (St Albans)
From Londinium, Boudica’s ever-growing army went on to destroy a third major town – Verulamium (modern St Albans). Unlike the previous two towns, this was not really Roman but rather a British city that was friendly towards Rome. Tacitus stated that it was a municipium (a town with a chartered constitution, one step down from a colonia) but this may have occurred in subsequent years. Nevertheless, the Romans were sufficiently impressed by what they found to send their great road of Watling Street through the town. However, for Boudica and her rebels this was not of any great strategic benefit, implying the motivation was more a combination of personal vendetta (targetting pro-Roman Britons) and a need for plunder than it was tactical.
Unfortunately for the Britons, this was a point at which they still had a tactical advantage. Paulinus had abandoned Londinium because he had insufficient forces to fight Boudica and as such he was vulnerable. He was expecting Poenius Postumus of the 2nd Legion to meet him in the West Midlands but (for reasons unknown) this did not occur, forcing Paulinus to push on further to find enough troops to form an army that could fight a battle. The attack on Verulamium, therefore, gave Paulinus more time to prepare.
As it was, while Boudica had laid another town to waste, Paulinus had succeeded in bringing his scattered forces together and was ready to take on the Britons in battle.
The Battle of Watling Street
It is still a matter of some debate as to where the final battle between Boudica and the Romans took place. Tacitus did not give a place name and subsequent archaeology has not yet found the site. Popular candidates are Mancettor in Warwickshire, which lies north-west of St Albans, and Cuttle Mill in Northamptonshire (i.e. closer to Verulamium). The legend of the battle taking place near King’s Cross in London is almost certainly false.
What we do know is that Paulinus chose a location that gave the Romans the best chance of winning – the Romans probably had no more than 10,000 men and were facing an army at least ten times as large. However, Paulinus was able to minimise this discrepancy in numbers by positioning his forces in a defile (i.e. a gorge) in front of woodlands with an open plain in front of him. This meant the Britons could not attack him from behind nor outflank him and could only fight as wide a front as the gorge would allow, meaning the very front lines of the battle would initially be fairly even by necessity of space. Importantly, the Romans were a highly disciplined, well-trained fighting force whereas the Britons were mostly farmers with makeshift weapons. Despite the numbers, an open battle was the best chance for the Romans.
Ahead of the battle, both commanders gave battle speeches. It is here that we saw the Roman historians fully embrace poetic license in inventing a speech for Boudica that they could not possible have heard. However, it was a very dramatic scene that Tacitus described, with Boudica driving around in her chariot with her daughters in front of her, shouting out her inspirational speech to a cacophony of noise:
“I am not fighting for my kingdom and wealth. I am fighting as an ordinary person for my lost freedom, my bruised body, and my outraged daughters. Nowadays Roman rapacity does not even spare our bodies. Old people are killed, virgins raped. But the gods will grant us the vengeance we deserve! The Roman division which dared to fight is annihilated. The others cower in their amps, or watch for a chance to escape. They will never face even the din and roar of all our thousands, much less the shock of our onslaught. Consider how many of you are fighting – and why. Then you will win this battle, or perish. That is what I, a woman, plan to do! Let the men live in slavery if they will.”
However, the words supposedly spoken by Paulinus have more of a ring of truth to them, perhaps because Tacitus may well have had a first-hand account of what was said from Agricola. In contrast to Boudica, Paulinus is unusually blunt and practical with his words:
“Disregard the clamours and empty threats of the natives! In their ranks, there are women than fighting men. Unwarlike, unarmed, when they see the arms and courage of the conquerors who have routed them so often, they will break immediately. Even when a force contains many divisions, few among them win the battles – what special glory for your small numbers to win the renown of a whole army! Just keep in close order. Throw your javelins, and then carry on: use shield-bosses to fell them, swords to kill them. Do not think of plunder. When you have won, you will have everything.”
As events would prove, Paulinus was right to be confident. The Romans held their positions in face of the charging Britons before unleashing two volleys of pila (javelins that would stick into the enemy’s shield, making them unusable – each Roman soldier carried two) which seems to have undone any organisation there may have been in the British ranks. At this point, the Roman infantry marched into battle and the cavalry charged, leading to a hard and brutal battle:
“The barbarians would assail the Romans with a rush of their chariots, knocking them helter-skelter, but, since they fought without breastplates, would themselves be repulsed by arrows. They contended for a long time, both parties being animated by the same zeal and daring. But finally, late in the day, the Romans prevailed.”
Roman discipline was too much for the disorganised Britons. Unfortunately, the defeat would become a slaughter for the Britons as they were prevented from fleeing the battlefield as their families (with wagons of supplies and animals) were in their way at the back. This was not entirely unusual for the time – warfare was a community experience and having your family nearby meant they were not at risk from being attacked while the men were away. Unfortunately, at Watling Street it was a disaster:
“[They] demolished all serious resistance. The remaining Britons fled with difficulty since their ring of wagons blocked the outlets. The Romans did not spare even the women. Baggage animals too, transfixed with weapons, added to the heaps of dead.”
The defeat was total for the Britons. According to Tacitus, around 80,000 Britons were killed in comparison to just 400 Roman dead (and a slightly higher number wounded). This is assumed to be an exaggeration – if true, this would be worse than British casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme – but it was certainly a devastating defeat.
Boudica seems to have survived the battle, though not for very long. Tacitus stated that she killed herself by poison (similar to Cleopatra) while Dio claimed that she died of an illness. The fate of her daughters is not mentioned in any history but the assumption must be that they were either killed in battle or took their lives afterwards (if they had lived, they would have been paraded around Rome as part of a victory parade). What became of Boudica’s body is also unknown – a fanciful theory in the 17th century that Stonehenge was a monument to Boudica was quickly disproved, likewise a more recent tradition that was buried between platforms 9 and 10 at King’s Cross (apparently JK Rowling was not aware of this tradition when she created Platform 9 and 3/4 in the Harry Potter books!)
As for Roman Britain, Paulinus was reinforced with several thousand soldiers from Germany and campaigned all through winter, launching brutal reprisals against the Britons (regardless of their involvement in the rebellion). The Iceni particularly suffered because they had neglected to sow their fields before starting the rebellion, meaning they suffered a terrible famine as well as seeing their farms burned, many of their people taken into slavery and Roman forts (now walled) erected across Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. Nero (not a man famed for his reasonable demeanour) feared Paulinus was being too harsh and had him replaced with a more conciliatory Governor. Tacitus’s father-in-law, Agricola, would himself later become Governor and adopted a softer approach, encouraging Britons to build temples and Roman style buildings, partake in baths and banquets while teaching the sons of leading men to learn the liberal arts and to speak Latin. Boudica’s rebellion had failed and it would be nearly 400 years before the Romans would depart.
Boudica’s record is, perhaps, not as impressive as some might hope. She sacked three largely undefended towns and ambushed a much smaller Romance force but never attacked or fort or garrison and suffered a total defeat in the only all-out battle she fought. What’s more, there was some pretty brutal goings-on in Colchester and London (albeit possibly exaggerated by the Romans) which is not quite so palatable to modern sensibilities. When the Britons had the advantage and an opportunity to defeat a vulnerable Roman enemy, they instead rampaged into towns that offered little strategic benefit and ended up being drawn into the open battle that gave the Romans their best chance of success.
However, Boudica’s impact on history is still impressive. The Britons were not a professional army like the Romans so it is probably unfair to expect them to behave like generals with detailed maps and strategies. Indeed, the larger the British army got, the harder it would have been to control. Boudica may have started as the all-out leader but as different tribes became involved it must have become something more of a loosely united coalition that would have been hard to control beyond pointing at the nearest point of potential plunder. Despite all this, Boudica did destroy the three biggest Roman settlements, the Procurator abandoned the country and Nero was said to have been considered abandoning Britain altogether. But for the level-headed Paulinus (brave enough to stay but not too rash to rush into battle at the first opportunity) the Roman occupation could well have come to an end – it was, after all, only 17 years since the initial conquest. Indeed, Roman advances in Britain came to something of a standstill for the next decade, and it was only in the 70s-80s that they continued to extend into Wales and Scotland under Agricola. What’s more, as Dio lamented, Boudica was not just a rebel, she was a female rebel, who had confounded Roman gender prejudice:
“moreover, all this ruin was brought upon the Romans by a woman, a fact which in itself cause them the greatest shame.”
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