She slaughtered a Roman army. She torched Londinium, leaving a charred layer almost half a meter thick that can still be traced under modern London. According to the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus, her army killed as many as 70,000 civilians in Londinium, Verulamium and Camulodunum, rushing ‘to cut throats, hang, burn, and crucify. Who was she? Why was she so angry?
Most of Boudica’s life is shrouded in mystery. She was born around AD 25 to a royal family in Celtic Britain, and as a young woman she married Prasutagus, who later became king (a term adopted by the Celts, but as practiced by them, more of an elected chief) of the Iceni tribe. They had two daughters, probably born during the few years immediately after the Roman conquest in ad 43. She may have been Iceni herself, a cousin of Prasutagus, and she may have had druidic training. Even the color of her hair is mysterious. Another Roman historian, Cassius Dio — who wrote long after she died — described it with a word translators have rendered as fair, tawny, and even flaming red, though Dio probably intended his audience to picture it as golden-blonde with perhaps a reddish tinge. Her name meant victory.
Boudica’s people once welcomed the Romans. Nearly 100 years earlier, when Gaius Julius Caesar made the first Roman foray into Britannia in 55 and 54 BC, the Iceni were among six tribes that offered him their allegiance. But this greatest of all Roman generals was unable to cope with either the power of the coastal tides or the guerrilla tactics of the other Britons who fought him. After negotiating a pro forma surrender and payment of tribute, Caesar departed.
For the next 97 years, no Roman military force set foot on British soil. The Iceni watched as their southern neighbors, the Catuvellauni, grew rich from exporting grain, cattle and hides, iron and precious metals, slaves and hunting dogs to Rome. From Rome, they imported luxury goods such as wine and olive oil, fine Italian pottery, and silver and bronze drinking cups, and they minted huge numbers of gold coins at their capital, Camulodunum.
A century of Roman emperors came and went. Then, in 41 Claudius (Tiberius Claudius Nero Germanicus) rose to the imperial purple. There were many practical reasons why he might have thought it useful to add Britannia to the empire, one being that the island was an important source of grain and other supplies needed in quantity by the Roman army. Stories abounded about the mineral wealth there. Outbreaks of unrest in Gaul were stirred up — so the Romans believed — by druid agitators from Britannia.
The most compelling reason for Claudius, however, was political. Born with a limp and a stutter, he had once been regarded as a fool and kept out of public view — although those handicaps were largely responsible for his survival amid the intrigue and murder that befell many members of his noble family. Now the emperor desperately needed a prestige boost of the sort that, in Rome, could be provided only by an important military victory. So when the chief of a minor British tribe turned up in Rome, complaining that he had been deposed and asking the emperor to restore his rule, Claudius must have thought it the perfect excuse to launch an invasion.
Boudica would have been about 18 years old in 43, the year Claudius invaded, old enough to be aware of the events that would transform her life. She may already have been married to Prasutagus, but the king of the Iceni was still Antedios, probably an older relative of Prasutagus. Antedios seems to have taken a neutral position toward Rome. Other tribes openly supported the conquest, but most, including the Icenis’ neighbor to the south, did not. Caradoc, king of the Catuvellauni (called Caractacus by the Romans), and his brother Togodumnus led an alliance of tribes to repel the invaders.
When the Roman troops landed at the far southeastern tip of Britannia, Caractacus and his allies harried them as they marched inland. Then the Britons retreated to gather into a single force on the other side of the River Medway. There, the Romans won a major battle in which Caractacus’ brother was either killed or mortally wounded. At that point, Emperor Claudius himself came to Britannia to seal the conquest with a victory at Camulodunum — now known as Colchester — where he accepted the formal submission of 11 British rulers, including Antedios of the Iceni.
Boudica and the Iceni may well have expected the Romans to sail away as they had in the past. They soon learned otherwise. Claudius built a Legionary fortress at Camulodunum, stationed troops there and established other fortresses throughout eastern Britannia. He appointed the invasion forces’ commander, Aulus Plautius, as Britannia’s first Roman governor. Caractacus retreated westward, recruited fresh troops and continued to fight a guerrilla war against the Romans.
The ham-fisted Ostorius Scapula replaced Plautius in 47. Caractacus timed a series of raids to coincide with the change of governors, so Ostorius arrived to news of fighting. Was it this unpleasant reception that made Ostorius so mistrustful of all the Britons, even those who had surrendered? Or was he short-tempered because he already suffered from the illness from which he would die five years later? For whatever reason Ostorius decided to disarm those subject tribes that he felt he could not fully trust, including the Iceni. Established Roman law forbade subject populations to keep weapons other than those used for hunting game, but that was contrary to Celtic law and custom. The Iceni rebelled, and Ostorius defeated them. Antedios may have been killed in the rebellion. If not, it seems likely that Ostorius removed him immediately afterward and installed Prasutagus as client-king in his place. Boudica was now queen of the Iceni.
Two years later, in 49, Ostorius confiscated land in and around Camulodunum to set up a colonia. This was a town for retired Legionaries, in which each veteran was granted a homestead. The town gave the veterans a secure retirement and concentrated an experienced reserve force in the new province, on which Rome could call in case of emergency. In theory, it was supposed to provide a model of Roman civilization to which the natives might aspire. Unfortunately, the colonia at Camulodunum caused more problems than it solved. As it grew over the next decade, more and more Britons were driven off their land, some enslaved by the veterans, others executed and their heads exhibited on stakes.
The Iceni had once avoided trade with Rome, while the Catuvellauni grew rich from it. Now, the Iceni submitted, while the former king of the Catuvellauni fought Rome, and his people suffered the consequences. Ostorius finally defeated Caractacus in 51 and captured him in 52. That same year, Ostorius died. Rome replaced him with Didius Gallus, who provoked no internal rebellions, though the unconquered western tribes continued to fight.
Emperor Claudius was poisoned in 54, and Nero (Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus) succeeded him. Perhaps to deflect the suspicion that he had been involved in his uncle’s murder, Nero elevated Claudius to the status of a god and ordered a temple to him built at Camulodunum. Now the British chieftains would be obliged not only to worship once a year at the altar of the man who had invaded and occupied their lands, but also to finance the building of the extravagant and costly temple.
Rome further pressed British patience by calling for the repayment of money given or loaned to the tribes. It is possible that Antedios had received some of the money Claudius had handed out, and his successor, Prasutagus, was now expected to repay it. Prasutagus had probably also received an unwanted loan from Lucius Seneca, Roman philosopher and Nero’s tutor, who had pressed on the tribal leaders a total of 40 million sesterces, evidently an investment he hoped would bring a healthy return in interest. Now, the procurator — Rome’s financial officer, responsible for taxation and other monetary matters in Britannia — insisted the money from Claudius must be repaid. And Seneca, according to Dio, resorted to severe measures in exacting repayment of his loans. His agents, backed by force, may have showed up at the royal residence and demanded the money. Boudica would not have forgotten such an insult.
Caius Suetonius Paullinus, a man in the aggressive mold of Ostorius, became governor of Britain in 58. He began his term with a military campaign in Wales. By the spring of 61, he had reached its northwestern limit, the druid stronghold on the Isle of Mona. Tacitus described the forces Suetonius faced: The enemy lined the shore in a dense armed mass. Among them were black-robed women with disheveled hair like Furies, brandishing torches. Close by stood Druids, raising their hands to heaven and screaming dreadful curses. For a moment, the Romans stood paralyzed by fright. Then, urged by Suetonius and each other not to fear a horde of fanatical women, they attacked and enveloped the opposing forces in the flames of their own torches.
When the battle ended in a Roman victory, Suetonius garrisoned the island and cut down its sacred groves — the fearsome site of human sacrifices, according to Tacitus, who claimed it was a Celtic religious practice to drench their altars in the blood of prisoners and consult their gods by means of human entrails. In view of the routine, organized murder of the Roman gladiatorial games, one might wonder whether a Roman was in a position to criticize. Though the Celts did practice human sacrifice, most of their sacrifices consisted of symbolic deposits of such valuable objects as jewelry and weapons into sacred wells and lakes.
For Boudica and her people, news of the destruction of the druidic center on Mona, the razing of the sacred groves and the slaughter of druids must have been deeply painful. But Boudica suffered a more personal loss during this time. Prasutagus of the Iceni died sometime during the attack on Mona or its aftermath. He left behind a will whose provisions had no legal precedent under either Celtic or Roman law. It named the Roman emperor as co-heir with the two daughters of Prasutagus and Boudica, now in their teens. According to Celtic tradition, chiefs served by the consent of their people, and so could not designate their successors through their wills. And under Roman law, a client-king’s death ended the client relationship, effectively making his property and estates the property of the emperor until and unless the emperor put a new client-king into office. Prasutagus’ will may have been a desperate attempt to retain a degree of independence for his people and respect for his family. If it was, it did not succeed.
After Prasutagus died, the Roman procurator, Decianus Catus, arrived at the Iceni court with his staff and a military guard. He proceeded to take inventory of the estate. He regarded this as Roman property and probably planned to allocate a generous share for himself, following the habit of most Roman procurators. When Boudica objected, he had her flogged. Her daughters were raped.
At that point, Boudica decided the Romans had ruled in Britannia long enough. The building fury of other tribes, such as the Trinovantes to the south, made them eager recruits to her cause. Despite the Roman ban, they had secretly stockpiled weapons, and they now armed themselves and planned their assault. Dio wrote that before she attacked, Boudica engaged in a type of divination by releasing a hare from the fold of her tunic. When it ran on the side the Britons believed auspicious, they cheered. Boudica raised her hand to heaven and said, `I thank you Andraste.’ This religious demonstration is the reason some historians think she may have had druidic training.
Boudica mounted a tribunal made in the Roman fashion out of earth, according to Dio, who described her as very tall and grim in appearance, with a piercing gaze and a harsh voice. She had a mass of very fair hair which she grew down to her hips, and wore a great gold torque and a multi-colored tunic folded round her, over which was a thick cloak fastened with a brooch. Boudica’s tunic, cloak and brooch were typical Celtic dress for the time. The torque, the characteristic ornament of the Celtic warrior chieftain, was a metal band, usually of twisted strands of gold that fit closely about the neck, finished in decorative knobs worn at the front of the throat. Such torques may have symbolized a warrior’s readiness to sacrifice his life for the good of his tribe. If so, it is significant that Boudica wore one — they were not normally worn by women.
Tacitus, whose father-in-law served as a military tribune in Britain during that time, recounted the rebellion in detail. Boudica moved first against Camulodunum. Before she attacked, rebels inside the colonia conspired to unnerve the superstitious Romans. [F]or no visible reason, Tacitus wrote, the statue of Victory at Camulodunum fell down — with its back turned as though it were fleeing the enemy. Delirious women chanted of destruction at hand. They cried that in the local senate-house outlandish yells had been heard; the theater had echoed with shrieks; at the mouth of the Thames a phantom settlement had been seen in ruins. A blood-red color in the sea, too, and shapes like human corpses left by the ebb tide, were interpreted hopefully by the Britons — and with terror by the settlers.
Camulodunum pleaded for military assistance from Catus Decianus in Londinium, but he sent only 200 inadequately armed men to reinforce the town’s small garrison. In their overconfidence, the Romans had built no wall around Camulodunum. In fact, they had leveled the turf banks around the Legionary fortress and built on the leveled areas. Misled by the rebel saboteurs, they did not bother to erect ramparts, dig trenches or even evacuate the women and elderly.
Boudica’s army overran the town, and the Roman garrison retreated to the unfinished temple, which had been one of the prime causes of the rebellion. After two days of fighting, it fell. Recent archaeological work shows how thorough the Britons were in their destruction. The buildings in Camulodunum had been made from a framework of timber posts encased in clay and would not have caught fire easily. But they were burned and smashed from one end of town to the other. So hot were the flames, some of the clay walls were fired as though in a pottery kiln and are preserved in that form to the present day.
The only Legionary force immediately available to put down the rebellion was a detachment of Legio IX Hispania, under the command of Quintus Petilius Cerialis Caesius Rufus, consisting of some 2,000 Legionaries and 500 auxiliary cavalry. Cerialis did not wait to gather a larger force, but set out immediately for Camulodunum. He never got there. Boudica ambushed and slaughtered his infantry. Cerialis escaped with his cavalry and took shelter in his camp at Lindum.
Suetonius, mopping up the operation on Mona, now learned of the revolt and set sail down the River Dee ahead of his army. He reached Londinium before Boudica, but what he found gave no cause for optimism. Like Camulodunum, Londinium was unwalled. About 15 years old, it had been built on undeveloped ground near the Thames River, by means of which supplies and personnel could be shipped to and from Rome. It was a sprawling town, with few large buildings that might be pressed into service as defensive positions — a smattering of government offices, warehouses and the homes of wealthy merchants. Catus Decianus had already fled to Gaul. Suetonius decided to sacrifice Londinium to save the province and ordered the town evacuated. Many of the women and elderly stayed, along with others who were attached to the place.
Boudica killed everone she found when she reached Londinium. Dio described the savagery of her army: 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.
Verulamium, the old capital of the Catuvellauni tribe lying northwest of Londinium (outside of present-day St. Albans), met a similar fate. Rome had granted it the status of municipium, giving the townsfolk a degree of self-government and making its magistrates eligible for Roman citizenship. Boudica evidently punished the town for its close and willing association with Rome.
By then Suetonius had an army with him amounting to nearly 10,000 men, comprising Legio XIV and parts of Legio XX, which he had used for the attack on Mona, as well as some auxiliaries gathered from the nearest stations. He also sent an urgent summons to Legio II Augusta at Isca Dumnoniorum, present-day Exeter, but its commander, Poenius Posthumus, never responded. Evidently he was unwilling to march through the hostile territory of the Dumnonii, who had thrown their lot in with Boudica, and thereby risk sharing the fate of Cerialis’ men. At the head of his hastily summoned force, Suetonius marched to confront Boudica.
Precisely where they met is not known, but the most plausible guesses — based on Tacitus’ description of the favorable terrain where Suetonius positioned his force — include Mancetter in Warwickshire or along Old Roman Watling Street (now A5) near Towcaster. According to Tacitus: [Suetonius] chose a position in a defile with a wood behind him. There could be no enemy, he knew, except at his front, where there was open country without cover for ambushes. Suetonius drew up his regular troops in close order, with the light-armed auxiliaries at their flanks, and the cavalry massed on the wings. Dio wrote that Boudica’s troops numbered about 230,000 men. If we can believe this, Boudica’s army would have been more than 20 times the size of Suetonius’. Whatever the actual numbers were, it is clear that her forces greatly outnumbered his. But the Britons’ arms and training could not compare to the highly evolved arms and fighting techniques of the Roman Legions.
The forces of the Britons, wrote Tacitus, pranced about far and wide in bands of infantry and cavalry, their numbers without precedent and so confident that they brought their wives with them and set them in carts drawn up around the far edge of the battlefield to witness their victory. Boudica rode in a chariot with her daughters before her, and as she approached each tribe, she declared that the Britons were accustomed to engage in warfare under the leadership of women. The picture of Boudica riding about the battlefield to encourage her warriors rings true, but it is unlikely that any Roman understood what she said. She would have spoken in the Celtic tongue and had no need to inform her troops of their own customs. Tacitus puts those words in her mouth as a device to educate his Roman readers about a practice that must have struck them as exotic and strange.
The speech Tacitus reports Suetonius gave may be a closer reflection of what he said, appealing to his Legions to disregard the clamor and empty threats of the natives. He told them: There were more women visible in their ranks than fighting men, and they, unwarlike and poorly armed, routed on so many occasions, would immediately give way when they recognized the steel and courage of those who had always conquered them. Even when many Legions were involved, it was a few men who actually decided battles. It would redound to their honor that their small numbers won the glory of a whole army.
Legions and auxiliaries waited in the shelter of the narrow valley until Boudica’s troops came within range. Then they hurled their javelins at the Britons and ran forward in wedge formation, supported by the cavalry with their lances. The Roman infantrymen protected themselves with their capacious shields and used their short swords to strike at close range, driving the points into the Britons’ bellies, then stepping across the dead to reach the next rank. The Britons, who fought with long swords designed for slashing rather than stabbing, needed room to swing their blades and could not fight effectively at such close range. Furthermore, the light chariots that gave them an advantage when fighting on a wide plain were similarly ineffective, with the Romans emerging from a narrow, protected valley that prevented the chariots from reaching their flanks.
The result was an overwhelming Roman victory. Those Britons who survived ran, but the circle of the women’s wagons blocked their way, causing confusion and delay. The Romans did not refrain from slaughtering even the womenfolk, while the baggage animals too, transfixed with weapons, added to the piles of bodies, Tacitus reported, citing figures of 80,000 British casualties and 400 Roman dead and a slightly larger number wounded.
According to Tacitus, there were at least two notable casualties in the immediate wake of the battle. Upon learning of the victory, Poenius Posthumus felt so dishonored by the failure of his Legio II to have fought its way out to join Suetonius in full force that he committed suicide by falling upon his own sword. Boudica, Tacitus noted, ended her life with poison.
The rebellion was effectively over, but its initial success had shocked Rome. The overall Roman casualties are suggested by the number of troops Nero sent from Germany as reinforcements, according to Tacitus a total of 7,000, consisting of two thousand regular troops, which brought the ninth division to full strength, also eight auxiliary infantry battalions and a thousand cavalry. The civilian dead in Camulodunum, Londinium and Verulamium — some 70,000 if Tacitus’ figure is accurate — would have multiplied the toll. British unrest seems to have continued even after the decisive battle. Dio wrote that the Britons were regrouping and preparing to fight again at the time Boudica died.
When the Roman reinforcements arrived, Suetonius stationed them in new winter quarters. Tacitus wrote that, rather than turning to diplomacy, Suetonius ravaged with fire and sword those he believed to be still hostile or wavering. His punitive policy, calculated to crush the Britons rather than to reconcile them with Roman rule, was consistent with the policies that had caused the rebellion.
On top of that, a famine broke out. According to Tacitus, the Britons had expected to raid the Roman grain stores, and so had mustered all available men into the army and neglected to plant a crop. It is hard to believe an agricultural society, which both depended on grain for its own sustenance and produced it as a major export, would neglect to sow an entire year’s crop. But if they had planted, much of the crop was likely destroyed in Suetonius’ campaign of revenge.
To replace Catus Decianus, Rome sent a new procurator, Julius Classicianus. Tacitus heartily disapproved of Classicianus, sniping that he had a grudge against Suetonius and allowed his personal animosity to stand in the way of the national interest. Classicianus was a Celt from the Roman province of Gaul, and he seems to have done much to calm the angry Britons. He told them it would be well to await a new governor who would deal gently with those who surrendered. Then he reported to Rome that they should expect no end to hostilities unless a replacement were found for Suetonius.
Nero dispatched one of his administrators, a freed slave named Polyclitus, to investigate the situation. Evidently, Polyclitus supported Classicianus’ report. Soon afterward, when Suetonius lost some ships and their crews to a British raid, he was recalled. The new governor, Petronius Turpilianus, ended the punitive expeditions, following instead a policy of not provoking the enemy nor being provoked by them. Tacitus sneered at his slothful inactivity, but he brought peace to Britain.
Of Boudica, Dio wrote, The Britons mourned her deeply and gave her a costly burial. The Roman conquest had brought to the Iceni misfortune that ripened into disaster after their rebellion failed. But as time passed, Britannia became an orderly and respected part of the Roman empire. It remained so for another three centuries. Boudica’s people finally won what it seems they had wanted all along: respect, peace and a government that treated them with justice and honor.
This article was written by Margaret Donsbach and originally published in the April 2004 issue of Military History.
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