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Boudicca: Warrior Queen of the Iceni

Boudicca statue
A statue of Boudicca stands near Westminster Bridge in London.
Credit: Claudio Divizia | Shutterstock

Boudicca (also spelled Boudica or Boudicea) was the queen of the Iceni, a tribe based in modern day Norfolk, in eastern England. In A.D. 60, she led a revolt against the Romans that resulted in the destruction of two (possibly three) Roman settlements and almost drove the empire off the island.

Much of what we know about her comes from two Roman writers, Publius Cornelius Tacitus (A.D. 56-117) and Cassius Dio (A.D. 150-235). 

The revolt began after the death of her husband, Prasutagus, around A.D. 60. Tacitus writes that the Romans seized Iceni property, flogged Boudicca and raped her two daughters. She then raised an army and led a rebellion against the Romans which, after initial success, was crushed at the Battle of Watling Street.

For a society as patriarchal as imperial Rome, the fact that a woman had succeeded in killing so many Romans was disconcerting to say the least.

“Two cities were sacked, eighty thousand of the Romans and of their allies perished, and the island was lost to Rome. Moreover, all this ruin was brought upon the Romans by a woman, a fact which in itself caused them the greatest shame,” wrote Dio (translation by Earnest Cary, through penelope.uchicago.edu).

The only physical description of Boudicca that survives comes from Dio. Although it may not be accurate, it leaves readers with the impression that Boudicca was a determined war leader.

“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. This was her invariable attire ...” wrote Dio, who added that she clutched a spear when she spoke to her people.

Dio (unlike Tacitus) doesn’t mention the flogging of Boudicca, or the rape of her daughters, and claims the uprising was over a Roman loan.

The Romans and the Iceni

The Roman Empire, under Emperor Claudius, launched a successful invasion of Britain in A.D. 43 with an army estimated to be around 40,000 men. Military campaigns had been launched by earlier Roman leaders against the Brits (one notably led by Julius Caesar) but this time the Romans were here to stay. [Related: Hadrian's Wall: Northern Frontier of the Roman Empire]

Claudius’ force didn’t try and defeat every British tribe. Several leaders offered to make their kingdoms “client-states” of Rome. This basically meant that as long as their leaders lived, and did Rome’s bidding when asked, they could maintain some level of sovereignty within the Roman Empire. The Iceni were one of the tribes who agreed to this arrangement and they remained a client state of Rome up until the death of Prasutagus around A.D. 60.

The Iceni, at the time of the Roman invasion, were a wealthy people (as evidenced by hoards of precious metals that have been found) whose leaders had been minting coins for nearly a century. Some of the earliest Iceni coins show an image of what Miranda Aldhouse-Green, a Cardiff University professor, calls a “snapping wolf,” a choice that may offer an insight into the psyche of these people.

The “wolf is both a wild creature, a potential enemy to humans, and also lives and hunts in packs; it therefore may have acted as a symbol of independent solidarity,” she writes in her book, "Boudica Britannia: Rebel, War-Leader and Queen" (Pearson Education, 2006). She also notes that the Iceni people also kept making ceramics by hand, even though they had access to the potter’s wheel. 

Even before Boudicca, the Iceni’s client-state relationship with Rome was problematic. In A.D. 47, a short-lived unsuccessful revolt was launched by the Iceni against Rome. This rebellion may have led to the elevation of Prasutagus to the leadership of the tribe, perhaps being seen by the Romans as a leader who could keep the Iceni in line.

Aldhouse-Green notes that the design of the coins minted by Prasutagus appear to strike a balance between showing the tribe’s allegiance to Rome and displaying a degree of independence, as if Prasutagus was trying to walk a fine line between the two sides.

The coins “are imitations of early Neronian issues and their obverse depicts a high-relief portrait that closely resembles Nero himself,” she writes, “the reverse redresses the cultural balance and bear a very un-Roman design of a fantastic horse, a motif common to a range of tribal rulers’ coinage.”

Even in his will, Prasutagus tried to strike a balance between the Iceni and the Romans. In it he left his kingdom to his two daughters and the Roman emperor Nero. The exclusion of Boudicca in his will has led historians to speculate that, even when her husband was still alive, the Iceni queen held strong anti-Roman views.

This client-state arrangement came crashing down upon the death of Prasutagus, however, with the Romans treating the Iceni, Boudicca and her daughters terribly.

His “kingdom was plundered by centurions, his house by slaves, as if they were the spoils of war. First, his wife Boudicea was scourged (flogged), and his daughters outraged. All the chief men of the Iceni, as if Rome had received the whole country as a gift, were stripped of their ancestral possessions, and the king's relatives were made slaves...” wrote Tacitus (Translation by Alfred John Church, through Perseus Digital Library)

Initial success

With her kingdom’s independence lost, her daughters raped, and herself having been personally flogged, Boudicca had had enough. She raised an army, gaining supporting from another aggrieved tribe known as the Trinovantes.

Boudicca
'Boadicea Haranguing the Britons (called Boudicca, or Boadicea),' by William Sharp, after John Opie line engraving, published 1793.
Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London

She focused her wrath on the Roman settlements of Camulodunum (modern-day Colchester) and Londinium (London), burning both of them to the ground. Archaeologists have found evidence of the fires her forces lit.

“At Camulodunum and Londinium the results of the Boudican revolt may be compared, on a smaller scale, with those of the volcanic eruptions that smothered Pompeii and Herculaneum,” write researchers Richard Hingley and Christina Unwin in their book, "Boudica: Iron Age Warrior Queen" (Cambridge University Press, 2005). The towns were destroyed. In addition, Tacitus claims that Boudicca also destroyed the town of Verulamium, although the archaeological evidence for this is less clear.

Boudicca was helped by the fact that at the time her rebellion was launched much of the Roman army in Britain was on the Isle of Anglesey, in Wales, destroying a Druid site at Mona. This meant that, for awhile, the rebels would only encounter small numbers of Roman troops. After her successes, Dio records, Boudicca’s army had swelled to 230,000 people, a figure that was probably exaggerated.

Battle of Watling Street

University of Leicester professor David Mattingly writes that the Roman commander on the island, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, amassed what forces he could, numbering perhaps only 10,000 men. He gave battle to Boudicca somewhere near Watling Street, an ancient road on the island.

While Paulinus was heavily outnumbered, he did have several other advantages. His legionnaires were well trained, equipped and probably battle hardened. Boudicca’s forces on the other hand were anything but.

In “a fast-moving rebellion there was neither time to fabricate large numbers of arms, nor, evidently, was there the opportunity for rebel forces to pillage major stockpiles of Roman weaponry,” Mattingly writes in his book "An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire" (Penguin Books, 2006). He notes that while a “core” of Boudica’s army was properly armed “many of the rebels will have had no body armour and will have been provided with makeshift weapons, such as agricultural tools.”

Additionally, while scholars don’t know precisely where Paulinus engaged Boudicca, we know from Tacitus that it was in a “narrow defile” with a forest at the rear. This meant that Boudicca could not bring her superior numbers to bear on the Roman forces. Also, Tacitus notes that Boudicca made a tactical mistake in placing her supply wagons close to the front lines, blocking her troops when they had to retreat.

The Roman legions started the battle by launching spears at the British. These spears would have killed some Brits and hit the shields of others, possibly sticking to them and rendering them useless. 

Then the Roman troops “rushed out in a wedge-like column. Similar was the onset of the auxiliaries, while the cavalry with extended lances broke through all who offered a strong resistance.” The rebels tried to flee but “flight proved difficult, because the surrounding wagons had blocked retreat,” writes Tacitus. The Romans massacred all who they could, even killing the animals which the rebels used to move their supplies.

The battle over, Tacitus said that Boudicca took poison to avoid being captured, while Dio said that she died of illness (possibly from a wound).

Mattingly writes that Paulinus then “set about re-subjugating the implicated areas by ‘fire and sword’ and this extended not only to the most hostile peoples, but also even to those who had simply wavered in their loyalty.” Britain would remain part of the Roman Empire until the fifth century A.D. when the western half of the empire collapsed.

Boudicca today

While Boudicca’s rebellion failed to drive the Romans out of Britain, the Iceni queen has become something of a modern-day heroine. [Related: Camelot, King Arthur & the Knights of the Round Table]

“Boudicca has become an icon of British national history and is now a symbol not only of British freedom but also of women’s power,” writes University of Newcastle researcher Marguerite Johnson in her book "Boudicca" (Bristol Classic Press, 2012). “She has been painted and sculpted; she has ‘starred’ in films and has been the protagonist of numerous books, both of an academic and fictional nature.”

In 1902, not long after the death of Queen Victoria, who was the longest reigning monarch in British history, a statue of Boudicca was unveiled next to Westminster Bridge in London. Standing in her war chariot, and clutching a spear, it shows the Iceni queen ready to take on the might of Rome. 

Owen Jarus, LiveScience Contributor

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