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  • James Houser

61 AD - Boudicca's Rebellion

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

JUNE 29 - 61 AD. The Roman conquest of Britain isn’t even two decades old when it faces its greatest challenge. The Iceni Queen Boudicca, furious at the Roman government’s maltreatment of her and her family, leads the Celtic Britons on a colossal uprising to rid Britannia of the invader. Of course, not all goes as planned, and poor Boudicca has the terrible luck of challenging a Roman Empire at the very height of its power.

The Romans under Emperor Claudius invaded the island of Britain in 43 AD, and the conquest was completed fairly quickly, with only a few tribes contesting the invasion and many sending representatives to submit as soon as Claudius had landed. Britannia was one of the last major provinces to be added to the Roman Empire, even though it wasn’t much to look at in 43 AD. Caratacus, the Briton warlord who had been captured by Claudius and taken as a prisoner to Rome, famously asked “You have so much; why do you covet our poor huts?” That’s a good question for imperialists in general, but there wasn’t a good answer in 43 and there isn’t a good answer now.

Rome settled into the governance of Britain, confronting the question that so many empires have faced before and since: what was their mission? Did they aim for universal peace and prosperity, to uplift the places and peoples they conquered? Or did the places and peoples exist to fuel a Roman war machine that plundered and enslaved the world? It tended to be the Romans who believed the former, and the conquered that believed the latter. The Roman historian Tacitus quoted a Caledonian war chief (the area where Scotland is today) roaring to his people: “Plunder, murder and rapine, these things they misname empire: they create desolation and call it peace.”

The paradoxes of empire had a profound influence on the story of Boudicca and her rebellion. Boudicca’s tribe, the Iceni, had seen the writing on the wall as soon as the Romans landed in 43 AD and quickly allied themselves with the invaders, even as numerous other Celtic kings resisted the newcomers and got predictably curb-stomped. The Iceni were treated not as subjects or as equals, but rather as junior allies – they got to keep their kings, but paid tribute to Rome. This was the “peace and prosperity” side of things – the Romans had brought order to Britain and secured the place of Iceni kings. The Iceni lands were in modern East Anglia, near Cambridge and Norwich in eastern England.

It doesn’t take long in the lifespan of any empire for “peace and prosperity” to get tossed aside and “create a desolation and call its peace” to rear its ugly head. In 60 AD, 17 years after the initial Roman invasion, the Iceni King Prasutagus died. Before his death, having no living son, he had named his two daughters, along with the Roman Emperor Nero, as co-heirs to his kingdom. He hoped that this will would safeguard his kingdom and household; ancient Celtic and Germanic inheritance laws often divided property among multiple heirs when the holder died, and Prasutagus believed that by ceding part of his kingdom willingly to Rome, the Romans would respect his daughters’ claims.

Prasutagus had erred dramatically. The Romans had no intention of putting their Emperor on the same probate footing as a couple of barbarian teenage girls. The creation of a client ruler was a personal arrangement at the whim of the Emperor, and Roman property laws barely recognized women as people at all, let alone as possessing rights to imperial territories. Whatever the client king Prasutagus may have thought of himself, the Iceni Kingdom was de facto an imperial territory.

The Romans moved in quickly to seize and plunder the Iceni lands and households. The only one able or willing to raise a voice in protest was Prasutagus’ widow, the charismatic and passionate Boudicca. When she made her regal demands that the Romans leave, she was seized and flogged in front of her people, and her daughters were publicly raped. The Romans had moved fully into “plunder, murder and rapine”. Mask off.

This insult and humiliation of the Iceni was only one in a series of grievances the Romans had built up in Britain. The Roman occupation brought large numbers of unruly legionnaires, greedy tax-collectors, and uncaring administrators. Even the Roman accounts, hardly unbiased, reveal an imperial administration that ranged from merely negligent to outright criminal. They callously trampled on British tradition and culture, conscripted young men for military service, and in general made themselves very unwelcome. When Boudicca, then, decided to raise up a call for rebellion, the Celtic tribes of Britain answered loudly.

Boudicca is the person that springs to mind when people think of “Celtic warrior queen,” and she fit the mold. Tall, with tawny hair hanging below her waist, piercing eyes and a harsh, loud voice, she instantly commanded the room. The Celts of Britain actually had a long tradition of female military leadership, so Boudicca was not exactly breaking a glass ceiling in their eyes. To the Romans, though, she was unique, the first of their mortal foes to be a woman.

Boudicca waited for her chance, and the moment she chose to strike showed excellent timing. The current Roman governor of Britain, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, was leading a campaign far away from the center of Britain against the Druids of Wales. The Romans had long hated and feared the Druids – the priestly class of the Celts. Their extended network across northwest Europe had exceeded bounds of national or ethnic loyalty, resembling something like a spiderweb of resistance to Roman rule that stretched from Spain to Greece, and even into Anatolia. Suetonius and most of the Roman troops in Britain were away besieging the Druidic stronghold of Mona, on the modern Welsh island of Anglesey.

Boudicca assembled an army of British tribes, and addressed them passionately. "It is not as a woman descended from noble ancestry, but as one of the people that I am avenging lost freedom, my scourged body, the outraged chastity of my daughters." She invoked Andraste, the British goddess of victory, and pointed to various symbols of nature as signs that their uprising would succeed.

The British army made a beeline for Camulodonum (modern Colchester), a British city and holy site that had been seized by the Romans as a retirement site for legionary veterans. These veterans had behaved arrogantly towards the locals, and set up Roman temples with the funds they seized from local Britons. The Roman commanders struggled to gather enough troops, but they were ultimately unsuccessful since most of the legions were fighting the Druids on Anglesey. Boudicca’s furious mob surrounded Camulodonum and after only two days they had overrun the city. They methodically demolished the foreign camp as a symbol of the hated Romans.

Even before they had finished destroying Camulodonum, Boudicca and her army turned on the approaching Romans. The only Roman forces in the area, the 9th Legion “Hispania” based at the capital of Londinium, had been on the march to save Camulodonum. Boudicca led her forces in a sudden attack that shattered the 9th Legion, killing almost all the infantry and driving the cavalry into the hills.

As the Britons headed for Londinium itself, full of righteous fury and simmering rage, Suetonius had marched back with his army as soon as he heard news of the uprising. He got to Londinium even before Boudicca did, but quickly realized that he would be unable to defend it without resting and rallying his force. The Roman governor decided that Londinium would have to be evacuated and abandoned – the city would be sacrificed to save the province. Suetonius withdrew from Londinium with as many civilians as could walk hours before the Britons arrived and sacked this city, too, killing anyone unwise enough or unable to flee.

Boudicca and her Britons were not magnanimous in victory. Terrible things awaited a Roman citizen that fell into their hands. As many as 80,000 Romans may have been murdered by the Celtic rebels in their plunders of the imperial towns, and these were not quick and clean. Anyone caught was tortured and killed; the Britons had no interest in prisoners. They hanged, burned or crucified many; the noblest women were said to have been impaled on spikes, their breasts cut off and sewn to their mouths in a gruesome mockery of motherhood that served as a religious offering to Andraste. The Celtic gods were not the “love thy neighbor” type.

After the victories at Camulodonum and Londinium, Boudicca faced a choice: pursue and defeat Suetonius, or move on to the next Roman settlement? By her very success, she had begun to sow the seeds of her eventual downfall. Whatever military cohesion or plan the Britons had began to fall apart when the ragtag army (never really more than a mob) stumbled upon the wealth and booty of the Roman cities. Boudicca’s followers were now fired less by vengeance than by greed or lust. Her movement was getting away from her.

Despite her insistence that they move on and confront the main Roman force – their only chance of long-term success – Boudicca’s followers insisted on easier targets for more plunder, moving on to the Roman settlement at Verulamium (modern St. Albans).

Suetonius used his time wisely to drag in detachments and regiments from across Britannia, but this still only gave him about 10,000 men. The Roman historians put the Celtic numbers at almost 300,000, but this is certainly a gross exaggeration. Nevertheless, Suetonius and his fragments of legions were almost certainly outnumbered ten to one.

He chose his battleground carefully, placing his flanks on a narrow gorge that would keep the Britons from lapping around either side of his line, and putting his back to a forest that could protect his rear. The narrow battlefield would negate the Celtic numbers, forcing them into a frontal attack and a more even battle.

The Roman legions had large advantages over the Britons. They were almost all disciplined, experienced soldiers who fought in tight infantry formations with a combination of weapons. The Roman legion was the premier army of the ancient world – not invincible, but under a decent commander it made little difference. The Celts were poorly armed and equipped, fighting as individual warriors and not as a cohesive force. Boudicca could inspire her army to rise up, but she could not transform them into soldiers.

The place Suetonius and Boudicca had their final showdown remains unknown to this day. The most probable location is somewhere in the Midlands, probably along the old Roman road between Londinium and Viroconium that became known as Watling Street, and today is the A5 highway. Thus the events became known as the Battle of Watling Street.

Boudicca confronted Suetonius with her whole force, riding up and down her lines in her chariot, her daughters riding behind her – visible symbols of the Romans’ misdeeds. She made yet another brilliant speech: “Heaven is on the side of a righteous vengeance; a legion which dared to fight has perished; the rest are hiding themselves in their camp, or are thinking anxiously of flight. They will not sustain even the din and the shout of so many thousands, much less our charge and our blows. If you weigh well the strength of the armies, and the causes of the war, you will see that in this battle you must conquer or die.”

Suetonius made his own speech to his soldiers. "Ignore the racket made by these savages. There are more women than men in their ranks. They are not soldiers—they're not even properly equipped. We've beaten them before and when they see our weapons and feel our spirit, they'll crack. Stick together.”

The Celts roared with fury and charged, making a massive frontal attack against the silent Romans, who waited unblinking and noiselessly for the assault. The Britons were channeled by the gorge into a tightly packed mass, as Boudicca rode up front leading them in the pell-mell attack. Just before the Britons made contact, the legions threw their pila – long throwing spears – into the mass of flesh, blue faces, makeshift weapons and forked beards. Then the 10,000 Romans moved out in their tightly packed columns, chainmail clinking, heavy shields up and short stabbing swords at the ready, into the onrushing sea of Boudicca’s uprising.

It wasn’t even close.

The Roman legions chopped through the Britons like a food processor. The unarmored, poorly armed, and excitable Celtic tribesmen were unable to dent the iron machine of the Roman infantry line, and when the Roman cavalry charged in with their spears and armored horses the Britons began to stagger back, like a rolling wave rushing over the sand. Soon they were panicking and in flight, but the crush of men pushing forward met the men trying to flee, and soon all was chaos. The Romans hacked their way through the Celts until the entire uprising was deflating, its warriors scattering in panic across the countryside. The Roman historian Tacitus reported that 80,000 Britons fell – but only 400 Romans. Again, this is probably an extravagant exaggeration, but gives the sense of the catastrophe.

As for Boudicca herself, her fate is unknown. Some say she perished in the battle. Tacitus believes that she committed suicide by poison; another Roman historian, Cassius Dio, claims that she died of illness and was given a magnificent funeral. The trouble with ancient sources is not just what they tell us but what they don’t – no source gives any hint of what happened to Boudicca’s daughters, for instance.

Thus ended Boudicca’s Rebellion, another in a long list of failed attempts to resist Roman domination. Given how fickle history can be, it should be no surprise that Boudicca was “rediscovered” by England in the 1500s and came to be a symbol of English nationhood and patriotism. Boudicca was especially popular during the reigns of English queens. She was invoked during the rule of Elizabeth I when the Spanish Armada threatened to invade: the idea of a Catholic takeover of Britain was viewed as a “second Roman invasion,” and Elizabeth gave speeches in armor before her army in a deliberate invocation of Boudicca.

During the reign of Queen Victoria, the similar etymology of hers and Boudicca’s names became a source of belligerent nationalism; Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote an ode to Boudicca, and several ships of the Royal Navy bore her name. It is strange, then, that a figure famous for resisting imperialism should be invoked in the ships that carried a very similar imperialism to the shores of other lands. The anti-imperialist rebel of legend had become a symbol for her own homeland’s overseas expansion.

History has a cruel sense of irony.

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