Boudicca the Warrior Queen
In the heart of Nero's reign, the pacification and Romanization of Britain was quickly beginning to pay dividends. However, the apparent greed of Nero, as he slipped farther into his own debauchery, would be the catalyst that brought the Roman wheel to a grinding halt. Boudicca (Boadicea Victoria among other various spellings), the source of British resistance, was the wife of the Iceni King Prasutagus who had submitted to Claudius after the invasion of AD 43. Married sometime around AD 48 to 49 she bore two daughters (names unknown) and would remain with her husband until his death by illness in AD 61. His death, accompanied by the attempt to provide security for his family and people, would ultimately bring about the downfall of the Iceni.
Upon his death in AD 61, Prasutagus left one half of his inheritance to his two (now likely early teenaged) daughters with Boudicca acting as regent ruler on their behalf. In order to appease the newly arrived Roman masters of southern Britain, his will arranged for the second half of his estate to be allocated to the Roman emperor Nero. In what seemed to be a reasonable effort to preserve his own familial dynasty while appeasing Rome turned out to be just the sort of written excuse the Romans needed to claim all the Iceni lands and properties for themselves. Nero's financial procurator in Britain, Catus Decianus, was sent to the home of Boudicca to make an assessment of all properties and inheritances, to make a true Roman determination on what 'legally' should belong to Nero (including the repayment of earlier 'loans').
As it was considered illegal for a client King to not will his entire estate to the Emperor (from a Roman perspective) Decianus and his legionaries were completely within their right to exact payment in full. According to Tacitus: 'His (Prasutagus) dominions were ravaged by the centurions; the slaves pillaged his house, and his effects were seized as lawful plunder. His wife, Boudicca, was disgraced with cruel stripes; her daughters were ravished, and the most illustrious of the Icenians were, by force, deprived of the positions which had been transmitted to them by their ancestors. The whole country was considered as a legacy bequeathed to the plunderers. The relations of the deceased king were reduced to slavery.'
This act of extreme aggression, while certainly appearing to be unwarranted, may have been an indication that all was not completely tranquil within Roman controlled Britain to begin with. Throughout the province, several small rebellions (and/or continued resistance to the spread of Roman power on the outskirts of its controlled territories) were continuing to take place. Suetonius Paulinus, the recently appointed governor of Britain, was already busy on the Island of Mona (Anglesey) suppressing rebels and destroying the Druids. This suppression of druidic Celtic tradition and custom certainly did little to endear the Roman occupiers to their new subjects. While busy there, 300 miles from where the brutalizing of Boudicca and the Iceni was to occur, an Iceni neighbor, the Trinovantes (among others) were involved in a relatively minor rebellion of their own. Coupled with the rage of Boudicca's people, it wouldn't be long before much of southeastern Britain would rise up in revolt. Word reached Paulinus of the impending trouble and he began to march, but the absence of the bulk of Rome's legions allowed the anger and suppression to boil over into all out rage.
The leader of this rage was the woman who faced the Roman whip, suffered the rape of her daughters and the pillaging of her people. According to Dio Cassius, "Buduica, a Briton woman of the royal family and possessed of greater intelligence than often belongs to women. 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." Within a short time she was able to gather an army of over 100,000 and in speech worthy of modern Hollywood (and in the stylish tradition of several ancient Roman historians), she inspired this army to wreak havoc on Roman colonists, take Celtic vengeance, and (according to modern sensibilities) fight for the freedom of Britain.
After the rape of her daughters, her own lashing and the outright theft of Iceni lands at their Roman masters, Boudicca inspired an army of some 100,000 to break out from their oppressive yolk. Perhaps a more important factor, however, than any leadership qualities of the Iceni Queen, or feelings of vengeance among the Iceni, was the simple fact that the Legions were nowhere near the Iceni lands at the time of the uprising. Though word had reached the Roman governor Suetonius while on campaign at the Island of Mona (Anglesey), his march would take considerable time to counteract Iceni plans. Without local resistance of any note, Boudicca led her formidable army towards a colony of retired Roman officers at Camulodunum (modern Colchester).
Though the presence of settled veterans generally offered great benefit in the way of Romanizing an area, their presence here had the opposite effect. Inspired by vengeance against the soldiers who had wronged them, the Iceni stormed the practically undefended town. Though the Romans managed to hold out for several days, there was little hope for resistance or relief. The Procurator of Londinium dispatched 200 men to come to their aid, but this disproportionate reinforcement obviously had little effect. In the end, the town was razed and its inhabitants slaughtered allowing Boudicca to continue marching southwest to Londinium itself. As the town was virtually undefended, the Procurator, Decianus, fled with his staff, virtually leaving the Roman province of Britannia without a capital.
At this point, a reduced strength Legio IX Hispana had marched south from Lindum (Lincoln) under Petilius Cerialis but was obviously too late to help at Camulodunum. Likely pushing hard to cut off Boudicca before she reached the Roman administrative capital at Londinium, Cerialis walked into an ambush. IX Hispana, completely overwhelmed and outmanned, was nearly shredded entirely. The infantry was destroyed (likely around 2,000 men), but Cerialis managed to escape with the cavalry. The legion would later be reinforced by men from the Rhine, but for now, one complete legion was out of service, and there was little resistance in the path of Boudicca's march. However, it's possible that the slaughter of the Ninth may have allowed just enough time for Governor Suetonius to gather his forces and offer a unified defense. He arrived at the city before Boudicca, albeit with a drastically smaller force. With about 10,000 men, made up of detachments from Legio XX (later Valeria Victrix), Legio XIV Gemina (later Martia Victrix) and any auxilia he could gather, he approached and considered making a stand at Londinium. However, the city was a poorly fortified center of business and trade, and was ill-suited for making any such stand. Suetonius decided to abandon it taking with him anyone who could fight, while others certainly fled at his departure, leaving many more behind to meet their fate at the hands of the warrior Queen.
When Boudicca arrived, Londinium suffered largely the same result as Camolodunum, and was razed to the ground. The people were slaughtered and subject to all manner of reciprocal atrocity. The fire that took the city was so hot, that the melted remains formed a recognizable layer of red clay 10 inches thick in places, just below the surface of modern roads. Boudicca, still with her thirst for vengeance unquenched, left the burning wreck of Londinium behind and followed Suetonius towards the town of Verulamium (St. Albans). Again, he saw little opportunity to make an adequate defense and left the town to the enemy (perhaps hoping to buy time for more reinforcements, or to let the barbarians exhaust themselves on plunder) This time however, the inhabitants were well aware of her reputation and fled en masse. Still, Boudicca burned it to the ground just the same, and Tacitus estimates that some 70,000 people had been slaughtered in all between the 3 towns.. Though this is certainly exaggerated, Boudicca had already proved devastating to the fledgling province's ability to administer itself and thrive.
Meanwhile Suetonius, described by Tacitus as an officer of distinguished merit, attempted to give his small army a fighting chance. First he called upon Legio II Augusta (stationed at Isca Dumnoniorum, near modern Exeter) to join him in the forested Midlands near Verulamium, but its commander Poenius Postumus failed to show for unknown reasons (he later committed suicide as a result of the shame). Left with just his 10,000 men vs. what Cassius Dio described as a swelling army (unlikely) of some 200,000 under Boudicca; Suetonius positioned his meager force on high ground, with forested protection at his rear and flanks. The final battle vs. the Iceni Queen was about to begin.
The Defeat of Boudicca
After leaving the towns of Londinium and Verulamium unchallenged to Boudicca's rebel army, Suetonius prepared his terribly outmanned force in the forest of the midlands. (Ancient sources give estimates as greatly divergent as 200,000 to 10,000, but this is most assuredly wild propaganda on the part of Tacitus and Dio Cassius.) However, the Romans had the advantage of their classic discipline, and tactical use of geography. Boudicca and her army were also slowed down by the 'barbarian' tradition of traveling with entire clans, including women, children and the elderly (possibly partially accounting for the inflated army size, with non-combatants not being excluded from the 'army'). Much like any other army, they were also weighed by livestock and pack animals, certainly an enormous number of wagons and transport vehicles, all probably filled to the brim with personal belongings and various loot pillaged at the expense of the Roman villagers. As the massive Celtic force approached Suetonius and his legions, it was the Romans who held the advantage. To this point, though the damage the Iceni and their allies had caused was great, Boudicca's army had not faced prepared and disciplined Roman soldiers in any effective number.
Tacitus, in the glorifying style of the ancients, provides an assuredly fictitious account of Boudicca's speech, but one that likely captures the feelings of the moment.
"Boudicca, in a chariot, with her two daughters before her, drove through the ranks. She harangued the different nations in their turn: "This," she said, "is not the first time that the Britons have been led to battle by a woman. But now she did not come to boast the pride of a long line of ancestry, nor even to recover her kingdom and the plundered wealth of her family. She took the field, like the meanest among them, to assert the cause of public liberty, and to seek revenge for her body seamed with ignominious stripes, and her two daughters infamously ravished. From the pride and arrogance of the Romans nothing is sacred; all are subject to violation; the old endure the scourge, and the virgins are deflowered. But the vindictive gods are now at hand. A Roman legion dared to face the warlike Britons: with their lives they paid for their rashness; those who survived the carnage of that day, lie poorly hid behind their entrenchments, meditating nothing but how to save themselves by an ignominious flight. From the din of preparation, and the shouts of the British army, the Romans, even now, shrink back with terror. What will be their case when the assault begins? Look round, and view your numbers. Behold the proud display of warlike spirits, and consider the motives for which we draw the avenging sword. On this spot we must either conquer, or die with glory. There is no alternative. Though a woman, my resolution is fixed: the men, if they please, may survive with infamy, and live in bondage."
To not be undone by his female rival on the approach, Suetonius' speech was equally 'recorded' by Tacitus.
"Suetonius, in a moment of such importance, did not remain silent. He expected every thing from the valour of his men, and yet urged every topic that could inspire and animate them to the attack. "Despise," he said, "the savage uproar, the yells and shouts of undisciplined Barbarians. In that mixed multitude, the women out-number the men. Void of spirit, unprovided with arms, they are not soldiers who come to offer battle; they are bastards, runaways, the refuse of your swords, who have often fled before you, and will again betake themselves to flight when they see the conqueror flaming in the ranks of war. In all engagements it is the valour of a few that turns the fortune of the day. It will be your immortal glory, that with a scanty number you can equal the exploits of a great and powerful army. Keep your ranks; discharge your javelins; rush forward to a close attack; bear down all with your bucklers, and hew a passage with your swords. Pursue the vanquished, and never think of spoil and plunder. Conquer, and victory gives you everything."
Both armies thus inspired for the battle, the Iceni advanced with great ferocity on the tightly formed Romans and pelted them with spears. However, because of the narrowness of the battlefield, being surrounded by forest, the incredible numbers of the Britons were not able to come to bear, and the Romans were able to turn the tables. Tightly formed they maneuvered into a wedge enabling the best possible strategy for the conditions. Hammering the Celts with javelins, Suetonius followed up with waves of brutally effective auxilia and regular infantry charges. By the ancient accounts, the Roman assault was overwhelming, and the Britons were crushed in the onslaught. Perhaps as many as 80,000 of Boudicca's rebels were killed in the immediate aftermath, with the Romans killing women and children indiscriminately. By contrast, Tacitus reports that only 400 Romans were killed, and an equal number wounded, in the battle.
Boudicca may have initially escaped, along with an undetermined number of warriors and civilians, but it wasn't long before the victorious Romans followed up their victory with continued slaughter. Even before the battle, reports indicate that the revolting Iceni had failed to sow their crops for the season, and only their looting would provide sustenance for the winter. Without that loot thousands would perish of starvation. In addition, the Romans hastened this fate by laying waste to Iceni lands in an obvious attempt to set an example. They were further subjected to natural atrocities of all kinds, and sold en masse into slavery.
Suetonius, though criticized in part for not facing Boudicca sooner, returned to Rome to receive victorious honors from Nero. As for Boudicca, rather than face humiliation marching in a Roman triumph, she took her own life via poison. If her daughters survived the initial battle, they too disappear from the historical record at this point. The Iceni queen is often revered today as a great freedom fighter against Roman oppression, but this view must be tempered by the stark contrasts in time periods and motivations. Regardless of the truth for the inspiration behind Boudicca's revolt (the rape of her daughters and her own whipping, or the complete subjugation of her lands), her acts of vengeance are no less brutal Roman tactics. Though she did aggressively punish small contingents of Roman legionaries, the main focus of Iceni aggression was the wholesale slaughter of Roman civilians. In the first major conflict against a sizeable Roman force, the Iceni were effectively eliminated, and with them, so was resistance to Roman rule in all of southern Britain. Though it would still take another generation, and the governorship of Agricola 20 some odd years later to stretch Roman hegemony into modern Wales and to the borders of Caledonia, the death of Boudicca ushered in the Romanization of the province.
Did you know...
Boudicca's fame took on legendary proportion in Victorian Britain, and Queen Victoria was seen as her "namesake".
Did you know...
The great bronze statue of Boudicca next to Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament was commissioned by Prince Albert and executed by Thomas Thornycroft. It depicts Boudicca in her war chariot (furnished with scythes after Persian fashion), together with her daughters.