In popular culture, Boudica is a feisty feminist icon with fiery hair, armed with the qualities of leadership, intelligence, aggression and courage. However, the reality is a story of a wronged mother out for vengeance.
The story of Boudica, the Celtic queen who waged a brave battle against the Roman Empire in 60 AD, is only recorded in two classical manuscripts. They were written decades after by male classical authors, Tacitus and Cassius Dio.
The Iceni tribe
Not a great deal is known about the early life of Boudica, but it is understood that she was of royal descent. In the Celtic language of the Iceni tribe, whose leader she was, her name simply meant ‘Victory’. She married King Prasutagus, leader of the Iceni tribe (based in modern day East Anglia) and the pair had two daughters.
The Iceni were a small British Celtic tribe that was independent and wealthy, and they were a client kingdom of Rome. When the Romans conquered southern England in 43 AD, they allowed Prasutagus to continue to rule as a subservient to Rome. As part of the agreement, Prasagustus named the Emperor of Rome joint heir to his kingdom along with his wife and daughters.
Unfortunately, Roman law did not allow inheritance through the female line. Following the death of Prasutagus, the Romans decided to rule the Iceni directly and confiscated the property of the leading tribesmen. In a show of Roman power, it is alleged that they publicly flogged Boudica and soldiers attacked her two young daughters.
Making a stand
Instead of accepting her fate, and that of her people, Boudica led a native army of British tribes in revolt against oppressive Roman rule.
Boudica’s revolt had little long-term effect, but the fact that she was a respected woman of the time captured the imagination of many, including Tacitus and Cassius Dio. However, whilst feminists have gone on to champion Boudica as an icon, the very concept of feminism was alien to the society in which she lived. The Romans viewed women warriors as indicative of an immoral, uncivilised society, and these views are reflected in the condemning accounts of both Tacitus and Cassius Dio.
Cassius Dio’s description of Boudica voids her of femininity, portraying her instead with qualities more closely associated with the masculine ideal: “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…”
Boudica’s bloody rampage
While the governor of Britain, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, was far away in the west suppressing the last druid stronghold on the Island of Anglesey, Boudica set her plan into action. Allied with the neighbouring Trinovantes, the queen began her rebellion by attacking an almost undefended Camulodunum (modern-day Colchester).
The Ninth Legion, commanded by Quintus Petillius Cerialis, attempted to relieve the siege but they arrived too late. The tribes had gathered considerable force by the time the Ninth Legion had arrived and the infantrymen found themselves overwhelmed and were annihilated. Boudica and her army burned, butchered and crucified the entire Roman population in the area.
Camulodunum’s surviving citizens retreated to their temple where, for two days, they cowered behind its thick walls. They were eventually forced out of hiding and their sanctuary was torched by Boudica and her followers.
A triumphant Boudica urged her forces on, destroying London and Verulamium (St Albans). Boudica and her estimated 100,000 strong army are believed to have killed and slaughtered some 70,000 Roman soldiers. Modern archaeologists have found a layer of burned earth in each area that they call the Boudican destruction horizon.
After a series of victories, Boudica was eventually defeated by a Roman army led by Suetonius at Watling Street. Rome’s power in Britain was fully restored, and remained for the next 350 years.
The legacy of the warrior queen
The end of Boudica’s life is shrouded in mystery. It is unknown where the site of the battle or of her death was. Tacitus wrote that she took poison to avoid the consequences of her actions, but whether or not this is true remains unclear.
Though she lost her battle and her cause, Boudica is celebrated today as a national heroine and a universal symbol of the human desire for freedom and justice.
In the 16th century Queen Elizabeth I used Boudica’s story as an example to prove that a woman was fit to be queen. In 1902, a bronze statue of Boudica and her daughters riding a chariot was erected at the end of Westminster Bridge, London. The statue is a testament to Britain’s imperial aspirations under Queen Victoria.