It’s Women’s History Month and I’ve exhausted my favorite topic of Hypatia, Lady Philosopher of Alexandria. Time to move on to another fascinating woman who has been extensively mythologized: Boudica, Queen of the Iceni (a British Celtic tribe) in the first century AD. For those of you unfamiliar with her story, here is a brief summary.
Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 55 BC and again in 56 where he had some military success against local tribes. He withdrew to Gaul and never returned to Britain. Roman influence in Britain grew over the next 80 years due to increased trade. The British tribes quarreled and Caratacus, the leader of the Catuvellauni expanded his tribe’s territory at the expense of the Atrebates. The Atrebates chief Verica appealed to Rome and gave the Emperor Claudius an excuse to invade Britain in AD 43. General Plautius led the assault and Claudius joined him with reinforcements. They took Caratacus’ stronghold Camulodunum (modern Colchester) and established the first Roman colonia—towns founded for Roman citizens—on British soil. Eleven tribal kings surrendered. Claudius declared Britain a Roman province.
Caractacus continued to fight, leading the western tribes in Wales in guerrilla actions against Plautius’ successor Scapula, known for his brutal pacification campaign in the south. Scapula finally defeated Caractacus in 51. Caractacus fled a to the Brigantes tribe (in modern-day Yorkshire) but was betrayed by their Queen Cartimandua and handed over to the Romans. In 59 and 60, the Roman governor Caius Suetonius Paulinus (during Nero’s reign) led the successful invasion and pacification of Wales and the Isle of Anglesey, the seat of the Druids.
In AD 60, Prasutagus and Boudica (which means Victoria or Victory), ruled the pro-Roman Iceni tribe which occupied most of modern East Anglia. As a client-king, Prasutagus made a Roman-style will naming the Emperor co-heir with his two daughters in an attempt to secure half his property for his family. Upon his death, the Procurator of Britain Decianus Catus claimed the whole estate for the Emperor. When Queen Boudica protested, Decianus Catus had her stripped and publicly lashed; and her daughters raped. He seized the lands and property of all the “rebellious” Iceni tribal leaders.
After this outrage, Queen Boudica roused her tribe in true rebellion, joined by other British tribes seething under the brutal Roman regime. They rampaged across southern Britain, taking and razing the Roman towns of Camulodunum (Colchester), Londinium (London), and Verulamium (St. Albans). They cut the IXth Roman Legion to pieces and nearly caught its commander Cerealis, before he retreated with a tiny remnant of his troops. They nearly cast off the heavy yoke of Roman subjugation.
However, Paulinus rallied with the XIVth Legion and detachments of two others. He chose the next battlefield and the two armies prepared for a major engagement. Boudica exhorted her superior forces (they outnumbered the Romans 10 to 1) saying:
I come before you not as a queen of a distinguished line, but as an ordinary woman, her body cut by the lash, avenging the loss of her liberty and the outrages imposed on her daughters…the gods are on our side in our quest for vengeance…This is my resolve, as a woman—follow me or submit to the Roman yoke…Do what a mere woman is prepared to do!”
Paulinus counseled his troops:
Ignore the noises and empty threats made by these savages. There are more women than men in their ranks, they have no armor or proper weapons and will break when they feel your steel and sense the courage of men who have beaten them so many times already…Keep close order…let the dead pile up, forget all about plunder, win the victory and it’s all yours.”
The Romans roundly defeated the British forces. Boudica drank poison to avoid being taken alive and paraded through the streets of Rome; her daughters’ fate unknown. Paulinus kept his army in the field through the winter harrying the remnants of the rebellious tribes, destroying food and standing crops, leading to a famine and capitulation.
Known and Unknown
Like many before me, I’m fascinated by Boudica’s tragic story: wronged women, vengeful mother, freedom fighter, warrior queen who came this close to throwing the mighty Roman Empire off the island of Britain. Over the years, I collected books and articles about her—many useful and some fanciful. She disappeared from the record during medieval times but made a comeback during the Renaissance when Tacitus was rediscovered. But Boudica’s story didn’t really explode until the Victorian era when a range of poetry, plays, fiction, and visual arts portrayed the “Victoria” of the Iceni and turned her into a nationalist icon. In modern times she’s celebrated in song, poetry, books, TV, movies, and animation.
There are numerous novels featuring Boudica and, as an author, I didn’t want to replow those fields, so I reluctantly admired Boudica from afar. Then the muse struck—her rebellion was the perfect backstory for a character in my upcoming novel Sword of the Gladiatrix. An excellent excuse for my favorite past time—research! However, once I hit the books, I discovered how little we know about Boudica the woman and leader. There are no proven coins linking Boudica or her husband to the Iceni people (or any Celtic tribe). Although the archaeology is rich with detail on the people living in the three towns likely destroyed by the rebellious tribes, again there is nothing directly linking a female ruler named Boudica to the destruction. We’re not even sure of her name. Roman writers have confused titles with names in the past. Pliny wrote of a Kushite queen named “Candice”, but Kandake is the Kushite title for queen. The queen he wrote about was most likely named Amanirenas. Boudica meaning “Victoria” or “Victory” might be a title rather than the name of the woman who lead the British rebellion.
Our sole sources for the story are three classical pieces written years after the events, by two men with their own political agendas. Two of those sources are by Tacitus, who wrote after Boudica’s death, but within living memory. His accounts contain contradictory and different details. In Agricola (the earlier book), “the whole island rose under the leadership of Boudica, a lady of royal descent—for Britain makes no distinction of sex in their leaders.” Later he mentions she rules the Brigantes tribe. In Annals (written later) she rules the Iceni and enlists the help of the Trinovantes. Tacitus adds the details of her husband Prasutagus’ death and Roman-style will, Boudica’s flogging, and the rape of her daughters to this later narrative. These later details are our sole source for the popular story of Boudica.
Cassius Dio wrote 150 years after Boudica’s death, and his Roman History is similar to Tacitus’ earlier Agricola version: the whole island rises in rebellion under Boudica; there is no mention of the Iceni or Trinovantes, or the assault on Boudica or her daughters. Dio provides the physical description of Boudica that inspires most artists.
She was huge of frame, terrifying of aspect, and with a harsh voice. A great mass of bright red hair fell to her knees: she wore a twisted torc, and a tunic of many colours, over which was a thick mantle, fastened by a brooch. Now she grasped a spear, to strike fear into all who watched her.”
He also adds gruesome details on the barbarity of the Britons toward their Roman captives and quotes long inspirational speeches that Boudica and the Roman generals give to their armies—all of which we can accept only with a large helping of salt.
So our two primary sources contradict one another and one contradicts himself. Plus we have to remember these were two Roman elite men writing for other Roman elite men. Richard Hingley and Christina Unwin point out in their excellent book Boudica: Iron Age Warrior Queen, that classical writers use a formula when talking about barbarians (anyone not Roman) in general, and barbarian women of power, in particular. The Romans seemed to be deathly afraid of any powerful woman—they did not fit in their social constructs. Whenever female barbarian leaders show up in Roman histories they are disparaged, denigrated, and described in a similar manner. As Stacy Schiff says in her biography of Cleopatra, “Cleopatra ceases to exist without a Roman in the room.” These women seldom have their own voices.
So what’s an author to do? I decided to go with the popular narrative as described in Ticitus and Dio (including a modernized version of Boudica’s apocryphal speech) and address the questions in an author’s note. Boudica (or a queen by another name) most likely lived and led the rebellion in 60 or 61, but the true sparks of that rebellion are impossible to tease out. In making my choices in Sword of the Gladiatrix, I followed Tacitus and Dio closely. After all, it’s a great story.
Note: This is the first in a series of posts I’ll be doing on Boudica over the next several months.