Sunday, 5 February 2012


With Alex Salmond and Scottish independence hitting the headlines, I thought we could take some time to look at another British hero, resisting a somewhat more hostile takeover.

Why was Boudicca so angry with the Romans?

Aside from the bit where they invaded her land. The Roman invasion was in 43, and her revolt wasn't until 62. That's a pretty long time to wait for revenge. Then again, if the film Leon taught us anything, it's never to underestimate girls with a grudge and a lot of time on their hands. While there were some other catalysts, this probably made up some of her motivation.

Mind you, her husband, Prasutagus, was a collaborator with the Romans, so she can't have been too anti-Roman.  He was leader of the Iceni, (a tribe of Britain located in the Norfolk area) and a client king of Rome. This meant that he and his family would be able to continue as rulers of the Iceni, until his death, when their land and tribe would become the property of Rome. However, when he died, Prasutagus left half of his land to Rome, and half to Boudica. Since the Iceni almost certainly didn't have any real property law, this probably means that his troops simply refused to let the Roman troops take control. There had been another Icenian revolt previously, which had been defeated, and they had had their weapons confiscated, but Prasutagus had been allowed to keep control. It seems possible, then, that after his death, a more anti-Roman faction took the opportunity to sever their ties with Rome.

Catus Decianus was the procurator of the province at this time. The procurator was of equestrian rank (one below senator), and was basically the chancellor of the exchequer. He was not of the same class as the governor (a senator) to prevent them from forming an alliance and using their money and soldiers to try to take over the empire. Even with this restriction, some managed this fairly well anyway. He decided the only logical thing was to recall all 'loans' (here read: gifts of money that Catus arbitrarily decided he would like back,) at the same time as Seneca, loan shark and author, recalled all his loans. Since both these measures were likely to be in place to allow some leading British citizens to become senators (in an attempt to integrate them into the empire), the resulting revolt was something of an own goal.

When the Iceni either wouldn't, or couldn't pay, Catus decided enough was enough, and launched a putative raid.  His troops burned and pillaged their way through the Icenian territory, raped Boudica's daughters, and had her 'scourged', that is to say, whipped with a barbed whip. This was one of the punishments supposedly meted out to Jesus and the other condemned criminals in Judea. It wasn't pretty.

So Then What?

Your collaborating husband is dead, the Romans just burned all your stuff, raped your daughters and beat you within an inch of your life: what would you have done? You guessed it: Boudicca called her banners. Presumably after getting some medical attention.

She and the Iceni rampaged south, towards Camulodunum (modern day Colchester), where they were joined by the Trinovantes, and 'other tribes'. Tacitus wasn't too picky about their names when they were trying to kill Romans. They proceeded to systematically destroy Camulodunum, the current centre of Roman administration. Men and women were supposedly stripped naked, slaughtered and had bits of  body parts lopped off and sewn on in other places, mostly breasts sewn to mouths. This is almost certainly the kind of horror story that spreads after the fact, rather than an accurate representation of what actually happened. None the less, in the archaeological record, there is a clear black line of burned material from this event.

While all this was going on, Suetonius Paullinus, the governor, was on campaign in north Wales. He received word, and rode south with a detachment of cavalry. He decided that Londinium was indefensible, and so abandoned it to the rebels. It was also mostly destroyed, though some of the citizens had managed to flee. He rode north again to meet up with his legions. He also sent a messenger, commanding the II legion, stationed in Cornwall, to go and fight the rebels, but the commander ignored him. Later, he 'fell on his own sword'. A young military prefect (and I really like to think of him as the officious public school type), called Cerialis led his cavalry detachment against them. They were utterly destroyed, but Cerialis survived, and later returned to Britain as its governor.

After destroying Londinium, Boudicca and co. turned north, buoyed up by their success and planning to destroy Paullinus' legions. By now they had been joined by many more tribes, and may have numbered into the hundreds of thousands (though ancient sources are always prone to exaggeration). On their way, they stopped at the cultural capital of Verulamiun (St Albans) and destroyed that too.

Unfortunately, this allowed Paullinus the chance to pick his own ground, and if there's one thing you don't want to let a Roman do, it's pick his own ground. Pompey could tell you that for nothing.


All historical stories have this, right? The Romans holed up in an as-yet-undiscovered battleground, with trees to their back and flanks. You might have heard that this was at Mancetter: for a while people thought the battle had been around there, but more study has suggested it might not have been. Boudicca hadn't just brought her troops, she'd brought he tribes. Hundreds of women, children, and the elderly made up her baggage train, and they arranged their wagons

Unfortunately, the Romans had rather better tactics and arms for fighting in a small, enclosed battle, and they won, pretty decisively. The wagons prevented the Celts from fleeing, and their 'civilians' as well as their soldiers were massacred.

Soon afterwards Boudicca died, or committed suicide, and the revolt was the last major resistance to Rome in southern Britain.

And then?

That's sort of it for her, until, many years later, some people know as the Victorians decided they needed a role model. They picked Boudicca, as the plucky English hero, but for one thing: 'Boudicca' sounded silly. They would call her 'Bodeceia'

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