Boudicca was the queen of the Iceni people, a Celtic tribe that lived in the east of England. In AD 60/61, she led a major uprising against occupying Roman forces, massacring hundreds of thousands of people. While unsuccessful in throwing out Roman rule, the revolt that bears her name was largely responsible for the Romans’ improved treatment of their British subjects.
The Romans in Britain
The Romans first arrived in Britain in 55 BC, when Julius Caesar landed with 10,000 soldiers for an aborted campaign due to inclement weather. He returned the following year with 27,000 infantry and cavalry and conquered a united force of British tribes. The British leader Cassivellaunus was forced to surrender, but Caesar again had to abandon his newly-gained territory due to problems closer to home.
Over the following hundred years, the Romans continued to gain influence in Britain through trading activities.
In AD 43, the new Roman Emperor Claudius needed to develop some military credentials, so he ordered the invasion of Britain. Eleven of Britain’s tribal kings quickly surrendered, and within a few years, the whole of the South of Britain was under Roman dominion.
Boudicca was the wife of Prasutagus, King of the Iceni; she was probably nobility from a neighbouring tribe as marriage alliances were common. Prasutagus was one of the Celtic tribal leaders that had a treaty with the Romans and he signed an agreement that allowed him to continue to govern his land (present-day Norfolk) and people in return for paying tribute (royalties) to the Roman Empire.
In AD 60, Prasutagus died. In his will, he left his inheritance jointly to his daughters and the current Roman Emperor, Nero. No doubt he was hoping that by including the Emperor in his will he could maintain the status quo. But the Romans were in the habit of seizing the assets of their subject rulers when they died, and also had laws against this type of female inheritance.
As expected, the Romans seized Prasutagus’ property, and many of the Iceni were sold into slavery. When Boudicca complained about this, she was publicly flogged and Prasutagus’ daughters raped.
Incensed by the actions of the Romans, Boudicca formed an alliance with other tribes to rebel against Roman rule. Most notable among her allies were the Trinovantes, who occupied lands near modern Colchester, a tribe from the west known as the Cornovii, and the Durotiges, who lived in what is now known as Dorset.
They began their campaign in Camulodonum (Colchester) where there was a settlement of Roman veterans. The Romans regularly seized land to give to veterans in order to pay for their service and create settlements across the Empire. Britons sold into slavery often worked on veterans’ properties, so they were particularly hated by the locals. Camulodonum was built on the land of the Trinovantes, and also had a temple for Emperor Claudius, which was built at the expense of the locals.
The Roman governor of Britain, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, was campaigning in North Wales at the time of this attack and was unable to defend the settlement. Many other Roman officials fled the island in the wake of the destruction. Upon learning of Camulodonum’s fate, Paulinus returned and correctly predicted that Londinium (London), a 20-year-old commercial settlement, would be the next target, but he had insufficient strength to defend the city. Boudicca and her followers ravaged and burned both Londinium and Verulamium (St Albans).
It is said that Boudicca and her followers slaughtered the inhabitants of all three cities mercilessly, as well as torturing many, including women. Some 70,000-80,000 people are thought to have been killed in the three attacks.
Following their success, Boudicca turned west, but she was met by a huge Roman force raised by the governor. The Celtic force, which is estimated to have been around 100,000 strong, was massacred, as were the families stationed on the outskirts of the battlefield.
Boudicca was not among those who died at the unknown battle site, but she either killed herself or died of illness shortly after.
Consequences of the Revolt
The short revolt was extremely bloody, with enormous loss of life, including civilians, on both sides. Emperor Nero was said to have been so shaken by events that he considered withdrawing completely from Britain.
While the victorious Romans did not withdraw, they did see that they needed to change their treatment of their British subjects. Military outposts in Britain were strengthened, but taxes and other requirements were lowered, in order to reduce animosity toward Roman rule.
This ended up paving the way for the Romans to defeat the British tribes of the north, and bring the entire country under Roman control by AD 84. The Romans then began to campaign in Scotland, unsuccessfully, eventually leading to the construction of Hadrian’s Wall in AD 142, marking the limit of Roman territory on the island.
Boudicca’s story is recorded in the texts of two Roman authors, Tacitus and Cassius Dio. Tacitus wrote about Boudicca about 40 years after the event but based his record on the remembrances of his father-in-law Agricola, who was stationed in Britain at the time of the revolt and for many years during the aftermath.
The spelling of Boudicca’s name comes from Tacitus’ account, written in Latin, though many variations have been used over the years.
Cassius Dio (AD 150-235) wrote his history in Greek, and his account of Boudicca was probably based largely on that of Tacitus and other authors. It also only survives in an epitome. Nevertheless, Cassius Dio does provide details not included by Tacitus, such as a description of Boudicca as frighteningly tall with tawny hair that fell to her waist, a harsh voice, fierce eyes, and a terrible expression.