Boudicca Leads Revolt Against Roman Rule Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Boudicca’s revolt, instigated by imperial disregard of her late husband’s will, the rape of her daughters, and her own flogging, united southern Celtic tribes in a nearly successful attempt to resist imperial Rome rule.

Summary of Event

Queen Boudicca of the Iceni, one of the larger tribes in Britain, led a revolt against Roman rule in 60 c.e. There is greater agreement regarding the meaning of this warrior queen’s name than regarding its spelling; it contains the Celtic root word for “victory.” Many linguists translate Boudicca as meaning “Victory” or “the Victorious.” There is little consensus regarding its proper spelling. Variations include Boudicca, Boudica, Bodicca, Boadicea, Boudicea (the spelling preferred by Tacitus, the Roman historian who provides the most information on her), Bonducca, and Bunduica. The “Boadicea” spelling was preferred by Victorian historians, but most twenty-first century scholars have adopted the more linguistically correct spelling “Boudicca.” Boudicca Caratacus Claudius I Catus Decianus Nero Prasutagus Scapula, Publius Ostorius Paulinus, Gaius Suetonius

The roots of Boudicca’s rebellion were complex. Prior to the invasion of Britain in 54 b.c.e. by Julius Caesar and later in 43 c.e. by General Aulus Platius, many tribes lived in southern England. These tribes were polytheistic (believing in many deities) but were united by the priesthood of the Druids. Druidic priests could travel unharmed from one tribe to another, protected by their religious status. In this respect, they were more powerful than any tribal queen or king. They formed the one social element potentially capable of uniting the disparate tribes.

In 43 c.e., Emperor Claudius I sent Platius with four legions to conquer Britain. Many tribes, including the Iceni, welcomed the Romans or surrendered without a fight. Other tribes were defeated. Still others, including the Catuvellauni, resisted Roman rule. Resistance coalesced around Caratacus, son of the Catuvellauni king, Cunobelinus. When it became impossible to continue fighting in southeast Britain, Caratacus and his followers fled to the west, into the area now known as Wales.

Rome rewarded those who had helped them during the invasion. Emperor Claudius I loaned various chiefs the sum of forty million sesterces. King Prasutagus of the Iceni was given a client kingdom to rule with some degree of independence, an arrangement common on the borders of the Roman Empire, where pro-Roman sympathies were harnessed to create buffer zones to protect Roman territory from outside attack. For the Roman Empire, a client relationship was a tool of short-term political expedience, the achievement of rapid conquest in an area and the consolidation of Roman power therein. When the individual died with whom a client relationship had been established, the client relationship ended. From the point of view of Rome, the fortune and estates of a client king or queen reverted in full to Rome; the clients, however, often had a different understanding of their relationship to the imperial government. The situation in some ways paralleled the differing interpretations of land sales and treaties between Native Americans and Europeans in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries.

Publius Ostorius Scapula was governor of Britain from 50 c.e. until his death in 52 c.e. Scapula unsuccessfully tried to eradicate the forces of Caratacus in Wales. Scapula dared not count on the tribes remaining loyal to Rome while he waged battle in Wales, so preparatory to that campaign, he collected all weapons from the tribes. This search and seizure angered some of the tribes, including the Iceni. Camulodunum, the former capital city of the Trinovantes, became the capital of the new province. A large temple was built there to honor the spirit of Claudius I. The Romans also created a colonia at Camulodunum on lands appropriated from the tribes. Rome similarly appropriated lands from the Catuvellauni to build the city of Verulamium (St. Albans).

After the assassination of Claudius I in 54 c.e., his stepson Nero became emperor. The government under Nero seriously considered giving up Britain altogether. A decision was reached by 57 c.e. to retain Britain and to conquer and hold the whole southern area of the island. The man chosen to subdue the western areas was Gaius Suetonius Paulinus. He realized that discontent and hostility toward Rome were centered in the sacred groves of the Druids in the west, where those Britons had gathered who followed the lead of Caratacus in refusing to submit to Rome.

Prasutagus died early in 60 c.e. at a time when Suetonius, the Roman governor of Britain, was subduing Wales. His will made his two daughters co-heirs of his kingdom along with the Roman Empire. However, the chief tax collector or procurator of Britain, Catus Decianus, acted swiftly to ensure that Prasutagus’s entire estate reverted to Rome, cutting out Prasutagus’s family. Decianus also declared that loans previously made by Emperor Claudius I had to be repaid immediately, with interest. Accompanied by his staff, Decianus enforced his orders. In the process, members of his staff stripped and lashed Queen Boudicca and raped her two virgin daughters, whose names were never listed in the historical record. Impelled by these outrages, Boudicca and the Iceni took up arms. They were joined by the Trinovantes and by others.

Boudicca’s army of 120,000 people attacked and destroyed the colonia of Camulodunum, a settlement of retired Roman army veterans, along with its entire population, estimated at some 2,000 people. The Iceni and their allies then sacked and burned Londinium (London), the largest city in the province, killing its population estimated at some twenty thousand. According to Greek historian Dio Cassius (c. 150-c. 235 c.e.), the women’s breasts were cut off and stuffed into their mouths, and then they were impaled on long, sharp skewers run through their bodies lengthwise. The rebels likewise killed the entire population of Verulamium, the third-largest city in the province, and burned the town to the ground. They also decimated a large part of the IX Legion. The revolt finally was defeated by the XIV and XX Legions under the command of Suetonius.

Suetonius had been in the process of eliminating the druidic stronghold on the island of Anglesey off the north coast of Wales when Boudicca rebelled. Some historians have suspected collusion between the Celts of the east and west of the island to stretch Roman forces as thin as possible by drawing the army to one of the westernmost points of Britain and then rising up in the east. Certainly Suetonius’s response to Boudicca’s rebellion was delayed by the necessity of marching his army most of the way across Britain to an undetermined location along Watling Street in the Midlands, possibly near modern-day Mancetter.

Tacitus describes the location of the final confrontation between the forces of Boudicca and Suetonius. Boudicca’s army, estimated at this point to have numbered anywhere from 100,000 to 230,000, advanced into a front of diminishing width. Her army faced eleven thousand to thirteen thousand Roman soldiers, consisting of the XIV Legion, detachments of the II and XX at the center, and cavalry and auxiliaries on the wings. Behind the Romans lay a thick forest on rising ground that gave protection to Suetonius’s rear. Ahead the ground was open, affording no cover to the advancing Britons.

Suetonius defeated Boudicca’s forces and gained a massive victory. Tacitus indicates that eighty thousand Britons were killed in the battle, while Roman losses were four hundred dead and slightly more than that number wounded. Boudicca survived the battle but poisoned herself rather than face capture. Afterward, some seven thousand reinforcements were sent from Germany, and Suetonius led a systematic campaign of retaliation, from which it took ten years for the province to recover.

Significance

Boudicca’s revolt profoundly affected Britons and Roman imperial policy toward Britain. There was a genuine attempt by Rome to recognize the tribes as civilized peoples rather than as non-Romans. Temples were raised to Celtic gods in association with their Roman equivalents. All hopes of Roman defeat or withdrawal vanished. Not until the gradual breakup of the Roman Empire some five hundred years later did the Britons reassert themselves. The degree of assimilation between the Britons and the Romans has long been debated; it is probably significant that Britannia, unlike Gaul, reverted to speaking a Celtic language (Old Welsh) rather than a Latin-derived language. Nonetheless, the legendary history of medieval Wales presented the Welsh as the legitimate heirs of Rome.

Beginning in the eighteenth century, Boudicca became a potent icon of “Britishness,” ironically, as Britain itself became increasingly imperialistic. Boudicca has also become a modern icon of the independence and power of women among the pre-Christian Celts. A statue by Thomas Thornycroft of Boudicca in her chariot, with appropriately tempestuous horses, was presented to the City of London and erected near Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament in 1902. Popular legend holds that Boudicca herself is buried beneath Track 10 at the King’s Cross railway station.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dio Cassius. History of Rome. Translated by Ernest Carey. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1925. At the end of the second century, the Greek historian used corroborated and uncorroborated sources to write one of two classical histories of the revolt.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Salway, Peter. A History of Roman Britain. 1993. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. A good comprehensive history of Roman involvement in Britain. Part 2 covers the events leading up to Boudicca’s revolt and its aftermath.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tacitus. The “Annals” and the “Histories.” Translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Broadribb. New York: Modern Library, 2003. Tacitus, a Roman senator and consul, wrote his Annals just fifty years after the revolt. The noted Roman historian had access to imperial archives.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Webster, Graham. Boudica: The British Revolt Against Rome in a.d. 60. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 2000. Archaeological knowledge and aerial reconnaissance join with classical sources in this indispensable narrative of the political, social, economic, and demographic factors surrounding the revolt.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Webster, Graham. The Roman Invasion of Britain. Rev. ed. New York: Routledge, 1999. A sharply focused study of the period up to the departure of Plautius. Includes both an assessment of the Roman sources and a translation of Dio Cassius’s history. Illustrations, bibliography, glossary of technical terms, glossary of Roman terms, and a table of correspondences between Roman and modern place-names.
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