Death Over Slavery: Boudicca
For Her Daughters, She Would Destroy An Empire
**Note to readers: I want to warn my readers that there is mention of child rape in this story. I do not want to upset anyone so please use your best judgment when reading.
The ancients weren’t all uncivilized. In fact, take a look at the Celtic tribes that spread through England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France and parts of Germany; despite living in huts and collecting enemy skulls as souvenirs, they were very advanced in mathematics and astronomy, and were perhaps the most egalitarian people on earth at that time. Men and women were held completely equal in all respects, able to rule equally, own their own property, teach, conduct business and go to war. Women were so revered in war that their battle chiefs were almost exclusively female, and their war deities were all goddesses. In fact, when a group of captured Celtic warriors were brought to stand before the Roman emperor Claudius so he could gloat in their defeat, they actually marched straight past him and bowed to his wife Agrippina, believing her to be Rome’s military leader! And according to contemporary Roman historian Ammianus Maximus, when it came to a female Celt, “a whole troop would not be able to withstand one Celt in battle, if he called his wife to his aide … especially when she swells her neck and gnashes her teeth and swinging her huge white arms, begins to rain down blows mixed with kicks, like the shot from a catapult.”
The Romans, however, the pinnacle of civilization at the time, were really anything but. Yes, they excelled at architecture, the sciences, art, political rhetoric, philosophy, medicine, but when it came to anyone not born a Roman male … then they weren’t human. Women were property—a Roman man did not marry a Roman woman so much as owned her. It was considered risky for women to read and write (owing to the Greek belief that thinking required the brain to absorb more blood, so if a woman thought too much she’d absorb blood from her uterus and become infertile), and her only purpose in life was to birth sons. A man could sell his wife and daughters into slavery if he needed to pay off a few debts, and if a woman was widowed she didn’t inherit any of her husband’s money to support herself. This was considered the natural order of things, and to see Celtic women acting with the same rights as men … that freaked the Romans out. They thought it was an aberration.
By first century A.D., the Roman Empire was well on its way to annexing a northern island they dubbed Britannia to their realm. The weather there really wasn’t all that inviting and the soil not especially great for farming, but it had a wealth of iron, copper, granite and coal, all the things the Romans needed for their armies and cities. Revolted by the custom of the Celtic high priests called the Druids of sacrificing humans (which is a joke when you consider how many people the Romans killed in the coliseums alone—and for public entertainment as well), the Romans decided that Britannia really needed to be civilized and moved in, taking the land by force and enslaving the native Celts to build their paved roads.
This continued for several decades … and then they met Boudicca.
Born about 30 A.D., Boudicca was queen of the Iceni, a Celtic tribe in Western England in the Norfolk and North Sussex areas. Married to King Prasutagus, Boudicca was the mother of his two daughters, whose names have unfortunately been lost to history. A war chief by right and her husband’s equal, Boudicca was ready to fight the Romans if she absolutely had to, but Prasutagus, older than Boudicca by several years and growing ill, wanted to avoid a war altogether. The royal couple met with Roman envoys, and while they pressured him to sign a treaty, Prasutagus held fast and agreed to an alliance with Emperor Nero only if the Romans agreed that, upon his death, half of all he owned (land, materials, treasure, weapons, food, clothes, livestock) went to his daughters, while the remainder went to Nero. The envoys were frustrated but, seeing that they weren’t going to get a better bargain than that, agreed.
Not long after the treaty was struck, Prasutagus became very ill and died—and the Roman legions attacked within hours. Shocked by the soldiers storming through her city, Boudicca rushed out of her house and ordered them to stop, they were violating the treaty her husband had signed. A commander snidely informed her that, because Romans do not recognize women as citizens, they did not recognize her daughters as Prasutagus’s heirs and therefore the treaty was null and void. Before Boudicca could react, the commander sicced several soldiers on Boudicca and sent several more into her house to drag out her daughters. Boudicca fought them as best as she could, but she was overpowered, tied between the support posts of her doorway, and savagely whipped her while the other soldiers took turns publicly raping her daughters. The horrified and outraged Iceni rushed to save the royal family, but all of their weapons, even their farming tools, had been taken away, leaving them unarmed. The Romans rounded the Iceni up and made them watch. Those that tried to fight, tried to save the queen and the princesses, were butchered.
It was hours before the Romans finally marched away, taking their pillaged wealth with them, and the grief-stricken Iceni people swarmed forward to cut a hideously bloody Boudicca down from the support beams where she sagged, rushed forward to comfort and clothe the hysterical girls. As she knelt there in the dusk, clutching her weeping girls, surrounded by her devastated people, a near-demonic hatred began to grow inside of the Iceni queen, a rage that threatened to bring the very gods themselves to their knees. It was bad enough that the Romans had invaded … bad enough that they had enslaved Celts, that they had been systematically wiping out their Druidic religion and forcing the native people of England to worship their gods … bad enough that they were stripping the land of materials, hunting the wildlife … bad enough that they had cheated and robbed the Iceni of everything but the clothes on their backs … bad enough they had tortured Boudicca …
But for what they had done to her daughters … there would be no mercy.
Boudicea Haranguing Her Troops
Word of the treachery and the monstrous attack on the Iceni royal family spread amongst the Celtic tribes like wildfire, and soon all of the native peoples were in an uproar; it was unthinkable that anyone would torture a queen, but to rape her young daughters as well? It was inhuman! Knowing that her fellow tribes would be outraged, Boudicca, hardly able to walk from the devastating whip lashings across her back, immediately began to travel from tribe to tribe to tell the Celts what happened to her. She would show them her mutilated back, and there would be cries of horror. She would tell them about her daughters, and there would be shouts of fury. She asked them if they would join the Iceni in completely eradicating the Roman plague from their homeland once and for all, and several thousand screamed their allegiance to her. According to the Roman historian Dio Cassius, Boudicca told the Celts, “(L)et us do our duty while we still remember what freedom is, that we may leave to our children not only its name but also its reality.” And the Celts agreed wholeheartedly.
As soon as Boudicca was able to wield a weapon, she mustered her army—numbering in the tens of thousands—boarded her war chariot and led the way to her first target: Camulodunum, modern day Colchester. According to Dio Cassius, Boudicca was, “tall, terrifying to look at, with a fierce gaze and a harsh, powerful voice. A flood of bright red hair fell down to her knees; she wore a golden necklet made up of ornate pieces, a multi-colored robe and over it a thick cloak held together by a brooch. She grasped a long spear to strike dread in all those who set eyes on her.”
Camulodunum stood no chance against Boudicca and her army. Prior to the attack, it’s said the statue of Victoria, the Roman goddess of victory, fell face forward as if fleeing an enemy. Hideous screams and weeping were heard echoing through the Senate House, and the ebbing tide from the river made strange shapes in the sand, like corpses and a city in ruins. And when Boudicca unleashed her army on Camulodunum, that’s exactly what happened—the city was burnt to the ground and all of its inhabitants slaughtered or later sacrificed to Boudicca’s patron goddess Andraste, the bear goddess. By the time the Celtic army departed, there was nothing but silent, smoking ruins.
At that time, the military governor of Britannia was a man named Gaius Suetonius Paulinus. He was already busy fighting women warriors in another part of Britannia, and he really didn’t think that this Boudicca’s army was any real threat. Was he ever wrong. Hearing what had happened at Camulodunum, an enraged Suetonius sent 5,000 legionnaires of the 9th Legion after Boudicca’s army.
Not one returned.
Boudicca’s targets weren’t limited only to the Roman invaders—she also wanted to punish all of those Celtic tribes that had allied themselves with the Romans as well. Branding them collaborators, Boudicca made her next target Londinium, now modern day London. A city of Romans and Romanized Celts, it was key to the empire’s trading in England, but, surprisingly, had absolutely no fortifications. Suetonius and his army arrived at Londinium well ahead of Boudicca, but, after seeing that the city had no protective walls or gates—and learning that the 2nd Legion absolutely refused to fight an army that big—he gave the order for his men to move out and abandon the city to the Celts. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, Suetonius was “unmoved by (the) tears and prayers” of the city’s inhabitants.
Boudicca and her army arrived at Londinium later that day and completely eradicated it. There was so much blood spilled that today, thirteen feet beneath the streets of London, there is a sixteen inch deep “Red Layer” of bloodstained soil, melted brick and burnt debris. It has been estimated that 70,000 Romans and Romanized Celts were killed in Londinium alone, and their blood saturated the ground.
With the loss of Londinium, the Romans were beside themselves with fury; how could it be possible that they were being defeated by a WOMAN?! It was beyond humiliating—they could have tolerated losing to a bunch of unwashed barbarians, but to lose to a woman was unacceptable. It was shameful! The empire put the pressure on Suetonius to end the uprising once and for all—before women everywhere started getting ideas. His career—and likely his life—in jeopardy, Suetonius decided to stand his ground.
Viewing a list of Boudicca’s next possible targets, Suetonius correctly guessed that she was headed for Verulanium (now St. Albans) and rushed to meet her there. Taking position at the top of a steep hill with a dense forest shielding their backs, Suetonius rallied his soldiers’ flagging courage by pointing out though they were only 10,000 men and Boudicca had 230,000 warriors, most of them were only women, so it wouldn’t be a difficult battle. When those 230,000 bloodthirsty Celts appeared on the plain below, Suetonius’s words probably sounded pretty hollow.
Opposite the hill with its waiting legionnaires, Boudicca halted her army, pulling up before them in her chariot. According to a Roman report, she shouted, “We British are used to women commanders in war … but I am not fighting for my kingdom or my wealth (but for) my lost freedom, my battered body and my violated daughters … Consider what you are fighting for, and why then you will win this battle, or perish. That is I, as a woman, plan to do. Let the men live in shame and slavery if they will!”
Thrilled, the Celts roared their approval. Stepping down from her chariot, Boudicca removed a live hare from her robes. Dedicating the hare to Andraste, Boudicca released the frightened animal and carefully watched which way it ran. The hare bolted headlong for the Romans and, seeing this as a sign from Andraste to proceed with a direct attack, Boudicca shouted her war cry, “Death over slavery!” and the Celts committed to a full-scale charge towards their hated enemy.
That was a mistake. In order to attack the Romans, the Celts had to charge straight up the steep hill, exhausting themselves and giving the legionnaires ample time to launch their vicious javelins. Many of the Celtic warriors fought completely naked, painted blue head to toe with sacred woad ink in the belief that the gods would turn the ink into body armor. It didn’t, and the heavily armored and well-shielded legionnaires were able to cut down the Celts like they were sheaving wheat. The legionnaires were also able to maneuver themselves into the tortoise formation (where they would line up in rows with them men in front, back and on the sides locked their shields together and the men in the center held their shields over their heads, turning them into a human tank) and were so well-protected than none of the Celts’ swords or spears were able to penetrate.
With the Celts dying in droves, the Romans surged forward, pushing the Celts down the hill and across the plain. Behind the Celtic army were hundreds of wagons filled with family members that had come to cheer on their relatives and care for the wounded, and the army was pushed back so quickly that the spectators weren’t able to clear the wagons out in time and the Celts were boxed in. The Romans slaughtered everyone there, from warriors to the infants. Tacitus claims that about 80,000 Celts died that day, compared to only 400 Romans.
Boudicca was one of the few survivors. Taking her daughters, she fled into the forest. Knowing that she would never be able to rebuild her army, and that if she was captured she be tortured and killed … and her girls would be raped again, turned into sex slaves if they weren’t murdered out right … Boudicca decided that she was going to live by her war cry. It is commonly believed that she and possibly her daughters committed suicide by drinking poison, and her surviving loyal followers took their bodies and buried them.
That wasn’t the last the Romans ever heard of Boudicca though; not long after Boudicca died, there were several more attempts uprisings by enslaved Celts, all chanting Boudicca’s name. Terrified of another war and genocide of Roman citizens, the empire made a drastic change in its policy to settling Britannia; instead of enslaving the Celts, they granted the people of England a kind of citizenship, allowing almost equal legal recognition and permitting them to own property. Ironically, Rome’s new policy did more to destroy the equality of Celtic women than enslavement ever did by introducing concepts of male superiority to Celtic men.
Try as hard as Rome did, Boudicca’s legacy was never forgotten, and she has become an premier symbol of freedom and courage for the English today. Prior to WW1, Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, erected an arch near the Westminister Bridge on the Thames River by Parliament, topping it with an imposing and beautiful sculpture of Boudicca in her war chariot, flanked by her two daughters. At the base it is inscribed, “Regions that Caesar never knew/Thy Posterity shall sway.”
Currently, there is an ongoing effort to received permission to excavate under Platform 10 at the King’s Cross Station, which is believed by many to be Queen Boudicca’s burial site.
Boudicca works referenced:
Women Warriors, David E. Jones 2000
Uppity Women of Ancient Times, Vicki Leon, 1997
Warrior Women, Robin Cross & Rosalind Miles 2011
Hell Hath No Fury, Rosalind Miles and Robin Cross 2008
Bad Girls, Jan Starling 2008
Queen Boudicca at Westminster
The End? Not By a Long Shot
And so with a mixture of relief and great disappointment I conclude my Women's History blog series--for now. I am definitely doing this again next year--there's so many more women to talk about! I hope you enjoyed learning about all the ones I featured as much as I enjoyed reading and writing about them. Now to think of something new to blog about, but until then, thanks for reading!