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Remembering Women's History: Queen Boudica Rallied Her People In Rebellion Against the Roman Empire

Updated on March 27, 2015
An artist's depiction of Boudica before the battle against Seutonius' Legions
An artist's depiction of Boudica before the battle against Seutonius' Legions

Becoming Queen

Boudica became Queen of the Iceni - a Celtic tribe in Britain - when her husband, King Prastagus, died in the year 60 AD. The Romans had only come into contact with the Iceni very recently.

After the Iceni had fought a ferocious, yet ultimately unsuccessful series of battles to maintain control of their land, Prastagus was installed as King of the Iceni, and the Iceni became what was known as a "client kingdom."

After a series of coercions, client kingdoms were normally left to the Roman Empire in the will of the king with whom Rome had made their agreement; however King Prastagus attempted to protect his family and his people by leaving a will stating that half of his kingdom was to go to the Roman Empire and half to his wife Boudica and that they should rule the land jointly.

Rome, however, refused to honor this contract and annexed all Iceni lands following Prastagus' death. While Prastagus was alive, the Romans levied heavy taxes on the Iceni people and seized Iceni harvests to be sold back to them at highly inflated prices. Upon Prastagus' death, however, the Romans out and out pillaged the Iceni Kingdom, lands and households.

The Romans and the Iceni had very different views on women, and as such had very different views on the new Queen Boudica. The Romans did not permit women to own property or hold political office.

The Iceni saw Boudica as their Queen, the Romans saw her as an effectively powerless and easily manipulated puppet ruler; not because they had any experience with her, but because she was a woman. This arrogant and misogynistic perception would soon prove to be a very costly mistake for the Romans.

Roman Cruelty Knows No Bounds

Prastagus was killed in an unprovoked Roman attack on the druid stronghold on the Isle of Mona. The druids were the equivalent of Celtic priests. The stronghold was full of civilians, not warriors. When it became clear that the Romans would attack, the Celts organized what defense they could, and managed to put on an intimidating display even though they were armed mostly with torches and other hastily improvised weapons of opportunity. The Romans attacked. It was a massacre; and one which took place in a place of great spiritual significance to the Celts. After this "victory," the Romans added insult to injury by cutting down the sacred groves which had existed on the Island for centuries. This event no doubt cut a deep wound in the Celtic cultural psyche.

After Prastagus' death, the local Roman procurator, Decianus Catus, visited Boudica's home in order to evict her and take possession of all of her valuables, since women could not inherit property under Roman law. When Boudica protested, Catus had her flogged and his soldiers raped Boudica's two teenage daughters as punishment for Boudica's defiance.

This outraged and shocked not just Boudica and her daughters, but Celtic people everywhere, of all Celtic tribes. In Celtic society, women were not only able to own and inherit money and property, they fought alongside men in battle, they could initiate divorce, and could hold positions of power and prestige equal to that of any man. The Celts were a much more egalitarian society. The brutally violent misogyny of the Romans must have seemed completely alien and utterly terrifying to them.

The tribal peoples of Britain were outraged at the treatment of Boudica and her daughters by the Romans.
The tribal peoples of Britain were outraged at the treatment of Boudica and her daughters by the Romans.

The Wrath of Boudica

The story of what had happened to Boudica and her daughters spread quickly among the Iceni and to neighboring tribes as well. Boudica vowed to lead her people out from under the oppressive yoke of Roman rule, and powerful neighboring tribes also pledged to fight under her command. Thousands of Celtic warriors rallied to her cause from near and far, and Boudica marched on the nearby Roman settlement of Camulodunum.

Camulodunum was essentially a retirement community for veteran Roman soldiers. Boudica camped with her army outside of the city and allowed her ranks to swell with the seemingly endless influx of recruits who had heard her story. The Celts were highly adept at psychological warfare, and they used the time it took for Boudica's army to grow to terrorize the citizens of Camulodunum.

"[F]or no visible reason, the statue of Victory at Camulodunum fell down — with its back turned as though it were fleeing the enemy. Delirious women chanted of destruction at hand. They cried that in the local senate-house outlandish yells had been heard; the theater had echoed with shrieks. At the mouth of the Thames a phantom settlement had been seen in ruins." - Tacitus

The panicked population of Camulodunum begged for help from the Roman procurator Catus Decianus, who was by this time back in Londinium (the predecessor of London). Decianus failed to take the reports of a woman-led tribal rebellion seriously, and sent only 200 Roman soldiers to defend Camulodunum and put down the rebellion. By the time these 200 men reached the city, Boudica was in command of an army numbering roughly 120,000.


An artist's depiction of Boudica rallying the Celtic people from far and wide.
An artist's depiction of Boudica rallying the Celtic people from far and wide.

The arrogance of the Roman occupiers was such that they had not built walls around many of their cities in Britain, and Camulodunum was one of these. In fact there had originally been earthen ramparts built as a form of protection from invaders, but these had been leveled so that more houses could be built on flat land, and nothing had been built to replace them.

The city was quickly overrun by Boudica's armies, and the Roman soldiers who had been sent from London took refuge in a temple which was particularly hated by the Britons, as many of their children and countrymen had been taken as slaves by the Romans in order to effect the temple's construction. For two days the Roman soldiers managed to hold the temple - it is unclear whether a serious fight was being waged for the temple during this time, or whether the enraged Celts were simply tormenting the Roman soldiers before sacking the temple and killing all who were inside.

The population of Camulodunum suffered a similar annihilation. No prisoners were taken; every Roman inhabitant the Celts could find was killed, and the buildings were all burned to the ground. Burning all of these buildings could not have been an easy task, as they were made mostly of clay, molded around large hard timber supports. Nevertheless, the fires burned so intensely throughout the city that every building was burned to the ground, which became a massive layer of molten red clay covering the ground; and this layer can still be observed under the modern day city of Colchester today. The heat was so intense that in some places this clay layer has been hardened as though it had been fired in a kiln.

Boudica and her daughters celebrate a victory with their troops
Boudica and her daughters celebrate a victory with their troops

In response to the destruction of Camulodunum, the Roman procurator in Londinium sent for the Roman 9th Legion (Legion IX Hispana), with 2000 infantry and another 500 mounted officers to retake the city. Since the Celts had annihilated the population, the Romans had not yet learned of the totality of the destruction of the city's physical structures. In any event, the 9th Legion never made it to Camulodunum. When the Celtic army got word they were coming, they set an ambush for them on the road to Camulodunum, and annihilated the entire Roman Legion. Rome had never lost an entire legion before; to anyone.

When it became clear to the Roman procurator that something had gone wrong, as he had not heard from the 9th Legion and Boudica was marching on Londinium unimpeded, he panicked. This was the man, after all, who had kicked off the rebellion with his inhuman cruetly to Boudica and her daughters. He abandoned the city and fled across the English channel to Gaul (modern France).

Meanwhile, the Roman Governor in Britain - who had taken his two legions against the druids at the Island of Mona, far to the North, finally arrived back in the southern part of the country. He was able to beat Boudica to Londinium, but when he arrived and saw that the city had no defensive fortifications he decided that his better strategic option was to meet Boudica's massive army in battle on open ground; which would put the very highly disciplined Roman soldiers at a distinct advantage. Boudica was an excellent strategist, and preferred not to meet Roman soldiers in open battle, but the Roman Governor Suetonius planned to allow Boudica's army to sack Londinium and another nearby city (modern St. Albans), in hopes of encouraging overconfidence in the Celtic ranks - and thereby goading the Celtic army into a reckless direct assault on his legions over open ground.

The residents of Londinium screamed and wailed in the streets as the Suetonius led his legions out of the city, begging him to stay and defend them. Those who could, marched out of the city behind Suetonius' troops, and those who could not were left behind to be slaughtered.

Londinium and the city under modern day St. Albans quickly suffered fates identical to Camulodunum. The Roman populations were exterminated in their entirety, and every Roman building was razed to the ground in both cities. The Celts saw the Roman colonists as dangerous invaders, infecting their lands and communities with the dangerous and brutal Roman culture, and they were not willing to spare anyone and risk the further transmission of the disease of Roman thinking.

While in Londinium, Suetonius had sent word to the commander of another legion in Briton, Poenius Posthumus, to meet him with his legion in an area of Central Britain, away from any large cities and towns. Posthumus ignored this request, however, fearing marching his legion through hostile native territory after learning of the fate of the Ninth Legion.

Boudica on her chariot
Boudica on her chariot

Boudica Faces Seutonius

Boudica came across Seutonius' force of over 10,000 Roman soldiers as she marched her troops back North. She was aware of the extreme danger of facing highly trained soldiers of the Roman Legions in combat over open ground, and it is unclear why she did not choose to avoid engaging them directly. Her army numbered in the hundreds of thousands, and it is likely that less experienced Celts were threatening to attack with or without her; as the desire to rid Britain of Romans had reached a frenzied fever pitch. It could be that Boudica chose to attack with her entire army, as an organized force, rather than lose pieces of it in divided, disorganized attacks.

Though her forces outnumbered the Romans by at least ten to one, the Celts had suffered for years under Roman oppression, and among other things, had been forbidden from forging quality armaments. The Romans were heavily armored and carried large shields which could be assembled into a nearly impenetrable shield wall in the face of an oncoming attack. The Celts had no armor, and many Celtic warriors even chose to fight naked, perhaps covered in body paint - a display of fearlessness which struck fear into their enemies. Many Roman observers of Celts in battle noted that the Celts did not seem to fear death; and this made them a very intimidating foe.

Women and children often fought in battle as well; children would do things like crawl under the front lines when the two armies were fighting hand to hand and cut the achilles tendons of enemy troops. Young adult women fought alongside the men, while mothers of small children formed the final line of defense at the rear of a battle, forming the last ditch effort to protect the very small children and the tribe's homes (or in the case of this battle, their wagons) in case an enemy managed to overrun the rest of the army.

When Boudica's army crossed paths with Seutonius' legions, she gathered her troops on the edge of the battlefield. Seutonius had dug his army in at a natural chokepoint in the landscape; so that his soldiers occupied one end of a large field, with thick forested area on either side. This made attack from more than one direction impossible. Boudica must have sensed the extreme danger. She rallied her troops from the back of her battle chariot, with her daughters riding beside her.

"The Britons were used to the leadership of women, but she came back before them 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. Roman greed spares neither their bodies, the old or the virgins. The gods were on our side in our quest for vengeance, one legion had already perished, the others are cowering in their forts to escape. They could never face the roar of our thousands, least of all our charge and hand to hand fighting. When the Romans realize their small force and the justice of our cause, they will know it is victory or death. This is my resolve, as a woman- follow me or submit to the Roman yoke."

She then turned and led her massive army through the bottleneck towards the opposing Roman army.

The Final Battle

As the front lines of Boudica's army drew closer to the Roman legions, the Roman infantry surprised them by throwing javelins into their ranks, and in the ensuing chaos charged the Celtic line in a wedge formation. This allowed Boudica's chariots to overrun the position of the Roman archers, but the archers were able to regroup and force the chariots back with a hail of arrows. Meanwhile, the heavily armored Roman infantry in their wedge formation easily cut through the Celtic front lines and deep into the core body of the massive Celtic army, causing panic and chaos in relief ranks.

Eventually the Celts attempted to turn and run, but they were hemmed in by the heavy forest on both sides of the field, and the celtic mothers and wagons to their rear. At the end of the day, an estimated 80,000 Britons lay dead, and Boudica reportedly poisoned herself rather than submit once again to Roman subjugation.

Upon learning of the Roman victory, Poenius Posthumus, the commander who had ignored the order to ride out with his legion and meet Seutonius for the battle against the Britons, committed suicide by falling on his own sword, rather than answer to Seutonius for his failure to follow the order to come to his aid.

In all, Boudica's rebellion resulted in the total destruction of three major Roman cities in Britain, and claimed an estimated 70,000 Roman lives. It also resulted in the annihilation of an entire Roman legion, with the possible exception of that legion's commander and some of his officers. The disappearance of an entire Roman legion had never been seen before Boudica's armies swallowed up the Ninth Legion somewhere in the forests of Central Britain, and in spite of the fact that she hailed from a culture without reading and writing, hers is a name still remembered by the world two thousand years after her death. Boudica, by the way, meant victory, and her accomplishments leave no doubt that she was one of the great military leaders of the ancient world.

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    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan Robert Lancaster 16 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Tyler, I don't know the figures you see for visitors to this page, but it beggars belief that no-one's commented yet. It's a masterful piece (with the exception of writing 'Seutonius' for 'Suetonius', although you had it right first time).

      If you ever come to London, visit St Pancras Station, where it is said Boudicca's body is buried in ground under the end of Platform 9 overlooking the St Pancras Yacht Basin.

      Visit also the Museum of London on London Wall, where a well mechanism is displayed from the time Londinium was attacked. There was about a foot deep of black under the ground where the original wall-less trading settlement was charred. There's a whole section on Roman London on the ground floor.

      Mona was later known as Anglesey, the isle of the Angles (I don't know why, it's north off Gwynedd off Menai).

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 8 months ago from England

      this is a great piece about Boudicca! nice one!

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