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What was the short-term significance of the Boudiccan Rebellion in Roman Britain, AD60-1?

Updated on October 15, 2013
TMDHemsley17 profile image

Thomas is a History student at the University of Leeds, and the editor of a recent satirical news website called 'Leeds Flipside'.

This article, like my 'Cold War Historiography' hub, is adapted from A-level History work, in this case from my coursework on Roman Britain. This hub looks at the rebellion and its short-term significance through looking at the historiography of the event. It will be the sister-hub to a second article, which will look at the long-term influence of Boudicca's rebellion. For any readers who are doing a course on Roman Britain or more specifically on Boudicca, and for readers in general, I hope this is helpful in giving an understanding of the issues in historiography and what we do and don't know about the event. For any students, please don't reference the hub or copy from it; it's simply my work rewritten for an article format. I recommend checking the bibliography at the bottom for a list of texts I used, all of which are useful for the topic. I hope you find this engaging and interesting.

A painting of 'Queen Boudicca' by John Opie.
A painting of 'Queen Boudicca' by John Opie.

Introduction - The Historiography of Boudicca

In AD60-61, 17 years into the frustrations of the Roman occupation of Britain, the Iceni and Trinovantes tribes, under the leadership of the Iceni queen, Boudicca, carried out a brutal attack against the Romans. Well, at least it is believed Boudicca was behind the revolt; there is very little evidence to suggest she was, or that she even existed. Whilst there was definitely a destructive attack against Roman settlements at this time (archaeological evidence confirms that), not much else is definitively known about the attacks.

The reason for this lack of information is that there are only two contemporary Roman historians who examine the rebellion, let alone acknowledge it ever happened: Tacitus and Dio Cassius (alt. Cassius Dio). Furthermore, these two are not primary sources of knowledge for the event. Tacitus, whilst within living memory of the rebellion, was not writing his Annuls until some years afterwards, and Dio Cassius wasn't even alive at the time; he wasn't writing until around 100 years after.

There are many pros and cons for using the works of these two historians. Tacitus' father-in-law was a general called Agricola, who served numerous times in Britain, which gave him a eyewitness source for the happenings in the territory, but this also gave Tacitus an element of bias, notable in the respectful and reverent attitude towards Agricola in his biography of him. Dio Cassius, conversely, didn't have the advantage of eyewitness experience in his time, but wasn't constrained by attachment to the subjects of his work. However, the main problem that one encounters having only these historians to work off is that their interpretations of the rebellion differ in a number of ways. These will be largely demonstrated as the article goes on, but an example would be that Tacitus claims that "Boudicea put an end to her life by poison"1, whereas Dio states that "Boudicca fell sick and died".2 Differences like these make it harder to know what really happened, and as such make judging significance a more complicated issue. However, despite this in my research I came to the conclusion that the rebellion did have significant short-term impact on Roman Britain, but that this impact was only short-term.

Crossing the Rubicon - Cause of the Rebellion

The impetus for the revolt is a main area where our two historians offer different, but not necessarily contradictory, accounts. Tacitus relates that it was in response to the barbaric actions of the Romans against the Iceni. He states that the Icenian king, Prasutagus, "had made the emperor his heir along with his two daughters, under the impression that this token of submission would put his house out of the reach of wrong"3; he divided his kingdom between the emperor Nero and his daughters. However, this act was viewed by Nero and the procurator of Britain, Catus Decianus, as completely unacceptable. As a 'client-king', Prasutagus ruled on behalf of Rome and so couldn't decide who his kingdom went to.4 Tacitus claims that in response to this apparent betrayal, the Romans attacked the Iceni, describing it "his kingdom was plundered by centurions...his wife Boudicea was scourged (flogged), and his daughters outraged (raped)"5, something that was considered extreme even to the Romans. The Trinovantes tribe joined the Iceni in the revolt, according to Tacitus, because of long-suffered frustrations they had felt under the Roman colonists of Camulodunum (modern-day Colchester), such as being forced from their homes and lawlessness of Roman soldiers.6 Some historians suggest that the brutality of the Roman response to Prasutagus' actions represents a breakdown in the client-kingdom system; however, the client system ran fairly well in the south-east before the revolt and continued to afterwards, suggesting the rebellion was an isolated incident.

Dio on the other hand doesn't mention Prasutagus or the attack on the Iceni at all, and rather puts the cause of the revolt down to economic issues. Dio narrates that it was the forced giving of massive unwanted loans, and then the forced repayment of those loans by the Romans that frustrated the Britons into fighting back, claiming "An excuse for the war was found in the confiscation of the sums of money that Claudius had given to the foremost Britons; for these sums...were to be paid back".7 Whilst the roots given by the sources are different, it doesn't necessarily equate that one or the other is true. Both explanations may have contributed, but the historians may have omitted one in favour of the other, demonstrating further still how analysis of this is difficult.

The Emperor Nero (Ruled AD54-68). Ancient sources mostly paint him as a tyrant, especially those of Tacitus.
The Emperor Nero (Ruled AD54-68). Ancient sources mostly paint him as a tyrant, especially those of Tacitus.

Considering the nature of the historians themselves can explain why hey give differing interpretations. As with any written work, the opinions and ideas of the author tend to show in their writing, and Tacitus and Dio both demonstrate this through conveyance of a critical attitude of Nero (AD54-68). Tacitus was a known detractor of Nero, and his account portrays Nero ordering a vile attack upon the Iceni, the barbarity of which disgusted and unnerved even normal Romans, who saw themselves as civilised. Dio likewise shows a contempt of Nero through a speech he attributes to Boudicca, which ridicules Nero by saying, "...Nero (who, though in name a man, is in fact a woman, as is proved by his singing, lyre-playing and beautification of his person)".8 Tacitus and Dio may have criticised Nero out of an official desire to find convenient scapegoats9, suggesting that their explanations are lacking in truthfulness and may be somewhat fanciful, as they are using the events to criticise someone they feel is to blame rather than actually analysing the rebellion.

All Roads lead to Roman Ruins - The Rebellion

On the rebellion itself, Tacitus and Dio's accounts are fairly similar. Dio claims that "Two cities were sacked, eighty thousand of the Romans and their allies perished".10 Tacitus, meanwhile, claims three cities were sacked, adding Verulamium (modern-day St. Albans) as the third alongside Camulodunum and Londinium (London).11 Archaeological evidence supports these claims, as a layer of burned red earth exists beneath each of these three cities that corresponds with the years AD60-1.12 This means that these cities were certainly razed at the time, although whether by Boudicca or not remains unknown.

As for the number of Roman dead, Tacitus doesn't give a number but Dio puts the death toll at around 80,00013, a figure that is corroborated by Roman records. However, more realistic modern estimates put the number at around 30-40,000 dead.14 Dio's estimate could arguably have been so high so as to make Roman losses seem greater and therefore further demonise the Britons, which would suggest the rebellion was of significance as it continued to be in Roman memory, or it could have simply been because Roman records gave that estimate too. The high figure given could also simply have been for dramatic effect, as Dio's writing were trying to grab the reader's attention.

The final battle of the rebellion, the Battle of Watling Street, is another area of disputed facts between the sources. Firstly, the number of combatants on both sides and the number of casualties given can be criticised as being unrealistic and extreme. At the battle, Tacitus claims there were 10,000 Roman soldiers which were outnumbered 10 to 115, putting the Briton numbers at 100,000, whilst Dio puts 230,000 Britons present.16 Modern estimates calculate that there were roughly 2,000,000 Britons in Britain at the time, meaning both Dio's and Tacitus' estimates are likely exaggerated. Casualty-wise Tacitus claims "there fell little less than eighty thousand, with a loss to our soldiers of about four hundred, and only as many wounded"17, a claim which can be criticised due to the difference in casualties, almost 80,000, being very substantial, especially when considering that the Romans were gravely outnumbered and the Britons had the advantage of Chariots. It can be argued Tacitus gave the difference as a way of upping the Roman army's reputation and prestige.

A map showing Watling Street, the route on which most historians place the final battle of the Boudiccan Rebellion.
A map showing Watling Street, the route on which most historians place the final battle of the Boudiccan Rebellion.

The Aftermath and its Impact

The short-term significance of the rebellion largely comes from the shock and damage it caused to the Romans. Roman losses in the three cities hit were numerous because the cities were mostly undefended, lacking both men and defensive walls. The rebellion took the Romans by surprise. Most of the Roman forces in Britain were with the general Suetonius Paulinus fighting the Druids on the Isle of Anglesey when they learned of the revolt18, suggesting that the Britons were becoming more relaxed towards Roman rule as Suetonius could afford to take his soldiers elsewhere. It was because the soldiers were too far away to be of any assistance for a while that the Briton rebels managed to attack the cities with ease, and purportedly with great savagery. Dio writes that "They hung up naked...women and then cut of their breasts and sewed them to their mouths...afterwards they impaled the women on sharp skewers"19, although it can be argued that Dio's interpretation is likely exaggerated for literary effect, as Tacitus claims that the Britons were more interested in plundering.20

The significance the revolt had on the Romans can be seen in their response to it once they had put it down. Only Tacitus examines the aftermath, stating that the number of military personnel in Britain was greatly incresed, as Nero "strengthened the forces by sending from Germany two thousand legionnaries, eight cohorts of auxiliaries, and a thousand cavalry"21, which were then used to carry out stern reprisals against the Britons, especially the Iceni, something he viewed as arrogant on the part of Suetonius.22 The bolstering of military presence is further identified through what is arguably the only major change in Roman security policy to come out of the rebellion: the construction of defensive walls and ditches around their cities23, something they hadn't done until now.

Some historians argue that one area that the rebellion impacted was the policy of 'Romanisation'; the implementation and assimilation of Roman ideals and culture into new territories. It is claimed that the rebellion 'sped up' the policy. However, Romanisation didn't really begin until AD70, 9 years after the rebellion, by which time matters closer to Rome had taken priority, and by this point the revolt would have begun fading into obscurity, so is unlikely to have influenced the policy (Romanisation will be looked at in more depth in the second hub). The fact that the Boudiccan Rebellion was the last of its kind in the south of England is also of little significance, as the south had been by and large compliant with the Romans anyway. However, as explained, the event did have a significant impact in that it influenced a moderate change in security policy.

Conclusion

In conclusion it can be argued that due to the damage and shock the rebellion caused, according to Tacitus and Dio Cassius, it certainly had considerable significance in the short-term in terms of casualties, and damage to infrastructure, and also had marginal significance in the long-term in relation to the change in military presence and defensive fortifications, but had no other long-term effects.

Footnotes

1. Tacitus, Annuls

2. Dio Cassius, Roman History

3. Tacitus, Annuls

4. Collingridge, V, Boudica, 2006, Ebury Publishing, pg.189

5. Tacitus, Annuls

6. Tacitus, Annuls

7. Dio Cassius, Roman History

8. Dio Cassius, Roman History

9. Mattingly, D, An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire, 2007, Penguin Publishing, pg.106

10. Dio Cassius, Roman History

11. Tacitus, Annuls

12. Collingridge, V, Boudica, 2006, Ebury Publishing, pg.214

13. Dio Cassius, Roman History

14. Mattingly, D, An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire, 2007, Penguin Publishing, pg.106

15. Tacitus, Annuls

16. Dio Cassius, Roman History

17. Tacitus, Annuls

18. Tacitus, Annuls

19. Dio Cassius, Roman History

20. Tacitus, Annuls

21. Tacitus, Annuls

22. Tacitus, The Agricola

23. Collingridge, V, Boudica, 2006, Ebury Publishing, pg.285

Bibliography

Tacitus, Annuls

Tacitus, The Agricola

Dio Cassius, Roman History

Peter Salway, Roman Britain: A Very Short Introduction, 2000, Oxford University Press - (Helpful for people with little to no background knowledge of the topic)

Vanessa Collingridge, Boudica, 2006, Ebury Publishing - (A very useful book on Boudicca and the rebellion specifically)

Sheppard Frere, Britannia: A History of Roman Britain, 1974, Sphere Books Ltd

Patricia Southern, Roman Britain: A New History 55BC-AD450, 2011, Amberley Publishing - (A easy to follow and clearly written history of the whole period of Roman occupation)

David Mattingly, An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire 54BC-AD409, 2007, Penguin Publishing - (A good book that is divided by areas and topics rather than chronology)


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    • TMDHemsley17 profile image
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      Thomas M D Hemsley 3 years ago from Leeds

      Thank you! I hope it does.

    • carlarmes profile image

      carlarmes 3 years ago from Bournemouth, England

      Very impressed with your Hub, this information should come in useful for other students of history.