10 Things Few People Know About the Woman Who Defied the Roman Empire

As many as 180,000 slaughtered. Two cities burned to the ground, including London. All thanks to a failed rebellion against Roman rule led by the British warrior queen Boudica, sometimes spelled Boadicea. Yet this woman is revered by the British, a key part of their national lore. There’s even a massive bronze statue of her next to the Houses of Parliament in London, the very city she put to the torch 2,000 years ago.

We actually know quite a lot about Boudica thanks to two Roman historians. Publius Cornelius Tacitus, born in AD 56, wrote about the rebellion not too long after it had happened. He probably got most of his information from his father-in-law, who was a senior official in Britain at the time of the revolt in about AD 60. Cassius Dio, born a century after the uprising, wrote much later. Unfortunately, no Briton wrote about Boudica anywhere near her lifetime, so we have to accept the Roman versions of events.

So let’s march right into this list of ten things few people know about the woman who defied the Roman Empire.

Related: Top 10 Horrible Ends Of Roman Emperors

10 Romans Had Just Conquered Britain

Roman imperial rule started in southern Britain in AD 43 with the invasion instigated by Emperor Claudius—just 17 years before Boudica’s revolt. However, this was not the first time the Romans had sailed across the English Channel from Gaul, now modern-day France. There had been other military incursions, notably by Julius Caesar in 55–54 BC. But previous attacks had not established an occupying force. After military successes, Caesar simply signed treaties with the defeated tribes and then sailed back to Gaul. But things changed a century or so later when Emperor Claudius ordered an invasion.

This time, the Romans were in Britain to stay… and to hold and govern as much territory as they could. Southern England and Wales were largely occupied and controlled by Roman forces by AD 60. Then along came Boudica’s rebellion, which changed the picture for the Romans completely. After nearly 20 years of dominance, the entire Roman project of subduing the British was rocked to its foundations by Boudica’s people, the Iceni, and their allies.[1]

9 The Iceni Ruled by Boudica and the Romans

As far as her upbringing goes, we know virtually nothing about Boudica. But we do know that in AD 60, she became the joint queen of her people, the Iceni. This tribe lived in southeast England in what today is the county of Norfolk and in parts of surrounding counties. Norfolk’s county town of Norwich is 100 miles (161 kilometers) northeast of London.

Boudica became joint queen of the Iceni when her husband, King Prasutagus, died. As he had no sons, he left his throne to Boudica and her sister, a woman for whom we do not even have a name. But the Iceni realm was also shared with a third party—the Roman Empire in the shape of the emperor of the time, Nero.[2]

8 Those Double-Crossing Romans

Prasutagus had sound strategic reasons for what, on the face of it, looks like a rather eccentric arrangement. He hoped that by giving the Empire a stake in his kingdom, apart from extracting tribute, the Romans would largely leave the Iceni to their own devices. As it turned out, that was very far from what actually happened.

Tacitus describes how the Romans treated the Boudica and her people after the death of Prasutagus, despite the fact that he had bequeathed a stake in his kingdom to the Empire. In the words of Tacitus, “His kingdom was pillaged by centurions. His wife Boudica was subjected to the lash, and his daughters violated: all the chief men of the Icenians were stripped of their family estates, and the relatives of the king were treated as slaves.” To say that the Romans had overstepped the mark hardly does this outrage justice. And they would reap the coming whirlwind.[3]

7 Boudica’s Appearance Was “Terrifying”

After this cruel episode involving the beating of Boudica, the rape of her daughters, and the enslavement of royal family members, the Iceni queen decided she’d had enough. She now whipped the Iceni and the people of the neighboring Trinobantes tribe into a passion of righteous rage against the Romans.

Dio described the formidable figure that Boudica now presented. According to him, “In stature she was very tall, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of her eye most fierce, and her voice was harsh; a great mass of the tawniest hair fell to her hips; around her neck was a large golden necklace; and she wore a tunic of divers colors over which a thick mantle was fastened with a brooch.” To top it all off, she was in the habit of brandishing a spear when she addressed her people.[4]

6 Boudica’s Sneak Attack

At the end of a warrior band of “unprecedented numbers,” Boudica marched on the Roman city of Camulodunum, today called Colchester, in the eastern county of Essex. The Romans were completely unprepared when it came to dealing with this horde of angry Iceni. The Roman governor of Britain, Suetonius Paulinus, was hundreds of miles away on the Welsh island of Mona, modern-day Anglesey. There, he was in the process of destroying a Druidic temple that was a center of resistance to Roman rule.

So when the Iceni marched on Camulodunum, it was very poorly defended. There was a small garrison, and a Roman official called Catus Decianus could send only 200 lightly armed men. As Tacitus explains, these defenders were “enveloped by a great barbarian host.” The survivors of the initial attack barricaded themselves in the city’s temple. There they endured a siege of just two days before being overwhelmed.[5]

5 Boudica Burned London to the Ground

One Roman legion did march on Camulodunum to oppose Boudica’s force, but they were too late to stop the carnage. After they’d sacked the city, the Icenians and their allies turned on the legionaries, slaughtering them too. Meanwhile, news of the uprising had reached Suetonius in Wales, and he marched across the country to meet the rebels. He arrived in Londinium—London, today, of course—but decided against meeting the Iceni there. Suetonius abandoned the small city to its fate.

Boudica’s army burned Londinium to the ground and killed its citizens. According to Dio, the savagery of the Iceni was ferocious. He wrote that “Those who were taken captive by the Britons were subjected to every known form of outrage. They hung up naked the noblest and most distinguished women and then cut off their breasts and sewed them to their mouths. Afterward, they impaled the women on sharp skewers run lengthwise through the entire body.”[6]

4 Thousands of Romans and Allies Massacred

It’s worth remembering that Dio obviously wrote his history from the Roman point of view, so it’s entirely possible that he might have exaggerated the cruelty of the Iceni. But there seems little doubt that certainly Camulodunum and Londinium were burned to the ground since archaeologists have unearthed evidence of the fierce flames that destroyed the cities.

This was a catastrophe for the Romans and a genuine challenge to their rule in Britain. What’s more, this had been perpetrated by an army led by a woman. Dio wrote, “Two cities were sacked, eighty thousand of the Romans and of their allies perished, and the island was lost to Rome. Moreover, all this ruin was brought upon the Romans by a woman, a fact which in itself caused them the greatest shame.”[7]

3 The Romans Were Vastly Outnumbered

Of course, the Romans had to do something and do it quickly if their entire British territories were not to be lost. Although he’d retreated with his men from Londinium, Suetonius had no intention of conceding victory to Boudica. According to Dio, the Iceni and their allies now had an army of some 230,000 men in the field. This may be an exaggeration, but there is little doubt that the Britons greatly outnumbered the legionaries. Suetonius had a mere 10,000 men at his disposal.

But these were disciplined and well-trained Roman troops. The Britons probably had a hard core of formidable fighters, but it’s likely that many of them were actually peasant farmers, perhaps armed only with agricultural tools. In any case, the scene was set for a grand finale. Unfortunately, the precise site of the battle is unknown, but its shape was recorded by Tacitus.[8]

2 Roman Military Discipline Routed the Britons

Suetonius was clearly a wily general, and he chose his site for the battle with cunning. He concentrated his troops in a narrow valley. Behind the legionaries was a thick forest, guaranteeing the security of their rear. To the front was a broad plain, offering the enemy little in the way of cover. The die was cast. [11]

The Romans were arrayed in strict order, “the light-armed troops on either side, and the cavalry massed on the extreme wings.” The Britons, on the other hand, were more of a seething mass. The ferocity and bravery of Boudica’s horde was raged against the iron discipline and determination of the Roman army. As the Britons advanced at a walking pace, the Romans suddenly launched an attack in a wedge-shaped formation with infantry and cavalry charging together. The result was predictable. The Britons were routed, they fled, and they were cut down in their thousands.[9]

1 The Romans Slaughtered 80,000 of Boudica’s Followers

During this decisive battle, the Romans lost 400 men, according to Tacitus. The British, on the other hand, lost as many as 80,000. Boudica’s revolt was crushed, and the Romans would rule most of Britain for the next four centuries. As for the Queen herself, Tacitus says she “ended her days by poison,” while Dio records that she “fell sick and died.”

Despite the final failure of her revolt, 2,000 years on, Boudica’s name is known throughout Britain, and she’s regarded as a national hero. In the aftermath of the battle, the Romans reinforced their military presence with 2,000 legionaries, many auxiliary troops, and 1,000 cavalrymen. Britain would not see any more rebellions on anything like this scale for the rest of the period of Roman rule. In the end, the Romans left Britain early in the fifth century because Rome itself was under threat.[10]

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