The Legend of Queen Boudica

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Podcast Transcript

In the year 60, the Roman town of Lunduniam, modern-day London, was attacked and sacked by a group of native Celts. 

They lashed out at the Romans over years of poor treatment and abuse.

When Romans lost Lunduniam, they were shocked and embarrassed, not just at the loss to a group of barbarians, but because those barbarians were led by a woman.

Learn more about Queen Boudica on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Roman involvement in Britain, what they called Britania, took quite a bit of time to get established.

During the Republican period, Britain was a faraway land that most people thought of in terms of myth or fantasy.  Britain might as well have been the moon given how far away it was.

Not only was it far away, but it was an island making it just that much more inaccessible. You couldn’t just go there in the same way you could go to Germany or Spain. 

The first Roman to lead an organized expedition to Britain was Julius Caesar. While running around Gaul, he took two legions there in 55 BC and did nothing more than land on the shore and claim victory. It was really little more than a PR stunt for the masses back in Rome. 

The next year he built 628 ships and brought over five legions and 2000 cavalry. It was an impressive show of force, but this also wasn’t to be permanent. The local Celtic tribes attacked him and he ended up leaving to return to Gaul, not leaving a single Roman soldier behind.

After Caesar, Britain remained a tempting but challenging prize for the Romans. In the year 40, Emperor Caligula tried to invade Britain, but ended up amassing a force across the English Channel and ordered them into battle formations, and then told them to collect sea shells.

The preparations for the invasion of Britania which were done by Caligula were actually put to use by his successor, the much more competent Emperor Claudius. 

Claudius did a proper invasion and established the Roman foothold on the island which would last for centuries. 

This story takes place during the reign of the successor of Claudius and his adopted son, Nero. 

The Romans didn’t control all of Britain at this time, only the southern portion. The capital of Londinium and other cities served as trading posts and bases. Many of the Celtic tribes in the adjoining areas made arrangements with the Romans to pay tribute.

One tribe, in particular, was the Iceni. They were located northeast of Londinium in the area in what is known today as Norfolk.

The Iceni were independent and were not conquered by the Romans in the first wave of Roman invasions. The way they did this was by allying with the Romans against their enemies. 

The King of the Iceni was named Prasutagas and his wife was Queen Boudica. 

Boudica was by all accounts a striking woman. The Roman historian Cassius Dio described her,  “She was very tall, the glance of her eye most fierce; her voice harsh. A great mass of the reddest hair fell down to her hips. Her appearance was terrifying.”

Prasutagas had no male heir. In an attempt to try to placate the Romans, in his will he bequeathed half of his fortune to the Emperor Nero and half to his two daughters. 

When he died in the year 60, his attempt at buying off the Romans didn’t work. 

The historian Tacitus noted, “The Icenian king Prasutagus, celebrated for his long prosperity, had named the emperor his heir, together with his two daughters; an act of deference which he thought would place his kingdom and household beyond the risk of injury. The result was contrary – so much so that his kingdom was pillaged by centurions, his household by slaves; as though they had been prizes of war.” 

He added that Queen Boudica was lashed, her two daughters were raped by Roman slaves, and that the estates of the leading Iceni were confiscated.

The legal pretense given for this action by the Romans was that the Emperor Claudius had loaned them money

This insult to the Iceni was too much. 

The Iceni reached out to other tribes in the region who had also suffered at the hand of the Romans. In particular, they allied with their neighbors the Trinovantes. They had a combined 120,000 soldiers underarms.

The allied tribes elected Boudica to be their leader. 

The combined tribes first attacked the Romany colony town of Camulodunum, which is now modern-day Colchester. It was lightly defended and the town was easily captured. They took the head off of a bronze statue of Nero to use it as a trophy. 

The ninth legion was the closest military unit and they were sent to provide relief to the town, but they were quickly defeated. 

The Roman governor of Britania was Gaius Suetonius Paulinus. He, along with most of his legions, was fighting up in Wales at the time. When news reached him, he immediately turned to reach rebellious Celts.

While he was doing that, Boudica and her army had marched on Londinium. The town was abandoned before they arrived, so they entered an open city, and proceeded to loot and burn it to the ground. 

To this day, archeologists digging in London can find a layer of burnt red ash above the period from the year 60. 

The next city to face the wrath of the tribes was Verulamium, which is modern-day St. Albans. 

In total, of the three cities destroyed, it was estimated that 70,000 to 80,000 people were killed. The Celts did not take prisoners and were not interested in capturing slaves.  They didn’t just kill the local Roman inhabitants but were quite cruel in their execution methods. 

By this time Governor Seutonius had regrouped his forces and had taken up a position along the main road which went through Britania, known as Walting Street. He had approximately 10,000 legionaries under his command. 

He faced a serious problem. As governor, all the blame would be placed on his shoulders. Moreover, he had to suffer the added embarrassment of this coming at the hands of a woman.  If he didn’t rectify the problem 

By this time Boudica had attracted an army of 230,000 to 300,000 men and women. 

When the Celts had arrived to meet the Romans, before the battle she appeared in a chariot and rode up and down the lines with her daughters giving an impassioned speech.

“If you weigh well the strengths of our armies you will see that in this battle we must conquer or die. This is a woman’s resolve. As for the men, they may live or be slaves…I am not fighting for my kingdom and wealth now. I am fighting as an ordinary person for my lost freedom, my bruised body, and my outraged daughters.”

Despite the overwhelming numbers, the Romans routed the Celts. According to Tacitus, an estimated 80,000 Celts died, versus only 400 Romans. The Romans, in an unusual move for them, did not take slaves, but rather killed everything and everyone they could, including women and even pack animals. 

Boudica, true to her word, killed herself by poison rather than being captured. 

This battle in a nutshell really encapsulates why and how Rome was so powerful. Their training, equipment, and discipline were simply no match for tribal peoples in places like Hispania, Gaul, and Britania. 

That they were able to secure such a lopsided victory, against such overwhelming odds, was a testament to the superiority of the Roman military. 

Over time, the legend of Queen Boudica grew. The Romans actually respected her as she fiercely fought for her people’s independence.

She took on an added importance during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, as Elizabeth was positioned as a modern Boudica standing up the Spanish Armada as Boudica did the Romans. 

Plays, poems, and other works of art were dedicated to Boudica.

She came back into fashion again in the 19th century under the reign of Queen Victoria. 

Boudica in some ways had become the embodiment of Mother England. The Welsh have claimed her as her own as the Angles and Saxons hadn’t arrived by this time, so she couldn’t have been English. She was Celtic, and hence, she would be more Welsh. She and her daughters are today the only women enshrined in marble statues at Cardiff City Hall.

Regardless if she is claimed by the English or the Welsh, Queen Boudica remains a symbol of resistance and independence.