What is known about Boudica herself is mostly covered by the Roman historian Cassio Dio, in terms of description, her battles, and what god she worshiped. However, historians during that time were particularly biased against any non-Roman nation. So, it is best to exercise skepticism over Cassio Dio’s claims, while also to juxtapose the information with any archaeological information uncovered. This is especially the case since Cassio Dio’s biography was written one hundred years after Boudica’s revolt. Tacitus, on the other hand, actually had an ethos behind his own biography of Boudica, since his father-in-law Gnaeus Julius Agricola served as a military tribune in Britain when it was a Roman colony, who relayed everything he remembered about Boudica’s revolt.
During 43 AD, the Roman Empire under Emperor Claudius conquered Britain, to be included in the Roman Empire which had expanded throughout continental Europe west of the Rhine river. While many tribes were defeated by the Romans, there were tribes who chose instead to become independent allies of the Roman Empire. One of them was by King Prasutugus, who ruled the Iceni tribe in what is today Norfolk. As king, he spent his reign assisting the Romans in conquering the British tribes until his death in 60/61 AD.
He was survived by his wife Boudica–who became queen after his death though not immediately–and their two daughters. Cassio Dio described her as being tall, having an piercing glare, tawny hair that reached her hips, and and harsh voice. Though, considering how there has yet to be an archaeological discovery of Boudica’s remains, and the fact that a Roman historian is making these assertions; it may provide an image of what she may have looked like, however in reality this is a Roman describing a Brittonic queen, so it may have been exoticized.
Upon Prasutugus’ death, the Romans decided to oppress the Iceni tribe, by confiscating farms and bounding them to slavery. Then, Boudica was scourged upon her back, her two daughters were raped, and the wealthiest men among the Iceni had their lands confiscated.
As such Boudica delivered a speech to motivate them to fight against the Romans. She explained that this was her personal battle and that any man who refuses to fight might has well live like a slave under the Romans. Basically, she made it clear she would rather die standing for her nation than live on her knees.
Considering how this comes from Cassio Dio’s biography, the exact words of Boudica’s speech may not have been exactly what may have been said. However, considering contextually how the cost of undying loyalty to the Roman Empire was an emasculating and humiliating betrayal–which includes their lands taken from them, their people bound into slavery, their queen being whipped, and her daughters being raped–it can be agreed upon that the speech was enough motivation to declare a rebellion.
And so, the army of 100,000 strong marched to Camulodunum in what is today Colchester. It was an important Roman city, for it was the capital of the British colony. The army looted, killed, and ultimately set the city on fire. The denizens sought refuge in the Roman Temple of Claudius. After the city was sacked, Boudica’s army marched south and did the same to Londinium.
The armies of Boudica and the Romans finally clashed at north of what would become St. Albans, however the exact site of the battle has been speculated. Despite being outnumbered, the Roman army had better equipment and were more disciplined, and thus took down an army 20 times their size. While Boudica’s army was armed with swords, spears, and knives, with Boudica herself assuming the wicker chariot with her daughters on board; the Roman military had formed a strong wedge formation, attacking the army from behind.
The rebellion had been quelled catastrophically.
There has been debate as to the death of Boudica, since as mentioned before, her remains have yet to be uncovered. There are two theories to how she died. If Tacitus is to be believed, then Boudica poisoned herself; while Dio claimed that Boudica died from sickness.
Boudica’s legacy of destroying Camulodunum and Londinium can be seen within the layers of Colchester soil, which as a burnt-red clay that archaeologists dated back to the time Boudica arrived. While the Roman Temple of Claudius housed the denizens fleeing Boudica’s wrath, it now houses the Colchester Castle Museum.
Despite not finding her remains or even the final battle she partook in, Boudica had still be commemorated as the personification of resistance and liberation. In the early 20th century, British suffragettes employed Boudica as a prominent figure in rhetoric and in drama performances, since she was seen as a figure who embodied British history that was uniquely British, not French nor Catholic. Among the Welsh, Boudica is as important to their history as Saint David and Owain Glyndwr.
Amidst many adaptations of Boudica’s war, it would not be surprising to see a modern adaptation starring someone like Gwendoline Christie as Boudica. It might bring to mind her performance as the Celtic Queen in a production of William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. It can be hoped that the Iceni language can be reconstructed. Since it is a part of the Brittonic branch of the Celtic language family tree, then it would be incumbent upon linguists to trace possible cognates with Welsh; just as the linguist Blair Rudes did with the Algonquian languages in order to reconstruct Powhatan for the film The New World which took place during the Jamestown settlement.
- A Dictionary of the Welsh Language. University of Wales. 2017.
- Chappell, Edgar L. (1946). Cardiff’s Civic Centre: A historical guide. Priory Press. pp. 21–26.
- Dio, Cassius, Epitome of Book LXII, 2
- Field, Corinne. “Battlefield Britain – Boudicca’s revolt against the Romans”. Culture24. 2006.
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- IMDb. Gwendoline Christie.
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- Keegan, Peter. “Boudica, Cartimandua, Messalina and Agrippina the Younger. Independent Women of Power and the Gendered Rhetoric of Roman History”. Academia.edu. 2016.
- Rudes, Blair. Giving Voice to Powhatan’s People: The Creation of Virginia Algonquian Dialog for “The New World.” Coastal Carolina Indian Center. 2006.
- Statue of Boudicca by Thomas Thornycroft near Westminster pier. Wikipedia. 2006. CC BY-SA 3.0. Changes include sizing, cropping, and grey overlay.
- Tacitus. Agricola. Tufts University.
- Tacitus. The Annals. Tufts University.