Return to Roman Britain

Boudica (Boudicca)

"...a terrible disaster occurred in Britain. 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....But the person who was chiefly instrumental in rousing the natives and persuading them to fight the Romans, the person who was thought worthy to be their leader and who directed the conduct of the entire war, was Buduica, a Briton woman of the royal family and possessed of greater intelligence than often belongs to women....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 colours over which a thick mantle was fastened with a brooch. This was her invariable attire."

Dio, Roman History (LXII.1-2)

So Cassius Dio describes Boudica, Queen of the Iceni, who led them in revolt against the Romans in AD 60. (Although Tacitus says that the rebellion broke out in AD 61, it is more probable that it began in AD 60 and lasted until the following year.)

When Claudius ordered the invasion of Britain in AD 43, the principal objective was Camulodunum (Colchester), the fortified Iron Age settlement (oppidum) of the Catuvellauni who had been ruled, until his death a few years before, by Cunobelinus. It is there that Claudius ceremoniously accepted the submission of the Britons before returning to Rome (after only sixteen days, says Cassius Dio), where, in time, his victory was commemorated with a triumphal arch.

Now, almost twenty years later, the oppression of Roman provincial administration had become intolerable. If Rome hoped to govern that distant province, it was essential that there be at least the tacit cooperation of the British nobility. Unless the native population recognized the advantage of being part of the Empire, there could be no political security, and their interests, if not with Rome, would be with themselves. This principle of governance apparently was not appreciated by the procurator, who, as the chief financial administrator of the province, treated the inhabitants, instead, as a defeated enemy.

Tacitus, the only other ancient authority for the rebellion, records in Agricola that "The Britons themselves submit to the levy, the tribute and the other charges of Empire with cheerful readiness, provided that there is no abuse. That they bitterly resent: for they are broken in to obedience, not to slavery."

He recounts the complaints of the Iceni: the governor tyrannized their persons; the procurator, their possessions. "Their gangs of centurions or slaves, as the case may be, mingle violence and insult. Nothing is any longer safe from their greed and lust. In war it is the braver who takes the spoil; as things stand with us, it is mostly cowards and shirkers that rob our homes, kidnap our children and conscript our men."

Even the royal house of the Iceni was not immune. When the king died, the client relationship with Rome and status of the tribe as civitates peregrinae ended. Still, half the kingdom was left to Nero in the hope that the remaining possessions could thereby be preserved for his two daughters. But, as Tacitus records in his Annals,

"...it turned out otherwise. Kingdom and household alike were plundered like prizes of war, the one by Roman officers, the other by Roman slaves. As a beginning, his widow Boudicca was flogged and their daughters raped. The Icenian chiefs were deprived of their hereditary estates as if the Romans had been given the whole country. The king's own relatives were treated like slaves."

Not only was the property taken over by the procurator, the governor reduced the kingdom to provincial status. There may have been other abuses, as well. Dio writes that the procurator now was demanding the return of money that had been given by Claudius to influential Britons, and that the philosopher Seneca abruptly recalled forty million sesterces that had been forced on unwilling Britons as a loan.

Boudica rebelled. She was joined by other tribes, as well as the Trinovantes to the south, who had their own reasons to hate the occupation. Roman veterans, who settled at Camulodunum (Colchester), had expelled the native people and appropriated their homes and land, treating them like prisoners and slaves. The Temple of Claudius was particularly offensive, "a blatant stronghold of alien rule" that had to be supported by the very people whom Rome oppressed. Amid a series of portents and confusion, the colonists appealed to the procurator for help. The few troops that were sent from Londinium were not enough, and the town soon was overrun and sacked. The Roman soldiers took refuge in the temple, but after two days, it also fell. Legio IX, under strength and marching south from its camp at Longthorpe some eighty miles away under the impetuous command of Petillius Cerialis, was ambushed and defeated. The procurator fled to Gaul, and Boudica marched on Londinium. As Tacitus records,

"Neither before nor since has Britain ever been in a more uneasy or dangerous state. Veterans were butchered, colonies burned to the ground, armies isolated. We had to fight for our lives before we could think of victory."

Far to the west, Suetonius Paullinus, the governor of Britannia, was in Mona (Anglesey) just off the coast of northern Wales. The island was a sanctuary for refugees, as well as an important religious center for the Druids, and Paullinus, despite Roman tolerance for native religions, was determined to subdue it. "For it was their religion to drench their altars in the blood of prisoners and consult their gods by means of human entrails." Tacitus describes in the Annals what happened. "The enemy lined the shore in a dense armed mass. Among them were black-robed women with disheveled hair like Furies, brandishing torches. Close by stood Druids, raising their hands to heaven and screaming dreadful curses." Uncertain at the spectacle, the Roman forces hesitated but then pressed forward, slaughtering all those before them. The island was garrisoned and the sacred groves of trees, their altars red with blood, cut down.

Hearing of the rebellion, Paullinus rushed to Londinium with Legio XIV and detachments of Legio XX, sending the cavalry on ahead, with orders for Legio II at Exeter to meet him there. But, inexplicitly, the camp commander refused and, when Paullinus finally arrived in Londinium, he realized that, with the defeat of Legio IX, there were too few troops to defend it. The town, the most populous in Britain, was abandoned, and those who could not accompany the retreating army left to be slaughtered by the rebels. Nearby Verulamium (St. Albans) suffered the same fate. Again, Tacitus describes what happened.

"The natives enjoyed plundering and thought of nothing else. By-passing forts and garrisons, they made for where loot was richest and protection weakest. Roman and provincial deaths at the places mentioned are estimated at seventy thousand. For the British did not take or sell prisoners, or practice war-time exchanges. They could not wait to cut throats, hang, burn, and crucify—as though avenging, in advance, the retribution that was on its way." [Dio is even more graphic in his description of atrocities.]

In the meantime, Paullinus was marshaling his troops, nearly ten thousand men in all, including auxiliaries from local garrisons, and prepared to confront the enemy at a place that offered the best tactical advantage. He chose a position in front of a defile between surrounding hills, with open ground in front and the protection of a dense wood in the rear. (The battle may have been fought at Mancetter, on Watling Street midway between Mona and Londinium, where there already was a Roman camp.) The legionnaires were drawn up tightly in the center, with the auxiliaries on their flanks, and the cavalry on the wings (Dio has Paullinus place his men in three separate divisions).

Tacitus continues his account.

"On the British side, cavalry and infantry bands seethed over a wide area. Their numbers were unprecedented [Dio puts the figure at 230,000, which clearly is an exaggeration], and they had confidently brought their wives to see the victory, installing them in carts stationed at the edge of the battlefield."

With her daughters in front of her, Boudica drove her chariot among the tribes, shouting encouragement, as the assembled Britons, compressed in the defile, struggled to come onto open ground. The Romans waited, hurled their javelins, and then shouldered their way forward in wedge formation, hacking their way through the throng. Dio describes the battle.

"Thereupon the armies approached each other, the barbarians with much shouting mingled with menacing battle-songs, but the Romans silently and in order until they came within a javelin's throw of the enemy. Then, while their foes were still advancing against them at a walk, the Romans rushed forward at a signal and charged them at full speed, and when the clash came, easily broke through the opposing ranks..."

The British chariots scattered the Roman archers, but then, without the protection of breastplates, were driven back by a volley of arrows. The shock of the javelins, followed by the charge of the infantry, routed the Britons, whose escape was impeded by the wagons and dead animals in the rear that now blocked their retreat. The battle became a massacre; even the women, says Tacitus, were not spared. "It was a glorious victory, comparable with bygone triumphs. According to one report almost eighty thousand Britons fell. Our own casualties were about four hundred dead and a slightly larger number of wounded. Boudica poisoned herself."

As at the battle of Mons Graupius twenty years later, the Britons suffered a devastating loss. Nor was their suffering at an end. Paullinus kept his army in the field, and two thousand legionaries, eight cohorts of auxiliary infantry, and a thousand auxiliary cavalry were transferred from Germany to make up the losses to Legio IX. Hostile tribes, as well as those who had been neutral, were harried and suffered punitive reprisals (the devastation of the hill fort at South Cadbury, in fact, may date to this time). There also was famine, as the Britons had neglected to sow their crops for the season, assuming that they would capture the Roman stores.

The new procurator of the province was Julius Classicianus. Almost certainly a Celt, himself, he encouraged the Britons to hold out, in hope that Paullinus might be replaced by a governor not so determined to exact vengeance. His report to Rome prompted an inquiry and, eventually, an excuse was found to have Paullinus recalled. Much to Tacitus' disapproval, the new governor, "neither provoking the enemy nor provoked, called this ignoble inactivity peace with honour."

But his leniency did quiet the rebellious Britons. There would be no more insurrections.


In Chapter XIV of Jane Austin's Northanger Abbey, Catherine, the young protagonist, defends her enjoyment of  Gothic novels (such as The Mysteries of Udolpho by Anne Radcliffe, the most popular author of the day) and despairs of "history, real solemn history."

"I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. The speeches that are put into the heroes' mouths, their thoughts and designs—the chief of all this must be invention, and invention is what delights me in other books."


References: The Rebellion of Boudicca (1962) by Donald R. Dudley and Graham Webster; The Boudican Revolt Against Rome (1997) by Paul R. Sealey; Boudica: The British Revolt Against Rome, AD 60 (1978) by Graham Webster; The Oxford Illustrated History of Roman Britain (1993) by Peter Salway; Britannia: A History of Roman Britain (1987) by Sheppard Frere; Book of Roman Britain (1995) by Martin Millett (English Heritage); The Fasti of Roman Britain (1981) by Anthony R. Birley; Roman Britain (1997) by T. W. Potter. Two popular accounts are The Warrior Queens (1988) by Antonia Fraser, who provides a feminist perspective, and In Search of the Dark Ages (1987) by Michael Wood.

Tacitus: The Histories (1975) translated by Kenneth Wellesley (Penguin Classics); Tacitus: The Annals of Imperial Rome (1959) translated by Michael Grant (Penguin Classics); Dio Cassius: Roman History (1925) translated by Earnest Cary (Loeb Classical Library); Tacitus: On Britain and Germany (1948) translated by H. Mattingly (Penguin Classics); Caesar: The Conquest of Gaul (1982) translated by S. A. Handford (Penguin Classics); Plutarch: Fall of the Roman Republic (1972) translated by Rex Warner (Penguin Classics).

Return to Top of Page

Email