Queen, rebel, warrior,
you resisted Rome, your name
Celtic history is full of strong women who knew their own minds and acted accordingly. The wife of a Roman emperor who criticized the sexual morals of Caledonian women got a crushing reply from one of them. The Caledonian woman told the Roman wife they were much better than Roman women, because they openly consorted with the best of men, while Roman women allowed themselves to be defiled in private by the worst of men.
But of all the strong women in Celtic history, one of the strongest must be Boudicca, a woman who came quite close to derailing the Roman occupation of Britain entirely.
She was, according to Roman sources, a striking woman with a strong voice and long auburn hair hanging below her waist.
Boudicca did not go looking for a fight with the Romans. Her people, the Iceni, occupied in Britain a territory roughly similar to the modern county of Norfolk. They had initially been allies of Rome as the Romans extended their power across southern Britain. Her husband Prasutagus was king of the Iceni; and when he died, the situation the Iceni found themselves in got quickly and catastrophically worse.
Prasutagus had no son and had named the Roman emperor his joint heir, along with his daughters, in an attempt to ensure continuing Roman protection for the Iceni. Instead, the Romans, perhaps perceiving a tribe with only a woman left to lead it as vulnerable, swooped in like vultures. Goods and estates were confiscated; loans were suddenly called in. Boudicca herself was whipped and, worst of all, her daughters were raped. If the Romans expected that they would escape punishment for all this, then they had picked on the wrong woman. Boudicca's revenge would be spectacular and blood soaked.
The Romans had chosen an unfortunate time to provoke Boudicca so mercilessly. It was AD 60 or 61, and the Roman governor, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, was on the other side of the island leading a brutal campaign in what is now north Wales and Anglesey, when the Iceni rose in ferocious rebellion. They soon found allies among the Trinovantes to the south, and the combined force headed for the Roman veterans’ colony at Camulodunum, now Colchester. The veterans stood little chance. They received only a couple hundred ill-equipped reinforcements, and there were rebels among the Britons in the town. Some of the defenders managed to hold out for two days in the Temple of Claudius, but in the end the colony was looted, burned, and destroyed.
Worse was to come for the Romans. The Ninth Legion, which had been rushing to the rescue of Camulodunum, was attacked by the rebels and lost large numbers of its infantry contingent. The Roman cavalry fled to safety in a fort.
Suetonius raced across Britain to try to counter the rebellion, only to find himself in the Roman settlement of Londinium (London) with not enough troops to have a hope of dealing with the fierce uprising. He was forced to flee Londinium, abandoning it to the rebels who again seized and looted and killed and burned. Next on the rebels’ target list was Verulamium/St. Albans. The Roman historian Tacitus reckoned almost 70,000 Romans and allies had died so far.
By now, however, the rebellion had achieved its greatest successes. Perhaps because of internal rivalries, other tribes, apart from the Trinovantes, do not seem to have rallied to the rebellion. As well as having Roman occupants, Verulamium was also the capital of the Catuvellauni, who were neighbors and probably rivals of the Iceni. Verulamium’s destruction may have been aimed as much at the Catuvellauni as at Rome
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And after his false start in London, Suetonius finally came up with a plan. He assembled a force consisting of the 14th Legion, elements of the 20th Legion, and additional auxiliaries and he advanced on the rebels. Knowing he would be hugely outnumbered, he found a location where the landscape gave some cover to his flanks and his rear and awaited the enemy. The exact battle site is unknown, although various possibilities have been suggested. It was probably somewhere in the Midlands.
Boudicca, riding in a chariot with her daughters, urged on her forces, telling them that as a woman, she would conquer or die; and that men could live as slaves if they couldn't match her determination. The battle that followed saw bravery and tactical naivete defeated by professional discipline and military experience. Retreating rebels were caught up in their own baggage train and slaughtered. Boudicca is said to have drunk poison rather than be taken prisoner.
The rebellion had been crushed, but it had been far from an easy victory for Rome. And in the aftermath, with a still sullen and hostile population to deal with, the Romans were forced to offer some conciliatory measures, including dispatching to Britain administrators who could take a more intelligent and somewhat more gentle approach to stabilizing Roman control there.
Boudicca’s legacy endures in Britain today, where a statue of her riding in a chariot alongside her two victimized daughters graces Westminster Bridge across from the Houses of Parliament.