England,  ER,  Western Europe

Boudicca’s Revolt

"Boadicea Haranguing the Britons" by John Opie. Photo Credit- Google Images
“Boadicea Haranguing the Britons” by John Opie. Photo Credit- Google Images

Things seemed to be going well in Britain after the conquest, for the Romans that is. However, if you were a member of a native tribe, things could be tricky indeed, even if you promised to play ball with the invaders.  (For more on the invasion, please see this post:  http://www.historynaked.com/claudian-invasion-britain/ )

The king of the Iceni tribe, Prasutagus, had done just that. He had taken over the Iceni after some bumps with a policy of conciliation towards Rome. When he died in 60 CE, he left as his heirs his two daughters as well as Emperor Nero. Prasutagus was hoping this act of submission to Rome would keep his family and his tribe safe even after his death. Unfortunately, he was spectacularly wrong.

Publius Cornelius Tacitus reports in his history The Annals, that when the Roman officials came to collect they treated the Iceni “like slaves”. Boudicca was flogged and her two teenaged daughters were raped. He goes on to say, “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. And the humiliated Iceni feared still worse, now that they had been reduced to provincial status. So they rebelled.” So much for appeasement.

Boudicca summoned her tribe and urged them to war with the words, “Nothing is safe from Roman pride and arrogance. They will deface the sacred and will deflower our virgins. Win the battle or perish, that is what I, a woman, will do.” The Iceni as well as the Trinovanti, Cornovii, Durotiges, and other tribes, who also had grievances against the Romans including grants that had been redefined as loans flocked to her banner and they marched on the Roman capital at Camulodunum, now modern Colchester.

The colonists who lived there saw the army coming and appealed to the procurator for help. He sent a lightly armed unit of two hundred who were easily routed. Then the capital city was looted and overrun. When the survivors took shelter in the Temple of Claudius, they burned the hated temple, symbol of Roman rule, over their heads.

The sacking of Camulodunum got the attention of the governor, Suetonius Paullinus, who was far to the west stamping out the druids on the island of Mona. He raced back with his legions, but for some reason he left the populous city of Londinium and Verulamium undefended while he searched for a more advantageous battle ground. He did offer the citizens of Londinium a retreat with his soldiers, but the very old and the very young who could not or would not leave were left to meet their fate against the angry tribes.

Undefended, Londinium and Verulamium met a similar fate as Camulodunum. Tacitus describes it as “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.”

Finally, after the looting of three major cities, Boudicca’s army met the Roman force commanded by Suetonius. No-one is exactly sure where the Battle of Watling Street took place. Watling Street was a major Roman road, which is now the route of the A2 and the A5. Most historians place it between Londinium and Viroconium, modern Wroxeter.

Each commander made speeches to inspire their troops. Tacitus reports Boudicca’s:

“‘But now,’ she said, ‘it is not as a woman descended from noble ancestry, but as one of the people that I am avenging lost freedom, my scourged body, the outraged chastity of my daughters. Roman lust has gone so far that not our very persons, nor even age or virginity, are left unpolluted. But heaven is on the side of a righteous vengeance; a legion which dared to fight has perished; the rest are hiding themselves in their camp, or are thinking anxiously of flight. They will not sustain even the din and the shout of so many thousands, much less our charge and our blows. If you weigh well the strength of the armies, and the causes of the war, you will see that in this battle you must conquer or die. This is a woman’s resolve; as for men, they may live and be slaves.'”

Boudicca Statue Westminster Bridge, London. Photo Credit- Google Images
Boudicca Statue Westminster Bridge, London. Photo Credit- Google Images

Suetonius was a bit more practical telling his legions:

“Ignore the racket made by these savages. There are more women than men in their ranks. They are not soldiers – they’re not even properly equipped. We’ve beaten them before and when they see our weapons and feel our spirit, they’ll crack. Stick together. Throw the javelins, then push forward: knock them down with your shields and finish them off with your swords. Forget about plunder. Just win and you’ll have everything.”

The battle was fierce and Suetonius was outnumbered, but had chosen his battlefield well with a gorge that narrowed the field. Boudicca lead the attack from her chariot, but the Romans were able to stop the advance and cut off their retreat. The British had been so confident that they had brought their women along to watch the victory. Now they fled in disarray ahead of the conquering Romans. Tacitus reports 70,000 British were killed and only 400 Romans lost their lives.

Boudicca is said to have taken poison after the disastrous defeat, but no one knows. She could have died from wounds taken in the battle. In any case, she was buried in an unknown location, but her memory was not forgotten.  Please this post for more on the search for her tomb.  http://www.historynaked.com/search-tomb-boudicca/