“You have learned by actual experience how different freedom is from slavery…how much better is poverty with no master than wealth with slavery.”–Boudica’s Speech to Followers, as recorded by Cassius Dio
Although the highest political authority for the Celtic Society was often vested in males, women occasionally became ruling queens and military leaders. The practice of bearing arms was relatively common among women. Tacticus, the first-century Roman historian, wrote the Britons, “are used to women commanders in war.”
Boudica was the best known warrior queen in Britain. A Briton of royal family and high intelligence, she assembled some 120,000 men and women warriors for her revolt. She was one of the most formidable opponents the Romans faced in their history. Dio Cassius, more than a century later, described the Iceni queen as “very tall in stature, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of an eye most fierce, harsh in voice…and with a mass of bright red hair falling to her hips.”
To better understand the reasons for the ferocity of her vengeance, below is a backdrop of Roman atrocities that set the stage for Boudica’s revolt, beginning in Gaul and spilling into Britain.
Caesar’s Decimation of Gaul
In first-century BC, the heartland of the great Celtic culture was Gaul (modern day France). The Roman conquest and downfall of Gaul is detailed in accounts of Julius Caesar. By any standards, the campaign in Gaul was an appalling holocaust of the Celtic people. In 60 BC, Gaul probably had some six million inhabitants. Ten years later, 1 million had been killed and another 1 million sold into slavery, a scale of oppression comparable to Hitler in the Second World War.
The primary motivation for Caesar’s attacking Gaul was to enhance his own position in the Roman Republic and to amass slaves whom he could sell to clear his heavy debts. One tactic he often used was to ally with the Celtic kings under the guise of helping them defend their homelands from invading Germanians or other Celtic tribes. Needless to say, his ultimate goal was to steal their lands so he could embellish his reputation and enrich himself in advance of taking ultimate power in Rome.
Caesar took pleasure in chronicling the ferocity of his conquest, including:
- Hundreds of thousands of deaths among the Helvetii
- Massacre of all elders of the Veniti
- Virtual destruction of the Nervii
- Sale of 53,000 Atuatuci as slaves in a single auction
Many of these Gallic people escaped to southeast Britain, but the remainder were eventually acculturated and assimilated into the Roman Empire. It is likely Latin supplanted Gaulish as the dominant language in the core areas of Gaul within a century of the conquest.
However, the Britons would not go down as easily.
Roman Conquest of Britain
The initial Roman invasion of Britain in 43 AD under Emperor Claudius met little resistance, in part, due to alliances Rome had made with powerful Celtic rulers. The situation quickly changed in 48-54 AD when the Romans fought Caratacus, a leader who used guerrilla tactics in the western frontier.
For the Britons, the initial conquest was traumatic. Those who had initially resisted the first invasion were dead, enslaved, or silently seething in anguish. Many of those who had first welcomed Rome now faced the realities of brutal power and corrupt monetary system. The few British nobles who had initially benefited lost their wealth to avaricious traders and touts who swarmed into the country.
In essence, the Britons were not going to accept the Roman way of life.They bitterly resented the Roman bureaucrats who collected taxes in onerous ways. Lands were given to former Roman soldiers who had been brutalized by the harsh army discipline.They treated the natives with total contempt, particularly at Camulodunum (modern day Colchester). Everything in Britain was there for Roman pickings.
The courage of the rebellious Caratacus encouraged the downtrodden from the various tribes to unite with a new sense of purpose. The powerful druids, Celtic priests, now began to exert their powers to ferment and organize a resistance movement over the whole of Britain.
Advance into Wales
Emperor Claudius and his advisers probably had second thoughts about staying in Britain, as the ease of the initial phase of the conquest dramatically reversed by a wave of savage reaction in the western frontier, with heavy Roman loses. Claudius became woefully indecisive on whether to stay in Britain toward the end of his reign.
The Roman indecision about what to do with Britain changed when Nero, at the age of seventeen, became the emperor in 54 AD. In 57 AD, he and his advisers decided to conquer and hold the western frontier of Britain now known as Wales. This decision may have been due to the discovery of gold in central Wales, silver in northern Wales, and copper on the Island of Anglesey.
In 59 AD, Gaius Suetonius Paullinus, a hard uncompromising general, totally lacking the skills needed for a diplomat, was assigned as governor of Britain. His mission was to destroy the druidic power at Anglesey and to conquer Wales. The decision ignited a firestorm that brought ruin upon the Romans. The fact that the leader of the revolt was a woman caused the Romans the greatest shame, as they almost lost the isle of Britain.
To be Continued
The next series posts will detail major events leading up to and during the Boudica’s revolt.
Jeannine Davis-Kimball, Ph.D., Warrior Women: An Archaeologist’s Search for History Hidden Heroines; 2002; Warner Books, Inc., New York.
Cassius Dio: The Neronian Revolt of the Iceni under Suetonius Paullinus; Book LXII, Chapters 1-12 (AD 61)
John Davies, The Celts: Prehistory to Present Day; 2005; United States: Sterling Publishing Co., New York.
Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc.