Celtic Heroines: Boudica Revolt Against Romans


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“Behold the proud display of warlike spirits, and consider the motives for which we draw the avenging sword. On this spot we must either conquer, or die with glory. There is no alternative. Though a woman, my resolution is fixed; the men, if they please, may survive with infamy, and live in bondage.”–Boudica’s speech to her army; recorded by Tacitus

Introduction

In 60-61 AD, the Romans faced their most fierce vengeance in a revolt led by Boudica, the best known Celtic warrior queen in Britain. A formidable woman of high intelligence, Boudica assembled some 120,000 men and women warriors for her rebellion. Her initial battles with the Romans almost succeeded in driving them out of Britain. The best-known accounts of this revolt were documented by the Roman historians Tacitus in 1st century and Cassius Dio in the 2nd century.

Dio Cassius described the Iceni queen as “very tall in stature, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of an eye most fierce. Around her neck was a large golden torc. She wore a tunic of diverse colors which a thick mantle was fastened with a brooch. She grasped a spear to terrify all beholders.”

Boudica Statue

Statue of Boudica

Events Leading to Revolt

Boudica’s husband, Prasutugus, had during his long reign amassed considerable wealth as the king of the Iceni. Like the Brigantes who were ruled by another warrior queen, Cartimandua, the Iceni had formed an alliance with the Romans that allowed them prosperity and a good measure of independence. Before his death in 60 AD, King Prasutugus bequeathed half of his estate to Rome hoping the gesture would prove his fealty and appease Emperor Nero. The other half was willed to Boudica and their daughters.

Celtic Roundhouse of Chieftain (Interior)

Ancient Celtic Roundhouse of Chieftain (Interior)

However, Nero would not settle for just half when he could have it all—especially if such riches belonged to a mere woman. His subordinates seized the king’s estate and annexed the Iceni territory, reducing its inhabitants to slavery. When Boudica vehemently protested the injustice, Roman soldiers flogged her and raped her two daughters. These proud royal women were deprived of their positions which had been transmitted to them by their ancestors.

Enraged, Boudica took command of her Iceni warriors and joined forces with the Trinovantes, a neighboring state that refused crouching to Roman bondage. In secret councils, the Celtic leaders vowed to stand against the Roman Empire in the cause of liberty. Tacitus quoted Boudica as saying, “I am not fighting for my kingdom and wealth. I am fighting as an ordinary person for my lost freedom, bruised body, and my outraged daughters.”

Celtic Shield British Museum

Celtic Shield La Tène Style

What ignited the Trinovantes to ally with Boudica was the vile conduct of Roman veterans who had no compunction for driving the natives from their homes and treating them with cruelty and oppression. At Camulodunum (Colchester) a temple was built to honor Claudius—a symbol of eternal slavery to the Britons.

In an account by Cassius Dio, Boudica told her followers to accept some of the blame for allowing themselves to be manipulated by the Romans prior to their invasion in 43 AD. “But to speak the plain truth, it is we who have made ourselves responsible for all these evils, in that we allowed them to set foot on the island in the first place instead of expelling them an once as we did their famous Julius Caesar, – yes, and in that we did not deal with them while they were still far away under Augustus and with Gaius Caligula.”

Claudius Bronze Head

Claudius Bonze Head

Destruction of Camulodunum

Tacitus wrote of several omens that foretold the destruction of the Roman capital of Camulodunum. One omen was the statue of the goddess of Victory in the city fell off its base and landed face-down. After this event, women in ecstasy rushed among the people and screamed the Romans would soon meet their doom. Another omen was the image of the colony in ruins seen in the transparent water near the mouth of the Thames. These omens set the stage for inciting the Britons to revolt.

Further, the Roman provincial governor, Seutonius Paulinus, was preoccupied with destroying the druidic power at Mona (Anglesey).

Suetonius Paulinus Statue

Suetonius Paulinus Statue

Fearing the crisis at Camulodunum could erupt into a rebellion, Roman veterans requested reinforcements from Catus Decianus, the procurator of the province, to defend their city. The procurator only spared two hundred men to quash the uprising. The Romans had hoped to make their stand at the fortified temple of Claudius. However, Boudica’s army demolished the unguarded city, besieging the last defenders in the temple for two days before it fell. Archaeologists have shown that the city was methodically laid to waste with fire and sword.

The ninth Roman legion was sent to relieve the city. Before battling these military forces, Boudica offered a hare to the war goddess, Andastre. Then the Britons rushed into battle and annihilated the Roman army.

Counterattack by Seutonius

Suetonius marched back through Britain as far as Londonium (London), the center for trade and commerce. He had counted on Boudica attacking this settlement, but she instead moved twenty miles north to Verulamium (St. Albans) which her army sacked.

Verulamium City Wall Remains

Verulamium Excavations Ancient Roman City Wall

Meanwhile, Seutonius fortified his forces with the fourteenth legion and auxiliaries from adjacent stations, and drafted men of fighting age. He left Londonium undefended despite the inhabitants’ pleas to stay so he could confront Boudica. However, she attacked the defenseless Londonium, determined to exact her revenge on the Romanized citizens.

Tacitus wrote, “They [Boudica and her warriors] wasted no time in getting down to the bloody business of hanging, burning, and crucifying.”

To be Continued

The warrior queen then turned her attention to Seutonius, tracking him down north of London. The next post will detail the final battle between Boudica and Seutonius.

References:

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)

Description by Tacitus of the Rebellion of Boudica (AD 60-61) [from the Annual by Tacitus (AD 110-120), Book XIV]; Athena Review Vol. 1, No. 1.

Celtic Heroines: Backdrop for Boudica’s Revolt


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“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


Introduction

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.”

Boudica Statue

Statue of Boudica

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.

Julius Caesar Statue

Statue of Julius Caesar

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
Dying Gladiator

Statue Dying Gaul

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.

Ancient Roman Ship Frieze

Roman Ship Image on Frieze


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.

Richborough Roman Fort Ruins in Britain

Richborough Fort, Site of Roman Landing in Invasion of Britain in 43 AD

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.

Ancient Roman Light House Dover Cliffs

Roman Light House Dover Cliffs

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.

Celtic Shield British Museum

Celtic Shield La Tène Style

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.

Ancient Celtic Roundhouse

Ancient Celtic Roundhouse for Popular Assembly in Wales

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.

References:

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.

Celtic Heroines: Golden Age of Warriors and Queens

“We have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us. The labyrinth is thoroughly know. We have only to follow the thread of the hero path…And where we had thought to be alone, we will be with all of the world.”—Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

Introduction

The epic historical fantasy, APOLLO’S RAVEN, is the first novel in the Spirit Warrior Chronicles set in 1st Century Britain and Rome. The primary character is Catrin, a Canatiaci warrior princess in southeast Britain. Not only is she trained as a warrior, but she uses raven mystical powers to help her parents defend their kingdom against a rival tribal king and her half-brother. She meets the great-grandson of Marc Antony, Marcellus, when he accompanies his father, a Roman senator, to arbitrate a settlement between the rival tribal kingdoms. Catrin and Marcellus bridge their cultural differences and form an unlikely friendship that develops into a deeper relationship which could threaten the political powers in Britain and Rome.

Celtic Spiritual Warrior

Catrin, Celtic Spirit Warrior

This unpublished novel is inspired by historical accounts and mythology of Celtic heroines who had significant roles as warriors, rulers, and spiritual advisers in the Celtic society. Celtic women were distinctly different from their Greek and Roman counterparts, as they had more liberty, legal rights, and status. This may be due, in part, because females often fended for themselves at home while their menfolk plundered, invaded, or served as mercenaries in foreign lands. Ancient classical historians also provided accounts that women incited, participated, and led battles.

Celtic Heroine Warriors 

Classical writers described Celtic females as not only strong and courageous warriors, but they were beautiful with comely bodies. Classical writer Diodorus wrote Celtic women were “nearly as tall as the men, whom they rivaled in courage.”

Roman historian Marcus Borealis further elaborated: “The women of the Celtic tribes are bigger and stronger than our Roman women. This is most likely due to their natures as well as their peculiar fondness for all things martial and robust. The flaxen haired maidens of the north are trained in sports and war while our gentle ladies are content to do their womanly duties and thus are less powerful than most young girls from Gaul and the hinterlands.”

Celtic Woman Warrior Prepares for Battle

Celtic Woman Warrior Prepares for Battle

Ammianus Marcellinus wrote a lively description of Celtic woman in battle as follows: “…a whole band of foreigners will be unable to cope with one [Celt] in a fight if he calls on his wife, stronger than he by far and with flashing eyes; least of all when she swells her neck and gnashes her teeth, and poising her huge white arms, begins to rain blows mingled with kicks like shots discharged by the twisted cords of a catapult.”

Celtic Spiritual Warrior

Celtic woman warrior in sword fight

Though men usually held the highest political authority, it was not uncommon for women to rule as queens and military commanders. The 1st-century Roman historian Tacitus wrote the Britons “are used to women commanders in war,” and offered detailed reports on the exploits of two warrior queens—Cartimandua and Boudicca.

Celtic Heroine Queens

The Sleek Pony

Cartimandua, known as the sleek pony, was queen of the Brigantes, a vast tribal confederation in north-central Britain. Although Cartimandua ruled with her husband, Venutius, she held the real power to the kingdom. When the Romans invaded in 43 AD, both Cartimandua and Venutius realized the political advantages of siding with the aggressors and thus their kingdom because a thriving Roman client state around 50 AD.

However, Cartimandua lost popularity among her subjects when she betrayed the famous rebel leader Caratacus, turning him over to the Romans after he had sought asylum in her court. Her power eroded when she divorced Venutius and then married his armor bearer who she made the new king. Her actions prompted a civil war with her former husband, the Romans entering the fray and helping her to defeat Venutius in 71 AD. Though she may not have been viewed favorably in history, she still nonetheless was a powerful leader.

Celtic Woman Warrior with Sword

Celtic Woman Warrior with Sword

Boudica

Boudica was a charismatic warrior queen who united several British tribes to drive the Romans out of Britain in 61 AD. A bronze statue of Boudica driving her chariot is prominently displayed on the bank of the Thames (London) in honor of her valiant attempt to overcome her oppressors. Roman historian Dio Cassius described her as “very tall in stature, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of her eye most fierce, harsh in voice…and with a great mass of bright red hair falling to her hips.”

Boudica Statue

Statue of Boudica

Like the Brigantes, the Iceni had formed an alliance with the Romans that at first gave them prosperity and independence. That changed when her husband, King Prasutagus, died in 60 AD and she became the leader of the Iceni. He willed half of his personal estate to Rome in the hope the gesture would demonstrate his fealty and appease the Roman Nero. The other half was bequeathed to Boudica.

But Nero would not settle for half the fortune—particularly to a mere woman. He ordered his subordinates to seize Boudica’s estate and annex the Iceni territory. When Boudica protested, the Roman soldiers flogged the queen and raped her two teenage daughters.

But the Romans would soon face her fury. The details of this rebellion will be provided in the next post.

References

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)

Ammianus Marcellinus: The Roman History of Ammianus Marcellinus, published in Vol. I of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1935; Book XV, 12 The Manners and Customs of the Gauls.