“I thank thee, Andraste, and call upon thee as woman speaking to woman. I pray thee for victory, preservation of life, and liberty against men insolent, unjust, insatiable, and impious.”– Boudica’s prayer for victory to the goddess of war
In 60-61 AD, one of the greatest Celtic heroines, Boudica, reportedly led between 130,000 to 230,000 men and women warriors in the last major revolt against the Romans in Britain. Her ability to unite her people in this rebellion was remarkable considering the destabilizing Celtic penchant for individual glory that was evidenced in the fall of Celtic Europe to Roman expansion.
Previous posts describe Boudica’s initial victories in which the cities of Camulodunum (Colchester), Londonium (London), and Verulamium (St. Albans) were razed to the ground on her orders. Boudica’s outrages were precipitated by the Romans’ brutal treatment of native Britons and the destruction of the druidic stronghold at Mona (now Anglesey) in present-day Wales under the command of Governor Caius Seutonius Paulinus.
Destruction of Druidic Priesthood
The ultimate ambition of the newly appointed governor, Paulinus, was to be elevated in the eyes of Emperor Nero for subduing the mutinous Britons. He resolved to destroy the druidic priesthood who exerted their power from Mona over the tribes occupying Wales. The druids may have been the most important political factor for unifying the Britons, for they held the secrets of the gods and the power of magic.
In order to approach Mona’s shore, Governor Paulinus ordered a number of flat-bottomed boats to carry his infantry while his mounted cavalry waded over the shallows. The practice of bearing arms was common among British women and they were present in the final battle against Paulinus. These women and fanatic druids used psychological tactics such as screeching, dancing wildly, and pulling at their faces, frightening the Romans enough to hold them off for a time. Nonetheless, the Romans eventually slaughtered the Britons and leveled their religious groves and shrines to the ground.
As Paulinus arranged for the security the island, he received intelligence that Britain had revolted.
Boudica’s Last Stand
When Paulinus reached Londonium, he determined it would be hopeless to defend the inhabitants and thus abandoned the city. The Roman historian Tacitus said: “All those left behind were butchered. The Britons took no prisoners, nor did they consider the money they could get for selling slaves; it was the sword, gibbet, fire and cross (caedes, patibula, ignes, cruces).”
Boudica then sacked Verulamium, a town occupied by Catuvellauni who were loyal to Rome. A black ash layer at St. Albans which was discovered by archaeologists confirms the Roman written record.
According to Cassius Dio, a 2nd Century Roman historian, Boudica subjected captives “to atrocities which were done to the accompaniment of sacrifices, banquets, and wanton behavior, not only in all their other sacred places, but particularly in the grove of Andante. This was their name for Victory, and they regarded her with most exceptional reverence.”
With less than 10,000 men, Paulinus only had time to find a suitable place to fight the final battle on his terms. For this purpose, he chose a location encircled with woods, narrow at the entrance, and sheltered in the rear by a thick forest. Boudica’s massive army had to approach the Romans at the front of an open plain. The location is conjectured to be the present-day Mancetter about 100 miles northwest of London.
In the account by Tacitus, Boudica, in a chariot with her daughters, drove among the ranks to embolden her people with the following words: “This is not the first time the Britons have been led to battle by a woman. 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, or live in bondage.”
When the battle began, the Roman’s narrow line stood fast as the Britons rushed toward them, hurling their weapons. The legionnaires then moved together as one unit and hurled 6,000 – 7,000 javelins, followed by a second round. When Boudica’s front line fell, her remaining warriors had to climb over dead bodies or carry the stricken forward for the final assault. The Romans formed a wedge and pushed their shields forward, crushing Celtic warriors together so they could not use their long swords. The cavalry cut down any Briton who broke and ran.
After suffering heavy casualties in the long engagement, the remaining Britons took flight, but wagons which carried their families obstructed the escape. What followed was a horrible slaughter. No Briton was spared regardless of age or sex. Tacitus reported that 80,000 Britons were put to the sword while the Romans lost about 400 men—a number most likely exaggerated.
After her defeat, Boudica either died of illness or poisoned herself.
Aftermath of Revolt
Reinforcements from northern Europe had to be sent to bolster Paulinus in Britain, which gives some indication that the Roman losses were substantial. The wrath and fury of Paulinus against the Britons were said to be sanctified by Mars Ultor, the Roman god of vengeance. Romans troops seized and destroyed storehouses and standing crops belonging to various tribes, leading to widespread famine.
Government officials in Britain became disgruntled with Paulinus for his handling of the crisis that created so much havoc. There had rarely been such a revolt of such magnitude and ferocity recorded in the Roman annals. Thus, the Roman government reversed its policy towards Britain and replaced Paulinus with another governor. Military action was replaced with tact and diplomacy to calm the Celtic rulers.
One of the greatest ironies of this revolt is the Brigantes Celtic queen, Cartimandua, flourished with more wealth and power as rewards for her loyalty to Rome. If she had joined forces with Boudica, it is unlikely Paulinus would have survived the war on two fronts.
In future posts, the Celtic druidic priesthood and the Celtic religious beliefs will be further discussed.
Graham Webster, Boudica: The British Revolt Against Rome AD AD 60; Reprinted 2004 by Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, London and 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 (AD110-120, Box XIV]; Athena Review Vol. 1, No. 1.