Celtic Heroines: Last Stand of Boudica


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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

Introduction

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.

Celtic Sword

Celtic Sword and Scabbard

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.

Suetonius Paulinus Statue

Suetonius Paulinus Statue

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.

Verulamium City Wall Remains

Verulamium Excavations Ancient Roman City Wall

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.”

Boudica Statue

Statue of Boudica

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.

Dying Gladiator

Statue Dying Celt

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.

Celtic Storehouse for Grains

Celtic Storehouse for Grains

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.

References:

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.

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.