Women’s History Month: Boudica; the Celtic Warrior Queen
The story of Boudica is the story of a striking Celtic queen, who nearly drove the Romans from Britain before they even got started there. Born in about 25 AD, Boudica grew to be a tall woman, with long reddish hair, a harsh voice and piercing glare that demanded respect, and perhaps even instilled fear, having been described by Roman writer Cassius Dio as “seeming to stab you”. As a youth, it’s believed Boudica may have received Druid training in war, and when she grew to adulthood, she married Prasutagus, the man who was to become king of the Celtic tribe the Iceni, after the current ruler Antedios. Together they would rule over the Iceni people, occupying (roughly) the land known today as Norfolk county, in England.
In the year 43 AD, when Boudica herself was about 18, the growing Roman empire took a renewed interest in Britain, a land they’d been pushed out of a century earlier when Julius Ceasar had attempted to add it to the ever-expanding empire. Where Caesar had failed, new Roman emperor Claudius was determined to succeed. Initially, Antedios surrendered to the Romans, succumbing to their rules. In 47 AD when Antedios was killed during a rebellion however, the Romans put Prasutagus in place as “client-king”. This allowed the Iceni to become part of the Roman empire, affording them the protection of their new neighbors-from their new neighbors-and allowing Prasutagus to continue ruling over his people until his death, at which time he was expected to will his kingdom to the sitting Roman emperor. This relationship was contingent upon the Iceni paying hefty taxes to the Romans, a burden they satisfied for the next fourteen years until Prasutagus died.
Upon his death, Prasutagus hoped to pass on a piece of his legacy, and made sitting Roman emperor Nero co-heir to his kingdom, alongside Boudica and their two daughters. Naturally, this was not received well by the Romans, who chose to treat Iceni as a newly conquered kingdom, annexing it, seizing and liquidating any assets, and topping that off by flogging the queen and raping her two daughters. To rub salt in those wounds, Roman creditors came calling, apparently the good king had been living the good life off borrowed Roman money, and while his assets were not inherited by his surviving family, his debts were. (Others believe the loan was forced upon Prasutagus by Lucius Seneca.) Having been flogged, seen her daughters raped, and facing a mountain of debt and certain slavery for all three of them to satisfy that debt, Boudica and her two daughters lit the fire of rebellion, gathering their people together with the neighboring Trinovantes among other tribes, to form an army up to 100,000 strong. That army would select Boudica as their leader.
Boudica lead the rebels first to Camulodonum (present day Colchester) where they ransacked the city, “methodically demolishing” it, according to today’s archaeologists. While the rebels lay siege to the last of the defenders who were locked away inside a temple to Roman emperor Claudius, Rome’s 9th legion attempted to retake the city, lead by Quintus Petillius Cerialis (earmarked as the next governor of the area), and suffered a very lop-sided defeat, known as the “Massacre of the Ninth Legion”. From Camulodonum, the rebels set their sights on Londinium, burning that city to the ground and killing everyone in their path that swore allegiance to Rome. By the time they were finished, the rebels had razed three cities, killing between 70 and 80 thousand people in the process.
Current governor of the province: Gaius Suetonius Paulinus had been laying siege to the Island of Mona at the time of the uprising, and when he heard he came back to Londinium, marching through now hostile land. Suetonius would regroup his troops, and choose the best place to battle Boudica and her now massive army (some historians say her numbers had swelled up to 230,000 by then); a defile (gorge) somewhere in what is known today as the West Midlands. Suetonius was able to call on his own Legion (14th) as well as parts of a few other legions; except that which was commanded by Poenius Postumus, who was currently stationed in Britain but refused to join Governor Suetonius. In total, Suetonius was able to raise about 10,000 Romans to make his stand with. With the walls of the gorge at their sides, and a thick wood to their back, the Romans were able to use more advanced equipment (specifically pila-heavy javelins) as well as their advanced fighting skill to overcome their opponents, in numbers so one sided it was as if the Celts weren’t fighting at all. According to one report, 80,000 Britains lay dead after the first wave, to only 400 Romans.
Boudica herself, poisoned herself rather than be captured by the Romans and live her life as a slave. She’d promised her men in her final speech before her final battle that she’d rather die on the battlefield than live as a slave, and when her enemies would not oblige her and kill her in battle, she took things into her own hands and ensured that she did just that. Boudica’s name would live on for thousands of years, and while her memory seems to have fizzled out some during the middle ages (perhaps in favor of a female warrior who has already appeared on this list: Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd), she seems to have made a resurgence as of late, finding herself the subject of a movie released in 2003, as well as a leader/character within the game “Civilization V”. Regardless of her recognition between her death and today, her life certainly warrants her place on this list, as one of the most influential, courageous, and strong women of history.