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Boudicca’s War
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
June 2016

How can a Briton be called Good?
Drunk would be a better name.

—Ausonius

In the year 58, seven years after Roman armies subdued resistance in the new province of Britannia, the island’s third Roman governor, Paulinius Suetonius, arrived to take command. Suetonius had an excellent military reputation, but took over a province that seethed with unrest.

Suetonius, probably correctly, saw the Druidic religion as the source of this discontent. During his last assignment, in what is now Morocco, he had led his troops into the wild Atlas mountains to destroy rebels’ training grounds and sources of supply. He now proposed to do the same thing in Britannia, slashing through what is now Wales to crush the Druidic center on the island of Mona (modern Anglesey). In early 60 his expedition set out.

On the other side of the island, Queen Boudicca of the Iceni took the opportunity to unleash a massive revolt against the Romans. The Iceni lived in what today is East Anglia. They had made peace with the Romans soon after the invasion of 43, becoming a client kingdom and establishing profitable trade. But in 48 the new governor, Ostorius Scapula, redrew the boundaries of nearby tribes and offended the Iceni. They, like other tribes, had also been forced to take out large loans they did not want from prominent Roman citizens, at high interest rates. When the lenders called their loans, Roman officials used force to exact payment. The infuriated Iceni rose in revolt, but the Romans put them down with the aid of other client tribes including the powerful Brigantes. Afterward they installed a new, more pliable client king of the Iceni named Presutagus.

The exact relationship between Presutagus and his wife, Boudicca, is not clear today. Roman references to her as “from the royal house” and the devotion shown to her by the Iceni warrior class imply that she was no mere consort but may have held the queenship by birthright, with Presutagus imposed on her by the Romans as their agent. This would go far to explain her violent reaction when Presutagus died and Roman officials tried to exert a claim of inheritance.

“In stature she was very tall,” the Roman historian Dio Cassius wrote of Boudicca. “In appearance most terrifying, in the glance of her eye most fierce, and her voice was harsh; a great mass of the tawniest hair fell to her hips; around her neck was a large golden necklace; and she wore a tunic of diverse colors over which a thick mantle was fastened with a brooch. This was her invariable attire.”

Standard Roman practice was to force client kings to put Rome in their wills, often as joint ruler with the king’s heirs. Presutagus’ rights appear to have been disputed, with Boudicca asserting that his death did not change the client relationship, while low-ranking Roman officials said otherwise. A group of Roman centurions and slaves stripped Boudicca to the waist and whipped her, then raped her teenage daughters as she watched. They also carried off several of her relatives and sold them in the slave market at Colchester.

Boudicca did not immediately call on her people to rise against the Romans, however, hinting that she waited for Suetonius to leave on his expedition into Wales. When she did make the call, she was surrounded by a bodyguard of black-clad Wild Women, the highly-trained female warriors who guarded the Druids’ sacred oak groves.

The Roman historian Tacitus attributes to Boudicca a speech in which she says that, “Though a woman, my resolution is fixed. The men, if they please, may survive with infamy and live in bondage.” Tacitus of course was not present, and the convention of the day was to invent dialogue. The reaction of the Iceni and their allies shows that they had no problem following a woman into battle: At least 80,000 warriors rallied behind her.

Modern writers have made much of Boudicca’s gender, but Celtic warriors would willingly follow a woman into battle. Celts expected their leaders to lead, and a queen ceding that role to a male general would also be handing over her political power. Few Celtic women took up arms other than the Wild Women, a highly educated warrior society so-called for their fury in battle. But Celtic queens did indeed fight, more often in Britannia than on the continent, and only a few years before Queen Cartimandua of the Brigantes had faced her ex-husband in battle.

Boudicca apparently unleashed her warriors before the spring planting, hoping to catch the Romans by surprise and to force Suetonius to abandon his attack on Mona. She definitely succeeded in the first instance. Her army quickly overran the Roman colony at Camulodunum. The Romans huddled in the ostentatiously-decorated Temple of Victory, where a handful of veterans tried to make a stand. The colony had been built on land confiscated from the Iceni after the 48 rebellion, and the veterans’ arrogant behavior toward their Celtic neighbors made them deeply hated.

The colony had no fortifications and the defenders lost heart when the huge statue of Victory purportedly tumbled over for no apparent reason. The Iceni swept over the disheartened defenders with ease. All of the inhabitants were gleefully put to the sword (or boiled alive, or run through with red-hot irons, or crucified, or burned to death) except for the upper-class Roman women. At Boudicca’s direction they were stripped and impaled, their breasts sliced off and sewn to their mouths, all in honor of the Celtic war goddess Andrasta, sometimes called the Morrigan.

Boudicca’s war crime was likely designed to enrage the Romans and assure that Suetonius would abandon his march on Mona, and it did exactly that. Petilius Cerialis, left in charge with the governor away on campaign, apparently felt he had no choice but to bring the Iceni to battle with his understrength Ninth Legion. The Celts crushed the single legion, and went on to sack the Roman colonies at Londinium and Verulamium. At least 70,000 Roman civilians were slaughtered by the Iceni and their allies, as more and more tribes threw in their lot with Boudicca, particularly their powerful neighbors the Trinovantes. Cerialis escaped to Gaul, and though Tactictus’ statement that the entire legion “paid for their rashness with their lives” is a poetic overstatement, it was a serious defeat for Rome and one that brought Boudicca large-scale support.

If the queen’s gambit was intended to relieve pressure on the Druids — there is no direct evidence of this, but circumstances point to it — she failed. Suetonius had already mounted an amphibious assault on Mona when word came of the Iceni revolt. The Wild Women fought fanatically to defend the groves and died to the last woman, while Gangani and Deceangli warriors also put up crazed resistance. Exiles from all over Britannia, opposed to Roman rule, had gathered on the island and Suetonius put the entire nest of opposition to death. Having slaughtered the Druids and their political allies, the Romans finished the job by hacking down and burning the ancient, sacred oak trees.

The job had just been finished when Suetonius ordered his legions, the XIV Gemina and XX Valeria, to set out to face the Iceni. Finding himself greatly outnumbered, Suetonius fell back as the Celts razed settlement after settlement, calling on the other remaining legion of the garrison, II Augusta, to join him.

With the II Legion’s commanding general refusing to march, Suetonius finally chose what seemed good ground and turned to give battle. Tacitus claims Suetonius had but 10,000 men to face 100,000 Celts, but then Suetonius was after all his father-in-law so the numbers need not be taken literally. Togidubnus of the Atrebates, a long-time Roman client, may have brought his warriors to fight alongside the Romans, easing the odds more than Tactitus admits. Boudicca went from tribe to tribe, working them into the traditional battle-frenzy, while Suetonius spoke to his own men of the atrocities commited by the Celts and sneered at the Wild Women surrounding the enemy leader.

After releasing a rabbit between the two armies, Boudicca’s Celts led off the battle with a massive charge of chariots, which cluttered the battlefield and disorganized the Celts far more than the Romans. The huge numbers of the Britons worked against them, and Suetonius sent his men forward in a tight wedge, their stabbing swords doing great destruction while the Celts could not find room to swing their huge weapons. It was all over within hours.

Tactitus claims almost 80,000 Celtic dead, but admits this includes women and camp-followers slaughtered by the Romans after the Celtic warriors broke and implies that slaughtered horses might be part of the total as well. The Romans claimed to have suffered about 400 killed in action. Boudicca either drank poison after the defeat or fell sick and died, while her daughters disappeared. Her grave, and the gold looted from the three destroyed Roman cities, have never been found.

The Iceni came under direct Roman rule, unable to carry on resistance without their charismatic leader. By attacking before the spring planting, Boudicca had launched a desperate gamble: Having failed to capture Roman grain stocks, the Iceni and their allies now starved. They had little choice but to submit to the Romans.

Suetonius received no imperial congratulations for his victory; Nero apparently believed he should not have been caught by surprise to begin with. At the first excuse he was relieved of command and replaced by the former consul Publius Petronius Turpilianus, who forged an uneasy peace with the help of large-scale legionary reinforcements dispatched from the German frontier garrisons.

Boudicca’s final battle is the centerpiece of our Rome at War: Queen of the Celts game.

Click here to order Queen of the Celts now!

Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold is faster than a rabbit.