A note on spelling and also pronunciation: the woman we’re talking about today lived nearly 2,000 years ago so guess what, we’re never going to find out how her name was pronounced or spelled. We also don’t know if this was her name or not as the word bouda is an ancient Briton word for victory so the Romans writing about her may just have been referring to her as “That Woman Who Won A Lot” and maybe never actually knew her name? The most recent references I found suggest that the spelling is probably Boudica, and it’s pronounced like “BOW-dick-ah,” so let’s just go with that. Because you are going to want to REMEMBER HER NAME because she was GLORIOUS.
** Also note, again because of how long ago this all happened, most of these details are alleged and/or potentially but rather than inserting those modifiers in every other word, just mentally pretend they’re perpetually there. Due to the time period involved, everything we know about Boudica is based on two Romans who wrote shortly after she was alive, and later archaeological evidence. But put all these together, and we have enough for a really fucking great story.
So! This all takes place such a very long time ago and as such some scene-setting will likely help orient us all. Boudica was born around the year 30 AD, probably to an aristocratic family from the Roman-occupied city of Camulodunumin in the Southeast bit of modern-day England. Fun fact: Camulodunumin was the first Roman town in the British Isles, and is now modern-day Colchester.
Although, as we will soon see, Boudica gave several major speeches and yelled a lot during battle so maybe her voice was harsh. WHATEVER. Anyway.
At age eighteen or so, Boudica married King Prasutagus of the Iceni, making her the new queen of the Iceni. The Iceni were a Celtic tribe who lived in what we’d now think of as Southeastern England, and as this was during the period of Roman occupation, Prasutagus had had to make a few shitty bargains. For instance, Iceni was permitted to remain independent of Rome so long as he paid annual fees to the Romans and also supported them politically. As part of this deal, Prasutagus agreed that upon his death, the kingdom would be jointly inherited by his two daughters and by the Roman Emperor Nero, making it part of the Empire but with Boudica as Regent until the girls came of age.
So with all this in mind, chances are that the first part of Boudica’s life would have been that of a Latin-speaking aristocrat, sitting around in a toga, drinking wine, living the Iceni version of Lady Mary’s life in Downton Abbey.
What did she look like? Well, as per the Roman writer Cassius Dio (who never met her, but seems to have read accounts written by people who did):
“In stature she was very tall, 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 divers (sic) colours over which a thick mantle was fastened with a brooch. This was her invariable attire.””Cassius Dio (c. 155 – c. 235)
Note that her “tawny hair” means it was probably RED which means she was a GINGER and, perhaps, one of the top redheaded women of ALL TIME. As a fellow redhead, I am really really excited about this detail. Also note the description of her “harsh” voice. I’m guessing that what the ancient Roman male author meant is that Boudica spoke in something other than a submissive whisper because guess what: ancient Roman times were incredibly fucking patriarchal and women were to be seen and not heard (and weren’t allowed to own or inherit property, and basically had to hide themselves away all the time; a quite shitty time and place to be a woman), so the fact that Boudica spoke her damn mind was obviously very confusing and disturbing to the Romans. So, the opinion of Cassius Dio — a Roman man who lived decades after Boudica — is perhaps not the most reliable source to know what her voice sounded like.
But PLOT TWIST, ancient Briton cultures weren’t at all as patriarchal as the Roman Empire was. While likely not an actual matriarchy, cultures like the Iceni allowed women to own property, to inherit land and titles, and basically to do a whole lot more than Roman women were. Like, you know the ongoing centuries of British Privy Councillors wringing their hands about “but what if there’s no son and a girl inherits the kingdom???” That sort of thing wasn’t an issue among the Iceni, as King Prasutagus had written up in his will that his two daughters would inherit the kingdom once he died. We don’t know how old these girls were, but young enough that they would need a regent to help them out, likely Boudica, continuing on as Queen. Ever the diplomat, Prasutagus also said that the kingdom would be shared with the Roman Emperor Nero, indicating he likely wanted things to continue on with Iceni as a sort of independent suburb of the Roman Empire.
But PLOT TWIST!! The Romans were like, “your will means nothing to us because we’re terrible imperial colonizers BWA HA HA” and they seized control of Iceni. With the Roman Governor of Britain, Suetonius Paulinus, out of town waging war elsewhere, the takeover was messy and brutal and likely led by Roman veterans and others not off with the Governor. And these guys were so shitty to the Iceni: they plundered the palace and the homes of all the Iceni nobility, turned Prasutagus’s relatives into Roman slaves, and stripped all of the Iceni nobles of their property. Claiming that he’d died without paying all of his fees to the Romans, they publicly stripped and flogged Boudica, and raped her young daughters. Sexual violence against women was then — as now — commonly used as an act of war. These acts had specifically malevolent connotations to the Iceni, to whom Boudica (as their Queen) was both a sort of priestess as well as the literal representation of their goddess Andraste on Earth. As such, the Romans had not merely assaulted three women; they had desecrated Iceni’s entire culture and religion.
As per the chronicle of the Roman writer Tacitus, Boudica swore then and there to get revenge against the Romans for this, saying:
“Nothing is safe from Roman pride and arrogance. They will deface the sacred and will deflower our virgins. Win the battle or perish, that is what I, a woman, will do.”Boudica, as per tacitus (c. 56 – c. 120 AD)
One of the ways that the Romans had been able to so completely take over the British Isles was by taking advantage of the inter-tribal rivalries between the numerous kingdoms. But the thing is, that meant that all of these groups now had a single shared enemy. All they needed was a leader strong enough to unite them; they found this in Boudica.
And that’s just what she did. While her arch-enemy Suetonius Paulinus was out of town attacking some people in Wales, Boudica got to work building her army. First up, she (and the Iceni) joined with their neighboring tribe, the Trinovantes (who were possibly the tribe that she herself was from, originally, so a sensible first alliance.) The Trinovantes had been allied with the Romans for nearly one hundred years, during which time they had come to despise these invaders. The Romans had taken over their capital city, Camulodunum, as a sort of retirement community for its military veterans. Romans had also forced the Trinovantes to build a temple there in honour of the Roman Emperor Claudius (who was now dead, but this was to honour his memory). Basically, this city and its temple symbolized everything that all the non-Romans hated about the Roman occupation. Thus, when Boudica suggested to the Trinovantes that they invade her hometown of Camulodunum, they were like, “WHEN and WHERE and SIGN US ALL THE FUCK UP!!”
And then the rebellion BEGAN! Well actually first, Boudica delivered a scathing speech that got everyone excited and THEN she did something I’ll let the Roman write Cassius Dio explain:
When [Boudica] had finished speaking, she employed a species of divination, letting a hare escape from the fold of her dress; and since it ran on what they considered the auspicious side, the whole multitude shouted with pleasure.CASSIUS DIO (C. 155 – C. 235)
I’ll explain this a bit. So, in Boudica’s culture, the hare was likely some sort of holy symbol. And the thing about which direction it ran is sort of like Groundhog Day traditions, where an animal’s actions are seen to tell the future. My question is, though, how did she keep the hare calm and quiet inside the folds of her skirts until the exact right time to pop out? Such was the power of Boudica! On to sack and demolish Camulodunum! Follow that hare (?)!
When Boudica’s army arrived at Camulodunum, the Roman army was mostly not even there at the moment as they were off fighting elsewhere. Also, they hadn’t been expecting to be invaded by several tens of thousands of irate Britons, and so the Roman veterans who lived there were entirely unprepared. They sent for help from the Governor, but he didn’t think it was a big deal and left them on their own. And so Boudica & co. DECIMATED the city to the point that archaeologists who’ve examined the site millennia later were like, “Oh shit, this city was ENTIRELY destroyed via burning, like there is a layer of burnt ash, underneath which is Roman items from the year 60 or 61; also look how many dead skeleton bodies there are, all of whom have been utterly BUTCHERED???”. And it wasn’t just human bodies that they decimated; in the course of the battle (or maybe the post-battle victory party), her team decapitated the head from a bronze statue to the Roman Emperor Nero, and kept it with them as a trophy. A trophy for BEST REVENGE BURNING OF YOUR ENEMY’S MAJOR ADMINISTRATIVE CENTRE!!
So, this military guy named Quintus Petillius Cerialis tried to be a hero and take the city back with his own forces but NO WAY, Boudica killed almost all of his forces because SHE WAS NOW ON A ROLL. A ROLL OF KILLING ROMANS!! Word of her military amazingness spread around, and her army grew as she marched with people from all different former warring tribes signing on because they all had a common enemy and they ALL wanted ALL OF THE REVENGE. It’s sort of like how in Forrest Gump when more and more people just start running with Forrest, like the further she marched, the bigger her army became until it was up to something like 100,000 oppressed Britons set on destroying their oppressors.
And Boudica was STILL JUST GETTING STARTED!!! So, modern-day London was back then a 20-year-old Roman commercial/trade centre called Londinium where about 30,000 people lived. When they heard Boudica was en route, the entire population was like PEACE OUT and fled without even attempting to defend the city: such was her reputation. Once again, archaeological evidence revealed that Boudica’s team literally BURNED DOWN THE ENTIRE CITY, torturing and murdering any Romans unlucky enough to have been left behind.
Having now destroyed the two largest Roman settlements, Boudica’s army turned next to the third-largest: Verulamium!! So the thing with this city was that it was run by the Catuvellauni tribe, who hadn’t been enslaved by the Romans but who rather sort of rolled over and let them take over. Boudica’s army continued to grow as they headed towards there, like a snowball rolling down a hill until it becomes a HUGE ARMY THAT’S GOING TO BURN DOWN VERULAMIUM! Taking their cue from the people from Londonium, the people of Verulamium dropped what they were doing and ran away rather than face Boudica’s forces. So, Boudica & co. burned the empty city down — then went off to hunt down, torture, and kill anyone they could find.
The Romans, having now low their three main settlements in Britain, were understandably upset by all of this. Adding to their annoyance was the fact that these wildly successful military campaigns were being run by… a woman. The Romans thought that all the Britons were uncivilized monsters, and they thought that all women were just accessories to more powerful men, so to be outsmarted three times by a British woman??? Was just like: their worst nightmare. Also, slightly related, this was all happening just thirty years after Cleopatra had thoroughly challenged the Romans and just a year or two after the execution of Agrippina The Younger (who was a very interesting and powerful and power-hungry Roman woman I’ll write about another day). So on top of the Romans’ cultural hatred of women, they were especially touchy about it in the year 60 AD. As Cassius Dio would write, decades later: “All this ruin was brought upon the Romans by a woman, a fact that in itself caused them the greatest of shame.”
Determined to end this once and for all, the Romans amassed TEN THOUSAND MEN to face off against Boudica’s non-stop band of rebels. And if you think oh no that’s a lot of Romans, I mean yes it is, but Boudica had by now amassed something like THREE HUNDRED THOUSAND former enslaved Britons fighting on her side. And, rather than sitting around waiting to be attacked, Boudica’s growing army marched right over to meet the Romans for a battle. But little did she know: leading the Roman forces that day was the same guy who had been out of town when she started this campaign, the same guy who had underestimated her and refused to send help to the people of Camulodunumin: British Governor Suetonius Paulinus!
The site of this battle is unknown, but we do know that beforehand Boudica rode around in a chariot with her two daughters (Warrior Princesses!!), hyping up her HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF FIGHTERS with an amazing speech delivered in her “harsh” voice. As recorded by the Roman chronicler Tacitus, it included this line among other highlights:
“We British are used to women commanders in war… But I am not fighting for my kingdom and wealth now. I am fighting as an ordinary person for my lost freedom, my bruised body, and my outraged daughters… You will win this battle, or perish. That is what I, a woman, plan to do! Let the men live in slavery if they will.”Boudica, as per Tacitus (c. 56 – c. 120 AD)
And the battle BEGAN! Boudica’s team was so certain of victory, they’d brought along their families and children to watch all the butchery for a fun family day out.
But the thing is that the Roman army was a highly-skilled, highly trained war machine and they all had armour and state-of-the-art weapons. Boudica’s team had a numbers advantage, rage, and lots of passion — but they all had their own fighting style, most of which didn’t include armour. So, despite being massively outnumbered, the Romans pulled it out to the point that many of Boudica’s allies began to flee in an attempt to escape. But all the tents they had set up for their families to watch got in their way, and so they weren’t able to escape, and the Romans basically slaughtered everyone. The precise body count is obviously not known, but it may have been something like 80,000 dead Britons and 400 dead Romans. The rebellion was over.
In the aftermath of this stunning loss, the lands of the Iceni and Trinovantes were destroyed by the Romans. And so many of the tribes had been busy fighting these battles that they hadn’t had time to plant seeds for the growing season, meaning that many of those who hadn’t died in the battle then died in a famine. Boudica’s daughters vanish from the historical record, and the Queen herself seems to have died shortly after losing to the Romans. She may have fallen ill; another record suggests she poisoned herself to deny her enemies the pleasure of killing her. The Romans would last until 410, with many of their structures becoming crucial elements in later battles between Saxon kingdoms — including battles fought by later warrior Queen Aethelflaed.
Much of what we know about Boudica comes from the writing of the Roman writer Tacitus, whose father-in-law Agricola had been Governor of Britain a decade after Boudica’s revolt. These writings were unearthed during the sixteenth-century reign of Queen Elizabeth I, great timing as she was also a redheaded Queen who wanted to reassure her patriarchal society that yes actually, she was capable of doing this.
Boudica’s rise to prominence as a British folk here came during the reign of another powerful female royal, Queen Victoria. Parallels were drawn between the two women, largely because the named Boudica and Victoria both mean victory. Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, commissioned the sculptor Thomas Thornycroft to create a bronze statue of Boudica in her chariot with her two daughters. This piece, titled Boadicea and her Daughters, was erected in London on Westminster Bridge near the Houses of Parliament, which is all incredibly interesting and let’s think about that. Boudica, the famous anti-imperialist/anti-colonial rebel, became identified with Victoria, the head of another imperialist Empire. And perhaps most pointedly, this gorgeous statue now stands guard over London, the new version of Londonium, the city she had so famously and so thoroughly decimated in her quest for liberation.
I learned a lot about Boudica from the Rex Factor special episode dedicated to her.
The 2016 History Channel series Barbarians Rising was a docu-series tracing the entirety of the Roman occupation of Britain and includes an episode on Boudica (which is where I got the images used in this essay). Here’s a clip so you can get a taste of Kirsty Mitchell’s wonderful portrayal.
The 2003 film Warrior Queen stars Alex Kingston as Boudica and a very young Emily Blunt (in her film debut!) as one of her daughters.
The following websites were also of great help in preparing this essay:
Boudica: scourge of the Roman empire (BBC History Extra)
Boudicca: Meet the Warrior Queen Who Challenged Rome (Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls)
Queen Boudica, A Life in Legend (History Today)
Boudica the warrior queen (aeon.co)
Who was Boudica (History.com)