What drove Boudicca, warrior queen of the Iceni, to raise an army to overthrow her tyrannical overlord, the super power of her day, the mighty Roman Empire?
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When we look across the entire known arc of human history, we can see that few national borders are determined by compassion & altruism. Most people live on land that their forefathers snatched from others by force, and Iron Age Britannia was no different. It was said that the Celts first arrived in Britain around 600BC, and over time, the various tribes staked out, and fought over territory to set up their own kingdoms.
Early in the first century AD, one of the first kings to become dominant amongst the tribes was Cunobelinus King of the Catuvellauni. Cunobelinus had three sons, Adminius, Togodumnus and Caratacus, he also had a brother called Epaticcus. Under the rule of Cunobelinus, the Catuvellauni expanded their territory and influence. This expansion carried on after his death in the year 40 AD under his brother Epaticcus. In time Togodumnus, followed by Caratacus would rule this expanded kingdom. It was this very expansion, and the now continuing dominance of King Caratacus that first brought the all seeing eye of Imperial Rome to gaze once again over this mysterious island, once thought to be beyond the edge of the known world.
It was a long time between drinks for the Romans, as it were. This mysterious island first became interesting to Rome 88 years earlier, when it was believed by Gaius Julius Caesar, that the Britons were aiding the Gauls in their struggle against his war machine on the continent. Caesar first launched a small expeditionary force in 55 BC and showed just enough strength to convince a number of ambassadors from the Britons to offer their submission. Bad weather, and ongoing attacks by the Britons convinced Caesar to return to Gaul, and try again with a much larger force. That much larger force arrived the following year, 54 BC. Caesar was met with resistance from a warlord named Cassivellaunus, who had previously been at war with most of the other Britons. He had recently overthrown King Mandubracius of one of the most powerful tribes, the Trinovantes. The Trinovantes sensing an opportunity to to use the powerful Roman force against Mandubracius sent ambassadors, promising Caesar aid and provisions. Soon another five tribes surrendered to Caesar, and the game was up for old Cassivellaunus. Mandubracius was restored as King, and Caesar left Britannia with promises of tribute and a number of Kings under his influence. He did not however, leave a single soldier on the island to enforce his settlement.
The next invasion of Britain, came almost 100 years later, in the year 43, and it was to be a war of prestige. The 'mad' emperor Caligula had been assassinated in 41 AD, and an obscure member of the imperial family, his uncle Claudius, had been elevated to the throne.
Ill health, poor hearing, and an unattractive appearance, combined with a clumsy manner, and coarseness of taste did not recommend him for a public life. The imperial family seems to have considered him something of an embarrassment, a stuttering old fool, and for many years he was left to his own private studies and amusements.
However, when his nephew Caligula is murdered by the Praetorian guard, Claudius is dragged unceremoniously from his studies, and amusements, by the very same Praetorian guard, and thrust protestingly upon the throne. The surprised, and most likely terrified Claudius would never have been considered as a possible successor to the Emperor, he was a most unlikely figure, his only qualification was that he was a member of the imperial house and was virtually the only survivor, due mainly to the fact that no one had ever thought him dangerous enough to slip a dagger into him, or offer him a poisoned cup.
Poor old uncle Claudius, what was he to do?… The new emperor faced opposition from the Senate and needed a quick political fix to secure his throne, and most probably his life. But what was he to do?
Well now, at around about that time, old king Caratacus, continuing with his expansion, conquered the neighbouring kingdom of the Atrebates. Their King Verica, fled to Rome and petitioned Claudius for his support. And this was just the excuse old uncle Claudius needed. What better than a glorious invasion of Britannia to bring that mystical Isle under his governance whilst expanding the Empire? Brilliant!
The Roman invasion in the year 43 was a massive undertaking that attempted to absorb Britannia into the Empire. Many of the tribes submitted to the might of Rome, but Caratacus & Togodumnus fought fiercely against the invaders. During the invasion, Togodumnus was killed at the battle of the river Thames, and Caratacus fled with his followers into the Welsh mountains to continue a guerrilla campaign that lasted for seven years. After a series of defeats, he fled north to the lands of the Brigantes seeking refuge, however, Queen Cartimandua, knowing his worth, and looking to show her loyalty, handed him over to the Romans in chains. Caratacus pleaded his case to Emperor, and Claudius, moved by his speech, allowed him to live out his life as a free man in the eternal city.
It would take Rome forty years to bring Britannia under its control, and not without constant resistance. Rome never fully succeeded in conquering and subduing all of the peoples, and there was always a need for a significant military presence to control the threat from the yet unconquered tribes, and the vast majority of the populace that would remain relatively untouched by Roman civilisation.
Now at this time, there were, three powerful kingdoms that had sworn allegiance, and were now client states of Rome. These were Cogidubnus King of the Atrebates, Cartimandua Queen of the Brigantes, and Prasutagus, King of the Iceni. Rome was particularly adept at using the conquered nobles and members of old tribal aristocracies to maintain their newly imposed local system of rule, it was simply a matter of effective government. Tacitus was said to have said that “The simple natives gave the name of culture to this factor of their slavery. He also said that the Britons bear conscription, the tribute and their other obligations to Empire, provided there is no injustice. That they take extremely ill; for they they can bear to be ruled by others, but not to be their slaves.
After Caratacus was captured and taken to Rome, his stronghold, Camulodunum, became a Roman legionary base. It was later given the status of “Colonia”, a settlement for newly retired legionaries. The veterans who lived here, were retired from one of the four legions serving in Britannia, and the Colonia was intended to be the capitol of the new province. The idea of a Colonia was, to provide a bright shining example of the Roman rule of law for the uncivilised locals to follow, and to commence the process of Romanisation. This was supposed to mean that brutal conquest would then be followed by pure delight in all of the many Mediterranean pleasures to come. The military colonists were expected to promote and protect Romes interests against any local uprising, and part of the deal for these veterans, was a grant of land. And as it turned out, the 3,000 veterans at Camulodunum were granted a little short of 38,000 hectares. This as you would expect, forced the local Trinovantes from their homes and their farms, and did little to promote the benefits and delights of Roman life to the locals. Oh, and to make matters just that little bit more interesting for the locals, some of the veterans enslaved local families, killed many others, wether they had resisted resisted or not, often displaying their head upon stakes as a reminder of just who was in charge.
Client kingdoms under Roman rule were pressed hard by voracious tax collectors and licentious soldiers alike. Crass maladministration ranging from the callously negligent to the undeniably criminal was the order of the day. It was an ongoing system of blundering stupidity, the Empire was always short of money, and Britannia was struggling to support itself, let alone being a source of revenue for the Imperial coffers, at a point the in the not too distant future, things becoming so difficult and all, the next Emperor would almost called the whole venture off.
The Britons saw themselves as struggling under the dual tyranny, of the Military governor and the Provincial Procurator. In a typically Roman way of doing things, the governor of Britannia controlled the military and the governance of the province, but the Procurator controlled the finances, and payed the soldiers. In typical Roman fashion, and as a way to ensure plenty of friction, the Procurator was appointed by, and directly responsible to, the Emperor, not the governor. It was designed to be a particularly handy way for the Emperor to keep tabs on his governor.
In the year 54, Emperor Claudius died, or was perhaps murdered, some say poisoned by his wife Agrippina. Some say Agrippina murdered Claudius to prevent his son Britannicus from inheriting the throne. Agrippina wanted her son from an earlier marriage, Lucius, to become Emperor. And, after Claudius’ death Agrippina got her way and young Lucious become Emperor. The 16 year old, Emperor… Nero. And Britannicus, Neros’ 13 year old step brother, well… Nero had him poisoned.
By the time Nero was 21, he had murdered his mother Agrippina, by the age of 24, he would exile his wife Octavia, and order her to commit suicide, and by the ripe old age of 25 he would go on to execute a number of political rivals. It was very obvious that Nero was not a man to be messed with, nor was he the sort of chap you would ever want to front up to, being the bearer of bad tidings.
When Claudius died, Nero elevated him to the status of a god, and ordered a temple to him built, at Camulodunum. So now the poor old Britons would be obliged not only to worship once a year at the altar of the man who had invaded and occupied their lands, but also to finance the building of the extravagant and costly temple. And to test the patience of the Britons just a little bit more, Rome began calling in repayment of monies that were either given, or loaned to the client kings earlier on in the occupation.
Lucius Seneca, Nero’s tutor, had pressed on the tribal leaders a total of 40 million sesterces in basically unwanted loans. Evidently it was an investment he hoped would bring in a healthy return.
And so the oppression of the Britons continued, and in this ongoing brutal climate of fear and loathing, a smouldering undercurrent of rage was slowly but surely being stoked amongst the downtrodden Britons by their cruel Roman overlords. It wouldn’t take too much more before that smouldering hatred would flare up and a conflagration of pent up hatred and rage would burn across the landscape consuming all in its way, and giving the smug and unsuspecting Romans something to really think about. And in the year 60, that smouldering hearth was about to receive some highly flammable fuel.
The Druids were the priests of the Celtic tribes in Britain, they were an upper class of priests, political advisors, teachers, healers, and arbitrators among the Celtic tribes.
They had their own universities, where traditional knowledge was passed on to young acolytes who would commit all Druidic learning to memory, as was their way, nothing was ever written down. Druids had the right to speak ahead of the king in council, and may in some situations have held more authority than the king. They acted as ambassadors in time of war, they composed verse and upheld the law. They were a sort of glue holding together Celtic culture. And as such, the Romans thought the Druids to be, a bit, of a problem.
Two years earlier, in the year 58, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus was made governor of Britannia. He was a successful military commander and a popular leader. Earlier in his career, when Paulinus was the governor of Mauretania, he had gained fame for being the first Roman General to lead an army across the high Atlas Mountains into the Sahara dessert perusing rebels who had the temerity to go against Rome merely because Emperor Caligula had their king executed.
It is said that Paulinus’ prime motivator was that of jealousy. Jealously of the foremost of his contemporaries, the great Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo, brother-in-law of the emperor Caligula and father-in-law of Domitian. Corbulo, who had solved the Armenian problem for Nero just two years earlier. A general who’s reputation was so fearful, that Nero ordered him to commit suicide, a command which he faithfully undertook, falling on his sword. Paulinus was determined to outshine Corbulo, he just needed a worthy cause to justify his crusade, and where better to find such a cause? Anglesea.
Paulinus turned his attention to the Druid problem in the west and marched his legions to the coast of Wales where he launched an attack upon the island of Anglesea to bring his Druidic problem to an end, and convey glory upon himself, and his legions.
It was was at this time whilst Paulinus was campaigning in the west, that Prasutagus, King of the Iceni died. Prasutagus had sworn allegiance to Rome around 15 years earlier, and as such, was a client King of the Empire. To ensure that his kingdom would survive after his death, he had named his two daughters along with the Emperor Nero as Co-Rulers. Prasutagus went to the afterlife secure in the knowledge that his fealty to the Emperor, would preserve his kingdom into the future, through the line of his two teenage daughters.
Catus Decianus, Procurator of Britannia, was always on the lookout for ways of improving his cash flow. After all, he would have been under constant pressure from Nero to account for profit & Loss. So when Prasutagus died, Decianus, saw a golden opportunity to cash in, and perhaps pocket a little something on the side for himself. With Prasutagus dead, Decianus began to take inventory of the kingdom, which he now regarded as Roman property.
Disregarding Prasutagus’ wishes of royal succession for his daughters, he undertook to take all of the lands of the Iceni, along with the loans that could never be repaid. The kingdom and its households were plundered alike, and when Prasutagus Queen, Boudicca protested, Decianus had her publicly flogged, and allowed his soldiers to take turns in defiling her two young daughters. Humiliation and anger at such abhorrent and violent treatment of a loyal noble household could not go unavenged. It was about that same time, when news of Paulinus’ slaughter of the Druids at Anglesea would reach both the Iceni and the Trinovantes.
Boudicca decided that the Romans had ruled in Britannia quite long enough.
The tribes and kingdoms of Britannia, had a fierce clan based warrior culture and tradition. They were fearless in battle, and excelled in guerrilla warfare, performing lightning fast strikes, against an unsuspecting enemy before disappearing back into the woods and bogs from whence they came. A standing battle was not where these warriors excelled, brave beyond measure, but often hot headed and undisciplined, it was surprise, speed, and weight of numbers that offered them victory.
Warriors taunting their enemy, would show off their tattooed, often naked bodies, painted blue with woad, howling their blood curdling war cries and unsettling their enemies with barbaric effectiveness. Blasting upon the Carnyx their boar headed war trumpet that would make a most ungodly wail, putting the fear of the Gods into the heart of the most valiant Roman legionary.
Their super weapon was the war chariot. They could arrive at a battlefield with great speed, hurling missiles into the ranks of their foe whilst delivering warriors to the fight, before collecting them, should the tide of battle begin to turn, beating a rapid retreat to safety.
Many a Roman soldier feared battle with these barbarian warriors, known for decapitating their enemy and keeping their heads as trophies of war.
The army that rallied to Boudicca’s call was growing day by day, 100,000 men and women, consumed with rage and Hell bent upon revenge against the hated invaders. She rose to a tribunal constructed of earth and began her address…
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 diverse colours over which a thick mantle was fastened with a brooch. Calling upon the Goddess of war Andraste, and haranguing the gathered warriors that she, a woman, would have courage enough to rise up and destroy the invaders. And so it was, that the army of Boudicca was formed. Their first design was to be upon the Colonia of Camulodunum, its cruel and despised veterans, its hated temple to Claudius, that citadel of everlasting tyranny, and to any Britton foolish enough to be found there in the presence of the Romans.
At that time, the entire might of the Roman Empire boasted only 27 legions, and four of those legions were in the grossly over-garrisoned province of Britannia. If, in the supremely unlikely event, that Rome should happen to loose those four legions, well, who knows what her multitude of desperate enemies on the continent may do.
When those at Camulodunum learned of Boudicca’s approaching army they sent for assistance to Procurator Catus Decianus, but the man who was so bold in flogging Boudicca earlier on, only managed to send 200 men. Word got out to Quintus Petillius Cerialis Legate of the 9th Legion who immediately set out for Camulodunum. Boudicca’s spies were onto him though. She split her force and set a host of warriors to lay in ambush for Decianus, who obliged, by marching headlong into it. The 9th Legion was smashed its troops routed and its infantry destroyed. Decianus was lucky to escape with just some of his cavalry. Meanwhile Boudicca’s main force was now attacking Camulodunum in earnest. The rebellion was by now in its full fury. The population was wiped out by sword, fire, crucifixion and hanging, regardless of age or sex, Britton or Roman. The Roman veterans barricaded themselves in the half completed temple of Claudius and tried in vein to keep the rebels at bay, but it was no use. The weight of numbers, the intense hatred and lust for revenge would see them overcome within two days. The devastation was complete, Camulodunum was no more, its inhabitants dead. The fires would burn so intensely that a reddish brown ash containing incinerated wattle & daub, molten glass, broken tile and blackened pottery would still be able to be seen 2,000 years later.
Suetonius Paulinus now finished with his gruesome and bloodthirsty devastation of the Druids at Anglesea received news of the destruction at Camulodunum and he wasted no time. Knowing that Boudicca and her horde were heading for Londinium, he gathered together a small contingent and headed by boat down the river Dee ahead of his army to prepare for the defence of the settlement. His haste however, was not rewarded, Londinium was indefensible, being protected by no walls or parapets, and being spread out along the banks of the Thames, it was deemed to be a soft and easy target. Suetonius left Londinium to its doom, and rejoined his army which was now marching at speed towards the conflict zone and a violent clash with Boudicca's now 230,000 strong vengeance seeking, blood soaked, fire breathing horde.
Paulinus had at his immediate disposal 2 of the 3 remaining legions in Britannia, about 11,000 men, He also had the 2nd legion (II Augusta) commanded by the Prefect Poenius Postumus garrisoned at Exeter. Unfortunately though, Prefect Poenius Postumus either wasn’t too keen on marching through enemy territory to meet up with Paulinus, or didn’t believe that a rabble of rowdy rebels would be much of a match for the 14th (XIV) and 20th (XX ) Legions, and so he didn’t bother to send his force to help poor old Paulinus.
The peaceful community of Londinium was settled around the year 47 and would become the capitol of Britannia. It was originally a settlement at a key crossing point on the river Thames. It was ideally suited as a commercial centre, and a hub for transporting goods. Londinium had a thriving population of merchants, travellers, traders and as well as Roman functionaries, and as such, became a place where anyone with a fancy to have a shot at the hated Romans might just take a bit of a look, and that’s exactly what the rebels did next. Boudicca’s forces swept into Londinium with an unimaginable fury and vengeance. Londinium just like Camulodunum, was completely unprotected, and would fall swiftly to the onslaught. Word had gotten out about the devastation at Camulodunum, and many of the people there didn’t wait around to see what was coming. Boudicca killed everyone she found at Londinium. The cruelty and savagery of the attack was devastating. It was said, that they hung up naked, the noblest and most distinguished women then cut off their breasts and sewed them to their mouths, before impaling them on sharp skewers run lengthwise through their entire body.
Verlamion the old Catuvellauni settlement north west of Londinium, was taken by the Romans, in around the year 50, and was granted the rank of municipium. This meant that its citizens had what were known as "Latin Rights", which were a lesser citizenship status than a colonia possessed, but Roman rights they were. Verlamion grew into a significant town under the Romans, and as such became another point on the map where Boudicca's rebels would look to wreak havoc and vengeance upon the invaders. Boudicca’s army would punish the town for its close and willing association with Rome. Verlamion and its inhabitants were to be utterly destroyed, left, a desolation haunted by hungry dogs. In the destruction of Camulodunum, Londinium and Verlamion between seventy and eighty thousand people were slaughtered.
To the north west, at the head of his army marching in triumphal return from its savage butchery of the Druids at Anglesea, Paulinus, outnumbered 20 to 1 rushed to confront the horde of Boudica, and she, now, in turn, turned her attention to Paulinus and 2 of the 3 remaining legions in Britannia. Surely, now, with the Goddess Andraste smiling upon their just and virtuous cause, the rightful nobility of this ancient land would be restored to their pre eminence, and the vile and hated invaders would be cast down and utterly destroyed once and for all. As Paulinus marched confidently towards the coming cataclysm expecting the arrival of Postumus and Legion II Augusta to reinforce his legions, he made plans for his victory against this pathetic rabble of barbarians.
Paulinus wanted to draw Boudicca as far west as possible so as to give his foot sore and weary troops some much needed rest. What Suetonius Paulinus feared above all else, was a long and protracted insurgent war, for the Britons, he well knew, had the edge over the Romans when it came to guerrilla tactics on their own territory, as seen by the destruction of Legion (9) VIIII on its way to support the veterans at Camulodunum. But in an ordered battle, where he could bring the discipline and coordinated tactics of the legions to bear, in a location of his own choosing, he might very well be, unstoppable.
To make his stand, he chose a place surrounded by wooded slopes with a narrow approach which was protected in the rear by a primitive forrest, dense with tangled undergrowth. This narrow front would prevent Boudicca from bringing her overwhelming force of number to bear. The Britons, would have to attack up a slight incline, and from directly in front, which would suit his legions highly disciplined fighting techniques. Paulinus drew up his regular troops in close order, with the light-armed auxiliaries at their flanks, and the cavalry massed on the wings.
As Boudicca’s army began to arrive on the battlefield it was apparent to Paulinus that he was heavily outnumbered.
The forces of the Britons, swaggered and paraded about far and wide in bands of infantry and cavalry, their numbers without precedent. So confident where they, that they had brought their wives and children with them in carts and wagons drawn up around the far edge of the battlefield to witness their victory. Boudica rode in a chariot with her daughters beside her, approaching each tribe, and calling upon them to the final victory. The noise was deafening, the bloody wrath of the Britons was surging, their hearts filled with rage, blood coursing through their veins, at last vengeance would be theirs.
Paulinus called to his Legions telling them to disregard the clamour and empty threats of the natives. He told them there were more women in their ranks than fighting men, and those men were unwarlike, poorly armed, and routed on so many occasions. They would immediately give way when they recognised the steel and courage of those who had always conquered them.
The legions and their auxiliaries waited in the shelter of the narrow valley as Boudica’s war bands surged forward across the plain and up into the narrowing field in a gargantuan head on assault. The shock factor, of the Britannic war charge was terrifying in the extreme. A living, howling, rage filled battering ram, intended to smash through the Roman defences and lay it to waste. On they came, in bands of clan and family, men of every physical type and warrior proficiency. On they came, confident, determined to slice their outnumbered opposition to bloody ribbons with their longswords as they raced into the narrowing field of combat. At this point the legionaries hurled their javelins at the Britons and ran forward in wedge formation, supported by the cavalry with their lances.
The two forces crashed together in an almighty collision, the lead Britons, now packed in tightly to the narrow field of combat were being driven from behind as the war bands continued to pile in to the combat zone. The long swords they wielded were designed for slashing rather than stabbing, and they soon found that they needed more room to swing their blades. But in the tightly confined space of battle, and at such close range, they just could not fight effectively. The chariots that gave them an advantage when fighting on a wide open plain were also ineffective, as the Romans, were protected in the narrow valley preventing the chariots from ever reaching their flanks. The Roman legionaries protecting themselves with their large shields, marched methodically forward maintaining their lines. Punching their opponent in the face with the heavy metal boss in the centre their shield, then stabbing them in the belly with the razor sharp point of the short sword, before stepping across the dead warrior to reach the next rank.
The battle lasted long into the day, and the gruesome work at close contact was sharp and deadly, grim and tenacious, mounds of casualties began to grow seemingly from the very earth upon which they fought. But as the disciplined might of the legions began to tip the scales, the Britons effort started to fade.
Panic set in, the Britons began to route, but as they fled, the circle of the wagons with the onlooking horrified women and children blocked their way, causing confusion and preventing their escape. The Romans did not refrain from their slaughter, men, women and children all fell before the methodical onslaught. Even the baggage animals, harnessed to the wagons, added to the macabre piles of bleeding and dieing bodies. The sounds of panicked Britons screaming and wailing as the slaughter continued, that filled the air with grievous desperation began to fade, until finally, all in the valley was quiet.
It is said that the Britons suffered 80,000 casualties and the Romans merely a little over 400.
In the aftermath of the battle, Poenius Postumus, killed himself as he heard the news of Paulinus victory, for surely he could not continue to live into old age, and bear the taunts of cowardice for the rest of his life now that he had dishonoured himself as well as Legion II Augusta. Oh, and as well as that, he would have to face up the emperor Nero for a please explain.
Suetonius Paulinus said he would make the Iceni and the Trinovantes howl, and he did that, and much more. If he had lost the struggle against them, it was likely that he would have lost the province of Britannia altogether, a misadventure, that even the most gracious of emperors would not have taken kindly to. To stand before Nero, a man not noted for evenness of temper and balanced judgement at the best of times, in the guise of a governor who had just lost him a province, was inviting not simply death, but something a great deal worse for oneself as well as ones entire bloodline. At best he would have faced humiliation and the scorn of his peers, to watch a great man toppled by a woman.
Nero, rattled by the near loss of Britannia replaced Paulinus shortly afterwards, with a new governor, a man less likely to stir up the emotions of the locals, someone who could get things back on track, and try to make Britannia a profit a venture.
Boudicca, warrior queen of the Iceni, who raised an army to overthrow a tyrannical overlord, the super power of her day, the mighty Roman Empire, had almost succeeded, and had most certainly put the wind up Old Nero. Boudicca disappears from the pages of history, perhaps as some say drinking from a poisoned cup rather than being taken prisoner by the despised Romans.
Oh, and brave, Procurator Catus Decianus, the man whose treatment of Boudicca and the Iceni started the whole thing in the first place, well, when he learned of the slaughter at Camulodunum, like a rat out of an aqueduct, he shot through to the safety of Gaul.