Boadicea/Boudicca, Queen of Iceni, part 1


Part One

B O A D I C E A, Queen of the Iceni, Part One

It is HIGHLY recommended that you read the introduction to this story of Boadicea for vital background information about the Celts, Romans and the Druids -- all of who play a vital role in this story. It will make your understanding of this turbulent event much clearer. However, I know some of you are chomping at the bit to get right into the story. If you cannot read the intro, at least read this opening paragraph about why I've chosen this spelling of her name.

After much debate and careful consideration, it has to be noted that we have not the vaguest idea, which is "better" than the other. Some insist that Boudicca is more "Celtic" than Boadicea, and therefore should be used. That's nonsense, since "Celtic" of the period had no written version of itself (it was an oral language of the Indo-European variety and with hundreds of variations, and dialects -- even different classifications of language). There was no "correct" spelling since the Queen herself never spelled her own name. What we are left with is two different written translations of her name, when the Romans, and later historians, began to write down what they thought her name would look like. Clearly, they were making it up based upon the pronunciation they'd heard, and apparently, they heard very different words. It is true that Boadicea looks more "Latin" than Boudicca, but bear in mind that if we go simply by what looks Latin, then Vercingetorix, Calgacus, and even Caratacus are also Roman-like names. Does that make the people ‘Latin’? No. Therefore it is really a moot point which name is the correct spelling since there was no written Language of the Iceni in her day. For the purposes of this article, I've chosen the more poetic form: Boadicea. Either spelling is satisfactory. I'm certain this debate will continue for some time to come.

A fantasy rendering of Queen Boadicea from modern times.
By artist Chris Achilleos
[boadicea] Queen of the Iceni

For centuries she was called Bunduica and some people believed she had a co-regnant named Voadicia -- which may account for other spelling variations. For a time she became Bonducca and more later still, the early spellings resulting from poor medieval manuscript transcription and inaccurate Elizabethan versions of Tacitus, whose account of her story was unknown at all until the sixteenth century.

We can follow the mutations of her name with much more accuracy than we can follow the flow of her life. We know much about the military details of the revolt of 61 A.D., and we know something of what drove her to begin. Despite the fact that her name is widely known, we really know little of the real woman.

We can infer her age to be between thirty and forty as she had two teenage daughters and infer some idea of her age when she died. In appearance we have only this description by Dio Cassius:

" In stature she was very tall, in appearance almost 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; [a Torc?] and she wore a tunic of diverse colors over which a thick mantle was fastened with a brooch. This was her invariable attire." (trans. E. Cary)

Beyond this there is little to add to her physical description or her mindset. Imagination suggests a strong and stubborn woman married to a weak husband. Prasutagus's haste to bend the knee to Roman rule must have met with frustration from his wife, who was most likely of equally royal blood, but had no love for conquerors. Even if she had not at first felt animosity, her later treatment at the hands of the greedy and unscrupulous officials would only have increased her dislike to hatred.

It is safe to speculate that she received warrior training which fitted her for the battles to come. Some Celts made no distinction between men and women when it came to fighting, and often ran training schools for teaching warriors of both sexes. Certainly, the Romans had a healthy regard for them as adversaries, as the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus tells us:

"A whole troop....would not be able to withstand a single Gaul if he called his wife to his assistance. Swelling her neck, gnashing her teeth and brandishing her sallow arms of enormous size she begins to strike blows mingled with kicks as if they were so many missiles sent from the string of a catapult."

The Iceni

A recent model of a Celtic village similar to an Iceni village

Of the tribe which came to be at the middle of the revolt, we know only that it appears to have been made up of two distinct groups of people. According to experts of pre-Roman Britain, their arrival dates from between 500 B.C. and 150 B.C. The first influx probably came from the area of Europe now occupied by the Netherlands and Belgium -- the so-called "low countries", the second from the Marne Valley area in France. It is suggested that the first were a peaceful people, who mixed with the earlier native population and taught them the skills of iron smelting. The second appear to have been more militant; a warrior class who were better armed and accoutered than their forbears, and soon overran large tracts of land in what are now Lincolnshire and Essex, setting up places from which they ruled over the former inhabitants as a military elite.

In time, these elements blurred into a more homogenous whole, recognizable as the Iceni as they appear at the time of Prasutagus (Boadicea's husband) and Boadicea.

Curiously, there are no Iceni coins from the time of Prasutagus' reign, a fact which has led some authors to believe that the client-kings were not allowed to mint their own coinage once the Romans had established theirs.

Perhaps Prasutagus was simply being cautious and trying to retain a hold over his considerable wealth in order to provide for an always-uncertain future. In what seems to have been a shocking surprise to Boadicea, Prasutagus, on his death was found to have willed half his kingdom to the emperor -- an undoubtedly contributory factor in the causes of the revolt.

There is a great deal of speculation concerning Prasutagus reasons for leaving his tribes’ holdings and riches to the Emperor of Rome. Some have gone so far as to suggest betrayal or subversion, but this seems unlikely. More likely is that Prasutagus was under considerable pressure to leave his land and wealth to the Romans or face his people's destruction. He apparently kept his decision a secret from his wife, Boadicea, judging by her response. Prasutagus was a realist and a practical man. He knew the tribes could not overthrow the Romans, and by leaving a portion of his land and wealth to the Emperor it seems he either believed or was told that he'd averted a complete takeover of his tribe’s lands after his death. He seems to have considered this his best choice for the peaceful future of the tribe. But he didn't count on what the Romans were going to do.

Iceni Horse Culture

The Iceni seem to have possessed another kind of wealth: horses. There are persistent rumors of the Iceni being horse breeders, though on the face of it this would seem unlikely due to the large areas of marshland in the Iceni country of Eastern Britain. What we are to make of these rumors is unclear and in no way is this writer suggesting to view the Iceni as a Horse culture. But the rumors need to be addressed.

Boadicea's army certainly contained a significant number of chariots. These required a special kind of horse; small, compact, powerful and agile. In fact, it is the kind of horse which archaeological evidence has found most frequently in Britain. They may have been a cross breed of the beasts found in much of Northern Europe, with the Arab "barb".

In 60 A.D., Boadicea suddenly ascended as Queen to Prasutagus' Kingdom, his death had sown the seeds of the rebellion soon to follow.

An Uneasy Situation

Although little to no hard evidence exists of the Iceni situation prior to Boadicea's husband's (Prasutagus) death, we can fairly accurately surmise and draw parallels from the prevailing Celtic society, which was shortly to fragment in Britain.

At the death of Prasutagus, Britain had been nominally subdued to the Roman yoke for some 18 years. The idea was still new enough and repugnant enough for tribes to think of revolt, but there is no evidence that Prasutagus personally desired this. By becoming a client-king, (as did Prasutagus), sworn to federate to Rome, Prasutagus wisely took the most reasonable alternative. Tribes to the south of him had already realized the impossibility of military superiority and other tribal kings had discovered cultural and political benefits from the peaceful succession and alliance, most notably trade and commerce. This was one benefit of being part of the Pax Romana, a peace accompanied with vibrant trade that benefited both Rome and advanced the civilization and wealth of British tribes. The language of this new trade was Latin and all tribes had members who could speak Latin and most of the people even began to take Latinized names, judging them, rightly or wrongly, as more sophisticated and worldly. It didn't go the other way around. Romans generally didn't learn all the different tribal languages except for a handful of translators. If a first century Celtic tribe in the Roman-occupied areas and wanted the benefit of trade, and in fact peace, you learned Latin. It never supplanted the Celtic ways and customs of some tribes, but others became so Latinized they threw off their garb and trappings of the Celtic life and adapted Roman clothing, names and habits. They were starting to become 'Romanized', a process that was complete by the beginning of the 4th century.

In order to better describe what Romanized Britain was like under Roman rule (in England, generally not in Scotland) here is a passage from Tim Newark's book on Celtic Military wars;

”The plight of the Celts under Roman rule was not one of only abject slavery or bold revolts. More often than not, in the Roman provinces of Spain (Iberia), France (Gaul) and Britain, Celtic chieftains continued to rule over their tribes and territory. These warlords might (and generally did) have Latin names, live in Roman villas, fight alongside legionary armies, but they were still Celts. In a curious way, Roman imperialism did not totally destroy Celtic power. It may have even strengthened it. Celtic warlords and tribal leaders accepted material luxuries, military sophistication, later Christian religion and Latin, from Latin literature of the Romans, but they still remained in control of their own land. Indeed, the military back up of the Romans, enabled them to keep their land free of Germanic invaders. Celtic chieftains would have to make tribute to their Imperial overlords, but essentially it was they who were there in the field to defend their own territory against all marauders. They maintained the Roman way of life because they liked it. But, beneath it all, it was Celtic tribal loyalties and customs that kept the ordinary man in order, not the Roman citizenship. Thus, the Roman Empire in Western Europe can be seen not so much as a defeated people under the yoke of Roman imperialism, but a confederation of tribes held together by Romanized Celtic warlords (with Latin names) paying feudal homage to a supreme, but absentee landlord." -- Tim Newark, Pg. 40, Paragraph #3.

While Newark is writing about all of Western Europe, of which Britain is a part, it also applies very well to the state of things developing in Britain during the time of Boadicea.

One is forced to speculate, logically, that Prasutagus decision (to leave some of his wealth to Rome) would not have pleased the more traditional of his followers who, inculcated with generations of ancestral pride in their battle prowess and respect for the royal bloodlines of their race, would have urged a fight to the death. Older men, perhaps retired war veterans themselves, would have urged younger relatives to vaunt their prowess and make ready for war. They might have roused their blood with daring deeds of past glory -- rival tribes being raided, women carried off, insults avenged. This was contrary to Prasutagus’s policy. Prasutagus was probably an elderly man or at least one who had the best part of his active life behind him. Knowing himself to be near the end of his life and wanting to ensure the future existence of his tribe, he acceded to the rationalist's way out: he swore allegiance. How he restrained his hotheaded tribesmen -- all of who may have voiced their very strong objection to his decision in open council -- is not known. But restrain them he did, keeping himself and his tribe within the "Pax Romana".

Prasutagus was not a traitor to the Iceni as some have spuriously suggested. He seems to have felt this payment to Rome was the only way in which is people would be left alone by the Romans, and it seems it was his dying wish to bring them only peace. He didn't get his wish.

The Tribe's Honor

A 19th century rendering of the Iceni Queen showing the golden torc she is said to have worn

The peaceful solution's price was more than he could have known. Iceni honor was brought low. Whatever resistance and opposition might have been voiced was countered by the sheer order and organization of Roman conquest. Taxes needed to be paid and where Iceni families would doubtless have groaned at tribute owed to their overlord in any case, giving tribute to Rome via him was a worse case.

What struck at the heart of Iceni honor was Prasutagus’ Will, leaving half his kingdom to the Roman Emperor. While this was likely drawn up in secret, and probably under a good deal of political duress (Prasutagus doubtless had Roman officials who dropped hints on the correct form in such manners), the shock to his wife, Boadicea, must have been considerable.

We know only that Boadicea was governing in the name of her daughters, who were Prasutagus legal heirs under British law (or more accurately, custom), though not the only likely or possible ones under the Celtic custom. It is likely that the girls were as yet unmarried and that suitable husbands had yet to be found for them from within the prescribed royal branches of the family: men who were mature and able enough to rule in the name of their wives and carry on the good name of the Iceni in battle. It is on this point of the viability of the female heirs that the subsequent outrages should be balanced. Roman law did not make allowance for such inheritance of mere females; British (Celtic) law made no distinction.

As Boadicea was herself mature and able, she assumed the throne in their name and thus held the tribe together. She may have sternly and privately disagreed with her husband's policies, while supporting him publicly in his seemingly cautious regime of submission to Rome. Her anger at his betrayal (the Will) of their like's work must have been extreme. But while she later gave reign to her anger, there is no suspicion (as some authors have suggested), that she was uncontrolled or unprincipled. Her duty was clear: to bind the tribe to her and to protect her daughter's rights.

It was Rome's mistake that it's commanders did not take Boadicea seriously -- either as a royal woman or as a mother. Female rulers were risible to them. They had a standing joke of Cleopatra in Egypt, with whom Julius, that erstwhile conqueror of Britain, had a brief dalliance. Queens were for seducing, for manipulating. Rome should have been warned: Queens were also treacherous, quick in attack and ruthless when cornered. Cleopatra (who was Greek, not Egyptian) took poison to avoid the inevitable Roman triumph in which she would have been dragged when Augustus Caesar finally caught up with her.

No one thought of seducing Boadicea or marrying her off to another pliant client-king. She was a woman of maturity, but her character was unalterably formed. Her years of political sexuality may have been behind her, and as such she was not a commodity. But her daughters were.

These unnamed girls were probably in their early teens. They were a dangerous factor in the political balance. To the Roman mind, virgin daughters of a dead king might be as hazardous as a massed army of Iceni tribesmen -- and the flame of revolt be fanned.

Treachery and Humiliation

When the Roman officials finally came to strip Boadicea of her governing rights, they carelessly drew all the wrong conclusions. The Iceni queen's righteous anger could not be cooled by force and humiliation. This was an obvious mistake on the part of the Romans' and one for which they would pay. What actually took place, the actual events, are a combination of conflicting Roman historical sources, (some obviously having been altered or omitted due to the nature of the crimes of the Romans), and from Celtic lore which has passed down a general story of what occurred. Therefore we are by necessity speculating, conjecturing but not blindly guessing, on the events.

[attack on Boadicea]It appears that the Romans, following their time honored custom of doing everything by the book and not taking into account the anger to be caused by such outrageous acts, went to the Iceni tribe to assert their control and dominance over the Queen of the Iceni and to remove the threat of any royal daughters from birthing any future leaders. In their eyes they had every right. They chained together some of the tribesmen to prevent them from attacking, led them away and then turned to deal with Boadicea, in front of her people.

By piecing together accounts of Celtic lore and Roman history, and by using some deductive reasoning about the way in which the Romans had done this kind of outrage to native tribal people before, a picture of brutality and oppression is clearly drawn. The Romans came to the Iceni camp to assert their control. We don't know which outrage happened first, but one account says that Boadicea was captured, bound and lashed, her backside exposed naked for the whip. Perhaps she didn't cry out the way the brutal torturers wanted her too, or perhaps they'd planned their next atrocity already, but after flogging Boadicea, both of her daughters were dragged into a hut, stripped and raped repeatedly.

Boadicea & daughters after attacks

[flogged] In Roman society, it was customary for the public executioner to deflower virgins before their deaths, lest the Roman gods be offended for killing virgins, within Roman tradition. It also makes a perfect excuse for rapine behavior.

The young daughters of attainted consuls were inevitably raped and their beaten and unconscious mother was left tied to a pole.

Another account has it in the reverse, the lashing was second. As if this horror weren't enough, Boadicea, according to Celtic lore, was forced in restraints to watch the entire degradation of her daughters, then afterwards, hands tied above her head, stripped naked in front of the whole of the Iceni tribe, and whipped repeatedly until she passed out from pain.

However the terrible outrage was done, the Romans apparently packed up and left the Iceni tribe convinced that any future threat was now put asunder. They were very wrong.

One curious aspect is some experts have come to conclude the Romans soldiers who did the evil deeds may have even murdered the daughters after defiling them to prevent any future angry heirs or as punishment to Boadicea for disobeying the law. Since we hear nothing of the daughters later on in the story we are left wondering just what did happen to them? It has to remain speculation.

That Boadicea might have bided quietly at home after such treatment was not to be countenanced. While she might not care on her own behalf, she had two daughters to fight for, or to avenge. Rome had raped the sovereignty of the Celtic Britons: now it had raped the daughters of an Iceni king, women of the royal king making blood. The Romans would have done better to kill all three women. A directionless battle might have ensued, if Boadicea had been killed, one easily won by Rome. As it was, the Iceni arose on the command of an outraged mother. The "treacherous lioness" as the chronicler Gildas called her, was aptly named.

"The lion may look proud and disdainful in his tree, but it is the lioness who hunts and brings home the prey for her cubs". – Gildas

The Iceni Queen was now ready to rend any who harmed her offspring.

The Face of Revolt

In the case of the Celtic British revolt of 61 A.D., there are two clear contributory factors, but far more than that lay beneath the surface. The temporary "Pax Romana" was only superficial. Beneath it the native population now seethed with unrest and anger. Where there was peace in many areas others were angry from gruff and draconian treatment suffered during the initial stages of Roman conquest. Some tribal lands had been taken from them, with little or no recompense. Added to this was the very nature of the petty Roman officials placed over them for the task of collecting taxes and tributes and seeing that everything conformed to Roman neatness. In effect, it was the behavior of some of these officials which touched off the smoldering fuse which was to ignite the south under Boadicea's leadership. What was the Roman mindset for their actions?

Wentworth's artist conception of Celtic warriors of the period.

Finding only Boadicea and her daughters to oppose them, they went about their business as crudely, and efficiently as possible in the hope, we may assume, of getting all.

The current Procurator, Catus Decianius, seems to have been a greedy man, not above taking a large share of goods that were at hand -- as were his officers, mostly retired army men and slaves.

Thus, given the treatment she received and the seemingly pre-planned rape of her daughters and her own whipping, small wonder at Boadicea's rage. She and her family had been outraged in every way possible and her tribe made to suffer. She herself, as Queen of the Iceni, had been publicly humiliated.

  • Next, revenge on a mass scale.

  • Boadicea's Revolt - Main menu

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