Ancient Celtic Warriors: Boudicca's Revolt & Rome vs the Celtiberians


Part Nine

CELTIC WARRIORS: Queen Boudicca, Romans and Celtiberians

Boudicca's Revolt

[Celtic warrior woman, Boudicca]
Boudicca or Boadicea?

First we should address the two dominant spellings of her name and decide which is best to use. 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 nonsence, 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 classes of language). There was no "correct" spelling since the Queen herself never spelled her own name. What we are left with is two different translations of her name, when the Romans, and later linguists, began to write down what they thought her name would look like. Clearly, they were making it up based upon the pronounciation 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 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 most common form: Boudicca. Either spelling is satisfactory. I'm certain this debate will continue for some time to come.

Although the Celts and Romans could get along very well within the Empire, both appreciating the increased prosperity of their material lives and both opposing the destructive raids of the Germanic barbarians, when this status quo broke down there would be terrible conflict. Such is the case of a revolt that happened in Roman Britain. In the first century AD, circa 61 AD, Prasutagus, King of the Iceni left half of his fortune to the Roman Empire to ensure good relations. He did this with the best intent for he foresaw a Britain, united under the Romans, and deduced that since the Empire was going to be there for a very long time, his people could be ensured of prosperity by his donation of wealth. But the local Romans were greedy. After Prasutagus died, a Roman garrison came in, demanded more money and when none was forthcoming, they beat the king’s widow and raped their two daughters. They even went so far as to hang the king’s widow, Boudicca, by her wrists in front of her people, and proceeded to flog her until she was unconscious. They had underestimated the Celtic queen and her wrath was to be felt all the way to Rome. She wrought her vengeance with utter devastation.

Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni
Boudicca’s Celtic army encouraged by a few other tribes angry with the Empire and by the Druids, who saw the Roman way of life as the end of their own, assaulted Colchester, the nearest Roman settlement. The Roman garrison there was too small to defend the town and withdrew to the temple complex. There they held out for two days until the furious Celts stormed it and slaughtered everyone within – men, women, and children, and the settlement was burned to the ground. Of course, the reason Boudicca’s tribe acted with such fury was that the people they killed were strong supporters of the Romans. She was joined by other tribes, as well as the Trinovantes to the south, who had their own reasons to hate the occupation. Roman veterans, who settled at Camulodunum (Colchester), had expelled the native people and appropriated their homes and land, treating them like prisoners and slaves.
[Statue of Boudicca] The Temple of Claudius was especially offensive, "a blatant stronghold of alien rule" that had to be supported by the very people whom Rome oppressed. Amid a series of portents and confusion, the Roman colonists appealed to the procurator for help. The few troops that were sent from Londinium were not sufficient, and the town soon was overrun and sacked. The Roman soldiers took refuge in the temple, but after two days, it also fell. Legio IX, under strength and marching south from its camp at Longthorpe some eighty miles away under the impetuous command of Petillius Cerialis, was ambushed and defeated. The procurator fled to Gaul, and Boudicca marched on Londinium. As Tacitus records,

"Neither before nor since has Britain ever been in a more uneasy or dangerous state. Veterans were butchered, colonies burned to the ground, armies isolated. We had to fight for our lives before we could think of victory."

Far to the west, Suetonius Paulinus, the governor of Britannia, was in Mona (Anglesey) just off the coast of northern Wales. The island was a sanctuary for refugees, as well as an important religious center for the Druids, and Paulinus, despite Roman tolerance for native religions, was determined to subdue it, for he blamed the druids for encouraging the rebellion.

Victorian artists concept of a druid
[Druid] What is left of that settlement was discovered by archaeologists much later. Only a thin layer of ash and soot was found where the old settlement once stood. A legion, the IX Hispania, arrived too late to defend and was itself surrounded by angry Celts, and butchered. Londinium (London) and St. Albans were also overrun, and Tacitus claims some 70,000 Roman citizens perished. It eventually took a force of 10,000 Legionnaires under the command of Seutonius Paulinus, to stop Boudicca and her bloodlust troops. There was a series of battle and conflicts, which I intend to describe in great detail at a later date, with all the relevant information about Boudicca, the Druids and the battles. But for this set of articles, it is sufficient to say that some 80,000 Celtic Britons died in the subsequent battles. Boudicca herself, knowing the outcome of the surrender of Vercingetorix, decided to take her own life with poison rather than let the Romans get their hands on her and parade her around Rome. Seutonius Paulinus, a determined general, pursued the Druids (whom the Romans suspected of fueling Boudicca’s anger) all the way to Anglesey where he surrounded them and destroyed every remnant of druidic influence he could find. The druids were effectively wiped out in Britain after that only remaining in Ireland and isolated parts of the British Isles. Such was the ferocity of battle when Celt and Roman had a falling out.

The Celtiberians struggle against the Romans

At around this same time another savage conflict between Celt and Roman was fought in Spain. “This war between the Celtiberians and Romans is called the fiery war,” recalled the Roman chronicler Polybius, “for while wars in Greece or Asia are settled with one or two pitched battles, the battles there dragged on, only brought to a temporary end by the darkness of night. Both sides refused to let their courage flag or their bodies tire.” It was a war fought partly as a guerilla conflict with both sides seeking to outdo each other with atrocities. One Roman commander invited a group of Spanish Celts, under a flag of truce, to discuss terms regarding ending hostility and starting mercenary employment with them. Once the Celts were disarmed and inside the walls of the Roman stockade, the Roman commander secured the gates from the outside and sent in his soldiers to massacre the Celtic warriors and their families. The Roman was honored with a triumph for his brutal act. “They are no better than bandits,” grumbled the Roman general Scipio Africanus, unable to pin down the Spanish Celts. “They may be brave when devastating neighbors fields, burning villages, and rustling cattle, but are worth nothing in a regular army.” But for two thousand years, this had been the most effective means of Celtic warfare, and it was still employed almost to today by various fringe and terrorist organizations associated with Celtic causes. In Spain, the Romans finally had triumphed. Frequently it appears that Celtic warriors only dragged out the inevitable outcome, essentially defending unwinnable situations, prolonging misery, and in the end suffering far longer than was necessary. But such was the way of the Celt. He never admitted defeat. Some may regard this dogged reluctance to accept certain defeat as a virtue, but to society at large, which prefers peace to war, it is perhaps the greatest Celtic vice. It is admirable to see a warrior society that does not accept defeat – to an extent – but the Celts never seemed to learn when to retire, regroup and fight another day. In the end, this would be the downfall of the Celtic fringe groups at such battles as Culloden, The Boyne and many others.

Next, in Part 10 of
  • Arthur - Ancient Celt? - Was legendary Arthur a Celt? If he existed he was.

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