Pronounced Boudica or Boudicca of the Iceni, and not Boadicea (potentially a late translation typo of the medieval period), this iconic figure of rebellion is most likely an idea. Perhaps a latinised version of the Brythonic (Brittonic, the ancestral equivalent to the modern Celtic), her name roughly relates to the Old Welsh and Irish for ‘victory’, and therefore is more likely an epithet ‘she who brings victory’. Offering a rousing oration (as was customary in Graeco-Roman historiography) on the cusp of battle, Boudica’s immortal words should not be taken as Ipsissima Verba1. 

1 Eric Adler, ‘Boudica’s Speeches in Tacitus and Dio’, The Classical World 101, No 2 (2008): 194

Her narrative originates from three literary sources. Tacitus, known for his foreboding character studies, mentions her twice: once in Agricola 15.3-16.2, and the other in the politically charged Annals 14.29-39. Written in AD 97-8, the biographical Agricola is semi contemporary, as his father-in-law Agricola was a decorated roman general serving as military tribune under Suetonius Paulinus (Propraetorian legate in Britain from AD59-61) a similar period in which the famous rebellion takes place (AD 61, or more likely AD 60)2. There is some scholarly debate as to whether Tacitus had access to Paulinus’ memoirs3. In book fourteen (XIV) of the Annals, themes of liberty and slavery permeate (words of ‘seritum’, ‘libertas’, and ‘dominatio’ are frequently attributed to Tacitus’s description of the principate). As Michael Roberts analyses in his essay, it is a reflection of his larger uncertainty towards the desirability and limits of resistance to the Neronian imperial regime as well as a denigration of the alien and foreign4.

2 For info, the Legati in the early first and second centuries AD acted as deputy generals to the governors of a province, with command over the legions. A province containing one or more legions (like Britain) was governed by a military commander with the title legatus Augusti pro praetore (propraetorian legate of the emperor). Underneath, the Procurator supervised the administration of imperial finances, including grain supply, the mint, and the mines. 

3 Nicholas Reed, ‘The Sources for Tacitus and Dio for the Boudiccan Revolt’, Latomus 33 (1974): 926-33 

4 Michael Roberts, ‘The Revolt of Boudicca and the Assertion of Libertas in Neronian Rome’, The American Journal of Philology 109, No 1 (1988): 118-132

In contrast we have Cassius Dio’s History 62. 1- 12, which is published over a century after these events, writing AD 150-235. Readers should be aware that later gaps of Dio’s history (books 35 onwards) are filled in by the Byzantine historian John Xiphilinus (of the eleventh century). However, Dio’s account of the rebellion is still deserving of attention, as it is more sensitive to the specifics of Roman rule, such as a loss of economic autonomy: ‘By how much better would it have been to be slain and die than endure while subject to a head tax?’. Origins for the rebellion are well attested by both historians. Tacitus’s account in Agricola paints a dark picture of governorship, stating that whilst Suetonius Paulinus was on expedition to supress the Druid Island of Mona (Anglesey), the Britons saw their opportunity:

Relieved from apprehension by the legate’s absence, the Britons dwelt much among themselves on the miseries of subjection, compared their wrongs, and exaggerated them in the discussion. “All we get by patience,” they said, “is that heavier demands are exacted from us, as from men who will readily submit. A single king once ruled us; now two are set over us; a legate to tyrannise over our lives, a procurator to tyrannise over our property. Their quarrels and their harmony are alike ruinous to their subjects. The centurions of the one, the slaves of the other, combine violence with insult. Nothing is now safe from their avarice, nothing from their lust … (15.1-3)

Indeed, Christopher Bulst argues that the revolt may have been the unintended consequence of perhaps unauthorised measures (extortions) adopted by the remaining officials and procurator left by Paulinus in his absence5 . Dio mentions as a cause the confiscation of money bestowed by Emperor Claudius upon prominent Britons by procurator Decianus Catus, perhaps because their loyalty now seemed secured. It is true that according to Tacitus, Catus soon fled to Gaul (modern day France) after the rebellion, fearing the situation was lost and alarmed by the ‘fury of the province which he had goaded into war’6 . In addition, Dio states:

Seneca, in the hope of receiving a good rate of interest, had lent to the islanders 40,000,000 sesterces that they did not want, and had afterwards called in this loan all at once and had resorted to severe measures in exacting it … (62.2)

Seneca, a wealthy leading statesman in the court of Nero, may have been fearing an abandonment of Britain, and CE Stevens dates this to AD 587 . If this is true, a panic demand of repayment seems reasonable. Ultimately, as Tacitus is at pains to point out in Agricola (whose ulterior motive is to paint his father-in-law, who eventually went on to be governor of Britain, as a moderate man free from corruption8 ) the provincials had reason for complaint, and good administration could have avoided that. Romanisation in Britain had not yet succeeded to prompt imitation, but rather simply an envy of wealth, as the archaeological evidence attests (discussed below).

Regarding the Trinovantes, whom Tacitus describes as opportunists later joining the rebellion, it seems they too had reasons for dissent. Following the unrest of the Brigantes, the colony of Colonia Claudia Victricensis or Camulodunum (Colchester, and formally a Trinovanten capital) was founded in AD 48/49 with a ‘strong force of veterans as a stronghold against rebellion and to imbue the socii with a sense of their legal obligations’9 . As Bulst suggests, the colony should have won the population for Rome and its ‘civilising’ culture, but rather enraged it, as well as failed to serve as a strong defensive point for the Roman forces (excavation has revealed that the city was not walled, and the temple to Claudius was the only large and well-constructed building10). 

5 Christoph M Bulst,’ The Revolt of Queen Boudicca in AD 60’, Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 10, No 4 (1961):496-7 

6 Tacitus, Annals, 14.32

7 CE Stevens ‘The Will of Q. Veranius’, The Classical Review 1, No. 1 (1951): 4-5 

8 ‘Yet even Domitian was appeased by the moderation and wisdom of Agricola…’, Tacitus, Agricola, 42.4

9 Tacitus, Annals, 12.32-3 

10 CFC Hawkes and MR Hull, Camulodunum, First Report on the Excavations at Colchester, 1930-1939, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1947)

So plenty of evidence for the stirrings of rebellion, but what about Boudica and the Iceni? 

Adding in further detail in Annals, at this time Prasutagus, alleged client king of the Iceni and husband to Boudica, named his daughters and the emperor Nero as heirs upon his death. If he is a real figure, it is thought that he was installed by Ostorius Scapula in AD 47 after a previous Icenian revolt, and therefore it’s not unusual that he bypassed Boudica in his will – as client kingdoms were usually short-term agreements, Prasutagus was likely ensuring protection for his daughters through marriage. Despite this, there is some argument that he knew his widow harboured sinister anti-roman sentiments and thus would ultimately cause the destruction of the tribe if allowed to rule.

Numismatically, there is no clear evidence for Boudica or Prasutagus. The coins bearing ESUPRASTO (ESU- meaning lord and PRASTO- meaning protector or priest-chief) have been associated with either the ESVPRASTO (gold Cunobelin staters) of the Corieltavi or the historical Prasutagus11. Due to their rarity (only fifteen have been recorded) and localised distribution, they indicate that prior to promotion ESUPRASTO ruled only in west Norfolk. Whilst it is difficult to infer evidence for perhaps a royal seat of power, there were likely ‘nobiles’ or ‘reguli’ (meaning petty king, from the Latin Rex) families of the Iceni. Like their neighbours to the south and west they minted coins at more than one place – with confirmed mints in Snettisham (the earliest gold coinage found there) and possible mints in Thetford, Saham Toney, Needham, Fincham and West Stow. Struck with the inscription including ANTED (Antedios, contemporary of Cunobelios) ECEN, and AESU, later silver coinage seemed to flow from at least three sources and pool together, and was seemingly strictly controlled in alloy, weight, and design. Bulst argues there is evidence Claudius had to court these high-ranking families during his conquest of Britain in AD 43- 47, and hence when the ‘gifts’ of money were recalled (most likely because the Iceni were about to lose client-kingdom status after the death of Prasutagus, and were beginning to be fully absorbed into the administrative structure of the province), and Decianus Catus began sequestering their ancestral possessions and beginning a full inventory of Prasutagus’ estate – no doubt they felt grossly and violently insulted: 

‘His kingdom was plundered by centurions, his house by slaves, as if they were the spoils of war. First, his wife Boudicea was scourged, and his daughters outraged. All the chief men of the Iceni, as if Rome had received the whole country as a gift, were stripped of their ancestral possessions, and the king’s relatives were made slaves …’ (14.31)

11 JHC Williams,’ The Silver Coins from East Anglia Attributed to King Prasutagus of the Iceni – a New Reading of the Obverse Inscription’, The Numismatic Chronicle 160, (2000): 281

That the revolt came suddenly is attested by archaeological evidence: only one coin hoard buried at the time has been found12. Tacitus records the fact that the Britons sowed no crops in the year the rebellion broke out, and Du Toit asserts that this must have been to allow them to muster their forces as early as possible13. Du Toit argues that Druidism was heavily ingrained in the Icenian psyche, and both he and Bulst argue that Boudica held a semi-religious position. She may have been moved by the Druid’s plight on Anglesey, and it seems her plan was timed to draw Paulinus’s forces south. Dio does not mention specifically what cities were attacked, simply stating Paulinus’ absence: ‘enabled her (Boudica) to sack and plunder two Roman cities, and, as I have said, to wreak indescribable slaughter. Those who were taken captive by the Britons were subjected to every known form of outrage’14.

12 CHV Sutherland, ‘Coinage and Currency in Roman Britain’, The Classical Review 52, No. 5 (1938): 192-3 

13 LA du Toit, ‘TACITUS AND THE REBELLION OF BOUDICCA’, Acta Classica 20 (1977): 152-53

14 Dio, History, 16. 7

Tacitus, in contrast, narrates the fall of Camulodunum first, where the Britons (the Trinovantes had joined their cause, along with perhaps more including the Catuvellani and Coritani) meet and defeat Petilious Cerialis and a division of the IX Hispania (9th Hispanic) legion: 

All else was pillaged or fired in the first onrush: only the temple, in which the troops had massed themselves, stood a two days’ siege, and was then carried by storm. Turning to meet Petilius Cerialis,
commander of the ninth legion, who was arriving to the rescue, the victorious Britons routed the legion
and slaughtered the infantry to a man… (14.32) 

Excavations by the Colchester Archaeological Trust revealed that many of the single storeyed houses had been methodically levelled then burnt, having been made of hardened clay and timber which was difficult to set alight. At Londinium, the same Boudican destruction horizon is repeated. Excavations have revealed a layer of bright red burnt daub, typically 30-60 centimetres deep. Boudica then travelled northwards towards Verulamium (St Albans), capital of the Catuvellauni. The architecture of early Verulamium was a blend of native and Roman elements with rectangular structures built on timber sleeper beams in the iron age style. Sites with burnt layers are concentrated in the heart of the later city, and, unlike London and Colchester, the destruction of standing structures was not total. Some buildings in the south-west comer of Insula XIV escaped, as well as some of the outbuildings of the shops in the opposite, north-east corner of the same insula. Destruction at all three sights seems to have been against everyone representing wealth and property: some 70,00 to 80,000 ‘cives et socii’ were killed during the rebellion. The fact that resistance continued after the death of Boudica (in Dio she dies from illness, and in Tacitus, poison) shows that, if she existed, she acted as a figurehead, and not necessarily
the instigator. Pacification was only achieved by a combination of ‘military actions, lack of supplies,
and the more lenient policy of a new commander’15. 

15 Stephen L Dyson, ‘Native Revolts in the Roman Empire’, Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 20, (1971): 263

Her Legacy

 ‘The warrior queen is often reimagined to best suit the symbolic requirements of contemporary society’16. 

 The bronze Boadicea group statue appeared in 1902, by Thomas Thornycroft on Westminster Bridge. Initially a plaster cast, it was made in 1856 and erected by embankment after Thornycroft’s death. Created ‘as a conscious response to professional disappointment’, it could be argued the piece was a well-researched, historically accurate artistic articulation of resistance against foreign influence17. Previously, his statue of Queen Victoria was turned down for royal commission some twenty years before, for fear of its realistic (as opposed to classical) portrayal in favour of design by Italian French sculptor Carlo Marochetti. 

In contrast, Marina Warner argues that Thornycroft’s Boudicca provided the Victorians with a convenient imperial icon of triumph and maintained wilful ignorance to acknowledge her as instead as a rebel against imperial conquest. They were torn between simultaneously admiring Roman colonisers and citing them as forerunners to their own empire (interpreting excavations amid rapid industrialisation) yet sympathising with the victims of invasion and doomed fighters of British resistance. Placed within the context of the 19th century mania for ‘Romantic Historicism’ studied by scholars of literature and drama, and we can see how easily Boudica’s personification as ‘Britannia’ has reached enduring proportions. 

16 Virginia Hoselitz, Imagining Roman Britain: Victorian Responses to a Roman Past, (London, Woodbridge, 2007) 37 

17 Martha Vandrei, ‘A Victorian Invention? Thomas Thornycroft’s ‘Boadicea Group’ and the idea of Historical Culture in Britain’ The Historical Journal 57, No. 2 (2014): 493

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