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Boudica: Rebel, Freedom Fighter, Feminist Icon

Updated: Feb 18

The Known Knowns Since at least the 16th century, Boudica, Queen of the Iceni, has retained a compelling hold on the British imagination and identity. In reality she is known to us only by a few paragraphs that are found in incomplete classical texts written by her adversaries. The defiant warrior queen, who led such a ferocious revolt that the Romans feared they would lose the province of Britannia, has been celebrated in literature, art and film. Even today, more than 1,900 years after the alleged date of the revolt in AD 60, Boudica remains a figure of fascination, an icon of female power. Yet nothing about her is certain - not her name, nor the year of the revolt, not even where the final battle took place, nor the manner of her death, nor her very existence. Despite this, today she is extolled as an icon of Britishness, of resistance to oppression and of feminism. What do we think we know about the events of AD 60 and of the Queen of the Iceni?

The surviving classical references to Boudica are contained in three contradictory texts written by two Roman authors, Tacitus and Cassius Dio. Of the two, Tacitus is our earliest source for the story, but in nine paragraphs describing the British uprising in AD 60, Boudica is mentioned by name only three times.

Tacitus Publius Cornelius Tacitus, known simply as Tacitus, was a Roman historian and politician who lived from c.  AD 56 to c.  AD 120. Tacitus is widely regarded as one of the greatest Roman historians by modern scholars. The surviving portions of his two major works - the Annals (Latin: Annales) and the Histories (Latin: Historiae) - document the reigns of the emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero, and those who reigned in the Year of the Four Emperors in AD 69 (Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian). These two works span the history of the Roman Empire from the death of Augustus (AD 14) to the death of Domitian (AD 96), although there are substantial gaps in the surviving texts. Tacitus wrote his account of the events of AD 60 many years after the rebellion. His father-in-law Gnaeus Julius Agricola however was an eyewitness having served in Britannia as a tribune under Suetonius Paulinus during this period. If he used Agricola’s testimony, then Tacitus’s account may be all the more reliable.

It is in Book XIV of Tacitus’ ‘Annals of Imperial Rome‘ that the first account of Boudica and the Icenian revolt is recorded. The relevant nine paragraphs describing the events of AD 60 are reproduced from the Loeb Classical Library edition’s (1937) translation of the text; some explanatory comments are included where applicable. From these few paragraphs it is hoped readers will appreciate just how little historical evidence we have for Boudica. To set the scene, in AD 60 the Roman Governor of Britannia, Suetonius Paulinus, was attacking Isla Mona to extend Roman dominance into the furthest reaches of Wales. The island, modern Anglesey, was a sanctuary for many refugee Britons and reputedly a druidic stronghold. Tacitus writes:

’30 1 …While thus occupied, the sudden revolt of the province [the so-called ‘subdued’ part] was announced to Suetonius.

31 1 The Icenian king Prasutagus, celebrated for his long prosperity, had named the Emperor his heir, together with his two daughters; an act of deference which he thought would place his kingdom and household beyond the risk of injury. The result was contrary - so much so that his kingdom was pillaged by centurions, his household by slaves; as though they had been prizes of war. As a beginning, his wife Boudicca was subjected to the lash and his daughters violated: all the chief men of the Icenians were stripped of their family estates, and the relatives of the king were treated as slaves. Impelled by this outrage and the dread of worse to come - for they had now been reduced to the status of a province - they flew to arms and incited to rebellion the Trinovantes [1] and others, who, not yet broken by servitude, had entered into a secret and treasonable compact to resume their independence. The bitterest animosity was felt against the veterans; who, fresh from their settlement in the colony [Latin: ‘colonia’] of Camulodunum, were acting as though they had received a free gift of the entire country, driving the natives from their homes, ejecting them from their lands, - they styled them ‘captives’ and ‘slaves’, - and abetted in their fury by the troops, with their similar mode of life and their hopes of equal indulgence. More than this, the temple raised to the deified Claudius continually met the view, like the citadel of an eternal tyranny; while the priests, chosen for its service, were bound under the pretext of religion to pour out their fortunes like water. Nor did there seem any great difficulty in the demolition of a colony unprotected by fortifications - a point too little regarded by our commanders, whose thoughts had run more on the agreeable than on the useful.

32 1 Meanwhile, for no apparent reason, the statue of Victory at Camulodunum fell, with its back turned as if in retreat from the enemy. Women, converted into maniacs by excitement, cried that destruction was at hand and that alien cries had been heard in the invaders' senate-house: the theatre had rung with shrieks, and in the estuary of the Thames had been seen a vision of the ruined colony. Again, that the Ocean had appeared blood-red and that the ebbing tide had left behind it what looked to be human corpses, were indications read by the Britons with hope and by the veterans with corresponding alarm. However, as Suetonius was far away, they applied for help to the procurator Catus Decianus. He sent not more than two hundred men, without their proper weapons: in addition, there was a small body of troops in the town. Relying on the protection of the temple and hampered also by covert adherents of the rebellion who interfered with their plans, they neither secured their position by ditch or rampart nor took steps, by removing the women and the aged, to leave only able-bodied men in the place. They were as carelessly guarded as if the world was at peace when they were enveloped by a great barbarian host. 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: Cerialis with the cavalry escaped to the camp and found shelter behind its fortifications. Unnerved by the disaster and the hatred of the province which his rapacity had goaded into war, the procurator Catus crossed to Gaul.

Although not explicitly stated by Tactitus, Legio IX Hispana is thought to have been garrisoning Lindum (Lincoln) at this time, so Cerialis probably marched South down the Roman road now known as ‘Ermine Street’ [2] to relieve Camulodunum. Where the rout took place is not known, although Wormingford near Colchester has been suggested.

33 1 Suetonius, on the other hand, with remarkable firmness, marched straight through the midst of the enemy upon London; which, though not distinguished by the title of colony, was none the less a busy centre, chiefly through its crowd of merchants and stores. Once there, he felt some doubt whether to choose it as a base of operations; but, on considering the fewness of his troops and the sufficiently severe lesson which had been read to the rashness of Petilius, he determined to save the country as a whole at the cost of one town. The laments and tears of the inhabitants, as they implored his protection, found him inflexible: he gave the signal for departure, and embodied in the column those capable of accompanying the march: all who had been detained by the disabilities of sex, by the lassitude of age, or by local attachment, fell into the hands of the enemy. A similar catastrophe was reserved for the municipality of Verulamium [3]; as the natives, with their delight in plunder and their distaste for exertion, left the forts and garrison-posts on one side, and made for the point which offered the richest material for the pillager and was unsafe for a defending force. It is established that close upon seventy thousand Roman citizens and allies fell in the places mentioned. For the enemy neither took captive nor sold into captivity; there was none of the other commerce of war; he was hasty with slaughter and the gibbet, with arson and the cross, as though his day of reckoning must come, but only after he had snatched his revenge in the interval.

Facing the real threat of losing the province, the Romans had to react. While Suetonius Paulinus moved ahead to London, it makes sense that he ordered the Legio XIIII Gemina, a detachment (Latin: vexillatio) of the Legio XX and supporting auxiliary units to follow on. After departing Anglesey the Roman force may well have resupplied in Deva (modern Chester), the legionary fortress established for operations in Wales. Presumably the objective was to reach Colchester, with the advancing Romans following the route of ‘Watling Street’ [4]. The probable course of events may have been as follows:

  • Suetonius Paulinus hurried ahead with a detachment of light troops and/or cavalry, while the 14th Legion et al. followed by a series of forced marches.

  • While at Viroconium Cornoviorum (Wroxeter in Shropshire), it is thought Suetonius Paulinus summoned the 2nd Legion to join him, but reputedly its commander Poenius Postumus refused to leave his own front defenceless against possible attacks by the Silures of South Wales.

  • At London, the situation was found to be desperate, with the rebels in overwhelming force and the 9th Legion combat ineffective.

  • Consequently, Suetonius Paulinus fell back northward along Watling Street until linking up with the advancing legionaries. ‘Somewhere in the Midlands’ the smaller Roman force was compelled to engage the Britons; the Romans survived because they chose the ground advantageously.

34 1 Suetonius had already the fourteenth legion, with a detachment of the twentieth and auxiliaries from the nearest stations, altogether some ten thousand armed men, when he prepared to abandon delay and contest a pitched battle. He chose a position approached by a narrow defile and secured in the rear by a wood, first satisfying himself that there was no trace of an enemy except in his front, and that the plain there was devoid of cover and allowed no suspicion of an ambuscade. The legionaries were posted in serried ranks, the light-armed troops on either side, and the cavalry massed on the extreme wings. The British forces, on the other hand, disposed in bands of foot and horse were moving jubilantly in every direction. They were in unprecedented numbers, and confidence ran so high that they brought even their wives to witness the victory and installed them in wagons, which they had stationed just over the extreme fringe of the plain.

35 1 Boudicca, mounted in a chariot with her daughters before her, rode up to clan after clan and delivered her protest: ‘It was customary, she knew, with Britons to fight under female captaincy; but now she was avenging, not, as a queen of glorious ancestry, her ravished realm and power, but, as a woman of the people, her liberty lost, her body tortured by the lash, the tarnished honour of her daughters. Roman cupidity had progressed so far that not their very persons, not age itself, nor maidenhood, were left unpolluted. Yet Heaven was on the side of their just revenge: one legion, which ventured battle, had perished; the rest were skulking in their camps, or looking around them for a way of escape. They would never face even the din and roar of those many thousands, far less their onslaught and their swords! If they considered in their own hearts the forces under arms and the motives of the war, on that field they must conquer or fall. Such was the settled purpose of a woman - the men might live and be slaves!’

Both Tacitus and Cassius Dio (see below) provide accounts of speeches given by Boudica, though it is thought that her words were never recorded during her life. Such speeches were often employed by Roman authors when describing how generals prepared and instilled confidence and courage in their men prior to battle. With this in mind, it is probably safe to say that both Boudica’s and Suetonius’ orations (see below) were invented. They do, however, provide a comparison of the adversaries' demands and approaches to war, and serve to portray the Romans as morally superior to their enemy. The speeches also helped create an image of patriotism that would ultimately turn Boudica into a legendary figure.

36 1 Even Suetonius, in this critical moment, broke silence. In spite of his reliance on the courage of the men, he still blended exhortations and entreaty: ‘They must treat with contempt the noise and empty menaces of the barbarians: in the ranks opposite, more women than soldiers meet the eye. Unwarlike and unarmed, they would break immediately, when, taught by so many defeats, they recognised once more the steel and the valour of their conquerors. Even in a number of legions, it was but a few men who decided the fate of battles; and it would be an additional glory that they, a handful of troops, were gathering the laurels of an entire army. Only, keeping their order close, and, when their javelins were discharged, employing shield-boss and sword, let them steadily pile up the dead and forget the thought of plunder: once the victory was gained, all would be their own.’ Such was the ardour following the general's words - with such alacrity had his veteran troops, with the long experience of battle, prepared themselves in a moment to hurl the pilum - that Suetonius, without a doubt of the issue, gave the signal to engage.

37 1 At first, the legionaries stood motionless, keeping to the defile as a natural protection: then, when the closer advance of the enemy had enabled them to exhaust their missiles with certitude of aim, they dashed forward in a wedge-like formation. The auxiliaries charged in the same style; and the cavalry, with lances extended, broke a way through any parties of resolute men whom they encountered. The remainder took to flight, although escape was difficult, as the cordon of wagons had blocked the outlets. The troops gave no quarter even to the women: the baggage animals themselves had been speared and added to the pile of bodies. The glory won in the course of the day was remarkable, and equal to that of our older victories: for, by some accounts, little less than eighty thousand Britons fell, at a cost of some four hundred Romans killed and a not much greater number of wounded [the figures Tacitus gives for casualties on both sides are equally incredible]. Boudicca ended her days by poison; while Poenius Postumus, camp-prefect of the second legion, informed of the exploits of the men of the fourteenth and twentieth, and conscious that he had cheated his own corps of a share in the honours and had violated the rules of the service by ignoring the orders of his commander, ran his sword through his body.

38 1 The whole army was now concentrated and kept under canvas, with a view to finishing what was left of the campaign. Its strength was increased by the Caesar, who sent over from Germany two thousand legionaries, eight cohorts of auxiliaries, and a thousand cavalry. Their advent allowed the gaps in the ninth legion to be filled with regular troops; the allied foot and horse were stationed in new winter quarters; and the tribes which had shown themselves dubious or disaffected were harried with fire and sword.

Two thousand legionary replacements, even if we are cautious of Tacitus’ figures, does not lend much substance to Legio IX Hispana being exterminated as many authors and TV historians habitually report. Rather, the quoted number of replacements strongly suggests Cerialis did not march forth with his whole legion, which on paper at least should have had about 5,000 men. It seems most likely that may be up to half of Legio IX Hispana plus its cavalry element set out to, if not quell the rebellion, then at least reconnoitre in force to discover what was happening and relieve Camulodunum. Not knowing fully what the situation was, it would make tactical sense for Cerialis to leave a significant portion of his force in situ to control the territory assigned to the legion. Incidentally, this is the same 9th Legion who didn’t ‘mysteriously disappear’ in Caledonia (Scotland) but, thanks to Rosemary Sutcliffe’s novel ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’, that’s another story.

Boudica’s appearances As previously stated, in Tacitus’ nine paragraphs the Queen of the Iceni features only three times. She is first mentioned as the wife, not queen, of the late King Prasutagus: ‘As a beginning, his wife Boudicca was subjected to the lash and his daughters violated…’ The second mention is in the pre-battle speech Tacitus attributes to her: ‘Boudicca, mounted in a chariot with her daughters before her, rode up to clan after clan and delivered her protest’. It is only here that Tacitus alludes to her regal position; ‘a queen of glorious ancestry’. As an aside, by Boudica's time, the use of chariots other than a form of transport was largely outdated as a battlefield tactic. Cassius Dio mentions the Briton's use of chariots in the battle but other than having Boudica standing in one to address her warriors, Tacitus does not. Boudica’s third and final appearance in her own story rather fittingly relates to her demise: ‘Boudicca ended her days by poison…’

So, we are told she was whipped (precisely by whom and why is certainly not clear), she makes a speech, and she dies by poison. Tacitus makes no mention of what she looked like, whether she was in sole command of the Britons, what actual part she took in the events of AD 60, whether she fought in the final battle, where she died nor where her body may have been laid to rest. Tacitus’ two brief mentions and one imagined speech hardly presents Boudica as the warrior queen of legend, so from where has the popular image arisen?

Cassius Dio Enter Lucius Cassius Dio, our second source for Boudica’s story which forms part of Book LXII of his ‘Roman Histories’. Also known as Dio Cassius, he was a Roman historian and senator of maternal Greek origin who lived from c.  AD 155 to c.  AD 235. During his lifetime he published some 80 volumes on the history of ancient Rome beginning with the arrival of Aeneas [5] in Italy. The volumes documented the subsequent founding of Rome (753 BC), the formation of the Republic (509 BC), and the creation of the Empire (27 BC) up until AD 229. Written in ancient Greek over 22 years, many of Cassius Dio's 80 books have survived intact, or as fragments, providing modern scholars with a detailed perspective on nearly 1,000 years of Roman history. As far as Boudica is concerned, Cassius Dio began his history of Rome and its empire about 140 years after her death. Much is lost and his account of Boudica only survives in the epitome of an 11th century Byzantine monk, John Xiphilinus. It is Cassius Dio who adds much of the lurid detail although, in general, his embellishments are often fictitious. It is also possible that he was referencing the earlier work of Tacitus which, if correct, creates the problem of circular reporting and somewhat undermines Cassius Dio as an independent, corroborating source.

Cassius Dio’s account of the events in Britannia forms part of his narrative concerning the Emperor Nero. Boudica’s rebellion is covered in 12 paragraphs of Book LXII of his ‘Roman Histories’;

1 While this sort of child's play was going on in Rome, a terrible disaster occurred in Britain. Two cities were sacked, eighty thousand of the Romans and of their allies perished, and the island was lost to Rome. Moreover, all this ruin was brought upon the Romans by a woman, a fact which in itself caused them the greatest shame. Indeed, Heaven gave them indications of the catastrophe beforehand. For at night there was heard to issue from the senate-house foreign jargon mingled with laughter, and from the theatre outcries and lamentations, though no mortal man had uttered the words or the groans; houses were seen under the water in the river Thames, and the ocean between the island and Gaul once grew blood-red at flood tide.

2 An excuse for the war was found in the confiscation of the sums of money that Claudius had given to the foremost Britons; for these sums, as Decianus Catus, the procurator of the island, maintained, were to be paid back. This was one reason for the uprising; another was found in the fact that 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. But the person who was chiefly instrumental in rousing the natives and persuading them to fight the Romans, the person who was thought worthy to be their leader and who directed the conduct of the entire war, was Buduica, a Briton woman of the royal family and possessed of greater intelligence than often belongs to women. This woman assembled her army, to the number of some 120,000, and then ascended a tribunal which had been constructed of earth in the Roman fashion. 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. This was her invariable attire. She now grasped a spear to aid her in terrifying all beholders and spoke as follows:

3 ‘You have learned by actual experience how different freedom is from slavery. Hence, although some among you may previously, through ignorance of which was better, have been deceived by the alluring promises of the Romans, yet now that you have tried both, you have learned how great a mistake you made in preferring an imported despotism to your ancestral mode of life, and you have come to realize how much better is poverty with no master than wealth with slavery. For what treatment is there of the most shameful or grievous sort that we have not suffered ever since these men made their appearance in Britain? Have we not been robbed entirely of most of our possessions, and those the greatest, while for those that remain we pay taxes? Besides pasturing and tilling for them all our other possessions, do we not pay a yearly tribute for our very bodies? How much better it would be to have been sold to masters once for all than, possessing empty titles of freedom, to have to ransom ourselves every year! How much better to have been slain and to have perished than to go about with a tax on our heads! Yet why do I mention death? For even dying is not free of cost with them; nay, you know what fees we deposit even for our dead. Among the rest of mankind death frees even those who are in slavery to others; only in the case of the Romans do the very dead remain alive for their profit. Why is it that, though none of us has any money (how, indeed, could we, or where would we get it?), we are stripped and despoiled like a murderer's victims? And why should the Romans be expected to display moderation as time goes on, when they have behaved toward us in this fashion at the very outset, when all men show consideration even for the beasts they have newly captured?

4 ‘But, to speak the plain truth, it is we who have made ourselves responsible for all these evils, in that we allowed them to set foot on the island in the first place instead of expelling them at once as we did their famous Julius Caesar, - yes, and in that we did not deal with them while they were still far away as we dealt with Augustus and with Gaius Caligula and make even the attempt to sail hither a formidable thing. As a consequence, although we inhabit so large an island, or rather a continent, one might say, that is encircled by the sea, and although we possess a veritable world of our own and are so separated by the ocean from all the rest of mankind that we have been believed to dwell on a different earth and under a different sky, and that some of the outside world, aye, even their wisest men, have not hitherto known for a certainty even by what name we are called, we have, notwithstanding all this, been despised and trampled underfoot by men who know nothing else than how to secure gain. However, even at this late day, though we have not done so before, let us, my countrymen and friends and kinsmen, - for I consider you all kinsmen, seeing that you inhabit a single island and are called by one common name, - let us, I say, do our duty while we still remember what freedom is, that we may leave to our children not only its appellation but also its reality. For, if we utterly forget the happy state in which we were born and bred, what, pray, will they do, reared in bondage?

5 ‘All this I say, not with the purpose of inspiring you with a hatred of present conditions, — that hatred you already have, - nor with fear for the future, - that fear you already have, — but of commending you because you now of our own accord choose the requisite course of action, and of thanking you for so readily co-operating with me and with each other. Have no fear whatever of the Romans; for they are superior to us neither in numbers nor in bravery. And here is the proof: they have protected themselves with helmets and breastplates and greaves and yet further provided themselves with palisades and walls and trenches to make sure of suffering no harm by an incursion of their enemies. For they are influenced by their fears when they adopt this kind of fighting in preference to the plan we follow of rough and ready action. Indeed, we enjoy such a surplus of bravery, that we regard our tents as safer than their walls and our shields as affording greater protection than their whole suits of mail. As a consequence, we when victorious capture them, and when overpowered elude them; and if we ever choose to retreat anywhere, we conceal ourselves in swamps and mountains so inaccessible that we can be neither discovered or taken. Our opponents, however, can neither pursue anybody, by reason of their heavy armour, nor yet flee; and if they ever do slip away from us, they take refuge in certain appointed spots, where they shut themselves up as in a trap. But these are not the only respects in which they are vastly inferior to us: there is also the fact that they cannot bear up under hunger, thirst, cold, or heat, as we can. They require shade and covering, they require kneaded bread and wine and oil, and if any of these things fails them, they perish; for us, on the other hand, any grass or root serves as bread, the juice of any plant as oil, any water as wine, any tree as a house. Furthermore, this region is familiar to us and is our ally, but to them it is unknown and hostile. As for the rivers, we swim them naked, whereas they do not across them easily even with boats. Let us, therefore, go against them trusting boldly to good fortune. Let us show them that they are hares and foxes trying to rule over dogs and wolves.’

6 When she 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, and Buduica, raising her hand toward heaven, said: ‘I thank thee, Andraste, and call upon thee as woman speaking to woman; for I rule over no burden-bearing Egyptians as did Nitocris, nor over trafficking Assyrians as did Semiramis (for we have by now gained thus much learning from the Romans!), much less over the Romans themselves as did Messalina once and afterwards Agrippina and now Nero (who, though in name a man, is in fact a woman, as is proved by his singing, lyre-playing and beautification of his person); nay, those over whom I rule are Britons, men that know not how to till the soil or ply a trade, but are thoroughly versed in the art of war and hold all things in common, even children and wives, so that the latter possess the same valour as the men. As the queen, then, of such men and of such women, I supplicate and pray thee for victory, preservation of life, and liberty against men insolent, unjust, insatiable, impious, - if, indeed, we ought to term those people men who bathe in warm water, eat artificial dainties, drink unmixed wine, anoint themselves with myrrh, sleep on soft couches with boys for bedfellows, - boys past their prime at that, - and are slaves to a lyre-player and a poor one too. Wherefore may this Mistress Domitia-Nero reign no longer over me or over you men; let the wench sing and lord it over Romans, for they surely deserve to be the slaves of such a woman after having submitted to her so long. But for us, Mistress, be thou alone ever our leader.’ [6]

7 Having finished an appeal to her people of this general tenor, Buduica led her army against the Romans; for these chanced to be without a leader, inasmuch as Paulinus, their commander, had gone on an expedition to Mona, an island near Britain. This enabled her 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. The worst and most bestial atrocity committed by their captors was the following. They hung up naked the noblest and most distinguished women and then cut off their breasts and sewed them to their mouths, in order to make the victims appear to be eating them; afterwards they impaled the women on sharp skewers run lengthwise through the entire body. All this they did to the accompaniment of sacrifices, banquets, and wanton behaviour, not only in all their other sacred places, but particularly in the grove of Andate. This was their name for Victory, and they regarded her with most exceptional reverence.

8 Now it chanced that Paulinus had already brought Mona to terms, and so on learning of the disaster in Britain he at once set sail thither from Mona. However, he was not willing to risk a conflict with the barbarians immediately, as he feared their numbers and their desperation, but was inclined to postpone battle to a more convenient season. But as he grew short of food and the barbarians pressed relentlessly upon him, he was compelled, contrary to his judgment, to engage them. Buduica, at the head of an army of about 230,000 men, rode in a chariot herself and assigned the others to their several stations. Paulinus could not extend his line the whole length of hers, for, even if the men had been drawn up only one deep, they would not have reached far enough, so inferior were they in numbers; nor, on the other hand, did he dare join battle in a single compact force, for fear of being surrounded and cut to pieces. He therefore separated his army into three divisions, in order to fight at several points at one and the same time, and he made each of the divisions so strong that it could not easily be broken through.

9 While ordering and arranging his men he also exhorted them, saying: ‘Up, fellow soldiers! Up, Romans! Show these accursed wretches how far we surpass them even in the midst of evil fortune. It would be shameful, indeed, for you to lose ingloriously now what but a short time ago you won by your valour. Many a time, assuredly, have both we ourselves and our fathers, with far fewer numbers than we have at present, conquered far more numerous antagonists. Fear not, then, their numbers or their spirit of rebellion; for their boldness rests on nothing more than headlong rashness unaided by arms or training. Neither fear them because they have burned a couple of cities; for they did not capture them by force nor after a battle, but one was betrayed and the other abandoned to them. Exact from them now, therefore, the proper penalty for these deeds, and let them learn by actual experience the difference between us, whom they have wronged, and themselves.’

10 After addressing these words to one division he came to another and said: ‘Now is the time, fellow soldiers, for zeal, now is the time for daring. For if you show yourselves brave men to‑day, you will recover all that you have lost; if you overcome these foes, no one else will any longer withstand us. By one such battle you will both make your present possessions secure and subdue whatever remains; for everywhere our soldiers, even though they are in other lands, will emulate you and foes will be terror-stricken. Therefore, since you have it within your power either to rule all mankind without a fear, both the nations that your fathers left to you and those that you yourselves have gained in addition, or else to be deprived of them altogether, choose to be free, to rule, to live in wealth, and to enjoy prosperity, rather than, by avoiding the effort, to suffer the opposite of all this.’

11 After making an address of this sort to these men, he went on to the third division, and to them he said: ‘You have heard what outrages these damnable men have committed against us, nay more, you have even witnessed some of them. Choose, then, whether you wish to suffer the same treatment yourselves as our comrades have suffered and to be driven out of Britain entirely, besides, or else by conquering to avenge those that have perished and at the same time furnish to the rest of mankind an example, not only of benevolent clemency toward the obedient, but also of inevitable severity toward the rebellious. For my part, I hope, above all, that victory will be ours; first, because the gods are our allies (for they almost always side with those who have been wronged); second, because of the courage that is our heritage, since we are Romans and have triumphed over all mankind by our valour; next, because of our experience (for we have defeated and subdued these very men who are now arrayed against us); and lastly, because of our prestige (for those with whom we are about to engage are not antagonists, but our slaves, whom we conquered even when they were free and independent). Yet if the outcome should prove contrary to our hope, - for I will not shrink from mentioning even this possibility, - it would be better for us to fall fighting bravely than to be captured and impaled, to look upon our own entrails cut from our bodies, to be spitted on red-hot skewers, to perish by being melted in boiling water - in a word, to suffer as though we had been thrown to lawless and impious wild beasts. Let us, therefore, either conquer them or die on the spot. Britain will be a noble monument for us, even though all the other Romans here should be driven out; for in any case our bodies shall for ever possess this land.’

12 After addressing these and like words to them he raised the signal for battle. Thereupon the armies approached each other, the barbarians with much shouting mingled with menacing battle-songs, but the Romans silently and in order until they came within a javelin's throw of the enemy. Then, while their foes were still advancing against them at a walk, the Romans rushed forward at a signal and charged them at full speed, and when the clash came, easily broke through the opposing ranks; but, as they were surrounded by the great numbers of the enemy, they had to be fighting everywhere at once. Their struggle took many forms. Light-armed troops exchanged missiles with light-armed, heavy-armed were opposed to heavy-armed, cavalry clashed with cavalry, and against the chariots of the barbarians the Roman archers contended. The barbarians would assail the Romans with a rush of their chariots, knocking them helter-skelter, but, since they fought with breastplates, would themselves be repulsed by the arrows. Horseman would overthrow foot-soldiers and foot-soldiers strike down horseman; a group of Romans, forming in close order, would advance to meet the chariots, and others would be scattered by them; a band of Britons would come to close quarters with the archers and rout them, while others were content to dodge their shafts at a distance; and all this was going on not at one spot only, but in all three divisions at once. They contended for a long time, both parties being animated by the same zeal and daring. But finally, late in the day, the Romans prevailed; and they slew many in battle beside the wagons and the forest, and captured many alike. Nevertheless, not a few made their escape and were preparing to fight again. In the meantime, however, Buduica fell sick and died. The Britons mourned her deeply and gave her a costly burial; but, feeling that now at last they were really defeated, they scattered to their homes. So much for affairs in Britain.'

Cassius Dio’s account follows the same sequence of events as Tacitus which lends credence to the idea that both authors are reflecting, in general terms, what happened in AD 60. Dio, however, adds much of the familiar detail to the Boudican story, including more on the background to the uprising. Significantly for present purposes, it is from his history that we have the sole surviving description of what Boudica may have looked like:

‘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. This was her invariable attire.’

Loeb Classical Library edition, Vol. VIII (trans. Cary)

Based on the above, many subsequent authors have determined that Boudica had long flaming or red hair but, in reality, this is a modern invention. Remember Cassius Dio is the only author to give us a description, but he wrote his account some 140 years after her death. We currently have no idea who or what was his source(s). Perhaps he was drawing on other texts that have not survived the passage of time, or it could be pure invention.

To complicate matters, there are different translations of Dio’s description. In 1905 Foster translated the passage to read: ‘In person she was very tall, with a most sturdy figure and a piercing glance; her voice was harsh; a great mass of yellow hair fell below her waist.’ Nine years later Professor Earnest Cary’s 1914 translation, which formed the Loeb Classical Library edition used above, refers to: ‘…a great mass of the tawniest hair fell to her hips.’ Writing in ancient Greek, the word Cassius Dio uses for Boudica’s hair colour is ξανθοτάτος (xanthotatos) literally meaning ‘most golden’. However, xanthos in Greek can refer to a range of hair colours from blonde through to auburn, so it is difficult to determine what Cassius Dio imagined. We can be reasonably certain her hair was long, however, as this was the custom amongst high-born Iron Age women who had the time to tend to the upkeep of their hair.

The following paragraphs 3, 4 and 5 of Cassius Dio’s account contain the lengthy pre-battle speech he attributes to Boudica. As with the more concise, pithy Tacitus version, this also must be an imagined literary device since her words were not recorded at the time. We can be pretty confident this was the case because. as far as we know, the Britons relied on an oral tradition rather than the written word to remember events and pass on learning. Documenting history was a conventional Roman thing, yet it is highly unlikely that any Roman, or one of their allies, would have been present amongst the mass of vengeful Britons to record anything (and survive to tell the tale). So, neither author can possibly know what was said.

Interestingly, in paragraph 6, Cassius Dio introduces his readers to one of the Briton’s deities, Andraste. Once again, it is probably safe to say that all we know about this goddess is derived solely from Cassius Dio. Despite not explicitly mentioning that Andraste was in fact the Briton’s (or at the very least the Iceni tribe’s) goddess of war, many modern authors assert she was a warrior goddess. Such claims are rarely supported with any evidence or referenced texts so one cannot help suspecting that this is because there are no other sources. When Dio later misspells her name as ‘Andate’, he goes on to state this was the Briton’s ‘name for Victory’. Undoubtedly, he expected Roman readers to make the connection with Victoria, the Roman winged goddess who personified victory. The linking of Andraste/Andate to Victoria, however, has subsequently allowed further connections to be contrived as Victoria is also associated with the ancient Greek goddess Nike (the personification of victory in any field including art, music, war and athletics), the ancient Roman goddess of war Bellona, the Greek mother goddess Cybele, whom the Romans called Magna Mater (Great Mother), and Vacuna an ancient Sabine goddess identified by ancient Roman sources and later scholars with numerous other goddesses including those already mentioned. Except for Bellona, none of these associated deities represent the act or pursuit of ‘war’ or were considered warrior goddesses, so it is difficult to see how the argument for Andraste/Andate is made. It all seems a bit nebulous.

The same can be said for neopagan sources who claim the native British hare was sacred to this goddess. This connection seems to be extrapolated from our single source, Cassius Dio, when he describes Boudica releasing a hare from her gown in some form of divination ritual. Once again, Dio may have cannily determined his readers would be familiar with the hare as an animal sacred to the god and goddess of love, Eros and Aphrodite, because of its high libido. In other words, Dio is adding in detail for his audience to identify with, but which may have had no basis in fact. We therefore cannot be at all certain hares were ‘scared’ to the ancient Britons, nor whether they were used in augury [7].

What’s in a name Both authors misspelt Boudica's name. Cassius Dio used ‘Buduica’, while Tacitus added a second 'c.' After the misspelling was copied by a Mediæval scribe, further variations began to appear. Along with the second 'c' becoming an 'e,' an 'a' appeared in place of the 'u', which produced the Mediæval (and most common) version of the name, Boadicea. The true spelling was totally obscured when Boadicea first appeared in the 17th century. William Cowper used this spelling in his 1782 poem ‘Boadicea, an Ode’, a work whose impact resulted in Boudica's reinvention as a British imperialistic champion.

Archaeology Over the decades archaeological studies have so far failed to find significant evidence for the battles described by Tacitus and Cassius Dio, let alone the physical presence of Boudica herself. Unlike the similar circumstances associated with the Varus Battle in Germany, no mass graves, finds of weapons and equipment, or personal possessions and artefacts have been unearthed to provide a clue as to where either the rout of Legio IX Hispana or the ‘Battle of Watling Street’ unfolded. Archaeology has however corroborated some elements of the authors’ histories. In Colchester, for example, as well as in Verulamium (St Albans), and Silchester, burnt layers dated to the time of the rebellion have been excavated and analysed. The physical evidence points strongly to something momentous happening around the time of the events described; important enough to be documented by our two Roman historians.

Iconic status Despite the lack of evidence the story of Boudica continues to captivate audiences. Yet the enduring legacy of Britain’s warrior queen results more from 18th century longings to develop an English nationhood. As mentioned, Cowper's poem ‘Boadicea: An Ode’ was notable for championing the resistance of the Britons and helped to project British ideas of Imperial expansion. In the 19th century, Boudica’s transition to a British cultural icon and national heroine was undoubtedly helped by association with another powerful queen, Victoria. Indeed, what most people assume to know about the Icenian queen was probably cemented during Victoria’s reign. The popular image of Boudica is epitomised by Thomas Thornycroft’s ambitious work ‘Boadicea and Her Daughters’, a bronze statue of the queen in her war chariot, complete with anachronistic scythes on the wheel axles. Produced between 1856 and 1871, cast in 1896, the work (above right) was positioned on the Victoria Embankment next to Westminster Bridge in 1902. Passed by millions of people each year, this statue perpetuates the Boudican myth, but it was her adoption around the same time as one symbol of the campaign for women's suffrage that may well have been the catalyst for her more modern portrayal as a feminist icon.

And yet, in an odd irony of history, when all is said and done, if it were not for Tacitus and Cassisu Dio, then Boudica the ‘warrior queen’, freedom fighter’ and ‘feminist icon’ would be unknown to us today. While we have demonstrable proof for the existence of her husband, Prasutagus, in the shape of coins (right) attributed to the king of the Iceni [8], for Boudica and her two un-named daughters we have only the Roman accounts as evidence that she may [or may not] have lived. We have, as yet, no archaeological evidence specifically attributable to Boudica herself to back up Tacitus and Cassius Dio’s histories. Without it we must take at face value their descriptions of her status as warrior queen and that she personally led an army of Britons to overthrow Roman rule. Likewise, we can only speculate on what she may have looked like, how she might have dressed, how she might have lived and, ultimately, how she may have died. Even Boudica status as a feminist icon and role model, of her being a powerful woman in a man’s world, all rely on Tacitus’ few paragraphs and, moreover, the literary inventions of Cassius Dio. Sadly, therefore, the latter author’s last line on the subject just about sums up the story of Boudica: ‘So much for affairs in Britain.’



Cassius Dio, ‘Roman Histories, Book LXII’, Loeb Classical Library edition, Vol. VIII (1925), Available online (accessed May 12th, 2023).

Publius Cornelius Tacitus, ‘The Annals of Imperial Rome, XIV’, Loeb Classical Library edition of Tacitus, Vol. V (1937), Available online (accessed January 19th, 2023).


1. A powerful tribe covering an area broadly equating to modern Essex and southern Suffolk, the Trinovantes were the main target of the Roman military in AD 43. Following their defeat, the tribe lost their tribal capital Camulodunum (modern Colchester in Essex), which became the first provincial capital of Roman Britannia. Camulodunum is a Latinised version of the town’s original Brythonic name Camulodunon meaning ‘the stronghold of Camulus’, the British god of war. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries it would be known by its official Roman name of Colonia Claudia Victricensis (often shortened to Colonia Victricensis). When the Iceni rose in revolt against Rome in AD 60, the Trinovantes joined them only to be crushed in battle.

2. ‘Ermine Street’ is a major Roman road in England that ran from Londinium (London) to Lindum Colonia (Lincoln) and Eboracum (York). By AD 1012 the Old English name Earninga Strǣt is first recorded. The original British and Roman names for the route remain unknown. It is also known as the Old North Road from London to where it joins the A1 Great North Road near Godmanchester in Cambridgeshire.

3. Verulamium was a town in Roman Britain. It was sited southwest of the modern city of St Albans in Hertfordshire, England. A large portion of the Roman city remains unexcavated, being now park and agricultural land, though much has been built upon. The major ancient Roman route Watling Street (see Note 4) passed through the city. Much of the site and its environs is now a scheduled monument.

4. First used by the ancient Britons, mainly between the areas of modern Canterbury and St Albans using a natural ford near Westminster, the road was later paved by the Romans. It connected the ports of Dubris (Dover), Rutupiae (Richborough Castle), Lemanis (Lympne), and Regulbium (Reculver) in Kent to the Roman bridge over the Thames at Londinium (London). The route continued northwest through Verulamium (St Albans) on its way to Viroconium Cornoviorum (Wroxeter). The name ‘Watling Street’, however, comes from Wætlingaceaster, the Anglo-Saxon name for the old Roman city of Verulamium. By the 9th century AD this local name was being applied to the whole of the Roman road, namely Wæclinga stræt.

5. In Greco-Roman mythology, Aeneas was a Trojan hero, the son of the Dardanian prince Anchises and the Greek goddess Aphrodite (equivalent to the Roman Venus). His father was a first cousin of King Priam of Troy (both being grandsons of Ilus, founder of Troy), making Aeneas a second cousin to Priam's children (such as Hector and Paris). While he is a minor character in Greek mythology, albeit mentioned in Homer's Iliad, Aeneas has a much more significant place in Roman mythology. Virgil's Aeneid, for example, explains that Aeneas was one of the few Trojans not killed or enslaved when city of Troy fell. Commanded by the gods to flee, Aeneas gathered a group, collectively known as the Aeneads, who travelled to Italy and became the ancestors of the Romans. Virgil casts Aeneas as the first true hero of Rome and a forefather of city’s founders, Romulus and Remus.

6. It seems in paragraph 6 Cassius Dio was revelling in assassinating Nero’s character.

7. The online Encyclopaedia Britannica defines Augury as the ‘prophetic divining of the future by observation of natural phenomena - particularly the behaviour of birds and animals and the examination of their entrails and other parts, but also by scrutiny of man-made objects and situations. The term derives from the official Roman augurs, whose constitutional function was not to foretell the future but to discover whether or not the gods approved of a proposed course of action, especially political or military. Two types of divinatory sign, or omen, were recognized: the most important was that deliberately watched for, such as lightning, thunder, flights and cries of birds, or the pecking behaviour of sacred chickens; of less moment was that which occurred casually, such as the unexpected appearance of animals sacred to the gods - the bear (Artemis), wolf (Apollo), eagle (Zeus), serpent (Asclepius), and owl (Minerva), for instance - or such other mundane signs as the accidental spilling of salt, sneezing, stumbling, or the creaking of furniture.’

8. The silver coin was part of a hoard found in Fincham, Norfolk. Minted in ca. AD 5 to AD 20, the coin is attributed to Esuprasto otherwise known as Prasutagus the king of the Iceni. It is held in the collection of The British Museum, London (available to view online).

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