Looking at the last few posts and the realisations I have come to through the research I had undertaken to write them, it has become increasingly clear that even in a free western society we are taught to look at our national past through a very specific and forgiving lens. Even when approaching cases like Saragarhi or Boudica with as open a mind as possible reviewing the subjects I was taught at school from a new unbiased perspective can be shocking.
Boudica is one of the most recognisable names in the history of Britain. She enters history around 60 AD as the wife of the chief of the Iceni tribe. Her husband was the most mediocre man in Celtic Britain. The Romans rocked up and Prasutagus just wanted to keep his head down and get on with being chief. Britain at the time was a collection of tribes who maintained a chaotic peace out of necessity, they required each other for trade but you’d be hard pressed to get them to agree that water was wet. Historian Doctor Emma Southon stated that They (The Celtic Tribes) “hated each other a lot, they hated each other in a way that only people who have a lot in common can hate each other”. When the Romans came along with their organised armies and an empires worth of resources Prasutagus knew trouble when he saw it riding towards him on the back of an elephant.
Side Note: Can you imagine living on an island where the largest animal anyone has ever seen is a horse and suddenly an army is marching in your direction with elephants. Its unclear to me how effective elephants actually were in battle with the obvious exception being the Battle of Pelennor Fields. However given successful use of shock and awe is half the battle I would imagine they were incredibly effective at demoralising even the stoutest of fighting forces. Not dissimilar to the use of rockets by the British in the early Napoleonic Wars; you couldn’t hit a bard if you set one off inside it but they scared the living hell out of anyone in their general path.
The Iceni under Prasutagus become supplicant to Rome, they swear fealty, offer tribute and the Romans leave them alone. Its believed that Prasutagus was placed as chief by the Romans as his predecessor was less compliant. Prasutagus dies, its not obvious that it’s anything other than natural. However the inheritance which should go to his daughters is claimed by the Romans, when the Iceni resist Boudica (their queen) is stripped and beaten, and her daughters are raped. I have spent years working with victims of rape and almost universally the intent hasn’t been about sexual drive but about power and domination. I can only presume that is the case here, the Romans publicly rape the princesses and humiliate the queen showing their dominance over the Iceni and the peoples of Britain in general.
The narrative for what happens next that is taught by the British school system is that Boudica picks herself up and decides to liberate Britain from these foreign oppressors. The narrative that I have come to believe is that she had been beaten, stripped of her dignity and forced to watch her daughters raped. She lost her fucking shit. I am far more inclined to believe that these events changed her and she was not going to stop until Britain was washed red with the blood of every Roman she could find, freedom and sovereign rights are unlikely to have had much to do with it. This is just speculation but I will try and defend it, this is not meant to in any way diminish her accomplishments but speaking as a father I totally support her motives here.
The Iceni, like all Celtic Tribes were required by the Romans to disarm. Boudica’s first act was to arm her warriors. She then rallies local tribes known for their anti-roman sentiment and arms them. Under her leadership they march on Colchester.
Side Note: Initially I was surprised that in 60 AD a woman held the standing to lead, however the majority of historians seem to agree that gender inequality wasn’t really a thing in Celtic Britain. Particularly for the smaller tribes.
Colchester was THE Roman city in Britain. It was mostly occupied by a romanised celtic tribe called the Trinobartes. When word reached them that a large celtic army was on the march in their direction they requested support from the regional Roman Governor. Given he considered it impossible for this mass of celts to want a fight (as far as he was aware they had no weapons and would be insane to want to mess with Rome), he sent 200 unarmed men to police Colchester. This was a mistake on a laughable scale. Boudica was armed to the tits and looking for blood. The torching of Colchester was so extensive that you can find evidence of it by digging almost anywhere in the city today.
This was a massive militaristic victory but much more importantly it got the message out to the tribes. The Romans are mortal and we can make them bleed. Despite my belief in Boudica’s motives the burning of Colchester was the clarion call that had the tribes fighting for freedom from Roman occupation. Next stop, London.
It doesn’t take long for Giaus Seutonius Paulinus to hear about the burning of Colchester. As the Governor of Britannia its his job to deal with this. He is also a highly experienced career military tactician. Unfortunately he was off in Wales with two legions beating up some druids when all this is kicking off. He starts the march to England’s South East to deal with the rebels. By the time he gets to London its already been torched.
Its about now that Boudica and her army bump into the Ninth Legion… hard. The Celts fuck the legion up in a way that hadn’t been done since Brennus took on Romes earliest legions over three centuries earlier. The legions and in particular the Ninth had cultivated a well deserved reputation for frank immortality. The destruction of a legion sent ripples through the empire that were even felt in Rome. Realistically its likely the Ninth fell as much to their own hubris as to celtic iron. They hadn’t taken the threat Boudica’s army posed seriously and saw them as a band of savages led by a woman. Regardless the destruction of this legion would inspire insurrection across the empire for the remainder of Romes existence.
Side Note: The Ninth Legion (Legio IX Hispana) aren’t just known for their crushing defeat at the battle of Camulodunum. They have inspired legend and folklore across the British Isle for famously “disappearing”. They were reformed after the defeat at the hands of the Celts and maintained extensive records of their work across Britain until 120 AD, when the Romans started their long withdraw from Britain the Ninth Legion just disappear from record. They don’t appear to have been defeated or disbanded. In the city of York their ghosts are said to be seen marching south on midwinter nights. Others believe that they naturalised with the native Celts using their training and knowledge to defend Britain against the Saxons, giving eventual rise to the legend of King Arthur. Its unlikely we will ever know what happened to them however it is odd the records just stop. The reason many historians love studying Rome is because they wrote everything down.
Seutonius however was a skilled military leader, he identified the route the Celts were taking, following the roman road of Wattling Street and picked a spot for a battle. He chose a narrow valley that would bottle neck the oncoming force whilst preventing them encircling his army. Ultimately the destruction of Boudica and her army was due to the same hubris that destroyed the Ninth Legion, she assembled a crowd of spectators who blocked her retreat. And thus the great Iceni uprising that almost cast the Romans from Britannia fizzled out.
I recognise that this may read fairly critically of Boudica. However I am not critical of her, she achieved things believed to be impossible. However I do take issue with how she has been mythologised. Books have been written about how shes a great feminist icon. Feminism is a movement seeking gender equality, the celts had gender equality. Anyone who thinks she is a great feminist icon just because she was a woman doesn’t have a clue what feminism is.
I also have a bit of an issue with the sources. Firstly the Celts didn’t really write stuff down and so the two sources we have to rely on are –
Tacitus: Having been forced to read pretty much everything Tacitus wrote whilst I was at college will almost certainly be something I describe in detail to a therapist at some point. However as a source for the Boudican uprising it should be noted that he was writing fifty years after the fact. He also hated women like no one else I have ever read. He was utterly outraged that a woman was leading men and doing manly things like speaking in public. The guy had issues and whilst I think in his own way he was being sympathetic towards Boudica his account has definitely been coloured by his prejudice.
Cassius Dio: A Greek “Historian” who wrote a history of the Roman Empire almost three centuries after the events described here. In his account he gets a lot wrong, for example – Britain’s Location, Britain’s Size, Britain’s Climate, The Fact Britain is an Island. So its important to take his accounts with a pinch of salt. Still he is a far more entertaining read than Tacitus.
My feeling is that Boudica was a strong and proud woman who experience unimaginable trauma and tried to satisfy an unquenchable thirst for revenge in roman blood.
I quote the Iliad in the title of this post. “Sing O Goddess, the anger of Achilles” is the complete statement. It may seem like an odd link but the story of Boudica always reminds me of the description of Achilles after the death of Protroclus as an “Avatar of Slaughter”. He becomes incensed with grief at the death of his friend and lover, what happens next is not the result of conscious thought but pure, soul rending fury. A rage so intense that it will never be spent. The kind of rage that drives you to your own destruction. That is how I see Boudica and that’s not a critical view of her. Overly mythologising these figures stops us exploring the human story in any depth. Rage, Despair, Humiliation, Pride these are all very human traits that are represented in this story nothing supernatural or superhuman needs to be added for a meaningful reflection.
Finally I am also struck by one of the universal themes here that transcend time and culture. There are few parents throughout history who wouldn’t have had a similar reaction to the rape of their children. Those parents who would have reacted more indifferently are outliers and often stand out in history for that very reason.