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Uprising of Boudicca

(60-61 CE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Queen Boudicca, John Opie

The conquest of Britain in 43 CE by Aulus Plautius during the reign of Claudius was largely financed degree from the private pockets of the Roman aristocracy. Seneca for example, who had invested 40 million sestertii in the British campaign in 60 CE suddenly demanded immediate full debt return. The king of Prasutagus after the Roman invasion of Britain allied with them and helped them conquer the neighbouring kingdom of Trinobants. Then his state became more and more subordinated to Rome, and he himself eagerly owed debts to wealthy Romans, headed by Seneca. As he did not have a male heir (with Boudicca had 2 daughters) to take the throne, bequeathed his kingdom Rome and daughters.

To bequeathing states to Rome was a common practice at that time among the rulers of states allied with Rome without a successor. In such a situation, the Roman state paid off the debts of the deceased ruler and ensured a prosperous life for his family members, especially those who could claim the throne. These people (and their descendants) quickly obtained Roman citizenship, romanized and belonged to the provincial aristocracy. On the other hand, all the costs related to it were recovered by the Romans from taxes collected from the inhabitants of the newly incorporated territory. Therefore Prasutagus could count on the same for Boudika and both teenage daughters. Unfortunately, Britain’s new prosecutor – Catus Decian decided to “save” Rome’s expenses. First, he ordered Boudika’s property to be confiscated on account of the deceased’s debts, and when she protested, he had her flogged. He later ordered publicly to rape both daughters – it was due to British customs, where a non-virgin woman had no chance of marrying a man of similar or higher social status. This ruled out possible claims to the throne of the representatives of the Iceni aristocracy after marrying the daughters of Boudicca.

Queen Boudicca is described by a Roman historian:

In stature she was very tall, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of her eye most fierce, and her voice was harsh; 4 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 divers colours over which a thick mantle was fastened with a brooch. This was her invariable attire.

Cassius Dio, Roman history, LXII.2

Boudicca intimidated her enemies with her tall stature. She was impressed with fiery red hair flowing down to her knees. Dressed in a colourful tunic, a bright cloak, and a massive gold necklace, she fought with a chariot spear. Boudicca, Queen of the British Iceni, became a symbol of the power of Celtic women. Disgraced by the Romans, she demanded vengeance.

Briton Rush

Iceni in Britain.
Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

Boudicca brought about an agreement between the British tribes of the south and west of England and led the uprising. In about 61 CE the insurgents fell Camulodunum (today’s Colchester), then Londinium (today’s London), and finally Verulamium (today’s St. Albans).) – in these three cities between 50,000 and 80,000 Romans(mostly civilians, including women and children) died. Catus Decian initially sent only 200 soldiers to defend Camulodunum, who could not prevent the destruction of the city. Then Catus Decjan fled Britain and is no longer mentioned in the sources. After the destruction of Camulodunum, the IX Hispana Legion set off against the insurgents, but they were surprised by them during the march and mostly killed (only the cavalry that managed to break through with the commander survived). Suetonius Paulinus (governor of Britain in 59-61 CE), returning from Mona (trying to capture the island where the Druid centre was located) began an organization of resistance, but failed to raise enough troops and therefore ordered his troops to leave Londinium, which was destroyed. He marched west with the hastily gathered forces to join the 14th and 20th Legions.

Meanwhile, in Rome, it was mulled over whether there was already a need to transfer the legions to Britain guarding the border on the Rhine. The information was scarce, it was not known whether Boudika had already conquered the east coast and whether the rescue operation had any chance of success. Nero, having received a letter from Governor Catus Decian, informing him that he had managed to escape to Gaul with the stolen gold, still showed little interest in the situation on the island. It was even considered whether it was worth sacrificing more legions to save this low-profit province and, most likely if it were not for Paulinus’ military skills, the history of Roman Britain would have ended not in 410, but in 61 CE

Battle of Watling Road

Boudika, Thomas Thornycroft
The sculpture shows Queen Boudica with her daughters in a chariot, speaking to her warriors before the battle.

The Roman commander with all his strength tried to give the Britons a battle in the field, where usually all the advantages of the Roman method of combat were revealed. He understood, however, that his many times smaller army would be surrounded and cut to the foot in open-air combat. Thanks to skilful manoeuvres, he managed to persuade the Brits to spend the battle in a favourable area. After the destruction of Verulamium, Suetonius Paulinus collected the remnants of the IX Legion and the XIV Gemina Legion and the XX Valeria Victrix Legion (the II Augusta Legion) he did not reach these troops, because his commander, out of jealousy over the military fame of Suetonius Paulinus, deliberately delayed the march) – these forces together with the auxiliary forces numbered about 10,000 soldiers. Boudica’s army was even over 200,000 (most of them were non-warriors, women, and children). It is said to be the largest army that the Roman legions fought.

The exact location of the decisive battle is unknown, but most often it is placed on the road between Londinium and Vicuronium (today Wroxeter) – Battle of Watling Road. The Romans lined up in the isthmus between the dense forests protecting their wings. The army of Boudica stood in front of them, at the back of which stood wagons with women and children who wanted to watch the pogrom of the Romans. Boudicca entered the battlefield in a battle chariot, carrying a group of horsemen. The eyes of the legionaries saw countless hordes of British warriors painted in blue war colours.

As reported by Tacitus, Boudicca made an uplifting speech in which she stated that she planned to win or die, while Suetonius Paulinus gave a speech with purely practical directions to the soldiers. The Britons launched a series of frontal attacks that collapsed under the hail of piles thrown by the Romans, and even if the insurgents reached the enemy lines, they were quickly beaten by legionaries (the Britons traditionally preferred individual duels between warriors, while legionaries were trained to fight in formation and cramped as it was in that battle). After repelling these attacks, Suetonius Paulinus ordered the legionaries to attack the Britons, whose wings were simultaneously attacked by the Roman cavalry. The insurgents started to flee, but the carts at the back made it difficult for them, so the Romans could easily kill them. Died at least 80,000 Britons (including many women and children). According to Roman reports, Suetonius Paulinus’ army was supposed to lose only 400 people. It seems, however, that this number is greatly underestimated.

Consequences

According to Tacitus Boudicca and her daughters after the battle, they committed suicide with the help of poison, while Cassius Dio, who wrote later, reports that after the battle they tried to rally the broken army of insurgents and fell victim to an epidemic. The commander of the 2nd Legion also committed suicide.

Suetonius Paulinus then pacified the Iceni and other Britons supporting the uprising and was then recalled by Emperor Nero from Britain. The reason was both the cruelty of Suetonius Paulinus and the fear of the outbreak of a new uprising and the jealousy of Nero for his successes.

Immediately after the Battle of Watling Road, a Roman general divided his army into dozens of teams that roamed and plundered the country, killing both rebels and civilians. It happened in the summer, during the harvest season. Famine ensued throughout Britain. The Britons could no longer recover from this collapse. A year later, a new governor, Classicianus, came to Britain to promote a policy of peace that made it possible to rebuild a ruined country. Relative peace prevailed throughout Britain for 10 years, until 71 CE, when the new Emperor Vespasian began his conquest of Caledonia (today’s Scotland).

The Boudicca’s uprising was the last such great uprising of the British people against Roman supremacy. From the southern coast to the mountainous northern border with Caledonia, there were no major clashes until the end of Roman rule. Nevertheless, the bravery and zeal of the Britons were still remembered in Rome.

Sources
  • Holland Richard, Neron odarty z mitów, Warszawa 2001
  • Kęciek Krzysztof, Boudika - postrach Rzymian, "Przegląd", 22/2010
  • Matyszak Philip, Wrogowie Rzymu. Od Hannibala do Attyli, króla Hunów, Warszawa 2007

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