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Boudicca: What Do We Really Know?
By Natalie Kohout, 2005; Revised
Category: Classical Mediterranean and Europe: Historical Figures
|Cities were sacked and thousands lay dead and "moreover, all this ruin was brought upon the Romans by a woman, a fact which in itself caused them the greatest shame." In 60 and 61 C.E. a woman is reported to have led a rebellion of the Iceni in Roman Britain which ultimately resulted in three Roman cities razed to the ground, thousands of Romans and Britons alike killed and the slaughter of thousands of the Iceni perpetrators in a final battle with Roman soldiers. This woman, whom is credited with this catalog of crimes, is known to history as Boudicca. Boudicca herself is a mysterious figure; her only record of existence lies within the written words of two men. These accounts vary in quality and details, leaving the reader with a limited, scant impression of who this person was. |
Primary sources on Boudicca and the revolt are limited. There are only three sources which mention her and the uprising, and two of these are written by the same man, the Roman historian, Tacitus. Dio Cassius is the other Roman historian who wrote of an account of the Iceni queen and the revolt she led. There are several issues which need to be known about these two authors and their work which will be discussed in the opening section. However, these three versions of the revolt and its leader, Boudicca are all we have in written form. The Celts did not write anything down in this period that is available to us today and so no information from them concerning this event is left for historians to pick over. Archeology (including the use of coins) will also be employed in this paper and it seems fitting to include these items under primary sources. Overall, the primary sources are scant and archeology has yielded only so much thus far.
Secondary sources present a problem when one realizes that they rest mainly on the aforementioned primary sources. There are many books which discuss the Celts and some have been used in this paper. Antonia Fraser's The Warrior Queens , is another monograph used but not depended on exclusively. A problem which I found in some of these secondary sources was that the authors drew conclusions about Boudicca based on Celtic law. The problem with this is that the law texts which are used by these authors are either Irish law texts written down mainly by Christian monks between the 7th and 10th centuries or Welsh law which was not committed to writing until about the 12th century. These law texts are centuries removed from the time period of Boudicca and are no doubt tainted by later influences on the island from Christianity, any invading cultures and unknown elements. There may be some evidence of what Celtic customs were like during Boudicca's time that were left in these law texts, but to decipher what exactly they may be is difficult, if not impossible.
Boudicca was a woman whom we know little about. Her exploits during the uprising are documented through several types of evidence, but nothing exists to authenticate her existence other then the brief words of two Roman men. It shall be argued that through examination of the data available to us, it is fairly certain that a revolt did indeed occur in the mid-first century and three cities in Britain were utterly destroyed, but the leader of these events is still much clouded in mystery. Boudicca may have existed as Dio Cassius and Tacitus report, but we know virtually nothing concrete about this woman. The detailed pictures which are painted by a plethora of books, movies and popular images celebrating this warrior queen are based in myth, legend and wishful thinking. This assertion will be demonstrated through five basic issues. The first deals with Tacitus and Dio Cassius: who these men were, why they wrote, as well as their writing itself will fall under scrutiny. The next part will briefly look at Boudicca's husband Prasutagus. Boudicca herself and what has been written about her by Dio Cassius and Tacitus will constitute the subsequent part. Lastly, the three cities which fell in Boudicca's path shall be discussed. Afterwards, it should become clear that Boudicca herself still remains an enigma despite what people may claim to know.
I. Dio Cassius and Tacitus
Since all of what we know of Boudicca that has come down to us is in written form authored by two Roman historians, it is prudent to take a closer look at these two men. Dio Cassius is believed to have lived from 164 C.E. until after 229 C.E. In other words he was not even conceived until a hundred years after Boudicca and the revolt. Dio was a Greek senator, and his eighty book history of Rome was written in Attic Greek. This history chronicled Rome from its conception to 229 C.E. The structure of the history is annalistic in nature, but there are brief departures from the subject. Oral evidence and Dio's own experiences could be drawn on for history contemporary to his time, but for anything prior he had to rely on literary sources including earlier histories (like Tacitus').
Dio Cassius' account of Boudicca in volume eight of his history of Rome is not merely a regurgitation of Tacitus however; it has notable differences and added details not found in Tacitus. This can be attributed to the simple fact that much material produced during earlier times has long since vanished due to a variety of reasons. Dio Cassius may have had access to other material independent of Tacitus which may have perished since. Dio Cassius is said to have spent ten years taking notes on the work of other historians, researching for his history. It is for this reason that despite his birth being more then a hundred years after the events he described, his account cannot be dismissed because we do not know what other sources from which he may have culled information on Boudicca.
Tacitus was born around 56 C.E. The Agricola and The Annals of Imperial Rome are the two sources of his which contain references to Boudicca and the revolt. The Agricola was his first work, a biography, almost a eulogy, on his father-in-law Agricola. Agricola served on the staff of the military governor of Britain at the time of the revolt, which places Tacitus close to the action, compared to Dio Cassius. It was written probably in 97-98 C.E. Compared to the Annals, it is basic in its treatment of Britain. For example, the Druids and none of the major Roman towns are mentioned within it. The Annals of Imperial Rome deal mainly with the Julio-Claudian emperors, and despite some missing fragments, most of it survived.
As with any historian, Tacitus is not free of criticisms. It has been asserted that he was basically a Roman society writer and anything outside of Rome held little interest for him (other then war). His style has been characterized as being brief and full of poetic coloring. Another criticism of Tacitus is that moral purpose was never far from his mind. Many things which he chose to focus on "…provoked the sternest moral reflections."
In summary, both Tacitus and Dio Cassius must be read with a careful eye. Similarly to any historian, they have their own unique filters through which they recorded history, and readers must be aware and observant of this. Information was omitted or admitted based on their personal preference. Dio Cassius has been criticized for giving his reader "remarkably little solid information of any kind." Tacitus, on the other hand, is much more concise and generous with details, but one must still wonder about how he selected information to include and omit. The fact that the accounts of Boudicca were written by Romans, who viewed themselves as culturally superior conquerors, must also be kept in mind.
We shall briefly address the speeches which were attributed to either Boudicca or Suetonius by Tacitus and Dio Cassius. Dio Cassius records several lengthy speeches, and in fact the bulk of his account is made up of such. Since ancient historians made a habit of relating speeches which they thought should or would have been delivered by a particular person in their work, those attributed to Boudicca and Suetonius will not be looked at closely. They simply will not help to further my argument along, since their content is questionable at best.
Out of The Agricola, The Annals of Imperial Rome and Dio's history, only The Annals makes mention of Boudicca's husband, King Prasutagus. After a "life of long and renowned prosperity" Prasutagus (presumably through a will) had made the emperor Nero co-heir to his kingdom along with the king's two daughters. According to Tacitus, he had done so in the hope of preserving his kingdom and household from attack.
Stepping away from Tacitus' words on Prasutagus, we shall now look at the phenomenon of client kings in Roman Britain and their relationship to Rome. Client kings were utilized in Roman Britain in buffer areas and even within the province's borders, and Prasutagus was an example of this. The king was in an agreement with Rome through treaty relations, not the kingdom itself. Once a leader died, a new treaty needed to be made with the new leader. Instead of making a new treaty with the daughters of the king, Rome decided to annex the former client kingdom, which was nothing out of the ordinary in the situation of a client kingdom.
The events, as Tacitus relates them, are nothing out of the ordinary. Prasutagus, as a client king, hoped that instead of annexation, the emperor would continue the arrangement with his heirs, his two daughters. However, when faced with the option of a new treaty or annexation, the Romans opted for the latter.
Tacitus only mentions Prasutagus in one account, and even though it is entirely plausible that he was a client king (since such things were practiced at that time in Britain) one may question what else there may be to corroborate the existence of this particular king, Prasutagus. Such proof seems to have been found on coins found in Suffolk, England. On these coins the phrase "SUBRI PRASTO" and "ESICO FECIT" are found. It is believed that this translates to "Under King Prasutagus Esico made it". These coins appear to substantiate the existence of a king in Britain by the name of Prasutagus.
This next section deals with the woman herself, Boudicca. Tacitus' and Dio Cassius' accounts are the only evidence, available in any form, to authenticate the existence of Boudicca. Both Tacitus and Dio Cassius describe her as a woman of royal descent. It is unclear, though, whether or not she was of the Iceni nobility or of an outside group. Only Tacitus mentions that she was flogged and her two daughters raped after their kingdom was "plundered like prizes of war", but he makes no mention of why this occurred. It is uncertain if this was customary when kingdoms were annexed or if any behavior on the part of Boudicca or the Iceni may have sparked these acts of violence during the take over.
Her physical appearance is only related to us by Dio Cassius. She is described as having been very tall, having fierce eyes, long tawny hair, and possessing a very large gold necklace. Since Dio lived over a hundred years after Boudicca, but did possibly rely on sources of which we are not aware of, it is difficult to interpret his physical description of her. He may have been simply relating commonly held ideas of what Celtic women looked like. In other words, there is no way to verify or dismiss any or all of this description.
Boudicca's demise is the last facet of this section. It seems fairly clear that Boudicca did not fall in battle or survive for long afterwards. Tacitus states that she poisoned herself after her defeat at the army of Suetonius. Dio Cassius relates that Boudicca fell ill and then died. Since taking poison could entail one becoming ill before death, Dio's account still can be seen as consistent with Tacitus. Suicide is not uncommon amongst the Celts and Celtiberians and would not be out of the question for a defeated leader such as Boudicca. A stunning, albeit, idealized depiction of a Celt committing suicide can be seen in the statue of a defeated warrior clutching his wife's corpse in one arm while preparing to plunge a short sword into his chest. If Boudicca indeed fought against Suetonis and the Romans as is described to us, her demise by suicide could be likely.
Speeches attributed to Boudicca and her actual military exploits make up the rest of the accounts. Overall, the written accounts, especially when the speeches are disregarded, are nearly devoid of any personal information about Boudicca or her family. We do not know her age; however, there have been guesses as to her age and that of her daughters. Boudicca's two daughters are another portion of the story that stands shrouded in mystery. Along with their ages, their names and their subsequent demises are not known. They do not exist outside of one reference in The Annals ; Dio Cassius neglects them all together. The picture painted of Boudicca still stands stark and incomplete, even after combining these three accounts and taking each author's words as they are. When one questions these accounts and their validity, one is left with an even bleaker picture.
IV. Three Towns Laid to Waste
This last portion will analyze the deeds attributed to Boudicca, specifically the razing of three Roman towns: Camulodunum, Londinium, and Verulamium. In The Agricola, Tacitus does not mention any of these towns by name. Dio Cassius mentions that she only destroyed two Roman cities, without mentioning their names. In The Annals of Tacitus the details emerge. Three cities are said to have been destroyed by her and their names are recorded as Camulodunum, Londinium, and lastly Verulamium.
Camulodunum was the first city to fall prey to Boudicca's army. Tacitus relates to us how the city had no defensive walls which made it rather easy to destroy. What is now known as Colchester, had been a military base previously, but since then the military defenses had been removed so that a new town could cover a larger area. A recent archeological dig has shed light on this town's fate in the mid-first century. The director of the dig, Philip Crummy, concluded that the buildings which would have existed were made of hardened clay and timber and were not easily flammable. The dig, however, revealed that every house had been "carefully leveled, one by one". Crummy characterized the attack on Camulodunum as "murderous, determined, intensive and deliberate". Evidently something very, very bad happened to Camulodunum in the mid-first century and Tacitus points the finger at Boudicca.
Londinium was next on Boudicca's itinerary of terror, according to Tacitus. Londinium is described as an important commerce center which did not rank as a Roman settlement. Suetonius is said to have gone to Londinium ahead of Boudicca and once there he decided to not stand and fight but to leave the city to her. Archeological excavations in what is now London confirm that the city did undergo a violent destruction around the time of Boudicca's revolt. Other archeological finds include desecrated graves which are thought to have been the work of Boudicca's army, since the time frame for the graves coincides with the revolt.
Verulamium then meets the same fate as the two other towns, states Tacitus. This city was not inhabited by Roman veterans or merchants, but by Britons who were friendly with Rome. Similarly to the other towns, archeological evidence corroborates that something very serious befell the city in the mid-first century.
There is clear evidence supporting Tacitus' assertion that these three cities were utterly destroyed in the middle of the first century, but what we do not find in the archeological record is the "who". The archeological evidence stops short of indicting Boudicca and just reveals the crimes to us. Boudicca is only connected to these incidents through Tacitus and more vaguely through Dio Cassius.
In conclusion, archeology and the writings of Roman historians have connected some pieces of a large puzzle together. We can be fairly certain that a client-king of Rome by the name of Prasutagus did indeed exist and that he existed around the same time three Roman cities in Britain were razed to the foundations. According to Tacitus and Dio Cassius these deeds can be attributed to Boudicca, but other than their words we have no other testimony to support that. Boudicca may have existed as Tacitus outlines, as a widow who was humiliated and wronged who then exacted revenge upon three Roman cities before facing defeat in battle. However, it must be accepted that we know nothing outside of these brief accounts left to us by outsiders to Boudicca's land. Boudicca, even in these accounts, is an enigmatic figure, and when they are taken with a grain of salt, we are left with a flimsy portrait of a long dead woman whose "real" identity and deeds we will probably never be able to know for certain.
- - - -
 Dio Cassius, Dio's Roman History VIII . Trans. Earnest Cary (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 83.
 Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome , trans. Michael Grant (London: Penguin Books, 1996), 328.
 Tacitus, The Agricola and The Germania , trans. H. Mattingly (London: Penguin Books, 1970); Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome.
 Dio Cassius, Dio's Roman History VIII.
 Barry Cunliffe, The Ancient Celts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997); Jean Markale, Women of the Celts, trans. A. Mygind, C. Hauch and P. Henry (Rochester: Inner Traditions International, Ltd., 1986); H.D. Rankin, Celts and the Classical World (London: Areopagitica Press, 1987); Peter Berresford Ellis, Celtic Women: Women in Celtic Society and Literature Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdsman Publishing Company, 1995).
 Jean Markale, Women of the Celts, 32; Peter Berresford Ellis, Celtic Women , 86.
 The Sources For Celtic Law, online, available from http://draeconin.com/database/celtlaw.htm#THE%20SOURCES%20FOR%20CELTIC%20LAW .
 Barry Cunliffe, The Ancient Celts , 27.
 Hornblower, Simon and Antony Spawforth, ed. The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 140, 144.
 The Warrior Queens , 56. T.D. Barnes, "The Composition of Cassius Dio's Roman History," Phoenix 38, no. 3 (Autumn 1984): 240.
 The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization , 702.
 Peter Berresford Ellis, Celtic Women , 86.
 Tacitus, The Agricola and The Germania , 15-16.
 Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome , 9.
 J.S. Reid, "Tacitus as a Historian," The Journal of Roman Studies 11 (1921), 193.
 Janet P. Bews, "Language and Style in Tacitus' ‘Agricola,'" Greece & Rome 34, no. 2 (Oct., 1987): 205.
 Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome , 16.
 John C. Overbeck, "Tacitus and Dio on Boudicca's Rebellion." The American Journal of Philology 90, no. 2 (April, 1969): 130.
 Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome , 12.
 Ibid., 328.
 Ibid., 328.
 Anthony Barrett, "The Military Situation in Britain in A.D. 47," The American Journal of Philolog ," 100, no. 4 (Winter, 1979): 540.
 C.E. Stevens, "The Will of Q. Veranius," The Classical Review 1, no. 1 (Mar., 1951): 6.
 H.R. Mossop and D.F. Allen, "An Elusive Icenian Legend," Britannia 10 (1979): 258-259.
 Tacitus, The Agricola and The Germania, 66; Dio Cassius, Dio's Roman History , 85.
 Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome , 328.
 Dio Cassius, Dio's Roman History VIII , 85.
 Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome , 331.
 Dio Cassius, Dio's Roman History VIII , 105.
 H.D. Rankin, Celts and the Classical World , 96.
 Barry Cunliffe, The Ancient Celts , facing page 21.
 Antonia Fraser, The Warrior Queens , 59.
 Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome , 328.
 Tacitus, The Agricola and The Germania ,66.
 Dio Cassius, Dio's Roman History XIII , 83, 95.
 Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome , 328-329.
 Ibid., 328.
 Philip Crummy, "The Origins of Some Major Romano-British Towns," Britannia 13 (1982): 125.
 Jason Burke, "Dig Uncovers Boudicca's Brutal Streak," Observer Dec. 3, 2000; available from http://observer.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,6903,406152,00.html .
 Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome , 329.
 Ibid., 329.
 Antonia Fraser, The Warrior Queens , 83.
 "London Graves Desecrated by Boudicca's Army," British Archeology News issue 70 May 2003; available from http://www.britarch.ac.uk/ba/ba70/news.shtml .
 Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome , 329.
 Antonia Fraser, The Warrior Queens, 91; Peter Berresford Ellis, Celtic Women , 90.
Cassius, Dio. Dio's Roman History VIII . Trans. Earnest Cary. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.
Mossop H.R. and D.F. Allen. "An Elusive Icenian Legend." Britannia 10 (1979): 258-259.
Tacitus. The Agricola and the Germania . Trans. H. Mattingly. London: Penguin Books, 1970.
Tacitus. The Annals of Imperial Rome . Trans. Michael Grant. London: Penguin Books, 1996.
Barnes. T.D. "The Composition of Cassius Dio's Roman History ." Phoenix 38, no. 3 (Autumn 1984): 240-255.
Barrett, Anthony. "The Military Situation in Britain in A.D. 47." The American Journal of Philolog ," 100, no. 4 (Winter, 1979): 538-540.
Bews, Janet. "Language and Style in Tacitus' ‘Agricola.'" Greece & Rome 34, no. 2 (Oct., 1987): 201-211.
Burke, Jason. "Dig Uncovers Boudicca's Brutal Streak." Observer Dec. 3, 2000; available from http://observer.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,6903,406152,00.html.
Crummy, Philip. "The Origins of Some Major Romano-British Towns." Britannia 13 (1982): 125-134.
Cunliffe, Barry. The Ancient Celts . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Downey, G. "Aurelian's Victory Over Zenobia at Immae, A.D. 272." Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 81 (1950): 57-68.
Ellis, Peter Berresford. Celtic Women: Women in Celtic Society and Literature . Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.
Fraser, Antonia. The Warrior Queens . New York: Vintage Books, 1988.
Gowing, Alain M. "Tacitus and the Client Kings." Transactions of the American Philological Association 120 (1990): 315-331.
Hornblower, Simon and Antony Spawforth, ed. The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
"London Graves Desecrated by Boudicca's Army." British Archeology News issue 70 May 2003; available from http://www.britarch.ac.uk/ba/ba70/news.shtml.
Markale, Jean. Women of the Celts . Trans. A. Mygind, C. Hauch and P. Henry. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions International, Ltd., 1972.
Overbeck, John C., "Tacitus and Dio on Boudicca's Rebellion." The American Journal of Philology 90, no. 2 (April, 1969): 129-145.
Rankin, H.D. Celts and the Classical World . London: Areopagitica Press, 1987.
Reid, J.S. "Tacitus as a Historian." The Journal of Roman Studies 11 (1921): 191-199.
Roberts, Michael. "The Revolt of Boudicca (Tacitus, Annals 14.29-39) and the Assertion of Libertas in Neronian Rome." The American Journal of Philology 109, no. 1 (Spring, 1998): 118-132.
Stevens, C.E. "The Will of Q. Veranius." The Classical Review 1, no. 1 (Mar., 1951): 4- 7.
The Sources For Celtic Law . Online. Available from http://draeconin.com/database/celtlaw.htm#THE%20SOURCES%20FOR%20CELTIC%20LAW.
Copyright © 2005 Natalie Kohout.
Natalie Kohout is originally from southern California. For some
strange reason she now lives in Michigan and she blames Star Wars
Galaxies for that. She graduated in 2005 from the California State
University of Fullerton with a Bachelor of Arts in history and a minor
in anthropology. She soon plans on attending a school in Michigan for
her masters. Medieval Europe is her chosen area of study with a
special interest in lepers and their interaction with medieval