Rough Diplomacy

A Celtic Queen’s Last Battle

Emperor Claudius was poisoned in 54, and Nero succeeded him. Perhaps to deflect the suspicion that he had been involved in his uncle’s murder, Nero elevated Claudius to the status of a god and ordered a temple to him built at Camulodunum. Now the British chieftains would be obliged not only to worship once a year at the altar of the man who had invaded and occupied their lands, but also to finance the building of the extravagant and costly temple.

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Rome further pressed British patience by calling for the repayment of money given or loaned to the tribes. It is possible that Antedios had received some of the money Claudius had handed out, and his successor, Prasutagus, was now expected to repay it. Prasutagus had probably also received an unwanted loan from Lucius Seneca, Roman philosopher and Nero’s tutor, who had pressed on the tribal leaders a total of 40 million sesterces.

Now, the procurator — Rome’s financial officer, responsible for taxation and other monetary matters in Britannia — insisted the money from Claudius must be repaid. And Seneca, according to Dio, resorted to severe measures in exacting repayment of his loans. His agents, backed by force, may have showed up at the royal residence and demanded the money.

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An aggressive Caius Suetonius Paullinus, became governor of Britain in 58. He began his term with a military campaign in Wales. By the spring of 61, he had reached its northwestern limit, the druid stronghold on the Isle of Mona.

Tacitus described the forces Suetonius faced: The enemy lined the shore in a dense armed mass. Among them were black-robed women with disheveled hair like Furies, brandishing torches. Close by stood Druids, raising their hands to heaven and screaming dreadful curses. For a moment, the Romans stood paralyzed by fright. Then, urged by Suetonius and each other not to fear a horde of fanatical women, they attacked and enveloped the opposing forces in the flames of their own torches.

When the battle ended in a Roman victory, Suetonius garrisoned the island and cut down its sacred groves — the fearsome site of human sacrifices, according to Tacitus, who claimed it was a Celtic religious practice to drench their altars in the blood of prisoners and consult their gods by means of human entrails. In view of the routine, organized murder of the Roman gladiatorial games, one might wonder whether a Roman was in a position to criticize.

For Boudica and her people, news of the destruction of the druidic center , the razing of the sacred groves and the slaughter of druids must have been deeply painful. But Boudica suffered a more personal loss during this time. Prasutagus of the Iceni died sometime during the attack on Mona or its aftermath. He left behind a will whose provisions had no legal precedent under either Celtic or Roman law. It named the Roman emperor as co-heir with the two daughters of Prasutagus and Boudica, now in their teens.

According to Celtic tradition, chiefs served by the consent of their people, and so could not designate their successors through their wills. And under Roman law, a client-king’s death ended the client relationship, effectively making his property and estates the property of the emperor until and unless the emperor put a new client-king into office. Prasutagus’ will may have been a desperate attempt to retain a degree of independence for his people and respect for his family. If it was, it did not succeed.

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After Prasutagus died, the Roman procurator, Decianus Catus, arrived at the Iceni court with his staff and a military guard. He proceeded to take inventory of the estate. He regarded this as Roman property and probably planned to allocate a generous share for himself, following the habit of most Roman procurators. When Boudica objected, he had her flogged. Her daughters were raped.

At that point, Boudica decided the Romans had ruled in Britannia long enough. The building fury of other tribes, such as the Trinovantes to the south, made them eager recruits to her cause. Despite the Roman ban, they had secretly stockpiled weapons, and they now armed themselves and planned their assault.

Boudica mounted a tribunal made in the Roman fashion out of earth, according to Dio, described her as very tall and grim in appearance, with a piercing gaze . She had a mass of hair which she grew down to her hips, and wore a great gold torque and a multi-colored tunic folded round her, over which was a thick cloak fastened with a brooch.

Boudica’s tunic, cloak and brooch were typical Celtic dress for the time. The torque, the characteristic ornament of the Celtic warrior chieftain, was a metal band, usually of twisted strands of gold that fit closely about the neck, finished in decorative knobs worn at the front of the throat. Such torques may have symbolized a warrior’s readiness to sacrifice his life for the good of his tribe. If so, it is significant that Boudica wore one — they were not normally worn by women.

Tacitus, whose father-in-law served as a military tribune in Britain during that time, recounted the rebellion in detail. Boudica moved first against Camulodunum. Before she attacked, rebels inside the colonia conspired to unnerve the superstitious Romans. For no visible reason, Tacitus wrote, the statue of Victory at Camulodunum fell down — with its back turned as though it were fleeing the enemy. Delirious women chanted of destruction at hand. They cried that in the local senate-house outlandish yells had been heard; the theater had echoed with shrieks; at the mouth of the Thames a phantom settlement had been seen in ruins. A blood-red color in the sea, too, and shapes like human corpses left by the ebb tide.

Camulodunum pleaded for military assistance from Catus Decianus  but he sent only 200 inadequately armed men to reinforce the town’s small garrison.  Misled by the rebel saboteurs, they did not bother to erect ramparts, dig trenches or even evacuate the women and elderly,

Boudica’s army overran the town, and the Roman garrison retreated to the unfinished temple, which had been one of the prime causes of the rebellion. After two days of fighting, it fell.

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La Legión Hispana

The only Legionary force immediately available to put down the rebellion was a detachment of Legio IX Hispania, under the command of Quintus Petilius Cerialis Caesius Rufus, consisting of some 2,000 Legionaries and 500 auxiliary cavalry. Cerialis did not wait to gather a larger force, but set out immediately for Camulodunum. He never got there. Boudica ambushed and slaughtered his infantry. Cerialis escaped with his cavalry and took shelter in his camp at Lindum.

Boudica killed everone she found when she reached Londinium. Dio described the savagery of her army: 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.

Verulamium, the old capital of the Catuvellauni tribe lying northwest of Londinium (outside of present-day St. Albans), met a similar fate. Rome had granted it the status of municipium, giving the townsfolk a degree of self-government and making its magistrates eligible for Roman citizenship. Boudica evidently punished the town for its close and willing association with Rome.

By then Suetonius had an army with him comprising of Legio XIV and parts of Legio XX, which he had used for a previous attack  as well as some auxiliaries gathered from the nearest stations. He also sent an urgent summons to Legio II Augusta at  present-day Exeter, but its commander, Poenius Posthumus, never responded. Evidently he was unwilling to march through the hostile territory of the Dumnonii, who had thrown their lot in with Boudica.

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Suetonius positioned his force and chose a position in a defile with a wood behind him. There could be no enemy, he knew, except at his front, where there was open country without cover for ambushes.

Suetonius drew up his regular troops in close order, with the light-armed auxiliaries at their flanks, and the cavalry massed on the wings. Dio wrote that Boudica’s troops numbered about 230,000 men. If we can believe this, Boudica’s army would have been more than 20 times the size of Suetonius’. Whatever the actual numbers were, it is clear that her forces greatly outnumbered his. But the Britons’ arms and training could not compare to the highly evolved arms and fighting techniques of the Roman Legions.

Boudica rode in a chariot with her daughters before her, and as she approached each tribe, she declared that the Britons were accustomed to engage in warfare under the leadership of women. The picture of Boudica riding about the battlefield to encourage her warriors rings true, but it is unlikely that any Roman understood what she said. She would have spoken in the Celtic tongue and had no need to inform her troops of their own customs. Tacitus puts those words in her mouth as a device to educate his Roman readers about a practice that must have struck them as exotic and strange.

Legions and auxiliaries waited in the shelter of the narrow valley until Boudica’s troops came within range.  Roman infantrymen protected themselves with their capacious shields and used their short swords to strike at close range, driving the points into the Britons’ bellies, then stepping across the dead to reach the next rank.

The Britons, who fought with long swords designed for slashing rather than stabbing, needed room to swing their blades and could not fight effectively at such close range. Furthermore, the light chariots that gave them an advantage when fighting on a wide plain were similarly ineffective, with the Romans emerging from a narrow, protected valley that prevented the chariots from reaching their flanks.


The result was an overwhelming Roman victory. Those Britons who survived ran, but the circle of the women’s wagons blocked their way, causing confusion and delay. The Romans did not refrain from slaughtering even the women. Tacitus reported, citing figures of 80,000 British casualties and 400 Roman dead and a slightly larger number wounded.

According to Tacitus, there were at least two notable casualties in the immediate wake of the battle. Upon learning of the victory, Poenius Posthumus felt so dishonored by the failure of his Legio II to have fought its way out to join Suetonius in full force that he committed suicide by falling upon his own sword. Boudica, Tacitus noted, ended her life with poison.

When finally defeated by the Romans, Queen Boadicea killed herself by swallowing hemlock, an extract of which is included Wode

sources  Britanica ,,the Annals and the Histories by Tacitus

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