Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Sunday, August 30, 2015

Boudica, Queen of the Iceni

Boudica, queen of the Celtic Iceni (30 August)

Boudica, the Iceni queen,
from Thomas Thornycroft's sculpture,
Westminster Bridge,
As is sometimes the case in selecting topics for this blog, I need to explain why I'm writing about Boudica today. 

We have relatively little biographical material about Boudica, a Celtic queen, and no firm dates. 

The principal sources of information about her are both Roman.

In The Annals, the Roman historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus (c. 56-after 117) describes the rebellion of Boudica, which occurred in 60 or 61 CE (to read an English translation of The Annals, Book 14, chapter 29-37, click here). 

Although he was writing much later (and from Rome), Tacitus would have had access to a first-hand account of Boudica and her revolt--his father-in-law, later himself a governor of Britain, was an assistant to the Roman governor, Suetonius, during the time of Boudica's rebellion. 

The other Roman source is the consul and historian Lucius Cassius Dio (c. 155-235), who wrote an extensive history of Rome that included an account of Boudica's rebellion. However, Dio's account survives not in full, but only in a tenth-century epitome, or summary, of Dio's original (to read an English translation of the epitome of Book 52, click here). 

Those sources provide information, at least from the Roman perspective, but no clear dates. However, in 1856 the English sculptor Thomas Thornycroft began work on a bronze sculptural group depicting Boudica and her two daughters. Thornycroft worked on the project until his death, on 30 August 1885. 

The final casting in bronze did not occur until 1902, seventeen years after Thornycoft's death, and the sculpture was erected at Westminster pier in June of that year. And so, to commemorate Boudica's life, I've chosen the date of Thornycroft's death, 30 August, for a post. 

Boudica's rebellion against the Romans was triggered by her treatment after her husband's death. As Tacitus recounts the events, Prasutagus, the king of the Iceni, died c. 60. In his will he arranged to divide his wealth between his two daughters and the emperor, Nero, leaving them "equal shares" and thinking "by that stroke of policy, that he should provide at once for the tranquility of his kingdom and his family."

Nothing could have been further from the truth. After the death of Prasutagus, says Tacitus, "his dominions were ravaged by the centurions," treated "as though [they were] the spoils of war": his home was destroyed, his property seized, his wife, Boudica, was flogged, and his two daughters raped and reduced to the status of slaves.

And thus Boudica's revolt. At least in The Annals. For his part, Dio blames the rebellion on financial dealings (the demand for repayments of loans). "But," he says, "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." (No mention of whippings, rape, or slavery.)

In 60 or 61, Boudica led a revolt of an alliance of Celts, including her own Iceni, the Trinovantes, and other Britons, "neighboring states not as yet taught to crouch in bondage" in revolt against Rome." As she assembled her army and prepared to lead it against the Romans, Dio provides this description:
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 divers colours over which a thick mantle was fastened with a brooch. This was her invariable attire.
Boudica's army was at first successful, destroying the Roman city of Camalodunum (Colchester), wiping out the Ninth Legion, burning down Londinium, which had been abandoned as Boudica's army approached, and moving on to Verulamium (St. Albans), which was also destroyed.

Suetonius and his Roman troops, numbering fewer than 10,000, eventually caught up with Boudica, whose army constituted "an incredible multitude" (Dio says she has 230,000 troops). The exact location of this battle has not yet been identified. 

Just before the battle began, Boudica drove her chariot, with her two daughters beside her, through her assembled army. 

Here is an account of that moment and her speech (at least as provided by Tacitus):
This is not the first time that the Britons have been led to battle by a woman. But now she did not come to boast the pride of a long line of ancestry, nor even to recover her kingdom and the plundered wealth of her family. She took the field, like the meanest among them, to assert the cause of public liberty, and to seek revenge for her body seamed with ignominious stripes, and her two daughters infamously ravished. From the pride and arrogance of the Romans nothing is sacred; all are subject to violation; the old endure the scourge, and the virgins are deflowered. But the vindictive gods are now at hand. A Roman legion dared to face the warlike Britons: with their lives they paid for their rashness; those who survived the carnage of that day, lie poorly hid behind their entrenchments, meditating nothing but how to save themselves by an ignominious flight. From the din of preparation, and the shouts of the British army, the Romans, even now, shrink back with terror. What will be their case when the assault begins? Look round, and view your numbers. Behold the proud display of warlike spirits, and consider the motives for which we draw the avenging sword. On this spot we must either conquer, or die with glory. There is no alternative. Though a woman, my resolution is fixed: the men, if they please, may survive with infamy, and live in bondage. 
The battle resulted in "dreadful slaughter." Boudica and her allies were defeated--Tacitus numbered their dead at 80,000, while claiming that the Romans lost only 400 men. 

Boudica managed to survive, but according to Tacitus, she then poisoned herself. Dio claims she fell ill and died. 

Boudica disappeared from the historical record rather quickly, but she reemerged in the Renaissance, with the recovery of Tacitus. She became particularly popular during the reign of Queen Victoria, since Boudica's name is generally translated as "victory" or "Victoria." There have been feature films, documentaries, and historical novels. Boudica has been a character in video games and the subject of several musical works, from Purcell's 1695 Bonduca, or the British Heroine to songs by metal bands and the Irish singer-songwriter Enya.

In 2003, PBS broadcast a fictional account of Boudica: Warrior Queen. I'm also a huge fan of the BBC In Our Time radio show; you can listen to a podcast of Boudica by clicking here.

There are several non-fiction accounts of Boudica, but I like Vanessa Collingridge's Boudica: The Life of Britain's Legendary Warrior Queen. It's out-of-print, but used copies are readily available and very inexpensive. 

The inscription on the front of Thornycroft's sculpture reads: