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Boudica's Revolt AD 60-61

Events leading to Boudica's Revolt

The information here is adapted from Boudica: Warrior Woman of Roman Britain by Caitlin C. Gillespie (Oxford University Press 2018).

When Prasutagus, king of the Iceni, died, he left half of his kingdom to the emperor Nero, hoping in this way to secure the other half for his family. However, the imperial procurator, Decianus Catus - perhaps aware that Nero viewed a half-share of an estate as a personal snub (or perhaps because of mistrust of Boudica?) - moved to sequester the lot. When the royal family resisted these moves, Boudica was flogged and her daughters were raped.

Accounts of the cause of Boudica’s revolt differ, rendering a straightforward narrative impossible. Even the exact timing and length of the revolt remains unclear. Some argue that the revolt was condensed into a single year, with Boudica gathering forces and revolting in the summer of AD 60. Others suggest Boudica spent AD 60 gathering forces and that she attacked in AD 61. By the end of the year, the scattered remnants of the rebel army were hunted down and either captured or killed. Writing tablets found at Bloomsbury, London have been used to argue for the earlier date: tablets dating as early as AD 62 suggest a trade network was already in place between Verulamium (St Albans) and Londinium (London), implying the towns had suffered little or had been swiftly rebuilt after Boudica’s revolt.

Numerous factors contributed to the growing tensions between the Iceni and their allies against the Romans. For Cassius Dio, the primary issue was money: the procurator Decianus Catus confiscated the money Claudius had given to the elite Britons, and Seneca, tutor and adviser to Nero, demanded the return of the money he had loaned to local leaders at high interest, doubtful of his investment. Tacitus does not mention the loans, but cites legal, ethical, religious, and political failures instead and his account centres on the death of Prasutagus. In his will, Prasutagus bequeathed half of his kingdom to Nero and the other half to his two daughters; however, Decianus Catus failed to ensure the will was followed. The Romans beat Prasutagus’s wife, Boudica, raped his daughters, enslaved his relatives, and took command of his ancestral territory.

At this time, the governor of the Province of Britannia, Suetonius Paulinus, was 250 miles away on the island of Mona (modern Anglesey), attacking the Druids - the religious chiefs of Britain - who had gathered in the sacred groves on Mona with those who had supported Caratacus (see section on Caractacus) and refused to submit to Rome. The Romans, usually tolerant of the religious practices of others, eliminated them.

As Gillespie points out, this was a heady combination of factors that must have enraged the Britons, a perfect storm of actions such as the recalling of loans, the appropriation of lands, the actions of Scapula, Decianus Catus, and Suetonius Paulinus, the seizure of the Icenian property, violence against the family of Prasutagus, the mistreatment of the Druids and disrespect of sacred sites, giving rise to an overwhelming sense that nothing was safe from Roman greed and lust. With the native population fearing a rapid descent into servitude, the fuel for the revolt was ready to be lit.

Both Tacitus and Cassius Dio write of portents which warned of the approaching conflict. The Victory statue at Camulodunum (Colchester) turned its back as if in surrender; frenzied women cried out that ruin was at hand, imagining that the theatre resounded with wailing and the senate with foreign shouts; women saw an overthrown city reflected in the Thames; the ocean appeared bloody and left traces of human bodies in the tide. All of these signs gave the Britons hope and the veterans dread.

The Revolt

Tacitus provides a summary of the actions of Boudica and her allies in his Agricola, the account of the life of his father-in-law, which divides Boudica’s revolt into three main stages: the destruction of Camulodunum (Colchester), the burning of Londinium (London) and Verulamium (St Albans), and the final battle. Both Cassius Dio and Tacitus name Boudica as the general (her gender does not factor into her ability to lead an army) though only Cassius Dio calls her a queen, suggesting she was not recognized as a regent by Rome. Nevertheless, her people followed her command.

Map of Boudica's revolt adapted from Military History Matters

Camulodunum (Colchester)

Cassius Dio claims she had as many as 120,000 troops, although this ought not be taken as gospel truth. [What reasons might the ancient author have to exaggerate the British numbers?]. In the first stage, the army of Britons marched (perhaps from Thetford) to attack Camulodunum (Colchester), the town that had been settled by Roman army veterans (hence called a colonia).

Camulodunum had been the focus of the invasionary campaign of the emperor Claudius. This oppidum (fortified town) was on the land of the Trinovantes, a tribe that had been friendly to the Romans from the time of Caesar. As an oppidum, Camulodunum was an area of concentrated settlement, but not necessarily a town. Around AD 10, this area became the centre of power for Cunobelinus of the Catuvellauni tribe. After the Roman invasion, instead of returning Camulodunum to the Trinovantes, Claudius ordered the construction of a fortress for the XX (Twentieth) Legion. The fortress then became a veteran colony, and the surrounding land was appropriated for veteran soldiers. Tacitus records the colony was established both to protect against revolt and to familiarize the allied Britons with Roman law. First-century evidence suggests an amalgamation of local and Roman practices in housing, food, hygiene, religious rituals, mortuary practices, and other cultural concerns. Imported goods from around the Mediterranean attest to the increased wealth of the area, including containers for wine, olive oil, and garum (fish-sauce).

Within the veteran colony, Roman construction projects arose. Cassius Dio mentions a theatre, senate house, and statue to Victory. A temple to the divine Claudius was built and maintained by local funds, and priests appointed from the native population imposed taxes for its upkeep. They themselves grew accustomed to luxury, sloth, and the exploitation of the locals, and thus represent the worst outcome of the Roman presence in Britain: assimilation to immoral, greedy victors. To the native population, the temple came to represent the end of freedom.

Returning to Boudica's revolt, as the governor Suetonius was engaged in putting down the uprising on the island of Mona and dealing with the Druids, the Roman citizens appealed to imperial agent and procurator Catus Decianus to defend Camulodunum. He sent a lightly armed force of 200 men who proved ineffective in defense of the city. The Ninth Roman Division, led by Rufus, marched to relieve the settlement but were routed and the infantry decimated by the Briton forces. Tacitus cites the greed and rapacity of men like Catus Decianus for the viciousness of the Britons in revolt. The legate Quintus Petillius Cerialis brought his IX (Ninth) Legion from modern day Lincoln or the fortress at Longthorpe, but they failed to arrive in time. After a two-day siege, the colonia was engulfed in flames, and those who sought shelter in the temple complex were burned along with the citadel. Burn evidence from the Boudican destruction layer suggests a widespread fire, but few skeletons have been found, suggesting the bodies were removed and properly cremated by the survivors.

Londinium (London)

Boudica capitalized on the momentum from the destruction of Camulodunum and ambushed Cerialis’ IX Legion on the road from the colonia and almost completely annihilated them. The few survivors retreated. The rebels advanced upon the trading settlement at Londinium (near where London Bridge stands today), perhaps destroying minor settlements en route.

When Suetonius Paulinus heard of the devastation at Camulodunum, he left a garrison at the defeated Mona and advanced ahead of his XIV (Fourteenth) Legion, with detachments from the XX (Twentieth) Legion, and auxiliary infantry and cavalry. Tacitus claims that without this swift action Britannia would have been lost to the Romans. Catus Decianus fled to Gaul. But victory for the Romans was still a way off. Poenius Postumus, acting commander of the II (Second) Legion in Isca Dumnoniorum (Exeter), refused to send any forces or to join Suetonius in Londinium. While Suetonius, receiving intelligence that Boudicca's forces far outnumbered his own, left the city to its fate. With no walls to protect them and fewer than ten thousand troops, Suetonius advised everyone to abandon the city, and he and his troops retreated with the refugees from Londinium along Watling Street seeking a place more advantageous for battle, while the rebels killed those that remained.

Cassius Dio (History of Rome LXII 7) details the horrific treatment of the bodies of captured women, mutilated and impaled on stakes as part of a celebration of thanks to the goddess of victory, Andraste.

The worst and most bestial atrocity committed by their captors was the following. 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.

Verulanium (St Albans)

From Londinium, Boudica’s army continued on their destructive path to Verulamium (St Albans), a possible municipium (free town) of Rome and former centre of Catuvellaunian power. The Catuvellaunis had been the tribe who had seized Camulodunum from the Trinovantes and who had enjoyed a special alliance with Rome. As a municipium, Verulamium would have been allowed a degree of self-government, and those holding official positions may have had the possibility of becoming Roman citizens. This site suffered because of its pro-Roman sentiments. Burn evidence is not as clear as at Londinium and Camulodunum, and some have argued that only certain places indicative of the Roman influence were targeted, such as shops with imported goods, rather than the entire town. Tacitus declares some 70,000 Roman citizens and allies fell from these three sites, although Mattingly estimates the death toll was closer to half of that number. Again, exaggerating the effectiveness and scale of the Britons revolt made the subsequent Roman victory even more glorious.

Suetonius offered the people of the city safe passage with his army, and while many accepted this offer, Tacitus tells us that the people of Verulanium suffered the same fate as those of Londinium (Annals 33):

The laments and tears of the inhabitants, as they implored his protection, found him inflexible: he gave the signal for departure, and embodied in the column those capable of accompanying the march: all who had been detained by the disabilities of sex, by the lassitude of age, or by local attachment, fell into the hands of the enemy. A similar catastrophe was reserved for the municipality of Verulamium.

From Verulanium, Boudica and her rebels continued their march north.