Why is Boudica (sometimes spelled Boudicca or Boudicea) famous, people ask? She led a failed rebellion and committed some of the most horrific acts of violence on record, yet she is remembered as a heroine. There is a statue of her opposite Parliament in the UK.
There's one man to thank for Boudica's fame. Tacitus, the Roman historian (storyteller?). Although there are 3 wildly differing accounts of her rebellion, Tacitus tells the best, most involving story, that happens to be a fully archetypal revenge plot, deeper and more horrifying than anything you see in a movie. Its like John Wick turned up to 100.
Much of it is probably exaggerated and embellished, influenced by the politics of the time that Tacitus' story was written, but as a symbolic story of the ferocity and eventual futility of revenge, its so powerful that it became ingrained into British culture.
I will tell Tacitus' story here, so be aware that much of this is mythology and not history, although there is clear historical basis for the broad strokes of the events.
It was 60 C.E. The Roman occupation of Britain was less than 20 years old and they were still getting to grips with the local landscape of tribes and factions, as well as local customs. This is important because it explains why the Romans misjudged the Iceni so badly.
The Iceni king (boudica's husband), Prasutagus, was dying. Although the Iceni were on decent terms with the Roman occupiers, the Prasutagus had enough foresight to see that once he had died with no male heir, Rome would try and take everything, so he changed his will and left half his holdings to his daughters and half to Rome.This was a smart move, trying to avert disaster before it happened.
He didn't reckon on the arrogance of the local Roman establishment.
As soon as Prasutagus died, Roman soldiers turned up. They enslaved the Iceni men, and raped the women. When Boudica tried to intervene as her daughters were being raped, she was stripped and publicly flogged by the soldiers, who then looted her village and left.
Leaving her alive turned out to be the biggest mistake of them all.
Boudica convened a meeting of all the local tribes. Although they weren't particularly friendly with each other, they had all been subjected to similar crimes by the Romans. They weren't in a mood for fucking around.
While the roman governor and his legion went off in search of druids to kill (I might do a blog about this battle too because it was interesting in its own right),the new alliance of British tribes stopped farming, gathered supplies and spent months doing nothing but making weapons.
Camulodonum (Modern day: Colchester)
Camulodonum was a Roman colony. It was a massive city for its time, populated mostly by retired Roman soldiers and their British slaves. When Britain had first been subjugated, Rome built a huge temple here to Claudius, the victorious Roman emperor who personally took the surrender of Camulodonum.
This was a monument to everything the local tribesmen hated about Rome. It was a kick in the teeth every day they had to see it standing on the land that had once been owned by locals.
Unfortunately for the Romans, governor Paulinus had left the city completely undefended. The tribal alliance led by Boudica was massive. At this point probably 30,000+ tribesman on an all or nothing mission to destroy everything Roman.
The colonists sent for help to other local cities. Londinium sent a few slaves. A further legion of 2500 soldiers was later sent from the North to help, but by the time they arrived it was too late.
Camulodonum was no longer there.
This is where Boudica set the tone for one of the most violent rebellions ever recorded. Roman women had their breasts cut from their bodies and sewn to their mouths so they appeared to be eating them, and were then impaled on spikes through the whole of their bodies and displayed outside the city.
Other were boiled alive. No-one was shown mercy. Some estimates put the death toll for this one incident at over 10,000 mostly unarmed civilians. Make no mistake, this was not a heroic last stand by British rebels, but a brutal frenzy of torture, rape and murder. This was bloodlust unleashed - fueled by revenge.
A small group of Romans holed up inside the Temple of Claudius. They didn't stand a chance, and the Temple, along with the entire rest of the city was burned to the ground.
There is archaeological evidence of this event underneath modern day Colchester. The materials that Romans used to build at that time were a mixture of clay,manure and other easily available resources. The temperature of the fire that razed Camulodonum in 60 C.E has turned an entire layer to something like pottery, which is still visible under the castle that was built on the remains of the temple.
The legion of 2500 soldiers that had been sent to help must have been horrified by what they saw. What was essentially their capital city had been completely destroyed. The army was hugely outnumbered and swiftly cut down in the forests outside Camulodonum.
Londinium (Modern day: London)
By this point, governor Paulinus had heard about the events at Camulodonum and started sending requests for troops to join his legion. Some were flat out refused by legions that wanted nothing to do with this. He turned up at Londinium just before ever growing army of Boudica. Her army had been burning everything in their path. Nowhere inhabited by Romans was safe.
Knowing that he was hopelessly outnumbered, he abandoned the city and promised the protection of his legions to anyone that wanted to flee.
The same story as Camulodonum occurred again. The same horrific violence, torture, rape and eventual destruction and razing of an entire city. London, not for the last time, was burned to the ground.
Verulamium (Modern day: St. Albans)
The exact same story here as Londinium. Paulinus arrived first and offered the locals the chance to flee. Anyone who remained was brutally killed and then the third city was razed to the ground.
High estimates of casualties on the Roman side by this point put the figure at 80,000 people, mostly civilians.
The final battle:
Paulinus at this point was just running away. The army of Boudica was huge, bloodthirsty, terrifying and drunk on both power and booze. The Roman legion continued to flee north until they reached a natural choke point, surrounded by thick forest.
The legion formed up, turned around and waited for death.
The rebels at this point had been collecting further warriors from every tribe they encountered. Everyone who had been wronged in any way by the Romans was here for their revenge.
They would never have it.
They formed their wagons along with a huge group of non combatants behind their army in a line so they could watch the slaughter, and advanced head on into the massively outnumbered Roman force, but the Romans were organized, used the terrain to their advantage and formed 3 indestructible wedges of soldiers in a defensive formation.
As the Brits advanced, the Romans threw spears that disabled the front lines and caused chaos, leading to a frenzied charge straight into the Roman shield walls. As the Brits began to tire,the Romans advanced.
The battle was looking like a stalemate, but the Romans battle tactics allowed for rest time for their soldiers, whereas the Brits were exhausted and frustrated by not being able to break through, and some started to retreat. This was a disaster, as they ran straight into their own caravan and civilians who were watching and became trapped with their backs to the advancing Roman army.
It was a massacre. 60,000 Brits were killed - no-one left alive. Boudica survived, but died shortly after - perhaps by suicide.
The Romans continued to rule Britain for 300 years, and created the beginning of what could really be called British society. The rebellion failed - but vengeance was taken.
There were no good guys in this story, nothing that happened to anyone was deserved or justified. over 100,000 people died. The story is good, though. It has all of the hallmarks of a mythological tale: The heroes journey - but with a tragic twist and a dark tone - and a lesson in hubris for both sides.