Boudica: Queen of the Iceni Tribe Who Led Revolts Against Roman Rule

Boudica: Queen of the Iceni Tribe Who Led Revolts Against Roman Rule

This is Boudica, Queen of the Iceni, as portrayed by the Roman historian and senator Tacitus from his infamous seat of neutrality. Various figures and narratives of Boudica have been fashioned throughout history – an unsurprising fact given the great proportions of her bravery and tragedy. But why, then, is she not a more potent symbol of national identity in Britain? How has she not been harnessed as an icon of female power amongst younger generations? In an age where the

‘I am descended from mighty men! But I am not fighting for my kingdom and wealth now. I am fighting as an ordinary person for my lost freedom, my bruised body, and my outraged daughters.’
 – Tacitus, Annals (XIV.35)

Boudica: The Imperial Context in British History

By 47 CE, most of the people of Britain were part of Roman Britain and were under the incumbency of Roman governor Publius Ostorius Scapula. In 47 CE Ostorius planned to disarm all Britons under Roman control, leading the Iceni tribe to revolt. In exchange for the suppression of this rebellion, the Romans allowed the kingdom to retain its independence as a ‘client kingdom’, with Prasutagus (Boudica’s husband) as king.

Prasutagus maintained an amicable relationship with Rome, and in his will made the Roman Emperor Nero, along with his own two daughters, heirs to his kingdom in the interest of securing imperial protection for his kingdom and family.

Boudica - Iceni Lands

Iceni lands: the Iceni tribe occupied what is now the county of Norfolk.

The Boudican Revolt

Despite Prasutagus’ wishes, his will was ignored and the Iceni kingdom was integrated into Roman Britain in 60 CE. The lands of the Iceni were pillaged, Roman loans to Britons were recalled and the king’s household plundered.

Casualties of War: Women

Women today bear the overwhelming brunt of wartime sexual violence and so it was 2000 years ago. Boudica was publicly whipped and her two (most likely virgin) daughters raped – as documented by Tacitus. Tacitus’ depicts these events with brevity and scarcity, highlighting the extent to which these acts would have been considered abhorrent among the Roman population.

“such that his kingdom was ravaged by centurions and his household by slaves, as if they were captives. Now first his wife Boudicca was beaten by the lash and his daughters violated with defilement. All the chief men of the Icenians were stripped of their family estates, and the relatives of the king were treated as slaves”

Tacitus, Annals

The Uprising

According to both of the Roman historians Tacitus and Dio, Boudica herself rallied the people of the Iceni tribe and the neighbouring Trinovantes, calling on them to fight for freedom and personal liberty, emphasising the importance of these over material wealth.


‘Boudica Haranguing the Britons’,John Opie (1761-1807)

Whilst the provincial governor, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, was campaigning on the island of Mona, Boudica managed to rally a mighty army of 120,000 men and they marched on Camulodonum, where a Roman temple for veterans had been erected, at a great cost to the local British population.

The rebels burned Camulodunum (Colchester), Verulamium (St. Albans), the mart of Londinium (London), and several military posts. According to Tacitus, Boudica’s rebels massacred 70,000 Romans and pro-Roman Britons and cut to pieces the Roman 9th Legion. Suetonius met the Britons at a point thought to be near present-day Fenny Stratford with a mere 10,000 men compared to the rebels 230,000 and regained the province in a desperate battle.

Dio’s and Tacitus’ account of Boudica’s demise differ, with Dio claiming she fell sick and died, but Tacitus’ citing suicide by poison, perhaps in an attempt to portray her patriotism in a more flattering light.

Reinvention: Harnessing Boudica’s image throughout history

The Renaissance saw a revival of interest in Boudica, as Roman texts became accessible in England once more. This revival lent itself to the modern mythic figure and fascination with Boudica became intensified during the Victorian period, under the reign of Queen Victoria, a similarly powerful woman leader.

Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert commissioned perhaps to most famous tribute to Boudica, a statue which today stands near Victoria Embankment.


Boudicea and her Daughter, Thomas Thornycroft, 1896

In 1789, William Cowper published ‘Boadicea, an Ode’, championing the resistance and resolve of Britons and thereby generating feelings of patriotism. This literary work was instrumental in extending imperial rhetoric and, with the strong sense of national identity it promoted, it helped inspire British ideas of imperial expansion.

There is a bittersweet irony in this reinvention of the icon of Boudica who so resolutely stood against Roman imperialism and called on her people to defend their personal, cultural and economic freedoms.

Rome for empire far renown’d,
18Tramples on a thousand states,
Soon her pride shall kiss the ground —
Hark! the Gaul is at her gates.

 – ‘Boudica, an Ode’, Stanza 5, William Cowper

Is this contradiction why Boudica is not more publicly valued in Britain and indeed, globally? Joan of Arc is unquestionably one of the historical feminist icons whom we turn to; why not Boudica?