- Louise Revell
Boudica is remembered as the leader of the British tribes during the rebellion against the Romans in 60/61 ce. Her exploits are described in accounts by Tacitus and Dio, although there is some inconsistency between them. There is no direct, contemporary evidence from Britain itself for her life, although the archaeological evidence can provide some context. The slim evidence for her life has not prevented her becoming an iconic figure in British history. Consequently, it could be argued that the real Boudica is less significant than the multiple Boudicas and Boadiceas created in histories and fictional accounts which range from the Roman historians themselves to the Horrible Histories film. This making and remaking of her image has formed an important element in the scholarship about her.
- Gender Studies
- Roman History and Historiography
Updated in this version
Article rewritten to reflect current scholarship.
The textual evidence for Boudica and the revolt of the southern tribes of Britain is limited and problematic. All the accounts are from outside Britain itself or post-Roman. The fullest accounts are in Tacitus’s Annals (14.29–37) and Dio’s Histories (62.1–12), and there is a briefer account in Tacitus’s Agricola (14–16). Boudica’s role in the rebellion is mentioned by the 6th-century British historian Gildas in De excidio et conquestu Britanniae (ch. 6). There is a very brief mention of a British rebellion, but not of Boudica herself, in Suetonius’s Life of Nero (39.1). The main problem posed by the textual sources is their lack of consistency with regard to details such as Boudica’s own name and the causes of the revolt; even the date of the rebellion has been questioned. It could be argued that the inconsistencies are due to some of our sources being written closer in time to the events described, but this argument is undermined by the inconsistencies that also exist between the two earliest compositions, those of Tacitus.
There is no evidence for Boudica from Britain itself. She is not named on coinage, and we know of no settlement within the territory of the Iceni which might have been the centre of her authority. It is possible, however, to build up a picture of the social and cultural life within the Icenian territory, and the settlement, numismatic, and burial evidence from other tribal groups can be used as a possible analogy for the political organization and means of displaying power among the Iceni.
The textual sources differ regarding Boudica’s name and biography. Discrepancies in the manuscript tradition between Boudicca in Tacitus and Βουδουῖκα or Βουνδουῖκα in Dio have led to various interpretations of her name. From the Renaissance onwards, she has popularly been known as Boadicea.1 It is only since the 19th century, largely due to the work of Celtic linguistic specialists and the re-examination of the manuscript tradition, that there has been general agreement on her name initially as Boudicca and now as Boudica (which is thought to mean “victory”). To distinguish between the historical person and her countless reinventions, some scholars have advocated using the name Boudica for the historical figure and Boadicea for the later, post-Roman depictions. There is also disagreement concerning the date of the revolt: Tacitus sets it in the consulship of Caesennius Paetus and Petronius Turpilianus in 61 ce, but the alternative date of 60 ce has also been proposed based on the argument that Tacitus’s narrative of events during the revolt cannot be compressed into a single year. Other arguments have been offered in support of 60 ce as well, but there are those who still argue for 61. At the time of writing, there is no agreement between the two camps.
We know very little of Boudica’s life before the revolt. In Agricola, Tacitus describes her as being of royal blood, a description which is supported by Dio. The most detailed version of her pre-revolt biography is that in Tacitus’s Annals, where she is described as having been married to King Prasutagus of the Iceni and as the mother of two daughters. By the time of the revolt, Prasutagus was dead and Boudica a widow. Whether she was Icenian by birth or had married in from another tribe is not stated. Dio, by contrast, does not mention her marriage or children, and concentrates instead on her appearance, describing her as tall and fierce, with long, untamed hair, a large golden necklace, and plaid clothing. Such a description exaggerates her foreignness. The necklace referred to is presumably a torc, which in classical iconography was frequently used to signify Gauls and Celts, as in the Hellenistic figure of the dying Gaul. For Dio’s contemporaries, Boudica’s long, unbound hair would contrast with the elaborate tied up hairstyles of respectable Roman women.
Boudica’s role in the events leading up to the revolt differs among our accounts. In Tacitus’s Agricola and Dio, the revolt is caused by widespread dissatisfaction with Roman imperialism. In the Annals, however, the physical and sexual abuse that Boudica and her daughters receive at the hands of the Romans galvanizes the rebels. All accounts agree that Boudica led the British tribes into battle and comment that a female leader was normal for the British. Both Tacitus and Dio agree that she died at the end of the revolt, but in the Annals she poisons herself, whereas in Dio’s Histories she dies of natural causes.
Reconstructing the Narrative
The accounts of the revolt in our main sources are not straightforward. In all sources, the causes are rooted in the perceived maladministration of the province by a succession of imperial officials, but there is disagreement over the specific incidents that sparked the revolt. According to Tacitus’s Annals, the immediate stimulus was supplied by events following the death of Prasutagus, who left the kingdom of the Iceni to be split between Nero and his two daughters by Boudica. The Roman soldiers ran riot, raping the daughters, whipping Boudica, and robbing the Icenian leading families of their estates. By contrast, Dio attributes the revolt to financial motives: the procurator Decianus Cato demanded that supposed gifts of money from Claudius be repaid, and Seneca simultaneously called in the onerous loans he had forced on the Britons. All accounts agree that the revolt took advantage of the absence of the imperial governor, Suetonius Paulinus, and the Roman military forces: Paulinus was engaged in battle against the Druids (see religion, Celtic) on the island of Anglesey, leaving most of southern England undefended.
In all accounts, we are offered the picture of a widespread rebellion, and in Tacitus’s two accounts multiple independent tribes ally to fight a common enemy. Boudica took command, and initially the Britons were successful. The rebels caused substantial damage to the veterans’ colony of Camulodunum (Colchester), a notable symbol of Roman imperialism, site of a temple to Divus Claudius and possibly the provincial capital at this time. According to the Annals, Londinium and Verulamium (St. Albans) were also targeted, although Dio mentions only London and Suetonius writes that only two towns (which he does not name) were sacked. According to the Annals, the Britons also routed the ninth legion under the command of Petilius Cerialis, slaughtering all the infantry. In Dio’s account, the violence of the Britons is presented in a particularly horrific light, with the breasts being cut from the captured Roman women and sewn into their mouths.
These events forced Paulinus to return with his forces from Anglesey and engage in battle. The place of this final battle is not named in our accounts, which inevitably differ with respect to the tactics employed and other the details of the fighting. In all accounts, the Romans were victorious. In the Annals their victory is depicted as a decisive one, with far more Britons than Romans killed. Dio describes the Roman victory as more difficult, and suggests that a number of the Britons who escaped might have regrouped and fought a further battle had not the death of Boudica herself prevented this.
Attempts to use the archaeological evidence to produce a fuller or more accurate picture than that provided by the sparse and sometimes conflicting literary sources are only partially helpful. No evidence has been uncovered to suggest a site for the final battle between Boudica’s forces and the Romans. On the other hand, the lack of a clear destruction layer does suggest that Tacitus’s inclusion of Verulamium in the list of cities destroyed is likely to be mistaken. In contrast, there is evidence throughout both Colchester and London of destruction by fire at approximately the right date, which supports Dio’s account.
The material evidence is more useful for providing a picture of the wider social and political context of the revolt.2 Britain in the Late Iron Age was a tribal society, ruled by military leaders who, from the time of Augustus, seem to have increasingly used the iconography of the Roman emperors and privileged access to Roman goods as a means of displaying their power. It could even be the case that they were client kings of Rome, potentially even educated in the imperial court in the manner of better-documented allies. If so, some of the kings who surrendered to Claudius may have been able to continue as client kings thereafter: Cogidubnus, one of those who surrendered, was accorded the title “Great King of Britain.”3
Tacitus’s description of Prasutagus as an allied or friendly king is compatible with other evidence: during the relevant period, we see the adoption of imperial-style busts and Latin legends in Icenian coinage.4 Tacitus’ account of Prasutagus’s choice of Nero as one of his heirs would also be in keeping with this. One aspect of the Tacitean account which does not fit with the archaeological evidence, however, is the statement that the British tribes regularly fought under female leaders. Whilst the burial evidence can be difficult to decipher due to problems in sexing skeletal remains, the so-called princely graves seem to be a male phenomenon and suggest the predominance of male warrior kings.
Given that the picture of Boudica presented in the Roman textual sources varies, it is tempting to take the more detailed narrative in the Annals as the more reliable, particularly since Tacitus was closer in time than Dio to the events in question. Furthermore, Tacitus was the son-in-law of Agricola, who served in Britain at the time of the revolt and became governor of the province less than twenty years later. Privileging Tacitus is problematic, however, in view of the differences between the accounts given in the Agricola and the Annals, and it is preferable to regard all three main narratives as having been presented in a way which was intended to further the wider arguments and agenda of each work.5 In the Annals, for example, Tacitus frames his account of the rebellion in terms of slavery (servitium) and dissoluteness (licentia) as part of his wider argument concerning Rome’s servitude under the emperors and how the political power of imperial slaves disrupted the traditional socio-political order. Boudica’s speech on the eve of battle offers a critique of Roman imperialism and she is presented as a wronged woman.6 In the Annals, although not in the Agricola, she is a wife and mother in the manner of a Roman matrona (see motherhood, Roman) and is forced into leadership because of these roles. In contrast, Dio focuses more on her barbarian nature and the contravention of gender expectations that a female leader represents. Dio depicts Boudica as a queen, with no mention of her husband or children: she is a leading instigator of the revolt, and her major speech is an exhortation to rebellion rather than a battlefield oration once the revolt has already begun. In Dio, her appearance (see “Boudica’s Biography”) and her words reinforce the gulf between Roman concepts of civilization and British ways of life.
Boudica largely disappears from historical narratives of Britain between Gildas and the Renaissance, and she is notably missing from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae. She re-emerges during the 16th century, initially in the writings of Polydore Vergil and Hector Böece. Since then, she has been represented as a core element of Britain’s ancient past, embodying the national spirit and used as an analogy for particular groups of women. Her depictions range from intellectual histories and high art to more popular media such as television and film. Positive depictions present her as the original national heroine for the British people, fighting for freedom against the invading Romans (Figure 1). Britain’s defiance of the Spanish Armada during the reign of Elizabeth I, for example, is compared to Boudica’s fight against the Romans.7 In the 18th and 19th centuries, as the British empire grew, Boudica and her revolt began to be used in both positive and negative considerations of British imperialism: they might represent the British commitment to freedom, or they might provide an uncomfortable precedent for the Indian Mutiny of 1857.8 As a female leader, Boudica may have proven problematic for male authors, but she has been a potential role model for women. She has been used as a model for Queens Elizabeth I and Victoria, but also for less politically powerful women: British suffragettes fighting for women’s votes in the early 20th century used her as an example of a British woman who could be a mother, wife, and warrior.
- Adler, Eric. “Boudica’s Speeches in Tacitus and Dio.” Classical World 101, no. 2 (Winter 2008): 173–195.
- Braund, David. “Boudica and Cartimandua.” In Ruling Roman Britain: Kings, Queens, Governors and Emperors from Julius Caesar to Agricola, 118–146. London: Routledge, 1996.
- Gillespie, Caitlin. Boudica: Warrior Woman of Roman Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.
- Hingley, Richard, and Christine Unwin. Boudica: Iron Age Warrior Queen. London: Hambledon and London, 2005.
- Webster, Graham. Boudica: The British Revolt Against Rome, ad 60. London: Routledge, 1999.
- Williams, Carolyn. Boudica and Her Stories: Narrative Transformations of a Warrior Queen. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2009.
1. Carolyn Williams, Boudica and Her Stories: Narrative Transformations of a Warrior Queen (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2009), 44–47; Kenneth Jackson, “Queen Boudicca?,” Britannia 10 (1979): 255.
3. RIB 91 from Chichester, which was likely to have been his tribal base. He probably also built Chichester as a Roman-style palatial residence.
4. Jonathan Williams, “The Silver Coins from East Anglia Attributed to King Prasutagus of the Iceni—A New Reading of the Obverse Inscription,” The Numismatic Chronicle 160 (2000): 276–281.
7. Williams, Boudica and Her Stories, 191–194.