Trouble in Anglia

In 60 A.D., while Roman troops were busy in the final battle with the Druids on Anglesey Island (Wales), trouble arose in East Anglia. To understand what happened, you have to go back to the idea of client kingship. The Iceni tribe, centred in the modern Norfolk, had reached an accommodation with the Romans, keeping their own territory in exchange for not making a fuss.

Beginnings of the Revolt. The Iceni king, Prasutagas, decided that it would be prudent to make his will assigning half of his personal property to the Roman emperor. When he died the Roman officials decided to interpret his will as a submission to the Roman state, so they moved to appropriate all of the Iceni lands and disarm the tribe. Prasutagas's widow, Boudicca (or Boadicea as she is sometimes known) protested. The Romans had her flogged and her daughters were raped. This high handed treatment of an ostensible ally had predictable results. Queen Boudicca raised the Iceni and the neighbouring Trinivantes tribe in revolt against Roman rule.

The Course of the Conflict. They struck at symbols of the Roman occupation, and they weren't gentle. The capital at Colchester was burned, as was London and Verulamium, near modern St.Alban's. Boudicca's treatment of her enemies was fierce and she must have given the Romans a terrific scare. One legion was so terrified that they refused to move against her. She was eventually brought to bay at an unknown site by a much smaller force of Roman troops. The battle turned against her when the Celts became entangled with their own camp followers and were massacred. Boudicca herself took poison rather than face capture.

Consequences of the Revolt. The upshot of the Boudiccan revolt was that Icenai territory was ravaged and much of the province was put under military rule. There is a tendency to think of Boudicca as a great patriotic leader of the British, perhaps the first national heroine. But, honestly, she isn't a very appealing character. She exacted indiscriminate and ferocious vengeance on many of her fellow British Celts who had the misfortune to live in the wrong place.

Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni

Boudicca has been the subject of myth and legend for centuries. Revered as a symbol of British freedom, stories of her heroism have been told to English schoolchildren for the past two hundred years. In fact, she was the wife of King Prasutagus of the Iceni, a British tribe that lived near the modern town of Colchester during the time of the Roman Emperor Nero. When Prasutagus, an ally of the Romans died, the local Roman government officials decided that they would seize her wealth and lands for themselves. When Boudicca protested, saying that she was a Roman ally who was being treated no better than a slave, the Roman soldiers flogged her and raped her daughters.

This was an atrocity that Boudicca was not about to bear without a fight. She called her tribe to arms and rebellion against the Romans. The first town to suffer her furious vengeance was Colchester, known to the Romans as Camulodunum. She burned the town and slaughtered the inhabitants. Suetonius Paulinus, the Roman governor of Britain, was away in the North destroying the Druids on the island of Anglesey when news of Boudicca's attack reached him. His army proceeded south in an orderly fashion, marching twenty-four miles each day and setting camp. Meanwhile, Boudicca was headed toward Verulamium (St. Albans). She would avoid any fortified place but attack regions where the plunder was great and the defenses were weak The Second Augusta Legion, under Petillius Cerialis, met Boudicca's eighty to one-hundred thousand rebels with two thousand Roman troops. They were almost totally wiped out, with only the cavalry escaping. After Verulamium was put to the torch, Suetonius entered Londinium (London). He advised the citizens to leave, and offered to take them with him. He didn't have enough troops with him to defend the town, and the garrison there was much too small to deal effectively with Boudicca. The main part of Suetonius'army would not arrive for many days. In the words of Tacitus, he sacrificed a town to save a province.

Word of Boudicca's barbaric deeds paralyzed the British countryside with fear. Again, we have Tacitus to tell us what happened. The British did not take or sell prisoners. They could not wait to cut throats, burn, hang, and crucify. Even today, when foundations are being dug for a new building in the three towns destroyed by Boudiccas's rebels, a thick layer of ash gives mute testimony to the completeness of the devastation. There is an unexpected benefit for the historians, though. By digging to discover what parts of the modern city have this buried layer of ash, they can map the extent of the ancient towns as they existed in the time of Boudicca when they had been in existence only fourteen years

Suetonius' careful planning and patience finally paid off. Instead of rushing into battle against a much larger force, he chose a place to meet Boudicca where his 10,000 legionaries would have the advantage against her rather disorganized 100,000 rebels. With dense woods at his back to protect him from ambush, he waited in a narrow defile for her to attack. The British were so confident of victory that they brought their families out to watch them slaughter the Romans. All day long, the British sent wave after wave of attackers against Suetonius'well-disciplined troops. Towards evening, the Romans got the upper hand and attacked, trapping the British against their own wagons and pack animals. The Romans slaughtered about 80,000 Britons, including women, children, and old men, repaying atrocities in kind. Boudicca and her two daughters poisoned themselves rather than be captured and made to walk in a triumphal procession in Rome as prisoners of war. Though both of them were responsible for much brutality in this, the Boudiccan Revolt, they are celebrated as heroes in English history and legend today.

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