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Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni

(Also known as Boadicea) Died A.D. 60

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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