With Brexit on the horizon, there’s a chance the new Prime Minister’s actions will change the course of our country forever. (Or he may go down in history as the man who blew it.) With that in mind, we asked our contributors to pick an individual who did change the course of history — even if, these days, we underestimate their legacy.
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The Iron Age queen Boudica looms large in myth. She is revered as an awesome figure of female rage, a military leader raising an army against the occupying power of the Roman Empire, an avenger of men’s sexual violence and patriarchal entitlement, a bringer of justice fuelled by pain and anger, a native subject who refused to be ruled by a foreign invader. She is a symbol of resistance against colonialism and slavery.
At the time of Boudica’s rebellion, Britannia had been occupied by the Romans for less than 20 years. King Prasutagus, ruler of the Iceni tribe, had acquiesced to Roman rule after the previous Emperor Claudius’s invasion in AD43 and a failed local rebellion four years later. Prasutagus accepted and adopted Roman ways and gave the Empire duties, loans, tithes and taxes from his people – including fees the Iceni had to pay to bury their own dead.
Then, in AD 60, Prasutagus died and left only half his estate to the new emperor, the notoriously cruel Nero, giving the other half to his daughters. In retaliation, the Romans plundered the household of his widow Queen Boudica’s household; she was flogged, her relatives enslaved and her daughters gang-raped. She and her tribe erupted in rebellion, and the Romans soon found themselves facing a general uprising.
Yet there is scant evidence that Boudica definitely existed, as I discovered when I was commissioned by a publisher to write a fictionalisation of her rebellion. I grew up on Manda Scott’s thrilling series of novels and on the television series starring Alex Kingston as the red-haired heroine. But looking at the actual (meagre) evidence presented by historians such as Richard Hingley, Christina Unwin, Marguerite Johnson, Nic Fields and Vanessa Collingridge opened my eyes.
There is almost no contemporaneous evidence from 60-61AD, the time of Boudica’s rebellion, identifying her as the revolutionary leader. The story of the Iceni tribe can be pieced together from some archaeological evidence, including fragments submerged in the molten matter produced by the scalding, decimating heat of the rebels’ fires in the Roman towns of Camulodunum (Colchester), Verulamium (St Albans) and Londinium (at that time a small, emergent outpost). There then followed a final battle against the Romans, led by general Suetonius Paulinus, but the exact location of this remains a mystery.
We don’t even know if Boudica — which simply means “Victory” — was her given name or a symbolic epithet, although there were certainly other Iron Age women leaders, such as Cartimandua of the northern Brigantes. The mythologising accounts we have of Boudica come from two later classical commentators, Tacitus (whose father-in-law had been an imperial governor in Britain) and Cassius Dio.
It is these men — stalwarts of the Roman Empire themselves — who contributed unwittingly to the powerful image we have of her today, although they were written with quite the opposite intention. Boudica’s muscular frame, weaponry, mane of reddish-gold hair, glinting jewellery, flowing clothes and rousing speeches, delivered standing on her war chariot, are their inventions. These classical men tried to depict Boudica as an unnatural and uncouth barbarian she-devil but actually made her impressive to later readers, although their accounts were not rediscovered until the Renaissance humanist period.
Boudica’s achievement had been to unite a number of tribes, assembling a great horde of fighters that included the neighbouring Trinovantes, considered the most powerful in Britain. Together, they poured down through Camulodunum, Verulamium and Londinium, sacking and burning as they went. Some of the classical accounts of their massacres — such as those of women mutilated and impaled lengthways on stakes — are outlandish and cannot be proven either way. But there is no doubt about the level of physical destruction. The fires were thought to have reached 1,000 degrees centigrade. And Boudica’s army was so fierce that the Roman administrator, Catus Decianus, fled rather than face her.
The three towns Boudica’s army struck had symbolic power as imperial administrative centres, settlements for former Roman soldiers built on co-opted lands, as well as Romanised natives who had adopted the dress and habits of their colonisers. Although they might have been enjoyed by retired soldiers, they were not actively defended by the military, with the exception of a small retinue of troops slaughtered inside Claudius’s temple in Camulodunum.
Although there are no contemporary verifications, the practicalities of moving an army of hundreds of thousands of fighters – and their families — across such distances suggests that Boudica’s campaign lasted several months, rather than weeks. By now, Emperor Nero would have known about it, and Suetonius Paulinus was under pressure to act against the barbarian upstarts.
Suetonius had been in Wales and now travelled to meet Boudica’s forces, with the full might of the Roman army behind him. The Romans were practiced technical fighters, excellent at strategy, calm, well-horsed and well-armoured, with expertly-built weaponry including arrows and spears, daggers and swords, as well as rounded full-body shields. Despite being outnumbered by Boudica’s fighters, they were simply a better war machine. They took up a position uphill of Boudica’s army, which was now squashed between the Romans and their own carts, laden with plunder, possessions and relatives.
That Boudica killed herself with poison cannot be verified, although it once again corroborates the myth of this warrior queen preferring death to ignominy and dishonour. The Romans took their revenge, seizing the rebel tribes’ valuable horses and plunder, torching the settlements and slaying the Iceni and those who had fought with them. They re-militarised the occupation, building and populating forts across their territory.
In the decades to come, the Romans would continue to bed in their occupation, and it wasn’t until nearly 400 years later that the land was finally rid of the empire and the colonisers left. Boudica’s rebellion in the early days was singular in its ferocity. It is its gendered aspect, I believe, which compels and fascinates many women who identify with her raw rage — as I do. The uprising failed, but it was indicative of the fact that the Romans’ presence in Britannia was never really easy, no matter how many towns they developed (among them Gloucester, Bath and York). They failed to take Caledonia — Scotland — and had to keep constant military vigilance against the tribes – tribes just like those that Boudica led.
Boudica occupies a unique place in the tale of early Britain: she is the native warrior who fought back against foreign invaders, the once obedient vassal who decided death was better than more dishonour, the anti-imperial, anti-slavery activist who got radical the moment things got personal. Of course the idolisation of Boudica, especially strong in the Victorian era, has usually glossed over Britain’s global infamy as slavers and colonisers running an empire that dwarfed Rome in size.
She has also been interpreted as a testament to a wronged woman’s zeal and a symbolic warning that a formerly compliant wife and mother is capable of any feat in defence of her family. The implication is that this is a nation that cannot be subjugated, co-opted or annexed by occupying forces and would never submit to the humiliation and violation of imperialism; that this island may be small, but has the guts to defend itself against anyone who dares to subdue it.
Boudica’s war gave the Roman empire a hard jolt and served — I have no doubt — as an inspiration to the countless other tribes, settlements and occupied people that resistance, protest and fighting back were righteous and valuable. Without her, Britannia would be seen as just more territory to be easily conquered by the Roman war machine. Yet after her rebellion, Britannia was seen as a troublesome outpost of the Roman empire, one which required constant vigilance due to repeated acts of rebellion.
It cemented a national image that is both double-edged and enduring: the Brits as hard-drinking, easy-fighting hooligans, self-righteous, proud, eccentric, patriotic and defiant. That can be interpreted in any number of ways. Indeed Boudica has since the Victorian period been taken up very strongly by Britons of all politican and cultural persuasions: by suffragettes, abolitionists, imperialists, freedom fighters, feminists, pagans and others. Because so little is truly known about her, she has retained her mystique and stands as a universal and timeless symbol of the wronged woman lost to history.
It is this obscurity and mystery that drive people to endlessly rediscover her. She inspires me as a woman who refused to take abuse, internalise her anger or accept the perpetrations and humiliations of those in power. Her anger was her expression and her fuel. She required that she and her daughters be revenged and their rapists punished. Thousands of years later, I want the same thing.