|Boudicca: What Do We Really
by Natalie Kohout
Cities were sacked and thousands lay dead and "moreover, all this ruin was
brought upon the Romans by a woman, a fact which in itself caused them the
greatest shame." In 60 and 61 C.E. a woman is reported to have led a
rebellion of the Iceni in Roman Britain which ultimately resulted in three
Roman cities razed to the ground, thousands of Romans and Britons alike killed
and the slaughter of thousands of the Iceni perpetrators in a final battle with
Roman soldiers. This woman, whom is credited with this catalog of crimes, is
known to history as Boudicca. Boudicca herself is a mysterious figure; her only
record of existence lies within the written words of two men. These accounts
vary in quality and details, leaving the reader with a limited, scant
impression of who this person was.
Primary sources on Boudicca and the revolt are limited. There are only three
sources which mention her and the uprising, and two of these are written by the
same man, the Roman historian, Tacitus. Dio Cassius is the other Roman
historian who wrote of an account of the Iceni queen and the revolt she led.
There are several issues which need to be known about these two authors and
their work which will be discussed in the opening section. However, these three
versions of the revolt and its leader, Boudicca are all we have in written
form. The Celts did not write anything down in this period that is available to
us today and so no information from them concerning this event is left for
historians to pick over. Archeology (including the use of coins) will also be
employed in this paper and it seems fitting to include these items under
primary sources. Overall, the primary sources are scant and archeology has
yielded only so much thus far.
Secondary sources present a problem when one realizes that they rest mainly on
the aforementioned primary sources. There are many books which discuss the
Celts and some have been used in this paper. Antonia Fraser's The Warrior
Queens , is another monograph used but not depended on exclusively. A
problem which I found in some of these secondary sources was that the authors
drew conclusions about Boudicca based on Celtic law. The problem with this
is that the law texts which are used by these authors are either Irish law
texts written down mainly by Christian monks between the 7th and 10th centuries
or Welsh law which was not committed to writing until about the 12th
century. These law texts are centuries removed from the time period of
Boudicca and are no doubt tainted by later influences on the island from
Christianity, any invading cultures and unknown elements. There may be some
evidence of what Celtic customs were like during Boudicca's time that were left
in these law texts, but to decipher what exactly they may be is difficult, if
Boudicca was a woman whom we know little about. Her exploits during the
uprising are documented through several types of evidence, but nothing exists
to authenticate her existence other then the brief words of two Roman men. It
shall be argued that through examination of the data available to us, it is
fairly certain that a revolt did indeed occur in the mid-first century and
three cities in Britain were utterly destroyed, but the leader of these events
is still much clouded in mystery. Boudicca may have existed as Dio Cassius and
Tacitus report, but we know virtually nothing concrete about this woman. The
detailed pictures which are painted by a plethora of books, movies and popular
images celebrating this warrior queen are based in myth, legend and wishful
thinking. This assertion will be demonstrated through five basic issues. The
first deals with Tacitus and Dio Cassius: who these men were, why they wrote,
as well as their writing itself will fall under scrutiny. The next part will
briefly look at Boudicca's husband Prasutagus. Boudicca herself and what has
been written about her by Dio Cassius and Tacitus will constitute the
subsequent part. Lastly, the three cities which fell in Boudicca's path shall
be discussed. Afterwards, it should become clear that Boudicca herself still
remains an enigma despite what people may claim to know.
I. Dio Cassius and Tacitus
Since all of what we know of Boudicca that has come down to us is in written
form authored by two Roman historians, it is prudent to take a closer look at
these two men. Dio Cassius is believed to have lived from 164 C.E. until after
229 C.E. In other words he was not even conceived until a hundred years after
Boudicca and the revolt. Dio was a Greek senator, and his eighty book history
of Rome was written in Attic Greek. This history chronicled Rome from its
conception to 229 C.E. The structure of the history is annalistic in nature,
but there are brief departures from the subject. Oral evidence and Dio's own
experiences could be drawn on for history contemporary to his time, but for
anything prior he had to rely on literary sources including earlier histories
Dio Cassius' account of Boudicca in volume eight of his history of Rome is not
merely a regurgitation of Tacitus however; it has notable differences and added
details not found in Tacitus. This can be attributed to the simple fact that
much material produced during earlier times has long since vanished due to a
variety of reasons. Dio Cassius may have had access to other material
independent of Tacitus which may have perished since. Dio Cassius is said to
have spent ten years taking notes on the work of other historians, researching
for his history. It is for this reason that despite his birth being more
then a hundred years after the events he described, his account cannot be
dismissed because we do not know what other sources from which he may have
culled information on Boudicca.
Tacitus was born around 56 C.E. The Agricola and The Annals of
Imperial Rome are the two sources of his which contain references to
Boudicca and the revolt. The Agricola was his first work, a biography,
almost a eulogy, on his father-in-law Agricola. Agricola served on the staff of
the military governor of Britain at the time of the revolt, which places
Tacitus close to the action, compared to Dio Cassius. It was written
probably in 97-98 C.E. Compared to the Annals, it is basic in its
treatment of Britain. For example, the Druids and none of the major Roman towns
are mentioned within it. The Annals of Imperial Rome deal mainly
with the Julio-Claudian emperors, and despite some missing fragments, most of
As with any historian, Tacitus is not free of criticisms. It has been asserted
that he was basically a Roman society writer and anything outside of Rome held
little interest for him (other then war). His style has been characterized
as being brief and full of poetic coloring. Another criticism of Tacitus is
that moral purpose was never far from his mind. Many things which he chose to
focus on "…provoked the sternest moral reflections."
In summary, both Tacitus and Dio Cassius must be read with a careful eye.
Similarly to any historian, they have their own unique filters through which
they recorded history, and readers must be aware and observant of this.
Information was omitted or admitted based on their personal preference. Dio
Cassius has been criticized for giving his reader "remarkably little solid
information of any kind." Tacitus, on the other hand, is much more concise and
generous with details, but one must still wonder about how he selected
information to include and omit. The fact that the accounts of Boudicca
were written by Romans, who viewed themselves as culturally superior
conquerors, must also be kept in mind.
We shall briefly address the speeches which were attributed to either Boudicca
or Suetonius by Tacitus and Dio Cassius. Dio Cassius records several lengthy
speeches, and in fact the bulk of his account is made up of such. Since ancient
historians made a habit of relating speeches which they thought should or would
have been delivered by a particular person in their work, those attributed to
Boudicca and Suetonius will not be looked at closely. They simply will not
help to further my argument along, since their content is questionable at best.
Out of The Agricola, The Annals of Imperial Rome and Dio's
history, only The Annals makes mention of Boudicca's husband, King
Prasutagus. After a "life of long and renowned prosperity" Prasutagus
(presumably through a will) had made the emperor Nero co-heir to his kingdom
along with the king's two daughters. According to Tacitus, he had done so in
the hope of preserving his kingdom and household from attack.
Stepping away from Tacitus' words on Prasutagus, we shall now look at the
phenomenon of client kings in Roman Britain and their relationship to Rome.
Client kings were utilized in Roman Britain in buffer areas and even within the
province's borders, and Prasutagus was an example of this. The king was in
an agreement with Rome through treaty relations, not the kingdom itself. Once a
leader died, a new treaty needed to be made with the new leader. Instead of
making a new treaty with the daughters of the king, Rome decided to annex the
former client kingdom, which was nothing out of the ordinary in the situation
of a client kingdom.
The events, as Tacitus relates them, are nothing out of the ordinary.
Prasutagus, as a client king, hoped that instead of annexation, the emperor
would continue the arrangement with his heirs, his two daughters. However, when
faced with the option of a new treaty or annexation, the Romans opted for the
Tacitus only mentions Prasutagus in one account, and even though it is entirely
plausible that he was a client king (since such things were practiced at that
time in Britain) one may question what else there may be to corroborate the
existence of this particular king, Prasutagus. Such proof seems to have been
found on coins found in Suffolk, England. On these coins the phrase "SUBRI
PRASTO" and "ESICO FECIT" are found. It is believed that this translates to
"Under King Prasutagus Esico made it". These coins appear to substantiate
the existence of a king in Britain by the name of Prasutagus.
This next section deals with the woman herself, Boudicca. Tacitus' and Dio
Cassius' accounts are the only evidence, available in any form, to authenticate
the existence of Boudicca. Both Tacitus and Dio Cassius describe her as a woman
of royal descent. It is unclear, though, whether or not she was of the Iceni
nobility or of an outside group. Only Tacitus mentions that she was flogged and
her two daughters raped after their kingdom was "plundered like prizes of war",
but he makes no mention of why this occurred. It is uncertain if this was
customary when kingdoms were annexed or if any behavior on the part of Boudicca
or the Iceni may have sparked these acts of violence during the take over.
Her physical appearance is only related to us by Dio Cassius. She is described
as having been very tall, having fierce eyes, long tawny hair, and possessing a
very large gold necklace. Since Dio lived over a hundred years after
Boudicca, but did possibly rely on sources of which we are not aware of, it is
difficult to interpret his physical description of her. He may have been simply
relating commonly held ideas of what Celtic women looked like. In other words,
there is no way to verify or dismiss any or all of this description.
Boudicca's demise is the last facet of this section. It seems fairly clear that
Boudicca did not fall in battle or survive for long afterwards. Tacitus states
that she poisoned herself after her defeat at the army of Suetonius. Dio
Cassius relates that Boudicca fell ill and then died. Since taking poison
could entail one becoming ill before death, Dio's account still can be seen as
consistent with Tacitus. Suicide is not uncommon amongst the Celts and
Celtiberians and would not be out of the question for a defeated leader such as
Boudicca. A stunning, albeit, idealized depiction of a Celt committing
suicide can be seen in the statue of a defeated warrior clutching his wife's
corpse in one arm while preparing to plunge a short sword into his chest.
If Boudicca indeed fought against Suetonis and the Romans as is described to
us, her demise by suicide could be likely.
Speeches attributed to Boudicca and her actual military exploits make up the
rest of the accounts. Overall, the written accounts, especially when the
speeches are disregarded, are nearly devoid of any personal information about
Boudicca or her family. We do not know her age; however, there have been
guesses as to her age and that of her daughters. Boudicca's two daughters
are another portion of the story that stands shrouded in mystery. Along with
their ages, their names and their subsequent demises are not known. They do not
exist outside of one reference in The Annals ; Dio Cassius neglects
them all together. The picture painted of Boudicca still stands stark and
incomplete, even after combining these three accounts and taking each author's
words as they are. When one questions these accounts and their validity, one is
left with an even bleaker picture.
IV. Three Towns Laid to Waste
This last portion will analyze the deeds attributed to Boudicca, specifically
the razing of three Roman towns: Camulodunum, Londinium, and Verulamium. In The
Agricola, Tacitus does not mention any of these towns by name. Dio
Cassius mentions that she only destroyed two Roman cities, without mentioning
their names. In The Annals of Tacitus the details emerge. Three
cities are said to have been destroyed by her and their names are recorded as
Camulodunum, Londinium, and lastly Verulamium.
Camulodunum was the first city to fall prey to Boudicca's army. Tacitus relates
to us how the city had no defensive walls which made it rather easy to
destroy. What is now known as Colchester, had been a military base
previously, but since then the military defenses had been removed so that a new
town could cover a larger area. A recent archeological dig has shed light
on this town's fate in the mid-first century. The director of the dig, Philip
Crummy, concluded that the buildings which would have existed were made of
hardened clay and timber and were not easily flammable. The dig, however,
revealed that every house had been "carefully leveled, one by one". Crummy
characterized the attack on Camulodunum as "murderous, determined, intensive
and deliberate". Evidently something very, very bad happened to Camulodunum
in the mid-first century and Tacitus points the finger at Boudicca.
Londinium was next on Boudicca's itinerary of terror, according to Tacitus.
Londinium is described as an important commerce center which did not rank as a
Roman settlement. Suetonius is said to have gone to Londinium ahead of Boudicca
and once there he decided to not stand and fight but to leave the city to
her. Archeological excavations in what is now London confirm that the city
did undergo a violent destruction around the time of Boudicca's revolt.
Other archeological finds include desecrated graves which are thought to have
been the work of Boudicca's army, since the time frame for the graves coincides
with the revolt.
Verulamium then meets the same fate as the two other towns, states Tacitus.
This city was not inhabited by Roman veterans or merchants, but by Britons who
were friendly with Rome. Similarly to the other towns, archeological evidence
corroborates that something very serious befell the city in the mid-first
There is clear evidence supporting Tacitus' assertion that these three cities
were utterly destroyed in the middle of the first century, but what we do not
find in the archeological record is the "who". The archeological evidence stops
short of indicting Boudicca and just reveals the crimes to us. Boudicca is only
connected to these incidents through Tacitus and more vaguely through Dio
In conclusion, archeology and the writings of Roman historians have connected
some pieces of a large puzzle together. We can be fairly certain that a
client-king of Rome by the name of Prasutagus did indeed exist and that he
existed around the same time three Roman cities in Britain were razed to the
foundations. According to Tacitus and Dio Cassius these deeds can be attributed
to Boudicca, but other than their words we have no other testimony to support
that. Boudicca may have existed as Tacitus outlines, as a widow who was
humiliated and wronged who then exacted revenge upon three Roman cities before
facing defeat in battle. However, it must be accepted that we know nothing
outside of these brief accounts left to us by outsiders to Boudicca's land.
Boudicca, even in these accounts, is an enigmatic figure, and when they are
taken with a grain of salt, we are left with a flimsy portrait of a long dead
woman whose "real" identity and deeds we will probably never be able to know
- - - -
 Dio Cassius, Dio's Roman History VIII . Trans. Earnest Cary
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 83.
 Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome , trans. Michael Grant
(London: Penguin Books, 1996), 328.
 Tacitus, The Agricola and The Germania , trans. H. Mattingly
(London: Penguin Books, 1970); Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome.
 Dio Cassius, Dio's Roman History VIII.
 Barry Cunliffe, The Ancient Celts (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1997); Jean Markale, Women of the Celts, trans. A. Mygind, C.
Hauch and P. Henry (Rochester: Inner Traditions International, Ltd., 1986);
H.D. Rankin, Celts and the Classical World (London: Areopagitica
Press, 1987); Peter Berresford Ellis, Celtic Women: Women in Celtic Society and
Literature Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdsman Publishing Company,
 Jean Markale, Women of the Celts, 32; Peter Berresford Ellis, Celtic
Women , 86.
 The Sources For Celtic Law, online, available from
 Barry Cunliffe, The Ancient Celts , 27.
 Hornblower, Simon and Antony Spawforth, ed. The Oxford Companion to
Classical Civilization . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 140,
 The Warrior Queens , 56. T.D. Barnes, "The Composition of Cassius
Dio's Roman History," Phoenix 38, no. 3 (Autumn 1984): 240.
 The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization , 702.
 Peter Berresford Ellis, Celtic Women , 86.
 Tacitus, The Agricola and The Germania , 15-16.
 Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome , 9.
 J.S. Reid, "Tacitus as a Historian," The Journal of Roman Studies
11 (1921), 193.
 Janet P. Bews, "Language and Style in Tacitus' ‘Agricola,'" Greece &
Rome 34, no. 2 (Oct., 1987): 205.
 Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome , 16.
 John C. Overbeck, "Tacitus and Dio on Boudicca's Rebellion." The American
Journal of Philology 90, no. 2 (April, 1969): 130.
 Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome , 12.
 Ibid., 328.
 Ibid., 328.
 Anthony Barrett, "The Military Situation in Britain in A.D. 47," The
American Journal of Philolog ," 100, no. 4 (Winter, 1979): 540.
 C.E. Stevens, "The Will of Q. Veranius," The Classical Review 1,
no. 1 (Mar., 1951): 6.
 H.R. Mossop and D.F. Allen, "An Elusive Icenian Legend," Britannia
10 (1979): 258-259.
 Tacitus, The Agricola and The Germania, 66; Dio Cassius, Dio's
Roman History , 85.
 Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome , 328.
 Dio Cassius, Dio's Roman History VIII , 85.
 Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome , 331.
 Dio Cassius, Dio's Roman History VIII , 105.
 H.D. Rankin, Celts and the Classical World , 96.
 Barry Cunliffe, The Ancient Celts , facing page 21.
 Antonia Fraser, The Warrior Queens , 59.
 Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome , 328.
 Tacitus, The Agricola and The Germania ,66.
 Dio Cassius, Dio's Roman History XIII , 83, 95.
 Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome , 328-329.
 Ibid., 328.
 Philip Crummy, "The Origins of Some Major Romano-British Towns," Britannia
13 (1982): 125.
 Jason Burke, "Dig Uncovers Boudicca's Brutal Streak," Observer Dec.
3, 2000; available from
 Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome , 329.
 Ibid., 329.
 Antonia Fraser, The Warrior Queens , 83.
 "London Graves Desecrated by Boudicca's Army," British Archeology News
issue 70 May 2003; available from
 Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome , 329.
 Antonia Fraser, The Warrior Queens, 91; Peter Berresford Ellis, Celtic
Women , 90.
Cassius, Dio. Dio's Roman History VIII . Trans. Earnest Cary.
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34, no. 2 (Oct., 1987): 201-211.
Burke, Jason. "Dig Uncovers Boudicca's Brutal Streak." Observer Dec.
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Hornblower, Simon and Antony Spawforth, ed. The Oxford Companion to Classical
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issue 70 May 2003; available from http://www.britarch.ac.uk/ba/ba70/news.shtml.
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Copyright © 2005 Natalie Kohout.
Written by Natalie Kohout. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Natalie Kohout at:
About the author:
Natalie Kohout is originally from southern
California, but currently resides in Michigan. She graduated in 2005 from the
California State University of Fullerton with a Bachelor of Arts in history and
a minor in anthropology. She plans on attending a school in Michigan for her
masters. Medieval Europe is her chosen area of study with a special interest in
lepers and their interaction within medieval society.
Published online: 10/02/2005.