Boudica and Suetonius.

by Daniel Russ on October 3, 2013



Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus


Prasutagus and Boudica were the king and queen of the large British tribe called the Iceni. These hunter gatherer people lived in the Southwest of England in bands not too different from our own American Indians, and they probably lived this way since the Neolithic era. They had complex hierarchical tribal rules and traditions, as did their neighbors. Like the tribes that roamed the Great Plains, the British tribes warred with each other constantly, not in major set piece battles, but in skirmishes and raids, meant to keep each other off balance. In this way they prevented major battles. Constant raiding kept everyone at a disadvantage. Still, they were misty free and self sufficient and certainly living in a beautiful natural setting. Their idyllic existence was shattered when Roman Emperor  Claudius invaded Britain in 43 AD and placed 30,000 Roman soldiers on British territory. King Prasutagus tried to battle with them but the Romans prevailed.


Eventually Claudius allowed the Iceni to become a client state to Rome. It was the only way to allow them to successfully retain their national identity in the shadow of a global superpower. The Romans set up garrisons and imposed certain rules, in return for higher technology, engineering technology; and sometimes the reward was just to be left alone. The stakes were high for the Iceni. The Romans could also be brutal and ruthless and really the difference in governance just depended on which Roman governor you had posted to your home. So Prasutagus made his peace with the Roman governors and tax collectors.


It was particularly galling that the Iceni had to give up crops and game and even crop surpluses to feed the Romans. That made good times scant and scant times impecunious. Still it was better to live in peace with some semblance of freedom that to live as a slave of the interlopers. In the neighboring tribal area to the south were the Trinovantes and there the Romans replevined the central plains and built a massive occupational fort. This was the Green Zone of sorts and it was called Camulodunum. It housed the wives and families of the Roman soldiers. It was not really a fort as Tactitus remarked, “the compound had no walls to speak of, and as the Roman commanders neglected this.” They would come to regret this. The Trinovantes became a sort of unwilling client state to the Romans but harbored much ill will because of it.


The Legions were disciplined, blooded armies. The Romans wore flexible body armor, helmets, and carried large shields and pila javelins and gladius short swords. The Iceni wore soft leather and textiles and had good weaponry. They were a one trick pony in regards to battle – as an old high school coach might say “hey diddle diddle, straight up the middle”. The Iceni massed large numbers of screaming furious warriors and rushed towards the enemy lines. These two battle tactics would repeat themselves throughout Roman Barbarian wars for centuries.


When Prasutagus died, Boudica was left as the queen of the Iceni. The Romans however were a misogynistic culture. Men had power and women were mostly subservient. On occasion a woman would rise to the authority close to an Emperor, as did Livia Augustus. In Iceni culture, women went to war with men and trained for warfare with them. As in many neolithic cultures around the world, life was hard enough without pinning your women in a corner. Iceni women were respected by the Iceni. But when Catus, the Roman tax collector ordered troops to take Boudica’s home, they did not recognize her position of authority, in light of her deceased husband the King. So she refused them entrance but they forced their way in anyway. In fact on the day that she resisted, the Romans had her publically flogged and her daughters raped.


Suetonius was the Roman general sent to subjugate Iceni and they were sent by Nero himself. Suetonius was chosen for his cruelty and ruthlessness. He chose this humiliation to show the Iceni that they were a conquered people and resistance would be met with scourge. The Romans also raped her daughters within earshot of her. A brutal hello if there ever was one. This act rendered her daughters essentially unmarriageable.


The year was 60 AD. And Suetonius’s cruelty midwifed a rebellion that would catch the Romans off guard. You see Tacitus the historian writes “Prasutagus made Boudica his co emperor to preserve the power structure there.” She was high society in Iceni culture but the new Roman guard in place decided the deal was with the King, not the queen. They would simply not recognize her authority and decided to do what the other Romans did on British soil, take what they want by force.


Suetonius had many Iceni killed and injured when he showed up to put Boudica in her place. They intended to change the status of the Iceni from client state to conquered people. Tacitus called it “King’s stolen estates”. Suetonius wasn’t finished punishing the Iceni. The Iceni of course felt they were merely honoring their part of the deal with Rome. The law givers and judges in Iceni culture were the Druids. They were helping the Iceni see the predicament from a legal standpoint, which inflamed Suetonius even further. Suetonius sent troops that slaughtered the Druids one night in the middle of their adytum in the countryside and put an end to their rabble rousing opinions. Tacitus writes “the slaughter of the Druids starts with their standards and followed by the Romans urging each other forward in the night as they bore down on the Druids who were consumed by the fire of their own flames.”


Boudica escaped headed south and met with the king of Trinovantes, also victims of Rome’s excesses. She convinced them to join with their Iceni neighbors and start an insurrection.


There were probably 20,000 people living and moving in and out of Camulodunum. And about 50,000 in Londinium a water way trading outpost precursor to London. And another 10,000 Romans and traders living in surrounding outposts. In two nights, the British coalition of tribes killed everyone inside those outposts, men, women, children, and soldiers. At Camulodunum the Iceni and Trinovantes burned the entire place to the ground. They meant to erase anything Roman or foreign from their soil.


Messengers from Camulodunum reached other Roman outposts looking for aid. Londinium  was only 50 miles from Camulodunum and when messengers reached the outpost of the IX Legion, the Legion could only spare 2000 men. The men rode out into plains next to Camulodunum and were met by upwards of 100,000 painted, tattooed, screaming well armed blooded warriors. 


News of the Roman slaughter finally reached Suetonius, he realized that this was no small uprising. This was a full scale rebellion. It was unheard of that these ”savages” could destroy a Roman Legion or even part of one. And under the purview of a woman at that. So as word spread to other Roman outposts, so did panic. Catus, the tax collector, fled to Rome and hid.  


Suetonius marched into the Midlands and found a spot that now known as Watling Street. There he smartly positioned himself with the woods at his side and back and an open battle field in front. He has 20,000 soldiers and the British alliance put around 60,000 on the battlefield.


But in warfare, sometimes numbers don’t make this difference. The battle that was enjoined was brutal and frankly quite a close shave for the Romans. Tactics made the difference. The Romans were outnumbered 3 to 1. But as the Roman army proved time and again, that meant little. However, Suetonius prevailed and Boudica disappeared into history. Some say she was captured and slain. Others say she took her own life.


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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Louis September 29, 2017 at 1:39 am

The Iceni might be lots of things, but they were certainly not Hunter-Gatherers. All the Gaullich\Celtic tribes in britain were farmers, and they had quite a lot of towns, and even cities. Some of their ironwork, and their goldwork, was highly prized by the romans. They also had chariots, which went out of fashion on the mainland ages ago, but because the tribal ponies in Britain were smaller than the horses on the continent, and hence unable to carry a fighting man, were still usefull in Britannia.
And a city of 10.000 people is not a mere “trading post” on the Thames.
Probably one of the major misunderstandings between the Iceni and the Romans was that apparantly the royal line within the Iceni was Matrilinear, which means that the royal authority is passed from mother to daughter, and not from father to son. So for the Iceni, Boudica was the rightfull queen, and the king was just her husband, and the father of her children.
Historians suspect that one of the other reasons the Iceni revolted was that the roman governor of Britannia, Suetonius Paulinus was at that time busy crushing the tribes in Wales, and attacking the holy island of the druids, whom he had (probably correctly) identified as the source of the continued unrest against Rome. Boudica probably wanted to take advantage of the abscence of the governor, and/or make a diversion to recall him from the west. However, Paulinus was just finished with killing the druids and cutting down their holy forests, when word of the revolt reached him.

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