Boudicca the Celtic Queen: Biography, Facts & Death

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

As Romans stretched their empire across the world, were they ever opposed? They were indeed. In this lesson, we'll explore the life and legacy of Boudicca, the Celtic queen who dared oppose the might of Rome.

Rome's Redheaded Rival

She was described as being large, with a harsh voice and bright red hair that fell to her knees. When she grasped her spear, everyone knew fear. She was also the basis for more than a few archetypes of powerful female Celtic warriors who have appeared in popular culture. She was Boudicca.

Boudicca
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Boudicca was the queen of the Celtic Iceni tribe of Britain, who led a famous rebellion against the Romans around 60 CE. While her name would strike both fear and fascination in Roman imaginations, we actually know very little about her. There are only two Roman sources which describe her, written by Roman scholars Tacitus and Dio Cassius. Still, her named has endured as a scourge of Rome, symbol of Celtic pride, and international hero of redheads.

The Iceni

The Iceni were an agrarian people of southern Britain, today East Anglia in England. Guarded by the sea on one side and dense forest on the other, they were fairly well protected from the world. However, they were well aware of Roman armies who surged into Britain in 43 CE and began conquering other Celtic tribes.

It was right around this time that Boudicca married Prasutagus, the king of the Iceni. We don't know anything about Boudicca's life before this, but it is possible that she was not Iceni herself. Royal marriages between tribes were common. Regardless, Boudicca entered into the rather egalitarian Iceni society which, like other Celtic tribes, allowed women to hold powers of position, own property, and fight.

Prasutagus knew that the Iceni would not remain off the Roman radar forever, so he went to the Roman city of Camulodunum (today Colchester in Essex) and arranged a treaty. He would submit himself as a client of the Roman Empire. In exchange, he would be allowed to continue ruling the Iceni with relatively little Roman interference. Thus, the Kingdom of Iceni became a vassal state of Rome, but was protected from Roman invasion.

Boudicca's Rebellion

When Prasutagus died, he left his kingdom to his daughters, as well as to the Roman emperor Nero as a gesture of goodwill. In Celtic traditions, there was nothing at all startling about women ruling a kingdom, but the Romans scoffed at the idea. To teach the insolent Iceni a lesson, members of the Iceni royal house were enslaved, Boudicca was flogged and her daughters publicly raped and tortured.

It was enough to push Boudicca into open rebellion against the Romans. She started organizing small-scale attacks against Roman troops, generally using guerilla warfare. The Romans were unprepared for battle in the dense forests, and the Iceni emerged victorious. The rebellion quickly drew other tribes to Boudicca's cause as well. The other Celtic people had been languishing under brutal Roman taxation and were eager to strike back. It's worth noting that even Roman historians like Tacitus blamed the rebellion on the greed and tyranny of Roman administrators of Britain. Soon, Boudicca had an army that numbered in the tens of thousands.

Amazingly, this failed to capture the serious attention of Rome. Scholars have long debated how that's possible, but it may be that Roman officers dismissed the uprising as a simple gathering of uncivilized barbarians who were no real threat. The Roman army was also concentrated on other campaigns across Britain, so they may have simply been distracted.

Proposed movements of the Iceni army, in red
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Regardless, around 60 CE Boudicca hit the first major Roman city: Camulodunum. The city was demolished and its inhabitants massacred. In response, the Romans sent 200 light infantry to deal with the uprising. That force was defeated, and a larger Roman army dispatched. It too was destroyed by Boudicca's Celtic army. Boudicca continued on to the city of Londinium (London), and it too was destroyed and its inhabitants viciously killed, with bodies mutilated and displayed. Tacitus described the Celts as coming into battle with light chariots, adapted to the terrain, blowing trumpets to disorient the enemy and accompanied by druids who wailed to their gods for victory. It would have been an impressive, and terrifying, display.

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