She is England’s Warrior Queen. Her name is Boudicca, a name that resonates with all who read this story. Thanks to the efforts of two Roman historians, Cornelius Tacitus and Dio Cassius, her story has been preserved across the centuries of recorded time. Her story is complex and it challenges its readers to fully understand her.
She defeated and slaughtered a Roman army, the Ninth Legion. She burned London to the ground, leaving a charred layer almost half a meter thick that can still be traced under modern London. According to the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus, her army killed as many as 70,000 civilians in Londinium, Verulamium and Camulodunum. Who was Boudicca and why was she so ferocious, so bloodthirsty? What was she angry about?
The two most credible sources on Boudicca are Tacitus and Dio. Both are Roman historians, writing at different times. Neither man ever met her. Tacitus wrote his history only fifty years after the events of 60 CE (her revolt against Rome), and it has been said that his father-in-law, Agricola, was able to give an eyewitness account of the rebellion.
— Thomas Jerome Baker (@profesortbaker) April 6, 2014
Dio Cassius described Boudicca: “She was huge of frame, terrifying of aspect, and with a harsh voice. A great mass of bright red hair fell to her knees: She wore a great twisted golden necklace, and a tunic of many colors, over which was a thick mantle, fastened by a brooch. Now she grasped a spear, to strike fear into all who watched her……” -Dio Cassius (Dudley and Webster, 54)
This makes it clear why Boudicca is not fully understood. We are told a Roman story. Dio, writing much later than Tacitus, curiously enough is the one who has given us our picture of Boudicca as a red-head. Whether he made this up or not, a fierce red-head is the image we have of Boudicca today.
What is clearly missing is her story. The story we have is too one-sided, heavily weighted by the worldview of Rome. However, in all fairness, this matter of bias, the credibility of the storyteller(s), must be informed by other sources. To withhold our trust in Tacitus and Dio must be tempered by reason. Consider this quote about Tacitus’ approach to writing history:
“Before he entered on his task (writer of history) it is evident that he had well considered the nature and importance of it. He agreed with Cicero, who says:
‘It is the first law of history that the writer should neither dare to advance what is false, nor to suppress what is true; that he should relate the facts with strict impartiality, free from ill-will or favor; that his narrative should distinguish the order of time, and, when necessary, give the description of places; that he should unfold the statesman’s motives, and in his account of the transactions and the events interpose his own judgment; and should not only relate what was done, but how it was done; and what share chance, or rashness, or prudence, had in the issue;—that he should give the characters of the leading men, their weight and influence, their passions, their principles, and their conduct through life.’
There can be no doubt this was our author’s model(Tacitus’ approach to writing history), since we find him in different parts of his work laying down those very rules.” Arthur Murphy, 1830, page xii, “Biographical Sketch of Tacitus“.
Evidently, as historians go, Tacitus is as good as it gets. And Boudicca? I’ve spent the better part of the day re-reading Boudicca. I am interested in what her story is, since nobody has told it adequately. Who was Boudicca?
Boudicca was born around AD 25 to a royal family in Celtic Britain, and as a young woman she married Prasutagus, who later became king of the Iceni tribe. They had two daughters, probably born during the few years immediately after the Roman conquest in AD 43. It is here, where I make the attempt to weave fact and fiction to allow boudicca to tell her story…