Boudicca is a historical figure of undeniable significance, “one of those rare individuals from the past who have become folk heroes…” (Hingley, R & Unwin, C, 2005, 7). In Iron Age Britain, Boudicca was able to emerge as a Queen with unwavering passion, determination and the upmost of bravery in her rebellion against Roman rule. It therefore seems fitting to assess her significance and the impact she had in the years following her defeat and subsequent death in AD 60 or 61. However, today we have an ambiguous understanding of her actions, deficient in adequate archaeological evidence.
Yet through drawing on the contemporary and secondary sources available, a well crafted interpretation of Boudicca and her short term impact will hopefully be achieved. Much of our historical knowledge is sourced from two classical writers in particular, Tacitus and Cassius Dio, and their texts in existence. Hingley and Unwin note that Tacitus was “writing within living memory of the events. His close relationship with his father-in-law, Agricola, suggests that some of his knowledge of historical events in Britain at this time may have been passed down directly to him” (Hingley & Unwin, 2005, 43).
One short term significance of Boudicca is thousands of brutal deaths. With a relentless lust for revenge after being treated like slaves in their own country (Ireland, 1986, 58), Boudicca’s determined rebels virtually destroyed the provinces three most economically and culturally affluent towns through bestial violence. There is certainly convincing evidence supporting Boudicca’s success at Camulodunum, where she ransacked and torched the city, targeting anything that symbolised Rome and its rule.
Tacitus records that “They cried that in the local senate house outlandish yells had been heard; the theatre had echoed with shrieks: at the mouth of the Thames a phantom settlement had been seen in ruins. A blood-red colour in the sea…” (Hingley & Unwin, 2005, 48). Although archaeologists have searched for many years in hope of finding evidence of these statements, nothing had ever been discovered supporting the view that Tacitus expresses “a legend that had built up around events” (Hingley & Unwin, 2005, 49). However, archaeologists have found other evidence supporting such stories.
A bronze head of the hated oppressor, Emperor Claudius, was discovered in river bed in 1907 (www. unc. edu/celtic/catalogue/boudica/claudius. html). It is believed the head was removed from a statue displayed outside of a public building in Camulodunum and was thrown into the river Alde as a votive offering to the gods. As well as this piece of contemporary evidence, the smashed tomb of Longinus, a Roman cavalry officer who was buried at Colchester, serves as vivid evidence representing the ruthless nature of the invasion.
Thwaite mentions that “when Boudicca’s rebels reached Camulodunum, they smashed Longinus’s tombstone in two, and deliberately destroyed the proud face of the man on horseback” (Thwaite, 1976, 27). Boudicca’s most shocking act in Colchester however, was the destruction of the Roman temple in which masses of Roman men, women and children sought refuge during the siege. It has been stated that “when all else had been laid waste and burned at the (first) onset, the temple, in which the garrison had concentrated, was taken by storm after a two-day siege. London, at the time a growing commercial city, was left open for attack, and the horrors that followed were atrocious, with the enemy slaughtered “on the gibbet, the fire and the cross” (Dudley & Webster, 1963, 67). Archaeologists at Wessex Archaeology found evidence of deliberate desecration of a small cemetery. A coin found at the site indicates that the mutilated bodies are most probably a result of Boudicca’s sack of London (British Archaeology Magazine, 2003), supporting Dudley and Webster’s claims that Boudicca lead a massacre.
In addition to this, skulls from Walbrook, now kept at the Museum of London, support theories that the desecration of sacred burial grounds was a feature of Boudicca’s rebellion (Field, 2006). Cassius Dio gives a further account of bestial violence as Boudicca’s rebels “hung up the noblest and most beautiful women, cut off their breasts and sewed them to their mouths so that they seemed to be eating them. Then they impaled them on sharp stakes which ran the length of their bodies” (Ireland, 1986, 67). Such vivid evidence leads one to question whether an element of propaganda is present in such accounts.
This question becomes more interesting when one takes into account the fact that despite a charred skeleton being discovered from North Hill, no explicit human remains linked to the Boudiccan Revolt have been recovered. Of course, this may be plausible if it’s considered that clean up exercises were carried out or civilians were taken elsewhere to be killed (BBC History, Ibeji, 2009), yet one cannot also help question Tacitus’s assertion of the scale of the slaughter and whether its simply a product of imagination.
A similar story can be told for the important and thriving Roman settlement of Verulamium as it also drew the attention of Boudicca when it was sacked and burnt in AD 61. The black ash layer has been recorded by archaeologists, thus confirming the Roman written records such as that of Tacitus who states that the inhabitants who did not leave were slaughtered mercilessly (BBC, 2006). It therefore seems that after just a few summer weeks, the rebellion had achieved a state of complete devastation within the province, and it’s been estimated that 80,000 Romans and provincials were slaughtered (Ireland, 1986, 67).
In a state of such confidence, evidence that Boudicca travelled south of the Thames also seems plausible, particularly when evidence from archaeologists at Reading University is taken into account. Although many historians have always doubted the view that Boudicca’s wrath was felt to the south of the river, excavations in the Roman town of Silchester, situated 50 miles west of London, have unearthed evidence revealing that a Roman temple was “systematically destroyed in the mid-to-late-first century AD – almost certainly as an act of political vandalism” (BBC History, 2007).
Researchers suggest that it was most certainly a violent attack and one likely culprit is Boudicca in AD 60. If such an accusation is true, then it would certainly alter the common perception of Boudicca’s revolt. Although only further investigations would help prove this view, the imperial style building would have been a grand symbol of Roman presence thus making it an attractive target for Boudicca’s determined rebels. Overall, it can be believed with assurance that Boudicca destroyed three of the most culturally and economically important towns, resulting in the devastating short term impact of thousands of deaths.
Boudicca’s army were finally defeated in a huge battle which is believed to have taken place somewhere north of St Albans, although no one is certain of the exact location. Despite the complete lack of archaeological evidence supporting the occurrence of the battle, this does not mean it didn’t occur and Tacitus described the site as a “narrow valley with woods behind it, open plain in front…” (Battlefield Britain, 2004). The battle resulted in some 80,000 Britons being killed even though the Roman’s were vastly outnumbered by a ratio of twenty to one. Boudicca’s army, though large, was not well disciplined, and the highly trained Romans were bound to win in the end” said Thwaite (Thwaite, 1976, 29). Boudicca’s impact did not come to an end with her death however, as her actions had a direct effect on foreign policy in the province. The greedy Financial Officer Catus Decianus had been replaced by Classicianus who knew that in order to make a success of Britain, changes had to be made. One change that took place was the end of client kingdoms, as Boudicca and her rebels had demonstrated the potential threat they posed.
Through underestimating the native tribes in the past and relying on loyalty, fatal consequences had occurred and overconfidence in Roman strength could no longer continue. Many Romans were realising that not only could such arrogance continue, the violence also couldn’t continue and that an appeasing approach had to be taken. “If Roman rule was to be successful in the future, it would be necessary to find governors with something more than military virtues” (Dudley & Webster, 1963, 79), thus Paullinus and his ferocious desire for brutal revenge at all cost had to be ended.
The Emperor Nero therefore decided that Paullinus had to be replaced and he was succeeded by Turpilianus, who, in contrast to Suetonius’s punitive attitude, took a conciliatory approach. Turpilianus was succeeded in 63 AD by Maximus who continued with a similar approach invading no new territory. Governors continued to be replaced by men sharing this conciliatory approach and unsurprisingly, Tacitus argues that the most famous of these new governors was Agricola.
Although such a statement may be considered biased, Tacitus said that he aimed “to root out the causes of war” and “gave more reason to love and honour peace” (Thwaite, 1976, 29). Through providing public grants to build temples, fora, and town houses, messages of peace and leisure were emphasised and the result was a province without interruption for over 300 years. The obedient were met with praise and honour and a “remarkable new civilization grew up from the south coast to the far north of Yorkshire, and from the Welsh border to the coast of Boudicca’s old kingdom in the east” (Thwaite, 1976, 30).
Despite still being under military rule, intensive “Romanisation and the development of Roman institutions” (Salway, 2001, 91) became the priority and there is strong evidence for this view. Shortly after the rebellion a start was made on the construction of the Aqua Sulis complex, signifying a deliberate attempt to integrate native and Roman worship “rather than to obliterate or downgrade the British element” (Salway, 2001, 91). This structural evidence at Bath is precious and rare evidence of urbanisation, and expresses the great impact Boudicca had on the province after her death.
Some may suggest that before Boudicca, the Romans were already attempting to Romanise Britain, but in a less considerate manner (Scott, 1975, 133). In light of this, then one could argue that the Romans were truly enlightened and reinvigorated their approach to Britain after Boudicca, blending Roman and native institutions to create a varied society. It has also been claimed that Roman dress became fashionable and urban amenities brought leisure to society.
Overall, despite the sheer magnitude of Roman expenditure required to fulfil such a vision, the actions of Boudicca had resulted in a realisation that Roman approach needed to change in Britain. Devastated by the cost of such damage and the expenditure involved in the redevelopment of a province, Emperor Nero had at one stage considered abandoning the province (Dudley & Webster, 1963, 72). However, ultimately Roman presence remained strong as the province saw a process of urbanisation resulting in the development of a Romanised civilization.
When concluding, it feels best to draw on a quote from Tacitus stating that “Boudicca was not someone descended from great ancestors avenging her kingdom and her wealth, rather she was an ordinary woman avenging freedom she had lost”. This quote also reminds us that the Romans suffered at the hands of a woman, making her accomplishment even more significant, and despite being deprived of rich knowledge, the evidence still available sheds light on the short-term impact she did have.
Her destruction of the three cities that most showcased Roman power and extravagance resulted in thousands of deaths suffered. However, it is the deaths of these Roman and native civilians that led to more significant changes. After causing such shame and agony, Boudicca created, for a short time, a period of maximum killing as Suetonius adopted a revengeful policy of violent, ruthless repression. However, once Suetonius is replaced, the Romans certainly lose their arrogance as they focus on appeasement and reconciliation through an intense and immediate process of Romanisation.
This complete shift in attitude resulted in extensive urbanisation and an acceptance and integration of native institutions and rituals. Although a policy of Romanisation was not new to Rome’s western provinces (Dudley & Webster, 1963, 90), such a conciliatory approach was completely new to Britain. Therefore, despite Boudicca’s actions putting an end to client kingdoms and almost an end to Roman presence in Britain, her actions subsequently gave rise to a new and successful form of foreign policy within the province.
Unlike Caratacus, who had revolted 10 years earlier and fuelled further unrest in Britain, unknown to Boudicca, her actions had created a more contended Britain. Therefore, it can be argued that Boudicca had not only the more obvious short term significance of causing thousands of deaths, but also the immediate significance of creating a change in Roman attitude and control creating a stronger Britain.