The Mysterious British Folk Hero Queen Boudica

Boudica and her army sack Colchester and its Temple of Claudius (visible in the background). Tumblr

The 230,000 or so Britons made a fierce display as Boudica paraded before them in a chariot, delivering a tirade of how her and her daughter’s had been defiled and promoting the justness of their cause. Meanwhile Suetonius Paulinus gave another, altogether much more Roman, speech: point and thrust lads, the barbarian’s bravado will soon shatter when faced with disciplined Roman steel. The Briton’s confidence and bravado did indeed prove their downfall: they suffered a decisive crushing victory, made worse by the fact they had bought their families along to watch. By the end of the day, Tacitus tells us, 80,000 Britons lay dead.

Boudica retreated from the battle and died soon after. Some say she followed in the footsteps of Cleopatra by poisoning herself, while others say she died from grief. But it was not the manner of how she died that would long continue to haunt the Romans, but rather the manner of how she’d lived. Her rebellious spirit is indeed what’s central to Boudica’s story. And it is story, rather than history, that may well be the optimal word for Boudica. For when we start scratching around for any concrete, historical traces of Boudica, even the very existence of this famed warrior queen becomes more a question of conviction than corroboration.

Let’s start with the archaeological evidence. Problematically, we have nothing that links any figure called Boudica with the events described in the written sources. The closest thing we have is a coin issue with the inscribed letters SUB ESUPRASTO ESICO FECIT: something that may or may not refer to Boudica’s late husband, Prasutagus. There’s an archaeological layer of burnt deposits showing that St. Albans was sacked around the time of events described. But while they might say something of a battle—though not the final battle, the site of which has yet to be found—they say nothing of Boudica herself.

Without any strong archaeological traces, we’re forced to rely on our written evidence. There are, in fact, three ancient sources of this kind for Boudica’s reign, none of which were contemporary. Two come from the great Roman historian Tacitus: the first appearing in his work the “Agricola” (a biography about his father-in-law who was stationed in Britain) and the second appearing in his later work the “Annals” (which gives us most of our information about the early emperors).

Tacitus was writing around half a century later, but is still considered more or less reliable. The other evidence comes from a much later, and less relibable author, Cassius Dio, who wrote a history in Greek about 150 years after the events described. Cassius Dio doesn’t give us much context around Boudica’s revolt. We don’t know exactly who his sources were, though it’s safe to assume that he based much of his account on Tacitus’s. What he does give us, however, is the only physical description we have of Boudica, or of any ancient Briton for that matter:

In stature she was very tall, in appearance most terrifying, in her glance of the eye most fierce, and her voice was harsh; a great mass of the tawniest hair fell to her hips; around her neck was a large golden necklace; and she wore a tunic of diverse colours over which a thick mantle was fastened with a brooch. This was her invariable attire.