Boudica: Feminist Icon?

In pop culture, Boudica is remembered as the fiery Queen of the Iceni; flame-haired, chariot-riding scourge of the Romans, the woman who united the British tribes, burnt down Colchester, London, St. Albans, and defeated an entire Roman legion. Fans of the mid-noughties British children’s television show Horrible Histories will recall a scraggly caricature of the famous barbarian performing on-screen in punk rock/ electronic dance fashion (do yourself a favour: In more recent times, she has been compared to Game of Thronescharacter Ygritte. But how do these modern perceptions compare to the historical figure?

Much of Boudica’s conventional narrative comes from the works of Tacitus, the Roman historian who loosely recorded the history of Rome from the reign of Augustus to the reign of Nero in his Annales. Although detailed, Tacitus’ account is broadly literary, retelling the tale of the rape of Lucretia through Boudica’s actions. Staunchly anti-imperialist, Tacitus used her as an example of the noble savage who stood up to oppression but was unable to contain barbarity, eventually succumbing to cruelty and tyranny.[1]

In Tacitus’ history, Boudica was less a real woman and more a symbolic story. Since the Victorian era, she has remained an important cultural symbol and female icon in the United Kingdom. Her legacy is the subject of everything from concerted academic debate (not least over the meaning of her name)[2] to self-help books (one particularly popular one is entitled What Would Boudica Do? Everyday Problems Solved by History’s Most Remarkable Women). The image of a beleaguered, battered woman who rose up to lead one of the fiercest revolts in Roman history rightly inspires pride. But should she be remembered as a feminist inspiration?

The Rise and Fall of an Iceni Queen

In order to (attempt) to answer that question, we must first recall the sequence of events that wrote Boudica into the history books. Boudica’s life remains shrouded in legend. We don’t know where she was born or how old she was when she died, but we do know she was the wife of the King of the Iceni, Prasutagus, a Roman stooge who was allowed to remain nominally independent of Roman rule.[3] The Iceni were a relatively small tribe active in the west of England in what is now roughly modern-day Norfolk.[4] The revolution she inspired occurred in either 60 or 61 CE, in the middle of the reign of Nero.

After Prasutagus died in 60 CE, he left half of his kingdom to the Emperor Nero and half to his two daughters. The Romans, by that point wholly entrenched in Britain, ignored the king’s will and elected to forcibly take the other half of Iceni assets. They viewed the Britons as sub-human and treated them like slaves. According to Tacitus they entered the Iceni camp, raped Boudica’s daughters, publicly stripped and thrashed Boudica, and left. With her kingdom and her honour taken, Boudica was cast out of her tribe. Tacitus recounts a speech in which she denounced Roman rule, claiming that if the bodies of princesses weren’t safe, nobody was safe.

Boudica set about uniting the self-reliant tribes of the area. Despite their historical animosity- there was fierce competition for resources, trade routes, contact with continental Europe and land power. The Britons recognized (a-la Game of Thrones) that the Romans were a much more serious threat to the power and integrity of native communities.

Slowly gathering manpower, Boudica set her sights on the nearby town of Colchester. As well as being the biggest Roman settlement of the area, it was the site of a brand-new temple to the late Emperor Claudius, and also the power base of the local tribe, the Trinovantes, who had been historically antagonistic toward the Romans but were forced into subjugation. A few thousand people lived there, including some two hundred Roman troops residing in the temple. Notably, Tacitus claimed these Romans were completely unarmed because the local leader was so unconcerned by the threat of the Britons. Boudica’s forces, promptly laid a two-day siege on Colchester and burnt down the temple, killing all the Romans.[5]

Next stop: London. By the time Boudica and her army started marching south, word of the revolt had got around to Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, the governor of London, who at the time was in Wales waging war against the Druids.[6] He controlled some ten thousand men (about two Roman legions). He decided to make his way back to London after word reached him that Boudica and her army burned much of it down and wiped out an entire Roman legion—something that rarely happened across Roman history. The revolt had turned from a threat to an embarrassment, and a blow to the Roman ego.

Boudica’s story came to a relatively swift end shortly after this major victory. She managed to burn down St. Albans, but was drawn to battle on Watling Road, a carefully picked Roman battleground. Although Boudica had (by conservative estimates) about ten times the number of troops as Suetonius, the seasoned general managed to draw the Britons into a valley, creating a bottle-neck effect. The Romans hit the Britons with ferocity, and Boudica’s troops failed to retreat back through the valley opening. Boudica’s campaign ended with the mass slaughter of Britons, and her own death followed soon after.

How should we remember Boudica?

It is easy to see why people uphold Boudica as a feminist icon. The gendered violence and denigration she suffered from the Romans, and her subsequent rise to lead an army of over a hundred thousand Briton warriors, lends itself to that status. Those who put her in that category would likely also concede she is a problematic feminist icon- after all, both Tacitus and Dio made it quite clear that Boudica killed indiscriminately, including children- but that her Kill Bill style revenge sequence only reinforces the power and respect she cultivated. The Romans, symbolic of patriarchy, raped Boudica’s daughters and publicly humiliated her with the idea that the only consequence would be complete subjugation. Instead, Boudica responded with self-made force.

Boudica was a woman. Obvious, I know—but it seems that most historical female figures are upheld as feminist icons simply because they were woman. But should that be the case? Some might argue that nothing Boudica did was feminist. Her legacy lives on, yes, as the woman who struck a blow to the Roman empire. A British icon not cowed by the richer and more powerful. A brutal warrior who ordered the deaths of thousands of people. But someone who progressed the cause of equality? Who paved the way for other women to succeed? Perhaps not.

So was Boudica a feminist icon? Perhaps it’s not for me to say. The reality is the story of this warrior queen who wreaked havoc in one of the most rigid patriarchal dynasties of all time lives on in books, films, television shows and songs: and that can only be a good thing.

  1. [1] Jenner, Greg. “Boudica” You're Dead To Me (blog). BBC Radio 4, September 13, 2019. [2] Many scholars think that Boudica was probably just a stage name seeing as it meant “victory” in Celtic. She was also married to Prasutagus, or “the chief”. [3] Prasutagus likely either surrendered to Claudius during the Roman conquest of Great Britain in 43 CE or was installed by the Romans after. [4]Hingley, Richard, and Christina Unwin. 2005. Boudica : Iron Age Warrior Queen. London: Hambledon and London. [5] Jenner, Greg. “You're Dead To Me.” You're Dead To Me (blog). BBC Radio 4, September 13, 2019. [6] The Druids is a name given to the religious and political elites that transcended tribe boundaries in ancient Britain. Gaius Suetonius Paulinus massacred hundreds of Druids across his career.


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