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Gender in Celtic Britain: Boudicca’s Uprising Through the Eyes of Tacitus and Dio

Boudicca and her uprising against the Romans, which found a large measure of success before their final defeat in 61 AD, has fascinated historians for generations. Perhaps it is, as author and historian Vanessa Collinridge proposes, that, “we know enough about her to remain curious, but not so much as to become bored.”[1] Or maybe, it is her gender that continues to confound people to this day: how could a Roman-era woman possibly lead a semi-successful uprising against the strongest military in the world? The determining factor of the legacy of Boudicca’s revolt lies in her gender: her remembrance by Tacitus and Dio is highly gendered and therefore skews the remembrance of her legacy away from an accomplished military leader towards a barbaric woman who got lucky in her successes before her defeat by the Roman military.


Boudicca inherited her kingdom in a unique way. After the death of her husband, King Prastagus of the Iceni tribe, he willed half of his kingdom to Emperor Nero, and the other half to his wife and two daughters. As a client-king of the Romans, who was able to rule only by the permission of the Romans, Prastugus had amassed a large kingdom and a significant amount of power. However, the terms of his will were not honored, and Emperor Nero took the whole kingdom. There were small revolts throughout the tribe in response to the oppressive policies, and as the policies got stronger, resistance did too. After the attack on Boudicca where she was whipped by the Roman forces and her daughters raped, tensions boiled over. In the eyes of the Iceni, not only had the Romans taken the virginities of the two girls, an important representation of sexual power and purity in their society, but they had also desecrated the gods, because they associated Boudicca with Andraste, the Iceni goddess of war. [2] This led to the most successful barbarian uprising against the Romans. She burnt three towns entirely to the ground almost entirely unopposed, her destruction so massive that the archaeological sites reflect a layer of ash and other broken artifacts.[3] At the final battle, however, the Romans chose the location well. Their general, Paulinus, chose an open field with a natural funnel, slowing the flow of the Iceni and their allies with their superior numbers, and allowing their much better trained military to succeed against the rebellion. The Iceni were routed, taking massive losses and were unable to continue their resistance after Boudicca’s death.




The real story does not, however, lie in the rebellion itself. Rather, it lies in the two biographers who chronicled her story and facilitated the gendered portrayal that has continued to shape her story today. Tacitus, a Roman historian who wrote approximately 60 years after the events in England, presents a dramatized version of the events, though he does include women as major players in the conflict. It is likely that he did have access “to several oral accounts”[4] by nature of relatives that would have experienced the events firsthand, but the two speeches that he presents in his writing prior to his description of the battle by Boudicca and Paulinus are, “likely pure invention.”[5] This hinders his ability to present an entirely accurate representation of the events. He is not entirely pro-Roman in his account, reflecting his own bias against certain generals, and his writing at first, “gives the impression that they simply could not cope with the suddenness and sheer ferocity of the uprising.”[6] This provides an interesting level of credibility to his account. Though he portrays the Iceni as aggressive, uncivilized barbarians, he does not take an entirely positive view of the Romans either.


The same cannot be said of his description of women, especially Boudicca. They are portrayed as animalistic: “The soldiers showed no remorse in the slaughter of the women, and even the baggage animals…”[7] In associating women with animals in their killing, he places women on that same level. They are not equal to men, especially barbarian women, and supports his assessment of Boudicca as a woman who was not legitimately wielding her power and should be remembered in accordance with her gender. Tacitus depicted her actions in, “gendered terms… not those of a leader- not even those of a queen- but of a woman.”[8] In this way, he again uses gender to diminish the successes of Boudicca. Ultimately, in his eyes, she could not rise above this. Despite her successes in the military, gender was the determiner of her legacy.


Cassius Dio is the other influential Roman historian who wrote about Boudicca and her rebellion, though he wrote more than a century after. It is unlikely that he had any oral sources from the time, and due to this, it is important to consider credibility and bias throughout his work. Johnson writes that, “Dio’s account of the rebellion is characterized by a democratic, hyperbolic, and rhetorical style…”[9] that provides a significant departure from the writings of Tacitus. Rather than naming the attack on Boudicca and her daughters as the reason for the rebellion, he cites financial. This removes the layer of gender politics from the reason for the uprising, something Dio continues to do throughout his writing.


In fact, his description of Boudicca is much the way one would describe a goddess: she had a “harsh voice,” a “powerful gaze” and “unruly hair,”[10] This is perhaps the most interesting part of his writing: he uses gender as both a weapon and a defense. In the speech that he ascribes to Boudicca, writing from her perspective as rallying and encouraging her troops to move forward and defeat the Romans, he gives little concrete or accurate detail, instead settling for imagery to describe Boudicca, much in the way he describes her physical appearance. In this way, he utilizes inverted gender roles to portray her simultaneously as a warrior and a foolish woman. Her masculine traits of being a military leader and leading her troops into battle against the Romans justifies their losses to her previously. Losing to a woman would certainly be unacceptable, but to a woman who was on the same level as a goddess and who had the respect of her troops seemed a much more acceptable loss. However, she ultimately is a woman, who does not die on the battlefield, and her military uprising fails. She could not avenge the rapes of her daughters, and died, according to Dio, of a natural illness.


Boudicca continues to be a fascinating historical figure for historians, authors, playwrights, and television and movie producers to this day. Her story of rebellion, almost impossible to fathom given the power of the Roman military and her gender, provides a window into Druidic Britain that is little understood. Tacitus and Dio’s obsession with her gender, portraying her as a multifaceted figure, informs her modern understanding. She was both a woman able to rise above the traditional views of a woman to avenge the sexual transgressions against her daughters and a weak woman whose uprising failed because of her inability to finish the conflict she started and who should have simply surrendered because she could not rule in her own right.






[1] Collingridge, Vanessa. 2006. Boudica: The Life of Britain's Legendary Warrior Queen.

Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press.

[2] Collingridge, Vanessa. 2006. Boudica: The Life of Britain's Legendary Warrior Queen.

Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press.

[3] It is interesting to note that these towns were only named in Tacitus’ account of her military activities, and not in Dio’s, another representation of the concrete and succinct nature of Tacitus’ writing. Du Toit, L.A. 1997. “Tacitus and the Rebellion of Boudicca.” Acta Classica 20, 149-158.

[4] Johnson, Marguerite. 2012. Boudicca. Ancients in Action. London: Bristol Classical Press.

[5] Johnson, Marguerite. 2012. Boudicca. Ancients in Action. London: Bristol Classical Press.

[6] Collingridge, Vanessa. 2006. Boudica: The Life of Britain's Legendary Warrior Queen.

Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press.

[7] Collingridge, Vanessa. 2006. Boudica: The Life of Britain's Legendary Warrior Queen.

Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press.

[8] Johnson, Marguerite. 2012. Boudicca. Ancients in Action. London: Bristol Classical Press.

[9] Johnson, Marguerite. 2012. Boudicca. Ancients in Action. London: Bristol Classical Press.

[10] Dio Cassius. 1925. Roman History, Volume 1: Books 1-11. Translated by Earnest Cary, Herbert B. Foster. Loeb Classical Library 32. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


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