Silver unit of Iceni coinage showing
part of stylised horse on obverse,
and 'back-to-back' crescents
on the reverse. Late 1st century BC.


The Roman invasion of Britain was of great imporatnce for the Romans, especially for the Emperor Claudius who in 43 AD effectively completed what Julius Caesar had begun in 55 and 54 BC. It was after all a country rich in valuable metals (or so they thought). Its distance from Rome made conquest a challenge, but even more significant was the fact that to get to it an army had to cross the sea (albeit only the English Channel) and survive the ordeal of tides, which were a novelty to the Romans. Add to this the fact that Britain was populated by the legendary Celts, and one can see how the idea of Britain must have held the same romance for the Romans as, say, the West Indies, India or China held for our own forefathers.

Celtic culture was well advanced by the time the Romans invaded. Julius Caesar was clearly fascinated by his first encounters with it (see article in Issue 15) and by the time Claudius invaded Britain it seems that the indigenous Celts had become even more of a 'nation', based on strong tribal allegiances, but covering together much of the south and east of Britain. Their highly artistic coinage in both gold and silver, bearing wonderful designs of horses and even inscriptions, reflects a civilised and literate people. They were also clearly a warlike race, and certainly not such as to shrink from tackling an enemy head-on. However it is perhaps a measure both of their advanced culture and also of the respect with which the Romans regarded them, that Rome (as was her practice in the provinces) preferred to cast them in the role of allies rather than of enemies, and to negotiate formal agreements with their most powerful leaders, at least in the early days of the Roman occupation.

One such Celtic chieftain was Prasutagus, chief of the Iceni, whose tribe covered a large part of present-day Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire. Before he died he had made a will that would 'make the emperor his heir'. The purpose of this seems to have been for Prasutagus to attempt to keep his own personal houehold and fortunes intact after his death whilst allowing the Romans rights over his kingdom. Exactly how this was supposed to work is unclear; but when he eventually died neighbouring Romans moved in, annexed land belonging to the Iceni, plundered property freely where they could, raped Prasutagus' daughters, and beat his wife, by name Boudicca. (This spelling has generally replaced the earlier 'Boadicea', which scholars agree is based on an early mis-spelling; another possibility is 'Budica').

According to one version the Romans were only demanding in a somewhat over-enthusiastic manner the prompt return of a large loan which had been made to the tribe. Whatever the pretext, however, there seems to have been a flagrant abuse of power by the Romans, which was to trigger one of the bloodiest rebellions that ever occurred anywhere against them. Colchester (Camulodunum), originally an important town of the Iceni, had been largely taken over by veterans from the Roman army, who had succeeded in displacing the Iceni from their homes. Choosing a moment when the main Roman military force was occupied elsewhere, Boudicca (in AD 61) led a force of Celts from the Iceni and other neighbouring tribes against the city. They carried all before them. Not only Colchester, but St Albans and even London fell, and a wholesale massacre of the Roman population ensued. It was clearly a grim revenge for what had happened to the Iceni, and more particularly to Boudica and her daughters. Dio Cassius, writing much later, gives graphic details of some of the barbarities inflicted on the Romans by the vengeful Celts. Perhaps with the passing of time, tales had been elaborated, one cannot be sure. The historian Tacitus, whose father-in-law, Agricola was a successful military commander in Britain, contents himself with mentioning rather more soberly the Celts 'slaughtering, hanging, burning and crucifying'; but he gives the astonishing figure of 70,000 Romans dead, including citizens and provincial, with few casualties on the other side. Clearly the revenge was nothing if not thorough, and the broad details of sacked cities and wholesale destruction are confirmed by archaeologists.

Much as the Celts would have liked to drive the Romans from the island altogether, such was not to be. Eventually the Romans grouped together to make a military response, and a pitched battle, at a site uncertain to this day, took place between the two sides. The Celts, who must surely have been over confident after their initial successes, massed for the fight. Sadly their volunteer army, filled with the desire for revenge but for the most part completely untrained, and certainly not used to operating together as a single large force, was no match for the disciplined and highly trained Romans. Under the eyes of their families, who had evidently come in the hope of watching another massacre, the Britons themselves were slaughtered. Tacitus records 80,000 as dying in that one day, including many of the spectating women and children, who had no means of escaping from the battlefield quickly enough. Roman casualties were minimal. Boudicca herself seems to have died soon after the defeat of her force, though whether from illness (according to Dio) or by taking poison (according to Tacitus), we cannot know for certain. Perhaps she did indeed despair after the failure of the rebellion; she certainly may have dreaded being taken prisoner by the Romans and becoming an object of ridicule, paraded as a captive at Rome.

The revolt of the Iceni under Boudicca left its scars on both sides for many years to come, and assured Boudicca herself of a place in legend alongside such figures as King Arthur and Robin Hood. She clearly captured the imagination of the Romans at the time. Tacitus describes her going round her troops in a chariot with her daughters before the final battle, reminding them of what they were fighting for. Dio even gives us her speeches in full; but since it was the practice of the day for a historian to put imaginary speeches into the mouths of his characters, they are hardly likely to contain her actual words. Dio does however give us in addition a detailed description of Boudicca, which may well be based on eye-witness accounts. According to him, she was a woman of exceptional intelligence, very tall and 'grim' in appearance, with penetrating gaze and harsh voice. Her hair grew down to her hips, and was auburn-coloured; she wore a torc of gold around her neck (presumably of the kind of which so many beautiful examples have been found) and a heavy cloak with a 'plaid; over it. With spear in hand (admittedly borrowed from a bystander for the occasion, so we are told - there is no suggestion that she led her troops into battle) she must have been a formidable and charismatic leader. She seems to have been greatly mourned after her death.

Interestingly, both Tacitus and Dio tell us that there was nothing unusual about the Celts having a female commanding-officer. 'The Britons make no distinction between the sexes in appointing commanders.' (Tacitus - 'Agricola'). It might well surprise us that this should be considered normal practice, though, and it must certainly have astounded the Romans. Was it partly for this reason that the figure of 'Britannia' was always shown as an armed figure on the Roman coinage of the time? Dejected and clearly recently defeated at first on the coins produced by Rome to celebrate further conquests in Britain, (e.g. under Hadrian 119-122 AD), she became quite soon (indeed within a few years) the rather more proud and regal figure with which we are familiar today, and seems later to become identified with the goddess Minerva/Athena, who is always shown as an armed female figure. Next time you look at the back of a 50p piece, study the figure and remember Boudicca and the blow she struck for Celtic freedom.

- © Frank James

Bibliography:- Tacitus (AD c.56-120); 'Annals' and 'Agricola'. Cassius Dio (AD c.180-229); Epitomes only of his 'History' survive. Askew; 'Coinage of Roman Britain'. Salway; 'Roman Britain'; (Oxford History of England). Suggested further reading on this subject is 'Celtic Women', by Lynn Webster-Wilde. Cassells, 1996.