Boudicca: An Archetype for the Ages.

Boudicea, with her daughters before her in a chariot, went up to tribe after tribe, protesting that it was indeed usual for Britons to fight under the leadership of women. ‘But now,’ she said, ‘it is not as a woman descended from noble ancestry, but as one of the people that I am avenging lost freedom, my scourged body, the outraged chastity of my daughters. Roman lust has gone so far that not our very persons, nor even age or virginity, are left unpolluted. But heaven is on the side of a righteous vengeance; a legion which dared to fight has perished; the rest are hiding themselves in their camp, or are thinking anxiously of flight. They will not sustain even the din and the shout of so many thousands, much less our charge and our blows. If you weigh well the strength of the armies, and the causes of the war, you will see that in this battle you must conquer or die. This is a woman’s resolve; as for men, they may live and be slaves’ “(Tacitus, Lewis TR, 2010).

(I’ll stick to the Boudicca version of the name, though there are many other spellings. I just like Boudicca better.)

Boudicca stands out among popular images of warrior women. This is not simply because of her impressive physical appearance often portrayed as a savage celtic war-goddess with a mane of fiery hair, proud in stature, noted as having rather imposing stare and a loud, harsh voice. She seems custom made for dramatic renaissance portraits, the very archetype of the passionate, firebrand warrior-queen. More on how she breaks the stereotypes of pre-modern women warriors in a moment, first a little history.

A very nice picture from Robert Keegan.

A very nice picture from Robert Keegan.

Boudicca was the queen of the Iceni, a tribe that acted as a client state of Rome, allowed to remain relatively independent in the conquest of AD 43. Prasutagus, may have surrendered or may have been installed by the Romans, sources are unclear. It is well known that Iceni as a tribe were independent minded, having revolted once already in AD 46 when a governor tried to restrict their use of weapons.

When Prasutagus died, he left his property to his wife and daughters, not uncommon in Celtic law and certainly accepted by his tribe. The Romans saw it differently. In their practices a lesser client king would rule until his death and then his property would become part of the Empire. Roman Legions marched into Iceni lands, treating them as a subjugated people. Even worse were the Roman merchants and creditors, who greedlily called in all their debts upon the tribe seizing valuable land and anything else they could get their hands on. We all know the drill on this one. Their harshness would later draw criticism from other parts of Rome, and is certainly looked down upon in Tacitus and Dio, the main scources for this period.

Boudicca took a stand. It was not a violent one, at least initially. She showed her defiance to the Romans and so they flogged her (or beat her with Rods) and raped her daughters to add to her humiliation. Roman law was harsh, but this was noted as being excessive as well as stupid. The Romans were having trouble with subjugating the Welsh tribes and other parts of Britain, so perhaps this excess was based on that old desire to show one’s strength by humiliating others. Or maybe they just didn’t like the idea of a defiant woman, tall and proud, and most definitely foreign to their experience standing up to them.

Instead of chastising Boudicca, her vicious punishment enraged her and provided a focal point for the tribes anger. In AD 60-61 Boudicca led a revolt against the Romans. She played up her suffering and her daughter’s defilement over her noble heritage, winning the support of other tribes as well. How mighty of voice and will she must have been to challenge a power like the Romans without military schooling. It is no wonder that when tales of her deeds were uncovered during the renaissance she captured the imaginations of so many.

Boudicca quickly led her forces to sack Camulodunum (Colchester), a prominent colonial town. It is said she used the running direction of a hare as a kind of augury to choose her target, related to the British goddess of Victory, Andraste. She captured the town relatively easily, even inflicting a crushing defeat on the IX Hispania, a legion sent to stop her. Several Roman commanders fled in disgrace. It was a major blow.

Next Boudicca turned to Londoninium (London). Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, the governor, was force to give up his campaign in Wales to fight her. Paulinus was no fool, having served with great distinction in Africa and having waged many wars in Britain itself. He decided to give up Londonium to Boudicca while he retreated and gathered forces. This sort of retreat is a very successful tactic used by the Romans against Attila later on and even Sam Houston after the fall of the Alamo. After burning London to the ground, killing a staggering number of people in savage ways (although not savage for the times, I mean the Romans crucified people), Boudicca faced Paulinus on the ground of his own choosing as was unable to bring her superior numbers to bear: her army was crushed. She either poisoned herself or died from illness right after. Many rumours abound of where her body was hidden away. Despite this loss and her death, Nero considered pulling out of Britain after these events.

Initially the Romans were very harsh after their victory, but their methods drew criticism, since many felt that they would just provoke another rebellion.

Boudicca’s story is, on the surface, very similar to Joan of Arc’s. Both came out of nowhere, claiming divine inspiration, and let their people against In fact, Boudicca was often seen as the British Joan of Arc, and invoked to counter the french Saint. However, from a writer’s perspective Boudicca offers many differences.

1) Mom goes to War: Many of the classical women warriors are presented as young virgins. Boudicca was neither. The Flame-haired Warrior-queen had several daughters (who went to war with her, though we don’t know if they fought) and a deceased husband. When Sara Palin invokes the momma grizzly archetype, the avenging mother who brings fire and blood to those who harm her kids, she is calling down the spirit of Boudicca. The idea of a mature woman going to war resonates well with modern audiences. Women in modern day often juggle kids and careers, and the idea of an ass-kicking mom who leads a revolution against an impossibly powerful foe definitely appeals to some of them.

2) The Savage: Roman writers were as fascinated by Celtic women as modern movie audiences are by female action heroes. Boudicca is a prime example. She is ferocious and savage, a definite outsider praying to foreign gods and leading a massive army of painted savages to drown southern Britain in blood. Her viciousness towards the Romans is noted, although their viciousness towards her was worse and they aren’t exactly known as history’s most merciful conquerors. She represents the defiant frontiers, full of danger and strange (to Romans) customs. Her bloody destruction of Londonium is portrayed as an orgy of pagan savagery, at home in many of today’s grittier works.

3) The Woman: Despite her ferocity Boudicca maintains her feminine quality, exotic as well as deadly: unlike Joan and many subsequent heroines she never tries to conceal the fact that she is a woman, nor does she adopt male customs.

4) The Individual Defiant: When Boudicca revolted, Rome was powerful. Modern hegemony barely compares. To stand up to the Roman system of warfare and imperial colonization invokes a certain Romantic defiance that resonates to this day. One woman standing up the the cruelty of Roman soldiers and Roman merchants, becoming an example for years to come, despite her eventual doom. Fiction loves defiant heroes, and Boudicca is among the best of them. (Want Grimdark? try rebelling against the Roman empire)

5) Overcoming Suffering: Boudicca was tortured and her daughters were raped. She suffered brutal indignities but came out swinging. She converted her sorrow into power. Modern heroes are often marked by their ability to overcome suffering, and Boudicca fits right in here. In this case her family suffers along with her, adding to the indignity.

Boudicca is both an amazing historical figure and a fascinating take on the legendary warrior-queen. She opposes the patriarchal Romans wearing her womanhood as a badge of honour, crying out against injustice, facing her tragic end with head held high. She certainly sets a precedent for both Karmal and Sadira from my Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale, and many other modern warrior women of fiction as well.

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4 comments on “Boudicca: An Archetype for the Ages.

  1. mllemacabre says:

    Tacitus’ account is slightly questionable, it counters with many things that Cassius Dio said about her, and the way in which he frames her speech is actually highly indicitive of Roman rhetoric, and points out things which the Stoics and other more critical Romans wanted to change anout Roman society. It is true that she is one of the most prominant Western female warriors, but aside from determining that the Roman soldiers raped both of her daughters and took her inheritence, there are many inconsistancies in the records which make it very difficult to discern the truth. Personally I enjoy how Dio characterizes her as a ‘tall womens, with blonde hair, a multicoloured frock, and a fearful countence.” (I spent a lot of time with both accounts and the scholarship done on them for a paper I did for a conference. Intend to side more with Dio) Very nice article thought.

  2. grimkrieg says:

    In truth I don’t think even Tacitus describes her as having fiery red hair like the modern idealizations. It is interesting how that comes about…

    Have you got a link to your paper?

    • mllemacabre says:

      I don’t have the one avaliable quite yet, as I am working in getting it to some relevent conferences. So it could be a bit before it is posted.

      • grimkrieg says:

        Drats. Well consider it a standing invitation, I’m mostly interested in covering Boudicca as a template for fantasy characters, but people are mad about her and no doubt many would devour some actual history.

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