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Revolt in Britain

The historical accounts of debauchery, offences against conventional morality, and murder are interrupted in both Tacitus and Dio by extended accounts of the Boudiccan revolt (Annales 14. 29–39; Dio, 62. 1–12) of AD 61.

The accounts differ fundamentally and as such offer a good test of historiography.

Dio’s account is characterised by

  • An attack on the financial corruption of the Romans and, in particular, Seneca.
  • A long speech by Boudicca, and a detailed physical description of her.
  • A detailed account of atrocities committed by the British with a particular focus on those directed against women in the sacking of Colchester.
  • An association of British brutality with religious practices.
  • A long speech by the Roman governor condemning and detailing more British atrocities and urging his troops to revenge (or death).
  • A short and confused account of the battle.

There are a few facts buried in the account (two cities sacked), but can we trust any of it? Is it all literary invention? Is this any more real than the patriotic statue that adorns Westminster Bridge, statue that symbolizes British freedom as clearly as Dio’s account represents barbarian brutalities.


Boudicca as imagined by Thornycroft in 1905 (Commons) (Carole Raddato)

Tacitus has the revolt starting when Suetonius Paulinus was preparing for an assault on Mona (Anglesey), on the other side of the province. The campaign revealed the savage practices of the druids. But just in case the reader felt morally superior, Tacitus moves to the depravities of Rome. The king of the Iceni had died and the Romans decided to annex his territories. This is the casus belli.

One may speculate as to whether there was a link between the campaign against the the druids and the revolt, but there is nothing in the text and the British were not a nation: event on the fringes of Wales were not obviously connected to events in East Anglia.

The legal basis of what happened is unclear. The Iceni were already within imperial territory. Prasutagus must have exercised some authority over the tribe, perhaps with authority delegated from the governor. On his death, the Romans might have decided to dissolve the kingdom. That provided the Romans with options:

  • They might seize all the territory, declaring it Roman, and dissolve all pre-existing property rights on the grounds that the territory was conquered. This had sometimes been done after a war of conquest, but the Iceni had likely been within the province for twenty years.
  • Dissolving Prasutagus’s kingdom was a possible response to the death of a king without male heir. That might also have led to the king’s lands being declared ‘public’ and hence belonging to the Roman state. But that should not have affected the rights of other members of the tribe.
  • Making a claim on properties belonging to the king, raised the question of which lands were royal. In a pre-literate culture, land boundaries were not written down, but probably accepted. We don’t know what arrangements there were in Icenian society about land ownership and farming. But a tax official with armed support was in a position to exploit a defenceless population. Also, soldiers could lay claim to property in the name of the emperor, but there is no guarantee that the land would get registered as public land rather than being transferred into other ownership. Opportunities for corruption were multiple.

Without recourse to law, faced with procedures manifestly unfair and probably deeply unfamiliar, oppressed by corruption and probably be small-scale localised violence, the potential for revolt was real. We add to the mix a pre-existing political hierarchy that was told it had no power or authority (Boudicca) and the absence of the army, there was opportunity, means, and motive.

There was also an accusation, entirely believable, that Boudicca (Prasutagus’s wife) was publicly beaten and their daughters raped.

A British Queen?

Part of the Boudicca myth is her gender. It is an important part of Dio’s account. It has been an important part of how historians have understood her. But there is a danger of importing misogynistic views from the nineteenth century and transposing them to antiquity.

  • Rome’s rulers  were male and men were expected to dominate the public and political sphere. There was a misogynistic reading of the influence of Messalina, Agrippina, and other powerful women, in part because such power was covertly wielded, also a recognition that women could responsibly hold authority.
  • Rome was used to dealing with queens in Hellenistic monarchies and other states.
  • There were a number of female rulers in Britain, notably Cartimandua of the Brigantes, who successfully maintained her authority through the first generation after the Roman conquest.
  • We know nothing about how Celtic tribes chose their leaders or even about the political structures in the tribes. We can, however, be reasonably confident that tribes were nothing like nations and that their structures were much more fluid and boundaries were probably similarly flexible. Individuals (of any gender) who could unite a group would emerge as a leader.
  • What is important about Boudicca is not that she was a woman but that she was able to bring together a coalition of groups against the Romans.

Extent of the Revolt

When the Iceni revolted. They were joined by the Trinovantes. This brought much of Eastern England into revolt, but there is good reason to believe that the revolt spread further, into the South-West: the legion stationed in Exeter did not march North to join Paulinus and the prefect of the legion killed himself, presumably disgraced. We cannot know whether other regions joined in the revolt.

This raises questions about the origins of the revolt. If it were a response to the treatment of Boudicca and the Iceni, why would other tribes join in?

Dio suggests that Seneca was involved in the financial exploitation of the British and that might have involved a number of tribes, but Dio has a source hostile to Seneca and one has to think that blaming him for such a revolt is hyperbolic.

These events were less than 20 years after the Claudian invasion. in AD 43 Britain has been a society with small settlements and hill forts, probably with a quite dispersed population and a simple economy. It had loose tribes, but political structures were likely unsophisticated. There were coins, but probably these were not used as money in any way we would understand it. It seems unlikely that there was any developed system of taxation, though elites must have extracted some wealth somehow. But Rome brought money, cities (London and Colchester especially), forms of taxation, probably different rules of land ownership. It would be unsurprising if this transformation caused friction, confusion and distress. There was perhaps also changes in the way wealth was made and status was expressed, changes that would threaten the old social order. There is every reason to suspect that Roman soldiers and administrators would have exploited their advantages. If the people of Britain thought that they might be able to beat the Romans, they probably had ample reason to revolt.


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