Boadicea: British Rebel Queen

The humiliating flogging of the Iceni Queen Boadicea was truly a defining moment in the history of corporal punishment and prompted a violent and unexpected backlash which took the occupying Roman army by surprise and forced it into a terrible and bloody conflict.
Boadicea was the wife of Prasutagus, King of the Iceni, a tribe whose lands spanned the modern counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and parts of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire. Prasutagus ruled his people through a long period of Roman occupation and, politically astute, had allied himself with his Roman conquerors in order to guarantee a peaceful life for his people. The Romans were prepared to allow this arrangement, like most occupying armies, on the basis of mutual benefit. However by the year 60 AD, Roman patience with the ancient Britons was running very low and anger had replaced tolerance, particularly following an attempt to subdue the ancient Isle of Mona, long a refuge for Druids and discontented Britons who wished to escape the Roman yoke. Although the Romans eventually triumphed on Mona they had at first to suffer the humiliation of a retreat under the onslaught of more than 2000 virtually naked Druid women and priests, their hair wild, eyes wide and screaming abuse as they charged the Roman ranks armed only with fiery torches. The terrified Roman soldiers broke ranks and backed off to a safe hillside fort only to be galvanized by the anger and contempt of their officers for an army which had allowed a group of women to intimidate them. They regrouped, advanced and took a fearful bloody revenge, killing virtually every man, woman and child in the community.
The atmosphere in the rest of Britain was close to boiling point with anti Roman revolt simmering everywhere. Prasutagus, by now ailing, was aware of the danger to himself and his family of the highly volatile climate. He sought to protect his wife and daughters from harm by making a will which gave his master, the Roman Emperor Nero, a third or half share in his property and lands on his death. Duly in AD61 Prasutagus died in the misguided belief that his wisdom had ensured a safe outcome for his family.
Unfortunately, when the terms of Prasutagus' will were made known to Paulinus Suetonius, Nero's British Consul, he was roused to irrational anger that this Druid underling should have the nerve to decide exactly what the Emperor was entitled to receive. Telling his commanders that these Iceni needed a lesson in humility, he told them to take whatever steps were needed to achieve just that. The result was swift and shocking for within days of the decree a Roman force, including some slaves, was dispatched to Prasutagus' palace where they forced an entry and the slaves began to ransack the palace of all valuables.
Boadicea, then aged around 30, and her two daughters, possibly in their late teens, were then dragged out of the palace by the Roman soldiers into the grounds where the shocked Boadicea was forced to watch while the two girls were stripped and raped by the Roman soldiers who then handed them over to the slaves for further violation. Boadicea herself was taken to Winchester where she was put on a platform in front of the Roman troops and many of her Iceni subjects, tied to a whipping post then stripped naked and flogged severely with a whip until blood was drawn.
Before this moment, Boadicea had been a quiet and dutiful Queen but these events were to scar her mind and from that moment she lived only for vengeance. With powerful and emotional speeches, Boadicea and her daughters traveled their tribal lands inciting the Iceni to rise up against their cruel masters, a plea which needed little urging and soon the Iceni were joined by other neighboring tribes sick of the Roman yoke. Because Britain had been relatively quiet compared to problems elsewhere in the Empire, there were only four Roman legions, approximately 20,000 men, in the whole island. Two of these were in Wales, one in Lincoln and the other in Gloucester as the furious Britons marched on Colchester, the Centre of Roman culture and religion, defended only by a handful of town militia.
The inhabitants hadn't a chance. Everything Roman that stood was burned to the ground and everything Roman that lived was murdered. The temple was destroyed and the town burned to a cinder. Part of the Roman legion at Lincoln was dispatched in haste to the scene but, to their horror; found a tribal force twelve times their size. By sheer weight of numbers the Britons slaughtered every one of the Roman infantry, the commander escaping along with some of the cavalry, on horseback.
Suetonius, whose humiliating treatment of Boadicea had begun this reaction, was horrified and went with a small force to London expecting to be reinforced but his Legion commander refused to commit his troops and Suetonius decided he must leave the Londoners to their fate. The Britons fell upon the town killing every man, woman and child who stood in their way include those Britons who had given aid to their Roman masters. After that Boadicea's army turned on St Albans with similar results, the death toll in the three cities exceeding 70,000.
In the face of such military might as the Romans possessed, it was inevitable that these successes would be short lived and, within weeks, Suetonius was reinforced and now had two legions totaling ten thousand men at his command. Still they were outnumbered 8 to 1 by the Britons, but the Romans' military skill had led them to choose a battlefield which suited their strategy. With consummate nerve they awaited the onslaught of the populous but undisciplined Britons, Boadicea and her daughters riding through the British ranks in a chariot exhorting their troops to victory. It was not to be, for the tactical skill of the Romans overcame the weight of numbers and at least 80,000 Britons including many women were massacred without mercy, the Romans losing only 400 men. The battle was one of the earliest recorded examples of deliberate terror tactics being used, the Romans mutilating the bodies of the dead Britons, men and women, and hanging them up for all to see.
Boadicea herself, seeing defeat inevitable, took poison and died on the battlefield, while her daughters were captured and sent into slavery. The price Britain paid for the revolt was massive, Nero sending forty thousand more troops from Germany to keep the province under control, which they did with dreadful violence. Thus, finally, Suetonius prevailed but at what an appalling cost. One wonders if he ever reflected on his original decision which had sparked all this and decided “Hell hath no fury like a woman scourged!”
Following Boadicea's defeat, Suetonius instituted harsher laws on the indigenous people of Britain until he was replaced by Publius Petronius Turpilianus who further secured the south of the region for Rome through gentler measures. Other, smaller, insurrections were mounted in the years following Boadicea's revolt but none gained the same wide spread support nor cost as many lives. The Romans would continue to hold Britain, without any further significant trouble, until their withdrawal from the region in 410 CE. Though she lost her battle and her cause, Boadicea is celebrated today as a national heroine and a universal symbol of the human desire for freedom and justice.


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