When you think of Great Britain, what do you think of? A modern country with a prime minister, democratic elections, and people from all over the world? Or maybe you think of the kings and queens who ruled for hundreds of years; or the royal family of today, with Queen Elizabeth, Prince Edward, and Prince Harry. Or maybe you think of it as your home!
Today, we’re going to travel to Britain, but it will be the Britain of almost 2,000 years ago. This was before the kings and queens we think of as being a major part of England’s history, before the modern country with a prime minister and parliament. We are going to meet a queen though. This queen ruled an ancient tribe called the Iceni (eye-seen-eye). She inspired her people and made great sacrifices for them when they needed it most. They needed an inspiring leader, because this was a troubling time for them. This was a time when their island was becoming part of the Roman Empire.
But wait, isn’t Rome in Italy? Yes, it is, you don’t need to check your atlas. Although the city of Rome is in Italy, and has been for thousands of years, in ancient times, Rome was also an empire. This meant that they went out and conquered, or took over control of many areas far from their original city and surrounding region. By the first century before the common era, the Roman empire had reached Britain’s doorstep, and they didn’t plan to knock politely and ask to be let in.
Before the Romans came along, much of England was inhabited by people called Celts (Kelts). There were many Celtic tribes with many names. They shared a similar culture and similar languages. Together, these tribes were often called the Britons, and you’ll hear me use that term as well today. Sometimes the tribes fought with each other, but they had a thriving and complex society. They worked both iron and bronze to make tools, jewelry, drinkware and other items. They worshipped their own gods, built houses and forts, farmed the land, and issued their own coins. The Iceni (eye-seen-eye) were one of these tribes.
The Celtic people had followed this way of life for centuries, but things started to change when Julius Caesar invaded Britain in the first century BCE. At that time, Rome didn’t take over completely. They let the Celtic tribes live pretty much as they always had, but they did force many of the local rulers to pay tribute to Rome. This meant they were expected to send money or gifts to Rome, and support the Romans against their enemies. These local kings were now ruling over client kingdoms. Being a client kingdom of Rome often meant they’d eventually try to make you part of the Empire officially. Later, in the middle of the first century CE, that’s exactly what happened. The Roman Emperor Claudius conquered the southern part of Britain, and made it an official Roman province in 43 CE.
The Roman conquest meant big changes for the Celtic tribes who lived in the area or nearby. The Romans sent a governor to run the province and set up a capital city. They brought along many new luxuries from the continent as well, such as food and drinks, glassware, and jewelry. The Romans wanted to teach the Celtic people how to live like Romans, but they also needed places for their retired soldiers to live. The Roman empire had made a promise that if you joined the military, they would give you a piece of land to farm when you completed your service. Many poor citizens thought this was a great offer. Most of the land closer to Rome, in Italy, belonged to a few very wealthy nobles, who used slaves to farm it. This left very little land for the poor to live on or farm. So part of the reason Rome conquered so many other tribes and kingdoms was to give their poorer citizens, especially soldiers, someplace where they could own land.
There were still many independent tribes in Britain, even after Claudius set up the Roman colony. The Iceni were one, and they lived in the eastern part of England. After Claudius set up the Roman province of Britain, he let the Iceni live as a client kingdom under their own king. His name was Prasutagus. Prasutagus had a wife named Boudicca and two daughters who lived with him. The Romans allowed him to keep control over his small kingdom. When Prasutagus passed away he left his home and land to his two daughters and to Rome.
But Romans acted as though he had left it to Rome alone. They treated his widow, Boudicca (Boo-DI-kuh) and his daughters very badly, even beating them. They also took away all the land, possessions, and money he had wanted his daughters to have.
The Roman veterans had also begun treating the local British people very poorly, stealing their land and even forcing some of them into slavery. This made them angry. When they saw how Boudicca and her daughters were being treated, they became even angrier and began to rebel.
The tribes in Briton decided to join forces. They chose Boudicca to lead them. She was a powerful woman. A later Roman historian describes her as very intelligent and strong-willed. She was tall, with fierce eyes and long hair the color of a lion’s mane. She led the Britons in an attack on the capital of Roman province, Camulodunum. The Romans thought it was very strange and inappropriate for a woman to lead an army. At first, they may have thought she couldn’t do a very good job. The Roman leader didn’t send enough troops to defeat the rebels. The governor himself was with his army in another part of England, trying to win even more new territory for Rome.
But, having Boudicca as their commander wasn’t that unusual for the Britons. Women from the Celtic tribes often did lead soldiers in battle. This allowed the Britons to win their first victory at the Roman capital easily. Next, they went on to attack and raid the towns of Verulamium and Londinium. You might know Londinium by its modern name, London.
As the Britons continued their march, the Romans finally decided to take Boudicca’s rebellion seriously. The Romans returned to the area with an even bigger army.
Boudicca encouraged her troops before each battle, riding among them with her two daughters in a chariot. She told them she was with them not as a queen, but as one of the people who had lost her freedom and been mistreated just like them. She told them it was better to live a simple, poor life with freedom, than to give up their freedom and have all the luxuries the Roman had brought to the island. Her plan was that they would either win their freedom, or fall trying.
Unfortunately, though Boudicca led her people valiantly, they fell trying. The Britons lost the battle with Suetonius’ army. Boudicca died alongside many of her people. Their part of Britain was now Roman. Over the next 20 years, the Romans would expand their territory in Britain almost all the way to Scotland, in the north of the island.
But although her rebellion wasn’t successful in the end, Boudicca left a legacy that people have looked to for inspiration for thousands of years. Artists and poets, especially many from Britain, have found inspiration in Boudicca’s story. Poets like Alfred Lord Tennyson and William Cowper wrote poems celebrating her story, and many artists have memorialized her in paintings and sculpture. A bronze sculpture of Boudicca stands near the Palace of Westminster in London, where the British government meets. It shows Boudicca and her daughters riding in their chariot as she rallied the soldiers. Boudicca also helped inspire women in England to fight for the right to vote in the early twentieth century. These women, called suffragists, would carry a banner with Boudicca’s name on it as they marched in the streets, demanding that they be allowed to vote.
Standing up for what you believe is right isn’t always about winning. And you don’t have to win every time in order to inspire people and make progress. Boudicca stood up not just for her family, or her tribe, but for her entire culture. She stood up for ideals like freedom and self-determination, even when it was clear that she would most likely not succeed. Standing up for what is right, even if you don’t win, is always worthwhile!
Cassius Dio Roman History Bk 62 https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/e/roman/texts/cassius_dio/62*.html
Tacitus Annales Bk 14.29-37