Sunday, May 1, 2016


Throughout  past centuries, the island of Britain has endured successive waves of invaders.  First came the Celts, then the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings, and finally the Normans.  All of these groups settled in Britain and permanently altered life on the island.  (Here we will use Celt  and Briton interchangeably.)

Around  3,500 B.C. it was the Celts who first  cultivated land and raised crops.  They spoke a Celtic language.  Their chariots were made of wicker, light and springy. Theirs was an Iron Age civilization, considered  backward  by the Romans who landed  on the island in 43 A.D.  At the time of the Roman invasion, Britain was  populated  by Celtic tribes.  One tribe was the Iceni who lived in what is now Norfolk.  The Iceni were Boudica’s tribe, relatively isolated and culturally backward.

Into this Celtic-speaking, backward country, the Romans came with their legions in 43 A.D.  Many tribes, especially those with strong trading contacts, welcomed the Romans or at least submitted without a fight.  Other tribes fought and were  defeated.  The Iceni of Norfolk submitted.  In due time, the British kings placed themselves under the protection of the Roman Empire.  Among these kings was Prasutagus of the Iceni.  In the circumstances of his deal with the Romans lies the origin of the great revolt of 60 A.D.  Prasutagus’s wife was Boudica.  (Her name means Victoria.)  The Iceni were relatively isolated, cut off behind the forests of Suffolk and Norfolk.

The Romans let the Iceni  retain some privileges  and a token independence in return for a payment of tribute and disbursements.

In time, many tribes came to resent Roman rule, especially when the Romans forbade them to carry arms except for hunting weapons.  In 50 A.D. the Iceni were the first people to rebel, and they immediately sought help from their neighbors.  The revolt was a minor affair but was symptomatic of Celtic resentment against Roman rule.

What is known today as Colchester was a site chosen by the Romans as a model town.  However, this meant that the Romans took land away from the Celts who needed that land to grow crops.  Towns were an innovation in British life in the 50s and were unknown before the Roman conquest.  High Street in Colchester was the main shopping center, then as now.

Most of what we know as Boudica’s rebellion we learn from Tacitus, a Roman historian.

Prasutagus died in 60 A.D.  After he died, Roman agents moved into Iceni  country and plundered the royal  household.  Boudica was flogged and her daughters given to Roman slaves to be raped.   This  prompted  the Iceni  revolt, and other tribes joined them.  Colchester was the first object of this revolt, and isolated Roman  settlers on their farms were the first to be murdered.  The Iceni began a reign of terror.

The Roman governor, Suetonius, could not come to help the Roman settlers, for he was far away, attacking the druidic stronghold on the island of Anglesey.

Boudica surrounded Colchester and  burned the town.  With their great supply of fine horses, the Iceni and their allies moved quickly.  They destroyed other towns and settlements.  They moved south and attacked London, a Roman creation.

After the Roman governor, Suetonius, destroyed the druidic stronghold, he rushed to aid his fellow Romans.  He realized that London could not be saved.  The Iceni  continued with their terror tactics, cutting throats, hanging, burning and crucifying.

With London destroyed,  Boudica had reached a moment of decision.  What should she do now?  She decided to follow Suetonius and attempt to deal a decisive blow.

After the fall of London, Suetonius fell back on a base, where he would find the reinforcements he’d already ordered.

At the final  battle, the Roman numbers may have been around 7,000 to 8,000 legionaries, with 4,000 auxiliary and cavalry.  In front of them, the British on foot and on horses spread over a wide area and kept up a terrific racket to frighten the Romans.  They were so confident of victory that they stationed their wives and families to watch the slaughter.

We don’t know for sure the numbers of the British army; it has been estimated at 100,000.  Some say they numbered 1,000,000.  We can say with confidence that the Romans were heavily outnumbered.

Both leaders gave pep talks to their followers, Boudica to the British and Suetonius to the Romans.  We don’t know for sure what Boudica said to her warriors, but most likely Boudica taunted  the men with these words: “Win the battle or perish.  That’s what I, a woman, will do.  You men can live on in slavery if that’s what you want.”

We are more certain of Suetonius’s words to the Romans, for most likely his talk was recorded by Agricola, the father-in-law of Tacitus.  “Ignore the racket made by these savages.  There are more women than men in their ranks.  They’re not soldiers; they’re not even properly equipped.  We’ve beaten them before, and when they see our weapons  and feel  our spirit they’ll  crack.  Stick together.  Throw the javelins, then push forward.  Knock them  down with your shields and finish them off with your swords.  Forget about booty.  Just win, and you’ll have the lot. “

A brave and gallant woman, Boudica was no strategist, nor were the other Britons.  Here, the Britons had no chance, in spite of their superior numbers.  In fact, their numbers made the situation worse.  Also, they had no  body armor, no  protection against the javelins thrown at them.   Driven against their carts, the Britons were slaughtered, even when they tried to surrender.  The Romans were mad with blood lust, driven by revenge.  With no means of escape, men, women, children and pack animals were killed.  Tacitus gives the number at 80,000.  The Romans lost 400.

Realizing defeat, Boudica poisoned herself and was buried secretly with great honor.  Famine, devastation and slavery was the lot of the remaining Iceni.

The Romans remained in Britain for another four-hundred years.

My comment:  It’s ironic that the Romans considered the Celts as culturally backward.  It was they (the Romans) who held their bloody shows in the arena, when gladiators fought each other to the death, or battled wild animals.  Think of Nero’s persecution of the early Christians, when even young children were burned to death.

For that matter, it was the Celts who invented soap (sopa.) while the Romans applied oil and scraped it off their skin.)

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