In AD 61, the proud and noble people of Albion, long under the yoke of Roman oppression, rose up in open revolt, their leader a passionate and imposing presence enflamed to action by personal tragedy. After a series of victories over their masters—and freedom within their grasp—the rebels were crushed in a final battle, and their beloved leader, rather than suffer the humiliation of capture and certain death, committed suicide and passed into legend.
Nineteen and a half centuries later, the story of the British warrior queen Boudica continues to fascinate and inspire scholars, artists, writers, poets and devotees of Celtic culture. Military commander, Druid priestess, barbarian—all of these are fictions and inventions that take as their source a single account written by a Roman decades after the fact and unknown to the rest of the world until the Renaissance. What Cornelius Tacitus was able to gather (as he had never set foot on the island) came primarily from his father-in-law Julius Agricola, who first served as tribunus laticlavius in Britain under Suetonius Paulinus at the time of the uprising, then later as the island’s military governor. Even so, Tacitus left us with a host of unanswered questions, and whatever information was available to him at that time has been lost to us.
Even so, the facts as laid out by Tacitus get right to the point. Upon the death of Prasutagus, Boudica’s husband and king of the Iceni (a tribe occupying southeast England), the Roman procurator Catus Decianus negated the king’s will (leaving half of his kingdom to the Emperor Nero, the other half to Boudica and her daughters) and imprisoned or made slaves of the royal household, the homes and possessions of the Iceni confiscated. Boudica was publicly whipped in front of her own people and her two daughters were raped. Amassing an army of warriors from the Iceni and other tribes, Boudica led a rampage of terror, destroying three towns and killing 70,000 Romans and their allies in the process. The military governor—Suetonius Paulinus—rushed back from his western campaign to wipe out the Druids on the island of Anglesey (also called Mona), but was only able to muster 10,000 soldiers in a desperate final defense. Faced with overwhelming odds, Suetonius nevertheless won the day, and Boudica ended her life rather than be captured and paraded through the streets of Rome.
The Romans would remain in Britain for 350 years.
This is the history of Boudica and Rome as we know it. But what if Boudica had won? By uniting the Celts, defeating the Romans and successfully defending England from further invasion, could Boudica have rewritten the history of Europe itself?
Consider the following:
The aftereffects of the rebellion were so devastating that it took ten years before the Romans could even attempt any further expeditions and conquests in the Isles. Celtic casualties were massive, some 80,000 according to Tacitus. Famine and the possibility of another uprising were so pervasive that Rome’s hold on Britain was tenuous at best, so much so that a new governor and procurator had to be installed to re-establish peace and stability. This was no small undertaking and required tremendous resources.
Back in Rome, Nero’s success in defeating Boudica would be one of his few. Seen as a corrupt tyrant, Nero was accused of engineering the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64, the Pisonian Conspiracy of AD 65 nearly deposed him and the First Jewish War of AD 66 threatened Roman power in the Middle East. Nero’s eventual suicide in AD 68 sparked a civil war, and the Year of the Four Emperors (Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian) left Rome in chaos.
So let’s play with this and see where it goes.
Boudica annihilates the Roman presence in Britain. Nero has not only lost more than 10,000 troops, he has lost an entire country. Uniting the Celtic tribes, Boudica commands the coast, making a counteroffensive costly and impractical. Emboldened by Boudica, rebellions flare in Hispania and Gaul, challenging Roman authority. Britain is abandoned (Nero, by the way, briefly contemplated doing so before the rebellion). By the time Vespasian takes power in AD 69, eight years have passed and Boudica has fortified a vast expanse of the island against any foreign invasion. Over the next 350 years, the Celts of Britain and Europe push back against the Empire, reducing its borders and influence. Save for a few territories, Rome’s reign ends before the first millennium even begins. The countries of Europe revert to their pre-Roman days and Britain, now a purely Celtic culture, develops along a separate path worthy of its own speculation.
Far-fetched? Perhaps. But history has shown us time and again that the future of a nation can be set into motion by a single event. What would England look like today if fortune had favored the rebels that fateful day, and what role would the Icenian queen have played on the world stage thereafter?
Cut into the plinth of Boudica’s statue in London poet William Cowper’s line Regions Caesar never knew thy posterity shall sway predicted the fall of one empire and the rise of another. Boudica may have lost her rebellion, but the story of the terrifying woman who dared to bring the Roman Empire to its knees has prevailed.