Boudica, Wife of a Celtic King, Supreme Bad-Ass
I wish the word bodacious came from Boudica (there are a series of correct spellings but I’m settling on the easiest) because she totally was. But it doesn’t, it’s a mix of bold and audacious. Still, Boudica was both.
Boudica didn’t just prove that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. She proved that if properly provoked, a Celtic woman in sixty AD can kill a buttload of Romans. And the Romans just happened to be that era’s most skilled provokers.
Boudica’s husband Prasutagus ruled the Celtic Iceni tribe. The tribe that was actually an ally of Rome (to the Celts this meant a friendly agreement of nonaggression, to the Romans at it meant “We’re not quite ready to acquire you yet.”) Being a wise man he decided to mollify the Romans in his will. Their land would be owned by Rome and his daughters jointly. When Prasutagus passed away there were a few… disagreements.
Rome Responds With Civility, Roman Style
The Romans accepted this as the civilized nation they were (with one or two minor changes.) Little things like annexing the entire area, calling in any loans outstanding, ignoring the will because Rome only recognized male heirs, raping the dead leader’sdaughters, and beating the dead leader’s widow. That widow was Boudica, and Rome had made a fairly severe mistake. A summer movie was about to break out, and Rome was going to be the side that spends a lot of time running.
So about Boudica. Boudica was a Celt that was built for awesome. She had red hair down to her bottom and was considered “man smart” (which is incredibly sexist, but historically that points to her being brilliant.) And the Celts were the sort of society that let women learn combat. So Boudica took the beating. And her daughters were raped. Rome had made their point. Boudcia decided to retort.
Rome Learns No Means No by Losing Enough Soldiers to Fill a Football Stadium
She got to work. By 60 or 61 AD her story, and a number of other social and political factors had rallied an army around her. The Romans weren’t exactly popular in England. If you’ve ever seen soccer hooligans at work you know the last thing you want is a large crowd of English people angry at you. She waited until most of Romans and their governer Gaius Suetonius Paulinus had moved most of their troops to quell a small island in Wales. Then they started taking out Roman colonies.
Her first target was what is in modern times Colchester. One of the tribes she was affiliated had lost it (their capital) to the Romans; that was a good reason. The citizens were really annoyed with the Romans and would make great recruits; that was an even better one.
Boudica’s uprising wiped out the Romans in Colchester. The Romans called in reinforcements. Boudica wiped out the reinforcements. An entire legion was sent to deal with them. They fled against the gigantic army Boudicia now commanded, solidly routed.
All of this happened while systematically destroying the city. At about this point I can theorize that Rome was reconsidering the “rape instead of accept the property rights of women” idea. She helped them weigh the argument by sacking two more cities.
The Celts: Pretty Damn Scary to Fight (Also Possibly Nude)
You did not misread. Celts often fought nude. Due to some disputes about translation, I’m not really sure if they wore blue body paint. But really, did they need to? I mentioned some Celts fought nude right? And war was a popular sport for the Celts. Much like Native Americans, they were organized into tribes who (when they weren’t fighting each other) were making trouble all over Europe. And they were very good fighters..
The Celts kept their shields small and wore minimal armor (or, again, did we mention sometimes clothes?) They were headhunters who even went so far as preserving the heads of those they killed for posterity. They were master chariot makers and riders. They fought with long swords, slings, and were larger in size than most other peoples at the time. Not to stress the point, but the Celts were some BMF’s.
The Army Grows, Kills Romans, Kills Some More
Boudica was sacking Roman towns one after another. And Celts didn’t take prisoners. If you didn’t leave when Boudica showed up and you were lucky, you got slaughtered. But the Celts weren’t unknown to do much worse to their enemies. Such as throw you alive into fire. Or rape you (yes, I see the hypocrisy in that but Rome did pretty much ask for it. Boudica was not leading a PG-13 vengence.)
At the height of what is pretty much the biggest revenge fantasy in history, Boudica had an estimated two-hundred thirty thousand ticked-off Celts following her (or less, there’s some skepticism but let’s just say a hell of a lot.) She had a war chariot. She had her daughters behind her, cheering her on (from their own chariots.) Behind her were three destroyed cities and enough dead Romans to fill a football stadium (possibly as high as seventy thousand.) Unfortunately, this would be the height of her rebellion.
The Battle of Watling Street (Or Murphy’s Law Ruins Everything)
Her final battle (the Battle of Watling Street, actual location unknown) was fought against the returned Roman Governer Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, and the odds were against him. The Celts had a huge advantage between a hundred and two hundred thousand Celts, to ten thousand Romans. It seemed pretty likely Boudica was about to kick the hell out of another Roman legion. Unfortunately, due to the terrain, the two disparate fighting styles of the armies, poor strategy and lots of good old fashioned bad luck, that wasn’t going to happen.
Problem number one was terrain. The battlefield never allowed Boudica to bring her full numbers to bear against the Romans. The terrain didn’t allow it. Her early victories were won because the Romans were outnumbered and disorganized. But pretty much the only thing Roman soldiers did was kill foreign rabble rousers, and in a disciplined fight nobody did it like Rome. They formed a shield wall or wedge and moved forward in battle, each soldier’s shield protecting the others. The method was simple. Wait behind your shield until the enemy did something stupid, stab, repeat. In her early victories Boudica was able to overwhelm her enemies. Instead, her soldiers were being forced into one on one battles with highly trained killers.
Problem number two was the Celts weren’t the most tactical of fighters. They really liked to fight and were very good at it, but they were essentially berserkers. They just sort of attacked in a mob. This is terrifying the first time you see it, but once you’ve gotten over the initial fear you just wait behind your giant rectangular shield until the man swinging wildly and yelling gets tired. and then you stab him. They were just a more tactically primitive society than the Romans.
The third and possibly biggest tactical blunder of the Celts was their charge. The charge was ordered at a ridiculously long distance. So as the Celts were screaming no doubt inspiring Braveheart like speeches about freedom (and there is some evidence that Boudica actually gave one), waving their large sword like axes, and quite possibly naked (I mentioned some of the Celts fought naked, right?) the Romans figured they might as well do something. Something productive.
They threw javelins. A lot of javelins. (A javelin is a long spiked throwing spear that’s thin and short enough for one soldier to carry several.) To give you an idea of either how much time it took Boudica’s army to close the distance and/or how fast the Romans could throw… well, let’s put it like this. They threw so many javelins at the unarmored, undisciplined mob that they ran out of javelins. They threw so many javelins that they essentially killed the first wave of attack using just one arm each. But, they were out of ammunition now. Boudica attacked again.
Unfortunately, the Romans maintained discipline. With their heavy shields and armor they formed what was basically a riot wedge, a “V” of shields and swords that formed both an impenetrable defense against the Celtic weapons and then pushed that wedge into the Celtic lines. The Celts found themselves at a disadvantage; their swords were designed for chopping, they weren’t made for close combat. The Roman’s shorter gladius, however, were designed for stabbing, and could easily slip from between the shield wall and attack. The Celts also tended to fight as a mass, each man fighting for himself. The Romans fought as a unit. When the mass of Celts met the Roman wedge, it was a slaughter. The Celts fled. Right into their own families.
The final nail in Boudica’s coffin was the fact that many of her army of angry Celts consisted of the family of her actual soldiers. They weren’t just standing around in the way, though. The families had constructed a last line of defense around the edge of the battlefield to defend against the Romans. Unfortunately, this made retreat impossible. The army of Boudica was caught between their own defenses and a great big wedge of steel that stabbed a lot and was barely affected by the Celtic weapons.
The End of the Uprising
It was a massacre. Tens of thousands of Celts died (some reports go as high as eighty-thousand.) When compared with Roman losses that were only in the hundreds, Boudica knew she couldn’t beat the Romans. She died either from poison or illness.
This sounds like a sad story, but it’s really not. Boudica and her Celts didn’t die for nothing. There were a few punitive measures by the Romans to save face, but her rebellion led to an investigation and a change to a more Celt friendly governor. The Romans were so annoyed that they almost just left Britain all together. The UK as we know it might well have followed a different course had it not been considered so difficult to pacify.
And Today We Learned…
In a nutshell, Rome’s crass manners cost them not only nearly a hundred thousand soldiers, but also the goodwill and some of their control of a land they would have been in control of anyway (remember, the Iceni started as Roman allies.) Gaius Suetonius Paulinus was eventually fired and his life went down hill from there. He was eventually accused of treason, lost a major battle, and most likely lied, telling his captors that he lost the battle on purpose to be released. After that he disappears from history pretty much all together.
And if that’s not enough, several centuries later the Celts beat their way down to Rome proper and only stopped curb stomping it when they agreed to pay ONE THOUSAND POUNDS of gold. Not as in English currency. As in weight.
I think the lesson we can all learn from this is sometimes simple manners (like not raping or beating people you’re having business negotiations with) can save us from embarrassing faux pas (like losing entire legions of soldiers, three towns, and your job.)
(Sources: Wikipedia (Bouducia, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, Celts, Gladuis, Iron Age Sword, Chariot (Northern Europe), Deadliest Warrior Episode List ) – Deadliest Warrior(Celts vs Persian Immortals) – UNRV History(Gallic Sack of Rome))