Archive for December, 2009


Statue of Boudicca, London

[Long before the British went on to establish one of the largest empires that mankind had ever seen, Britain, or Britannia as it was called then, had itself been a colony of the Roman Empire – the greatest super-power of its time ! Successive legions of Romans had crossed the English Channel and forayed deep into the heart of Britain, subduing its people and laying the foundations to many of its important cities. However, around the year 61 AD, one lady, fuelled by the thirst for revenge, had set out to stop the Romans in their tracks and wipe every single one of them off the face of Britannia …..and she very nearly succeeded !]

Along the Thames and at the corner of Westminster Bridge in London, stands an impressive bronze sculpture featuring one of the fiercest and most iconic queens Britain had ever seen. Charging ahead in her chariot with her arms up in the air and her eyes filled with rage, she cuts an imposing figure over the two young daughters she has in tow. Known to the world as Boudicca, she was the warrior queen of the Iceni tribe, who nearly 2000 years ago, had dared to stand up to the might of the Roman conquerors. Such was the terror that she had unleashed upon them that for centuries to come, they were tormented by the fear of her rage and the bitter curse that she had hurled at them with her dying breaths!

Sadly though, not many people today know who she was or what she had done….and her sculpture, located right under the shadow of London’s most recognisable landmark – the Big Ben, is often overlooked by tourists and passers-by. Nevertheless, I believe that she holds one of the most prominent places in the turbulent and bloody history of London. In fact, her legacy lies buried deep below the surface of the city….for, the last time she rode into London nearly two millennia ago, she had brutally massacred the entire ruling Roman population and razed the city to the ground! It is said that even to this day, when builders dig deep foundations in old parts of the city, they encounter a thick layer of reddish ash – a result of Boudicca’s burning!

The assault:

As early as in the year 55 BC, the Romans had started venturing into Britannia. Julius Caesar himself had led two expeditions into the island, however, though he came and he saw, he hadn’t quite conquered it [….which by the way, was not what he claimed at the Roman senate]. The actual invasion took place only in 43 AD, when four legions loyal to Emperor Claudius marched into Britannia and took control of the mystical land and its many Celtic tribes.

One of those tribes was the Iceni, who lived around the area of what is now Norfolk, in eastern England. Their ruler, King Prasutagus had managed to secure his autonomy by forming an alliance with the Romans. As a result, whilst most of southern England came under direct Roman rule, Prasutagus was allowed to keep his kingdom. However, under Roman tradition, it was customary for such client kings to bequeath their lands to Rome upon their deaths. But in 61 AD, when Prasutagus died, his will left just half of his kingdom to Rome, while the other half went to his wife Boudicca and their two young daughters.

Understandably, the Romans weren’t pleased. Furthermore, according to their laws, succession could happen only through male heirs and Prasutagus had none. Under this pretext, the Romans charged in and annexed the whole Iceni kingdom, capturing the royal family in the process. To add insult to injury, they had Boudicca flogged in public, while her young daughters were brutally raped!

Little did the Romans know that these dastardly acts would soon nearly bring about their annihilation !!!

The Revenge:

Boudicca’s rage knew no bounds and her heart longed for revenge. She refused to subject herself or her kingdom to the tyranny of Rome and instead, vowed to hunt down and slaughter every single Roman she could lay her hands on. With the help of her loyal subjects and support from some of the neighbouring tribes, Queen Boudicca put together a formidable Iceni army.

When the Roman Governor – Paulinus was away leading a campaign in North Wales, Boudicca seized the opportunity and led her army into the very capital of Roman Britain – the city of Camulodunum (modern-day Colchester). The city was poorly defended, and Boudicca’s assault on it was bloody and relentless. Not a soul was spared and after two days of bitter bloodbath, the last Roman defenders holed up in the temple to the former emperor Claudius, were brought down.

Given the circumstances, there was just one thing that the Romans could do – send in their most powerful weapon – the elite Ninth Legion (Legio IX Hispana)! These were the guys who had an almost immaculate track-record of victories right from the shores of Iberia (Spain) to the eastern extremes of Macedonia. They were considered to be the meanest, strongest and most disciplined fighting machine of the time….and Julius Caesar himself, had once been their commander!

But when they met up with Boudicca’s warriors, they were outnumbered and outflanked. The Roman infantry was completely routed and only a small section of the legion managed to escape. Boudicca was merciless in her quest and didn’t stop until the entire city of Camulodunum was burnt to the ground!

Next up was Londinium (London) – the new town that the Romans had established on the banks of the river Thames. Upon hearing the news of Boudicca’s pounding on Camulodunum, Governor Paulinus rushed back to Londinium, reaching there well before Boudicca. However, sensing his inability to defend the town against the imminent Iceni attack, he abandoned it and fled north, evacuating many of its residents. When Boudicca arrived at Londinium, she was met with little or no resistance. But that didn’t stop her from having all of the town’s residents slaughtered, in the most brutal and inhumane ways possible! Londinium too, was razed to the ground and the burning clay and mud left such a thick layer of red ash that it can apparently be traced to this day!

With Colchester and London wiped off the Roman map, Boudicca charged into the town of Verulamium(modern-day St.Albans) and subjected it to exactly the same sort of treatment. Roman estimates quote that between the three towns, some 70,000 people were brutally killed!

The downfall:

As meteoric and sensational as Boudicca’s success, was her ultimate demise. Having destroyed Colchester, London and St.Albans, Boudicca headed north along the Roman road now known as Watling Street, to finish off the job that she had set out for. Somewhere in the midlands, the Iceni army met up with the regrouped Roman army. Roman accounts […..though they may have been heavily skewed] suggest that the Romans had just 10,000 soldiers to face Boudicca’s supposed 200,000. However, the Romans knew that battles are won not merely by sheer numbers and that they had to their advantage some very crucial factors that Boudicca’s army didn’t – discipline, sophisticated weapons and military training !

Making full use of these strengths, the Romans very tactically positioned themselves in a narrow valley flanked by woods on both sides. This meant that in spite of the huge numbers that Boudicca had, she could only feed in as many Iceni warriors at a time, as the Romans could comfortably take on. This proved disastrous to the Iceni and after a bloody and violent battle, they suffered a debilitating defeat. It is said that as many as 80000 Britons perished, as against 400 Romans […. history is always written by the victors, so one can never be too sure]! Boudicca herself committed suicide by taking poison, and the location of her grave is still a subject of conspiracy theories.

Boudicca’s life was a unique conflation of power, tragedy, revenge, glory and defeat……in short – perfect Hollywood blockbuster material! Its not surprising then, that she has been portrayed many times over the course of modern cinema and television. In fact, there is a big-budget movie about her, coming up in 2010 and I honestly, can’t wait to watch it!


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December 2009
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