Podcast: Who was the ancient warrior Queen Boudica?

Wife, mother, queen, freedom fighter, rebel or religious hero? Assistant professor of classical studies Caitlin Gillespie separates fact from fiction.

Below is a transcript of the episode.


Hello, and welcome to this edition of the Brandeis University podcast, “The Take: Big Ideas Explained in Under 5 Minutes,” where professors explain core concepts of their research.

Assistant professor of classical studies Caitlin Gillespie

Caitlin Gillespie

Our topic today, “Who was the ancient warrior Queen Boudica?”

She's been described as an aggrieved wife, mother, queen, freedom fighter, rebel and religious hero. So today, we'll try to separate fact from myth.

Assistant professor of classical studies Caitlin Gillespie is uniquely qualified to help us out. She's the author of the 2018 book, "Boudica: Warrior Woman of Roman Britain."

Thank you for joining us.

Let's start with the big picture: Who was Boudica?


She was a first-century C.E. queen and became the queen of a British tribe called the Iceni. This was a Celtic tribe from the late Iron Age that was known in the area of East Anglia.

The Romans have a presence in Britain, and after the death of her husband, they try and move in and take over her people. Her biggest role takes place in the years 60 and 61 when she fights back against the Roman encroachment upon her family's ancestral lands and leads what was then the biggest revolt against the Romans, destroying with her army the towns of Camulodunum, which is now Colchester; Londinium, which is London; and Verulamium, which is modern-day St Albans, before she and her army were defeated at the hands of the Roman general Suetonius Paulinus.

HOST: Amazingly, we know very little about Boudica. What are the primary sources we have for knowing about her life?

GILLESPIE: There are two main literary sources about Boudica: Tacitus, who was a senator and historian of the early Roman Empire working in the 1st and 2nd century CE in Latin; and then Cassius Dio, another Roman statesman and historian whose "Roman History" appeared 100 years after the works of Tacitus.

Neither of them ever met Boudica or saw Britain to our knowledge, so we have to extrapolate from their works and add in other types of evidence, such as coins, archaeological ruins and excavations.

HOST: Tell us about Tacitus’ portrayal of Boudica.

GILLESPIE: Tacitus has a very sympathetic portrait of Boudica, in my opinion, in that he suggests that there had been a treaty between her husband and the Romans, and after her husband's death, the Romans broke that treaty.

The Roman army assaults Boudica. They rape her daughters. They enslave all of her relatives. They take over her native land and try and build it into their empire.

So he really builds upon the cruelty at the beginning of her story, building up the audience's sympathy for her as a mother and as a woman against whom grievous wrongs have been committed.

Tacitus focuses on one moment in the entire war. After Boudica’s army destroys several cities, they gather for one final battle and Boudica goes amongst her army. Riding a chariot with her daughters before her, she calls to her army to look on her and her daughters and gain strength.

From that image, she calls upon them to be men, win or die trying. After Boudica’s army is defeated in battle, Boudica commits suicide rather than being taken prisoner by the Roman army.

HOST: But Cassius Dio makes Boudica out more to be a barbarian and almost Amazonian warrior.

GILLESPIE: Absolutely. Cassius Dio in his "Roman History" spends a lot of time describing Boudica’s extraordinary appearance. She has the longest hair, harshest voice, the most piercing eyes.

She wears an enormous golden necklace that is a marker of her power, and she even speaks in kind of a manly gruffness. So he makes her into an Amazonian type warrior rather than this mothering sympathetic woman.

HOST: And then in the 19th century, the British begin taking another look at Boudica, and they create a myth around her.

GILLESPIE: Especially in the Victorian era, the legend of Boudica became much more popular because Boudica’s name means victory. So if Queen Victoria becomes much more interested in Boudica, they have a sympatic relationship as female leaders.

HOST: Help us sift through all these conflicting and competing accounts of who Boudica was. Which do you think gets at the truth?

GILLESPIE: The most accurate is someone who is intent upon political control, the future of her children, and maybe goes a little bit overboard in cruelty and excessive behavior when everything she knows and everything she owns and everything she hopes for herself and her family is challenged by an outside force.

Boudica’s greatest contribution was that she was able to unify people who had never unified before, fighting under the banner of family, of freedom that they valued and didn't want to lose.

HOST: And there you have it, “Who was the ancient warrior queen Boudica?” explained in under 5 minutes.

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