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The vast and rapid expansion of the Roman Empire is a marvel of ancient history, and produced countless acts of defiance and rebellion over the centuries of its existence. Of these, few leaders have achieved lasting fame, thanks to so many histories being written by the Romans themselves. But one stands head and shoulders above all, as the first true hero of British origin - Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni (fl. 60 A.D.).
The Iceni were a Celtic tribe in modern-day Norfolk, who had managed to retain some measure of independence under Roman hegemony by allying with them during the conquest of Britain. However, when Boudicca's husband, Prasutagus, died, he named as the heirs of his kingdom not only his two daughters, but also the Roman emperor. Instead of the security he believed this would grant, it resulted in chaos. Roman forces pillaged his kingdom as though they were newly conquered subjects, confiscating estates, whipping Boudicca and raping her daughters. Moreover, this atrocity was the final straw in a history of colonization and financial misdeeds on the part of the Romans, and the proud Britons could take no more.
Inspired by the example fifty years earlier of a Germanic uprising that forever halted Roman expansion at the Rhine, Boudicca led her Iceni and their allies on a swath of destruction through southern Britain, first targeting Camulodunum (modern Colchester), a settlement for large numbers of Roman veterans. They slaughtered the inhabitants and leveled the city, and then annihilated an entire legion sent to stop them. Fired by their success, they next set their sights on Londinium (modern London), then a small trading town. The Roman governor of Britain, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, considered his position there weak and decided to abandon the town. Londinium was razed, its inhabitants tortured and killed. To this day, digging to any significant depth in the old city reveals a layer of red ash from the destruction wrought by Boudicca.
Boudicca's next target was Verulamium (modern St. Albans). While she was busy destroying this town, Seutonius rallied his forces and chose his battleground carefully. Boudicca brought an enormous force to bear against the Romans, and gave a great speech from her chariot before the battle. However, as with so many past engagements dating back at least to Caesar, the wild and furious Celts could not counter the disciplined Roman war machine, fighting under an able commander and on favorable ground. By choosing to fight in a narrow defile, Suetonius ensured he could only be attacked by equal numbers at any time and from one direction, and the superior training and equipment of the legions took the day. In sweeping the field, no quarter was given; even the Celtic baggage animals were said to have been slain as the army crumbled.
Boudicca's fate is uncertain. Sources give varying accounts including that she drank poison, or fell sick and died later. We are not sure what happened to her daughters, either, though it is not likely they fell into Roman hands as the historians would almost certainly have mentioned their fate. Suetonius engaged in a punitive campaign against the rebellious tribes, which must have been ferocious as he was shortly investigated and replaced as governor by the emperor Nero, who had nearly decided to abandon Britain due to the rebellion.
Boudicca's fighting spirit and her defiance of the world's most powerful empire earned her everlasting fame, even among her enemies. Numerous books, films and television programs immortalize her campaign for vengeance. Even Queen Victoria invoked her legacy, resulting in a famously ironic statue erected in London, a city she had razed to the ground, and dedicated to the ruler of a massive empire that modeled itself on the one she had resisted.