Tragedy in Light of History: Boudicca’s Defeat
By the middle of the 1st century the Roman Empire had a fairly solid footing in Britain. They controlled most of southern Britain and had built colonies and settlements which were doing well. Though there were still hostile tribes to the north the Romans had made alliances with many of the tribes near their own borders. One of these tribes, the Iceni, was ruled by the chieftain Prasutagus. In order to ensure peace and prosperity for his tribe Prasutagus named the Roman emperor as a co-heir of his kingdom, alongside his daughters. However after his death the Romans did not recognize his daughter’s claim. They took complete control of their territories, flogged Prasutagus’s wife Boudicca, and raped his daughters. Seeking justice and revenge against these invaders from the south Boudicca stirred up the Iceni people into a revolt, along with a neighboring tribe known as the Trinovantes.
This is the kind of story that blockbuster movies are made from. A peaceful and proud people are betrayed by a foreign empire. A woman, recently widowed and brutally beaten while her daughters are violated stirs up the countryside, driving the invaders out and restoring freedom to the oppressed. When I started reading about Boudicca I wanted her to succeed very badly. It is a prime example of the “underdog” ideal, and Americans love an underdog.
Of course Boudicca isn’t purely sympathetic. Her rebellion strikes out at a Roman colony known for its oppressive practices. The Romans, not suspecting much trouble and with the main army off fighting to the west, are completely overwhelmed and handily defeated. The colony is utterly destroyed and everyone within killed. It is a little harder to empathize with the underdog when they go around slaughtering entire towns. All the same I still wanted them to succeed. When it comes to slaughtering people the Romans are quite a bit worse off than the Iceni, after all. The Roman governor, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, returns from conquest to find himself facing a rebellion of massive proportions. Over 100,000 rebels were assembled and marched on Londinium, a wealthy Roman settlement. Paulinus has less than 10,000 soldiers to defend it. He decides to abandon the town, and encourages the populace to follow his example. When the rebels arrive they find no resistance. They burn the city to the ground and kill everyone who remained behind.
While Paulinus attempted to assemble more men the rebels marched on his position. They were confident. The Romans may have been far better equipped, trained, and disciplined, but they were outnumbered at least 10 to 1. The rebels had few good weapons but were tough fighters nonetheless, and ten men with clubs can easily defeat one man with a sword and armor. They can defeat him, that is, provided that they can all attack him at once. Paulinus was smarter than that. He camped his forces in a gully with steep walls and a thick forest to the rear. It would be difficult for an army to attack from behind, and the narrow gully would prevent any attacking force from flanking or putting their superior numbers to good use. Boudicca and her massive army found the rebels hunkering down. Confident in her superiority of numbers and with justice on her side she began an assault on the Roman position. Everything was in the balance. If Paulinus was defeated here then the only soldiers remaining in Britain would be a smattering of isolated legions guarding small settlements. Though she likely did not know it Nero, the current emperor, was considering simply abandoning Britain: after all it was simply a backwater province full of troublesome barbarians on the other side of a large channel. If Boudicca succeeded it is likely that the Romans would have left the island and the Iceni, along with the other tribes, would be free once more.
The Iceni charged up the gully, right into a rain of Roman javelins (known as pilum). The javelin barrage slowed their charge, and a second volley scattered their lines. Seizing the advantage Paulinus ordered his troops to charge into the fray. The well-disciplined soldiers, equipped with armor, shields, and proper weapons, crashed into the Iceni forces like an anvil falling on a pile of hard-boiled eggs. The rebels were unable to flank the Roman troops because of the gully walls. The men in front, dying by the dozen, tried to retreat. They ran right into the still advancing ranks behind them, turning the gully into a giant mosh pit with no room to manuever. The Romans continued their advance, annihilating the rebel forces. In the end the rebellion was scattered and destroyed. Paulinus soon returned order to the province. Boudicca either died of sickness not long after or committed suicide; her exact fate is unsure.
Reading about her horrific defeat left me feeling very sad. I wished that I could go back in time and tell her not to fight the Romans there. To wait them out, or to sack more settlements until Paulinus was forced to come to her. It seemed terribly unjust. People rise up against their oppressors and the oppressors obliterate them. What kind of story is that? At the time it must have seemed a terrible tragedy, especially as the bodies of tens of thousands of rebels littered the battlefield.
But then I started thinking. What if I could go back in time and make it so that Boudicca succeeded? What if the Romans were driven off the islands and the tribes were free once more? The consequences of such a change of history became immediately apparent. Almost 250 years later Christianity would become the religion of the Roman empire. The Roman communities in Britain became primary Christian over time. If the Roman Empire had been driven off then Britain would have remained pagan. What’s more St. Patrick would never have existed. St. Patrick was born and raised in Roman Britain, and he later converted the Celtic peoples of Ireland to the Christian faith. Those Irish Christians would bring Christianity to modern-day Scotland and found monasteries all over the British Isles. They sent missionaries not only to Scotland but to mainland Europe where they converted many barbarian tribes to the Christian faith. They also devoted themselves to copying ancient Roman and Greek texts, preserving them through the time of unrest during and after the fall of Rome. The Irish monks preserved much knowledge in this way. If Boudicca had succeeded then none of this would have come to pass. What seemed at the time to be a great tragedy and injustice was, in the end, for the best.
It makes me wonder what events happening in our own time will be transformed in the light of history thousands of years hence. I am reminded that we can’t see the big picture. Terrible things happen that cannot be predicted: earthquakes level cities, typhoons destroy whole regions, dictators oppress the masses, good causes fail, and injustice appears to prevail. Could it be that in these tragedies lie the seeds of great good that will someday grow and flourish? It certainly seems possible. It would have been amazing if Boudicca had won; but if she had the world would likely have been the worse for it.
It really makes you think.