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Queen Boudicca’s Bloody Revolt

by Eric Niderost

In the spring of AD 60, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus could look back on the last three or four years with a mixture of pride and satisfaction. As governor of the Roman province of Britannia, he had seen to it that the island was pacified and generally prosperous. Under his direction, the process of Romanization—the introduction of Roman civilization and culture into a newly won land—was well advanced. Roman engineers were busy building paved roads whose sturdy flagstones echoed to the creak of the merchant’s cart and legionary’s booted sandal.

Britannia’s Expansion

Roman towns and cities were springing up everywhere. Camulodunum was Britannia’s first official city, a colonia or colony of retired Roman legionaries. It was also the capital of Roman Britannia, its status proclaimed by the fabulous Temple of the Deified Claudius, one of the finest classical structures north of the Alps. There was also Londinium (now London), a thriving commercial center on the banks of the Thames River. Londinium was a convenient river crossing, and the Thames was deep and still tidal along its shores, which made the site ideal for shipping and commerce.

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Given the fact that the Romans had only invaded in AD 43, Suetonius could be justifiably proud of the things the Romans had achieved in a scant 17 years. True, there were occasional minor revolts here and there, but this was to be expected in such a relatively new province. But Suetonius was concerned with the island of Mona, just off the coast of what is now northwestern Wales. The island was a stronghold of the Celtic Druid religion and a refuge of malcontents. It was imperative that Mona be subdued and its nest of rebels exterminated. The governor was a talented man who was also ambitious. Winning fresh military laurels would further his career in Rome.

The Expedition To Mona

Sometime in AD 60 or 61—the sources are not precise—Suetonius led an expedition to Mona, modern Anglesey. The Legio XX Valeria (20th Legion Valeria) formed the backbone of the governor’s army, together with auxiliaries and some cavalry. The first task was to cross the straits that divided Mona from the Welsh mainland. Suetonius had flat-bottomed barges built to ferry the heavy infantry across; the cavalry managed to find a partial ford, then swam the rest of the way.

The Roman crossing was uncontested, but if the invaders thought they had achieved an element of surprise, these sanguine hopes were soon dashed. A huge number of Celtic warriors appeared at the scene, accompanied by women and Druid priests. The Roman cohorts took their battle positions, forming up under the watchful gaze of their centurions. The Romans stood in their ranks, impassively waiting for action, yet each man must have felt an involuntary shiver of fear when he beheld the barbaric spectacle that was playing out before his eyes.

Mustachioed Celtic warriors, some of them tattooed or daubed in a blue dye called woad, brandished weapons and shouted fierce imprecations. Long-robed Druid priests raised hands in unison, loudly invoking their gods with booming voices. But the women were the most frightening apparitions of all—wild-eyed furies who ran about brandishing light torches and screaming the most terrible high-pitched ululations. Their long ropes of hair and contorted faces were Medusa-like in horrific intensity.

The Roman legionaries stood transfixed, rooted to the ground in fear, half-hypnotized by the hellish vision before them. Queen Boudicca of the Iceni tribe was leading the revolt, and her army was growing by the day.