How a widowed queen became a rebel warrior, defying Roman patriarchy, and leading her people to glory even in defeat.
In the 1st century CE, Boudica, warrior queen of the Iceni people, led an army of 100,000 to victory against the mighty Roman Empire. So complete were Boudica’s triumphs that Rome was in danger of losing control of her province. Riding high on a war chariot, daughters behind her, she led her Britons in a vengeful fight for freedom. But what did freedom mean for an Iron Age queen and her people, and what were its limitations under empire?
To appreciate Boudica’s place in the Roman world, it is necessary to understand something about ancient misogyny. The Romans viewed women warriors as indicative of an immoral, uncivilised society, and this attitude helped to rationalise their subjugation of other peoples. Nevertheless, these women became legends.
Ancient Rome prided itself on the power of its patriarchy, and was quick to condemn women who broke boundaries and encroached upon the rights, privileges and positions of power held by men. The voices of these women were silenced, their stories transmitted by men, their characters exaggerated for literary effect.
Juvenal, for example, composed an entire satire devoted to denigrating women. Considering female gladiators, he asks: ‘How can a woman who wears a helmet be chaste? She’s denying her sex, and likes a man’s strength.’ Juvenal blames luxury and riches, the ‘evils of a long peace’, for producing such ‘monsters’, women who adopt male roles. Juvenal’s label reveals a deep-seated fear of female power and autonomy that permeated Roman society.
In imperial Rome, law, family and society combined to restrict a woman’s participation in public life, based on traditional morality and an understanding of what was best for members of a sex considered weak and unwarlike by nature. Women who appeared in military situations were anomalous in this system, although exceptions did occur. In the early days of Rome, the legendary Sabine women rushed on to the battlefield between the Romans and Sabines, demanding peace between their husbands and blood relatives.
These women were successful because they acted on behalf of their families, without taking up arms. By contrast, in the early 1st century CE, Agrippina the Elder, a member of the ruling family, was severely criticised for taking on the responsibilities of a general in supporting her husband Germanicus’ retreating troops. Plancina, Agrippina’s contemporary, broke the bounds of female decorum by observing the practice exercises of her husband Piso’s cavalry. The Roman senate even debated whether women should be allowed to join their husbands on provincial governorships. What if they became more powerful than their husbands in the home, the forum and the army?
Women warriors epitomised these fears. Legends of the Amazons proliferated in the ancient world – women warriors of the Steppe who travelled on horseback and cut off one breast so that they were not impeded from drawing back their bows. Penthesilea, queen of the Amazons, led her women into the midst of the Trojan War, and was admired by Achilles for her ferocity: he sought her out in battle, and even at the moment of her death, their eyes met and he fell in love. Thus sexuality and the warrior woman became intertwined. The pattern persists in Roman literature.
Dido of Carthage, Cleopatra of Egypt and Boudica of Britain all held positions of power that were not limited on the basis of sex. Paradoxically, Roman authors used their stories as evidence of innate female weakness and an inability to lead. Literary portraits connect these women’s sexuality to poor leadership skills. In Virgil’s Aeneid, Dido commits suicide over her obsession with Aeneas. Virgil’s contemporaries, the poets Propertius and Horace, denounced Cleopatra as a ‘whore, queen of incestuous Canopus’, and a ‘deadly monster’ drunk on wine, who enslaved Marc Antony through her cunning and irresistible charm.
Images of such women minimised their ability to lead through sexualising the female form, including a personified Britannia cowering from the emperor Claudius. The representation of a province as a sexualised, dominated female body is common in monuments and on Roman coinage. In triumphal imagery large and small, a man’s domination over a woman’s body becomes analogous to Rome’s expansion of her empire and control over provinces and peoples.
Boudica (also spelled Boadicea or Boudicca), queen of the Iceni in Britain, provides a case study for the reception of women warriors. She encapsulated the idea of the warrior queen from the time of her revolt in the 1st century, and maintains a towering presence today. Boudica survives in the accounts of two Roman historians: Tacitus, writing in the late 1st and early 2nd century CE, and Cassius Dio, writing a century later.
The authors differ in their details, but agree that Boudica unified the Britons as never before and led a revolt against the Romans in 60/61 CE. Her story creates a parallel between different views of gender equality held by the Romans and the Britons, and the dichotomies of empire and colony, power and subjugation. Boudica’s name means ‘Victory’ – but what exactly did she win?