The Roman Empire - In The First Century
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Boudica & Britain
In Britain, at the northernmost edge of the empire, Rome’s normal strategies for command and control of its provinces failed horribly. For the first time in memory, the Roman army was in retreat and the power of Rome was questioned.

In 60 AD, Britain had been a Roman province for less than 20 years. Like the other frontier provinces, Rome was far away. Supplies and reinforcements took a long time to arrive, and the province was held by just three legions and a few forts.

Divide and rule

They managed to keep a fragile control on Britain by working with client kings from local tribes, who would govern areas of the country on behalf of Rome. The Romans also used the classic tactic of ‘divide and rule’. As long as the tribes were divided, the Roman army was the strongest force in Britain. And while they were fighting each other, the tribes were unlikely to team up and fight the Romans.

This was standard practice throughout the empire, but it collapsed just four years after Nero became emperor. The Iceni tribe lived in the east of the country and was allied with Rome. When Prasutagus, their king, died, he left half his estate to his two daughters and the other half to Nero, hoping that this tribute would win his family imperial protection.

Severe provocation

Instead, the opposite happened. The widowed queen, Boudicca, was whipped and her daughters were both raped , according to the writings of Tacitus. To avenge this outrage, Boudicca waited until the provincial governor, Paulinus, was abroad, then gathered the Iceni and other tribes from the area and raised a rebellion.

The rebels burned Camulodunum (Colchester), Verulamium (St Albans) and several military posts, before attacking Londinium (present day London). In total, Tacitus estimated that they killed around 70,000 Romans and pro-Roman Britons and slaughtered the Roman Ninth Legion.

Romans in retreat

This was an incredible turn of events. As the Romans fell back in retreat, the British tribes appeared to be on the brink of reclaiming their native land for themselves. As she prepared to attack again, Tacitus described Boudicca climbing a large mound of piled earth to rally her troops, claiming, “You will conquer the Romans – or die trying.”

Romans in attack

It was not to last, however. The Roman Empire could not allow this revolt to succeed. Reinforcements quickly arrived and, under Paulinus’ command, met the British rebels in London. It was a savage battle, but the experienced Roman army won the day. Some 80,000 Britons were massacred and, rather than be captured and sold into slavery, Boudicca poisoned herself.

With heavy sarcasm, Tacitus called the outcome a "glorious victory comparable with bygone triumphs." He knew that the Pax Romana – the peace of Rome – was underpinned by brutality and war: "Rome creates a desert," he later wrote, "and calls it peace."

Where to next:
Writers - Historians
The Social Order in Ancient Rome – On the Frontiers

Related Links:

Timeline   Timeline
Enemies and Rebels   Enemies and Rebels
The Roman Empire

Republic to Empire

Age of Augustus

Years of Trial

Empire Reborn


Social Order

Life in Roman Times


Enemies and Rebels
- Cleopatra & Egypt
- Boudica & Britain
- Josephus & Judea


The Roman Empire - In The First Century