The Iceni, also known as the Eceni, were a Celtic tribe based in what is now Norfolk, north-western Suffolk and eastern Cambridgeshire. They existed during the the Iron Age and early Roman era, and are best remembered for their revolt in AD 60 to 61, led by their ruler Queen Boudica, in which they challenged Roman rule in Britain. This resulted in the burning of Londinium and other cities, but ultimate ended with a defeat and Boudica’s death.
Who were the Iceni Tribe?
The Iceni tribe were a Brittonic tribe of eastern Britain during the Iron Age and early Roman era. Their territory included present-day Norfolk and parts of Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, and bordered the area of the Corieltauvi to the west, and the Catuvellauni and Trinovantes to the south. Their capital was Venta Icenorum at modern-day Caistor St Edmund.
The meaning of the name Iceni is unknown, but it was often written Eceni. The Iceni appear to have been a wealthy people interested in metalware and horses, with archaeological finds of horse-related objects backing up these claims. They minted their own silver coins, even after the Romans arrived, and Icenian coins often show horses while others feature women and horses.
This may suggest the presence of female warriors among the Iceni.
Iceni Tribe Rulers
The Iceni tribe had at least six rulers that we know of. The two most famous of these rulers were King Prasutagus and Queen Boudica. It is unclear when exactly Prasutagus became king, but it is thought between AD 43 and about AD 50. However, the tribe was more famously led by his wife, Boudica, following Prasutagus’ death in around AD 60.
The name Prasutagus appears to be made up of two components: ‘pras-‘, meaning ‘body’, and ‘tag’, meaning ‘god’.
Before Prasutagus, there were at least four other rulers. These rulers are known about thanks to archaeological evidence — the Iceni began producing coins around 10 BC and the coins bore the names or initials of the rulers at that time.
Unfoitately, the full names of these rulers may never be known, but are currently known by the abbreviations of their names found on the coins. These are Canduro, Aesu, Saemu and Antedi.
Roman Invasion AD 43
When Emperor Claudius invaded Britain in 43 AD, the Iceni initially formed an alliance with the Romans. This seemed more sensible than fighting them off, as the Roman army was bigger and more powerful than several tribes put together. Becoming an ally allowed the Iceni tribe to keep most of their freedom, as well as their land and their leaders.
Roman Invasion AD 47
However, although the Iceni tribe had allied with the Romans in 43, they did not in AD 47 when the Romans tried to disarm them.
At the time of the allying, Antedios was the ruler of the Iceni. There was little economic exchange between the Iceni and the Romans; the Iceni feared a loss of cultural identity. This meant that the Romans saw the relationship with the Iceni as a bad one. Therefore, the Roman governor, Publius Ostorius Scapula, decided to disarm the tribes in AD 47 and build new Roman fortifications.
The Iceni revolted along with the neighbouring Coritani and Catuvellauni (each of whom had made previous alliances with Rome), but were quickly suppressed by Scapula and a small force of auxiliaries. It is thought they had revolted against harsh measures taken against them, not against the Roman presence on the whole.
After quelling the revolt, the Romans controlled the Iceni through Prasutagus until his death. Prasutagus may have become king after this revolt, in AD 47, although this is not clear. The Romans may saw Prasutagus as a leader who could keep the peace between the Iceni and Rome.
Boudica, also known as Boadicea and Boudicca, is possible the most famous member of the Iceni tribe. She married King Prasutagus, in around AD 48. They had two daughters together, whose names are not known. Very little is known about Boudica’s life, especially her early life, but it is thought that Boudica was of royal descent. It is thought that she was born around AD 30 into an elite family in South East England. It is also thought she was tall and had hair described as red, reddish-brown, or tawny hanging below her waist.
Prasutagus wanted to preserve his line, and therefore made Emperor Nero co-heir to his kingdom, along with his wife and two daughters. It is thought that he left half of his fortune to his two daughters and the other half to Nero. It was common practice Roman practice to allow allied kingdoms their independence only for the lifetime of their client king, who would then agree to leave his kingdom to Rome in his will.
However, Roman law only allowed inheritance only through the male line, so when Prasutagus died in around AD 60, his attempts to preserve his line were ignored and his kingdom was annexed as if it had been conquered. During this time, Boudica was flogged and her daughters were raped.
The annexing of Prasutagus’ kingdom after his death led Boudica to revolt against the Romans. The Iceni tribe joined forces with the neighbouring Trinovantes and along with other tribes combined to make an army of around 100,000 Britons, all under the command of Boudica.
In AD 60 (or 61), when the Roman governor and most senior Roman administrator of Britain, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, was away campaigning on the island of Mona (modern Anglesey) in North Wales, Boudica and her army began their uprising.
At first, the Boudica’s army had great success, targeting Camulodunum (modern Colchester), which was a Roman colonia for retired soldiers. This was a good target for the army as in Camulodunum there was a Roman temple erected to the deified Claudius, and natives were treated brutally by the veterans.
Camulodunum was captured easily, as the only troops able to help the Romans were two hundred auxiliaries located in London, who were not equipped to fight Boudica’s troops.
While some managed to hold the temple of Claudius for two days, they were eventually killed and a bronze statue to the emperor Nero, which stood in front of the temple, was decapitated and its head was taken as a trophy by Boudica’s army.
When Suetonius heard of the defeat in Camulodunum, he hurried along Watling Street through hostile territory to Londinium (modern day London). Londinium was a relatively new settlement, founded after the conquest of AD 43, but it had grown to be a thriving commercial centre with a population of travellers, traders, and, probably, Roman officials.
While Suetonius did briefly consider trying to protect Londinium, he decided to sacrifice the city instead to help save the province.
Wealthy citizens and traders had fled Londinium, which left the poorer citizens to their own fate. Londinium was captured and burnt to the ground by Boduica’s army, and any remaining citizens were tortured and killed. The municipium of Verulamium (modern St Albans) was destroyed next. During these conquers, between seventy and eighty thousand people are said to have been killed.
While Nero was said to be contemplating pulling out of Britain altogether, Suetonius regrouped his forces and amassed an army of around 10,000 men. Suetonius took a stand at an unidentified location, probably in the West Midlands somewhere along the Roman road now known as Watling Street.
While Boudica’s army were more greatly numbered, with around 230,000 men, they lacked the maneuvrability of the Roman forces, and also lacked the open-field tactics to command these numbers. This put them at a disadvantage to the Romans, because they had superior equipment and discipline. The field was also narrow, which meant that Boudica could put forth only as many troops as the Romans could at a given time.
The Romans first used volleys of pila (heavy javelins) to kill thousands of the British army who were rushing toward the Roman lines. They then advanced in a wedge formation, while the Britons attempted to flee. However, the Britons were impeded by the presence of their own families, whom they had stationed in a ring of wagons at the edge of the battlefield, and were slaughtered.
Boudica’s army was defeated. It is unclear what actually happened to Boduica after this — some sources say she poisoned herself, while others say she fell sick and died.
The exact location of Boudica’s defeat is unknown. Some historians say it was somewhere along the Roman road now known as Watling Street, while others have theorized it is close to High Cross, Leicestershire, the Cuttle Mill area of Paulerspury in Northamptonshire, Manduessedum (Mancetter), near the modern town of Atherstone in Warwickshire, “The Rampart” near Messing, Essex, and Ambresbury Banks in Epping Forest.
Iceni Tribe After The Romans
Following Boudica’s death, the Iceni tribe never reached prominence again and the events secured Roman rule in southern Britain. The Roman army remained in the field, burning settlements, killing rebels, and taking slaves.
Famine wiped out many people left in the area, because Boudica’s army had deprived the area of much of its agricultural produce, and the local inhabitants had failed to plant, harvest, and store up supplies for winter in the year of the revolt.
Venta Icenorum, which means ‘market of the Iceni’, was built on Icenian land around AD 70 as a centre of the region. It is located at modern Caistor St Edmund (otherwise known as Caistor-by-Norwich), immediately south of Norwich, and had a distinctly Roman appearance.
Despite the fact the surviving Iceni tribe resigned to live there, relations between Britain and Rome remained tense and they were not prepared for urban life. It is thought that the descendants of the Iceni survived longer in the Fens.
The Timeline Of The Iceni Tribe
Quite little is actually known about the Iceni tribe and their history, but we are able to create a timeline of their existence and date the most important events that occurred within their time.
|Ruled by “Can-”; the abbreviated name found on coins.
|Can-, although possibly not the first king of the tribe, is the first king of the Iceni to issue coinage bearing his own name. It is thought “Can” was short for “Canduro”.
|AD 25 to 47
|Ruled by “Anted-”; the abbreviated name found on coins.
|It is thought “Anted-“ may have stood for “Antedios”. Antedios issued coins bearing his name, but these are later retracted. Following this, Antedios issued coins marked ‘ECEN’, referring to the tribe’s name.
|When Emperor Claudius invaded Britain in 43 AD, the Iceni initially formed an alliance with the Romans, under King Antedios. However, judging by the coins issued around this period, some within the Iceni may have been unhappy with Rome’s confirmation or acceptance of Antedios as the sole ruler of the Iceni. Two nobles or rival kings issued their own coins briefly:
|Aesu- (Aesunos?); the abbreviated name found on coins.
|Saemu- / Saenu- (Saenuvax?); the abbreviated name found on coins.
|The Romans tried to disarm the Iceni tribe. After quelling the revolt, the Romans controlled the Iceni through the pro-Roman Prasutagus.
|AD 47 – 59
|Ruled by Prasutagus, until his death.
|Prasutagus wanted to preserve his line, and therefore made Emperor Nero co-heir to his kingdom, along with his wife and two daughters.
|AD 59 – 61
|Ruled by Queen Boudica, wife of Prasutagus.
|AD 59 – 61
|Following Prasutagus’ death, his kingdom was annexed as if it had been conquered by the Romans. Boudica lead an uprising to fight this, The Iceni joined forces with the neighbouring Trinovantes and along with other tribes combined to make an army of around 100,000 Britons, all under the command of Boudica. However, Boudica’s army was unsuccessful, despite bing more greatly numbered. Boudica was killed.
|Following Boudica’s death, Venta Icenorum, which means ‘market of the Iceni’, was built on Icenian land around AD 70 as a centre of the region. The remaining Iceni tribe lived there, on the edge of Roman Britain.
Iceni Tribe FAQs
What was the Iceni tribe’s relationship with the Romans like?
The Iceni’s relationship with the Romans was a complicated one.
In AD 43, Emperor Claudius invaded Britain and the Iceni initially formed an alliance with the Romans, under King Antedios. Because the Roman army was so big, becoming an ally allowed the Iceni tribe to keep most of their freedom, as well as their land and their leaders.
However, in AD 47, the Romans tried to disarm the Iceni, and the Iceni revolted. At the time, there was little economic exchange between the Iceni and the Romans. Following the revolt, the Romans controlled the Iceni through Prasutagus until his death. The Romans may saw Prasutagus as a leader who could keep the peace between the Iceni and Rome.
Before his death, Prasutagus made Emperor Nero co-heir to his kingdom, along with his wife and two daughters. He wanted to preserve his line. However, following his death, his wishes were not granted and his kingdom was annexed by the Romans as if it had been conquered. This is what led to Boudica’s revolt.
How did Boudica become queen?
Boudica became queen following her husband’s, King Prasutagus, death, in AD 59.
How big was Boudica’s army?
Boudica’s army was bigger than the Romans — with around 230,000 men — but they lacked the maneuvrability that the Roman’s had.
What happened to Boudica?
Boudica’s army was defeated and she died, in AD 61. It is unclear what actually happened to Boduica — some sources say she poisoned herself, while others say she fell sick and died.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Iceni Tribe" https://englishhistory.net/romans/iceni-tribe/, June 13, 2022