The Death of Two Queens: Boudicca and Zonobia

The Death of Two Queens:  Boudicca and Zonobia

Written:  4/26/01

During the time of the Roman Empire there was much exchange between cultures in the way of poetry, music, dance, art, and storytelling.  Despite the fact that war and conquering new lands means pillaging, plundering, and rape of the common people, some good can be seen through the cultural interchange and transposition of myths and legends of one culture to another, especially between the lands of the Middle East and the British Isles.  As bards, musicians, and dancers were used to entertain the royalty at their courts, perhaps they were transplanted along with the Roman colonial rulers when they went to govern their newly conquered lands.  However the transmutation of myths occurred, there is not doubt similarities of themes in stories.  Because of the similarities one must wonder what is an actual myth and what is a legend?  Where is the truth in a story told, and what are the actual historical facts?  Also, what elements of the mythology of a conquered people slip into legends?  In this paper I will be looking at two legendary queens, Queen Boudicca of the Iceni tribe of Britain, and Queen Zonobia of Palmyra, Al-Hadar.  The Iceni ruled in present day Norfolk and Suffolk in Eastern Britain, and Palmyra was the capital city of most likely present day Syria.  The similarities between these two women’s stories are uncanny, and I believe there is no mistaking that there were some local interpretations by the bards, or musical storytellers, of the respective countries in retelling their stories to courtiers and commoners alike.  Hence, there are two versions of each story; the legend (fact), and the myth (fantasy).  I will compare and contrast the two versions of each story, and interject my own opinion where necessary.

The Legend:  Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni-

First I would like to take a look at the historical legend of Queen Boudicca, as chronologically her story came before that of Queen Zonobia’s.   To this day she is beloved as a heroine in Great Britain, and there is a statue of her erected in London.  The Roman, Tacitus, had a special interest in Britain because his father-in-law, Agricola, became governor of the Province in AD 77-85 after a successful military campaign in Wales and the north; Tacitus, in his book written in AD 98, Agricola, tells us about this campaign, with some details on the native Celtic tribes.  The revolt that Boudicca led against Rome in AD 60-61 was documented in Tacitus’s Annals, written in AD 110-120, and translated from Latin by Arthur Murphy in his book, Works of Tacitus, 1794. (, 2/25/01).  “She was huge of frame, terrifying of aspect, and with a harsh voice.  A great mass of bright red hair fell to her knees; she wore a twisted torc, and a tunic of many colours, over which was a thick mantle, fastened by a brooch.  Now she grasped a spear, to strike fear into all who watched her”—Dio Cassius (, 2/25/01).  Celtic women at that time were given a great deal of power in their tribes; they were included in warfare, and were known for going bare-breasted into battle, as this was a deterrent against the male enemy soldiers.  The mere description of her with her red hair flying behind her as she charges defiantly and with righteous anger into battle against the enemy Romans is enough to endear her in the hearts of Anglo-files everywhere.

King Prasutagus was the leader of the Iceni and husband to Boudicca.  A possible site for their royal residence is a place called Gallows Hill at Thetford in Norfolk (ibid).  From the air one can see the building lines of circular structures of a native type within a Roman style enclosure; however, lack of domestic material from excavations suggest a different use of the grounds—possibly for ceremonial or religious use (ibid).  Boudicca was known to be a priestess in the pagan religion of the Celts, which also may give cause to the near fanaticism of her followers in the revolt against Rome.

The Iceni were an extremely wealthy tribe; they had a flourishing trade across the English Channel with the Roman Empire, their merchants and rulers prospered, and they even had their own coinage between about 65 BC and AD 61.  They controlled sea routes into the Wash and the estuaries on the Norfolk coast; it is also possible that the Iceni were at the end of a Gold route from Ireland across England (ibid).  Towards the end of the time, between about AD 50-60, King Prasutagus became a wealthy client of Rome, as Rome had invaded Britain under Claudius in AD 43 (ibid).  However, following the King’s death, Rome, under the rulership of Emperor Nero as Claudius had died, made Britain a subject population with Paullinus Suetonius as governor, and enacted upon them many grave humiliations.

Under Iceni, and many other Celtic, tribal law when a King dies the rulership and throne accede to the Queen.  It was understood between Rome and the Iceni that Boudicca would take over where her husband left off once he had passed on.

“By his will he left the whole (of his wealth) to his two daughters and the emperor in equal shares, conceiving, by that stroke of policy, that he should provide at once for the tranquility of his kingdom and his family.  The event was otherwise.  His dominions were ravaged by the centurions; the slaves pillaged his house, and his effects were seized as lawful plunder.  His wife, Boudicca, was disgraced with cruel stripes; her daughters were ravished, and the most illustrious of the Icenians were, by force, deprived of the positions which had been transmitted to them by their ancestors.  The whole country was considered as a legacy bequeathed to the plunderers.  The relations of the deceased King were reduced to slavery.  Exasperated by their acts of violence, and dreading worse calamities, the Icenians had recourse to arms.  The Trinobantians joined in the revolt.  The neighboring states, not as yet taught to crouch in bondage, pledged themselves, in secret councils, to stand forth in the cause of liberty. ”—Tacitus, The Annals, Chapter 31 (, 2/25/01).

Another thorn in the side of the Icenians was the veteran Romans that had been transplanted to Camulodunum; they treated the Britons with cruelty and oppression.   Together with the renegade common soldiers they added insult to injury by capturing and enslaving the Britons.  There was a temple built in Claudius’ name; the priests feigned religious zeal, and it seemed to be a “citadel of eternal slavery” to the Britons.  The Romans did not build enough fortresses in their newly conquered land, only tending to frivolity; the Britons did not feel threatened, and this could be some of the reason behind the revolt (ibid).  Also, high taxation on Britain was causing little money to be in circulation; as a result “the natives were getting restless”.

What ensued after the abomination done to Boudicca, her daughters, and her people, was a revolt lasting several months between AD 60-61; together with her newly acquired army she burned and destroyed the three major towns of Londinium (London), Verulamium (St. Albans), and Camulodunum (Colchester), all of which had strong Roman links with many veterans living there, killing many thousands of citizens (, 2/25/01).

An account from Tacitus’ Annals, chapter 30, “The Druids of Mona Island”, a strong religious sanctuary in Wales, in which the Romans succeeded in subduing the Britons at the onslaught of the revolt, nevertheless is an omen of the sacking of the three above-mentioned towns, and tells of the strength and power of the Celtic women:

“Women were seen running through the ranks in wild disorder; their apparel funeral; their hair loose to the wind, in their hands flaming torches, and their whole appearance resembling the frantic rage of the Furies.  The Druids (Celtic priests/priestesses) were ranged in order, with hands uplifted, invoking the gods, and pouring forth horrible imprecations.  The novelty of the fight struck the Romans with awe and terror.  They stood in stupid amazement, as if their limbs were benumbed, riveted to one spot, a mark for the enemy…They felt the disgrace of yielding to a troop of women, and a band of fanatic priests; they advanced their standards, and rushed on to the attack with impetuous fury…The island fell, and a garrison was established to retain it in subjection.  The religious groves dedicated to superstitious and barbarous rites, were leveled to the ground.  In those recesses, the natives (stained) their altars with the blood of their prisoners, and in the entrails of men explored the will of the gods.  While Suetonius was employed in making his arrangements to secure the island, he received intelligence that Britain had revolted, and that the whole province was up in arms” (, 2/25/01).

It is said that Boudicca sacrificed captive Roman women to the goddess Andraste, a Celtic goddess of war, who has as a symbol the hare.  It is obvious that the Roman administrators underestimated the position Celtic women held as the equals of men, as women in Rome did not even qualify for citizenship, and infanticide was a common practice of the Romans who favored male babies (, 2/25/01).

Suetonius held the decisive battle that led to victory for Rome over Britain at a place very carefully chosen; it was located somewhere in the midlands of Britain, possibly near Mancetter or Towcester, England.  The place he chose was surrounded by sacred groves, which only led to incite the Celts fury at their desecration.  He chose to have a huge forest behind him, so as to discourage ambush; the Celts would have to make a frontal attack.  For all practical purposes, the Celts should have won; they outnumbered the Romans by thousands.  However, Celtic battle tactics involved attempting to terrify and confuse the opposition; they dressed their hair high with lime, and painted their bodies and faces with paint.  “They used wild cries and gesticulations, leaping around, clashing their weapons and blowing trumpets to create noise and give demonstrations of enthusiasm and bravado.  To fight a disciplined fighting machine was alien to them.  Celtic battles often-involved champions inviting champions of the opposition to single combat, the resulting battles and heroes would be praised in song” (, 2/25/01).  Also, their religious beliefs weighed heavily into their battle strategy equation; Tacitus notes that Boudicca symbolically released a hare into the battlefield to ensure their victory.  The outcome of the battle was an all-out slaughter of the Celts; it is reported that 80,000 Celts fell that day, while only 400 Romans died.  Boudicca, as a battle commander and Celtic hero, took poison, the only option open to her to take her own life.  Suetonius set out to lay waste to the remaining rebellious or neutral territories of tribes.   The Iceni were resettled in a Civitas capital at Caister-by-Norwich, also known as Caister St. Edmunds on the river Tas.  The Golden Era of Celtic tribal life had come to an end.

Boudicca:  The myth behind the name-

I would now like to take a look at the mythology behind this story.  There is much evidence to suggest that Boudicca was a druidess, and also that it is indeed not her given name.  In Anne Ross and Don Robins’ book, The Life and Death of a Druid Prince, they find sufficient evidence to suggest that Boudicca was not only a queen, but also a priestess and possibly a druidess (ibid).  The release of a hare by Boudicca before the final battle to win Britain back is the act of a priestess seeking augury; Celts treated battle as if it were one big ritual, rather than a strategic attack as the Romans did.

It seems that her people saw her as the manifestation of a Celtic war and nature goddess, Andraste; Boudicca literally means “victory”, as does her patron goddess, Andraste.  Other forms of this war goddess are seen in Brigantia of Brigantes; the Irish goddess The Great Queen Morrigan in conjunction with her triple goddess aspect of Nemain (Frenzy), Badb Catha (Battle Raven), and Macha (Crow); the Celtic goddess Boudiga; and the pan-Celtic goddess The White Lady, or the Goddess of the Dead.  The Morrigan is the major goddess of war in Celtic religion, with Andraste, Brigantia, and Boudiga being minor ones, possibly akin to certain regions;.  This personification of a goddess figure could be an explanation as to why her people so faithfully followed her into a battle that led to their eventual demise; also, because they had such faith in her and their destiny, they could have become more lax in their fighting, which in turn would lead to their loss of the battle, and eventually, the entire war.

Brigantia means the “High One”; she is a pastoral and river goddess associated with the Celtic Sabbath Imbolc, or “Candlemas”, celebrated on February 2, halfway between the Winter Solstice, and the Spring Equinox.  Flocks, cattle, water, fertility, healing, and victory are her domains (Conway, p 117).  The Celtic religion is earth and nature based, and depends upon the solar calendar for Sabbaths, or holy days, and as Imbolc is the time of year when one can see the first glimpse of warmth creep back into the earth (as if a “candle flicker”, hence “Candlemas”, a term coined later by the Romans in the Catholic church), it is no wonder that all goddesses associated with Imbolc represent victory; as the sun represents all things positive in the northern hemisphere, rather than destructive in the southern hemisphere, the coming of the sun heralds victory.  It is interesting to note that Queen Cartimandua of Brigantes also had dealings with the Romans, albeit unsuccessfully.  She had remained loyal to Rome during the rebellion of the Silures and Ordovices led by Cunobelinus’ son Caratacus.  When the rebellion was crushed, Caratacus fled to the Brigantes but Cartimandua handed him over.  This is yet another example of the disrespect the Romans had for women (, 2/25/01).  It seems that whatever sacrifices the Celts were making to Brigantia did not suffice, as victory against the Romans did not occur.

The Morrigu, Morrigan, and Morgan are all names given to the Great Queen of Ireland, Wales, and Great Britain.  She is known as the “Supreme War Goddess”, the “Queen of Phantoms or Demons”, and the “Specter Queen”, or shape-shifter (Conway, p 113).  She reigned over the battlefield by helping with her magic, but she did not join in the battles.  Rather, her association with crows and ravens, and the goddesses represented by them, helped with the battles.  Morrigan is the Crone aspect of the triple goddess of the Lady; these are Maiden, Mother and Crone.  She is also seen as the Great Mother, the Moon Goddess, the Great White Goddess, and Queen of the Fairies.  In her Dark Aspect (the symbol is then the raven or the crow) she is the goddess of war, fate, and death; she went fully armed and carried two spears.  The carrion crow is her favorite disguise.  With her, Fea (Hateful), Nemon (Venomous), Badb (Fury), and Macha (Battle) encouraged fighters to battle madness.  She is also Goddess of all rivers, lakes, and fresh water, the element water being a highly psychic medium.  She is the patroness of all priestesses and “witches”; revenge, night, magic, and prophecy are her domains (ibid, p 113-114).  Hence, it is no wonder Boudicca is associated with The Morrigu; certainly she invoked her before battle, and her people identified her as a representative of Morrigan.

Two of the helpers of Morrigan considered being goddesses in their own right are Badb Catha, and Macha.  Badb Catha means “boiling”, “battle raven”, or “scald crow” (ibid, p 104).  She is identified as the cauldron of ever-producing life; in Gaul, or ancient France (also Celtic), she was known as Cauth Bodva.  She was a war goddess and wife of Net, a war god.  She is sister of Macha (mother), the Morrigu (crone), and Anu (the maiden aspect of the triple goddess, associated with fertility, prosperity, and comfort).  Associated with the cauldron, crows and ravens, as well, she is linked with life, wisdom, inspiration, and enlightenment (ibid).

Macha is an Irish goddess meaning “crow”, “battle”, and “Great Queen of Phantoms” (ibid, p 112).  She is the Mother of Life and Death; a war goddess; Mother Death, but originally a Mother Goddess; and one of the aspects of the triple Morrigu, as mentioned above.  She is also called “Mania”, as representative of her contribution in battle; she is also associated with ravens and crows.   The time of year she is honored is Lughnassadh, or August 1.  This is the time of year exactly halfway between the Summer Solstice and the Autumn Equinox, or big harvest; it is a Sabbath dedicated to the dying sun god, Lugh, and is celebrated as the first, or small harvest, as many fruits and nuts are plentiful at this time, while grain is associated with the Autumn Equinox harvest.  Hence, the fruits of battle are associated with Macha.  After a battle, the Irish cut off the heads of the losers and called them “Macha’s acorn crop” (ibid).  She is the protectress in war as in peace; cunning, sheer physical force, sexuality, fertility, and dominance over males are all attributes associated with Macha.  Again, it is no wonder Boudicca invoked her help against the Romans.

I could not find any information on Boudiga; apparently she is a regional variation of the war goddess Morrigan.  However, acknowledgment of the “White Lady” is important in understanding Celtic religion and goddesses.  She is known to all Celtic countries, and is the Dryad of Death.  She is identified with Macha and is the Queen of the Dead; also, the crone aspect of the triple goddess.  She is linked with death, destruction, and annihilation.  Certainly, Boudicca’s people saw her as a messenger of the White Lady in reclaiming their land by bringing death and annihilation to the Romans.

The Legend of Queen Zonobia of Palmyra:

Now I would like to take a look at the historical legend of Queen Zonobia of Palmyra, in present day Syria.  Zonobia was a Roman woman, not an Arab; her story shows the domination of the Romans, versus the freedoms that women knew during the era of Ancient Egypt, such as personified by the Goddess Isis.   As Astarte and Isis both represent Venus, it’s interesting how the societal limits of women denegrated over time.  Strategically situated on the overland route between the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean through Syria the city of Palmyra was a very wealthy empire; it held a perilous position by being a caravan station between the empires of Rome and Persia in the 1st century BC, and it became a Roman outpost and a major city-state within the Roman Empire in the 217 AD.  It was an oasis city on the northern edge of the Syrian Desert, about 240 km (150 mi) northeast of Damascus.  Solomon, King of Israel, founded it according to tradition; in the Bible it is called Tadmur (1 Kings 9:18) (, 4/25/01).  In 260 AD its ruler, Odenathus, fought the Persians and pushed them all the way to their capital on the Tigres River, Ctesiphon; Rome had lost this area since Shapur I of Persia had overtaken it during his reign of 241 BC-72 AD, so Odenathus and Palmyra were very valuable resources to Rome, indeed.  In the space of a few months Palmyra came to be the ruler in the name of Rome over Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt (Nutting, p 17).

The wife of Odenathus was Queen Zonobia.  Even though of Roman blood, she was born in Palmyra, and had become enmeshed in the politics and culture of the area.  However, Odenathus’ rule was short-lived; in AD 266 he was murdered.  Zonobia was both beautiful and ambitious; many say she was involved in the death of her husband for her own selfish ends, and succeeded power as regent for their young son (, 4/25/01).  Within three years, she extended her rule to all Syria, to Egypt, and to most of Asia Minor, ostensibly in alliance with Rome.

However, Zonobia made a grave mistake; she turned her back on Rome, and named herself  “Empress of the East”, her son “King of Egypt”, threw out all of the Romans in her empire, and occupied Alexandria.

At Palmyra the temple of the Sun (or Baal) and the colonnade, nearly 1.6 km (1 mi) long, originally of some 1500 Corinthian columns, still stand.


Her ambitions ended in AD 271, however, when Roman Emperor Lucius Domitius Aurelian took up arms against Zonobia.  He gained control of nearly all of her domain, and besieged the city of Palmyra.  It seemed that Rome’s attitude towards women as described above during Boudicca’s day had not changed, and they did not have the patience for a renegade, selfish Queen.  Zonobia did not have the backing of her people behind her, only her own interests at heart.  Zonobia was captured and taken to Rome in golden chains (befitting a Queen) behind the chariot of her captor, and paraded as a war prize.  Later, she was given an estate at Tibur (now Tivoli, Italy), where she spent the rest of her life in pensioned retirement (, 4/25/01).  A beautiful and brilliant woman, Zonobia is remembered for her ruthless ambition.  Subsequently, Palmyra was taken by the Arabs, and sacked by Tamerlane of Samarkand, Persia (now Uzbekistan).  In modern times, a town, Tadmur, has been built nearby.

Zonobia: The myth of a Queen and the Cult of Baal:

Could it be that Zonobia, like Boudicca, saw herself as a female representation of the Lord Baal, the Sun God, the god of war?  Certainly, she grew up in Syria; she was of Roman blood, but the legends and lore she was weaned on were of Canaanite descent, not Roman.  As seen in the pictures above, there was a temple of Baal erected at Palmyra.  The female consorts of Baal were his two sisters/wives, Anat, the goddess of springs, and Astarte, the goddess of fertility and reproduction (, 4/25/01).  Perhaps Zonobia saw, as her only recourse, to keep the abundance flowing in Palmyra by sacrificing her husband (perhaps seeing him as the sun god, Baal), and take on the personification of Anat and Astarte.  The cult of Baal was an earth and nature-based religion, much the same as that of the Celts; they are typical of agriculture-based pre-Judaic societies throughout the world; they also used human sacrifice and temple prostitution to placate the gods as petitions for their requests (, 4/25/01;, 4/25/01).

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