Boudicca: The Celtic Queen Who Refused to Bow to Rome

by Erica Millard

A few months ago, I read the book “Mr. Churchill’s Secretary,” a fictional novel by Susan Elia MacNeal. I have read twenty books since then, but there is one scene about which I can’t stop thinking.

It haunts me.

In the first chapter of the book, a woman named Diana is coming home from where she works as a secretary for Winston Churchill. She exits the car of a stranger who has given her a ride home. When she gets out, a man is standing there in a dark mask. He tells her to turn around and put her hands on the car hood. She complies despite the fear that something is wrong. “Without preamble, she felt the hot shock of the metal blade as it pierced through her flesh and could hear the tearing as it went through cloth and skin and muscle” (MacNeal 8). She dies there, in a puddle of rain and blood, without trying to run or fight back.

It was about that time that I stumbled on the history of Boudicca, Warrior Queen of the Celts.

Boudicca was a queen of the Iceni Celtic tribe in 47 A.D. Briton was under the rule of the Roman Empire, and Boudicca’s husband was the Icenian King Prasutagus. Although he was the King of the Celts, he was also a “client king” of the Romans, and therefore had full Roman citizenship. By extension, his wife would also have been a part of the ruling class of Rome (Collingridge 173-178).

King Prasutagus died, and instead of passing his kingdom to his daughters which had been his wishes, Rome decided that the kingdom was rightfully theirs. They beat Boudicca and raped both of her daughters, the very women that King Prasutagas thought would be the queens of his kingdom. The bodily harm and the rapes were seen as great insults in both the Roman and Celtic cultures. But they were designed for one thing: to terrify both Boudicca and the Celts into submission to the Romans.

It did not work.


After hearing of what had happened to Boudicca, the Iceni tribespeople gathered near the home of their queen, “Showing their support for their queen and their hatred of the Romans” (Collingridge 184). Roman rule was tenuous at best, with a previous Celtic rebellion squashed thirteen years previous and the tentative peace only possible through King Prasutagus’s pro-Roman stance.

Other Celtic tribes joined Boudicca and made a massive army, and according to Collingridge, “There was only one response, only one plan of action – and that was to wipe out all trace of the Romans’ polluting culture and their gross abuse of every man, woman and child in the conquered territories” (Collingridge 185). Boudicca and her army attacked and razed three Roman cities. Her army was brutal and harsh, taking the lives of thousands of Britons and Romans alike in an attempt to win back their independence and freedom.

The historian Tacitus recorded Boudicca’s statement:

“Nothing is safe from Roman pride and arrogance. They will deface the sacred and will deflower our virgins. Win the battle or perish, that is what I, a woman, will do” (Pruit).

Boudicca and her army lost in a final battle with Rome, and because of that loss, Briton was then ruled by Rome for another 350 years. Of Boudica, Dio wrote, “The Britons mourned her deeply and gave her a costly burial. The Roman conquest had brought to the Iceni misfortune that ripened into disaster after their rebellion failed. But as time passed, Britannia became an orderly and respected part of the Roman empire. It remained so for another three centuries. Boudica’s people finally won what it seems they had wanted all along: respect, peace and a government that treated them with justice and honor” (Donsbach).

Boudicca died defending her rights and doing what she thought was best.

What do these two women, one fictional and one not, have to do with one another? Both of their stories end in death and that is the very point. One died without even an attempt to fight. The other fought for what she believed in.

If I had a choice, I know which one I would choose to be.


Works Cited:

Collingridge, Vanessa. Boudica. London: Ebury, 2005. Print.

Donsbach, Margaret “Boudica: Celtic War Queen Who Challenged Rome.” HistoryNet. N.p., 09 Aug. 2016. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.

MacNeal, Susan Elia. Mr. Churchill’s Secretary: A Novel. New York: Bantam Trade Paperback, 2011. Print.

Pruitt, Sarah. “Who was Boudica?” A&E Television Networks, 31 May 2016. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.


Unequivocal Voices: The Sacred Feminine Challenges Authority

by K.P. Kulski

As so many things do, this begins with a story… 

Many stories in fact, but I’m going to start out with just the one.

In 508 BCE, the great Spartan King Cleomenes joined forces with the exiled family of Cleisthenes in the hope of overthrowing Hippias, the tyrant of Athens. (Take a breath, I know that was lot of ancient Greek names.)

victorian-engraving-of-the-ancient-interior-of-the-parthenon-athens-efn0e4King Cleomenes managed to get himself to the acropolis, the central and most important part of the ancient Athenian polis, also the location of the holy temple of Athena. Weary and looking for a moment of spiritual reflection, Cleomenes, King of Sparta enters to the holiest place in the city of Athens, to pray. I imagine he opened the temple door, ready to step into the welcome cool dim within when he heard an angry female voice. An angry and powerful female voice, accustomed to being obeyed.

An Athenian priestess rose from her seat within and is said to have shouted, “Spartan stranger, go back. Do not enter the holy place.”1

She harnesses the power of the divine and exists in liminality, between the living and the dead.

This Athenian priestess is not given a name, not like the males in the story. She doesn’t stick out individually, but her strength, conviction and divine authority is enough to get King Cleomenes thrown out of the temple. She, like many women throughout history harnessed a special mystique, a voice that does not sway to the demands and wants of a king, conqueror or the greater society.

She harnesses the power of the divine and exists in liminality, between the living and the dead. With mere words she has toppled kingdoms, flicked away the pride of overzealous politicians and directed the focus of entire civilizations. She accomplishes these things with no significant wealth or army at her disposal. Through the authority of her own female divinity she is the sacred vessel of supernatural knowledge. What she has to say, whether a king likes it or not, holds the weight of powers more significant and more powerful.

This is not unique to the polytheistic world. As Christianity rose to predominance, it brought with it the identity of sacred women as powerful figures. If you think about it, Mary’s pregnancy was a rebellion. While married to Joseph, Mary gives birth to the son of the divine, instead of her husband’s offspring. Her own immaculate conception further cements the concept of her sacred feminine before she even conceives Jesus. She exists outside the normal conventions of society and gender restrictions simply do not apply to her.

As Christianity rose to predominance, it brought with it the identity of sacred women as powerful figures.

Classical works, embraced by medieval Europe created a natural dilemma for the Christian devout. If these works were to be celebrated and revered, scholars could not ignore the blatant references to pagan gods. Taking one of their favorite classical writers, medieval thinkers harnessed the prophetic presence of the Cumae Sibyl in Virgil’s Elcogue. The Sibyls, an extension of the classical Greek oracle tradition, played a similar and significant prophetic role in ancient Rome. Virgil’s mention of the Sibyl’s words, most likely meant as a propaganda outlet for Augustus, were interpreted by medieval scholars to have been

180px-SibylCumae.jpgoracular visions of the coming of Jesus Christ and the ultimate establishment of Christendom. Yet it is interesting to note that Christians of this age viewed the prophesy of the Cumae Sibyl as a frightening example of female paganism. This is a fascinating conflict, despite rejecting paganism itself, they acknowledged the power of the female prophetess. Christian scholars were convinced that Sibyl, by divine power, had foreseen the birth of Jesus and through extension rejected Roman pagan authority.“By Destiny’s unalterable decree. Assume thy greatness, for the time draws night, Dear child of gods, great progeny of Jove!”2 While the Sibyl represented a pagan belief system, medieval scholars recognized that she held a special power, especially if she foresaw the coming of their Lord.

Even from the lowest rungs of society, she commands with the voice of the gods and becomes a goddess herself.

In 1492, the Maid of Heaven, Joan of Arc met with the Dauphin of France, Charles VII. France was at this time, a shadow of itself, a kingdom on the verge of complete annexation. English ambitions to rule over France seemed only a hair’s breadth away from realization. Charles himself was not in a strong position. But something about Joan, a commoner who somehow managed to obtain a chance to meet with him, the Dauphin, moved Charles to invest in her rebellion. It was of course, in his interest and whether Charles himself was religious moved or inspired by Joan, cannot be definitively decided. Nonetheless, if Joan was a mere political gambit for Charles, she still appealed to a multitude as a figure of French resistance. This is in great part because of the figure she cut into the collective French identity – a virgin girl in direct communication with God.

As seen above, this model is quite familiar, a female who is a conduit to the divine which can only be achieved because of her gender. This embodiment goes beyond divine inspiration, but to the very pores of her being. She is symbolic of the divine and therefore cannot be ignored. Even from the lowest rungs of society, she commands with the voice of the gods and becomes a goddess herself.

We can see those connections of female divinity to the very dawn of civilization, where Ancient_Akkadian_Cylindrical_Seal_Depicting_Inanna_and_Ninshubursacred womanhood is not to be underestimated. This is reflected in the very stories of the divine, contained with the feminine— a sacred looming power.

So, I leave you with these powerful and daring words of the first known author, Sumerian priestess Enheduana as she exalts her goddess Inana:

Burney-Relief“At your battle-cry, my lady, the foreign lands bow low. When humanity comes before you in awed silence at the terrifying radiance and tempest, you grasp the most terrible of all the divine powers. Because of you, the threshold of tears is opened, and people walk along the path of the house of great lamentations. In the van of battle, all is struck down before you. With your strength, my lady, teeth can crush flint. You charge forward like a charging storm. You roar with the roaring storm.”3


1. Herodotus, The Histories, trans. Aubrey De Selincourt (London: Penguin, 2003), 337-338.

2. Virgil, “The Eclogues,” The Internet Classics Archive,

3. Enheduana, “The Exaltation of Inana,” The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature,

Antigone: To Stand in the Storm

by E.J. Lawrence

When I first brought up the notion of doing a blog that focused on women’s roles in ancient literature and history, K.P. Kulski and I tossed around several ideas of what we could call the site. I kid you not (this is how we knew this relationship was fated), she suggested “Antigone” at about the same time I was thinking it.

Ultimately, we decided on “Unbound” (playing off of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, and also the idea of the binding and unbinding of hair), but I just couldn’t shake the Antigone reference, and how, when I first read the Ancient Greek play, Antigone became one of my top ten literary role models. Even though she is from a time centuries (millennia!) past, she now seems more relevant than ever. Thus, it seemed fitting for Antigone to kick off our look at great women in literature.


“She never learned to yield,”1 the chorus tells Creon in Antigone, referring to the titular character. Another translation says, “to the storm she bendeth not”2; and still another, “she knows not how to bend before trouble.”3

That line can pretty much tell you everything about why she is my literary role model. If you’ve never before read Antigone, you should. Right now.

Or perhaps, you can knock it out later… it’s a very short read, and you’ll find links to three different translations at the bottom of this post. I first encountered this play as a sophomore in high school, and I found it so incredibly…modern. I mean, no one can accuse the Ancient Greeks of being feminists — certainly not by modern standards, in any case. But Antigone offers us one of the most powerful female characters in all of literature.

To give you some context, Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta. Yes, that Oedipus–the one who killed his father and married his mother through a tragic act of fate. Side Note: I remember when we read Oedipus Rex as seniors, the boys were super grossed out. It was funny as a student. Then I became a teacher, and my department chair said, “Have them read this.” And that was the most uncomfortable teaching experience of my life.

That’s beside the point — you came to hear about Antigone. Antigone had two brothers, Polyneices and Eteocles. These two brothers went to war and killed each other, leaving no direct heir of Oedipus to take the throne (gotta love a good Greek tragedy). Creon, Jocasta’s brother, is the next in line, ordering that Eteocles (whose side Creon agreed with) would receive a hero’s burial, while Polyneices (whose side Creon did not agree with) would receive no burial whatsoever, and be left to the birds and dogs. Ouch.

Now, you have to understand a few things about Ancient Greek culture to fully get the weight of this. The main point being, no burial = no afterlife. Creon isn’t just saying Polyneice’s body can be eaten by carrion birds . . .  he’s saying Polyneice’s soul can never find rest. He’s damning him to an eternal punishment, one not confined to physical torment. The spiritual torment in this case is far, far worse.

Furthermore, whoever attempts to bury the traitor’s body will himself be condemned as a traitor. Angered by this denial of her brother’s soul, Antigone resolves to bury him, sneaking out at night and sprinkling dirt on his corpse. The first night, the sentries brush off the dirt and then report the act to Creon, who flies into a rage, accusing his guards of doing it themselves and threatening their lives if they don’t bring forth the perpetrator.

They soon catch Antigone in the act, as she goes back to bury her brother’s body again. She’s brought before Creon and condemned to death. Everyone, including his son (Antigone’s fiancé), tries to reason with him, but Creon, in the throes of power, is beyond reason.

In true Greek tragedy fashion, the play ends with the death of everyone Creon has ever loved, leaving him, the tyrant, alone with the realization that he is the instrument of his own suffering.


“Wow, E.J.,” you say. “That sounds morbidly depressing, and what on earth does that have to do with this blog you’ve set up, celebrating the roles of powerful women in literature and history?”

I’m so glad you asked. Antigone, at its core, is about the dangers of pride and overreaching. Creon believes himself to be the ultimate law, but Antigone knows the laws of the gods are higher, and she resolves herself to follow them, not Creon. To say Antigone is courageous almost understates her resistance. Here, I’ll try and show you what I mean:

Antigone proves that there is no fear in doing the right thing. Okay, that sounds a bit moralistic. I get it. Yet…that’s the beauty of her story. Standing there, before Creon–the man who holds her life in his hand–and saying, “All these men here would praise me if their lips were not frozen shut with fear of you. Ah, the good fortune of kings. Licensed to say and do whatever they please!”4

Dang, girl. She not only tells him she’s not backing down, but she calls out Creon’s tyranny and the cowardice of the men around her, all in a single breath.

Creon responds in kind, saying that she is the one guilty of a crime, not them.

She persists with “There is no guilt in reverence for the dead.”5

Everything about her says she stands on solid moral ground. Ultimately, the tragedy of this play is Creon’s, not Antigone’s. Sophocles makes it clear that Antigone follows a law that exists above even the King of the land, and in following the natural law (the law of the gods), Antigone, for all Creon’s bluster, is right.

There’s nothing overblown about her rightness; no real smugness or flying at Creon in a rage. No fear or even anything close to backing down.

She doesn’t have to.


And that’s why I love Antigone. Her strength is more than just some flippant human nature rebellion against authority; rather, she stands firm in her conviction that true justice prevails.

In the end, Antigone, her fiancé Haimon, and her aunt Euridice all lie dead because of Creon’s rash decree, and we the audience are left with these final words from the Chorus:

“There is no happiness where there is no wisdom

No submission but in submission to the gods.

Big words are always punished,

And proud men in old age learn to be wise.”7

The reasoning in this last stanza, even when compared to varying translations, is so poetic. You can’t be happy without wisdom; wisdom means being humble; “proud men” can never stay that way. Therefore (to honor the Greeks and make this a syllogism), pride is always foolish. In the end, natural justice will prevail, raising up the humble and laying low the prideful fools.

I mean, for a tragedy, it actually ends on a great note of hope. The common English proverb says, “Pride goes before a fall.”8 It’s reassurance that, in the end, the proud engineer their own destruction.

I like happy endings. Hopeful conclusions. Stories where doing the right thing means the good guys win. But sometimes, life doesn’t always work out that way.

Still, even though Antigone’s story ends in her death, her untimely demise in no way detracts from her boldness, her conviction.

Do the right thing. Always. The world promises you no reward for it, but it does promise you self-respect.

“I dared,” Antigone says when Creon expresses surprise that she defied his decree. “[Yours] was not God’s proclamation… I knew I must die, even without your decree. I am mortal…This death of mine is of no importance; but if I had left by brother in death unburied, I should have suffered. Now I do not.”6

Incredible. Her refusal to suffer under tyrannical, unnatural law is what gives her freedom and peace. When she lives under the freedom of doing what is right, no one, not even a king, can has the power of death over her. No wonder she will not yield to Creon’s storm…the power he holds is far less sufficient than her own.

May we all stand as strong in the storm.



  1. Fitts, Dudley and Robert Fitzgerald. Antigone. Line 376.
  2. Murray, George Gilbert Aimé. Antigone. vv. 477-500.
  3. Jebb, R.C. Antigone. no lines.
  4. Fitts and Fitzgerald lines 369-372
  5. line 406
  6. lines 399-403
  7. lines 1039-1042
  8. Though the common phrase is “Pride goes before a fall,” the actual verse states:       “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” Proverbs 16:18, The Holy Bible, New International Version


Unbound is Now Live!

Just in time for Women’s History Month…it’s like we planned this or something.

If you’ve stopped here, I’d like to say welcome. Here’s a blanket, a cup of tea and a comfy chair. E.J. and I look forward to sharing some amazing stories of women throughout time and literature. You will explore with us the identities of some of the most fascinating women who ever graced the Earth and our imaginations. Some of them will inspire and others with make us cringe, they all will empower and move the world around them.

Our first article will premier on the 6th. Our weekly schedule will follow content publication on most Mondays.

This month will feature articles from E.J. and myself, author Kaitlin Beavis, of The Daughters of Zeus series and Erica Millard, writer and Professor of Children’s Literature.

In April, we will go live with a fiction and poetry page.

Thank you for joining us. We look forward to your next visit.