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An Ancient Queen's Code of Justice

 by Yxta Maya Murray


Queen Boudicca would kill them all.  The modern woman lawyer regards this early Celtic ruler with horror and some admiration.  Here in 2013, we wage battle for full equality and against woman violence with our computers and negotiations and harried observance of deadlines.  But back in deep history, retribution was Boudicca’s law, her justice, which she carved into ancient Britain with the glittering edge of her sword. 

The year was AD 60, the place East Anglia, the United Kingdom.  Julius Caesar had invaded Britain nearly 100 years before, and the native tribe of the Iceni had long struggled against its pacification.  Boudicca’s name does not appear in the annals before she rose against the Romans in the seventh decade of the new age.  Her husband, King Prasutagus, formed the titular head of a conquered people.  During his life, Boudicca lingered in the shadows where most women dwelt, even queens.  While not wholly invisible, women are not much to be discovered in antiquity, but for the Greek myths of Amazons, Socrates’ shrewish wife Xanthippe, the Magdalene and Mary and a beguiling scattering of goddesses.  We can find scant detail of Boudicca’s career as a royal wife.  She does not pique the interest of chroniclers until the invaders stirred her to a terrible fury.  We know that she had two daughters.
Prasutagus died of unknown causes, and whatever protection he had offered to the Iceni also perished.  He had named the Roman emperor his heir along with his daughters, in the hopes that this concession would spare the invaders’ hand.  He was wrong.  The Romans realized that with his death, this new vulnerability promised greater access to indigenous wealth.  They raided the Iceni.  Their greed for British gold unleashed other piratical appetites.  The legionnaires dragged Boudicca and her daughters before their subjects.  Boudicca bent beneath their lash.  The Romans raped the girls.
What punishment for these crimes would suit a queen?  Boudicca’s strength and bloodlust enacted a new code.  She gathered her men – and perhaps her women, though Tacitus, the ancient historian, does not describe the role that native females had in this fight – and waged her just war.  First she yoked in other subdued peoples, such as the Trinobantes, amassing an army of 100,000 warriors.  She led a successful battle against the Roman outpost of Colchester.  Her berserkers slayed all enemies down to the last child.  The town burned. 

Boudicca now turned her sights to London.   Suetonius Paulinus, the reigning Roman governor, had been gallivanting in Wales but upon hearing of the sack of Colchester rushed to this city later to house Queen Elizabeth I and Margaret Thatcher.  These women warmongers’ godmother sacked London.  Tacitus reports that Boudicca’s vengeance reached seventy thousand victims of the capital, and modern archeologists have found a red strip of oxidized iron beneath the city streets.  This once molten layer testifies to the queen’s rage that blistered and scarred the earth itself.

Boudicca next waged for Paulinus’s own head.  The Roman gathered his force of 10,000 crack killers, and Boudicca rallied her mighty 100,000.  But while the Iceni possessed righteous passion, the Romans proved a beautifully built machine designed to do nothing but murder.  The last battle roared perhaps on Warwickshire, or possibly in Essex.  The two sides joined on a plain, with a dense, green forest branching behind them.  The Roman javelin, a marvel of engineering, cut into the bodies of the tribes like machine gunnery.  Tacitus estimates that 80,000 of Boudicca’s warriors died that day.  Legend has it that the queen despaired so greatly that she took poison and died.

Not much of a happy ending, is it? Boudicca’s tale isn’t quite the heroic epic that women lawyers may hunger for in the stillness of night when we labor over briefs and need a bit of uplift.  But Boudicca instructs us, even though her saga ends in terrible loss.  We find the themes of women warriors and rape ever present in our own history. 

Can women join in battle?  With the Pentagon’s recent abolition of the combat ban, this is a question that U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta finally answers in the affirmative.  Women’s full integration into the military proves the endgame of Reed v. Reed (which offered the first constitutional guarantee of equal protection to women)  and United States v. Virginia (demanding that women be admitted into all-male military educational bastions).  It also offers, finally, a rejoinder to United States v. Rostker (which upheld the discriminatory Selective Service Act that demanded only men’s registrations).  For decades we in the United States have been debating a question of female ferocity that Boudicca answered almost two thousand years ago. 

Can women have rape justice?  This question, alas, harbors a different answer.  Women remain victims, and the law does not take up their cause with any sufficiency.  The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network reports that 1 out of every 6 women in the U.S. has been the victim of a completed or attempted rape, and yet 97% of rapists will never see a day in jail.  As I have written elsewhere,, women harbor such a suspicion of the state that only fifteen to nineteen percent of sexual assault victims report to the authorities.  And People v. Morales, the recent California decision that overturned a rape-by-deceit conviction, further exacerbates women’s fury over this country’s rape culture.  While Boudicca’s atrocities certainly provide no workable or humane role models in how to combat violence against women, her fiery engagement can stiffen our resolve to demand our share of justice. 

We can imagine her, curls streaming, her face turned into a frightening Medusa mask as she ran forward on the field.  Or we might see her cradling her daughters, gently, in the days before destiny called.  Such a woman existed, in an age when her sisters were treated as objects and chattel.  Many things have changed.  But not enough.  And so Boudicca’s proves a bracing tonic as we work through the night, trying to cleave a path to freedom with our words as she once did with weapons. 

Yxta Maya Murray is a professor at Loyola Law School.