Iceni Celtic Tribe

The Iceni or Eceni were an Iron Age tribe living in the British Isles prior to the Roman invasion of Britain. Their territory included present-day Norfolk and parts of Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. Julius Caesar does not mention the Iceni in his account of his invasions of Britain in 55 and 54 BC, though they may be the Cenimagni or Ceni Magni, whom Caesar noteed as living north of the River Thames.

The Iceni tribe occupied all of Norfolk and north-west Suffolk. They were a monarchic society state, geographically separated from their western neighbours the Coritani by uninhabitable fenland. They were bordered to the south by the Atrebates.

While the meaning of the name Iceni is unknown, it is tempting to see it as derived from a Proto-Celtic adjective cognate with Latin picea ‘pine tree,’ the Italic tribal name Piceni, English picene, and with the English hydronym Itchen. Icenian coins dating from the 1st century AD use the spelling ECEN, which probably suggests a different etymology.

Tacitus records that the Iceni were not conquered in the Claudian invasion of AD 43, but had come to a voluntary alliance with the Romans. However, they rose against them in 47 after the governor, Publius Ostorius Scapula, threatened to disarm them. The Iceni were defeated by Ostorius in a fierce battle at a fortified place, but were allowed to retain their independence. The site of the battle may have been Stonea Camp in Cambridgeshire.

A second and more serious uprising took place in AD 61. Prasutagus, the wealthy, pro-Roman Icenian king, had died. It was common practice for a Roman client king to leave his kingdom to Rome on his death, but Prasutagus had attempted to preserve his line by bequeathing his kingdom jointly to the Emperor and his own daughters. The Romans ignored this, and the procurator Catus Decianus seized his entire estate. Prasutagus’s widow, Boudica, was flogged, and her daughters were raped. At the same time, Roman financiers called in their loans. While the governor, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, was campaigning in Wales, Boudica led the Iceni and the neighbouring Trinovantes in a large-scale revolt, destroying and looting Camulodunum (Colchester), Londinium (London) and Verulamium (St Albans) before finally being defeated by Suetonius Paulinus and his legions. Although the Britons outnumbered the Romans greatly, they lacked the superior discipline and tactics that won the Romans a decisive victory. The battle took place at an unknown location, probably in the West Midlands somewhere along Watling Street. Today, a large statue of Boudica wielding a sword and charging upon a chariot can be seen in London on the north bank of the Thames by Westminster Bridge.

The Iceni are recorded as a civitas of Roman Britain in Ptolemy’s Geographia, which names Venta Icenorum as a town of theirs. Venta, which is also mentioned in the Ravenna Cosmography, and the Antonine Itinerary, was a settlement near the village of Caistor St. Edmund, some five miles south of present-day Norwich, and a mile or two from the Bronze Age Henge at Arminghall.

After the Romans left Britain, it is possible that some of the Iceni migrated west away from the Angles into the inhospitable marshlands around The Wash known as the Fens. The possibility of this occurrence is supported by the Life of Saint Guthlac — a biography written about the East Anglian religious hermit who lived in the Fens during the early 8th century — it is stated that Saint Guthlac was attacked by people he believed were Britons living in the Fens at that time, 200 years after the establishment of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, although Bertram Colgrave in the introduction to The Life of Saint Guthlac states that is very unlikely due to the lack of evidence for British survival in the region and the fact that British placenames in the area are “very few”.

Principal towns and settlements in Iceni territory

Venta Icenorvm (Caistor St. Edmund, Norfolk)  – A small walled town, disadvantaged by not being sited on a river. The only polis ascribed to the tribe by Ptolemy. The civitas capital.

Other sites and Settlements of the Iceni

  • Brettenham (Norfolk) – Small settlement on the Peddlar’s Way, east of Thetford.
  • Caister-by-Yarmouth (Norfolk) – A small, walled seaport serving the civitas capital.
  • Camboritvm (Lackford, nr. Icklingham, Suffolk) – station in the Antonine Itinerary between Venta Icenorum and Durolipons (Cambridge).
  • Durolipons – (Cambridge).
  • Ixworth (Suffolk) – Major settlement succeeded an earlier Roman fort.
  • Narford, nr. Castle Acre? (Norfolk) – Small settlement on the Icknield Way.
  • Snettisham (Norfolk) – Small settlement on the Icknield Way, a former British centre and the find-place of a fabulous hoard of gold torcs.
  • Thetford (Norfolk) – Major religious centre at an important river-crossing.
  • Toftrees, nr. Fakenham (Norfolk) – Small settlement on native trackway between Venta and the Wash.
  • Venta Icenorum -(Cambridge)
  • Wilton, Hockwold cum Wilton (Norfolk) – Small settlement on the Little Ouse, west of Thatcham, near the ancient Grime’s Graves flint mines. There is a rural temple nearby at Hockwold.
  • Woodcock Hill, Hockham Heath (Norfolk) – Small settlement or posting station on the Peddlar’s Way north-east of Thetford.

Industries of the Iceni

Villas are confined mainly along the Icknield Way, notable sites being Grimston and Glayton Thorpe. Another interesting villa lies in the south of the canton at Stanton Chair, north of Ixworth, which, it has been suggested, was one of the estates bequeathed to Nero in the will of Prasutagus. The only known industry of the Iceni was ceramics, the most important potteries being at Helvingham, West Stow and Wattisfield.
N.B. The Icknield Way, an ancient trackway linking East Anglia to the Chilterns, may be named after the Iceni.

The Icenian Nobility

Identified from Coinage Evidence

Can[…] Issued the first inscribed Icenian coins, bearing the letters CAN DVRO, the basic design of which was based on coins from Cantium. The exact meaning of the DVRO part of the inscription is unknown, but is possibly a mint-mark. He was succeeded c.25AD by Anted[ios], who was later to become a client of Rome 43AD.
Anted[ios] Anted[ios] (only the first five letters appears on his coinage, the ending -ios is conjectural) succeeded Can[…] c.25AD as leader of the Iceni, and should not be confused with Anted[…] of the Dobunnic tribe of Gloucestershire.

He took no active part in the opposition to the Roman invasion of 43AD and was subsequently made a client of Rome. He produced his first coins marked ANTED probably in commemoration of this honour. This action possibly stirred up the Icenian nobility who were opposed to the rule of a single leader, and this prompted Antedios to issue a generic coinage inscribed with ECEN, probably representing the name of the tribe instead of his own. This seemed not to appease at least two of the Icenian nobles, Aesu[…] and Saenu[…] who minted their own inscribed coinage sometime around 45AD. It is probable that Anted[ios] was involved in the Icenian War of 47AD, possibly precipitating the violence through his own death, though this is pure speculation. He must have lost his life by the end of the war however, for following the supression of the tribe by the son of the new governor, Marcus Ostorius, none of these leaders are heard of again, and the clientship of the kingdom of the Iceni passed to the pro-Roman leader Prasutagus.

Aesu[…] Aesu[…] was a contemporary of Anted[ios], who was the nominal leader of the Iceni during the invasion of 43AD. He possibly represented a rival faction within the Icenian nobility who were opposed on principle to the appointment by Rome of a single tribal representative. He issued his own inscribed coinage around 45AD, and was joined in this apparent show of displeasure by another contemporary Icenian leader, Saenu[…], who also issued inscribed coinage during the clientship of Anted[ios] in opposition to Rome. In 47AD, this resentment turned to violence when the Iceni, possibly led by Aesu[…], Anted[ios] and/or Saenu[…], took the opportunity of the change in the governorship, to rebel against Roman interference. All three Icenian nobles probably died during the fighting or were put to death by Marcus Ostorius soon afterwards, as Prasutagus was made Client-King.
Saenu[…] Saenu[…] issued inscribed coinage c.45AD contemporary with those of his Icenian rival kings Anted[ios], who was nominal king over all the Iceni in the eyes of Rome, and Aesu[…], who, like Saenu[..] possibly resented the preferential treatment that Anted[ios] was afforded by Rome. He was presumably one of the leading lights during the Icenian War of 47AD and was in all likelyhood killed either during the fighting or in retribution by Rome immediately afterwards.
Prasutagus Was the husband of the most famous of Iron-age British women, Boudicca. He was made client of Rome and given kingship over the entire Icenian tribe following the Icenian War in 47AD, when the inter-tribal struggles between Anted[ios], who had been recognised by Rome, and the factions of Aesu[…] and Saenu[…], escalated into armed revolt against Rome, which was soundly crushed. One unique issue of his coins bears the inscription SUB RI PRASTO ESICO FECIT – ‘under king Prasto, Esico made me’, which not only gives us the name of the king but also his moneyer or chamberlain. His death c.60AD was to spark the rebellion led by his wife, Boudicca, which was to end with the complete subjugation of the Iceni.
Boudicca One of two British women to be mentioned by the ancient sources. She was the wife of king Prasutagus who was granted the kingship of the Iceni, along with clientship of Rome after the Icenian war of 47AD. Following her husbands death c.60AD her kingdom was pillaged by the imperial procurator Decianus Catus, and when she made complaint, she was personally flogged and her daughters raped. Indignant at her treatment she fomented a rebellion within her tribe and, joined by their neighbouring tribe the Trinovantes, plundered the Romano-British towns of Camulodunum, Verulamium and Londinium before being beaten in a pitched battle with the forces of the governor, Suetonius Paullinus, near Manduessedum in the midlands.

Overview of Icenian Timeline

c.25BC Addedomaros becomes king of the Trinovantes and moves his centre of government from the eastern headwaters of the river Lea to a new site on the east coast, known later as Camulodunum (Colchester).
c.9AD Cunobelinus of the Catuvellauni takes the Trinovantian capital and moves his capital from land-locked Verulamium to Camulodunum near the east coast.
c.25AD ANTED[ios?] becomes king of at least part of the Iceni.
43AD Antedios and the Iceni take no part in the armed resistance to the Claudian invasion. Antedios is recognised by Rome as leader of the Iceni and is consequently made a client of Rome.
44AD [Antedios mints his ‘ANTED’ coinage perhaps in celebration of his new status. He comes under diplomatic fire by several members of the Icenian tribal aristocracy for pandering to Rome.]
45AD [Antedios mints his generic ‘ECEN’ coinage series, replacing his monogrammed issue, in an effort to de-fuse the internal dissention and to re-unite all of the Iceni tribe under him.]
46AD [To declare their differences over Antedios’ pro-Roman policies, the minor Icenian kings AESV[nos?] and SAENV[vax?] mint their own coinage based on the later ‘ECEN’ issues of Antedios.]
47AD The Iceni [under Aesunos and Saenuvax?] rise in revolt when Ostorius Scapula includes the Iceni among the tribes he plans to dis-arm. [Antedios refuses to succumb to political presure from the Icenian anti-Roman faction and does not join the revolt, consequently he does not survive the year and is perhaps put out of the way by assassination.]
48AD Prasutagus, the husband of Boudicca, is given kingship of the Iceni and made a client of Rome after the Icenian war ended and the perpetrators were put down. [Prasutagus may have been a blood relation of Antedios. He obviously must not have taken any part in the uprising.]
59AD King Prasutagus died and named the emperor Nero among his co-heirs along with his two daughters. Unimpressed with his one-third share of Prasutagus’ estate, and mistakenly convinced that the Icenian nation was far wealthier than was reported, Nero dissolved the Iceni’s client status. Nero’s tutor and close advisor Annaeus Seneca recalled all his loans made to British chiefs.
60AD Repression of the Iceni becomes systematic under the imperial procurator Decianus Catus, who treats the tribe as a conquered nation while the governor, Suetonius Paulinus, prepares an attack on Mona Insula (Anglesey). Boudicca is flogged and her daughters raped. Boudicca leads the Iceni in rebellion; they are soon joined by the neighbouring Trinovantes.
61AD After destroying a vexillation of the Ninth Legion Hispana, and sacking the towns of Camulodunum (Colchester), Verulamium (Saint Alban’s) and Londinium, the Iceni and the Trinovantes are almost wiped out in a pitched battle with Suetonius Paullinus’ forces in the area of Manduessedum (Mancetter).
62AD+ The Iceni (and the Trinovantes) are fully subdued and incorporated within the Roman provincial government infrastructure, It is several decades before the Icenian peoples recover from their near-annihilation, and the tribes of south-eastern Britain never again rise against Rome.

In the table above, [bracketed texts] are suppositions only.

Archaeological evidence of the Iceni

Archaeological evidence of the Iceni includes torcs — heavy rings of gold, silver or electrum worn around the neck and shoulders. The Iceni began producing coins circa 10 BC. Their coins were a distinctive adaptation of the Gallo-Belgic “face/horse” design, and in some early issues, most numerous near Norwich, the horse was replaced with a boar. Some coins are inscribed ECENI, making them the only coin-producing group to use their tribal name on coins. The earliest personal name to appear on coins is Antedios (ca. 10 BC), and other abbreviated names like AESU and SAEMU follow.

Literary references to the Iceni

Ptolemy and the Iceni

“Next to these (the Catuvellauni) are the Iceni, whose town is called Venta 20*30 55°20.” Above quote from the Geographia of Ptolemy (II.ii)

Other passages in Ptolemy Book II Chapter 2 give the ancient names of a couple of geographical features within the territories of the Iceni tribe:

  • Metaris Aestuarium (The Wash) – This large basin formed the north-western boundary of the tribe, separating them from the Coritani in Lincolnshire.
  • Garriannus Fluvius (River Waveney) – The mouth of this river flows into the English Channel close to the easternmost point in the British Isles.

Caesar’s Gallic Wars and the Iceni

No tribe named the ‘Iceni’ is mentioned by Caesar in his memoirs of the Gallic Wars in 54 BC,, though he does provide us with the names of five tribes who surrendered to him following his victory over the Cantiaci in Kent. The Cenimagni, may have been a branch of the Iceni or it could be a corruption of Iceni Magni meaning “Great Iceni.”

‘… the Cenimagni, the Segontiaci, the Ancalites, the Bibroci and the Cassi¹ sent deputations and surrendered to Caesar. …’ (Caesar De Bello Gallico v.21)

Of these five British tribes, the Cassi were possibly the precursors of the Catuvellauni, the Segontiaci may possibly be identified with the later settlement of Segontium near Caernarfon in North Wales, the Ancalites and the Bibroci are otherwise unknown, and the Cenimagni are discussed below.

Caesar’s Cenimagni could be reasonably identified with the Iceni if the following scenario is accepted.

While receiving the formal surrender of the leaders of the tribe before his tribunal, Caesar, demanding to know the name of their tribe apparently received the reply de Iceni Magni (‘the Great Iceni’). It is possible that the thick Latin accents of the Icenian chieftains were misunderstood by the Roman general’s scribes, causing the second vowel sound to be ignored, it is equally possible, however, that Caesar deliberately slighted the tribe by misinterpreting their name.

References for The Iceni

  • The Geography of Claudius Ptolemaeus, trans. by E.L. Stevenson (Dover, New York, 1991);
  • Atlas of Great Britain by the Ordnance Survey (Country Life, 1982);
  • Historical Map and Guide: Roman Britain by the OS (4th Ed., 1990);