Boudica has been mythologized as the woman who dared to take on the Romans to avenge her daughters, her tribe, and her enslaved country. Her immortality rests on the fact that she almost drove the Romans out of Britain, and her legend has become the reference point for any British woman in power, from Elizabeth I to Margaret Thatcher. As Boudica has become well known as an icon of female leadership and strength, the true story of her revolt against the Roman Empire has only become more distant until now.
Combining new research and recent archaeological discoveries, Vanessa Collingridge has written a major new biography on this shadowy and often misunderstood figure of ancient history. Boudica provides a detailed history of the Celtomania that has adopted Boudica as its earliest hero, and the nationalist and feminist causes that have also tried to claim her as their own. While tracking the origins and impact of the various versions of the Boudica legend, Collingridge unearths a historical woman who is far subtler but every bit as fascinating as the myths associated with her name.
“Deeply researched and powerfully explosive.” —Saga Magazine
“A compelling tale.” —Daily Mail
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"But the most famous example of his courage was his expedition to Britain, for he was the first man to bring a navy into the western ocean, the first to sail into the Atlantic to wage war with his army, and then by invading a mysterious island which historians doubted even existed other than in name and fable, he coud be said to have pushed the Roman Empire beyond the limits of the known world."
Plutarch writing on Caesar in "Lives"
In the beginning, there was Ocean – the father of all waters and the mighty river-god that encircled the flat earth. Within the firm reach of his arms lay the glorious Roman Empire, the one true civilisation divided into its rightful order of rulers, citizens, freemen and slaves. Also encircled within the great limbs of Ocean were the lands of the barbarians – strange, primitive peoples lacking in both culture and vision who must one day fall to their superior Roman neighbours until the mighty Empire pushed against Ocean's shores from north to south and east to west. These shores of Europe, Asia and Africa marked the edge of the world; beyond lay the unknown, a void in knowledge filled by fear and mystery, the entrance to the darkness of the other world.
The origins of Ocean and its fundamental role in the beliefs of the classical world dated back at least to the earliest Greek geographies and mythologies and go a long way to explaining the dramatic hold that the Atlantic and especially Britain had in the ancient mindset. To their way of thinking, the Mediterranean Sea was the crucible of all the "civilisation" that bubbled out on to the surrounding coastal lands. For millennia, sea journeys would be made along these coastal fringes for trade and exploration, but in their small boats in the era before maps or charts, sailors would hug the land searching for the well-known reference points of headlands, bays and rivers. But the limits of this safe, civilised world ended at the Pillars of Hercules: these marked a physical and emotional gateway, beyond which lay what the fifth-century BC Greek poet, Pindar, called the "dark west", a limitless stretch of dangerous water punctuated by petrifying Gorgons and sea monsters and legendary islands of dead heroes. Although Ocean encompassed the world, the so-called Atlantic or western section of the great water was named for Atlas who stood "at the limits of the earth", holding the broad heavens above his head. And sailors knew enough about those waters to know that they were best avoided ...
But for centuries, if not millennia, what lay beyond the Mediterranean lands was merely of interest to philosophers. Intellectuals and poets could spend their time pondering on Ocean with all its strange creatures and islands but for most of the classical world, within the Pillars of Hercules there were lands and riches aplenty. Inside this world were great cities and civilisations that surely could not be surpassed. If you wanted unimaginable wealth, you merely had to conquer one of your neighbours – and then use its treasures to feed an ever-hungry city that was growing fat on power.
And to the Romans of what is now western Italy, the world was centred upon and radiated out from Rome. But Rome was much more than a city – it was concept, an ideal, a whole way of life. Of course, Roman civilisation was not the first major culture to try to dominate the Old World, though it was arguably the most successful. The Greeks, Egyptians, Etruscans and the Babylonians had all spawned major civilisations which had risen then fallen, giving way to internal stresses and external forces. The Romans had taken what they admired from earlier cultures and made it their own, dismissing the rest as "foreign" and therefore inferior. From the Etruscans they drew their religion, the trademark purple togas of high office and the infamous gladiatorial games; from the Greeks, the Romans took much of their arts and sciences – and even the foundation myth for Rome itself.
Straddled between the thin dorsal fin of the Appenine mountain range and the warm waters of the young Tyrrhenian Sea lies the dry and rocky landscape that once formed the cradle of the Roman world. Humans have lived here for two hundred thousand years, though continuous habitation was interrupted by the last Ice Age. When this ended some ten thousand years ago, early humans flowed back into the lowlands and plains of the region. At first the population was sparse and patchy until the arrival of more settled Neolithic farmers around 5000 BC and the much later phase of population growth during the Iron Age.
From prehistoric times, however, people have made their homes in the shadow of the highest peaks of the Appenines – the snow-covered Gran Sasso d'Italia; rising to almost three thousand metres, this "Great Rock" dominates the region. Early Neolithic hunters could roam the marshy river valleys or hunt the bears and wild boar that can sometimes still be found in the dense beech, oak and pine woods that flank the mountain slopes.
By the Bronze Age, partially settled farmers worked the fertile soils that lie along the wide valley of the River Tiber and grazed their animals in the green valleys before moving up to higher pastures for the dry summer months. The climate for those early settlers was essentially the same as it is today: in summer, the flatter lands of the coast would bake in temperatures that can reach thirty-five degrees celsius while the hot, dry winds desiccated the earth until it turned to dust; spring and autumn are still the rainy seasons while the winter brings the stormy tramontana winds, often accompanied by flurries of snow.
By the dawn of the Iron Age in around 800 BC, the local population had grown both in numbers and in wealth through trade and agriculture – and this spawned more changes: people started to live in small, clustered settlements on the higher, more easily defended hills. These were not primitive people: they drained the marshes and developed political hierarchies, probably based around the paterfamilias or oldest male; they also developed religious cult-associations or federations, focusing on deities such as Diana, Jupiter and Venus. Evidence of their rectangular, wattle-and-daub huts containing hearths and charred cooking utensils have been found throughout the region; three such huts have even been uncovered on the Palatine Hill itself from where Rome would soon rise up as both a city and an idea.
By around 650 BC, with the coming of the Etruscans from the north (and with Greek influences permeating up from the south), the region began to adopt some of the cultural and political structures which would become embedded in Roman culture for the next thousand years: aristocracies, ruling magistracies and a Senate, or Council of Elders. On the domestic level, the paterfamilias ruled with complete omnipotence: he was within his legal rights to put his wife to death or sell his children into slavery. However, the evolution of the region's society was not restricted to these "developments" – and the pace of the change is almost beyond belief: within just a hundred years, the settlements were transformed from clusters of traditional huts to whole urban townscapes, with planned streets of brick houses with more lavish homes for the wealthy. Grand public buildings and religious temples began to rise up, made of vast blocks of skilfully carved stone, sometimes decorated with coloured terracotta. It was also around this time that the higher-status inhabitants began to use the alphabet to write things down – and the lingua franca used was not Etruscan at all, but Latin. Though it may have faced periods of foreign domination, this was a confident society: it took what was useful, and discarded the rest.
This was also a land that was rich in resources, both cultural and material: there were plentiful stocks of fish and easy transport in both the river and the sea, the brown alluvial soils supported abundant agriculture, while from the long mountain reaches came all the raw materials for building the great cities of the future: water, limestone, wood – and the famous Italian marbles. By 500 BC, the fifty or so communities in the region had been distilled into around a dozen powerful settlements which dominated the surrounding lands of the region – and the most powerful of all was Rome.
There were many legends about the actual foundation of Rome; the most popular myth blended stories both from Rome and Greece, and ran as follows: around 1184 BC, Troy was destroyed by the Greeks after a ten-year siege that ended in the famous episode of the wooden horse; however, the Trojan hero Aeneas managed to escape the slaughter along with a band of men. While searching for a new home, a vivid dream instructed him to head west in search of a new land where the River Tiber flowed and after years of wandering around the Mediterranean, the group finally arrived at the Tiber where they were warmly received. The king of the region was a man called Latinus; he was impressed by the young man and soon offered Aeneas his daughter's hand in marriage. Despite some initial opposition from the locals who were less sure about the new arrivals, the Trojans settled, intermarried with the native women and then became the "Latins". Aeneas founded the city of Lavinium, named after his new wife, and located nineteen miles south of modern-day Rome.
This foundation myth gained popularity during the years of the Republic from around the fifth century BC as it well suited the purposes of the budding civic leaders. Not only did it give the Romans an impressive classical pedigree; the Trojan angle fitted nicely with their desire to be seen as distinct from the Greeks. But the myth caused a problem for this new version of official "history": the dates simply didn't add up. The start-date for the Roman Republic relied upon records of its annual list of magistrates; from this, the republic appears to have originated around 509 BC; before that the Romans believed that the area was ruled by a series of seven kings, leading back to the creation of the actual city of Rome by Romulus in 753. That date was arrived upon by using Greek methods of genealogical reckoning: mathematicians worked out that the period of time taken for seven kings to rule would be somewhere in the region of two hundred and fifty years, meaning that the first of the seven kings – Romulus – must have ruled from the middle of the eighth century BC. The year of 753 was eventually agreed upon as the official start-date of the so-called "Regal Period". However, that meant some creative historiography was needed to breach the four hundred year gap from the fall of Troy in 1184 BC to the "official" foundation of Rome in 753 BC – and to make the "facts" fit the official version of history.
The answer was to devise a series of twelve fictitious kings who ruled over the general area, all of whom descended from a royal line starting with Aeneas and ending with the arrival of the twin brothers, Romulus and Remus, who founded the actual city of Rome itself. Once again, the engineered solution fitted the bill both numerically and also in terms of a classical pedigree: Rome had grown up from a land of heroes who had fought bravely to overcome tyranny; who could ask for a more fitting, more auspicious start in life for the ancient world's most famous city?
The legend ran as follows: good King Nutimor was the twelfth king after Aeneas and ruler of the area which would one day be called Rome. However, he was deposed by his wicked and megalomaniacal brother, Amulius. In a vain attempt to hold on to his ill-gotten power, Amulius then forced the former King's daughter, Rhea, to become a Vestal Virgin; in that way she had to remain celibate and so there would be no possibility of her continuing Numitor's royal line and threatening his brother's position. However, she became pregnant by the god Mars and gave birth to the twins, Romulus and Remus. When he heard about the existence of the boys, a furious Amulius gave orders for the babies to be drowned in the River Tiber but the basket in which they were placed floated off downstream instead of sinking and the boys' river journey ended at what was to become the future site of the city of Rome. There, on the banks of the Tiber, the twins were suckled and fed by a she-wolf and a woodpecker until a local herdsman tending his sheep chanced upon them and took them home where his wife reared the boys as her own.
As they grew up, Romulus and Remus played with the children of the area and soon became the leaders of an adventurous band of young men. Romulus was fearless and warlike, and eventually he and his brother managed to kill Amulius and restore their grandfather to the throne. To honour their victory and to mark the site where they had been saved as babies, they founded a new city on the Palatine Hill, bounded by a large stone wall. However, this wall was to be Remus's undoing: during the building of the city, the brothers quarrelled and when Remus jumped over the city wall, his brother killed him. Romulus was now free to build and populate the city as he deemed fit and he quickly consolidated his power, becoming Rome's first King in a line of seven that became known as the "Regal Period".
Seven kings; seven hills. The so-called regal period of Rome all made perfect sense to those writing it down in later years, from its official start date in 753 BC to its conclusion in 509 BC when the last royal ruler – the vile and tyrannical king Tarquinius Superbus – was overthrown. Once more, the popular story of the end of the Regal Period fitted nicely with the need for a sea change in Roman government: Tarquinius Superbus was an evil despot who ruled Rome through fear. When his son raped the beautiful Lucretia, a much-respected noblewoman, it was one outrage too many for the population to bear. A group of senators led a revolt to overthrow the king, and he and his family were finally expelled from the city. In reality, the end of the hated Etruscan monarchy did not mean the immediate cessation of Etruscan influence: the city still expressed itself in Etruscan styles of art for at least another fifty years while the wealthy continued to demand Greek pottery and ceramics; fine temples were still being built and some of the elected officials sported Etruscan names. However, all across the region, ruling monarchies were dissolving into oligarchy, with the noble families vying for political power. This was now a society where wealth and power were inextricably linked – and the gap between the haves and have-nots was growing ever wider. The irony is that while the years of monarchy which had become so corrupting were now over for good, the same elite band of families was rocking the city's administrative cradle; inside, swaddled in their noble raiments, lay the hungry infant that would grow up to dominate the Ancient World. Freed of the sins of its forefathers, Rome was now entering the next phase of its moral evolution: the republic.
If you were lucky in the early republic, you would be the one in ten who was born into privilege. Archaeological evidence shows that you would live in a fine house, supported by serfs and slaves, you would look out on to swathes of your family's land and you would know that beyond your destiny in public office, you would never, ever have to work. Life would be a genteel shaping through tuition, conversation and observation until you were fully moulded into a Roman patrician. Of course, if you were born a woman, your destiny would be to marry well, keep a good home, discreetly support your husband in his political duties and raise the next generation of civic leaders and their wives. The theory did not always work out; a number of famines reduced even the aristocracy to dire financial straits. However, for the bulk of the population who scraped by in the peasant economy, such crises literally could be fatal. In some cases, if you failed to repay a loan, your lender could have you executed; your lands would be repossessed and your dependents left homeless and sold into slavery "across the Tiber". The republic may have been a moral ideal but its version of morality was far removed from ours today.
Hard facts and written records are few and far between for the period of the early republic; much of the history as we now know it is the result of what archaeologists call "the spade", augmented by scraps of surviving administrative documents of varying degrees of reliability. From around the end of the third century BC, formal "histories" began to emerge from writers like Fabius Pictor and Cincius Alimentus, and the poets Ennius and Naevius. These were all written in Greek – largely because there was no great literary tradition in Latin but also because their purpose was as much to educate the Greeks about Rome as their own countrymen about their origins.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Boudica"
Copyright © 2005 Vanessa Collingridge.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations,
2. The Mighty Colossus,
3. The Last of the Free,
4. Beyond the Deep Sea,
5. One Hundred Years of Solitude,
6. Claudius's Conquest of Britain, AD 43,
7. "Hyenas in Petticoats",
8. The Druids of Mona,
9. The Outrage against Boudica,
10. Boudica's Attack on Colchester,
11. The Evidence on the Ground,
12. Boudica's Assault on London,
13. Boudica's Assault on St. Albans,
14. The Final Battle,
15. The Aftermath,
16. Up from the Ashes: Roman Britain after AD 60/61,
17. Rebirth & Revival: Making History into Herstory,
18. Celtomania: The Founding of a New Ethnicity,
19. A Queen for all Seasons: Boudica's Enduring Iconography,
20. The Queen is Dead: Long Live the Queen!,
21. From Barbarity to Celebrity: The Cult of the Warrior Queen,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Well written and highly readable. The author did research the topic well but the focus of her book is the legend behind the woman and the impact this warrior queen had for the past 2000 years. The chapters about Boudicca herself start only after half the book.
The problem with writing a biography about Boudica is that there's virtually nothing in the way of evidence on which a full-length book can be based. After all, her reign, if in fact she did reign, lasted only a year, a mere blink in the span of ages. As a result, this book is also the story of the early Roman emperors, Cartimandua, and the other early British tribal leaders. On the one hand, this is an interesting approach since it provides a depth on the period and a context that helps the (limited) story of Boudica to make sense. But the book is ostensibly a book about Boudica, and in this, it misses the mark.