Monday, August 22, 2011

Boudicca and the Iceni

Statue of Boudicca
Westminster Bridge, London
When it comes to the history of Iron Age and Roman Britain, there are few historical personages that have fired the imagination so much as Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni. She was a strong leader and fierce warrior, whose popular image is both tragic and romantic. If you have ever been to London, near the Houses of Parliament, you will have seen the beautiful bronze statue of Boudicca by Thomas Thornycroft, erected near Westminster Bridge in 1902.

Last week, BBC on-line posted an article about a recent find. It seems that a causeway built around 75 B.C. by the Iceni tribe, who lived in what is now Norfolk and Suffolk in eastern England, was found by archaeologists in and around the area of Geldeston. Exact dating has yet to be carried out but the preliminary results date it to about 100 years prior to the Roman invasion of Britain against which Boudicca was a key force. The causeway was, of course, built before Boudicca lived but it is an exciting find. As it was a major route of her kingdom, she may well have travelled it. Apparently, the actual wooden posts are so well preserved by the peat that they look modern and all of the tool marks are still visible.

The road that ran through the wetlands was 4 meters wide and ran for 500 meters across the marshes. Archaeologists believe that the route was likely used for trade, boundaries and to allow the Iceni access to sacred places – swords and other weapons are often found in water where the Celts would have made offerings to the gods.

Roman Legionaries
The main source for the period is Tacitus whose father-in-law was Gnaeus Julius Agricola, who campaigned into northern Scotland and was a tribune under the command of Suetonius Paulinus, Governor of Britain, circa A.D. 60. When Boudicca’s husband, King Prasutagus, a nominal ally of Rome, died he left his kingdom to his two daughters and the Emperor of Rome to rule jointly. Rome did not honour the king’s will. Roman financiers took over everything, Boudicca was flogged and her daughters raped. Definitely the makings of a rebellion.

The uprising began while Governor Paulinus was in Mona (Anglesey) to crush the druid stronghold. Boudicca’s forces subsequently defeated Rome in several engagements and sacked the cities of Camulodunum, Londinium and Verulamium. In the end, Roman forces prevailed and at the final battle, according to Tacitus, over 80,000 Britons died with Roman casualties under 1000. Hard numbers to swallow and which should be taken with a grain of salt as history, as we know, is written by the victors. Would Rome want to give much sway to a female opponent who delivered some heavy hits to its ego? Probably not.

There is of course no shortage of historical fiction when it comes to Queen Boudicca. She is the stuff of legend. Books and series from such writers as Manda Scott, Simon Scarrow, Rosemary Sutcliff and Pauline Gedge are but a few of the good ones. There are others.

Cover of George Shipway's
Imperial Governor
A book with a difference which I read a couple of years ago and which I would highly recommend is George Shipway’s Imperial Governor. Shipway was a British writer of historical fiction who had also served in the British military in the Indian Cavalry until 1946. He combined his love of history with his military experience to create a novel with a difference. The insights are unique (the book is in Governor Paulinus’ voice) and his battle scenes, particularly those involving cavalry, very real. Shipway also wrote several novels set in the middle ages and one set in the Bronze Age the subject of which is none other than Agamemnon. I have only read Imperial Governor at this point but if that book is any indication of the quality of the others, they too will be added to my reading list.