Sunday, February 06, 2005

Battlefield Britain on Boudicca

(This post was originally written last August, in response to the first programme in the BBC's Battlefield Britain series, on the revolt of Boudicca.)

Very pretty CGI, but my god! What a load of rubbish! Dreadful simplistic nonsense in which Britons were good, and terribly oppressed by the nasty nasty Romans. The fact that many of the elite of the British tribes had been happily buying into Roman culture for a century before Claudius' legions was ignored. All the time we were being told about the 'Britons' in their revolt, yet it was only two tribes in east Anglia and the Midlands. All the others stayed loyal to Rome. In fact, the idea of 'the Britons' was a Roman invention - the people living on the island certainly didn't think of themselves as a single nation. The peoples of Kent and Sussex didn't seem particularly incensed by what was happening to the Druids.

As for the Druids, the programme presented a picture of nasty Roman legionaries butchering defenceless old priests. The fact that the one source suggests that the Druids commanded strong military forces gets overlooked, as was the suggestion that they indulged in human sacrifice. They wouldn't do that, you see - too nice. The one atrocity of the Iceni that was mentioned was qualified as 'probably propaganda' - yet every tabloid sensationalist tale of what the Romans did was repeated as fact, and even added to. We have no knowledge of the ages of Boudicca's daughters - you can't suggest, as this programme did, that they were mere children without any good reason.

It is sometimes assumed (and was again in this programme) that because the Roman governor Suetonius was off suppressing the Druids when the revolt happened, this was why the revolt happened; post hoc ergo propter hoc. There's not a shred of evidence for this hypothesis in either of the writers who give accounts of the revolt, both of whom see economic factors as being principally at work. (My own theory is that since the Druids appear to have been an independent power block within their society over which they could exercise no control, many British elites were glad to see the back of them.)

What is never done is for the revolt to be placed in the wider context of what is going on in the Roman empire at the time. We have a general collapse of the standards of provincial government in the reign of Nero. At the beginning of his reign, there were a number of trials of provincial governors for financial misconduct while in post, charges brought by provincials after the governor's term of office. In every one of these, the governor got off. About AD 60, these trials stopped, and it looks to me as if this is because the provincials just gave up using the legitimate mechanisms of complaint, as they no longer worked. Instead, they sought other avenues for protests, and it is then that we get not just the Boudiccan revolt, but also the great Jewish revolt, and the revolt of Julius Vindex in Gaul in AD 68, which, though directed at Nero personally, had definite nationalistic overtones.

The writers of Battlefield Britain hadn't done their homework properly - they stated that the IX Legion was destroyed, yet the same source that tells us the infantry were wiped out later says that it only took 2,000 legionaries from the Continent to bring the Legion back to its full strength of 5,000. And the Romans did not have 'flimsy sandals' on their feet. They had sandals with bloody great hobnails!

And the final statement that the Roman oppression drove the Britons into Wales and Scotland. Utter nonsense! The population of Britain under the Roman empire remained mostly people whose ancestors had been there before the Roman invasion. The driving of the language into the fringes of the island happened in the Anglo-Saxon period.

And the buggers can't count. 'Nearly a thousand years after Boudicca's revolt, new invaders are coming to Britain ...' Boudicca's revolt, AD 60. Battle of Hastings, 1066. When I went to school, that was not 'almost' a thousand years ...

(Subsequent editions were apparently less awful, but the only one I saw substantial parts of was the one on the Battle of Britain.)


Johnny H said...
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Johnny H said...

I don't give Battlefield Britain much credence either- too simplistic and selective in most of it's episodes.

But maybe you are also relying on theories as fact? We don't know for certain that the Druids DID practice human sacrifice?

There may well have been more than one British tribe joining the revolt of 60-61ad? The huge and warlike Catevellauni had long been antagonistic against other rival tribes and the Romans?
The Iceni chiefs and Druidic planners would have needed to choose sound military targets on a solid campaign trail, secretly gathering weapons and amassing warriors at pre-arranged meeting points in the build-up to the revolt's eruption, as well as testing the complicity of neighbouring tribes (the Regni under Cogidubnus and the Cantiaci – both to the south of the Thames- wouldn’t be worth approaching, as they had benefitted greatly by the arrival of Rome, had become wealthy and might even betray the Iceni and Druids?)

Boudica would be better allying herself with the Coritani/Corieltavi to her west, whilst many had acquiesced with Rome, (a powerful faction of them had voted with their feet and moved off north, away from Roman influence and nearer to the Brigantes [whom themselves had pro/anti-Romans] and Parisii across northern Britain). The Romans could be half-expecting a rebellion, and be on their guard- especially after only 13yrs since the last Iceni revolt.

Tony Keen said...

Maybe the Druids didn't actually practice human sacrifice. But the point is, ancient sources (Julius Caesar) say that they did. Now, maybe that's a biased view - but if you pass over that, yet pick out every bad thing the Romans are recorded as doing, then you are providing a partial view of history.

Maybe there were other tribes who might have joined the revolt. Tacitus does indeed imply that there were more than just the Iceni and the Trinovantes. But no-one ever named any of them, so it's pure speculation who they might have been. I am, however, pretty confident that there was no chance that the Catuvellauni were going to join the revolt, since Boudicca proceeded to burn their capital to the ground and kill many of their men, women and children. As far as Boudicca was concerned, the Catuvellauni were collaborators with the Romans.