Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Boudicca again

I've been thinking, and not for the first time, about Boudicca quite a bit recently (the subject will probably come up in Saturday's tutorial). I've come to the conclusion that many modern treatments are flawed on three counts:

1) Use of sources:

We have surprisingly few sources on Boudicca - essentially, parts of three works by two authors, Tacitus (Annals 14.31-9 and Agricola 16) and Cassius Dio (62.1-12). In the Supplementary Texts volume that goes with the course I teach, all these sources take up less than ten pages. After that, we're in the realms of extrapolation.

Modern accounts tend to be quite credulous and unsophisticated in the way they handle the sources. For a start, they don't pay enough attention to what the sources actually say. For instance, Boudicca's daughters, who, according to Tacitus, were raped by Roman slaves, are often presented as underage. But Tacitus does not say how old the daughters were.

Nor are the contradictions between the sources properly addressed. Tacitus and Dio actually have completely different accounts of the revolt's origins. Tacitus tells the well-known tale of the kingdom of Boudicca's husband Prasutagus being left jointly to his daughters (note, not his wife and daughters, as people often assume) and the emperor Nero, and the Romans moving in, taking the lot, and brutalizing the royal family. (Though it should be noted that Tacitus does not blame the governor Suetonius Paulinus, for this latter incident - he blames centurions and slaves. Suetonius was certainly not actually present when Boudicca was flogged.) Dio's version is all about the recalling of loans, and blames the procurator, Catus 
Decianus . The usual approach has been to combine these accounts, while laying the emphasis on Tacitus' version (as Dio's makes for dull history lessons). But to do that without drawing attention to the differences is not a sophisticated approach to ancient sources.

Which leads to the third point that gets overlooked, why the sources say what they say. Almost everything gets taken at face value, except where the Roman sources reflect badly upon Boudicca. So the atrocities that Dio claims Boudicca's army perpetrated in Colchester and London get dismissed as Roman propaganda, but his description of the queen, which is equally part of a presentation of Boudicca as something alien and other to Roman eyes, is accepted without question, because to modern eyes it seems impressive.

The writers' motives get overlooked. Tacitus' history is a construction in which he is critiquing Roman imperialism and presenting it in the worst possible fashion, and in Book 14 he is very concerned with slaves getting above themselves, and killing their masters. So this story suits his purpose. As a result, and given the incident's absence from Dio's account, we don't actually know that the brutalization of the Iceni royal family actually took place at all. Nor can we be sure that Dio's version of the revolt's origins are correct. All we can actually say for certain is that, somehow, the Romans pushed the Iceni and the Trinovantes too far. The revolt certainly took place, and the cities burnt. That's clear in the archaeological record. But the spark may have been what Tacitus describes, it may have been Dio's recalling of loans. It may even be that it's correct to say both factors were at play (which may be what the brief account in Tacitus' Agricola implies), or it may be that neither story has any truth to it.

Accounts need to signal when they are in the world of extrapolation. Connections have been made with the notion of Celtic matrilineality. Now, this isn't a subject I know a great deal about, but it wouldn't surprise me if the evidence was quite thin. For a start, one's on shaky ground if one starts to say "The Celts were ..." This was a very wide cultural grouping, and what Celts in northern Scotland might have done might be very different from the practice of Celts in Asia Minor. There's some evidence, I understand, for matrilineal practices amongst the Picts, but I wouldn't be astonished to find that this had been combined with Roman accounts that the British accepted leaders who were women to produce a blanket assertion that goes beyond the evidence. Matrilineality was very popular amongst certain Victorian antiquarians, and quite a lot of their theories have been shown not to match up with the evidence. Certainly Tacitus does not say that Boudicca's daughters were raped because they carried the royal line, so again we're into extrapolation. It can't be shown that this wasn't why they were raped, but nor can it confidently be asserted that it was.

2) Too nationalistic:

Boudicca is often presented as a 'British' queen, and her revolt is a 'British' revolt (a view the ancient sources encourage). But her revolt actually did not spread far beyond East Anglia - the Roman allies and territories west of Watling Street and south of the Thames were not directly affected. I suspect Boudicca did not think of herself as 'British' - 'Britain' was an invention of the Romans.

In this context, the sack of Verulamium is often underplayed. It shouldn't be. Because whilst Colchester and London were Roman settlements, Verulamium was mostly populated by locals, whom the Romans would have called Britons - yet Boudicca still destroyed it. The only inhabitants of the British Isles she cared about were her own tribe and her allies the Trinovantes.

3) Too narrow a context:

The revolt is only seen in terms of the history of the province of Britannia. But there seems to have been something going generally wrong with provincial administration 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 protest, and it is then that we get not just the Boudiccan revolt, but also the great Jewish revolt in AD 66, and the revolt of Julius Vindex in Gaul in AD 68, which, though directed at Nero personally, had definite nationalistic overtones. I'm not suggesting a direct link - but three major revolts in a decade is a bit of a coincidence, and it suggests that there are conditions repeating themselves through the empire.

One day I'll give Boudicca a proper treatment.


Deborah Hamm said...

Interesting. Thanks for posting this. What sources would Cassius Dio have used?

Tony Keen said...

I think we don't know. It's generally assumed he used Tacitus, but that's clearly not the only source he knew. He says himself that he spent years collecting many sources before writing his History, and it's clear that he had a transformative effect on them when he wrote. John Rich, in the OCD says its generqally futile to identify the sources behind his work.

Johnny H said...

"The only inhabitants of the British Isles she cared about were her own tribe and her allies the Trinovantes."

Well, it is also theorised that there were other Brythonic 'Celtic' allies such as the Catevellauni and possibly anti-Roman factions of the Coritani, as well as sporadic revolts in other pockets of 'Britain' springing up at that time?
This may explain why the sub-commander of the IInd Legion at Exeter (his senior Legion commander was absent for some reason) refused to march northwards to aid Paulinus against Boudica?

Tony Keen said...

Well, exactly, 'theorised'. There's precious little in the way of actual evidence. It seems to me that this theory arises from the a priori assumption that the revolt must have been Britain-wide, therefore we need to theorise who the further allies must have been.

I would argue that we shouldn't believe this just because we'd like it to be true, and that this assumption rests on nothing more than geographical imprecision and exaggeration by Roman historians.

I can quite believe that the officer in charge of the II Legion was worried that locals would take advantage of the bulk of his forces being diverted to face Boudicca, and it is entirely possible that they would have, in the same way that Boudicca took advantage of the presence of the bulk of the Roman garrison in North Wales. But that doesn't mean that she planned or encouraged this or, had any connection with them.

If the Catuvellauni were Boudicca's allies, then it was a bit impolite of her to burn down their city. I would argue that the destruction of Verulamium demonstrates that the Catuvellauni were certainly not Boudicca's allies.

Behind all this is an implicit assumption that the sharing of some cultural connections between the different tribes on the island of Britannia brings with it some sort of political affiliation and mutual loyalty. I don't agree with that assumption - I think Britain is more likely to have been like former Yugoslavia, where loyalties to the superstate were extremely thin, and broke down in violence quickly. Mutual hostility between the Trinovantes and the Catuvellauni (the latter had, after all, overrun the former less than a century before) was probably stronger than any feeling that they should band together against the Romans.