Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Boudica

Boudica: The Life and Legend of Britain's Warrior Queen
© 2006 Vanessa Collingridge
390 pages



To the Roman mind, the isles of Britain lay in the shadows between the light of civilized Empire and the dark depths of the unknown Oceanus which encircled the world. Naturally the ambition of the Caesars would be to attempt its capture. Repeated invasions led by both Julius Caesar himself and successors like Claudius created an effective Roman presence in wild Britannia, complete with a few cowed client states. Those who resisted were crushed or humiliated. When one tribe strayed from the straight and narrow leading to Rome, their queen was beaten and her daughters raped.  The name Boudica may ring but a distant bell for Americans, but the avenging queen is a figure of legend in English history. Vanessa Collingridge’s Boudica examines not only the life of this long-dead heroine, but how her legacy of opposing conquest and humiliation has been remembered throughout English history.

Boudica  is storied, personable, and sometimes speculative on occasion, but is as thorough as a history about a life so scantily recorded can be. Collingridge offers an expansive background (delivering an entire history of the Roman people that focuses on their frequent altercations with the Gauls), and uses archaeological evidence like coins to supplement the official Roman accounts of the revolt.  The background is useful for casual readers of history in understanding “Celtic” Britain;  as Collingridge points out,  Celtic is a relatively modern label that assumes more unity than actually existed.   The native British and the continental Gauls did share certain a general culture, with similar art and gods, but not only did the Britons view their European relations as a people apart, but even on the island they were divided into a multitude of warring tribes. Contemporary research unearths more questions than answers;  the amount of Roman artifacts lying around Britain decades before Caesar braved the Channel indicates that there was more traffic across the channel than previously thought.  Some attempts to settle questions remain purely in the realm of the imagination;  Collingridge hints that there may have been a famine in areas of the island around the time of the invasion, given the burned remnant of imported French grain.  There is little that is really known about Boudica; even drawing from two Roman histories, we only know her tribe, the assault against her, and her subsequent part played in a rebellion that burned to the ground three Roman settlements, including London.  The importance of Boudica lies not in what she accomplished during her life (the rebellion failed), but how she is remembered.  Female rulers brought nothing but woe to the Romans, but for the English she would regarded as a source of inspiration. This was especially true during the reigns of Queens Elizabeth and Victoria, where her ideal as a roaring, wounded mother helped generate devotion to the Queen as a feminine ideal, and support for her benevolent empire.

Collingridge makes the most out of limited material and tells a good story. This is terra incognita for me, but she does a solid job establishing how sketchy our appreciation of pre-Roman Britain is.

Related:
The British History Podcast,  Episode 10: Boudica's Rebellion

3 comments:

  1. Funnily I was reading about Boudica (or Boadicea as we were taught to say it back in my school daze) over the last few days in a book about Greek/Roman classics. She actually mentioned this book as was, IIRC, not much impressed.

    As you rightly say, there is very little known about her for certain but that hasn't stopped her becoming an English icon/hero much like Joan of Arc I think.

    What intrigues me is what would have happened if she managed to push the defeated Roman army into the sea and then turn back inland to finish off any Roman influence there. Would they have returned in force to show the Celts who ruled the world or would they have cut their losses and left 'us' to our own barbarian devices? If so the whole of world history would've been quite different I think... [muses]

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  2. This book covers a series of invasions by Rome, so they were fairly stubborn about flying the flag, so to speak. On the other hand, invading Britain did require an expensive fleet of ships (and they went through several...storms in the Channel are not too kind to wooden boats!), so they might have given up at some point.

    Would it have really been so different? I've never considering the lasting importance of the Romans on Britain. Their stay seems so temporary -- they came, they saw, they had a 300-yr weekend and they checked out just in time for the Saxons and such. Perhaps next month a book on Roman Britain is in order...

    Granted, 300 years is....longer than the US has been around. It just seems shorter historically speaking because there's SO MUCH before and SO MUCH after it.

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  3. There seems to be great debate on just how much the Roman influence affected Britain through their 300 year or so stay. It did seem to fade very quickly after they left. It's one of the things I need to read about a bit more.

    I suppose I was dreaming about the possibility of us becoming a Celtic nation after we kicked the Roman's out and being able to protect ourselves more from the Saxon invasion that came along next. Maybe we could have become a real power on the edge of the Empire and maybe even bring forward its downfall by a few centuries thereby leading to a Celtic non-Christian Europe... Well, I can dream... [grin]

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