Rule, Britannia?


Earlier this week I came across the Sky production of Britannia. Originally aired in 2018, this series depicts the conquering of Britain by Rome in AD 43. Whilst the historical accuracy may be a wee bit on the sketchy side (and was clearly never the aim), it does contain the elements one would expect from such a dramatization. Brutal Roman soldiers? Check. Sympathetic Britons? Check. Crazy, drugged out Druids? Double check. Part way through the first episode, after the Romans have interrupted the coming of age ceremony held by the Cantiaci tribe on the solstice, killing or enslaving most of the settlement, a conversation takes place between one young escapee from the slaughter and her reluctant saviour, an outcast of the Druids whose prophetic abilities warning of the invasion were ignored.

Cait: What’s a Roman?
Outcast: The Romans are devils. They are the foot soldiers of Locher, the great earth demon. He started a place called Rome.
Cait: What’s Rome?
Outcast: Rome is one of the seven mouths of hell. Basically, it was just some god-forsaken shit hole in the middle of nowhere but Locher came up from the underworld and made it his home on earth. And he filled it with his power and it grew and grew and grew, and now Rome spreads all the way across the whole world. Even here.

In a week when the ongoing disaster that is Brexit and the current government here in the UK has been ramped up to a point that is beyond the ridiculous, the above exchange made me think that in the minds of many in this country, the EU could replace Rome and the sentiment would remain true. But this disregards the benefits that came with both the Romans and the EU, and whilst there is little point re-iterating the ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ speech of Monty Python fame here (although….), it does illustrate something about how the British conceive of their own mythology and origins.

Take for example, Boudicca, the Iceni woman who led a revolt against the Romans about fifteen years after the invasion. She is, to this day, held as a paragon of British spirit and pride. Her image, mounted on a chariot with her daughters, sits on the corner of Westminster Bridge, only meters from the Houses of Parliament. More than once in the three years since the Brexit referendum vote, I have heard or read her name as an example to aspire to, her fight against the Romans equated to the fight against the EU. And yet, historically, she was a blip. This is something that always surprises my (British) students. Tacitus, the first century AD historian and only near contemporary source for the British conquest, deigns to give Boudicca three whole paragraphs in his Annals. Three. He says:

XIV.31 The Icenian king Prasutagus, celebrated for his long prosperity, had named the emperor his heir, together with his two daughters; an act of deference which he thought would place his kingdom and household beyond the risk of injury. The result was contrary—so much so that his kingdom was pillaged by centurions, his household by slaves; as though they had been prizes of war. As a beginning, his wife Boudicca was subjected to the lash and his daughters violated: all the chief men of the Icenians were stripped of their family estates, and the relatives of the king were treated as slaves. Impelled by this outrage and the dread of worse to come—for they had now been reduced to the status of a province—they flew to arms, and incited to rebellion the Trinobantes and others, who, not yet broken by servitude, had entered into a secret and treasonable compact to resume their independence. The bitterest animosity was felt against the veterans; who, fresh from their settlement in the colony of Camulodunum, were acting as though they had received a free gift of the entire country, driving the natives from their homes, ejecting them from their lands,—they styled them “captives” and “slaves,”—and abetted in their fury by the troops, with their similar mode of life and their hopes of equal indulgence. More than this, the temple raised to the deified Claudius continually met the view, like the citadel of an eternal tyranny; while the priests, chosen for its service, were bound under the pretext of religion to pour out their fortunes like water. Nor did there seem any great difficulty in the demolition of a colony unprotected by fortifications—a point too little regarded by our commanders, whose thoughts had run more on the agreeable than on the useful.

XIV.35 Boudicca, mounted in a chariot with her daughters before her, rode up to clan after clan and delivered her protest:—“It was customary, she knew, with Britons to fight under female captaincy; but now she was avenging, not, as a queen of glorious ancestry, her ravished realm and power, but, as a woman of the people, her liberty lost, her body tortured by the lash, the tarnished honour of her daughters. Roman cupidity had progressed so far that not their very persons, not age itself, nor maidenhood, were left unpolluted. Yet Heaven was on the side of their just revenge: one legion, which ventured battle, had perished; the rest were skulking in their camps, or looking around them for a way of escape. They would never face even the din and roar of those many thousands, far less their onslaught and their swords I—If they considered in their own hearts the forces under arms and the motives of the war, on that field they must conquer or fall. Such was the settled purpose of a woman—the men might live and be slaves!”

XIV.37 At first, the legionaries stood motionless, keeping to the defile as a natural protection: then, when the closer advance of the enemy had enabled them to exhaust their missiles with certitude of aim, they dashed forward in a wedge-like formation. The auxiliaries charged in the same style; and the cavalry, with lances extended, broke a way through any parties of resolute men whom they encountered. The remainder took to flight, though escape was difficult, as the cordon of wagons had blocked the outlets. The troops gave no quarter even to the women: the baggage animals themselves had been speared and added to the pile of bodies. The glory won in the course of the day was remarkable, and equal to that of our older victories: for, by some accounts, little less than eighty thousand Britons fell, at a cost of some four hundred Romans killed and a not much greater number of wounded. Boudicca ended her days by poison; while Poenius Postumus, camp-prefect of the second legion, informed of the exploits of the men of the fourteenth and twentieth, and conscious that he had cheated his own corps of a share in the honours and had violated the rules of the service by ignoring the orders of his commander, ran his sword through his body.

That is it. Her rebellion quashed with some eighty thousand dead Britons, her suicide by poison, and very little damage to Rome or Roman soldiers. Of course, this is the history written by the victorious, and there is always that element to take into consideration in assessing its validity. But the fact remains that Rome was successful in conquering Britain, and more or less peacefully ruling here for hundreds of years. If this is the model for British independence from the EU, (or in any other international political sphere) I cannot help but feel a better example is warranted. This is not a David and Goliath underdog is surprisingly victorious story. Boudicca was a failure, and largely an insignificant one, historically speaking. Using her as an example, as part of the mythology of a nation’s identity, implies resistance, but also failure. Much like the defense to the onset of Roman rule being organised by Cantiaci tribesmen at the end of the first episode of Britannia, the end result will be defeat.


By Any Other Name: Bodicacia’s Tombstone


Wednesday saw the interwebs all agog with the live raising of a Roman tombstone in southern Britain near Cirencester, complete with an inscription seen for the first time in nearly eighteen hundred years. Those outside the world of Classical archaeology might not have seen this as a very big deal – new inscriptions, and for that matter, new burial grounds, are discovered all the time. Indeed, this is part of a larger excavation of a Roman cemetery which has thus far yielded the remains of fifty-five graves. What is fantastic about this is the fact that we have both a tombstone and corporal remains in situ: matching an actual skeleton to a named individual is rare, especially for Roman Britain, and the only example to come out of this burial site. The name itself, recorded on the tombstone in Latin, is sure to spark even further interest and speculation. The inscription reads:

I(unoni) / D(is) M(anibus) / Bodicacia / coniunx / vixit anno / s XXVII.
‘To the genius of the shades of the departed, Bodicacia, wife, lived twenty seven years.’

The dedication to Iuno is hardly unusual, and in fact appears in the funerary record of Pompeii. The inclusion of the Manes is a bit difficult to date precisely, but this far from Italy probably indicates a date in the 2nd century AD. Whist there is still some speculation as to whether this should be translated as a single name, or split to read Cacia, wife of Bodus, as I am not a linguist, this is a debate with which I don’t feel qualified to engage. What is interesting is that a number of the news stories have also offered the alternative of Bodica, and at least one I came across gave a full history of the infamous Boudica, clearly linking this burial to the Celtic rebel who fought Rome.

Although the burial of this warrior queen has never been located, and likely never will, there has been much desire to find it, and speculation of location ranges from the barrow of Parliament Hill to under a platform at King’s Cross to a McDonald’s in Birmingham (the latter no doubt inspired by the location of Richard III in a car park in Leicester). It seems very clear to me that this particular burial cannot be *that* Boudica. Not only is it miles away from both her area of origin (East Anglia) or the final battle between the Iceni and the Roman legions (the Midlands), but it is in Latin, follows Roman conventions for a funerary epitaph including a dedication to the Roman gods of the dead, and if the Twitter speculation is correct, bears Roman religious iconography in the form of the god Oceanus. Let’s face it: there is no way a woman synonymous with revolt would have been buried following the practices of those she saw as her oppressors.

But this leads me to a far more interesting question: was the name Boudica (or one of its many variants) a popular one? With this tombstone we potentially have the second known person to bear this name in the British Isles. Are there more? A quick search of the Epigraphik Databank Clauss / Slaby reveals that there are a number of occurrences of this name, with the initial root of Boudic-, Bodic-, and Boudig-. Whilst none of them are found in Britain, they do originate in other provinces with some Celtic antecedents, namely Lusitania and Germania Superior. There are three funerary inscriptions from Civitas Igaeditanorum (modern Idanha-a-Velha in Portugal), all of which demonstrate a combination of Roman and Celtic names.

CIL II 455 = ERBeira 229 = AE (1988) 697
Quintus Modesti f(ilius) a(nnorum) XXV / Placida Modesti f(ilia) a(nnorum) XIII / Boudica Flacci f(ilia) Modestus / Celtiatis f(ilius) liberis uxori sibi feci[t].

ERBeira 44
Bassus Maturo/vi et Boudica Sem/proni sibi et Bassi/no filio an(norum) XXX.

ERBeira 33 = AE (1967) 170
[L]ovio Caenonis f(ilio) patri / Boudicae Tongi f(iliae) matri / Cilio Tapaesi f(ilio) socro Cileae / Cili f(iliae) uxori Caeno Lovi f(ilio).

The texts from the province of Germania are also funerary in nature. One is from Bingium (modern Bingen am Rhein), a name thought to be Celtic in origin in and of itself, and the second is found in Ingelheim am Rhein:

CIL XIII 7519  
D(is) M(anibus) / Focuroni(a)e Pat/t(a)e fili(a)e et Firmi/nio [—]esinto ge/nero s[u]o Lutoria / Bodic(ca?) mater / de suo [vi]va pos(u)it.

Finke 224
D(is) M(anibus) / Martialio / Miccioni / et Ibliomari(a)e / Bodic(a)e patribu(s) / Miccionia / Ammisia / filia / f(aciendum) c(uravit).

What I find intriguing, however, is an inscription found on an altar in Bordeaux. This small monument appears to have been erected by a man as part of a vow regarding his passage from York (where the stone was sourced) to Gaul in AD 237:

ILTG 141 = AE (1922) 116
Deae Tutel(a)e Boudig(ae) / M(arcus) Aur(elius) Lunaris IIIIII/vir Aug(ustalis) col(oniarum) Ebor(aci) et / Lind(i) prov(inciae) Brit(anniae) inf(erioris) / aram quam vover(at) / ab Eboraci evect(us) / v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito) / Perpetuo et Corne(liano).
‘In honour of the goddess Tutela Boudiga, Marcus Aurelius Lunaris, sevir Augustalis of the colonies of Eboracum and Lindum, in the province of Britainnia Inferior, set up the altar he vowed on starting from Eboracum.  Willingly and rightly he fulfilled his vow, in the consulship of Perpetuus and Cornelianus’.

A more detailed discussion of the altar can be found here, but what I find compelling about this (and of course, the other texts) is that the name of Boudica, so often associated with an Iceni queen, with revolt, and re-appropriated during the reign of Victoria to symbolise the might of the British Empire, has a place in Roman history far beyond one individual. The name itself, in all its versions, divine or otherwise, was an example of the creation of a Romano-Celtic culture that held a place of some significance in the provinces.