Miranda Aldhouse-Green. Boudica Britannia. New York: Pearson Longman, 2006. xvii + 286 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4058-1100-2.
Reviewed by Richard Hingley
Published on H-Albion (November, 2008)
Commissioned by Margaret McGlynn
A Review of the Life and Times of Boudica
This book is an enlightening and well-illustrated addition to the burgeoning literature on the ancient British queen Boudica. She is often known by the popular version of her name, Boadicea, derived from an incorrect reading of classical texts. At least six archaeological books have been published in the past five years that address the life and death of Boudica and more are in preparation. A number of novels on Boudica have also been produced, including the excellent quartet of books by Manda Scott, together with several documentaries and at least one film. As a result, there is plenty of competition for the book that Miranda Aldhouse-Green has written, but it succeeds in providing an important new discussion of the life and death of Boudica.
Boudica was the “wife” (or consort) of a king (or leader) of one British tribe (or people) called the Iceni who lived in what is today East Anglia (eastern England). She is one of the earliest inhabitants whose name has been preserved by the classical texts describing ancient Britain. Although information about Boudica’s life is scarce, it is probable that, when the Romans conquered southern Britain in AD 43, her husband, Prasutagus, became a client king of the empire. He was probably allowed to continue to rule his people in exchange for his loyalty and subordination. Boudica and Prasutagus lived through the first sixteen years of the establishment of Roman control across southern Britain. They retained their kingdom during this time as friends and supporters of Rome, but Prasutagus died, probably in AD 60 or 61. As a result of the unreasonable actions of the Roman administration at this time, a rebellion of the Iceni and other British tribes occurred against Rome. This led to the destruction of three of the newly established Roman towns and many thousands of deaths. Boudica was finally defeated and killed by the Romans in a substantial pitched battle after a fairly lengthy military campaign.
Aldhouse-Green’s book provides a lively, well-written, and thought-provoking study of the context and life of this British heroine. In the author’s terms, it “constitutes a journey, a quest-tale, for an illusory figure at the beginning of recorded history in Britain” (p. xvi). Classical texts inform us that Boudica led the serious military action, which Aldhouse-Green describes as “the earliest freedom movement recorded from Britain,” a campaign that almost drove the Romans out of the province (p. xv). It is difficult, however, to provide a new perspective on Boudica, since the classical texts that describe her actions have been known since the Renaissance and locating convincing archaeological evidence for her is problematic. The only clear archaeological information that supports the idea of Boudica’s rebellion is the thick burnt destruction layers found during excavation in London and Colchester, which have been argued to date to around AD 60-61 and are thought to be related to the burning of these new towns by Boudica’s followers.
Aldhouse-Green manages to provide a new perspective on Boudica that draws her work apart from other recent books. What is most useful about this book is that it provides an excellent discussion of the background to Boudica's life and actions. It does not focus too much attention on the well-rehearsed and overexposed elements of the story, which derive almost entirely from the writings of the two classical authors who discuss her actions (Tacitus and Cassius Dio). Instead, it addresses issues of broader relevance. Setting the information in a historical context by providing thought-provoking parallels with the modern world, it raises the issue of whether Boudica should be seen today as a freedom fighter, terrorist, or martyr. Aldhouse-Green informs the reader that her account seeks to explore how archaeological research is redressing the bias in the classical texts by articulating a “strongly focused alternative identity amongst the people of Eastern England to that of the Romans” (p. xvi). In these terms, archaeological research has provided important insights into the lives and cultures of indigenous people across Britain in the Iron Age and at the time of their incorporation into the Roman Empire. This evidence can be used to challenge the one-sided views provided by the classical authors, illustrating the vitality and originality of indigenous people in Britain. As such, Aldhouse-Green's Boudica is, in general, a fairly sympathetic figure, fighting against wrongful imperial actions.
Aldhouse-Green's extensive knowledge of Iron Age Europe enables her to draw on evidence from a wide geographical area to set Boudica's life in context. Individual chapters explore, among other topics, Boudica's ancestors and the information for the Roman conquest of southern Britain under the Emperor Claudius in AD 43. A particularly useful chapter addresses “Other Boudicas: ‘Big Women’ in Iron Age Europe.” Aldhouse-Green addresses the information for the “lady of Vix” (a rich sixth-century BC burial from Burgundy, France), the “Haraldskaer ‘queen’” (a bog body sacrificed in Jutland, probably in the fifth century BC), and Cartimandua (a first-century AD British queen). Aldhouse-Green argues that to the classical male mind Boudica was one of a number of “edgy monsters” in Iron Age Europe (p. 116). The evidence for the disparaging comments of classical authors on female gladiators is used to explore how powerful and empowered women outside the Roman Empire were viewed with awe, suspicion, and disapproval by classical authors writing in Rome and the Mediterranean.
Various recent archaeological finds and new ideas are drawn into the discussion, including the important late Iron Age hoard recently discovered close to Winchester and the significant late Iron Age “rituals enclosure” at Fison Way, Thetford (pp.161-163). An interesting chapter explores the thorny topic of the potential involvement of the Druids in Boudica's rebellion. Assessing the role of these religious leaders in Iron Age society in Britain and on the continent, Aldhouse-Green addresses Druidism as a resistance movement against the Romans. She also discusses the site of Boudica's final defeat by the Romans, suggesting that it may have occurred at Paulerspury near Towcester, rather than at Mancetter, which has usually been the favored site in past accounts. Neither of these two locations, however, is supported by archaeological discoveries, and the exact location of the battle remains a mystery. Tacitus tells us that one report suggested that over eighty thousand Britons were killed, and this means that there should be some substantial burial pits full of dead people and animals to mark the site of the battle. Perhaps one day it will be located. A further chapter explores the evidence for the retribution of the Romans after the rebellion was put down and also the gradual recovery of the province of Britain in the later first century. By the late second to early third centuries, Britain had become a fairly wealthy Roman province, which remained in Roman control until the early fifth century AD.
In the final (short) chapter, the author explores “the Boudica myth as it has travelled through time” from the period of her life until the present day (p. 243). She does not address the treatment of Boudica by historians, literary figures, and antiquarians. These aspects, as the author remarks, have been explored in far greater detail elsewhere (for example, in Richard Hingley and Chris Unwin's Boudica: Iron Age Warrior Queen ). Instead, Aldhouse-Green addresses some particular aspects of the way that the ancient queen has been represented in popular culture. She addresses how Boudica has been used as a historical parallel for various powerful women in British history, including Queen Elizabeth I, Margaret Thatcher, and Cherie Blair. Aldhouse-Green also draws on some contemporary information for the ways in which Boudica is utilized, including a fashion designer who uses Boudica's name, forming an early twenty-first century “Boudica brand” (p. 251).
The book is well illustrated with line drawings, maps, and photographs, together with twenty-five color plates. Many of these images are already well known from earlier publications about Boudica, but some interesting new examples are included, including a photograph of the chariot and war trumpet used in the recent television film about Boudica, starring Alex Kingston. Boudica Britannia is good value for money and is recommended as a well-written, accurate, scholarly, and accessible account of an important period in the ancient history of Britain. It covers a series of events, which, as Aldhouse-Green shows, raise relevant issues in the contemporary age and adds a new dimension to the published literature on Boudica.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the list discussion logs at: http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl.
Richard Hingley. Review of Aldhouse-Green, Miranda, Boudica Britannia.
H-Albion, H-Net Reviews.
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