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Cover of British Archaeology

Issue 83




Welsh cauldron finds offer rare insights

Broch builders house-proud, not warlike

Reindeer hunter preceded Canary fans

Rock art find in rare context

New light on Prittlewell "prince" grave

In Brief


From Universal Bond to Public Free-For-All
100 years at stonehenge: They may not have built it, but Druids ruled the last century

When Rome invaded: Gerald Grainge considers the Channel crossing

Freedom Fighter - or Tale for Romans?
The real Boudica: Richard Hingley looks for the native terrorist leader

Finding the Way
In Hadrian's footsteps: English Heritage report on the threat to the Roman wall

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ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


Freedom Fighter - or Tale for Romans?

The invading Romans undoubtedly met resistance, but only Boudica comes down to us in any detail as a significant native player. Her story is a complex mix of history and archaeology. Richard Hingley assesses the latest thinking.

Boudica is familiar to us, yet she remains a shadowy, seductive figure from our history. We really know very little about her, despite the fact that scholars have pursued her for almost five centuries. Her dramatic story has excited, enthused and, occasionally, revolted generations of people. Today, as Hollywood produces four films about her, she appears more popular than ever.

Two classical authors, Tacitus and Cassius Dio, provide much of the information previously used to describe the life and times of Boudica. An examination of the archaeological evidence helps us to understand these writings better and present a more accurate account.

The Roman conquest of southern Britain was a highly significant event which set Briton against Briton. The two classical authors tell us much about this disruptive period. Boudica, however, appears to have lived peacefully through the first 17 years of the occupation as the wife of Prasutagus. He was the ruler of a British tribe called the Iceni, who had extensive territories in what is today East Anglia.

This suggests that initially Boudica was pro-Roman. Prasutagus had established friendly relations with the Roman administration, but after his death in AD60–61, Boudica and her daughters were abused and disinherited. With reinforcements from other tribes, she violently attacked and destroyed the new Roman towns at Camulodunum (Colchester), Londinium (London) and Verulamium (St Albans), killing thousands of people. She was eventually defeated by the Roman army and died from ill health or by suicide.

We need to be careful when reading what Tacitus and Dio have to say, because not only were they writing some time after the events they describe, but they were using the stories as moral tales for their intended readership of elite men in Rome and the Mediterranean. They found the idea of female rulers outrageous but at the same time exciting and may have been seeking to emphasise the barbarity of the Britons by stressing female involvement in politics and warfare.

Apart from these texts, archaeological evidence has been used to fill in the story, but has sometimes been misused. For instance, hoarded coins once associated with Prasutagus have now been convincingly reattributed by Jonathan Williams of the British Museum to a previously unknown ruler, possibly called Esuprastus.

At Colchester, London and Verulamium, thick layers of burning have been related to the destruction mentioned by Tacitus. These deposits contain personal possessions and the remains of early Roman buildings. Recent work by the Museum of London at 10 Gresham Street, near St Paul's Cathedral, has located roundhouses of Boudican date that were never burnt. It is possible that Boudica's followers did not put the entire settlement to the torch, but were selective in their destruction.

Verulamium appears to have been developed by a local elite, but its close relationship to Rome may have been responsible for Boudica's decision to attack. However Ros Niblett has argued that the archaeological evidence for the town's burning, recorded by Tacitus, may not be totally convincing and is restricted to only a few areas. Perhaps the destruction was simply a result of native feuds and rivalries connected with the pro- and anti- Roman stances of individual tribes.

Only at the colony of Camulodunum, the first town sacked by Boudica, does the entire settlement appear to have been burnt to the ground. It is significant that of the three towns, Camulodunum was effectively designed as a Roman cultural showpiece and centre of imperial worship, with a major temple dedicated to the divine emperor Claudius, making it the most obvious target for the rebels. However, the lack of valuable finds may suggest that the occupants had time to clear out before the fire – did Tacitus overdramatise the scale of slaughter for effect? There are certainly no human bodies in the burned remains. Another possibility, according to Dio, is that the victims were removed alive, and at gatherings accompanied by "banquets and wanton behaviour" were sacrificed as offerings to the gods. There is possible evidence of similar grisly activities in France but such a place has yet to be located around Colchester. The tombstone of the Roman cavalry soldier Longinus Sdapeze, found in Camulodunum and now on display in Colchester Museum, depicts him mounted on a horse, riding down a naked ancient Briton: it represents a strong statement of Roman imperial might and victory. As found when excavated, the stone appeared to have been pushed over on to its front, was broken off at the base and Loginus's face has been knocked off. This damage has long been associated with the revolt.

In 1996, however, further excavations by the Colchester Archaeological Unit found Longinus's face, which has been refitted to the tombstone. Doubts now exist as to whether the stone was defaced by Boudica's followers or by the workmen who discovered it in 1928. Yet its unworn state suggests that it was not left in the open for long, and a crack across the base may indicate that it was pushed over by force – so the original story that the rebels pushed down the stone should not be dismissed.

The site of Boudica's final battle has long been a source of fascination. Tacitus's long description, but without a location, has been used to pinpoint the site from Parliament Hill Fields in London to north Wales. The favourite, close to Mancetter in the Midlands, was first proposed by Graham Webster. He argued that the Roman army would have been moving from north Wales along Watling Street to meet the oncoming Britons.

There is no evidence, however, to support this identification. If we could find the battle site, this would provide masses of information on the events of the final conflict. Dio tells us that Boudica was given a costly burial. The site of this has been sought for hundreds of years. During the 18th century, Stonehenge was considered likely, while a popular story today is that she lies under platform 8 at King's Cross station.

The archaeological evidence is, therefore, informative but not without limitations. Nevertheless, archaeological research has transformed our knowledge of how people in Britain were living before the Roman conquest and how they were affected by their incorporation into the Roman empire. For example, we know far more about the houses that people lived in, their diets and health. This means that we can place the writings of the classical authors in context. It also allows us to contradict some of the dismissive and biased ideas about Boudica – as patriot, harridan, freedom fighter and feminist – that writers from classical to modern times have produced.

Richard Hingley is lecturer in Roman archaeology at the University of Durham. Boudica: Iron Age Warrior Queen by R Hingley and C Unwin is published by Hambledon & London (ISBN 1852854383)

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