Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Two Tales of the Ancestors: Boudica, the Glorious and Tragic Warrior Queen of the Britons


Those who simply want to love, must in the end become warriors.
This is a tale of the ancestors, or at least it's my version of a tale of my ancestors. It has some truth in it of a literal kind and truth of other sorts too. It's my version of a tale told to me by Natasha Harlow, so the good parts are hers and the misunderstandings are mine. Hopefully she'll correct the more egregious of them.
It's a tale of legends and lies, of glory and tragedy. It's a tale of Europeans of old. It's two tales wrapped into one, or at least two versions of one tale. The tale is the legend of Boudica and the Roman occupation of England and Wales.
Towards the end of the Bronze age, around 2450 BCE is the current best guess (the bronze age is charted as ending around 800 BCE) a people walked across Europe and then made their way into England. It seems like they entered mostly unoccupied land. The archaeological record tells a tale of a mass depopulation event, with about 90% of the population disappearing, but with no evidence of large scale battle or invasion as was previously assumed. It seems likely that epidemic or other disaster wiped out most of the presumably Neolithic Britons.
The people who followed we now, much to the irritation of anthropologists, call the Celts and they went on to live in most of the British Isles. Modern genetic evidence tells us that these people did share a common bloodline but there is little to no evidence supporting the idea of a single "Celtic" culture and tradition across the geography and time of the Celts. What we call Celtic culture is a largely modern invention incorporating Norse and medieval art and ideas as well as disparate elements of culture spanning the whole era of English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish history. So the Celts were a people with a common genetic inheritance and bloodline, but not a tribal identity or a people in the way we might imagine them to have been. The Celtic era is so compelling a part of our history not least because of the Romans and our glorious tribal warrior Queen Boudica.
The Romans came for us several times. First was Julius Caesar in 55 BC and 54 BC. We mostly held him off. The version I've heard is that the Celtic warriors of the time were experts with the sling, a ranged weapon. They could keep the Romans at a distance and hold them off. By 43 AD the Romans were back under Claudius. One version of the story is that by then they'd developed new military technology, the turtle. With a legion of Roman soldiers, all carrying large metal rectangular shields, they formed an impregnable unit. The legionaries in the front held their shields to the front, the ones on the right held their shields to the right, the ones at the back to the back, at the left to the left, and everyone in the middle had their shields above them. The turtle was impervious to ranged weapons like the sling and the Romans could get close enough to slaughter the Celts.
The Romans conquered Wales, but got as far as the Picts in Scotland and reversed direction pretty hastily. They built Hadrian's wall to keep the Scots out and settled down in England and Wales. The Roman technique for occupation was brutal demonstrations of force to quell the populace and then forcing the existing ruling classes to administer their rule, enforce their laws and collect their taxes. Pax Romana.
The existing religious authorities were a problem however. For a spiritual cause people might fight even a hopeless battle, and might even find the courage to win. So the Romans set about slaughtering the indigenous religion of Britain and killed all the Druids. The Druid religion, a pagan religion of the earth, was an oral tradition. The only thing that is known of this religion is what was told to the Romans by one traitor Druid who spilled their secrets. The Romans tell of a bloodthirsty religion of human sacrifice, their excuse for killing them off. The modern Druid revival, for there is such a thing, is based on a re-imagining of the Druid religion alongside the European Occult revival of the 17th century and has virtually nothing to do with the original and now-lost-to-history traditions.
The tale that we get handed down to us by history, via the Roman historians Tacitus (one of the very few sources outside of the gospels to confirm the existence of Jesus Christ whilst saying not very much about him and nothing at all flattering) and Cassius Dio, is that an English rebellion started in Norfolk whilst the Roman occupying legion was busy in Anglesea in Wales putting down the Druids.
The people of this time and region Tacitus called the Iceni people, ruled by a tribal warrior Queen called Boudica. Both the Iceni and Boudica are pronounced with the latin hard-c. Ick-ay-knee. Boo-dick-a.
The legend is that some Roman soldiers had Boudica flogged and raped her daughters. Outraged she roused the people and raised an army of 100 000 Iceni warriors. They marched on and burned and sacked the Roman strongholds of Colchester, Verulamium (St Albans) and London. It took a week for the news of the revolt to reach the legion in Anglesea who turned from butchering Druids to face Boudica's army.
Ten thousand battle weary Roman soldiers versus one hundred thousand blood thirsty and victorious Celtic warriors fighting for their freedom. But, as the legend tells us, the Romans were not just hardened they were clever. They trapped the celts, somewhere near the A5 (Watling Street, an old Roman road going from London through St Albans and all the way to Wales) in a an area with dense woodland on either side. The Celts had their chariots and supply lines behind them and the Romans had shields and a marching formation. The Romans and Celts met as two lines. With every other step the Romans would push forward with their sheilds. This pushed the Celts onto their back foot, pressed back by the Romans. With the next step the Romans would thrust out with their swords and then push forward again with their shields. In their hobnailed boots they marched through the lines of the Celts slaughtering them by the thousand. It turned into a rout, but the Celts were trapped by their horses and carts and chariots behind them. They had nowhere to run and the legend tells us that only a few thousand escaped from the one hundred thousand brave warriors who marched on London.
Boudica herself escaped, but having watched her countrymen put to the sword and her dream of freedom for her people smashed she killed herself with poison. Our glorious and once victorious tribal warrior Queen now tragic. But what a legend.
The only problem with this version of the story is that the only evidence that it's true is the story itself. There's no other record of Boudica. There's not even any evidence that Iceni people existed but it seems more likely that they were a Roman administrative region rather than an idigenous tribal identity. The archeological record of the era shows no distinguishing regional marks that would suggest a tribal identity unique to the area. What's more, aside from the sheer unlikeliness of moving an army of one hundred thousand people around, there's no mass depopulation event in the record. There's no burial ground. There's scant evidence of a battle ground (although various places are suggested).
What we do know is that around 70 AD the three Roman cities were attacked and partly burned in uprisings, possibly several times, but there's no other evidence to support the existence of Boudica and a mass revolt of the kind described by Tacitus and Cassius Dio (who wrote after the events anyway and is considered a secondary source).
So here's the situation. There have been uprisings in occupied England. One version of the story, a story that travels back to Rome and to the other occupied lands, could be that the revolting English nearly threw out the Romans and took back the country but the Romans only just put them down. Here's an alternative version. One hundred thousand bloodthirsty and victorious Celtic warriors, fighting for their lives and their freedom under their glorious Queen, were slaughtered by a single legion of battle weary Roman soldiers. That's a much better story. Don't you want it to be true?
If you make your story a legend people will tell it for you. The tale of Boudica, unfortunately, looks very much like Roman fake news.
I tell this tale as an enthusiastic amateur who loves story telling. I find this story so compelling because Natasha's approach to history is via empirical archeology. Or rather it's an empirical approach to history based on archeology. Not, what is the story we have been told about history but what story does the evidence of the past actually tell us. She forms theories about the past that can be tested by referring to the evidence we have. This matches the approach that Katie Fox uses in her books like "Watching the English", where she devises theories about the behaviour of people living in different cultures and then comes up with experiments to verify or disprove them. Empirical anthropology. It also matches the approach that Daniel Kahnemann takes to understanding the psyche in his work like "Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow". Devising theories about the operation of the human mind and experiments to verify or disprove. Empirical psychology. The soft sciences, like sociology and psychology, are much harder than the hard sciences because people. The scientific method can still be applied however and I really enjoy the way that Natasha applies it to the period of the Roman occupation of England and Wales and the legends of that time.
Applying the scientific method and taking Boudica as the hypothesis we sadly come to the conclusion that the tale is only a myth unless it can be proven. But all is not in vain. The Romans ruled much of the world through the legend of the might of the force of Rome. That legend persists to this day. In slaying the legend of Boudica we get to also lay to rest some of the legend of the might of Rome. Natasha found in her archaeological digs around Norfolk artefacts of Iceni origin incorporating Roman technologies and techniques. The Romans, brutal acts of oppression aside, lived alongside the local populace and were primarily interested in trade and peace. In laying down her life once again we are freed from the grip of the legend of force, we her people are grateful again for the noble sacrifice of our warrior Queen thousands of years after it all never happened.

"I can walk through and around some pretty serious messes without disturbing them, or even barely acknowledging their existence. It is through years of determined practice that I have acquired this valuable life skill, of being able to ignore a big mess and pretend it isn't there. It has served me well thus far, so into the brave and bright tomorrow we travel. Blissful ignorance and all."

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