It may be reasonably said of Boudica, that never has so much been written by so many about someone whom we know so little. Do we need another book about the chariot-riding virago from first-century Britain? From a strictly academic perspective, one is inclined to say no. However, from a commercial perspective, the answer is patently yes, if the volume of publications, popular or otherwise, which have appeared over the last twenty years is any gauge.
In strictly historical terms the Boudican revolt of 60/61 had little long-term impact. The revolt was, by any estimation, a historical cul-de-sac. Moreover, Boudica’s leadership was a failure, as disastrous for her people as for the inhabitants of the towns her warband destroyed. From what we can tell, the significance of the revolt was chiefly symbolic, confined (for all we know) to the minds of the conquerors, not those of the native population. The brutality of the revolting Iceni and Trinovanti following the sack of Colchester seared itself into the minds of the Romans much in the same way as the Black Hole of Calcutta or the massacre at the Bibighar Well at Cawnpore entered the consciousness of empire builders of a more recent age. Yet, most of all it was the fact that Boudica was a woman that has caught the imagination, from Tacitus, to Dio, to Xiphilinus, to the sculptor Thomas Thorneycroft, to Boudica’s modern biographers, of whom Gillespie will not be the last.
The great challenge facing anyone intending to write a biography of Boudica is the dearth of evidence.1 Eight pages in Boissevain’s edition of Dio, six and a half in Fisher’s OCT of the Annales, most of it rhetorical in nature, and sundry archaeological material recovered from the Julio-Claudian destruction layers of Colchester, London, and St Albans is not a lot of material on which base a full-length biography. Unlike the revolts of Vercingetorix or Simon bar Kokhbar, we do not even possess coinage that can be tied to the revolt. Gillespie’s approach is to turn the problematic nature of our sources into a virtue by framing her biography of Boudica as “a comparative literary biography of Boudica” (p. x). In practice this means focusing on the role of Boudica in the narratives of the senatorial historians Cornelius Tacitus and Cassius Dio. Gillespie’s approach follows, in essence, that of Marguerite Johnson in her 2012 biography of Boudica for Bloomsbury’s Ancients in Action Series. As a commentary of the portrayals of Boudica in Tacitus and Dio, Gillespie’s work is commendable.
Gillespie begins with a potted history of Rome’s involvement with Britain from Caesar’s invasions of Britain in 55 and 54 down to the suppression of the Boudican revolt. From here, Gillespie turns to the figure of Boudica herself. Here our evidence is particularly sparse, and we are forced to draw on comparative evidence to build up a semblance of the historical Boudica. Gillespie identifies four key components to Boudica’s portrayal in the literary sources, that is as mother, queen, general, and priestess, and structures her biography around these aspects.
The following chapters (3 and 4) focus on the speeches given to Boudica by Tacitus and Cassius Dio. These chapters show Gillespie at her strongest, as she elucidates how the speeches written by the two senatorial historians play up some of the general themes of their works, and their Neronian narratives in particular. For Tacitus, Boudica embodies the familiar theme of the struggle for libertas from the grip of seruitium. Gillespie positions Tacitus’ Boudica in a line of Roman women from Rome’s mytho-historical past who represent catalysts for political change, and suggests that she emerges from the narrative as something of a cross between Lucretia and Brutus. In Chapter 5, Gillespie returns to Tacitus and considers Boudica in relation to the portrayals of other problematic duces feminae in both the Annales and in Latin literature more widely.
As with her discussion of Tacitus, Gillespie’s discussion of Dio is well-executed, especially in Chapter 4, although she shies away from engaging seriously with the problems posed by Xiphilinus’ epitome, upon which we are entirely dependent for Dio’s narrative of the revolt. The speech of Boudica is one of Dio’s great set-piece speeches, and one of several given to women in what survives of his Roman History.2 Gillespie shows how the speech feeds into Dio’s pejorative assessment of Nero while also utilising innovative literary motifs. It is a pity that Gillespie has little to say about how the speech functions in relation to the three short speeches by Suetonius Paulinus (p. 114-5). Similarly, it would have been welcome had Gillespie offered some thoughts about how the speech of Julius Vindex (also preserved by Xiphilinus) responds to some of the themes present in the Boudica/Paulinus pairing.
Gillespie’s biography is rounded off with a brief epilogue on the reception of Boudica from the Elizabethan renaissance through to the present day. This territory has been covered by the studies of Richard Hingley and Christina Unwin in 2006 and Johnson in 2012, and so it was perhaps felt that there was little need for elaboration. In this section, Gillespie ties together the various threads of this biography, in so far as it shows that Boudica continues to be refashioned to suit new political climates and agendas.
For all that is stimulating and worthy about this work, there are some problems. Certainly, there is padding throughout, which is inevitable in a biography of someone whom we know so little. One may also question some minor points of interpretation. It was surprising that Gillespie identified Nitocris, the queen of the “burden-bearing Egyptians”, as the Babylonian queen of that name (pp. 82-3), when it is more logically a reference to the homonymous Egyptian queen, mentioned by Herodotus (Hdt. 2.100) and Manetho (FGrHist 609 F 2 = Syncellus p. 64M; FGrHist 609 F 3 = Syncellus p. 65M).
More worryingly, at least for this reviewer, is the blurring of the lines between history and historiography. Gillespie is at her best when she is exploring thematic connections within the narratives of Dio and Tacitus. Yet how far should these be taken to represent the actual intentions and motivations of the ancient Britons or Boudica? Take, for example, Gillespie’s treatment of the concept of ‘freedom’. Freedom appears as a political catchword in both Tacitus and Dio, and the speeches the historians give to Boudica are clearly tapping into the familiar freedom/slavery binary which is so conventional in Greco-Roman political thought. Gillespie notes this well, but at other times appears to take such comments at face value and assumes that the Britons were fighting for freedom from Roman domination (e.g. pp. 25, 29, 121). Yet can we assume that Boudica’s followers would have be stirred by such a catch-cry? Moreover, we may be tempted to ask what freedom would mean for a peasant in an iron-age warrior society.
The blurring of history and historiography is particularly evident in the final chapter. Gillespie seems strangely credulous in her assumption that Boudica remained a symbol of a freedom fighter for Calgacus, on the basis of the allusion to her in the speech given to Calgacus by Tacitus in Agricola 31.4 (p. 129). Even less likely is Gillespie’s claim that “Boudica’s values retained their efficacy long after her lifetime” with regard to a witty apophthegm attributed to a Caledonian woman about Roman adultery in response to a quip by Julia Domna about the British community of wives (pp. 131-2) reported by Dio via Xiphilinus (77(76).16.5). There is simply nothing in the text to tie the anecdote of Domna and her Caledonian interlocutor with Boudica. This reviewer was unconvinced by the arguments put forward in Chapter 6 concerning Boudica’s position as a leader of a religious war – an idea first seriously canvassed in Webster’s 1978 biography of Boudica that has never found great support. Too much store is placed in the references to ‘Andraste’ (a deity otherwise unattested) in Xiphilinus’ text of Boudica’s speech, and Boudica’s supposed actions (such as releasing a hare from her cloak) as indicative of her role as a religious leader. Indeed, there is nothing to suggest that Dio’s account of Boudica’s harangue was based on anything but hearsay and imagination.
One should not end on such negative note, especially for a book which does have much to offer. Gillespie’s book will be most useful for those interested in ancient historiography, rather than the history of first-century Britain. In particular, there is much in this book which will be a boon for those interested in Tacitus and Dio as writers. Moreover, it should be noted that the book is well-written and handsomely produced and copy-edited.3 Gillespie’s prose is clear and should make this book accessible to both student and scholar.
I began this review by stating there was clearly commercial potential in such a biography. Yet there would be no commercial potential if such biography of Boudica did not also satisfy a cultural need. We in the twenty-first-century West are just as interested in powerful women as was Tacitus in second-century Rome or Xiphilinus in eleventh-century Byzantium. As we continue to grapple with questions around gender-roles, patriarchy, empire, and Britain’s relationship to the Continent, Boudica remains, to use a well-worn phrase, good to think with. In spite of its flaws, Gillespie’s Boudica is an innovative contribution to this discourse.
1. And the same may apply to any leader of ‘native’ revolts under Rome. Note Peter Thonemann’s review of J.-L. Brunaux, Vercingétorix (Paris: Gallimard, 2018) in the Times Literary Supplement Issue no. 6009 (1 June 2018).
2. These are listed on p. 158. It is surprising that Gillespie should say that “Dio gives few women the chance to speak”, as Dio perhaps gives speeches to more women than any other Roman historian.
3. Typographical errors are rare, although note Verturia for Veturia on p.80.