BMCR 1997.11.18

1997.11.18, Ruling Roman Britain: kings, queens, governors, and emperors from Julius Caesar to Agricola

, Rulers of Roman Britain : kings, queens, governors, and emperors from Julius Caesar to Agricola. London: Routledge, 1996. xii, 217 pages : illustrations, map ; 23 cm. ISBN 9780415008044.

The title, and indeed the subtitle, of Braund’s book may be a little misleading to those who know his previous work. This is emphatically not a book about the mechanics of running Roman Britain from either the perspective of political or social history. Instead, the book is an examination of the nature of the literary texts used to write the history of the province. B.’s concern is to underline to his reader that these documents are not simply collations of data, but literary works and that a critical eye is needed if they are to be used successfully by the historian. This is something all too often forgotten in the archaeologically dominated field of Romano-British studies and B.’s book is to be welcomed as an attempt to focus attention back onto our literary sources for the province.

The book is divided into nine chapters, each of which deals with a specific topic. The figures, while bearing on the text in a general sense, are more illustrative than central to the work. Chapters are arranged in chronological order. This is, in the main, successful, but it does mean that chapter 2 “kings, emperors, and governors” deals mainly with republican views of the good governor and has little on Emperors or imperial governors.

B. starts by discussing the description of Britain lying beyond the Ocean stream in our sources. This is certainly important in the antique conception of Britain and B. does well to underline the psychological impact at Rome of attacking Britain. There does seem, however, to be an elision in B.’s argument between the Ocean stream itself and rivers in general. It is difficult to see how, for example, a dedication to a river deity at Chester, a phenomenon common enough throughout the Roman Empire, can be related to an overall interest in Ocean. The Bath Gorgon is normally interpreted as precisely that rather than as a depiction of Oceanus. It is true that the gorgon is aggressively masculine in form, but there are parallels for this from the province such as at Chester, (JMC Toynbee, Art in Roman Britain, pl. 91, where no “watery” element is involved. B. wishes to date two bronze dedications in Greek by one Scribonius Demetrius to the reign of Domitian, but the dating of these pieces is not secure and they may well date to the third century (Maxfield and Dobson Inscriptions of Roman Britain, pp.83-84). The chapter in this respect perhaps underlines the book’s main weakness—a tendency on occasion to push good ideas too far.

One tendency of histories of Roman Britain is to rely heavily on coins to reconstruct the political history of the province from 54 BC to AD 43. B. exposes the dangers of this approach with gusto, stating firmly and correctly that “we know almost nothing about the majority of the kings of Britain between the invasions of Caesar and Claudius unless we have literary evidence”. The chapter might hopefully stem further numismatic fantasies of this sort being created; it will certainly stop them being believed, and it would form a useful point of departure for any teaching seminar on how coins can and cannot be used as historical data. B.’s following chapter attempts to view this period through our literary sources, concentrating in particular on Strabo. B. wishes to defend Strabo against modern criticism and in general does so successfully. However, it would have been as well to note that there is no evidence that the geographer travelled in the west of the Empire and that his accounts of the West lean heavily on earlier writings of Posidonius. The unwary reader may need a little more warning of the stoic colouring in Strabo’s writing (see P Thollard, Barbarie et Civilisation chez Strabon, Paris 1987). and guidance on how up to date his account was at the time of writing than B. provides.

B.’s treatment of two British queens Cartimandua and Boudica is perhaps the most interesting part of the book. B. rightly emphasises the shock Roman readers would have felt on discovering that the Britons tolerated a female ruler; however, as a modern Briton himself, this reviewer finds it difficult to understand what is meant B.’s assertion that “For British society still, the q(sic)ueen embodies many of the problems and contradictions of sexuality and power.”

B. underlines the contrast in Tacitus’ narrative between the fides of the British king Caratacus and the treachery of Cartimandua, the Queen of the Brigantes. Cartimandua’s treachery is then compounded by her adultery with the “squire” of her consort, Venutius. Much modern scholarship on this subject has been concerned with showing that this adultery was with a social equal, rather than, as Tacitus implies, an inferior. However, this is to miss the point of Tacitus’ narrative. B. rescues the account from historicism and allows us to perceive the message Tacitus wants us to see. Ghosts of Imperial Rome tend to stalk Tacitus’ narratives of provincial affairs and perhaps in the faithless, libidinous Cartimandua we are meant to see an echo of Messalina.

B.’s treatment of Boudica is equally intriguing. He argues that whereas Cartimandua was portrayed as a queen, Boudica is depicted as a woman, thus liberating her from the general censure that B. believes Tacitus held in reserve for queens. For B., Boudica is presented by Tacitus as a Roman matron, a victim of Roman licentia and the rebellion, in its initial stages, is represented as an inversion of the world order, with Romans behaving as barbarians and barbarians as Romans. Boudica is, however, only built up to provide a foil, as B. notes, for the perfect Roman, Tacitus’ hero of the piece, Suetonius Paulinus. B. also suggests, drawing a fine parallel with Tacitus’ censure of Thrasea Paetus which follows soon after in his narrative, that in the end the reader is meant to censure the futility of Boudica’s grand gesture of rebellion. There is much in B.’s argument that is convincing, though perhaps Tacitus undercuts Boudica a little more sharply than B. suggests. His account of the sack of London with its stark silver Latin account of the atrocities perpetrated there, caedes, patibula, ignes, cruces; Annals 14.33, shows the Britons reverting to barbarian type, and Boudica, as their leader, cannot help but be associated with them and their actions. Nor, perhaps, does the dichotomy between Cartimandua the Queen and Boudica the matron work perfectly. Boudica’s rhetoric plays upon the fact that she is a woman, but there is no doubt that she is a queen—Annals 14.31 after all states that she was the uxor of King Prasutagus. Boudica’s two roles as woman and ruler reinforce one another in Tacitus’ narrative. Looking forward in English history, one is tempted to draw a parallel between Tacitus’ Boudica about to face the might of Rome in AD 60 and the oratory of Elizabeth 1st at Tilbury in AD 1588 as the Spanish Armada bore down on her realm.

B. also highlights the differences between Tacitus’ sympathetic account of Boudica in the Annals and the much more hostile, later version of Dio. Dio makes Boudica a perverse man-woman and his description of the nature of the British atrocities in the rebellion is significantly played up. His account, therefore, loses much of the tragic drama with which Tacitus infuses the revolt, and it becomes a simple fight of civilisation against barbarism. While B. succeeds in underlining these differences between the two authors, there is a lack of discussion of the parallels which are also to be found in their two accounts. These concern not just matters of fact, but are also to be found in style of presentation. Both Tacitus ( Annals 14.36) and Dio (62.12) emphasise the noise made by the British army compared to the more silent Romans. Tacitus goes out of his way to use the poetic sonores at this point. This detail is surely a deliberate echo of Homer’s contrast between Achaean and Trojan in Iliad 3.1-9, and, as such, would seem important for B.’s agenda. B. also notes, but sadly does not explore at any length, the fact that Tacitus’ briefer earlier account of the rebellion in his Agricola presents a much more hostile picture of Boudica, who is here unambiguously described as being of royal stock ( genus regium). Tacitus’ change of tone is dramatic, and a discussion for the reasons for such a change would have been a useful addition to the chapter.

Overall, the result of B.’s work is to obfuscate the history of Roman Britain by demonstrating that our literary sources by no means present a transparent account of the province and often use Britain merely as a foil to highlight concerns closer to home. As B. puts it at one point, “the characterisations of Tacitus and Dio tell us little about Boudica or Cartimandua, but they speak volumes about these authors’ attitudes to women in power”. While this makes the writing of Romano-British history a harder task, it also makes it a more rewarding one. While B. may be too pessimistic about our ability to discover the history of Roman Britain (Tacitus after all rarely presents factually incorrect information; it is his presentation which can frequently be disputed), his is, nevertheless, a salutary reminder that a naive approach to texts will lead to bad history. This book will serve as a useful antidote to archaeological positivism and is thus a highly useful addition to Romano-British studies.