Monday, September 24, 2007

The Warrior Queen vs the Evil Empire

by Len Hart, The Existentialist Cowboy

Not long ago PBS broadcast a British film called "Warrior Queen" --the story of the Iceni Queen Boudicca who dared rebel against an oppressive Roman occupation of Britannia. She was, of course, eventually defeated by a better trained and technologically superior army commanded by Suetonius Paulinus. Today she would be called a "terrorist" as, perhaps, she was called by Romans who, by that time, were living in well-appointed, true Roman-style townhouses in Camulodunum (present day Colchester) and Veralamium (present day St. Albans)and Londinium (London). You can find ruins of these townhouses and a Roman theater in St. Albans.

The film is visually interesting but classical accounts by Tacitus and Dio Cassius paint an even more vivid picture of aggression, technological superiority, conquest and needless bloodshed. One reads the accounts and sees the same story repeated throughout history. Notable examples are the British in Africa vs the Zulu, the US Cavalry vs "Native America".

According to the Roman historian Dio Cassius:
"...a terrible disaster occurred in Britain. Two cities were sacked, eighty thousand of the Romans and all of their allies perished, and the island was lost to Rome. Moreover, all this ruin was brought upon the Romans by a woman, a fact which in itself caused them the greatest shame... The person who was chiefly instrumental in rousing the natives and persuading them to fight the Romans, the person who was thought worthy to be their leader and who directed the conduct of the entire war, was Boudicca, a Briton woman of the royal family and possessed of greater intelligence than often belongs to women... In stature she was very tall, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of her eye most fierce, and her voice was harsh; a great mass of the tawniest hair fell to her hips; around her neck was a large golden necklace; and she wore a tunic of divers colors over which a thick mantle was fastened with a brooch.

--Dio Cassius

Boudicca was married to Prasutagus, ruler of the Iceni people of East Anglia. When the Romans conquered southern England in AD 43, they allowed Prasutagus to continue to rule.
Prasutagus, the late king of the Icenians, in the course of a long reign had amassed considerable wealth. By his will he left the whole to his two daughters and the emperor in equal shares, conceiving, by that stroke of policy, that he should provide at once for the tranquility of his kingdom and his family.The event was otherwise. His dominions were ravaged by the centurions; the slaves pillaged his house, and his effects were seized as lawful plunder. His wife, Boudicca, was disgraced with cruel stripes; her daughters were ravished, and the most illustrious of the Icenians were, by force, deprived of the positions which had been transmitted to them by their ancestors. The whole country was considered as a legacy bequeathed to the plunderers. The relations of the deceased king were reduced to slavery.

Exasperated by their acts of violence, and dreading worse calamities, the Icenians had recourse to arms. The Trinobantians joined in the revolt. The neighboring states, not as yet taught to crouch in bondage, pledged themselves, in secret councils, to stand forth in the cause of liberty. What chiefly fired their indignation was the conduct of the veterans, lately planted as a colony at Camulodunum. These men treated the Britons with cruelty and oppression; they drove the natives from their habitations, and calling them by the [shameful] names of slaves and captives, added insult to their tyranny. In these acts of oppression, the veterans were supported by the common soldiers; a set of men, by their habits of life, trained to licentiousness, and, in their turn, expecting to reap the same advantages. The temple built in honour of Claudius was another cause of discontent. In the eye of the Britons it seemed the citadel of eternal slavery. The priests, appointed to officiate at the altars, with a pretended zeal for religion, devoured the whole substance of the country. To over-run a colony, which lay quite naked and exposed, without a single fortification to defend it, did not appear to the incensed and angry Britons an enterprise that threatened either danger or difficulty. The fact was, the Roman generals attended to improvements to taste and elegance, but neglected the useful. They embellished the province, and took no care to defend it.

--Tacitus, 'Annals of Rome'

Tacitus presents a vivid image of Boudicca's united tribes laying waste to three Roman settlements in Britain.

While the Britons were preparing to throw off the yoke, the statue of victory, erected at Camulodunum, fell from its base, without any apparent cause, and lay extended on the ground with its face averted, as if the goddess yielded to the enemies of Rome. Women in restless ecstasy rushed among the people, and with frantic screams denounced impending ruin. In the council-chamber of the Romans hideous clamours were heard in a foreign accent; savage howlings filled the theatre, and near the mouth of the Thames the image of a colony in ruins was seen in the transparent water; the sea was purpled with blood, and, at the tide of ebb, the figures of human bodies were traced in the sand. By these appearances the Romans were sunk in despair, while the Britons anticipated a glorious victory. Suetonius, in the meantime, was detained in the isle of Mona. In this alarming crisis, the veterans sent to Catus Decianus, the procurator of the province, for a reinforcement. Two hundred men, and those not completely armed, were all that officer could spare. The colony had but a handful of soldiers. Their temple was strongly fortified, and there they hoped to make a stand. But even for the defense of that place no measures were concerted. Secret enemies mixed in all their deliberations. No fosse was made; no palisade thrown up; nor were the women, and such as were disabled by age or infirmity, sent out of the garrison. Unguarded and unprepared, they were taken by surprise, and, in the moment of profound peace, overpowered by the Barbarians in one general assault. The colony was laid waste with fire and sword.

The temple held out, but, after a siege of two days, was taken by storm. Petilius Cerealis, who commanded the ninth legion, marched to the relief of the place. The Britons, flushed with success, advanced to give him battle. The legion was put to the rout, and the infantry cut to pieces. Cerealis escaped with the cavalry to his entrenchments. Catus Decianus, the procurator of the province, alarmed at the scene of carnage which he beheld on every side, and further dreading the indignation of a people, whom by rapine and oppression he had driven to despair, betook himself to flight, and crossed over into Gaul.

---Tacitus, 'Annals of Rome'

The portrait pained by Tacitus of the Roman General, Suetonius is that of a calculating commander, a stranger to panic, a "cool customer", who would not and did not hesitate to abandon to Boudicca's angry horde Londinium itself. He would to so in order "... to save the province at the cost of a single town." Already, London had established its importance as a regional center of trade, the embarkation point of all goods exported to Rome.

Indeed, Suetonius withdrew leaving London to its fate.
At that place he meant to fix the feat of war; but reflecting on the scanty numbers of his little army, and the fatal rashness of Cerealis, he resolved to quit the station, and, by giving up one post, secure the rest of the province. Neither supplications, nor the tears of the inhabitants could induce him to change his plan. The signal for the march was given. All who chose to follow his banners were taken under his protection. Of all who, on account of their advanced age, the weakness of their sex, of the attractions of the situation, thought proper to remain behind, not one escaped the rage of the Barbarians.

--Tacitus, 'Annals of Rome'

To this day, in Boudicca's ravaged cities, a layer of ash is found in archaeological excavations, hard evidence that all is true. The number of dead in London alone is estimated variously between 80,000 to 90,000, most probably every resident of the city at that time.

Suetonius, in strategic retreat, gathered his remaining legions and marched north. He compensated for his inferior numbers with superior technology, weaponry, and tactics. Suetonius took up a position, according to the Roman accounts, the high ground. Dense forests flanked his legions.

Boudicca arrayed across the lower plain her throng, estimated at between 90,000 and 100,000. Behind the warriors--a veritable wagon train of family, onlookers, and townsfolk! From Tacitus, we have a vivid picture of Boudicca, like Vince Lombardi rallying his team, like Patton in Louisiana, exhorting his troops. If Tacitus is in any way accurate or even close, we may say of this speech as Johnson said of Shakespeare that it is "not of an age, but for all time".
This is not the first time that the Britons have been led to battle by a woman. But now she did not come to boast the pride of a long line of ancestry, nor even to recover her kingdom and the plundered wealth of her family. She took the field, like the meanest among them, to assert the cause of public liberty, and to seek revenge for her body seamed with ignominious stripes, and her two daughters infamously ravished.

From the pride and arrogance of the Romans nothing is sacred; all are subject to violation; the old endure the scourge, and the virgins are deflowered. But the vindictive gods are now at hand. A Roman legion dared to face the warlike Britons: with their lives they paid for their rashness; those who survived the carnage of that day, lie poorly hid behind their entrenchments, meditating nothing but how to save themselves by an ignominious flight.

From the din of preparation, and the shouts of the British army, the Romans, even now, shrink back with terror. What will be their case when the assault begins? Look round, and view your numbers. Behold the proud display of warlike spirits, and consider the motives for which we draw the avenging sword. On this spot we must either conquer, or die with glory. There is no alternative. Though a woman, my resolution is fixed: the men, if they please, may survive with infamy, and live in bondage."

--Boudicca, Warrior Queen

The following video describes visually what most surely happened, given what we know of Roman tactics, weapons technology and training. Initially, Boudicca's outrage worked to her advantage. In the end, however, professionalism, tactics and cold blooded calculation would win over anger and indignation.

Over a period of some 2,000 years, Boudicca has come to symbolize the universal resistance of conquered or "subject" peoples against technologically superior, arrogant, and often fascist would-be conquerors, empire builders, and other megalomaniacs. According to popular myth, Boudicca lies buried under Platform 10 of London's King Cross Station.

[Note: The motion picture referenced in the article is not the source for the video above. It is the 2003 production entitled Boudica (Warrior Queen in the USA). It is a UK TV film written by Andrew Davies and starring Alex Kingston (Moll Flanders) as Boudica]

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