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The Wolf and the Hare: Boudica’s Political Bodies in Tacitus and Dio

Caitlin Gillespie

In introducing Boudicca, Tacitus explains that the Britons do not consider sex in choosing their leaders (Tac. Agr. 16.1; cf. Tac. Ann. 14.35.1); yet Boudicca’s sex is central to her identity as a non-Roman dux femina. This paper argues that Boudicca’s use of exempla in Tacitus and Dio is a powerful means by which she demonstrates that her method of leadership is more worthy of emulation than that of the Roman imperial family. Tacitus’ Boudicca assimilates herself to Republican Roman models; Dio’s Boudicca compares herself to female leaders. In her condemnation of Nero as a woman, Boudicca demands a reassessment of sex and gender as categories that limit those who may be granted imperium.

Three accounts provide the basis for a wealth of scholarship on Boudicca and her revolt (Tac. Agr. 14.3-16.2, Ann. 14.29-39; Dio 62.1-12). Like Dido, Boudicca is a dux femina (Tac. Ann. 14.35.1, Agr. 31.4); she is similar to an Amazonian barbarian, who challenges Roman ideas of gender (cf. L’hoir 1994: 7-11). Among British leaders, Boudicca is comparable to Cartimandua (Tac. Hist. 3.45, Ann. 12.36.1), and she inspires Calgacus (Tac. Agr. 31.4). Boudicca’s speeches are a nexus of interpretation: her words reflect a lack of libertas under Nero (Roberts 1988), and present a negative perspective on Roman imperialism (Adler 2008; cf. Dyson 1971). The function of exemplarity in Boudicca’s narrative has yet to be explored.

Tacitus’ Boudicca models herself on Republican Roman exempla. She creates a spectacle that recalls Livy’s Brutus, rousing the men to arms over the body of Lucretia (Livy 1.59). Boudicca addresses her army, calling for vengeance against those who violated her daughters’ pudicitia (Tac. Ann. 14.35.1). The bodies of her daughters become politicized emblems of tyrannical desire (Romanorum cupidines, Tac. Ann. 14.35.1; cf. Tac. Agr. 15.2; on Lucretia, cf. Joshel 1992). Rather than becoming a model of pudicitia, Boudicca seeks to become a model leader. Her promise to either win freedom from Roman lusts or die trying is the intention of a woman (id mulieri destinatum: viverent viri et servirent, Tac. Ann. 14.35.2). Boudicca’s association of libertas with the female and servitium with the male may be seen as subversive (cf. Roberts 1988: 126-127). However, Boudicca is also following the model of Cloelia, whose equestrian statue stood in the Forum as a marker of female daring and a challenge for Roman boys (Val. Max. 3.2.2; Livy 2.13; cf. Roller 2004). Boudicca is willing to sacrifice her life in hopes of instigating political change; her death by suicide proves it.

Dio’s Boudicca admires Messalina and Agrippina, who ruled over Claudius, and thence the Roman world (cf. Suet. Claud. 25.5). Boudicca’s references, perhaps made in view of a temple to the divine Claudius (cf. Tac. Ann. 14.31.4), are poignant reminders that the ship of state is not necessarily steered by its figurehead. Nero concludes her list of anti-models (Dio 62.6.3). Dio’s queen seems to respond to Tacitus: the Iceni may not distinguish between sex when they grant imperium, but they do recognize gender. Nero’s attachment to the theater makes him effeminate; Boudicca’s condemnation is consistent with the rest of Dio’s narrative (cf. Adler 2008: 192-3). Dio’s Boudicca dies by sickness, and her importance as a leader is proven by the actions of her people: the Britons disperse, regarding themselves as defeated after her death (Dio 62.12.6).

Boudicca emerges as an astute interpreter of exempla, who displays a different idea of the connection between gender and power than her Roman parallels. Boudicca leads without deception: she is not backstage, nor anyone’s partner in power. As she calls the Britons to fight, Boudicca compares the Romans to hares and foxes attempting to rule over dogs and wolves (Dio. 62.5.6); in her view, the Britons are the hunters, and she, despite her sex, deserves her place as the alpha.

Session/Panel Title

Provincial Women in the Roman Imagination

Session/Paper Number

37.3

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