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Boudica’s Revolt: An Act of Imitation?

Caitlin Gillespie

Temple University

Tacitus and Dio use intratextual references in their accounts of the Boudican revolt to indicate the sameness of provincial uprisings, as well as the uniqueness of Boudica as an individual. Boudica stands apart as a female leader, and her sex allows each author to meditate on the impact of Rome on the lives of women. Boudica poignantly demonstrates the psychological effects of servitude and the destruction of family life.

Past scholars have emphasized native uprisings occur after people have been conquered and are experiencing the influence of the Romans. Images of women and children suggest the Roman impact on private life, particularly the practice of raising hostages in Rome (cf. Rose 1990; Ferris 1994: 28). Dio suggests locals may not realize their cultural transformation until oppressed by a corrupt governor (e.g. Dio 56.18.2-3); Tacitus notes that Roman markers of civilization are indices of servitude (Tac. Ag. 21). By comparing revolts, we see common issues on the limitations of acculturation (cf. Dyson 1971; Brunt 1960), and how authors use revolts to reflect on politics in Rome (e.g. Keitell 1978). Scholars have noted similarities in the omens that precede the Varian disaster and Boudican revolt (e.g. Simpson 1996; Standing 2005: 373-4), as well as the thematic import of the flashback to Varus in Tacitus’ Annals (Pagán 1999), opening up avenues for further comparisons.

Dio’s Boudica ends an exhortation to her troops by proclaiming, “Let us show them that they are hares and foxes trying to rule over dogs and wolves!” (Dio 62.5.6). Here, she commands her warriors to view themselves as fierce protectors defending their kin. Her words echo those of Bato, leader of the Dalmatian revolt of 6-9 CE: Bato justifies his actions to Tiberius, saying, “You all are the cause of this, for you send as guardians of your flocks not dogs or shepherds, but wolves” (Dio 56.16.3). The metaphor of aggression aligns the two revolts, but complicates the position of Rome. Dio emphasizes the cruelty of the Romans; in the attack on Arduba, the women throw themselves and their children into the flames of the burning city or into the river, preferring death to servitude (Dio 56.12.2). The courage of the women reflects that of Tacitus’ Boudica, who states that women choose to win or die trying, and challenges her men to do the same (Tac. Ann. 14.35.2). The actions of women in both revolts betray an anxiety concerning the fate of families after defeat. This is especially clear in Britain (cf. Dio 62.6.3).

While Dio aligns Boudica with Bato, Tacitus uses the Varian disaster of 9 CE as the catastrophe against which all others are measured. Tacitus refers to the clades Variana in his elucidation of the general complaints of the Britons (Ag. 15.5), and builds on this reference in his Annals, where Boudica’s rebellion is another clades (Ann. 14.32.3, 14.33.2; cf. Roberts 1988: 124). Boudica’s revolt could have ended Roman expansion in Britain, as the Varian disaster ended expansion to the north (cf. Benario 2003: 402). The similar use of language invites readers to examine Arminius and Boudica as comparable leaders, dedicated to freedom and family. Arminius regrets the capture of his pregnant wife, and is enraged that Thusnelda and his son must endure servitude; years later, his people do not trust his son to lead, confirming he has been corrupted by the foreign habits of the Romans (Ann. 11.16). Boudica condemns the Romans, who violated her daughters and know no limits to avarice and lust (Ann. 14.31.1, 14.35.1; cf. Ag. 15.2). Both leaders are disparaging of a culture that values luxury over courage, servitude over freedom.

Narratives of native resistance present the Romans as destructive to family life. I conclude with a consideration of Boudica’s place in the works of Tacitus and Dio, and how her emphasis on family life counters the gradual destruction of the house of Nero at the time her revolt occurs. 

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War and Revolution in the Roman World

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