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Boudica in stained glass.

Image of Boudica in stained glass in Colchester Town Hall.

It’s Women’s History Month and I’ve exhausted my favorite topic of Hypatia, Lady Philosopher of Alexandria. Time to move on to another fascinating woman who has been extensively mythologized: Boudica, Queen of the Iceni (a British Celtic tribe) in the first century AD. For those of you unfamiliar with her story, here is a brief summary.

Some Background

Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 55 BC and again in 56 where he had some military success against local tribes. He withdrew to Gaul and never returned to Britain. Roman influence in Britain grew over the next 80 years due to increased trade. The British tribes quarreled and Caratacus, the leader of the Catuvellauni expanded his tribe’s territory at the expense of the Atrebates. The Atrebates chief Verica appealed to Rome and gave the Emperor Claudius an excuse to invade Britain in AD 43. General Plautius led the assault and Claudius joined him with reinforcements. They took Caratacus’ stronghold Camulodunum (modern Colchester) and established the first Roman colonia—towns founded for Roman citizens—on British soil. Eleven tribal kings surrendered. Claudius declared Britain a Roman province.

Caractacus continued to fight, leading the western tribes in Wales in guerrilla actions against Plautius’ successor Scapula, known for his brutal pacification campaign in the south. Scapula finally defeated Caractacus in 51. Caractacus fled a to the Brigantes tribe (in modern-day Yorkshire) but was betrayed by their Queen Cartimandua and handed over to the Romans. In 59 and 60, the Roman governor Caius Suetonius Paulinus (during Nero’s reign) led the successful invasion and pacification of Wales and the Isle of Anglesey, the seat of the Druids.

Boudicas’s Legend

In AD 60, Prasutagus and Boudica (which means Victoria or Victory), ruled the pro-Roman Iceni tribe which occupied most of modern East Anglia. As a client-king, Prasutagus made a Roman-style will naming the Emperor co-heir with his two daughters in an attempt to secure half his property for his family. Upon his death, the Procurator of Britain Decianus Catus claimed the whole estate for the Emperor. When Queen Boudica protested, Decianus Catus had her stripped and publicly lashed; and her daughters raped. He seized the lands and property of all the “rebellious” Iceni tribal leaders.

After this outrage, Queen Boudica roused her tribe in true rebellion, joined by other British tribes seething under the brutal Roman regime. They rampaged across southern Britain, taking and razing the Roman towns of Camulodunum (Colchester), Londinium (London), and Verulamium (St. Albans). They cut the IXth Roman Legion to pieces and nearly caught its commander Cerealis, before he retreated with a tiny remnant of his troops. They nearly cast off the heavy yoke of Roman subjugation.

However, Paulinus rallied with the XIVth Legion and detachments of two others. He chose the next battlefield and the two armies prepared for a major engagement. Boudica exhorted her superior forces (they outnumbered the Romans 10 to 1) saying:

Boudica by Opie

Boadicea Haranguing The Britons. John Opie, R.A. (1761-1807). Oil On Canvas.

I come before you not as a queen of a distinguished line, but as an ordinary woman, her body cut by the lash, avenging the loss of her liberty and the outrages imposed on her daughters…the gods are on our side in our quest for vengeance…This is my resolve, as a woman—follow me or submit to the Roman yoke…Do what a mere woman is prepared to do!”

Paulinus counseled his troops:

Ignore the noises and empty threats made by these savages. There are more women than men in their ranks, they have no armor or proper weapons and will break when they feel your steel and sense the courage of men who have beaten them so many times already…Keep close order…let the dead pile up, forget all about plunder, win the victory and it’s all yours.”

The Romans roundly defeated the British forces. Boudica drank poison to avoid being taken alive and paraded through the streets of Rome; her daughters’ fate unknown. Paulinus kept his army in the field through the winter harrying the remnants of the rebellious tribes, destroying food and standing crops, leading to a famine and capitulation.

Known and Unknown

Like many before me, I’m fascinated by Boudica’s tragic story: wronged women, vengeful mother, freedom fighter, warrior queen who came this close to throwing the mighty Roman Empire off the island of Britain. Over the years, I collected books and articles about her—many useful and some fanciful. She disappeared from the record during medieval times but made a comeback during the Renaissance when Tacitus was rediscovered. But Boudica’s story didn’t really explode until the Victorian era when a range of poetry, plays, fiction, and visual arts portrayed the “Victoria” of the Iceni and turned her into a nationalist icon. In modern times she’s celebrated in song, poetry, books, TV, movies, and animation.

There are numerous novels featuring Boudica and, as an author, I didn’t want to replow those fields, so I reluctantly admired Boudica from afar. Then the muse struck—her rebellion was the perfect backstory for a character in my upcoming novel Sword of the Gladiatrix. An excellent excuse for my favorite past time—research! However, once I hit the books, I discovered how little we know about Boudica the woman and leader. There are no proven coins linking Boudica or her husband to the Iceni people (or any Celtic tribe). Although the archaeology is rich with detail on the people living in the three towns likely destroyed by the rebellious tribes, again there is nothing directly linking a female ruler named Boudica to the destruction. We’re not even sure of her name. Roman writers have confused titles with names in the past. Pliny wrote of a Kushite queen named “Candice”, but Kandake is the Kushite title for queen. The queen he wrote about was most likely named Amanirenas. Boudica meaning “Victoria” or “Victory” might be a title rather than the name of the woman who lead the British rebellion.

Our sole sources for the story are three classical pieces written years after the events, by two men with their own political agendas. Two of those sources are by Tacitus, who wrote after Boudica’s death, but within living memory. His accounts contain contradictory and different details. In Agricola (the earlier book), “the whole island rose under the leadership of Boudica, a lady of royal descent—for Britain makes no distinction of sex in their leaders.” Later he mentions she rules the Brigantes tribe. In Annals (written later) she rules the Iceni and enlists the help of the Trinovantes. Tacitus adds the details of her husband Prasutagus’ death and Roman-style will, Boudica’s flogging, and the rape of her daughters to this later narrative. These later details are our sole source for the popular story of Boudica.

Cassius Dio wrote 150 years after Boudica’s death, and his Roman History is similar to Tacitus’ earlier Agricola version: the whole island rises in rebellion under Boudica; there is no mention of the Iceni or Trinovantes, or the assault on Boudica or her daughters. Dio provides the physical description of Boudica that inspires most artists.

She was huge of frame, terrifying of aspect, and with a harsh voice. A great mass of bright red hair fell to her knees: she wore a twisted torc, and a tunic of many colours, over which was a thick mantle, fastened by a brooch. Now she grasped a spear, to strike fear into all who watched her.”

He also adds gruesome details on the barbarity of the Britons toward their Roman captives and quotes long inspirational speeches that Boudica and the Roman generals give to their armies—all of which we can accept only with a large helping of salt.

Boudica: Iron Age Warrior Queen

Boudica: Iron Age Warrior Queen

So our two primary sources contradict one another and one contradicts himself. Plus we have to remember these were two Roman elite men writing for other Roman elite men. Richard Hingley and Christina Unwin point out in their excellent book Boudica: Iron Age Warrior Queen, that classical writers use a formula when talking about barbarians (anyone not Roman) in general, and barbarian women of power, in particular. The Romans seemed to be deathly afraid of any powerful woman—they did not fit in their social constructs. Whenever female barbarian leaders show up in Roman histories they are disparaged, denigrated, and described in a similar manner. As Stacy Schiff says in her biography of Cleopatra, “Cleopatra ceases to exist without a Roman in the room.” These women seldom have their own voices.

So what’s an author to do? I decided to go with the popular narrative as described in Ticitus and Dio (including a modernized version of Boudica’s apocryphal speech) and address the questions in an author’s note. Boudica (or a queen by another name) most likely lived and led the rebellion in 60 or 61, but the true sparks of that rebellion are impossible to tease out. In making my choices in Sword of the Gladiatrix, I followed Tacitus and Dio closely. After all, it’s a great story.

Note: This is the first in a series of posts I’ll be doing on Boudica over the next several months.

I get pitched a lot of books. I usually accept about one a month. I like most of them and write a paragraph or two on GoodReads.com, LibraryThing.com or Amazon.com. A very few get the full blog treatment. Hand of Fire by Judith Starkston is one of those I want to enthusiastically share with my fellow readers. Her novel has all the elements I look for in historical fiction: compelling characters, engaging plot, and fascinating setting.

About the book:

Hand-of-Fire-Cover-Large-203x300The Trojan War threatens Troy’s allies and the Greek supply raids spread. A young healing priestess, designated as future queen, must defend her city against both divine anger and invading Greeks. She finds strength in visions of a handsome warrior god; will that be enough when the half-immortal Achilles attacks? Hand of Fire, a tale of resilience and hope, blends history and legend in the untold story of Achilles’s famous captive, Briseis.

I have a weakness for stories that shine a light on little known women or give silenced women a voice in the way Anita Diamant spoke for the biblical Dina (Joseph’s only sister) in her wildly popular The Red Tent. Starkston takes a similar approach through the story of Briseis. In the Iliad Briseis has only a handful of lines, yet she is a pivotal character in the narrative arc of the classic poem, sparking a rift between Achilles and Agamemnon that almost brings the Greek war against Troy to ruin. In the poem she expresses her love for Achilles in spite of the fact that he killed her brothers and husband, sacked her city, and reduced her status from princess to slave. A tall order to build a believable scenario where that could happen! Starkston does a beautiful job taking the slender clues about Briseis’ life and times and building believable characters. Briseis matures from an uncertain girl to a woman capable of determining her own destiny in this engaging story. Continue Reading »

I see these things going around the internet all the time: “Name ten things that no one else knows about you.” “Name five books that changed your life.” AND  “Tap ten of your nearest and dearest to answer the same question.” Shades of chain letters past. Although some are fun and others are silly, all are time sucks. I have to choose carefully or I’d never get anything done. But every now and again one comes along that I’m glad to participate in. The Writing Process Blog Tour is one, because it asks the questions that most readers are interested in knowing about their favorite authors. Hand-of-Fire-Cover-Large-203x300Thanks to Judith Starkston for asking me to join in. Judith shares my love of ancient history, penchant for visiting archaeology sites, and mission to highlight forgotten women. She has a wonderful novel coming out this month titled Hand of Fire: “The Trojan War threatens Troy’s allies and the Greek supply raids spread. A young healing priestess, designated as future queen, must defend her city against both divine anger and invading Greeks. She finds strength in visions of a handsome warrior god. Will that be enough when the half-immortal Achilles attacks? Hand of Fire, a tale of resilience and hope, blends history and legend in the untold story of Achilles’s famous captive, Briseis.” You can see Judith’s contribution to the blog tour here and contact her through her website, Facebook, or twitter.   So here goes:

What am I working on?

Slow Death coverSeveral projects in various stages.  My most complete projects are two collections of short stories that are currently out as ebooks: Time Again and Other Fantastic Stories and Slow Death and Other Dark Tales. I’m proofing the print versions and recording the audio books. I’m in the final editing process of a historical novel Sword of the Gladiatrix which I’m very excited about. Here’s the back cover blurb: “Two women from the far reaches of the Empire, enslaved and forced to fight for their lives on the hot sands of the Roman amphitheater. They seek to replace lost friendship, love, and family in each other’s arms. But the Roman arena offers only two futures: the Gate of Life for the victors or the Gate of Death for the losers.” I hope it’s out by the end of the year. I’m also doing a final rewrite on another novel Twilight Empress (#1 of the Three Augustas series) and a novella prequel which I hope to get out next year. I’m in the early rewrite stages of two other books in the Three Augusta’s series. As far as new writing goes, I’m in the very earliest stages of writing a sequel to Sword of the Gladiatrix—which, unfortunately, has been taking a back seat to all these other projects. Continue Reading »

Hypatia from the "The School of Athens" by Raphael

Hypatia from the “The School of Athens” by Raphael

It’s Women’s History Month and I’m back with the latest installment on my favorite Lady Philosopher, Hypatia of Alexandria. This year I’m tackling Hypatia’s sister philosophers. Hypatia didn’t spring from her father’s forehead fully girded and ready for combat in the primarily male world of Late Antiquity. There is a long history of women philosophers—”lovers of wisdom”— down through the ages, and Hypatia is just one link in that chain. More than thirty-five women are attested to in the records leading up to, and contemporary with, Hypatia—and those are just the women whose heads (and intellect) rose above the crowd enough to be noticed by the decidedly biased ancient historians. One, ARETE of Cyrene (c 400/300 BCE )  ran a school of philosophy seven hundred years before Hypatia. Nine of those women studied (what early nineteenth century scholars later called) Neoplatonism. Two (that we know of) taught both men and women.

Since thirty-five is far too many women to profile, I’ll concentrate on the Neoplatonists and leave the rest for another post. (Please go to Women-philosophers.com, maintained by Kate Lindemann Ph.D., professor emerita at Mount Saint Mary College – Newburgh, New York, for overviews on more than 110 remarkable women philosophers.) When telling the stories of women scholars in history, it is impossible to separate them from their male relatives and teachers. A little context: the vast majority of people—men and women—until recent times, were illiterate, uneducated, and labored in agriculture and resource extraction. Only a small elite could afford education and that generally was reserved for the sons.

But not always.

History is filled with fathers who educated their daughters (including Theon and Hypatia). Because of genuine affection, they had no sons, or the girls were too brilliant to ignore—it didn’t matter. It happened. (Even today, research shows that a father’s encouragement distinctly improves the chances a girl will do well, and chose a career, in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and math.) Because the educated elite was such a small circle, these women tended to marry inside it (if they married) and have children that followed in their footsteps. If they didn’t teach directly, they educated their children, who did teach. So let’s take a look at the Neoplatonists and the extraordinary women who contributed to this philosophy’s development and dissemination.

Continue Reading »

Princesses Behaving Badly book coverOnce upon a time, there lived a beautiful princess who wasn’t afraid to cheat, deceive, seduce or murder anyone who got in her way.

I like these kinds of books—collections of short bios of (mostly) unknown women who are remarkable for doing daring/unusual things down through history. I have one on women at sea; several on women warriors; others on women explorers, mathematicians, and scientists. They generally follow a pattern of one to two page biographies written in a breezy, modern style emphasizing the outrageousness (for her time) of the woman’s actions.

Why do I like these kinds of books? To be honest, they’re snack food—light fluffy reads that give me a break from heavy turgid research books. They also remind me that—despite what the history books tell us—some women of every age, somewhere in the world were doing remarkable things. The majority (like today) lived ordinary lives, but a few women always stood out and lived extraordinary ones. I like learning about them and being inspired to tell their stories. This kind of book is a good starting point for any historical novelist looking for inspiration.

Continue Reading »

Hypatia: Hher Life and Times coverMy writing is drawing some attention. This time it’s my non-fiction collection of essays about Hypatia. A couple of months ago I received an intriguing email from a science radio show. Someone there had heard about my book and thought Hypatia would be a good subject for an interview. Ever eager to promote greater knowledge about this neglected woman scholar, I said yes and sent off a copy of my book. They loved it! Last month I had a lovely conversation with the producer and interviewer. This month the interview is up for your listening pleasure at Science for the People as “Hypatia and Women in STEM” (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Enjoy!

I had no idea when I pulled these essays and articles together a year and half ago, Hypatia: Her Life and Times would become so popular. I’ve sold copies around the world and it ranks in the top twenty of books on ancient history sold on iTunes (right after Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). Hypatia has quite a fan club in cyber space. If you want more information about the book, check out the this page on my web site. Thanks to everyone to who has supported indie publishing by buying and reviewing this book!

Reconstruction of Lindow Man

Reconstruction of the “Lindow Man” bog body. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Samhain–the night of the dead. Yevetha knew from the ice around her heart there was one more ghost to walk the night and haunt her dreams. She clutched a tiny fur blanket to her sunken chest and rocked back and forth, keening. Sixteen summers ago she had ripped a bloody baby from the womb of her dying daughter and had wrapped him in the fur.

Yevetha had searched in the bogs for the rare herbs that would bring on her milk and had endured the pain caused to an aging body as it prepared to nurse the tiny infant. Her love had been rewarded as Bohumil grew into a fine strong young man with his mother’s blue eyes.

At the waning of the last full moon, Bohumil had come of an age to marry. He had packed for the hand of days it would take him to travel to the ocean tribes and set out through the forest to trade for a bride price.  The full moon returned.  Bohumil did not.

Yevetha pulled her worn skin cloak tighter about her shoulders and turned to the fire pit at the back of the hut.  The cramped space reeked of peat smoke and the herbs drying in the thatch ceiling. She pushed at a tangle of coarse gray hair, leaving a smudge of soot across one cheek.

Yevetha had seen forty-six winters. She was weary and there was no one to replace her as healer now that the Sun priests had outlawed the worship of the Great Mother and all Her arts. She spat on the fire. For twenty years the Sun priests had cursed her life. They had converted the village men to their Sun worship and fewer and fewer women met in the secret glade to keep the covenant with the Mother Goddess.

Yevetha pulled a bronze knife from her belt and stretched to cut several herbs from the store in the ceiling. Bitter rue for grief, sweet rosemary for remembrance and rough hemp for dreams. She took a figure made of twigs from a plain reed basket and tied the tear-stained fur around its waist with a twist of straw. Continue Reading »

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