History Books » Ancient History (up to 500)

The best books on Boudica

recommended by Richard Hingley

Conquering the Ocean: The Roman Invasion of Britain by Richard Hingley

OUT MAY 22ND 2022

Conquering the Ocean: The Roman Invasion of Britain
by Richard Hingley

Read

Boudica was an Iron Age queen who led her people into rebellion against Roman rule in the province of Britannia. She was defeated, but only after she had burned several towns, including London, to the ground. Here Richard Hingley, Professor of Archaeology at Durham University, explains how to sift the truth from the myth, and why Boudica has remained an enduring source of fascination down the centuries.

Interview by Benedict King

Conquering the Ocean: The Roman Invasion of Britain by Richard Hingley

OUT MAY 22ND 2022

Conquering the Ocean: The Roman Invasion of Britain
by Richard Hingley

Read
Buy all books

Before we get to the books, could you briefly tell me who Boudica was and what she did? There’s even a statue of her in London, outside the Houses of Parliament—why is she celebrated?

She may have been a fairly minor figure, it’s difficult really to know. We know about her because a couple of classical authors, namely Tacitus and Dio, wrote about her life and they suggest she was a very important figure because she was notorious as a rebel against the Roman Empire in AD 60. Rebellions against the Roman Empire didn’t usually get very far, certainly in the first century AD. Boudica seems to have got to the stage where she almost managed to drive the Romans out of Britain. That’s what we’re told. Now, I tend to see it in a slightly more balanced way. Although she must have threatened the possession of Britain, we do believe now that quite a big section of the province (as it was then) did not rebel against the Romans at this time. So quite how close she got to driving the Romans out, we don’t know.

In AD 60, the Romans had been in Britain for about 17 years. Roman Britain continued until the early fifth century. This is one of the occasions where Rome might have actually been driven back across the sea. That’s really why she’s famous. When you look at the Roman past, Boudica is really the only rebel, if you want to use that term, who came close to doing that.

Also, she’s a woman. The idea of a female figurehead leading opposition to an imperial society that was extremely gender-conscious was highly significant. Men made all the decisions and led all the campaigns in the Roman Empire. She seems, in Roman terms, almost like an aberration. In later British history that idea comes to the fore, when either you have a female leader—like Elizabeth I in the 16th century or Victoria in the 19th—or alternatively when men are trying to condemn female leadership, as in the reign of James I in the early 17th century. That comes right through to the present day. She became very popular as a figure of opposition during the debates about Britain’s position in the European Union, for instance, particularly when Theresa May was trying to find a negotiated solution to these issues. Boudica is famous because she provides such an extreme example of armed violence—not a good parallel for May.

Let’s move on to the books. The first one is Boudica Britannia: Rebel, War Leader and Queen by Miranda Aldhouse-Green. What story does it tell?

This is first on my list largely because, as an academic, I put things in alphabetical order. It’s a book written by an archaeologist who focuses on the Iron Age, Miranda Aldhouse-Green. I come from a different perspective because I’m interested in both the Iron Age and Roman period equally. Her book is a very good account of Boudica’s uprising, particularly focusing on how we might understand her as an Iron Age person, a member of the aristocracy of one people (or tribe), and why she came to rebel. It contains a very good summary of the archaeological materials in particular and it’s lavishly illustrated, which is always nice. So I think if you have an interest in the archaeology, this is a very good book to start off with.

“Our knowledge of what the Iron Age people were like has been transformed over the last 60 years”

She also discusses some of the folklore. We, as archaeologists, tend to feel that anything that doesn’t relate directly to classical texts, or to archaeological material, probably doesn’t have too much bearing on how we understand Boudica. But Miranda Aldhouse-Greene does look at some of the more fabulous stories about Boudica that have come down through the ages and I think it’s also useful for that. I certainly use this book in my own teaching on Boudica.

Let’s go to the book you co-wrote with Christina Unwin, Boudica: Iron Age Warrior Queen.

This was an attempt to write a popular account of Boudica, taking in the whole story, starting off with the Iron Age, the society into which Boudica was born and taking the stories through. We can’t talk about her childhood particularly, but we can say something about her involvement with her husband or partner, Prasutagus, and the uprising against Rome, what caused it, and the aftermath. And then the book looks at how her story was lost in the post-Roman ages and reinvented again after the classical texts were rediscovered during the Renaissance in the 16th century. We take the story right up to the present day—2003 in this case, since the book was published in 2005.

I think the thing that was particularly original in the book was our attempt to look at materials from the Renaissance, right up to the present day. At the time, Boudica was very popular because we’d had the awful events of 9/11 in America. Several people said, in the early 2000s, that Boudica was, effectively, an indigenous rebel. Perhaps she helps us think about some of the things that people fighting imperial power do, and why they do them. So perhaps it makes us a bit more reflective on what caused 9/11 and some of the other terrorist outrages that have occurred. I’m not suggesting it should make us sympathetic to terrorists. But perhaps it helps us to think about them, in terms of our own country, and things that people living in our own country did in the distant past in relation to powers that were then dominant. That really interested me at the time. That was partly the reason that I got really interested in Boudica and wanted to write that book.

Get the weekly Five Books newsletter

Mary Beard wrote a review of the book, which she published along with other essays in Confronting the Classics. You have to read Mary Beard’s reviews very carefully because they tend to be very highly nuanced. Sometimes you can read something as complimentary, but it’s actually much more reflective and critical. I think that’s partly why Mary Beard is so famous. She’s really good at those sorts of complexities. When we look at her review, I take it as reasonably complimentary about my book. She was particularly complimentary about the second half of the book, less so about the first half. I think she felt we over-simplified the complexity of interpreting the archaeological materials. But she really did like the stuff about reception—on the Renaissance up to the present day.

Next up is Tacitus’s Annals. Why is he an important source for our understanding of Boudica and what does he say about the revolt?

We have two writers who write about Boudica. One is Tacitus who was living in the late first century. The other was a later writer called Cassius Dio. Tacitus was around within decades of Boudica’s uprising and we have good reason to believe that he would have had good information about it. People in Rome would have been both fascinated and deeply disturbed by what had happened. He tells us that Prasutagus, Boudica’s husband, who was the king of the people called the Iceni—who lived in what is now East Anglia—was dying, and he made a will. He tried to make his kingdom jointly over to his two daughters and to the emperor, Nero. So half of his territory would have remained in the hands of his family and half gone to Rome.

In Roman terms, Prasutagus should have just given up his kingdom, because the Romans deemed the Iceni to be a ‘friendly people’. When such a ruler died, a territory that had been ruled by a friendly ruler was just incorporated into the Empire. That was an agreement that was probably made in AD 43 when Emperor Claudius came to Britain. So Prasutagus was probably trying to retain territory and some extra rights for his two daughters. He didn’t try to leave the territory to his partner Boudica.

“Tacitus…takes quite a positive view of Boudica”

But the Roman administration at the time, according to Tacitus, responded badly. Rather than using diplomacy, they decide to take the territory over in a dictatorial manner. Tacitus drives the story in a very moral direction, but takes quite a positive view of Boudica. He says she was seriously provoked by the Roman administration. For instance, he says that the household was ransacked by slaves and soldiers and the senior people in her community were treated very badly, too. Tacitus is making a very critical point about Rome under the unpopular Emperor Nero, who was long dead by the time he wrote his account and had been condemned. The elite in Rome viewed Nero as a very bad emperor, which made it very easy for Tacitus to be critical of him. Boudica is produced as this domineering female rebel who leads what is almost a justifiable rebellion against Rome.

I think we can probably trust all that, although we have to be a bit careful with the stories we get. Cassius Dio is writing over a century later. Dio is passing on information he has derived from the writings of other authors that haven’t survived. Tacitus was writing closer to the events, but many people in Rome would have known what had happened in Britain 30 years before. Tacitus was maybe writing for effect, like a modern newspaper. It’s a different concept if people know about what had happened and perhaps Tacitus did not need to be entirely literal. He may have played around with the information to make his account of Nero more critical.

The Victorians used to say the Romans ‘outraged’ Boudica’s beautiful daughters. We believe the Latin word Tacitus uses means ‘raped’. That’s what makes me a bit suspicious of whether that version of the story is actually literally true. Classical society was very class conscious and you did not carry out outrages against the daughters of a friendly king, even when he died.

Let’s move on to “Boudica’s Rising” by Bidisha S.K. Mamata in Resist: Stories of Uprising edited by Ra Page.

Bidisha was asked to write a short story about Boudica, but her piece is very much an interpretative, artistic interpretation of Boudica. The Resist book is about rebels. I think the publishers are trying to make people aware of people in British history who have rebelled against particularly masculine authority or state power.

What I find very interesting about the book is the way people use history. In archaeology, we are taught that we should use history very carefully. I suppose that traditional historians would say that we try and understand what might actually have happened in the past, but every generation has a different interpretation of the past. So, how we receive Boudica at the moment probably depends on how people feel about government, as much as anything. She’s a powerful figure of resistance. Some people during the Brexit debate saw her as an inspiration for getting independence from Europe. You could also see her as a symbol of resistance to our current government, if you wanted to.

The book in which Bidisha’s story is included is an attempt to communicate cases in history in which people did resist. Boudica is a difficult example because we’re also told she did some awful things, or her followers did some awful things. She wasn’t like Gandhi, she didn’t look to be peaceful. She looked to drive Rome out of Britain and killed lots of people.

She invaded London, didn’t she?

She went first for Colchester, because Colchester was the dominant Roman urban centre. It was a colony of Roman citizens, founded in 49 AD. It was only 11 years old when she burned the place down. It had a temple of Claudius and they were building a grand, substantial classical Roman temple in stone. Boudica and her followers sacked Colchester and killed everybody there. Then they marched to London, and they drove people out of London. Some people would have remained behind and they would have been killed. London at the time was also a new foundation, but a major settlement and trading centre. Then she goes and burns Verulamium, St Albans as we know it, an oppidum (Iron Age centre), just north of London. After that, she’s defeated. They killed thousands of Romans and Roman sympathisers during that process.

What spin does Bidisha put on the rising in her piece in this book?

It’s a work of fiction. She’s looking into the identity and the influence of a female figure resisting power. Boudica has been picked up in that way in the past. She was taken up by the suffragists as a heroine. Bidisha’s doing something that is much more about contemporary society, really. Everybody who uses Boudica tends to do that. Bidisha tells her tale in the words of an average member of an Iron Age community seeking to avenge the attack of the Romans on Boudica and the narrator’s kin.

Let’s move on to Dreaming the Eagle, a novel by Manda Scott.

Manda Scott wrote several novels about Boudica, following her life story. We tend to over-rationalise the events of the distant past. Manda Scott very much thinks about Boudica as somebody who’s deeply influenced by her beliefs in the spirits of the landscape. What I particularly liked about Manda Scott’s novels is the way she brings these mythical, spiritual things to the story. I think it’s very difficult for archaeologists to understand how Iron Age people saw the world. What we have is some odd comments made by classical authors about how Iron Age people worshipped spirits and gods, and archaeological discoveries. But we do know that the attitudes of people in the Iron Age were deeply imbued with thoughts about the nature of the landscape. When Boudica was rising up against Rome and fighting Rome, she would have been deeply influenced by her own spiritual or mystical beliefs. I like the way Manda Scott wrote those ideas into her fiction. I couldn’t do that if I was writing another academic book on Boudica because, as a work of archaeology or history, we can’t interpret those things. They’re too complex and too obscure to us. But I think art is a way of looking at issues like that. Writing a novel is a way of thinking about issues that we can’t understand from a historical point of view.

What can you tell about Boudica from archaeology? Is there a burnt version of Colchester underneath Colchester? Or are there loads of weapons found that aren’t Roman at St. Albans? What can you do to dig her out of the ground, as it were?

We can’t find any direct evidence for Boudica in the archaeological record. Late Iron Age rulers did produce coins, which quite often had an abbreviated version of their names. By the late Iron Age, we’re getting gold, silver, and copper alloy coins being made in Britain. There’s a famous Iron Age ruler in the southeast, called Cunobelin, for instance, and we can identify the abbreviation of his name on the coins. He was a major late Iron Age ruler in the early first century AD in the southeast of Britain. We can’t identify Boudica. She probably wouldn’t produce coins in her own name because she wasn’t actually the ruler. We’ve only got the name of Prasutagus written down once. In all the classical texts, there’s one reference to him. There are some coins that have a name that is a bit similar to Prasutagus, which are found in East Anglia. So perhaps that is Prasutagus; there’s quite a debate about that.

Get the weekly Five Books newsletter

We might be able to find where Boudica and Prasutagus lived because they ought to have had quite a privileged lifestyle. But, so far, there’s nowhere in East Anglia that would be obviously high status enough. We haven’t found an early Roman villa or even a high status settlement that might be the home that might turn up one day. We might expect to find a burial for Boudica. It’s debatable because Tacitus and Dio are so different about what happened to her when she died after the final battle. In the late Iron Age, some rulers were buried with quite a lot of wealth. We think probably the Romans might have interfered with any celebrations, once Boudica was killed, because they just defeated her.

She was killed in battle at St. Albans, was she?

In battle, but we don’t know where. The last place to be burned was St Albans [Verulamium], we don’t know how long it took the Romans to defeat her after she burnt Verulamium. It could have been weeks or it could have been months. There’s lots of uncertainty. She might have moved further north. She might have moved further east back towards where she came from in East Anglia. We absolutely don’t know and there’s no convincing battle site that’s been located. We’ve got good evidence of the burning of Colchester and London, because we find a very thick burnt layer in the early urban layers of those towns, and actually, quite recently, a hoard of metal objects was found in Colchester, buried in a pit under a house. It’s called the Fenwick Hoard and it’s a collection of military metal items and jewellery. The jewellery will have belonged to quite a wealthy woman. The military items must have belonged to one of the settlers of Colchester, who had been a military officer, and who was quite well off. Perhaps when they knew there was going to be trouble, they buried some of their wealth in the pit in their house. They were probably killed, unfortunately. But that is one example of the very little direct evidence for Boudica’s rebellion.

“She’s a powerful figure of resistance”

It doesn’t really provide much information directly of Boudica herself, but what archaeology really does is it gives us a very good perception of the nature of the society in which Boudica lived. Our knowledge of what the Iron Age people were like has been transformed over the last 60 years.

The classical texts tend to write about Iron Age people as barbarians and primitives. As a result of archaeology, we know they’d been cultivating crops and domesticating animals for millennia by the time the Romans came to Britain. They built elaborate timber houses, and they lived in settlements that were well supplied with food. They had their own settled society. Boudica was a member of the elite of her people, she would have been a wealthy woman. I tend to think from what we know of the archaeology that she and Prasatagus will have been Roman citizens, they might have been literate in Latin. But if we do one day find the place they lived, we might well find out a lot more about them.

So the archaeology gives us a real increase in knowledge about the society, but it doesn’t necessarily provide very much direct information about exactly what Boudica was up to. The chronology is a really difficult issue. The uprising might have lasted for more than a year, which is why I’m being careful about saying where and when she was defeated.

Interview by Benedict King

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you've enjoyed this interview, please support us by .

Richard Hingley

Richard Hingley

Richard Hingley is Professor of Archaeology at Durham University and the author of ten books, including Londinium: A Biography (2018); Boudica: Iron Age Warrior Queen (with Christina Unwin; 2005); and Hadrian's Wall: A Life (2012). He focuses his research on the archaeology of Iron Age and Roman Britain and upon the reception of Roman culture since the Renaissance. Londinium won the Prose Award for Classics in 2019.

Save for later
Richard Hingley

Richard Hingley

Richard Hingley is Professor of Archaeology at Durham University and the author of ten books, including Londinium: A Biography (2018); Boudica: Iron Age Warrior Queen (with Christina Unwin; 2005); and Hadrian's Wall: A Life (2012). He focuses his research on the archaeology of Iron Age and Roman Britain and upon the reception of Roman culture since the Renaissance. Londinium won the Prose Award for Classics in 2019.