Just before I flew to London, I read Under Another Sky: Journeys Through Roman Britain, in which Charlotte Higgins documents her Grand Tour of Roman monuments in the UK. When I arrived, I enthusiastically followed in her footsteps, searching a car park for remnants of the Roman wall, visiting the amphitheatre’s ruins underneath the Guildhall, and almost falling in the Thames, where the future capital was first laid out.
Higgins book says a lot about the ambiguity behind the concept of ‘Britain’. London was a Roman outpost, and the idea of a discernable ‘British’ identity is much like our concept of ‘Aboriginal Australia’; a blanket term used by a colonising power to describe disparate peoples with their own identities, languages and land.
On the British capital, Higgins writes:
The first notable event in the history of Londinium was its destruction. The name of the city first appears on the page in Tacitus’s account of the rebellion of Boudica. There is a line of black in the archaeological layers that is said to be the charred matter from her flaming of the fledgling city.
Boudica, the marauding Queen of Iceni, destroyed London in 60AD as part of a war so vicious the Romans seriously debated leaving the whole island. Oddly enough, there’s a statue of her on Westminster Bridge near Embankment, set up in 1902 as a sort of weird homage to Queen Victoria.
The primary source on her, Roman historian Tacitus, describes a rousing speech she gave to her troops before her final battle:
It is British custom to fight under female leadership, but on this occasion I fight not, though offspring of great ancestors, after kingdom and wealth. Instead, I am one woman from the crowd seeking retribution for liberty lost […] But the gods side with just vengeance. A legion that dared battle has perished and the remaining men are hiding back at base and looking for escape. The din and shouting of so many thousands will not be withstood, let alone onset and combat. If you weigh troop numbers and war’s reasons with me, we should either win on that field or perish. That is a woman’s intention. You men may survive – enslaved!
It’s doubtful she would have described herself as ‘British’. Tacitus was writing decades after her death, using terms the Romans had invented. She lost the battle, committed suicide, and the Iceni nation was absorbed into the Roman Empire. There’s a thrilling Time Team episode on the subject here:
Higgins sums up Boudica’s legacy after visiting a statue of her in Colchester, of which she writes:
Boudica is, at best, an ambiguous heroine for Colchester, since her sole connection is that in AD 60 or 61 she and her men took and burnt the town, and massacred its inhabitants.
The process by which an Iceni queen became a British martyr says a lot about the capacity to extract narrative from ambiguity. The idea of a unified British identity, with its own history and traditions, didn’t exist when Boudica was alive.
One thing I got from Higgins’ book was a sense that a unified ‘British history’ is a relatively recent idea. The traditions that bind it together obscure the almost continual conflict between Celtic tribes, and the Roman, Saxon, Angle and Norman invasions. Today being Australia Day, it makes a nice counterpoint to the celebration of an Anglo Australian identity.
Would My Mother Like This Book
She’d probably read the chapters on Boudica. Whether she’d finish it probably depends on what the weather was like, what she’d picked up from Bunnings that week, and whether the dog wanted a walk.