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Boadicea’s Last Stand October 1, 2010

This is a slightly revised version of the very first paper I wrote for graduate school. I’d write it differently today, but I still rather like it. It was subsequently published by the Sierra Nevada Celtic Society in serialized form. My professor, the great William Irwin Thompson, called it “a cross between scholarly and Dave Barry.” If he meant that comment to serve as a pithy corrective, something went horribly awry: I attempt to make my papers live up to that standard to this day.

***

Introduction

The shift from Celtic culture to a Romanized culture was not merely one of a series of territory takeovers, a new name on the deed or yet another clone in office; no, the ramifications of this were far more deep and insidious.  For I am speaking of differences that lie at the core of a people; their definitions of life: what is important and what is ridiculous and what is horrible; metaphors by which a race creates and manifests their world.  The coming of the Romans to Celtic Britain, and the resulting takeover, marked one phase-shift in the structure of human consciousness.

 

The Roman Takeover

The matter of the Iceni queen Boadicea’s leadership in the last successful tribal revolt in 60-61 CE against the Roman invasion could serve to cast a light on this matter.  Boadicea (also known as Boudicca, Boudica, Voadicea, Bonduica, Bunduca, or Boodicea, respectively – what can you expect of a people whose greatest known playwright couldn’t spell his own name the same way twice?), Queen of the Iceni in the time of Claudius and Nero, sole sovereign after the death of her husband Prasutagus, in regent for her two daughters until they come of age to rule in their own right.  Her tribe, the Iceni, whose territories lay roughly in what is known today as Norfolk and northern Suffolk, had willingly submitted, along with ten other great kingdoms, to the invading packs of Romans under Claudius in CE 43, thereby becoming a ‘client-kingdom’.

“We had not defeated this powerful tribe in battle,” chronicled the Roman historian Tacitus, “since they had voluntarily become our allies.”[1] This was beneficial for both sides, as Rome was in most ways a fair ruler to her distant holdings.  Not really wishing to carry on a lengthy campaign “outside the limits of the known world,” [2] the Romans made it seem more desirable for the native holders of their desired territories to work together with them rather than to wage a bloody battle for sole sovereignty. For example, they did not typically demand any religious conversion or insertion of Romans into their governance structures. The barbarian enemy, once surrendered, was allowed to carry on much as they had before, with little interference.

All went relatively well in the creeping conquering matter of Britain until the Romans began to violate their word, one of the worst possible acts to a culture like the various Celts, which places the highest value on honor.  A new Governor was assigned to Britain in 47, one Publius Ostorius Scapula (I am not making this up!), a weasely bonehead who was mostly concerned with covering his own rear end.

 

Tribal Celtic Cultures

To better understand the fullness of the collision of cultures that occurred here, a digression into social structures is in order. The deliberately obscure Irish Brehon Laws can give us clues as to at least an idealized example of early Celtic tribal social atmosphere.  Professor Maeve Binchy, a 19th-century scholar of the law tracts, comments that even though there must have been a great local variety in the interpretation of these laws,

“Irish law preserves in a semi-fossilized condition many primitive “Indo-European” institutions of which only faint traces survive in other legal systems derived from the same source.” [3]

These laws were given form by professional custodians of legalese and wisdom whose title, filidh, means ‘seer, prophet'; and like all pre-Christian Celtic knowledge, they were transmitted orally, probably in verse form to facilitate learning.

With its roots in Irish customs, even though both are intended to reinforce traditional socially acceptable codes of behavior, the Brehon Laws are understandably different from those of the Romans.  For example, there was no public enforcement of private obligations: no state to intervene, nor magistrates to punish.[4] Irish law was based on arbitration, compensation, and seizure.  The injured party must take responsibility himself to attempt to rectify his situation.  A defendant was expected to act honorably and submit to arbitration or pay the ‘log-n-enech’ (honor-price) when charges were brought.

One interesting way in which one could force a recalcitrant defendant into accepting arbitration was through fasting in front of her house.  These fasts lasted from sunset to sunrise, and so long as it went on, the accused person in the house must also fast.  When she wanted food, she must also offer it to the plaintiff on the doorstep.  Acknowledging the faster in this way meant that she must then pledge herself to accept arbitration or pay the amount demanded of her as recompense.  Calculation of these fines were quite inequitable, based as they were on such factors as the social rank of the person entitled to damages, as well as the nature and extent of the offense. Ignoring the faster completely would mean losing your honor.

 

The Importance of Honor

Losing honor was one of the worst things that could happen.  At the foundation of social and moral life among the Celts was the concept of personal honor.  St. Patrick was once reputed to have asked the bard Ossian, ‘And how did you manage to live before Jesus Christ came to show you how?’  And Ossian replied, ‘By the strength in our bodies and the honor in our hearts and the truth on our tongues.’[5]

The Celts held a strong belief in honor, in recognizing and following gessas (taboos), and in the ‘Act of Truth,’ believing truth-telling to be not only a socially good idea but a vital, magical force that can even have effects in the seemingly-unrelated material world. In the portion of the Dindshenchas known as firinne flatha or ‘Justice of a Ruler’, we find this belief illustrated: “Corn and milk in every stead, peace and fair weather for its sake, were granted to the heathen tribes of the Greeks, because they preserved truth.”[6] Acts like truth-telling and maintaining justice, matters of personal responsibility, mattered. Like that of the Romans, this was a culture with Indo-European warrior roots, but one that played out very differently.

A warrior who won without honor was scorned, but a person with integrity was publicly acknowledged in many ways. At a feast, for example, the various parts of the foods were ranked in order of superiority, and the greatest of these, the ‘hero’s bit’, went to the greatest among the company, the second-best piece to the second-greatest, and so on down the line.[7] An inferior portion offered to the wrong person might lead to dire consequences, as the always-armed, probably drunken, hot-headed heroes would fight to the death at the least hint of insult.  And as with the golden apple of chaos, sometimes there were more worthies than there were meats fit to give them.

To further maintain their status in public, when at the feast they sit in a circle in the round building, thus insuring that all those of equal rank are at an equal distance from the chief or host, who sits right in the middle.  Squires, servants and others, according to their office, sit or stand behind them.[8] It’s easy to imagine that this custom was the origin of the Arthurian Round Table.

Here is dealt with the touchy subject of acknowledgement of superiority without the enforced rank-and-file obedience to the uniform (regardless of the character of the person who happens to be wearing it) found in many hierarchical systems.

 

Laws and Language

Gaius tells us “the laws of the Roman people consist of legislation, enactments of the plebiscita [plebeians or common people], resolutions of the senate, constitutions of the emperors, the edicts of those who have the right to issue edicts, and the answers of the jurisprudents.”[9] In contrast, Ireland’s Brehon Laws, originally written down in the 7th century, had their origins in oral transmissions from long before that time, and were more a list of customs than legislative texts.

Oral transmission carried much more importance to these tribal people than written. Julius Caesar commented on his observation of the Gauls, people in France who were similar to their cousins across the channel in this characteristic:

The Gauls commit to memory immense amounts of poetry.  And so some of them continue their studies for twenty years.  They consider it improper to entrust their studies to writing, although they use the Greek alphabet for nearly everything else, in their public and private accounts.[10]

So these people were not illiterate; it’s just that written language was considered lowly, good only for keeping shop records. Knowledge, on the other hand, more secret and sacred, was to be held in and passed through the educated head.  (Perhaps this is one reason behind their head-cults.)  It is reputed that the Irish literati even had a secret language, known as berla na filed, into whose secrets the hero CuChulainn was initiated, as was his wife Emer.[11] Not to mention the extremely complex 7 systems, where a particular sound = a carved ‘letter’ = a tree = a month = a hand signal … and so on.  Celtic languages, like their knotwork, had a richness, a depth of intertwining magical meaning that is nearly unimaginable or incomprehensible to us in a world of newspapers, TiVo, and Microsoft.  I speculate that the Brehon Laws, along with the Mabinogion, the Leabhar Gabhala (Book of Invasions), the Voyage of Bran, the Tain bo Cuailgne, and other core works, were all put to paper only when the habitual use of paper began to threaten the continued existence of oral culture.

The ancient Celts were masters of spoken language, with a great love of subtlety and intellectual exercise.  In Ireland it is known that an ollamh, the highest grade of filidh (poet/seer), had to have committed to memory 350 stories, 250 long and 100 short.[12] To aid mnemonically, much of this was in rhyme.  The harp was often played with these verses, probably because the harp is inherently good, unlike the violin, which has a choice between good and evil.  A violin can drive away demons and mosquitoes if it wants to, especially if played by a novice.  The harp, on the other hand, if in tune, sounds beautiful even if you drop it.

The poetic profession also had its rankings,[13] and competition was just as fierce –if not fiercer – than among the fighters for the highest status… indeed, bards made scalding satires of a most scathing nature against one another:

Then Medb sent the Druids and satirists and harsh bards for Fer Diad, that they might make against him three satires to stay him and three lampoons, and that they might raise on his face three blisters, shame, blemish and disgrace, so that he might die before the end of nine days if he did not succumb at once. [14]

Celtic poetry, far from being lyrical beatnik free-flow verse, was the carefully tooled equivalent of today’s textbooks.  This was the way the people were educated in their culture’s history and lore; each piece, so rich and polished from the many tellings, could be peeled like an onion to discover deeper and deeper layers of meaning. Like Sufi stories or the old Bugs Bunny cartoons, the most profound of Secret Druidic teachings were spoken aloud but simultaneously hidden in tales that children could enjoy.

Beginning with the fusion with Roman culture and developed further by Christian monks, the commitment of such chronicles to hard, ephemeral paper meant the end of the keenly developed memory that comes with an oral tradition.  The predominant use of the discerning eye began to supersede that of the older, more poetic ear.

As a side dish, the Roman system of laws and their enforcement through civil police and barristers in a patriarchal, hierarchical State-run guilt society replaced the system of reputation and its keeping through boasting, foolhardy deeds, personal honor, and satire of a tribal shame society.  To use cultural historian William Irwin Thompson’s terms, the old mathematical model of the world was replaced by a newer geometrical mind-set.[15]

To contrast this Roman system with the Brehon Laws they were superseding, Maeve Binchy observes that in the latter,

“We also find … (a) passion for classification which meet us in the Hindu law books. In other words, the jurists … tended to produce a symmetrical pattern, and in the interests of symmetry they sometimes generalised rules and institutions which in real life had a much more restricted ambit.”[16]

It seems that along with their more tangible possessions, the Celts liked to embellish their laws with interlaced knotwork as well.

 

Meanwhile, Back at the War…

Now that we have established some cultural context, let’s go back to the conflict.

The people in the area known now as Wales would have nothing of Roman rule, however distant.  Guerrilla activity there escalated. The charismatic leader Caratacus began stirring up an epidemic of raiding from behind Roman lines. And to the North, the great sprawling federation of tribes, collectively known as the Brigantes, were still openly uncertain about their attitude toward the Roman occupation.

All of these factors served to make Ostorius Scapula nervous. Fearing even “a bitter treacherous peace which would give neither general nor army any rest,” [17] Scapula decided to go the ‘ounce of prevention’ route, reducing tribal territories and disarming all potential troublemakers before they got the idea to revolt. Thus, all voluntary allies of Rome were humiliatingly and summarily stripped of their weapons.

Such tyranny was, of course, completely unacceptable and created just what Scapula had hoped to avoid, a mass revolt of infuriated allies in 49-50.  When small revolts occurred, revenge was swift. The first revolt of the Iceni tribe was quickly put down, and according to Tacitus, their defeat “quieted others who were wavering between war and peace. The Roman army then struck against the nearby Degeangli tribe, ravaging their territory and collecting extensive booty.”[18]

In the wake of their first unsuccessful rebellion arose Prasutagus as the client-king of the Iceni, with his young wife of royal birth, Boadicea, ruling beside him.[19]

 

Enter Boadicea

Who was Boadicea? A woman with new knowledge of injustice and tyranny, holding memories of freer times before the coming of these armored Southerners and their buildings.  A fiery woman, a warrioress “very tall and terrifying in appearance; her voice was very harsh and a great mass of red hair fell over her shoulders.”[20] A queen of her times, versed in augury and magic, who could take on an aspect of the Goddess at will to inspire and awe her people.  And she was also a war commander-in-chief, who was to lead the subsequent rebellions.

On the eve of the first battle, Boadicea invoked the goddess of victory, Andraste, “as woman speaking to woman,”[21] and released a hare from the folds of her robe.

This hare had a twofold purpose to these practitioners of Celtic animal magic. The first was as a divination to check the omens, as the (perhaps set up) direction in which the hare ran off foretold to the assembled people whether or not the battle would go well.

The second purpose was to hopefully capitalize on Roman ignorance of such branches of learning. Although the Romans practiced augury by animals too,[22] this act of Boadicea’s was specialized and land-based:  the British had a taboo against hunting the hare, which was suspended only on one day of the year, May-eve.  It was said that to defy this taboo was to be struck with cowardice.  Boadicea probably hoped that the hungry Romans would strike at this hare and by doing so, lose their courage.[23]

 

A Woman’s Place

The Roman historian Tacitus reported back about this strange race, “neque enim sexum in imperiis discernunt” (they make no distinction of sex in their appointment of commanders.) [24] The known reigning queens of the time number only two, Cartimandua and Boudica.  However, as Roman historians were none too detailed in their chronicling of the matters of the ‘barbarian’ peoples, there are only six known sovereigns/chieftains’ names in total.  Thus the women make a good show, constituting fully one-third of the sovereigns mentioned by name.

Even though the Romans would have none of this female rule in Roman culture, they seem to have had no problem in dealing with sovereign women acting as client-queens for Rome in their own lands. Brigantia, a large British territory whose capital was probably present-day York,[25] was ruled over by the queen Cartimandua (“Sleek Pony”),[26] lineal inheritor of the crown from her father King Dumnocoveros and his father Volisios.  When she married the ruler of the north Yorkshire area, Venutius, he as a male did not automatically take over the power:  it was Cartimandua who remained the sovereign of the whole; her name that appeared on the coinage.[27] And it may well have been she who made Brigantia a Roman client-kingdom by submitting to Claudius in 43.  Later, when Venutius lead a revolt against her in an attempt to take the throne, it was through Rome’s support that she was able to retain it.

In the words of Antonia Fraser, ” it is evident that …the Romans had no objection to ‘humiliating feminine rule’ so long as it suited their particular brand of power politics.”[28] And, I might add, so long as it doesn’t get out of hand:  Dio Cassius, chronicling the Boudiccan rebellion, states,  “Moreover, all this ruin was brought upon the Romans by a woman, a fact which in itself caused them the greatest shame.”[29]

 

Corruption in the Roman Outposts

Becoming increasingly corrupt in their dealings with the Britons, the Romans began taking over tribal lands to build eight retirement villas for their aging campaign veterans.  Local free peoples, such as the Trinovantes in Camoludunum, found themselves forced to stop their own pursuits in favor of slaving away as prisoners building entire colonias, complete with temples and other elaborate Roman-style constructions.  Ostentatious civic buildings, complete with busts of the emperor, were erected in hopes of stirring up feelings of comradeship and loyalty to the new masters.

The poor misguided Romans didn’t understand that to the Celtic mind, these edifices were nothing but an infuriating ‘blatant stronghold of alien rule.’[30] And to add insult to injury, the Celts were expected to pay for it!  It is not surprising, therefore, to find the ground ripe for the seed of Boudicca’s rage to be planted.

The final straw came upon the death of Prasutagus in CE 60, when the Roman financial administrator ignored his last will which generously made the emperor co-heir with his own two daughters, instead seizing from the hereditary nobles and chiefs the total of the King’s considerable estate and treasure. Even Tacitus seems to have disapproved:

“For no crime whatsoever, “kingdom and household alike were plundered like prizes of war.”[31]

The king’s relatives were treated like slaves. The freeborn, independent Queen was brutally beaten, scourged; and her two young daughters, the designated heiresses to the throne, were raped.

This was no random act; symbolic violence showing mastery over the queen and future queens implies mastery over the Iceni as a whole.  The Romans’ mistake lay in not realizing that the Queen can symbolize the people to themselves as well, for this arrogant insulting degradation catalyzed Boadicea to fan the smoldering anger of the tribes into a revolt which this time turned into a raging brushfire, too fierce to be put out by any agency other than its own finite lifespan; its own internal flaws.

 

Tribal Rebellion

Under Boadicea’s leadership, the army of angry British tribes swelled, according to Dio Cassius, to the number of 230,000 within six months’ time.  They crushed the IXth Roman Legion and engulfed three cities, plundering their wealth and massacring over 70,000 people (including those sacrificed to Andraste, the goddess of victory) in most creative ways. They burned Camelodunum (modern Colchester), Londinium (modern London), and Verulamium (modern St. Albans) to the ground in fires that are estimated to have raged over 1000 degrees Centigrade, so hot that they scorched the very earth red to a layer sixteen inches deep.[32]

The Britons must have felt they had the gods on their side when the Roman statue of Victory at Camoludunum spontaneously fell down with no clear causation, “with its back turned as if it were fleeing the enemy. Delirious women chanted of destruction at hand.”[33]

The departing Boudiccan armies left the even-then bustling cosmopolitan city of London a ghost town for twenty years.

 

Incident on the Isle of Mona

So where was the Governor of Britain while the Celts were sacking his towns?  Suetonius Paulinus was as far away as possible, attacking a Druidic sanctuary for dissidents on the Isle of Mona (Anglesey), with every intention of laying it waste.  This incident captures the essence of the shifting of cultures, the ambered moment when the discipline of the Roman army met with the Celtic forces of wyrd :

On the shore stood the opposing army with its dense array of armed warriors, while between the ranks dashed women in black attire round the Druids, lifting up their hands to heaven and pouring forth dreadful imprecations, scared our soldiers by the unfamiliar sight so that, as if their limbs were paralysed, they stood motionless and exposed to wounds… [34]

At this moment, the old magic held sway.  These Roman soldiers, as individuals, were caught by the protective en-chant-ments these adepts were weaving.

This weird spectacle awed the Roman soldiers into a sort of paralysis. They stood still – and presented themselves as a target.[35]

Perhaps the Roman troops were lured there, even, as part of a Druidic plan to divert their energy away from the Camelodunum area and the planned uprisings there.  But the Druids had made a tragic mistake in not realizing that these people were mutating into something other, a new strain of functional separatist hierarchy which could numb the poetic sense in favor of the rational, and so better resist the old ways of power:

But then they urged each other (and were urged by the general) not to fear a horde of fanatical women. Onward pressed their standards and they bore down their opponents, enveloping them in the flames of their own torches. Suetonius garrisoned the conquered island. The groves devoted to Mona’s barbarous superstitions he demolished. [36]

And so the Druidic stronghold, seat of economic and spiritual power and perhaps the main center for British Isles Druidic training, was laid to ruin; the lives of the best and brightest lost.  This was a massacre akin, in a way, to the battle of Wounded Knee in the U.S.

But while the satisfied Roman troops were celebrating their victory by hacking down to toothpicks and dust the ancient tree groves of Mona (equivalent to later cathedrals in terms of sacredness), word came to Suetonius that the South was in flames.

 

The Eve Before the Final Battle: General Suetonius & Queen Boudicea

Suetonius as a general exemplified the strengths of a Roman war leader   He was everything the loose-knit band of Celts were not:  a veteran commander with experience in many regions, he was accustomed to snappy hierarchical obedience; his legions of seasoned professional fighting men took orders like the well-oiled military machine they were.  Suetonius knew well how to plan strategies.  He studied his opponent coolly and carefully for weaknesses, and unsentimentally decided to sacrifice a city full of civilians in order to gain the advantage of choosing the place of battle.

On the eve of the final battle, Suetonius and Boadicea each rallied their troops on with fiery speeches.

“I am fighting as an ordinary person for my lost freedom, my bruised body and my outraged daughters … Consider how many of you are fighting — and why.  Then you will win this battle, or perish.  That is what I, a woman, plan to do!  Let the men live in slavery if they will,” exhorts Boadicea, playing on their prideful egos.

“In their ranks there are more women than fighting men,” Suetonius scorns. “Fear not, then, their numbers or their spirit of rebellion; for their boldness rests on nothing more than headlong rashness unaided by arms or training!”[37]

In this last observation, Suetonius was right.  Most of the Celtic force consisted of angry farmers and herders, pushed beyond their point of endurance.

 

War to the Romans vs. War to the Britons

These two armies, like Custer’s bunch and the Sioux, had little in common save a central nervous system; and even those worked on their owners in different ways.  The Romans were professional soldiers here for Rome, serving the centralized State by fighting for expansion of imperial territory.  Their system consisted of a one-way flow of orders flowing to those who must obey them: a commander-and-minions hierarchy.  By contrast, the Celtic tribal chiefs were bound to their people by a complex system of reciprocation, almost like the potlatch culture of the Pacific Northwest Coast Indians.[38] These loosely federated peoples were all there fighting the Romans by choice, seeking bloody retribution for injustices done them as individuals and as tribes, and to push the obnoxious invaders out of their hair once and for all.

If the Celts had won, the war would have been over.  As it went the other way, Roman colonization kept it going for another 400 years.

For the Romans, war was a serious business, to be conducted by males who specialized in only that.  Avoiding individual glory, their aim was to serve their legion and make sure that it was the best. They were heavily equipped, with body armor to the waist, helmets with neck protection, studded open boots and a vast array of weapons, using standards and the cornu (horn) as a means of signaling communications and orders across the battlefield.[39]

The Britons couldn’t have been more different, especially to Roman eyes. As Caesar saw them, the Gauls “are of lofty nature, fair and of ruddy complexion: terrible from the sternness of their eyes, very quarrelsome and of great pride and insolence.”[40] Passionate, brave to the point of foolhardiness, and fiery-tempered, they lacked tenacity and had practically no organizational ability.  Their best shot was the first one, and their horns were used only to inspire fear.  Often, battles were won by the sheer ferocity of the first wave or by the terror they inflicted on the poor enemy confronted with this screaming prehistoric punker in his lime-spiked bleached hair, blue tattoos, and very little else.  The Britons generally went to war as a joyous picnic; an occasion to show off, to plunder booty, and to gain legendary status through living new stories about their bravery.

Thanks to a worldview that envisioned the afterlife as glorious, they were proud to fear nothing, even death; and often went into battle stark naked save, perhaps, for their ceremonial torcs (neck-rings), belts, and other decorations.  Wielding as weapons their enormous longswords (useless at close range) or lanciae (spears), they had no other armor besides their decorated body-length shields, several of which could be locked together.  Even though at times so many spears became lodged in the shields that they grew too heavy to carry, still the Celts “scorned the Roman helmets, breastplates and greaves, saying that the Britons believed that their shields gave greater protection than did the whole suits of mail of the Romans.” [41]

The Celts took pains to maintain a high standard of personal appearance.  They had a strange smell to most people of their day because of their use of soap, and loved to adorn themselves and their things with intricate decoration. Pausanius observed,

“The Roman soldiers were well aware of the splendid ornaments worn by their opponents and before one battle they were told by their generals that soldiers should not be adorned with gold and silver but should rely on their weapons and their courage.”[42]

Outward beauty was seen as a manifestation of greatness; therefore their gods and fairies were of extraordinary, breathtaking magnificence.  An aging monarch would be necessarily deposed, for fear that with his or her increasing weakness would come a weakness upon the land and people as well.  Consequently, a ruler who was maimed or scarred in battle would also step down, and nobody with a deformity would ever be considered fit to rule.

This standard applied to mental faculties as well as physical; no mightily thewed Conan-type airheads need apply!  The true Celtic HeroIne must be a well-rounded person, gifted or at least moderately skilled in many areas of human endeavor.  CuChulainn, for example, could speak the secret Ogam language.   This way of thought would continue as the future standard for the chivalric knighthood, which was also to carry on the concept of fir fer (fair play)[43] in the honorable one-on-one duel.

Warriors of both sexes were well known. Aífe, a respected master in the arts of war and magic, and the chosen trainer of the legendary hero Cuchulain, was a woman. “We British are used to women commanders in war,” Boadicea reminds her ranks on the eve of the battle,[44] just in case some of Suetonius’ sexist ravings had begun to give them pause.

 

A Woman’s Place in Celtic Tribal Society: Marriage & Womens’ Rights

“Woman is a violent and uncontrolled animal, and it is no good giving her the reins and expecting her not to kick over the traces,” the Roman historian Livy quotes Cato the elder.[45] The very fact that sovereign queenship was not only unknown but also laughable to the soon-to-be conquerors of the western world is quite poignant.  Women in the British Isle Celtic societies of these times enjoyed a far better – or at least freer and more egalitarian ­– life than that of the Roman matron, for all of her lovely comforts.  Celtic women had rights in matters of ownership, inheritance, marriage, and religion, all of which went the way of the buffalo when the Romans got hold of the culture’s reins.

The matter of Celtic marriage laws is especially interesting in comparison with contemporary western norms, in that they were not created by later Christian standards. There is evidence of great emphasis on love and the family, but little on sexual fidelity.

The Brehon Laws list ten types of union, including temporary relationships and permanent marriage.  Divorces were easy to get, and concubinage was legally allowed.[46] There were great annual fairs at which concubines could be ‘rented’ for a one-year term. Through the enforcement of a time limit, the woman was saved from coming under the manus of the man; she remained free.[47]

Polygamy was also acceptable: a man could have a chief wife, slave women, and a second wife; the latter of whom was known asadaltrach (the adulteress).  In a bit of brilliant psychological jurisprudence, the Brehon Laws allow for the first wife to attack and injure the second wife without being liable for damages.  However, if anyone else were to harm her, the husband would be entitled to compensation.[48]

Polyandry was also quite common.  According to Caesar, one British woman could have a group of ten or twelve husbands, usually brothers or fathers and sons.  The children are considered part of the house of the first husband.[49]

Trial marriage is mentioned by Giraldus Cambrensis as common among the Welsh; this type of relationship, turning permanent only with the birth of children, continued to be practiced among the families of the Scottish chiefs through the end of the Middle Ages.[50]

Women, married or not, had the right to own property.  If a Celtic woman married a foreign man with no family in the region, the marriage was said to be ‘of the man’ and any property ‘of the woman’. Caesar noted that a first wife in Gaul, the cet muinter (chief woman), would bring a dowry of property with her into the marriage.  The calculated worth of this property would then be matched by the husband, creating a common stock that was managed jointly.  Upon death, the survivor inherited both halves, plus any profits that had been made on it.

However, there also existed a general principle that a woman may not make a contract without her husband’s consent unless their holdings are exactly equal.[51] This is why in the great Irish epic Tain bo Cuailgne, the adventures begin with Queen Medb and her husband Ailill engaged in pillow talk about the extent of their respective property.  It was imperative for her to determine that their cattle were of equal number, quality and value; and very much worth it to Medb to go to war in order to achieve this balance.  If it had not worked out and their marriage had ended due to this feuding, not to worry: under the ancient law, a woman leaving her husband kept everything hers, even the products of her domestic labor.[52]

It is important to remember when encountering sources of information about the Celts that the until the latter part of the 1800s, the majority of antiquarians worked with the thought that the scraps of evidence extricated from Greek and Roman sources were the final authority. Anne Ross notes, “The idea never entered their heads that non-Greek and non-Roman evidence could be brought to tell its own story, or indeed that it had any value at all.”[53] So given that there is quite a body of evidence which supports the existence of female Druids, including numerous examples of magic-using or prophesying women in the insular texts of Celtic lore, plus direct references to several female druids even in the classical literature;[54] and there is no direct evidence against the existence of Druidesses, I must disagree with quite a few sources and propose that women had high positions in the spiritual realm as well. After all, most of these accounts are written from an etic perspective by male writers from an invading culture, and interpreted by modern EuroChristian-based writers, also male; both from an outside, patriarchal society who, looking at things through their own cultural veils, are not expected to look for evidence of sexual egalitarianism in any field of endeavor, let alone the sanctified priesthood.

Working remnants of the female-oriented past are not hard to find in Celtic society. Hubert observes, “We have instances of succession through the female line and even of matriarchy in the legendary ruling houses of Ireland and the historical ruling houses of Britain.”[55] The mother’s name is used to indicate the descent of the heroes Cuchulain and Conchobar.  The father has the right to life and death over his children, but Irish law assigns children born out of wedlock to the mother’s family.  Gallic women ran around in trousers (witness a statue in the British Museum), and fought alongside the men in wars.  Irish women were given military duties in proportion to their landed property.

Only with the coming of Christianity through the mediation of the Holy Roman Empire did these rights drop away like dying petals, one by one.  As the reckoning of descent through the female line faded, women were deprived of their other powers as well.  For example, an amendment came about that said one might gain exemption from service by giving up half one’s property to the family.[56] This supposed ‘right’ was the beginning of the end.

 

A Woman’s Place in the Roman Empire

By contrast, the famed laws by which Roman civilization flourished were no beacons for the female half of their race. A Roman woman had no rights, and was essentially owned by the men in her life much as a slave would be.  The dominant religion, Mithraism, was a bull-cult with no place for cows: women were excluded from participating, much less holding positions of power.

A Roman matron spent her entire life inter utramque facem (‘between the two torches’); that is, in the domus (house) from the day she was carried into it by torchlight as a young teenage bride until the day she went out of it on her funeral pyre.  She could not go out unescorted or without her husband’s knowledge.  At meals, while he reclined, she sat.  She took no wine, and was expected to be silent during intellectual or political discussions.

A virtuous wife, according to a Roman in 8 BCE, had the following qualities:

… a faithful wife to me, and an obedient one:  you were kind and gracious, sociable and friendly: you were assiduous at your spinning; you followed the religious rites of your family and your state, and admitted no foreign cults or degraded magic: you did not dress conspicuously, nor seek to make a display in your household arrangements.  Your duty to our whole household was exemplary: you tended my mother as carefully as if she had been your own… [57]

Augustus, realizing that a lax view of marriage could harm the State, created laws enforcing marital statutes. For the crime of divorce came punishments ranging from fees to banishment upon a far-off island.  Certain people were forbidden to marry, including whores, adulterers, and actresses (to Senators!)  But all other men between the ages of 25-60 and women between 20-50 were required by law to engage in marriage.[58]

To the biased eye of this freeborn woman from another culture (albeit one that has inherited a lot from these Romans), the beautiful brick-and-tile Roman houses with genuine lead water pipes were a stellar example of early women’s prisons.  If the pipes didn’t kill you, the oppression could.

 

Civitas

The Roman people, unlike the Celts, excelled at being citizens.

The peoples of Italy invented the State; they had a clear notion of the respublica, of which the most progressive of the Celts certainly had no more than a rather vague idea. [59]

Civic life was unknown to the Britons. Numerous Roman generals, with their curious minds and lofty views of civilization, kept prodigious notes on the strange and interesting ways of the ‘barbarian’ peoples they encountered. Amongst the Celts, they reported, “nothing was known of architecture, not even of architecture in wood, even rites and ceremonies were never held within doors, but in the open air under a tree”.[60]

Contrast this with the Romans who, concerned with making their civilization outlast themselves, worked industriously like the third little pig, building great stone and brick houses of law, churches, court buildings, roads, amphitheaters, monuments, statues and the like.  And to go with these buildings, the people were modeling themselves into citizens, with a complex pantheon of coded behaviors with laws and magistrates to decode and enforce them. To pay the expenses of such erections, they levied copious taxes,[61] which of course added further to the number of disputes, thus providing yet more work for yet more lawyers.  And in order to convince folks to trade their days picking flowers in the sun for hauling bricks about, they came up with astoundingly complex ways for even free men to bond themselves in a work-contract to a master, including the insidious idea of operae (‘man-days’), thereby reducing our lives to commodity chunks, a ‘work unit with a money value,’[62] and wedding us indelibly to the clock.  Surely a new development in Progress! – although whose could be debated.

Both cultures knew slavery, but only the Romans chose a similar lot while free.  The concept of disciplined teamwork, absolutely unheard of to the Celt, was the mainstay of Roman culture, whether in the Senate, the road crew, or the military.  A ‘well-oiled machine’, the goal of military even today, where every person is a perfectly fitted cog in hirs[63] slot, was the pride and backbone of what the Romans built.  Their leaders demanded obedience, and through their positions, commanded respect.

The Celtic chieftains also enjoyed the respect of their people, but in this case it was because of personal ideals.  They were expected to uphold the highest standards of fairness, loyalty, judgment, wisdom and integrity in holding to the laws.  The 3rd-century Dalriadic king Cormac macAirt’s instructions to his son Cairbre, such as the “Traditional Prescription for a Chieftain,” illustrate these in an exemplary manner. [64]

 

The Final Battle

As much of this conflict illustrates an archetypal changeover from one sort of human cultural modus operandi to another, so does this final battle chart the tragic flaw that led to the Britons’ ultimate demise.  I’m calling this battle a ‘tragic’ one in the Shakespearean sense, because the root causes of Boadicea’s people being ultimately overthrown are rooted in their own cultural ways.

In their lust for plundering loot, the Britons forgot their original goal of routing the Romans and getting back to their own free lives.  Ever greedier, they went from town to town, wandering away the season that would ordinarily have been devoted to herding and farming (thus decimating potential stores of food that would soon be needed), and also giving Suetonius time to gain the upper hand.

By allowing the seasoned war leader Suetonius to amass backup troops, choose the time and place of the battle, and plan his attack, the Celts created strong strikes against themselves.

But the suicide blow was struck at the battle itself. The Britons, as was their wont, all came to war together, complete with wagons full of camp followers. Kids, dogs, and older people all circled into the rear of the site to cheer their warriors on.  But Suetonius had utilized his time-advantage to situate his troops in a site that was protected on three sides by bushes, leaving only the back open for entry.  When the first wild horn-blowing attack from the Britons was over, the professional Roman troops flanked them and began a systematic slaughtering.  And it was precisely because of the presence of their own wagons blocking the entrance to the area that the Celtic warriors all perished: they simply could not get away.  They were corralled by their own families, and ultimately, by their own tribal ways.

The Romans slaughtered everyone that day: warriors, old men, babies… even the pack animals.  Many historians assume that Boadicea, rather than be taken prisoner and displayed like a puppet in the Roman courts, or have her daughters suffer further tortures, lived out her words and took her own life.

 

After the Fall

After this fall, a long drawn-out persecution began. German troops were brought in as reinforcements, and Roman forts hastily erected for control of the population. With nothing planted that year, starvation ran rampant.  Farms were burned, sanctuaries desecrated, torcs denoting power and rulership hidden deep within the ground.

The Iceni were made slaves on their own wasted land, and they did not rebel again. “They create a desolation and call it peace,” observes Calgacus, an (unsuccessful) dissident of the next generation.[65]

In this battle were lost four hundred Romans, eighty thousand Britons, and a way of life.

 

Conclusion

British Isles Celts, while big on personal honor, abilities, and beauty, had little connection with what to us are standard concepts such as citizenship or taking pride in the manor.  For all of their emphasis on beautifully decorated useful possessions (cattle, mirrors, clothing, cups and the like), there wasn’t much interest in permanent building.  Looking quite a bit like a classic Peace Corps round mud hut, their dwellings boasted only meager furnishings:  low tables for holding food, bundles of reeds to sit on.[66] They built no elegant homes, courthouses, bathhouses; no paved roads. They wrote no books. They worshipped outdoors, in groves of certain trees, and so built no churches or rectories. All edifices that the Romans took inordinate pride in; all that we consider the pillars of modern civilization – the complex tools, public buildings, and even written language – of these things the Britons would have no part in.

They surely knew of such things from years of trading with the Greeks and other civic-oriented peoples, but chose to give their tribal energy to issues of ephemeral being (song, poetry, martial prowess, magical arts) as I imagine whales do, rather than to making and amassing things.

Their pride lay in themselves as individuals and as tribes, and in their deeds and ways; and so what possessions they had were made well and decorated intricately, to the extent that the bottom of heavy vessels were as inlaid with ornamentation as perfectly as the part that would ordinarily be seen.  Perfection of craftsmanship was honored, as was skill at weapons or with the harp, and the strength of the body, all seen as sought-after qualities embodied best by the gods. This is a way of life that continued only in the twilight backyards of a few on the fringes of mainstream western culture.

It is clear that many ways and institutions which we consider routine in our lives today are derived from Roman thought, such as indoor baths, hired labor, plumbing, magistrates, the enforcement of intricate laws, military structure, civic buildings, long roads.

And much of what we yearn for was lost in the Celtic Twilight: a culture-wide demand for honor and truth, wildness and laughter; freedom of the individual, equality of men and women, deep ties to the natural world, use of imagination as a way to understand the world, and recognition of ‘magic’ and the presence of the divine as part of everyday life.

Also lost to those times was much of what we fear:  public nakedness, human sacrifice, dependency upon seasonal and lunar cycles, collective living, the wholesale cultivation of terrifying personal and magical power, skull collecting and everyday contact with death.

The collective cultural consciousness of the British Isles and other parts of central Europe was suddenly, strongly, irrevocably altered around 100 CE.  Western humanity lost its first youth with the coming of the Romans.

If you want more about pre-Christian/pre-Roman Celtic cultures,

check out “‘Celtic Shamanism': Pagan Celtic Spirituality”

and also posts like Power of Raven

`

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Caesar, Julius. The Gallic War. London, 1966 (reprint).

Crook, J.A. Law and Life of Rome, 90 B.C. – A.D. 212. Cornell University Press, 1984.

Fraser, Antonia. The Warrior Queens. New York: Knopf, 1989.

Graves, Robert.  The White Goddess (amended ed.).  Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966.

Grose-Hodge, Humfrey.  Roman Panorama. New York: MacMillan, 1947.

Hubert, Henri.  The Greatness and Decline of the Celts. Arno, 1980 (reprint)

Peddie, John.  Invasion: The Roman Conquest of Britain. St. Martin’s, 1987.

Phillips, Guy Ragland.  Brigantia: A Mysteriography. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976.

Ritchie, W.F. Celtic Warriors. U.K.: Shire Pubs, 1985.

Ross, Anne.  The Pagan Celts (expanded ed.).  New York: Barnes & Noble, 1986.

Schuller, Wolfgang.  Frauen in der Rømischen Geschichte. Muenchen, Germany: Piper, 1992 (reprint).

Speltz, Alexander.  Styles of Ornament. New York: Dover, 1959.

Tacitus.  The Annals of Imperial Rome. Michael Grant, transl. Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1973 (reprint).

Thompson, William Irwin.  The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light. New York: St. Martin’s, 1981.

Williamson, Robin (Freely translated excerpt from the 12th-century Irish text Agallamh na Seanóirí). Heard in oral concert 3/17/93, Berkeley CA: The Freight and Salvage.

`


FOOTNOTES

[1] Tacitus XII.29, p.265

[2] ibid, p. 51

[3] Ross 1986, pp. 87-88

[4] Hubert 1980, p.197

[5] Williamson 1993

[6] Ross 1986, p. 90

[7] Hubert 1980, p. 271

[8] ibid, p. 270

[9] Crook 1984, p. 19; explanation of term ‘plebiscita’ is mine (TF).

[10] Ross 1986, p. 97

[11] ibid

[12] Hubert 1980, p. 267

[13] ibid, p. 268

[14] Ross 1986, p.98 (quoting the Tain bo Cuailgne [Cattle-Raid of Cooley])

[15] See Thompson 1981 for a fascinating and readable unpacking of Jean Gebser’s theory about how various evolutionary stages of human consciousness can be seen through historical literature.

[16] ibid, p.87-8

[17] Tacitus XII.29 (p 265)

[18] ibid

[19] Fraser 1989, p. 46

[20] Ritchie 1985, p. 14

[21] Fraser 1989, p.71

[22] Grose-Hodge 1947, p.170-1

[23] Graves 1966, p.404

[24] Fraser 1989, p. 55

[25] Phillips 1976, p.41

[26] Fraser 1989, p.53

[27] Phillips 1976, p.41

[28] Fraser 1989, p.54

[29] ibid, p. 58

[30] ibid, p.65 (quoting Tacitus)

[31] ibid, p.61 (quoting Tacitus)

[32] Fraser 1989, p. 63

[33] Tacitus XIV.30, p. 328.

[34] Ross 1986, p.116 (quoting a different translation of Tacitus, Annals, XIV, 30)

[35] Tacitus XIV.30, p. 327.

[36] Tacitus XIV.30, p. 327.

[37] Fraser 1989, p.96

[38] Hubert 1980, p.193

[39] Peddie 1987, p.43

[40] ibid, p.44 (quoting Ammianus Marcellinus)

[41] Ritchie 1985, p.37 (quoting Pausanias)

[42] ibid, p.16

[43] Ross 1986, p.90

[44] Fraser 1989, p.96

[45] ibid, p. 63

[46] Ross 1986, 89

[47] Hubert 1980, 205-6

[48] Ross 1986, 89

[49] Caesar, V, 14 and Hubert 1980, 203

[50] Hubert 1980, 207

[51] ibid, 204-6

[52] ibid, 106-7

[53] Ross 1986, 18 (quoting Mahr)

[54] Ross 1986, 116

[55] Hubert 1980, p.204

[56] ibid, 204-5

[57] Grose-Hodge 1947, 148

[58] Schuller 1992, 71

[59] Hubert 1980, 189

[60] Speltz 1959, 16

[61] Crook 1984, 256

[62] ibid, 191

[63] Sic; a new (and likely pathetic) attempt at a gender-neutral pronoun.

[64] I apologize for not including actual excerpts here; I can’t find a copy of the source to draw from. But there’s a modernized, business-oriented translation of The Counsels of Cormac by Thomas Cleary (Random House, 2004) that may provide bits of the real deal.

[65] Fraser 1989, 103

[66] Hubert 1980, p.270

Thanks for reading this all the way down!

 

16 Responses to “Boadicea’s Last Stand”

  1. Dan Craig-Morse (Facebook link) Says:

    Hi Tina, you are full of gems! I would love to have tea with you and grock on the significance of pre-Roman celtic society. Having been to England this past spring, with an eye for pre-Romanized culture, it would be fun to chat.

  2. Adam Perry (Facebook link) Says:

    great read!

  3. Carey Caccavo Wheaton (Facebook link) Says:

    This looks wonderful… I want to print it out and curl up with it tomorrow…: )

  4. Peter Bergonzi (Facebook link) Says:

    Good read, Tina. Really like the conclusion.

  5. Tom Says:

    I’m impressed, I must say. Really rarely do I encounter a blog that’s both educative and entertaining. I am very happy that I stumbled across this.

  6. JM Young Says:

    You’ve made a few posts that have had a major impact on my thinking. I just wanted to say thank you.

  7. Apfel Says:

    I truly appreciate your work. Great post.

  8. Grohmann Says:

    You are a very bright individual!

  9. Jewel Honeyman Says:

    I appreciate the article, it was interesting and compelling.

  10. Eastwood Says:

    I am glad to be a visitor of this sodding web site! Thanks for this rare info!

  11. Ebonie Vinson Says:

    Your writing is great:)

  12. jiimmy Says:

    WONDERFUL Post. Thanks.

  13. Luvenia Brickel Says:

    Informative and precise…

  14. Jenette Mckenna Says:

    Thank you for some great information. I am trying to find out the exact route she took on her campaign both going and coming back. Can you help?

    • Tina Fields Says:

      Hi Jenette,
      I’m glad you liked this piece. You ask an interesting question, but I’m sorry to say that I do not know the exact route; I’m not sure anyone does. We know the major bits, of course – that the Iceni took three Roman settlements in the following order: Camelodunum (modern Colchester), Londinium (London), and Verulamiam (St. Albans). Historians are arguing over where her final battle might have taken place, as all we have are Roman descriptions of the topographical features of the land – and those told and re-told after the fact. If you do figure out how to map her route (or even variants on same), I hope you’ll share it with us here.


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