by Joseph E Roesch
Edition reviewed, Robert Hale, London, 2006, ISBN 0-7090-7958-3
Website at www.boudica-roesch.com for more information and to contact the author.
Boudica, Queen of the Iceni is set in Britain in AD 33-62 and tells the story of the historical queen Boudica and her rebellion against Roman government in Britain.
Boudica's story is well known, so there is no need to worry about giving away the plot. In AD 43 the Roman army successfully invaded Britain. The Iceni, a tribe based in what is now Norfolk and north Suffolk, voluntarily allied with Rome. In AD 60 or 61, Prasutagus, client-king of the Iceni, died and left his kingdom half to the then Emperor Nero and half to his two daughters. The tribe chose his widow Boudica (variously spelled Boudicca or Boadicea) as their leader. However, the Roman procurator, one Decianus, ignored the will, seized the Iceni kingdom for Rome and had Boudica flogged and her two daughters raped. This triggered a destructive revolt against Roman rule, in the course of which the Roman towns of Londinium (London), Camulodunum (Colchester) and Verulamium (St Albans) were burned to the ground and many of their inhabitants killed. The legacy of this destruction turns up regularly in archaeological digs in the three towns, visible as a dense red layer of burned debris. The revolt was bloodily suppressed by the Roman governor Suetonius in a pitched battle, and Boudica died or was killed. The main sources are accounts written by the Roman historian Tacitus about 40 years after the event and believed to be based in large part on the recollections of Tacitus' father-in-law Agricola who was a junior officer in Britain at the time. A second Roman historian, Dio Cassius, wrote another account in about 200 AD. Curiously (to my mind), there appears to be no mention of Boudica or the revolt in later Welsh sources such as the Triads, although there are references that can plausibly be connected to Caratacus (Caradoc), the British warrior who fought a guerilla war against the Roman army in the years after the AD 43 invasion. So the Roman records are the only documentation extant.
Boudica, Queen of the Iceni tells the story of Boudica's life from early childhood to death, concentrating mainly on the period of the revolt. For me, one of its key strengths is its historical accuracy and attention to detail. The events in the story follow the accounts of Tacitus and Dio, with minor variations that are detailed in the Historical Note, and the imaginative infilling appears plausible to me. The material culture of Romans and Britons fits what I know of the archaeology, with some vignettes recreated in considerable detail. For example, the remains of a glass and pottery shop have been excavated on what was the main street of Roman Camulodunum. The glass had been stored on a shelf above the pottery and the heat from the fire was so intense that the shattered pottery was covered in drips of melted glass. In Boudica, Queen of the Iceni, this shop (or one remarkably like it) is kept by a retired centurion. A few minor niggles: a Roman lady is described as wearing a toga, whereas I understand that the toga was a male garment; the Britons are regularly referred to as 'Celts' although the term was not used of British people at the time; and I'm not convinced that "one farm wagon, sawn in half and modified, would yield two war chariots". The reconstructed chariots I've seen look purpose-built as two-wheeled vehicles and the British Museum reconstruction of the Wetwang (Yorkshire) chariot burial is a dual-purpose vehicle without the need for major surgery.
The novel presents a British religion centred on the worship of a central mother goddess, and makes Boudica the High Priestess of this religion for the Iceni, without drowning the story in New Age mysticism. It also shows feuding and rivalry between the British tribes, especially in the early part of the book, and makes a creditable attempt to show some of the Roman point of view as well as the British point of view. Some of the Roman soldiers in particular are presented as sympathetic characters, doing an unpleasant duty with strict military discipline, though the Roman politicians tend to come off rather less well (see below). The plot moves along at a fair clip and doesn't meander or get bogged down, and there is some humour (it happens not to match my sense of humour, but that is a personal taste). The battles are quickly covered; if you don't like lengthy battle scenes this will suit you very well. And although the book features both a warrior queen and a warrior princess, there are thankfully none of the sub-erotic undertones that are sometimes associated with such characters.
Very much to the author's credit is the presence of a Historical Note, a character list and a glossary of place names indicating what is documented and what is invented. A website adds further information.
There were some aspects of the novel that didn't work so well for me. Although, as noted above, the novel does avoid painting all the Romans as evil bad guys, there were scenes when the portrayal seemed to me a little heavy-handed. Decianus the procurator is shown as a greedy, violent, arrogant creep who richly deserves a sticky end - I had no problem with this, as it is consistent with Tacitus' account. However, when Emperor Claudius is made to deliberately stop his triumphal procession to gloat over a little British girl who has just been trampled to death by a stampeding elephant, this is a little too much of the stage villain for me. It seemed to me that Boudica's revolt could be amply justified without having to resort to this invented tableau. In places the writing felt a little 'flat' to me, despite the stirring events, and I found it hard to relate to some of the characters. This is a matter of personal preference.
I could also have done without the references to prophecies foretelling the coming of King Arthur. I figured out on page 3 that the heirloom sword Calabrenn was going to morph into Caliburn=Excalibur and really didn't need it explained to me. Some character sensibilities seemed rather modern to me. The grisly human sacrifice described by Dio Cassius is presented as the work of a handful of violent drunks and is quickly stopped by an appalled Boudica, and a little Roman boy is horrified by a bear-baiting in the arena. Both these are possible; we do not know if Dio's account of human sacrifice is accurate or what Boudica's reaction was, and no doubt individuals varied in their reaction to blood sports then as they do now. I'm also not entirely convinced that the Late Pre-Roman Iron Age was really a utopia of equal rights for women as presented; though again, I don't think there's incontrovertible evidence that it wasn't.
A well-crafted retelling of Boudica's story with commendable attention to historical detail.
This review was originally posted on my blog,
where it was the subject of a wide-ranging discussion on the book and Boudica
in fact and fiction, including a response from the author.