I have been a history nerd as long as I can remember---I'm interested in everything from the Ancestral Puebloans of the American southwest to the history of the Thoroughbred breed to pre-historic Britain to the earliest people painting cave walls in France and Spain and so much more. (And let's not even get started on paleontology!) But my chief love is and always has been the Celts. What most people associate with the Celts or Celtic culture---all things Irish, men in kilts, and Celtic knotwork---is really more Celtic pop-culture, a narrow distillation of thousands of years of Celtic history and culture. And while the ideas of Celtic pop-culture are not wrong, they're only a tiny part of a broader and vastly richer picture.
What is considered Celtic culture by scholars and historians encompasses the related languages, material culture, art traditions, social structure, and religion of a tribal people who originated in the Halstatt region of Austria around 1200 BC. To make a long story extremely short, these tribes eventually spread across most of western Europe and into western Asia over the course of hundreds of years. The Gaels of Ireland, the Celtiberians of Spain, the Gauls of France, and the Galatians of Turkey were all part of the Celtic diaspora. They sacked Rome and Delphi, they drank their wine unwatered, they spiked their hair with lime, and they fought naked except for the torcs around their necks. They frightened their Greek and Roman contemporaries so badly that the Celts were regular "boogeymen" for many Classical writers.
My obsession with Celtic history and archaeology led me to a couple of (currently unused) degrees in the subject, and so the Celtic Fling theme for BreyerFest this year had me pretty excited. It's not often that my chosen field crosses paths with my hobby---I had such plans! Alas, as everyone knows by now, BreyerFest has been canceled because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. I was pretty sure that would be the case even before it was announced, and Breyer absolutely made the right decision, but it's still sad. The event will at least continue in a virtual form, and I've been loving the special run models they've announced (and especially their names). Epona is of course named for the Celts' patron goddess of horses; Lugh of the Long Arm was an Irish warrior-god of the Tuatha Dé Danann who was said to have invented horseracing; Brighid and Beltane refer to the most important of the Irish goddesses and the May 1st festival celebrating the beginning of summer and fertility for fields and livestock; and oak, ash, and thorn are some of the plants most sacred to the Celtic tribes and the druids.
But my favorite is Boudicca, named for the Celtic warrior-queen who led a rebellion against the Romans in Britain in the first century AD, nearly expelling them from the country for good. Boudicca's story factored heavily in my master's thesis, and so I felt compelled to write a post about her and this wonderful swirly blue horse that I must have.
To understand Boudicca, we first need a quick recap of the position of women in Celtic society and the basic history of Celtic and Roman Britain. The Celts did not have a written language, so we must rely on contemporary Classical sources for this information. Regarding the first subject, Celtic society was surprisingly and unusually egalitarian, especially when compared with the roles of women in Greek and Roman societies whose lives were largely dictated by their male guardians. Celtic women had far more freedom---they could own property, run businesses, be priestesses, judges, ambassadors, bards, healers, rulers, and warriors. This both horrified and fascinated the Greeks and Romans.
As for the second subject, by the time Julius Caesar and his troops first landed in Britain in 55 BC, the Celts had been established there for more than five centuries. That first Roman incursion was little more than a reconnaissance mission, and a real conquest of Britain was not made until almost a century later in 43 AD. The Celtic tribes, even though they shared a linguistic and cultural bond, were independent of one another, and their alliances changed periodically. Because of their general lack of unity, the Roman army was able to sweep across the island, establishing forts and formally subjugating many of the independent tribal leaders as client-kings under Roman rule.
Client-kings were loyal to Rome (primarily out of a sense of self-preservation), but the position did allow them to maintain some level of autonomy. That said, noted Celtic historian Miranda Aldhouse-Green wrote that client-kings became a means of easing conquered peoples into Roman dominion, though they "were [likely] treated with a fair degree of opprobrium by freedom-loving groups at home and with condescension by the Roman government."1 The status of client-king was generally not hereditary, and upon the death of these rulers, the territory they held was often "absorbed into the [Roman] empire proper."2 One of these client-kings was Prasutagus, husband to Boudicca and king or chieftain of the Iceni tribe who inhabited what is now Norfolk and parts of Suffolk on the eastern coast of England.
Boudicca in many ways has become a larger than life figure, but interestingly, most of what is known of her story can be attributed to just one source. The Roman historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus was a small child when the most important events of Boudicca's life played out, but he married the daughter of Gnaeus Julius Agricola, a Roman commander in Britain at the time of the rebellion, so it seems probable that his accounts were based on his father-in-law’s recollections. Tacitus described Prasutagus as "celebrated for his long prosperity,"3 and coin hordes discovered in that region dating to the time of the Boudiccan rebellion suggest that the Iceni were indeed a wealthy tribe.4 This affluence undoubtedly was at least partly to blame for the cascade of events that led to the rebellion.
According to Tacitus, Prasutagus, knowing the transitory nature of client-kingship, "had named the emperor [Nero] as his heir, together with his two daughters; an act of deference which he thought would place his kingdom and household beyond the risk of injury."5 Boudicca assumed leadership of the tribe upon her husband's death because, according to Tacitus, the British Celts "[admitted] no distinction of sex in their royal successions."6 The events that immediately followed Prasutagus' death are not entirely clear. Tacitus implied that Boudicca's assumptive claim of Iceni leadership was an affront to Nero. Dio Cassius, a Roman author who lived a century after the events and who perhaps had access to other sources now lost, added that Roman financiers, chiefly the philosopher and advisor to the emperor, Seneca, called in their loans at that time, which Boudicca presumably refused to pay.7 Regardless of the accuracy of one or both accounts, the Romans' subsequent actions touched off a firestorm that they would long remember and fear to repeat.
Incandescent with rage, Boudicca and the Iceni rose up in rebellion and were quickly joined by their neighboring tribe, the Trinovantes, among others. The Trinovantes were restless and unhappy under Roman rule at that time, in large part because of the building of a Roman colonia (a garrison of Roman citizens) at Camulodunum (site of the modern city of Colchester), a settlement that had been the capital of the tribe. According to Dio Cassius, the deliberate selection of that site was in part a punishment for an earlier rebellion.8 Tacitus wrote that the Roman veterans who forcibly settled there "[acted] as though they had received a free gift of the entire country, driving the natives from their homes, ejecting them from their lands, [and styling] them 'captives' and 'slaves.'"9 Of further offense to the Trinovantes at Camulodunum were a temple built to the conquering emperor Claudius and a statue of Victory, symbols whose implications were undoubtedly not lost on the subjugated population.
As if the treatment of Boudicca's family and tribe was not enough to merit the backlash against Rome, the timing of these events coincided with the convenient absence of the Roman governor of Britain, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, who, thinking the southeast of Britain sufficiently cowed, had marched his troops to the island of Mona (now called Anglesey) in northwestern Wales to subdue the druids whom he considered the greatest threat to peace in Britain. Camulodunum, which had no fortifications, was left essentially undefended, and Boudicca's army swept over it, destroying it as well as the hated temple to Claudius in two days time. The statue of Victory reportedly fell of its own accord in the days before Boudicca's attack, a terrible portent of things to come.10 Her army then met the Ninth Legion Hispania, sent too late to aid Camulodunum, and routed it. Destroying a Roman legion, especially one as experienced as the Ninth which had campaigned in Spain and pacified the Balkans, was a feat of exceptional military strategy and cunning. Tacitus wrote that Boudicca’s army slaughtered the 6,000 strong infantry to a man and that only some of the cavalry managed to escape.11
Upon hearing of the rebellion, Suetonius began a forced march southeast, arriving in Londinium with his light troops ahead of the warring Britons led by Boudicca. Londinium at that time was a commercial settlement less than 20 years old (in terms of Roman occupation), and like Camulodunum, it had no fortifications. Suetonius, who was still waiting for the bulk of the legions at his command to arrive, chose "to save the country as a whole at the cost of one town."12 He retreated to await his troops, and Boudicca’s army poured into Londinium, slaughtering and burning as they went.
|(photo from Wikipedia)|
Neither Tacitus nor Dio Cassius gave a clear physical description of Boudicca, and of course, neither of them ever saw her. Nonetheless, she is frequently envisioned by modern writers and artists as a tall, pale woman with flaming red hair. (This very likely has something to do with the rediscovery of Tacitus' works during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.) So Breyer's color choice on this model, a mulberry grey, is quite apt. I gather there was some angst from collectors that the blue woad patterns on the model are not Celtic knotwork, but that too was an appropriate choice. Knotwork did not become prevalent until several centuries after Boudicca's rebellion, so Breyer's nod to the curvilinear Celtic Hallstatt and La Tène art styles is more accurate.
Boudicca's rebellion shook Rome badly, and she remained a reviled character in Roman histories for centuries. But she is now of course considered one of the great early heroes of Britain. Her famous rebellion of AD 60-61 is still so well remembered that numerous books and film productions, both fiction and non-fiction, tell her story, and a large statue of Boudicca and her daughters in their war chariot prominently decorates the bank of the Thames in London near the Houses of Parliament. Aldhouse-Green perhaps sums it up best by stating that "by any standards, Boudicca was a woman 'writ large.'"18
1. Aldhouse-Green, Miranda. Boudica: Britannia Rebel, War-Leader, and Queen. (Harlow, UK: Pearson Education Limited, 2006), 68.
2. Aldhouse-Green, 26.
3. Tacitus. The Annals. (Trans. John Jackson. Vol. 3. London: William Heinemann Limited,
4. Aldhouse-Green, 26.
5. Tacitus, The Annals, 14.31.
6. Tacitus. Agricola, Germania, Dialogus. (Trans. William Peterson. London: William
Heinemann Limited, 1943), 197.
7. Dio Cassius. Historia Romana. (Trans. Herbert Baldwin Foster. New York: Pafraets Book
Company, 1906), 62.2.
9. Tacitus, The Annals, 14.21.
10. Ibid, 14.32.
12. Ibid, 14.33.
13. Dio Cassius, 62.12.
14. Tacitus, The Annals, 14.37.
16. Dio Cassius, 62.12.
17. Aldhouse-Green, 93.
18. Aldhouse-Green, 93.