Monday, July 9, 2018

The Queen and the Philosopher: War, Money, and Metals in Roman Britain


 
  We know very little about Queen Boudica of the Iceni (20 AD (?) - 61 AD) and most of what we know is probably deformed by Roman propaganda. But we may still be able to put together the main elements of her story and how it was that she almost threw the mighty Roman Legions out of Britain. Above, a fantasy interpretation of the Celtic Queen from "galleryhip.com" (this post was inspired by a note of Mireille Martini)


You probably know the story of Queen Boudica. Tall, strong, and terrible, she was the embodiment of the fierce warrioress who fought - bravely but unsuccessfully - to defend her people from the oppression of an evil empire, that the Romans. It all happened during the reign of Emperor Nero, 2nd century AD. As usual, the passage of time has turned these events into legends, deformed by the lens of propaganda. But maybe we can still discern the reasons for Boudica's rebellion and learn something relevant for our times.

As it often happens in history, to understand why something happens, you only need to follow the money.  In this particular case, it is curious that the money that triggered the war may have been provided by no one else than Lucius Annaeus Seneca, yes, the Stoic philosopher. But it is a story that needs to be told from the beginning.

First of all, why were the Romans in Britain at the time of Queen Boudica? Simple: because of the British mineral resources. Britain had a long story of mining that went back to the Bronze Age and to even earlier times. The British mines could provide copper, tin, iron, lead, and even precious metals: gold and silver. These were all vital resources for the Roman Empire which used precious metals for coinage and all sort of metals for its various technologies.

The Romans already set foot in Britain at the time of Julius Caesar, in 55 BC. They set up a full-fledged invasion only in AD 43 under Emperor Claudius. But even before invading, according to  Strabo's Geography, there was a brisk commercial network that connected Rome to Britain, with Britain exporting metals and importing luxury goods of all sorts, silk, olive oil, food, slaves, and more.

It was all part of the way the Romans managed their empire. Their expansion was not simply a question of a blitzkrieg war machine. Invading a foreign kingdom was preceded by a long period of cultural and commercial assimilation and it was attempted only when it could provide a financial return. That required a certain degree of economic development of the regions being assimilated. It didn't work with the Germans, who had no mines and only a relatively primitive economy. And they were also a tough military force, able to defeat even the mighty Roman war machine - they did that at Teutoburg, in 9 AD. So, the Romans shifted their attention to the wealthier and metal-rich Britain. It worked: the invasion of 43 AD was relatively easy in military terms. Afterward, the mines increased their production by means of Roman technology, commerce boomed, new Roman settlements were built, and Britain started being romanized.

But something went badly wrong in 60 AD, when the Romans suddenly faced a major rebellion of the Iceni people living in Eastern England, led by their redoubtable queen, Boudica. At the end of this post, you can read the details of the story as we know it, told by Jason Porath in a light-hearted style. Summarizing, when Boudica's husband, King Prasutagus, died, the Romans intervened, seized his lands, had his widow flogged - Boudica herself -  and his daughters raped. The queen was not amused and the rebellion started with all the associated atrocities. Eventually, the Romans managed to get the upper hand and Boudica killed herself.

But what made the Romans behave in a way that was nearly sure to spark a rebellion? Maybe it was just their lust for power, but there is a detail told by Dio Cassius (vol VIII, Cassius Dio, Roman History, 62.2) that can help us understand what happened. Cassius says that Seneca (yes, he was a philosopher, but also a rich man) had lent to the Iceni a large sum of money and that the Iceni were unable to return it. That suggests that the key to the story was money.

According to Dio Cassius, we are talking of 40 million sesterces. What kind of money is that? It is not so easy for us to visualize this sum, but we know that in those times a Roman legionary was paid nine hundred sestertii per annum. So, 40 million sesterces could pay some 50 thousand troops for a year - a large military force for the time. From this and other data, we could say - roughly, very roughly - that the value of a sesterce was of the order of 50 dollars. So, 40 million sesterces could be compared to some two billion dollars today. Clearly, we are discussing of a large sum for a small economy such as that of the Iceni tribe had to be.

We don't know what King Prasotagus had in mind to do with that money, but we know that something went wrong. Dio Cassius faults Seneca himself for having precipitated the rebellion by insisting to have his money back. That Seneca did that out of personal greed seems to be unlikely, as discussed by Grimal. Cassius was writing more than a century after the events and he may have wanted to cast Seneca in a bad light for ideological reasons. But that's just a detail,  what matters is that the Iceni (or, better said, the Iceni elite) defaulted on a large debt they had with the Romans.

In ancient times, defaulting on one's debt was a serious crime, so much that the early Roman laws punished it by having the debtor drawn and quartered. In Imperial times, there were considerably more lenient laws - but these laws very valid only for Roman citizens and Boudica was not one. In this light, flogging doesn't sound like an exaggerated punishment for defaulting on a large debt (2 billion dollars!). Even the rape of her daughters was not something unusual as a punishment for non-Roman citizens in those times. In any case, it is likely that the Romans didn't do what they did because they enjoyed torturing and raping women -- they used the default as an excuse to seize the Iceni kingdom. We can't even exclude that the loan was engineered from the beginning with the idea of annexing the kingdom to the Roman Empire.

Be it as it may, at this point, the Iceni elite had little choice: either lose everything or rebel against the largest military power of their time. Neither looked like a good choice, but they chose the one that turned out to be truly disastrous.

All that happened afterward was already written in the book of destiny - the archeological records tell us of cities burned to the ground, confirming the reports of initial Iceni victories told to us by Roman historians. Standard propaganda techniques probably caused the Romans to exaggerate the atrocities performed by the Iceni, just as the number of their fighters in order to highlight their own military prowess. Even Boudica herself was portraited as a larger-than-life warrioress, but we can't even be completely sure that she actually existed. In any case, the revolt was bound to fail, and it did. In a few centuries, Boudica was forgotten by her own people: we have no mentions of her in the records from Celtic Britain. The Roman Empire faded, but the Roman influence on British customs and language remains visible to this day (even though the ghost of the old queen may be pleased by the Brexit!).

What's most interesting in this story is the light it sheds on the inner workings of Empires. We tend to think that Empires exist because of their mighty armies - which is true, in part - but armies are not everything and in any case, the soldiers must be paid. Empires exist because they can control money, (or capital if you prefer). That's the real tool that builds empires: No money - no empire! 

And that takes us to the current empire, the one we call the "American Empire" or "the "Western Empire." It does have mighty armies but, really, the grip it has on the world is all based on money. Without the mighty dollar, it is hard to think that the large military and commercial network we call "globalization" could exist.

So, can we think of a modern equivalent of the Iceni rebellion? Surely we can: think of the end of the Soviet Union. It was brought down in 1991 not by military means but by financial ones. The debt the Soviet Union had with the West is estimated at US$ 70 billion, in relative terms probably not far from the 40 million sesterces the Iceni owed to the Romans. Unable to repay this debt, the Soviet elites had only two choices: dissolve or fight. They made an attempt to fight with the "August Putsch" in 1991, but it rapidly fizzled out. There was no chance for the Soviet Communists to make a mistake similar to the one Queen Boudica made, that is starting a full-fledged military rebellion against a much more powerful enemy. That was good for everybody on this planet since the Soviet Union had nuclear warheads which might have been used in desperation. Fortunately, history doesn't always repeat itself!

But, if history doesn't repeat itself, at least it rhymes and the ability of the Western Empire to use financial means to bring countries into submission is well documented. Another, more recent, case, is that of Greece: again a nation that couldn't give back the money it owed to the imperial powers. For a short moment, in 2015, it looked like the Greeks had decided to rebel against the empire but, in the end, the Greek elites chose to submit. The punishment for the Greek citizens has been harsh but, at least, their country was not bombed and destroyed, as it happens rather often nowadays when the Imperial Powers that Be become angry.

But for how long will the Western Empire remain powerful? Just like for the Roman Empire, its destiny seems to be a cycle of growth and decline - and the decline may have already started as shown by the failure of the attempt of bankrupting the heir of the Soviet Union, Russia (again, fortunately for everybody, because Russia has nuclear weapons). The globalized empire seems to be getting weaker and weaker every day. Whether this is a good or a bad thing, only time will tell.



A note added after publication: there are some curious coincidences in this story. Seneca was probably the most powerful man of the empire from ca AD 54 to 62, almost an emperor himself while Nero was still very young. It is during this period that the story of the loan to King Prasotagus took place and, then, the rebellion of Queen Boudica started. It is reported that Nero was so upset by the initial successes of the Iceni that he seriously considered ordering the legions to abandon Britain. So, let's see what we know: Seneca makes a big mistake, Nero is very angry because of that and, a few years later, he orders Seneca to commit suicide (AD 65) with the accusation of treason. Maybe it was really treason. Or maybe it was Boudica's ghost who took her posthumous revenge on Seneca!




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Jason Porath - https://www.rejectedprincesses.com/princesses/boudica


. . .  the Romans, at the apex of their arrogance, set into action an outrageously poor set of decisions. Try to spot where things go off the rails:
  • They did not recognize Boudica’s claim to the throne because she was a woman.
  • They laid claim to all of the late king’s money.
  • Also to a ton of Iceni land.
  • And said that some money they’d given the late king was a loan, due back (with interest) immediately.
  • They then publicly flogged Boudica.
  • And raped her two daughters.
You can probably tell at this point that the rest of this story isn’t going to go well for the Romans.

The amazing thing is, this was totally in line with the (local) Romans’ line of stupid moves! When Boudica subsequently raised a mob and began marching on the nearby town of Camulodunum (essentially a veterans retirement home), several other Roman blunders came to light:
  • Camulodunum had dismantled its own defenses so more people could build houses.
  • They’d been overtaxing all the neighboring Britons, mostly because they could.
  • All the collected money had gone to building a fancy temple, which was effectively a giant middle finger to their subjugated neighbors.
  • Lastly, when the Romans got word that some rowdy barbarian lady was acting up, they laughed and sent 200 soldiers to scare her off. The 120,000 men she’d gathered laughed back and killed everyone in the city.
Fun science fact: if you apply a sustained fire to an entire Roman city, you can turn it into a molten pile of sickly red clay. This fact comes to us courtesy of Boudica, warrior scientist of the first century, and the 6-inch-thick layer of detritus that is current-day Camulodunum. She repeated her experiment with two other cities, including Londinium, the precursor to London. 

Along the way, her army, which had at this point become a roaming 230,000-man block party, killed an armed Roman legion, around 70,000 civilians, and became Rome’s worst nightmare. In order to understand how terrifying this was for Rome, one should understand some specifics of Boudica’s uprising:
  • They cut off the breasts of Roman noblewomen, sewed them to their mouths, and hung the bodies or mounted them on spears.
  • The Iceni decapitated people as a matter of religious principle. They’d embalm the heads of their enemies and mount them on chariots. The rest were thrown into rivers (and are still occasionally found to this day).
  • Rome was huge to the point of unwieldy at this point. Stories of an untrained mob wiping out veterans left and right raised the spectre of uprisings happening everywhere.
  • “Moreover,” a prominent Roman historian wrote, “all this ruin was brought upon the Romans by a woman, a fact which in itself caused them the greatest shame.”
Unfortunately, Boudica’s success had largely been predicated on surprise, and did not last long. When they went up against entrenched Roman soldiers, the Iceni fell apart. A mere 15,000 Romans were able to rout Boudica’s massive army, killing 80,000 in the process. So sure had the Boudican mob been of their victory that they’d brought their families out to the battlefield in wagons – wagons that later pinned them in from retreating.

Her methods are almost directly equivalent to tribal headhunters and religious extremists, but she’s held up as a vengeful heroine instead of deranged villain.

Boudica’s final fate is unknown. Some suppose she swallowed poison, and others that she was killed in battle. Her story was all but forgotten for centuries, until the rediscovery of documents from Roman historians. After that, she became a national hero of Britain in short order, soon appearing in textbooks, statues, and movies.



4 comments:

  1. One excellent post about the nature of war:

    https://www.paulcraigroberts.org/2018/07/03/tomorrow-is-matrix-reinforcement-day/

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  2. nice article Ugo!
    but I would replace 'money' with debt... debt moves the empires... have you read the book 'Debt: the 1st 5000 years' by David Graeber? outstanding text that treats some of the issue you touch in this post

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  3. Sounds like the common recurring story/process of bankers being the state to extract resources by wrecking other societies, then setting them up as loot, slave labor and tribute payment.
    The trouble with mere commercial trade arrangements is it mutually benefits both sides, so also allows the lesser party to grow in strength. It also allows the lessor party to restrict the scale of trade to their own modest current wants and needs, perhaps set by other economic limits of their region, using more modest, sustainable technology, and set terms of trade. A hungry would-be empire won't put up with that sort of nonsense for long.

    As homo sapiens is considered a third species of chimpanzee, killing, enslavement and increasing the wealth and population of the "mother" state, is all too natural. Hitler wanted Lebensraum.

    Bands of male chimps do it today by attacking neighboring groups. Rape is merely the standard chimpanzee process of killing the offspring of the losers, and making the females pregnant again, to increase evolutionary success of the victors. That is the human instinctive root of empire style of trade and commerce. I can't say it doesn't work for the empire.

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    Replies
    1. Dear Michael let me disagree. I think this deterministic view about human nature does not really match the empirical evidence that anthropology has provided us in the last 1 and half century. People like Marshall Sahlins (e.g. see his book "the western illusion of human nature") shows how human communities can act hugely differently according to their history, local conditions, beliefs etc. Actually the homo economis homo lupus lupi paradigm is not even the most common.
      The problem of comparing humans to chimps is that if our "behaviour" is determined by our evolution from apes... well we can't really change anything. We just sit down and see our women raped by the fittest and strongest. If so politics no longer matter. This view can be easily used by the powerful to impose control and domination, because, after all this is what humans need. This is natural...
      I think that politics do matter and that human destiny is not defined by our DNA or our proximity with chimps. Through political struggles and negotiation we can decide our destiny. This is hard but possible.

      PS: our closest relative by the way are Bonobo not chimps, very peaceful apes. they use sex to mediate fights... ;)

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Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)