Thursday, November 05, 2015

Boudicca's Hair

First of all let’s get one thing straight. 
detail from cover of Roman Quest #4 by Paul Young

There is absolutely no evidence that Boudica, the famous warrior queen of the Iceni, had red hair. 

The only archaeological evidence we have for Boudica is a layer of burnt deposits up to half a metre thick in the three British towns she is said to have destroyed in AD 61: Camulodunum (Colchester), Londinium (London) and Verulamium (St Albans). But there is no graffiti that says BOUDICCA WAS HERE. Even in variant spellings of her name such as BOADICEA, BOUDICA (one C) or BUDDUG.

photo by Caroline, hair colour by Richard
That exciting tombstone recently found at Cirencester which read BODICACIA? It turns out it probably marked the grave of a man BODUS erected by his wife CACIA (both names already attested in Britain). The most likely Latin reading and the bones underneath confirm that. If by some chance it does read BODICACIA, that is nowhere near enough evidence for BOUDICCA.

Even the fabulous Romano-Celtic head (above) that I’ve used to illustrate this article is probably too late to be Boudicca, though it was found near Lactodurum (Towcester), the possible site of her final battle against the Romans.

So no firm archaeological evidence, then. 

Our only ancient literary evidence for Boudica is from a few passages in three histories, two by Tacitus and one by Cassius Dio. 

The only physical description of her is in the single passage of Cassius Dio, a Roman writing in Greek more than a hundred years after Boudica’s death. This makes it highly unlikely that Dio had an eye-witness. And yet he is the one who gives us the sensational description of her as having a terrifying appearance: tall, fierce in eye, harsh in voice and with long hair down to her waist. He even tells us what she was wearing. Here it is in the original Greek and in translation:

Dio's description of Boudicca in Greek and English in the Loeb version

In ancient Greek, if you add the suffix -otatos to a word it means ‘very’ or ‘extremely’. Dio has added -otatos to the word xanthos (having put both in feminine singular accusative form) to describe Boudica’s hair. But xanthos does not mean red. It means yellow, blonde or tawny. In other ancient passages, xanthos is used to describe gold, sand, corn, bile and lions, none of which are red (though they might have a tinge of red.)

photo by Caroline, hair colour by Richard
So really, we should translate that bit of passage as ‘she had masses of very blonde hair reaching as far as her buttocks’! 

But wait! We now think that Greek and Roman colours didn’t have quite the same meanings as they do today. 

You might say, ‘A colour is a colour’. But some scholars claim that ancient Greeks and Romans never thought about pure colours on their own but always linked colours to other things. 

Mark Bradley, professor of Classics at the University of Nottingham, is one of the scholars who claims that the ancients did not separate emotion from colour. 

In one article he likens the ancient concept of colour to the condition neurologists call synaesthesia where certain people might ‘see’ Monday as a red colour or the number 5 as purple. But synaesthetic associations vary from person to person. For the Greeks and Romans there were always specific emotional links to the colours. 

We have traces of that in modern English. We say ‘She’s green with envy’ or ‘He’s feeling blue’. 

In his book, Colour and Meaning in Ancient Rome, Professor Bradley suggests that Greeks associated chloros (yellow-green) with fertility, argos (silver-white) with quick and flashing things, porphureos (purple) with swollen things and oinops (wine) with passion or melancholy. 

The most famous example is Homers ‘wine-dark’ sea. Of course the sea isn't the colour of wine. But Homer knows that drinking too much wine can make you violent, passionate or sad. So when he describes the sea as ‘wine-dark’ there is a hint of violence, passion and the potential for grief. 

Hercules fights a tawny lion in this Roman mosaic from Paphos
So lets go back to xanthos (yellow) and its extra strong version xanthotatos (very yellow). If we agree to translate it tawny’ as the translator above did, we get associations of a lion: savage, rough, and fearless. 

photo by Caroline, hair colour by Richard
Dio’s description of Boudica’s tawniest hair makes us think of a fierce shaggy lion, but then the mention of buttocks reminds us that she is a woman. So we get another flavour – sexy! – added to her lioness-like qualities.

Do you see what Dio is doing? He is talking more about the emotions Boudicca aroused than the actual colour of her hair. 

So why am I sticking to the translation of red hair for mentions of Boudica in my new series set in Roman Britain

Three reasons:

1. I dont want to defend my translation of xanthotatos as very blonde or extremely lion-coloured for the next five years with teachers, primary school pupils and fans. 

2. The colour red has similar associations today (fire, hot-tempered, dangerous) as tawny did in Roman times. 

3. More than one primary school teacher has told me that she can encourage the ginger-haired girls in her class with these words: Dont be ashamed of your red hair. Queen Boudicca had red hair and she was awesome!’ 

That last reason, most of all, is why any references I make to Boudicca will include her red hair.

Caroline Lawrences new series set in Roman Britain is The Roman Quests. The final book of four, Return to Rome, about Boudica's possible great-granddaughter, was published in early 2018 and is available in paper or ebook format.


  1. Ancient concepts of the senses are absolutely fascinating! It's so easy to forget just how culturally conditioned we are to make certain associations with particular colours, scents etc. I particularly liked your point that red hair today has the same sort of connotations as tawny hair would have had for Dio's readers. Funny how things can change but in some ways still be the same- like linking a woman's personality to the colour of her hair...

  2. Great info, the best I have come across.

  3. All my fiery heroines have red hair... though sometimes I tone it down to copper-gold, which I had as a young girl and is maybe more like the Greek colour xanthos?