Guest Post: Boudica the Redhead? The Difficulty in Translating Ancient Colour Words

By Jo Zalea Matias

Boudica (d. AD 60 or 61), rebel queen of the Iceni (Image 1) is stereotypically depicted in the present day with a mane of long, fiery hair – one could even say that this is one of her defining features. This is true in both academically produced images in books to video games like Total War: Rome II (Image 2). But where does this depiction come from? In this post, I will discuss the origin of descriptions of Boudica, focusing primarily on her hair, the archaeology, and ultimately the difficulty in translating ancient Greek colour words.

Image 1: Map of Iceni territory in England(Wikipedia 2020, CC BY-SA, Author: Yorkshirian).
Image 2: Boudica in the video game Total War: Rome II (Total War: Rome II 2013).

Unfortunately, there is little to no archaeological evidence that can help us conclude anything about Boudica’s appearance – though there is some evidence that corroborates with events attributed to her. In 1611, John Speed attributed the inscription “BODUO” (and therefore, possibly referring to Boudica) to a silver coin with a Celticised head (Image 3). The coin was thought to be archaeological evidence for Boudica and therefore contained a possible depiction of her, but scholars have since attributed the coin to “BODVOC” and it is Dobunni in origin rather than Iceni. 

Image 3: BODVOC Dobunni coin with Celticised head (Classical Numismatic Group 2004).

Without archaeological evidence, the only other way to gain insight into her appearance is through classical Greek and Roman sources. Boudica is mentioned twice by Tacitus (Agricola and Annals) and once by Cassius Dio (Dio’s Rome). Tacitus, whilst writing within a lifetime of Boudica, never mentions her appearance. Cassius Dio does have a description of Boudica, though he is writing more than one hundred years after her death and therefore, it must be taken with a grain of salt. Below are two different translations of Dio’s description of Boudica:

“In person she was very tall, with a most sturdy figure and a piercing glance; her voice was harsh; a great mass of yellow hair fell below her waist and a large golden necklace clasped her throat; wound about her was a tunic of every conceivable color and over it a thick chlamys had been fastened with a brooch.” -62.1 (Foster 1905)

“In stature she was very tall, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of her eye most fierce, and her voice was harsh; a great mass of the tawniest hair fell to her hips; around her neck was a large golden necklace; and she wore a tunic of divers colours over which a thick mantle was fastened with a brooch.” -62.1 (Cary and Foster 1914:84-85)

Between the two translations, two different colour words are used for Boudica’s hair: yellow and tawny. Foster’s death in 1906 means that changes between the translations could possibly be attributed to Cary. Cary and Foster’s (1914) translation, which has the original Greek next to the English, uses the word ξανθοτάτην, which translates to “very xanthos,” with τάτην as the feminine suffix of the absolute superlative -τατος (-τατος 2020) to the Greek colour word xanthos or ξανθός.

What does xanthos mean? It is most commonly translated as “blonde,” though it can also be more specific and include “a tinge of red, brown, auburn” (University of Chicago Logeion 2020). This could be the origin of modern representations of Boudica’s red hair, whilst also accounting for different translations describing Boudica’s hair as anything from blonde to yellow to tawny to red – and there are images of Boudica with blonde or tawny hair (Image 4). However, it is important to be cautious about applying modern colour words and concepts onto ancient ones. Colour is not a monolithic concept, and different cultures perceived and conceptualised colours differently across time and space. 

Image 4: Boudica with blonde/tawny hair, illustration by Christina Unwin at the British Museum (Author’s own photograph).

Xanthos found itself at the center of interpretative debate in 2018, when racist comments were made about the casting of Ghanian-born actor David Gyasi as Achilles (Image 5) in the Netflix and BBC miniseries Troy: Fall of a City. Those protesting Gyasi’s casting refer to xanthos being used to describe Achilles’ hair (Vassar College 2018). Classical scholars responded to this, saying that using “blonde” as a translation for xanthos is outdated, linked to debunked theories of Greece being invaded by Northern Europe (ibid.)

Image 5: David Gyasi as Achilles (Troy: Fall of a City 2018).

Furthermore, it would be simplistic to say that Greek colour words can be translated one-for-one to modern colour words. Scholars like former British Prime Minister William Gladstone (b.1809–d.1898) used terms like Homer’s “wine-dark sea” to argue that the Greeks were colourblind (Bradley 2013: 127), but the reality is that the ancient Greeks had different concepts of color. Indeed, elsewhere Bradley argues that the Latin flauus, which is used in a similar vein to xanthos, does not always equate to blond, but has two different meanings. First, “it represents the Greek glaukos in referring to the sparkle of moving water…or to the underside of olive leaves” (Bradley 2009:4), but has also been used to refer to: “(1) ash/sand/mud/dust; (2) honey/wax; (3) hair; (4) ripe corn; (5) gold; (6) skin; along with a seventh category for one-offs such as wedding bonds (uincula), bile, and wine” (ibid.). The first uses flauus as a quality rather than a colour, whilst the items in the second are varied and do not always fall into the modern definition of blond.

The idea of colour words referring to a quality rather than a definitive colour is an interesting one. Colours become more than lightwaves and are real and inextricably linked with the experiences of the world around us (Bradley 2013:130). In other words, ancient Greek concepts may have been synaesthetic – that is, crossing over more than one sense – in this case, sight. Returning to flauus, its application to cornfields and olive-leaf garlands is not only due to the colour itself, but their “similar tactile qualities and associations” (ibid, 132). In this case, flauus is appealing not only to sight, but to touch and perhaps even smell. Homer’s “wine-dark sea” (Image 6) even adds an emotional element, not just referring to a tumultuous sea that parallels the colour and bubbles of fermenting wine, but the emotions and experiences of Achilles and Odysseus on those waters (ibid., 133).

Image 6: The “wine-dark sea”? (Cajina 2018).

What does this mean for Boudica? Should artists, video game designers, and the like adhere to the strict definition of xanthos and stop portraying her as a redhead? If anything, this discussion of Greek colour words demonstrates a great deal of flexibility and interpretation. Bradley’s use of emotion to help with the translation of “wine-dark sea” could be applied to Boudica as well. She is a compelling, emotional figure in both Tacitus and Cassius Dio as she calls for rebellion against Rome – so why not use xanthos to add a layer of meaning to the colour of her hair?

Bibliography

Bradley, M. (2009) Colour and Meaning in Ancient Rome. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Bradley, M. (2013) Colour as Synaesthetic Experience in Antiquity. In Butler, S. and Purves, A.C. (eds): Synaesthesia and the Ancient Senses, pp. 127-140. London, Routledge.

Cajina, I. (2018) Aerial view photography of sea, photograph, viewed 28 October 2020.

Cary, E. & Foster, H. B. (1914) Roman history. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Classical Numismatic Group, LLC (2003) Very Rare Bodvoc Silver Unit, viewed 27 October 2020.

Creative Assembly and Sega (2013) Total War: Rome II. [Online] Windows PC. London: Creative Arts and Sega.

Foster, H.B. (1905) Dio’s Rome, Volume V., Books 61-76 (A.D. 54-211) An Historical Narrative Originally Composed In Greek During The Reigns Of Septimius Severus, Geta And Caracalla, Macrinus, Elagabalus And Alexander Severus: And Now Presented In English Form By Herbert Baldwin Foster, Project Gutenberg, viewed 27 October 2020.

Troy: Fall of a City (2018) BBC One Television, 28 February-7 April.

University of Chicago Logeion (2020) ξανθός, viewed 28 October 2020.

Wikipedia (2020) Boudica: Location of Iceni territory in eastern England; modern county borders are shown, viewed 9 November 2015.

Vassar College (2018) “Scholars Respond to Racist Backlash against Black Achilles, Part 2: What did Achilles look like?” Pharos: Doing Justice to the Classics, blog post, viewed 28 October 2020.

Wiktionary (2020) ‘-τατος’ ,viewed 28 October 2020.

Featured image: Karidis, C. (2017) Boadicea and Her Daughters, photograph, viewed 12 November 2020.

Dr. Jo Zalea Matias is a lecturer in Anthropology at Wilbur Wright College and Harold Washington College. She specializes in issues of gender and identity in Iron Age Britain and France, and is also interested in popular media and academic representations of the past, particularly in terms of gender, as well as the archaeological use of social media. You can find her on twitter as @jz_matias.