Archetpal 'barbarian queens' shape texts and art

Alison Futrell

The first-century Celtic queen, Boudica, led a fierce and nearly successful rebellion against the Roman colonizers. Her legacy as an archetypal “barbarian queen” has played a role in the definition of British nationhood, “personifying both resistance and submission to a range of social and cultural institutions.”

Boudica is one of three “barbarian queens” under study by Alison Futrell, a Visiting Research Fellow and associate professor of history at the University of Arizona. Her other two subjects are Sophonisba, credited with a key role in marshalling opposition to Rome during the Second Punic War, and Zenobia, under whose auspices a major portion of the eastern empire seceded from Roman control.

Futrell’s focus on the ‘barbarian queen’ as an archetype formed in the historical tradition of early Mediterranean culture is aimed at elucidating the relationship between the hierarchy of power and the construction of gender in the Roman world, as well as the ways in which this iconic tradition shaped later Western images of gender, power and identity in text and the visual arts.

“The first part of the project explores the development of categories of gender, power and ethnicity in the ancient Mediterranean, in order to provide a cognitive framework for the treatment of each ‘barbarian queen’ in the Roman tradition. I then focus on the ancient narrative traditions for Sophonisba, Boudica and Zenobia, to study the ways in which each was transformed from political opponent of the Roman order to icon through which the tensions and contradictions of social norms are articulated.”

Her first book, Blood in the Arena: The Spectacle of Roman Power (University of Texas Press, 1997), examined the amphitheater as political artifact and the arena as an institution designed for the domination and incorporation of the peoples of western Europe. In her shift to an emphasis on power and gender, she said, she is “particularly interested in the overlap between the internal and external Other in the image of the ‘barbarian queen,’ an image which figures prominently in Roman historiography, in the attempt to justify Roman political ends as demonstrations of Roman morality.”

Her current book, also under contract to the University of Texas Press, continues to reflect an interest in the symbols and rituals of power. As she wrote in her research proposal: “Performance and public monuments are the emblems of political dialogue, positioned at the juncture between subject and object, between political agent and the audience for whom he performs. They represent the inherent dualism within the rhetoric of control; although they highlight the agenda of authority, nevertheless they must implicitly recognize the concerns and values of the target audience, in order to be persuasively effective. My work focuses on this dynamic, on the negotiation of power among different groups in the Roman Empire, as represented by visual and textual iconography.”

The Romans treated the discussion of political issues as an opportunity for the articulation of Roman social norms. “As the Romans viewed it, the Roman state was built on her ancient ethical code, and depended on adherence to the moral tradition. Roman historiography thus has a strong moral resonance, as history is presented as the struggle between competing value systems, frequently enacted through and on women.

“Making use of the techniques of feminist criticism, recent scholarship has explored the political meaning of representations of women in Roman literature, acknowledging the centrality of gender in the development of contemporary political discourse. Less attention, however, has been given to the associated category of the ‘barbarian’ and the ways in which gender and national identity combined to express the inherent tensions of the Roman imperial mission. My project seeks to address this lack.”