Updated: Nov 27, 2022
Since launching The Barbarian in You, more than a few women have asked me, “Hey! Can women be barbarians too?” Though no one needs my approval, here is my response -- offering examples of ancient and modern Barbarian Women living strong with Vigor, Wonder, and Fellowship.
"Boudica and Her Daughters" Statue in Central London. Commissioned by Queen Victoria in the1850s.
A century after Julius Caesar and his legions first sailed thru the fog and landed beneath the Kentish Cliffs in 55BC, Roman legions under Emperor Claudius began to conquer and occupy parts of Britain – an island Horace described as across the ocean and near the ends of the earth.
Roman settlers and bureaucrats soon followed Claudius’ legions, clearing old forests to build new cities like Londinium (London). For Roman officers, bureaucrats, and settlers in Britain, conquering was good business -- it meant cheap land, cheap slaves, and rich commerce. For many Native Britons, however, Roman civilization felt more like Roman occupation and terror. One of those terrorized natives was a Barbarian Queen of the Iceni tribe. Her name was Boudica.
Following her husband’s death in 60AD, Roman authorities seized Boudica’s property and assets. When Boudica protested, Centurions stormed into her home, lashed her with a whip and raped her daughters. Instead of causing her to submit to Roman rule, their brutal actions had the opposite effect. With blood still dripping from her shredded back and her daughters’ cries seared into her brain, Boudicca swore vengeance and launched a barbarian rebellion with one goal in mind: Kill every Roman on the island.
As other tribes joined her revolt, Boudica’s army grew to 120,000 barbarians eager to fulfill her bloody goal. According to the ancient historian, Tacitus, Boudica’s warriors “did not take or sell prisoners, or practice war-time exchanges.” Instead, he wrote, “they could not wait to cut throats, hang, burn, and crucify” all Romans in Britain.
After a series of military victories and slaughtering 70,000 civilians in London, Boudica and her army moved north for their final battle. Lined in close formation across from her were thousands of imperial Roman soldiers with iron helmets, red cloaks, red shields, and soon-to-be red gladius swords. Leading this professional and disciplined army was the Roman governor of Britain, Suetonius. Like Boudica, he knew this battle would end in either total victory or utter defeat.
Just before 100,000 young adults and teenagers gored each other in the teeth-breaking, organ-spilling horrors of close combat, Tacitus describes Boudica on the scene. Mounted on her famed chariot along with her daughters and her face painted blue (customary for Celts before battle), he reported she delivered this speech to her army.
“I am fighting as an ordinary person for my lost freedom, my bruised body, and my outraged daughters… Consider how many of you are fighting – and why. Then you will win this battle or perish. That is what I, as a woman plan to do! – let the men live in slavery if they will.”
On the very next paragraph of Tacitus’ history, it’s Suetonius turn to spur his Roman Legions against Boudica:
“Disregard the clamors and empty threats of the natives! In their ranks there are more women than fighting men.”
Despite Boudica’s ultimate defeat (choosing suicide over capture), it’s important to remember that she won battles and inspired her people to fight. Yet, despite those achievements, the Roman Suetonius tells his legions to “disregard” her.
So goes history… Tough women being overlooked or disregarded.
And it’s not just Suetonius and Tacitus who’ve disregarded women, I’ve done it as well -- and probably every man I know has done it. Yet when considering our own toughness, we men would likely name a woman in our life who is even tougher. Be it a wife, a mother, a sister, a daughter, or a friend, one thing is Capital-T True: Women can be Barbarians too!
Take my wife, Chanda. She trains like a savage in the backyard heaving kettlebells and knocking out one-legged burpees with a gritting smile on her face. After that, she performs her Lyra routine – an acrobatic circus art requiring her to spin, pull, and contort her body from a hanging metal hoop that leaves her hands callused and her body bruised. I’m telling you, it’s full-throttle, battle-axe, barbarian shit.
I know plenty more women who are barbarians too. Take Faye Morgan, a 45-year-old former Marine Captain, mother of four, and sponsored endurance athlete who outruns women half her age in pro-level Spartan Races across the country. Or Margaret Angell, who beats her husband Nate (a former Recon Marine) in 50km ultra-marathons thru the mountains and woods of Maine.
So that’s Vigor. Now what about the remaining two points of our Barbarian Triad -- Wonder and Fellowship?
After reading a recent Barbarian in You post on Wonder, Darlene Graczyk (mom to a dear friend) emailed me, describing the rolling hill wonders of the Pennsylvania farm near Gettysburg where she grew up. She signed off with, “even we ‘Gatherers’ can experience truth and emotion from your Barbarian series.”
Another example of wonder is my all-time favorite writer of history, Barbara Tuchman. “Disregarded” by many male historians in the mid-twentieth century, Tuchman went onto win the Pulitzer-prize (twice), including for her masterpiece, The Guns of August. In all her books, especially A Distant Mirror, she writes with every bit the wonder and wit as Edward Gibbon did two centuries before about the fall of Rome.
Seven years ago, I created “The Point View Crew,” a brotherhood of men who meet each quarter at my house to talk books and support one another through the trials of middle-aged life. I established the crew because I saw how lagging we middle-aged men are in fellowship compared to women. In fact, most of the friends I’ve made since exiting the Marine Corps are the husbands and boyfriends of my wife’s friends. In short, by taking her fellowship seriously, my wife has emboldened and inspired my own.
I’ll close with this fast story. Recently, Chanda and I were eating breakfast with my friend, Alex -- whom I met through my wife, of course! – and his wife, Maria, and their 5-year-old daughter, Avi. After my first few sips of coffee, Alex mentioned “The Barbarian in You.” Young Avi asked, “What are barbarians?”
Knowing I’d get one crack at this, here’s what I remember saying:
“Avi, you see this phone, your house, and all the buildings, airplanes, and cars you’ve ever seen in your life?” She nodded. “Well, there was a time when these things did not exist. In fact, there was no city here at all. All that was here were the mountains, trees, winds, and animals – plus a few giant families. Each of these families contained hundreds (or thousands) of people who lived together. We call these big families, “tribes,” and they spent nearly all day outside, told stories around the campfire each night, and cared for one another in the same way your mom and dad care for you. Because these tribes lived in a very old way, others who moved here and lived in a more modern way (like we do today) called these tribes, barbarians.”
A week later, my friend Alex texted me a rehash of a conversation between Maria and Avi while watching TV.
Avi: “Why do Elsa’s parents travel by ship when they knew they could drown? Why didn’t they just take the train?”
Maria: “Because they have to go over water.”
Avi: “Then why didn’t they take an airplane?”
Maria: “Because they didn’t have airplanes or trains back then.”
Avi: “Were they barbarians?”
Though we live quite different from Boudica and her tribe, biologically speaking, we are the same. As a species, we’ve always needed food, water, and shelter to survive, and as people, we’ve always needed Vigor, Wonder, and Fellowship to thrive.
So Avi, “they” aren’t the only barbarians. Deep down, we all are.