03:05. To Catch a King.

What follows is very much a ‘work in progress’. I began writing what I thought might become a narrative history of Roman Britain in the late 1980s, and quickly realised that such a thing is not possible. The very best that could be done would be to build up a speculative history; which is to say a narrative that, to the best of my knowledge, could be the way things did actually occur. This, then, is neither fiction nor non-fiction, but intermediate between the two, in the same way that the sources are neither history nor prehistory but what can be termed proto-history. I left things to gather dust from about 2000 to 2011, but I have since taken matters up again and I have been pottering on. I have made additions and alterations, and I have straightened out the footnotes and bibliographies. If you are really interested, leave a message in the comment box below and I will email you an updated version of the text that you require.


Stephen Symons.

Britannia Capta Part 3


Chapter 03.05.

To Catch A King.



03:05:01. A King in Hiding.

By the autumn of 44 the empire of the Cattuvellauni was in ruins. Camulodunum and Verulamium were occupied by the Romans, Togodumnos was dead and Caratacos, now King of the Britons of the south was in hiding in the highlands of the west. The native realms of the south east had collapsed with alarming speed, the resistance of the Durotriges and Belgae steamrollered by Legio II Augusta. British potentates had scrambled over each other to kneel at Claudius’ feet and Caratacos’ two most bitter rivals, Antedios of the Iceni and Cogidubnus of the Atrebates, had been rewarded with wealth, power and prestige. Worse, a former vassal, Boduocos of the Dobunni, was at least hand in glove with Rome if he had not in fact been granted the status of client king. Caratacos burned with humiliation and indignation.


After the defeat at the Thames crossings he fled to Camulodunon, where he enjoyed a brief respite over the winter while Plautius ordered his forces and Claudius made his way to Britain. Once the Emperor was on British soil the size of his entourage would have become swiftly known, but what the reaction of Caratacos would have been at the thought of facing the now enormous Roman expeditionary force is anyone’s guess. Certainly he would have been aware that the Augustus was heading for Camulodunon and gave orders for delaying actions at the Thames crossings and in the marshes of the Lea Valley, but the whereabouts of the king is unknown. Did he personally lead his men in those last desperate engagements, or did he leave this doubtful privilege to trusted but expendable retainers? He had had all winter to formulate alternative plans and gather information on Plautius’ troops dispositions. He may well have fled Camulodunon before Claudius even reached the Medway.


Where then? It has been conjectured that he made his way to the southern Dobunni, making alliance with their chieftain Corio, and began organising resistance from Amberley Camp, where the Cotswolds run out into the Stroud Valley. The place is indeed a natural strong point and was heavily defended with dykes but it seems unlikely that he could have remained for long based at a stronghold so close to the rapidly advancing Roman sphere. An alternative suggestion [Salway 1981: p103] has been put for the great earthworks known as the Bulwarks on what is now Minchinghampton Common in Gloucestershire, which also would have been in the territory of the southern Dobunni. Wherever he sought refuge, he was in no position to offer battle at once. That area was now strongly garrisoned by II Legio, and he needed time to organise, to raise men, to gather supplies. Above all he needed security from interference by the legions while he embarked on a programme of diplomacy amongst the tribes of the farthest west.


Most likely the king fled north and west, skirting traitor Verulamium, and headed for the mountain fastnesses of Wales, taking with him his wife, children, other family members and, no doubt, numerous loyal followers. There they entered the territory of the western tribes: Silures, Demetae, Ordovices, Gangani, Degeangli and Cornovii. These hardy and stubborn hill people were of different race to the Brythonic Caratacos and his band of followers. Caratacos was a member of a social elite that had been heavily influenced by contact with the Continent over the past several centuries and was most probably of mixed Brythonic – Belgic blood. He well may have been viewed by the tribes of the West as at best an interloper, perhaps even an invader.. There is no reason to believe that they saw any particular difference between one invader and another, or that they would automatically receive the refugee king with open arms. He was as much an enemy as Claudius, and until little more than a year before had been pursuing an aggressive forward policy that had begun to encroach upon their own territories.


But Caratacos had two weapons: he was without doubt a most remarkable, perhaps even charismatic, personality and would have been a gifted orator. He was able to present an irresistible challenge to his hosts, and the threat of complete annihilation: “You can see what they have done to me and mine. You are next on the list!”. Even more important, he had the backing of the all-powerful Druids. These hierarchs were drawn from the noble classes of all tribes and were able to cross all borders and barriers. They were accorded a respectful hearing by all. The Romans had driven them, those who survived, from their sacred groves and the groves themselves turned into firewood as the conquerors sought to extirpate the feared and hated society. Fleeing before the Romans, many of the Order would have joined Caratacos in the Black Mountains where they threw their formidable moral weight behind the King. There can be no other explanation of his rapid establishment of himself as war leader over peoples so far removed, culturally and ethnically, from his own kind [Webster 1978: p57].


Another factor in this equation may well have been the Brigantes. This factious and fragmented confederacy of peoples was by no means united in their support for Queen Cartimandua, or, indeed, anything else. It may be that Venutios and other influential members of the anti-Roman group lobbied on Caratacos’ behalf. Despite his persuasiveness and charisma, and the backing of the powerful Order of Druids, it took time first to convince the chiefs of half a dozen tribes to accept him as an overall war leader and to strenuously resist the invaders when they came, and then to raise men. What convinced them in the end? It could not have been mere hatred of the invader who had, as yet, done them no harm and did not for the time being seem inclined to try and penetrate the forbidding hill country. Perhaps XIV Legio was getting dangerously close as it made its way towards Viriconium. The Cornovii may well have been under threat already. Perhaps a carrot was dangled under the collective nose? Restoration of ancient lands in the valley of the Severn and the east under the high-kingship of Caratacos? Land that could be taken from the Dobunni who had broken their oaths of submission to their liege, the Lord of the Cattuvellauni? Agree they did, whatever the cause, although it may have taken as much as four years of talking and making ready and then waiting for the right moment.


That moment arrived in the autumn of 47. Aulus Plautius had returned to Rome and the plaudits of the crowd, and no replacement arrived immediately to relieve him. For a brief time the Roman sphere was without an overall commander. War bands struck from the west and north west. The new governor arrived before too long, but by then hostilities had begun. Unfortunately for Rome, and fortunately for Caratacos, the new man, albeit a capable and experienced soldier, had a real talent for aggravation.




03:05:02. Publius Ostorius Scapula (47 – 53 CE).

Little is known of either the private life or public career of Publius Ostorius Scapula. He was the son of Quintus Ostorius Scapula, one of the first joint commanders of the Praetorian Guard in 2 BCE and later prefect of Egypt [A Birley 1981: p42]. His mother (or possibly his wife) was Sallustia Calvina, a woman of noble birth and the highest connections, being related to Junia Calvina the daughter-in-law of Lucius Vitellius the censor [Tacitus: Annals xii:4]. His date of birth is unknown but may have been about 2 CE. Marcus Ostorius, the son of Publius, had estates in Liguria [Ibid: xvi:15] which he probably inherited from his father, but it seems likely that the family hailed from the mountainous lands of central Italy [A Birley 1981:p42]. Publius Ostorius was suffect consul, with Publius Suillius Rufus, early in the principate of Claudius and probably in 45 CE [Ibid: p41]. His military career prior to his arrival in Britain is unknown, but presumably he had had considerable experience during his cursus honorum and it is possible that he had previous acquaintance of Britain as a comes of Claudius during the latter’s triumphal progress to Camulodunum [Ibid: p41].


In 47 Publius Ostorius Scapula was appointed the second imperial Governor of Britain to replace the outgoing Plautius. Obviously he was thought capable, but it is also likely that the patronage of Lucius Vitellius, Claudius’ very good friend and then at the height of his power and influence, would have helped to arrange the appointment [A Birley 1981:p42]. If this is true, then Scapula was part of, or at the least in the favour of, the very influential Vitellian group [Nicols 1978: p15] of powerful families such as the Vitellii and Plautii who at that time virtually monopolised power in Rome. This would have assured him of tremendous political leverage during the reign of Claudius.


The new Governor arrived in Britain determined to secure further the as yet tenuous Roman hold on the province. The tribes of the conquered territories were in a state of stunned submission, and it is quite probable that they would have remained so for good had it not been for the overbearing and illegal actions of the Romans themselves.


Not so the peoples of the west. Believing that a new governor, unfamiliar with both the province and the army, and with winter coming on, would be reluctant to give battle, the tribes began raiding back into Imperial territory across the Fosse Way from the mountainous west. The timing was right, but Caratacos had underestimated the determination of the new Governor. Scapula decided that a very firm line needed to be taken. He marched auxiliary troops against the marauders and managed to disperse them, but such skirmishes were first aid measures only. There could be no doubt that these actions took place in the Cotswolds and along the banks of the Severn, territory handy to Silurian lands. The Cornovii and Ordovices may also have made incursions. The limes was held, but matters obviously could not be allowed to rest there.


The problem was twofold. Firstly, the nature of the frontier itself was unsatisfactory: it was long and difficult to garrison adequately. Caratacos had exposed the weakness of it and had been repulsed only after some considerable trouble. Invasion of the far north was probably not seriously envisaged at this time, but something of a push north and west was obviously needed in the near future. Too large a proportion of Roman forces were based too far to the east and south to work really effectively against forces coming out of the highlands. The Midland garrisons would have to be strengthened. The trouble with the Fosse Way was that it was a land route. The movement of the bulk supplies such as corn and metal upon which the legions depended would be enormously improved if the western rivers could be opened up to traffic. Road transport in the ancient world was notoriously expensive and the only really efficient and economically acceptable method of moving bulk goods was, then as now, by water. A push to the west was not only a tactical necessity in the campaign against Caratacos, it was a strategic imperative that would enable Scapula to supply his Midlands garrisons by river (Middleton 1979: p94).


Scapula’s strategy was to try to push the frontier back to the Welsh Marches and up to the territory of the Brigantes. This would shorten his frontier, allowing him to better concentrate his men and would cut overland communication and hence collusion between two trouble spots. It was divide et impera again, this time on a geographical as well as political level. The limes would then run northwards along the east bank of the Severn at least as far as Viriconium and at the other end should run along the estuary of the Humber and down the Trent. This would establish natural barriers but left a gaping hole in the middle at Warwickshire. This hole, the territory of the Cornovii, would have to plugged up, preferably by driving a wedge clear up to the Mare Hibernicum in the region of the Mersey.


Meanwhile, Caratacos’ men were raiding out of the Welsh mountains, and Caratacos himself was stirring up and co-ordinating unrest, providing a focal point for insurrection. The speed and success of Scapula’s counterattacks would have been a blow to the British and perhaps even an embarrassment to the King himself, but the attacks continued, if only on a lower key. Proof of ongoing raiding may be seen at the marching camp at Metchley near Birmingham [Webster & Dudley 1965: p137 – 8]. This was an enclosure only, where troops could pitch tents while passing back and forth but it had wide and deep ditches with corner towers, a far more elaborate construction than ordinary marching camps. Clearly the legions were still feeling far from secure despite the reverses inflicted on the British.


The Governor certainly had a problem. There can be no doubt that Scapula realised full well that Caratacos was his prime target and hoped that, as had happened so often before with British rebels, resistance would wither once the leader was dead. However, Claudius really wanted Caratacos taken captive and brought to Rome to be put on display. Claudius’ campaign could not be said to have been completed until the principal opponent had been defeated and taken and the Augustus wanted his moment of military glory neatly, tidily and finally rounded off. Scapula quite probably had special instructions to this effect and, while killing the man was probably quite achievable, taking him alive and in more or less in working order was a problem of a slightly different order.


Scapula’s second headache was one of troop deployment. The Roman defences were weak north of the valley of the Severn and south west of the Trent, the Warwickshire Gap. This allowed Caratacos and his men to come and go as they pleased, raiding deep into Roman territory with impunity. The answer was obvious: withdraw troops from the relatively subdued south east to garrison the western front. The trouble with this plan was that it would seriously weaken the rear. Accordingly Scapula took two measures to nip any potential threat in the bud.


By the summer of 48 he had established his authority and reputation and had laid out the necessary strategy. Planning to head for the Welsh Mountains in the hunt for the turbulent king and fearing – with some justification – that the natives might revolt during his absence, he ordered that all British in the pacified areas to be disarmed, “to hold in check the whole area between the rivers Trisantona and Sabrina” [Tacitus: Annals xii:31]. This sweeping edict included not only those who had surrendered and made submission to Rome but also those, like the Iceni of East Anglia, who had accepted treaty recognition with Rome and who had never fought the invader. This measure was standard practice under the provisions of the lex iulia de vi publica, which prohibited citizens, except under very specific circumstances, from bearing arms. Such a move could be seen as a means of imposing formal and general provincial rule that much more quickly, but the purpose of the order was more to intimidate than to actually gather up all the weapons in the land. British armourers could produce high quality weapons very quickly. Scapula obviously felt that an authoritarian approach was needed and took the step as a preliminary to his second move, which was to reduce the garrisons of the east and south in order to deploy the maximum number of men along the limes.


Militarily this made excellent sense, but politically it was disastrous. Scapula could not have done anything more calculated to incite outrage against Rome if he had tried. Not surprisingly, the edict was resisted, especially by the Iceni who quite rightly considered themselves to be an autonomous, sovereign state under their own King Antedios. They were allies, not vassals. They felt that Scapula’s edict was outrageously high-handed. Instead of meekly handing in their swords to the local garrison, some in the west of Icenia drew them from their sheathes and used them on the garrison instead.


Without doubt the Iceni started the fighting. The Romans would not have been gentle in their searching and rummaging for weapons and there was quite probably some looting, assault and casual rape thrown in for good measure. Tempers flared and the Iceni attacked the weapons collectors, killing some and sending the rest packing, in response to which a punitive expedition was mounted. Led by the Iceni, allied neighbouring tribes [Tacitus: Annals xii:31] (Tacitus does not name them, but it sounds as if some of the Trinovantes joined in and quite possibly the Coritani) selected a position to do battle somewhere near modern Cambridge. They built – or rebuilt – some earthworks at what is now known as Stonea Camp just south of the village of Marsh, an area that was fortified amid what was then a wilderness of marsh and bog, with approaches too narrow for the efficient use of cavalry. It has been suggested [Salway 1981: p101. Frere 1987: p60] that this enclosure, an island of gravel in the fens and about five kilometres due south of a major east-west road, was the site of the confrontation. Surrounded by fen and mere, it was difficult for horsemen to approach and sounds very much like the “rustic earthworks, with an approach too narrow to give access to cavalry” that Tacitus [Annals xii:31] describes as the flashpoint. The hoard of Icenian coins discovered in the circuit of the enclosure, together with shards of pottery of the time [Potter 1981: p98], suggest the last safe deposit of an Icenian warrior before the attack, and the shattered remains of roman pottery looted from some sacked fort.


Once again, according to Tacitus, Scapula used auxiliary troops without regulars, possibly because the more lightly armed troops were more efficient in the swampy ground than the heavily armoured legionaries, but clearly there were some citizen soldiers present as the life of one was saved. The commander of the assault force is not named as such, but presumably it was Marcus Ostorius Scapula, the son of the Governor, who was then possibly serving as a military tribune.


Despite the difficulties of the terrain, the commander decided to attack, augmenting his infantry with dismounted cavalrymen. The camp was surrounded and, on the signal, the soldiers stormed in. The defenders found themselves trapped within their own fortifications. The fighting was fierce and desperate, even Tacitus being forced to admit that the cornered tribesmen “performed prodigies of valour” [Tacitus: Annals xii:31] before they were at last overwhelmed. It was as a result of a valiant deed during this action – saving the life of a fellow Roman – that Marcus Ostorius Scapula, a man of powerful physique, was awarded the honour of the corona civilis, the Citizen’s Oak Wreath.


Despite his courage and military honours, the end of Scapula the Younger was to be bleak. In 66 an increasingly paranoid and bloodthirsty Nero was secretly advised that Scapula was consulting one Pammenes, a well-known astrologer, about the nature of the Emperor’s destiny. Immediately a detachment of the Praetorian Guard was despatched to Scapula’s remote Ligurian estate to kill him, but Scapula would not have it. A true Roman to the end, he ordered a slave to hold a dagger firmly, and then drew his throat across it [Tacitus: Annals xvii:14 – 15].


But meanwhile the Iceni and their allies were routed, and others who were waiting to see which way the fortunes of battle turned, decided that discretion was the better part of valour. The rebellion was crushed.


It was, in fact, a relatively minor engagement and the whole rebellion a fairly unimportant matter as the small size of the punitive expedition and its composition of auxiliaries only would imply. It is probable that only one sub-tribe of the Iceni was involved, and evidence from Woodcock Hall near Saham Toney may provide material for speculation. This Iron Age site was obviously one of considerable importance and prosperity in the first half of the first century, laying as it did athwart the Blackwater Stream (which was much broader and deeper at that time) and the ancient north-south trackway known today as the Pilgrims’ Way. Evidence would suggest that a mint was active here in the 40’s [Brown 1986: p8] and the coin assemblage is sufficiently eclectic to suggest a considerable level of trade from across southern Britain converging here. Comparison with other assemblages has led to the suggestion that this was a centre of Caesar’s otherwise unattested Cenimagni [Brown 1986: p6] and the possibility therefore is that Antedios was a chief of that tribe and that Woodcock Hall was his seat. Significantly, virtually no native coinage later than about 50 CE was circulating on the site, suggesting that by 47 this previously flourishing centre was economically impoverished or deserted [Brown 1986: pp8]. An Auxiliary fort was built at about this time on the higher ground to the south overlooking the  native settlement and was manned for about ten years, being demolished circa 58 [Black 1986:p10], probably to strengthen Paullinus’ forces as they moved into the west. Clearly, Icenian territory, or at least the territory of the troublemakers, was heavily garrisoned and its wealth pillaged. All this would raise questions about the real nature of Icenian tribal unity, and even whether it was a tribe at all or simply an administrative fiction of the Roman bureaucracy.


There were certainly repercussions for Antedios, however, and it is possible that the rise of Prasutagos, husband of Boudica, dated from this time. Antedios disappears from view henceforth, disgraced, deposed, probably dead and replaced by a more amenable, pro-Roman paramount. Certainly the Icenian state retained its nominal independence and was not incorporated into the provincia, as must surely have happened if the uprising had been more general.


Certainly thoughts of resistance were abandoned, for the time being at least. Scapula’s edict was enforced, the people were disarmed, and tension rose a further notch.



03:05:03. To Plug the Gap.

Having cowed the natives for the time being, Scapula then led a force comprised of vexillations from XX Legio and XIV Legio plus auxiliaries towards northern Wales in the autumn of 48. His strategy was sound and shows that he had a good overall grasp of the situation ahead of him. He would head through Shropshire and the Cheshire gap into Flintshire, making his way to the sea. The indications are that he was aware of and ultimately headed for the Druidic stronghold on Mona (Anglesey). Following Watling Street he headed for the north west, but first he had to deal with the Cornovii. These people obviously did not present too much of a problem, as they were not a coherent political grouping and many of them may well have been pro-Roman or at least were astute enough to accept Rome without too much of a fight. Fragmented politically, they may well have been torn between attraction for Caratacos and pragmatism in the face of the Roman reality. Whatever their reaction, they were swiftly occupied.


This advance brought a great area of land under direct Roman control and it was swiftly studded with forts to keep it subdued. Scapula then headed west into Wales and the territory of the Degeangli.


Scapula may or may not have known about Mona, but the direction of his thrust would make this most unlikely. It would be safe to assume that he was well aware of the sacred island and its significance, and surely it was his ultimate target. The capture of the Druidic stronghold would have deprived the Order of their most venerable centre and would have shattered the confidence of the tribes. Should the legions overrun the island and the coastal route along the north of Wales, they would also drive a wedge between the two highland masses of Snowdonia and the Pennines, denying any collusion in strength between an actual foe – Caratacos and his allies – and a potential one – the Brigantes. Finally Scapula would, by devastating the land and placing garrisons upon the northern coast, deliver a none-too-subtle message to the Brigantes on the consequences of resistance.


The legions thrust forward through the Cheshire Gap towards Flintshire and Denbighshire and the Degeangli, where he ravaged for some time [Tacitus: Annals xii:32], especially in the rich Vale of the Clywd, inflicting widespread damage and collecting considerable loot. The Degeangli, a minor and numerically weak tribe, did not venture into open battle that we know of, but were able to mount a series of hit and run attacks on Scapula’s columns, which were only repulsed after heavy casualties on both sides. They had obviously learned the wisdom of guerilla tactics from Caratacos and were almost certainly aided and abetted by him and his men.


It may be that the Degeangli, sensibly, did not bring open battle to the legions, but there can be no doubt that the legions sought battle with the natives, and many settlements were assailed and taken. One such was the small hillfort at Dinorben on the western edge of the Vale of the Clywd [Davies 1977: p267], and perhaps that at Pen-y-Corddyn. At the former, the attack seems to have been made from the south west [Ibid: p268], and the attackers left their calling cards in the form of two arrowheads forgotten in the rubble [Ibid: p258]. After the sack, the fortifications of the little settlement were slighted [Ibid: p 268], and although reoccupied later, resistance to Rome seems to have been crushed for good. Scapula was thus able to drive an iron wedge up along the north coast, effectively isolating Wales from the rest of Britain.


Scapula had crossed the vale of the Clywd and was advancing steadily towards the Menai Straits when news of an uprising amongst the Brigantes brought him hurriedly back. Like any good general “he was determined to postpone further expansion until his conquests were secured” [Tacitus: Annals xii:34] and this included territory or potentates friendly to Rome. The land of the Brigantes was allied to Rome by virtue of their Queen Cartimandua, but her authority amongst her people was by no means universally accepted and many of her subjects and vassals were quite obviously unhappy with her friendship with the invaders. Scapula did not dare let an uprising amongst this numerous, disputatious and potentially very dangerous federation of peoples get out of hand. He was quite well aware of the internal dissent within Brigantia and the existence of a powerful anti-Roman faction. He had to exercise a very delicate balance of both military muscle and diplomacy on what threatened to be a very sensitive problem.


Marching swiftly back along the coast, he would have crossed the upper Mersey and possibly met the problem head-on at the major centre of Camulodunum Brigantiarum (Almondbury) [Webster & Dudley 1965: p148]. The uprising was of little consequence and quickly subdued, the ringleaders executed and the rest pardoned. For once Scapula showed some diplomacy, not otherwise one of his stronger traits, in finding a political solution rather than simply unleashing the legions as was his preference. He obviously took the matter very seriously and his forbearance may well have been due to his recognition that militarily he was in no position to launch a major offensive against Brigantia while at the same time pursuing Caratacos up and down Wales. Indeed it seems to have been more of an internal matter, possibly a squabble within the Brigantian royal family or some insurrection against Cartimandua’s rule. Tacitus [Annals xii:32] uses the word discordiae, which has the meaning of discord, disunion, dissent [Lewis & Short 1879], and the context would seem to favour a translation as of internal conflict or troubles within the tribe. There is no suggestion at this point that hostilities were conducted against Rome either directly or indirectly.


The whole affair was of itself little more than an annoyance, but alarm bells would have been ringing in Scapula’s mind at the ramifications. Was this uprising orchestrated by the strong and growing anti-Roman, pro-Caratacos faction of the Brigantes? Did Caratacos himself have a hand or, at least, a finger in it? Probably. Almost certainly. The strategic implications of a Roman hold on Flintshire and Denbighshire would not have been lost on the partisans for a minute and a convenient disturbance in Brigantia could have been no more than a ploy to divert the invader. Perhaps Caratacos needed time to marshal and deploy his troops and to provide for logistics.


The troubles continued. Groups of Cornovii, Silures and Ordovices were still raiding over the Fosse Way and the hand of Caratacos is clearly discernible in this campaign of harassment. The problem of the weak frontier had to be addressed and the only spare force Scapula had available to him was XX Legio. It was then that Scapula committed his second major political blunder. To consolidate his rear, Camulodunum was declared a colonia in 49 or 50 with orders to keep the peace in the east. The final decision and authorisation would have come from Claudius, naturally, but Scapula would have strongly urged it and on his head must lie the blame.


The Governor would have sent reports to Claudius when the troops had been safely ensconced in their winter quarters. In them he would have detailed the events of the last campaigning season and would doubtless have tried to show himself in the very best of lights, but no amount of clever wording or selective reporting could have hidden the unmistakable fact that he had, after two years, achieved very little except to stir up considerable animosity amongst once friendly, or, at least, apathetic natives. The frontier was still in the same place, the push to the west coast had been instructive to the Romans and the British alike, if for different reasons, but nothing very concrete had been achieved. He had been unable to place much more than a tenuous hold on the territory he had crossed and had been forced to retire his main strength to the starting point. The Cornovii had been cowed and some of their territory garrisoned, but this in itself did not mean very much. That disunited people were still fractious, and raiding continued. The Degeangli had been seriously bloodied, but how strong a hold had been placed on their territory is moot. They would have lost many to the depredations of the legions, but equally many more would have been displaced and, vengeful, would have swelled the ranks of Caratacos’ fighting strength. The hard fact was that Scapula was going to have to do it all again next season. And on top of all this, Caratacos himself was still wandering around the Welsh Mountains as free as a bird.


There was obviously a single mind guiding all this turmoil. Scapula’s experience of Britain and that of his officers made it quite apparent that the western tribes were displaying a unity of purpose that was otherwise quite alien to the British , and there were no prizes for guessing whose was that single mind. Scapula could no longer keep dealing with individual tribes and simply try and defend the limes. The only way to stop the resistance would be to take Caratacos, and that could only be done by an all-out onslaught into the mountains, a direct challenge to the King that he could not possibly refuse to accept. For this he would need men, and perhaps as many as a quarter of his entire strength was unfit for active service or ready to retire. He was, effectively, short of a whole legion. Hence the request to proclaim Camulodunum a colonia, allowing the Governor to retire his veterani and recruit new troops. He got his way, the troops got their colonia, and Camulodunum got its charter.


Coming on the heels of the infamous disarmament edict, this caused even deeper resentment among an already restive native population and ultimately would cost Rome thousands of lives.




03:05:04. In Pursuit of Caratacos.

When the spring of 50 came around Scapula was engaged in the biggest military operation yet seen in Britain since the invasion itself, involving the great majority of his available men in one complex push into southern and central Wales. The Silures, the most powerful and the most intractable of the Welsh tribes, were the first target. The expeditionary force penetrated southern Wales and began building a string of strong points. Political pressure was being brought to bear from Rome: capture Caratacos and bring him to Caesar.


Caratacos had become a figure of legend for the British tribes who still held out against Rome, and his presence in the Welsh Mountains stiffened even further the resolve of the local people to resist. He had never actually been beaten in battle since he had ensconced himself in the western highlands, largely as a result of his strategy of using guerilla warfare as against direct confrontation, and on occasions had won victories over the Romans, his lack of numerical strength being more than compensated for by his outstanding generalship and his knowledge of local conditions. There were many skirmishes throughout the summer as Scapula’s men tried to push their way into southern and central Wales, but there were no major engagements. Caratacos was concentrating on the guerilla tactics that had served him so well in the past, wearing down the enemy, inflicting heavy casualties and undermining morale.


Scapula, too, seems to have been proceeding cautiously. He was well aware that, amongst the rugged glens and crags of the Black Mountains and the Berwyns, Caratacos’ men could easily inflict a politically damaging and militarily disastrous defeat against superior forces and that he dare not risk. His reputation, indeed his whole career was at stake. The legions moved up the valleys of the Usk and the Wye, burning, intimidating, looting, subjecting the people to atrocitas in an attempt to undermine support for the King. Naval patrols were made to the far west from the valley of the Severn and from the north Devon coast. It is possible that troops were landed at a few points and forts built: the Towy offered a line of penetration to the west of the Silures, and traces of pre-Flavian occupation in the forts at Neath and Llandovery prompt the suggestion that this area was exploited by Scapula [Webster & Dudley 1965: p151]. It may be that some negotiations were begun with the Demetae at this stage. This tribe would have given support to Caratacos (they could hardly have done otherwise), but the assistance could have been half hearted. Their territory was almost ungarrisoned in later years, which would suggest not only consequent submission to Rome but also active connivance with the invader at an early stage.


The summer wore on and winter approached with neither side achieving very much apart from an increasing familiarity with each other, although Scapula was making steady if slow inroads. Winter closed in and the legions were withdrawn back to hiberna. Scapula was now approaching the end of his term as Governor but he obviously contacted Claudius and explained that to replace him at this advanced stage of the campaign would be counter-productive. He would, once again, have painted himself in the best possible light and this time he would have had positive gains to report. Definite advances had been made, victory was in sight and Caratacos was under increasing pressure. He was right, and his imperium was renewed for a further term.


Caratacos was indeed under pressure. British warfare was an heroic matter, an elaborate spectacle of belligerent noise, of mighty heroes, of glorious feats of incredible personal prowess, of combat between champions. It was the stuff of sagas, not of military despatches. Bush warfare and guerilla tactics were not in the British repertoire as an on-going theme. The British War-Lord was expected to lead his warriors into battle and to provide loot and feasting. Whether the battle brought glorious victory or heroic defeat was not necessarily the primary purpose of the exercise. It was battle itself that was important, the flare of combat and the clash of giants, and for the British warrior there was no greater renown than to have the song of his deeds sung after his death in a blaze of glory. Caratacos was a rarity in the British world of the time, a man who could look beyond the immediate tactical position to an overall strategy, a man who could adapt Roman concepts of war to his own purpose and use them against the enemy, and above all a man whose vision transcended the fragmented tribal structure to a true national horizon. But he had to humour restive followers, and he simply did not have the logistical infrastructure to maintain what amounted to a standing army in the field. British society lacked both the physical means and the psychological concepts to support such a notion. There were many acrimonious arguments in the villages and hillforts of the Silures and Ordovices that winter.


Pressure both from the Roman army and from his own followers forced him, against his better judgement perhaps, to take the field of valour. In 51 he decided on a strategic move northwards to the country of the Ordovices. He was taking a very grave risk in seeking open battle, the area in which Roman discipline, weaponry and tactics excelled. A very grave risk, but a calculated one in a game for very high stakes. But, if nothing else, he could seek battle on his own terms.


In this decision to move his troops north is demonstrated Caratacos’ strategic understanding. A British victory might enable him to keep the Roman forces out of Wales for much longer, but a defeat in the south could mean the immediate closure of any escape route to Brigantia. It could also mean desertion by his supporters: war-lords had to be successful in war, and defeat could leave him marooned in the highlands with no more than a little band of loyal followers, reduced to a mere brigand. The north it had to be. Thus Caratacos moved his field of operations from the Silures to the Ordovices of Snowdonia, taking the initiative and determined to put the matter to the test in pitched battle, after which, if defeat came, retreat to the north would still be possible [Webster & Dudley 1965: p154].


This move brought relief to the forces based at Glevum and Scapula’s response was then to push north west along Watling Street, bringing XIV Legio from Plautius’ forward base at Manduessedum (Mancetter) to Letocetum (Wall), where a dominant position on the sandstone ridge commands the Midland gap [Webster 1975: p28]. This led him directly into the territory of the Cornovii and into conflict with them, but it is to be doubted that they posed too great a problem for the legions. This people, like the Brigantes to the north and the Durotriges to the south, were not a cohesive unit and the name Cornovii is quite likely a term of convenience adopted later by Roman administrators, the name of one of the leading clans, perhaps, transferred to the entire populace. Theirs was a society lacking in natural resources and fragmented politically into many subtribes and clans, dominated by the hillforts that abound in the area but which are especially numerous along the river valleys of the highlands west of the Severn. These little groups, each under its own chieftain, would have preyed upon the farmers of the Shropshire Plain for tribute in the form of grain and livestock. Unable to present a unified front, they were swiftly overrun, many of the surviving warrior caste fleeing to Caratacos. Quite possibly the peasantry who were left behind were quite receptive to Roman rule on the principle that it could not be a lot worse than that of their previous overlords, and quite possibly better. A stable and reasonably equitable rule by a proper, professional administration would have been a vast improvement on the whims of a local tyrant who took what he fancied [Ibid: p16].


XIV Legio pushed on to Pennocrucium (Water Newton), Red Hill and finally Viriconium (Wroxeter), where a large legionary fortress was established, the nucleus of the later substantial Romano-British civitas capitol. Unlike other strategic centres, Viriconium does not seem to have been the site of a previous Iron Age settlement, but was a Roman foundation established to serve as a base for the push into central Wales. The name is of unknown provenance, but it is conjectured [Jackson 1970: p82] that it may derive from a British form Uiriconio, The Town of Virico, a British given name of known Gaulish provenance. Although the town of Viriconium was a Roman foundation, a short distance to the east lies the great stone outcrop of the Wrekin (a name that seems to be etymologically linked to Viriconium), the site of a formidable Coritanian hillfort. There is some evidence [Webster 1975: p10] to suggest that this settlement was destroyed by fire, perhaps as a result of Roman military action under Scapula, and it may not be too far-fetched to suggest that Virico was the last chieftain of the Wrekin hillfort. Perhaps XIV Legio stormed the Wrekin in late 50, destroying the settlement and either killing Virico or driving him, together with a few of his warriors, into the Welsh mountains and the arms of Caratacos.


Exactly where Caratacos finally decided to plant his standard is not known, beyond that it was in the North in the territory of the Ordovices [Tacitus: Annals xii:33] and probably not too far from the modern Anglo-Welsh border. The site was probably somewhere near the headwaters of the Severn, or along one of the streams tributary to it. A strong case has been made for the site now occupied by Dolforwyn Castle [Webster & Dudley 1965: p156]. He selected a place with steep slopes on one side, gentler slopes on the other and a river in front. Behind him were many escape routes leading up into the mountains, and the gentler slopes were reinforced by rough ramparts of stone.


The day of battle came at last, and, in the customary manner of ancient generals, Caratacos roused his warriors to fever pitch with fiery oratory. His own emotions and expectations are forever a mystery.


On the other hand, Tacitus reports [Annals: xii:35] that Scapula was most uneasy about this battle. The high morale and great numbers of the British, the difficult terrain that favoured Caratacos and hampered him, the crude but effective fortifications, all conspired to present a depressing prospect. His own forces were probably numerically superior, perhaps 15,000 against the British 10,000 [Webster & Dudley 1965: p159], but the British position was by far the stronger. Caratacos had taken the initiative and Scapula was on the back foot, forced into a position of weakness that he could not back out of. He seems to have hesitated, for the troops, backed by their centurions, clamoured for the attack, and, after some considerable reconnaissance, Scapula ordered them forward. The beginning was not auspicious.


The Romans crossed the river and approached the ramparts, only to be driven back with heavy losses. Reforming under testudones, they demolished the crude fortifications and advanced in close formation, driving the British back into the hills. The heavy infantry pressed forward, shields interlocked, gladii stabbing, depriving the British of the best use of their long British swords. Auxiliaries pressed the flanks with javelins. The more lightly armoured British suffered heavy casualties and at last were routed, although it was no cheap victory for Rome. The fighting was hard, bitter, and merciless. Significantly, Tacitus does not quote casualty figures as he so often does elsewhere, and as other Roman historians were wont to do. The implication may be that Roman casualties were heavy and those of the British comparatively light, and for this Caratacos’ generalship is to be thanked. The position that he chose had many good escape routes through some very rough country where the Roman cavalry, the usual means of pursuit and slaughter, was unable to perform their horrid mopping-up operations.


The battle of the Upper Severn, if we may call it that for want of a better name, is, in military terms, one of the most interesting of all the recorded battles during the conquest period. Caratacos displayed generalship of the highest order in his selection of the site and his conduct of the battle. On the Roman side, Scapula fully vindicated his reputation as a brilliant field officer and his troops displayed in full those virtues of discipline, skill and tenacity that made the Roman army one of the most formidable fighting machines of all time.




03:05:05. A King in Chains.

Caratacos’ wife and daughter were taken by the Romans. His brothers surrendered. The British confederacy was broken but the King himself still held out hope. Not for him the life of a brigand in the hills, or exile in Hibernia. Once more he was on the run after a serious defeat. It had happened before, and, he would have reasoned, he could rise again, given a little time and effort. He had arrived in Wales with no more than he now had, and the north held even greater promise. Together with a small band of followers, he managed to elude his pursuers and fled to Cartimandua of the Brigantes.


Why Cartimandua, known creature of Rome? What was Caratacos after? The warrior chief obviously hoped for refuge for a time and a breathing space in which to gather his strength. He would have anticipated military help from the powerful and still (nominally) independent Brigantes, and probably expected it as of right. Did he consider himself her liege as High King? A family connection between the royal families of Brigantia and Cattuvellaunia is not just a possibility it is a probability. He would have been prepared to use all his considerable powers of persuasion to play on bonds of loyalty and blood. Brigantia was the ideal place from which to carry the battle for freedom. Numerically, the people were the most powerful in Britain, and controlled the largest single territory. Indeed it was not really a unified tribe at all but a confederacy, and a fairly loose one at that, of some twenty or more peoples, and with strong associations with the Carvetii of Cumberland, the Novantae of Galloway and the Selgovae of Mid-Lothian. The bleak and rugged Pennines offered an ideal base for a protracted guerilla war, and, if all else failed, there were the grim and trackless fastnesses of the Scottish Highlands into which to retreat. The confederacy of tribes in Wales had been broken by Roman iron, but the individual tribes, especially the Silures and Ordovices, were still very much alive and fighting fit. If all went well, there was the possibility of re-establishing contact with the western allies and co-ordinating a war on both the western and northern fronts. The mind of Caratacos would have been working furiously.


Either he misjudged Cartimandua or his own powers of persuasion, or he was hoping to meet Venutios and missed. Whatever his hopes, it was Cartimandua whom he met at last, Cartimandua who had long since made a pact with Rome, who had received Roman support to maintain herself on her throne and who had repaid that support by keeping her people out of the war in Wales. Moreover, the swift and effective suppression of the earlier acrimony, and now Scapula’s victory over Caratacos, would have convinced the queen that she was on the winning side and that treaty considerations came above all else. Flouting the ancient and sacred laws of hospitality, she had Caratacos seized and handed over to Scapula in chains. Caratacos, his family and surviving allies were sent to Rome for the triumph of Claudius, to be paraded before the people of Rome like so many peculiar animals.


Claudius was delighted with the capture of his arch-foe. There had been problems at court, the outrageous behaviour of Messalina and the dynastic struggles surrounding the episode being but the most outstanding of a number of scandals and fiascos, and the arrival of the British King would be a most pleasant diversion. The glorious days of 43 could be resurrected and Claudius’ triumph renewed. The fact that one British monarch had betrayed another into Roman hands had huge propaganda potential. Caratacos had defied the might of Rome for most of a decade and his fame had spread beyond the islands to the Continental provinces and to Rome itself. This occasion was really the culmination of the earlier triumph, crowning the first success of the conquest with the assurance that Britain was now at peace and the war in the west was over except for a few minor cleaning up exercises. If that was Claudius’ thought, as it quite probably was, he was shortly to find out just what a ghastly error of judgement he had made. But he could not have realised that at the time and for the moment he was grateful not only to Scapula but quite probably to Caratacos as well.


Many were curious to see this prodigy in the flesh. The defeated British king, together with his family and the spoils of war, was paraded before Claudius and his consort Agrippina, the ambitious daughter of Agrippina the Elder and Germanicus the brother of Claudius. Hence she was Claudius’ natural niece, for whose benefit special legislation (the Institutes of Gaius i:62 states that: “a man may lawfully marry his brother’s daughter, a practice introduced after the late Emperor Claudius married Agrippina”) had been introduced to enable her to enter into what would otherwise have been an incestuous relationship, a bit of legal chicanery that was later repealed by the Emperor Constantine. She was the fourth and last wife of Claudius, and probably murdered him. She was the grand-daughter, via her mother, of the great Marcus Agrippa, and it was her proud boast that she had the unique distinction of being the sister of one Emperor (Gaius Caligula), the wife of a second (Claudius, whom it is suspected she poisoned), and the mother of a third (Nero, who finally murdered her).


There can be no doubt that all the British prisoners present were fully aware of the brutal treatment and appalling death that was shortly to meted out to them. All pleaded with the Augustus for mercy. All save Caratacos who, beaten but uncowed, walked up to the rostrum where the imperial couple presided over the proceedings. Tacitus puts these words in his mouth:


“Had my lineage and rank been accompanied by only moderate success I should have come to this city as a friend rather than as a prisoner, and you would not have disdained to ally yourself peacefully with one so nobly born, the ruler of so many nations. As it is, humiliation is my lot, glory yours. I had horses, men, arms, wealth. Are you surprised I am sorry to lose them? If you want to rule the world, does it follow that everyone else welcomes enslavement? If I had surrendered without a blow before being brought before you, neither my downfall nor your triumph would have become famous. If you execute me they will be forgotten. Spare me, and I shall be an everlasting token of your mercy [Annals xii:35].”


The entire spectacle had been carefully stage-managed, so Caratacos had rehearsed and was probably even expected to speak. The words are those of Tacitus, but there can be little doubt that the sentiments were those of Caratacos, and it may well have been exactly what Claudius expected to hear. So impressed did he appear with the dignity, fluency and courage of his defeated enemy that he pardoned Caratacos and his family. This was an excellent opportunity for the Emperor to further project his virtue of clementia before his subjects. The tableau showed Claudius with enemies at his mercy offering to let bygones be bygones. Claudius was at considerable pains to heal the rifts and injustices caused by his own accession Levick 1990 p89), offering amnesty to all save the actually assassins of Caligula and his family. In pardoning Caratacos he was even out-doing the mighty Julius Caesar. There would be no repeat of the Vercingetorix episode, with the long years of degrading incarceration that ended at last in a brutal execution in the Tullianum. Claudius ordered the chains to be struck off forthwith, for which they paid him homage.


Tacitus, marvelling, reports that the British party then approached the Augusta and “offered her the same homage and gratitude as they had given the Emperor” [Ibid: Annals xii:37]. The eminent historian’s wonder at this strange reaction is one of several odd remarks reflecting a lack of understanding of the status of women in British society. Elsewhere in the “Histories”, for example, he remarks that Venutios’ Brigantian rebels fought Cartimandua because they were “infuriated and goaded by fears of humiliating female rule”. He overlooks the facts that Cartimandua had been queen of the Brigantes for many years, and that the Brigantian civil wars had everything to do with the fact that she espoused pro-Roman policies in an increasingly anti-Roman context, and had treated her popular and powerful husband in a high-handed and unjust manner, and nothing to do with the fact that she was a woman. The British tribes rose enthusiastically enough under another woman, Boudica of the Iceni, eight years after the capture of Caratacos. The British, of course, were used to the idea of both men and women leading in both war and peace.


To Caratacos and his party, Agrippina appeared to hold equivalent honours to Claudius and therefore, in British eyes, she was equivalent in status and power. The imperial couple were co-rulers. Agrippina’s ambition was boundless and the fact well known. She was only recently the royal consort, and made every effort to appear as Claudius’ equal especially before the populace. Payment of homage to her as a peer of the Emperor, as if she were indeed an Empress in her own right, would have tickled her vanity enormously. Without doubt the Cattuvellaunian royal family won themselves a new and very influential friend at court. Perhaps Caratacos, after all, won the very last victory of the war.


It could be argued that Claudius had, at some stage, offered Caratacos a truce and a deal of some sort in which the king of the Cattuvellauni would have become a client king under Roman supervision as part of a package to drive a wedge between him and Togodumnos. A thoughtful reading between the lines of Tacitus’ account could be given such an interpretation. The speech that Tacitus puts into the King’s mouth when at last he was dragged before Claudius is certainly not a verbatim report, but it may well be the essence of what was actually said. A suggestion that such a deal might have been offered could be read into the first couple of sentences. Co-incidence? Over-zealous examination? Or did Tacitus know something that we do not? He had access to copious records and could well have spoken to people who were actually on the spot at the time.


But Caratacos was a proud, intelligent and daring man, the ruler of a burgeoning realm of a vibrant and vital culture that was showing every promise of evolving from the typically British tribal complex that it was into a coherent nation state. He was a British aristocrat and more: he was a king in fact and believed fervently in freedom for his people. His motives cannot now be fathomed and the question must remain forever hypothetical.


The Senate met after the triumph and several ovations were made upon the subject of the capture of the British King, as glorious as any equivalent feat in the history of Rome. Scapula was heaped with rewards and granted an honorary triumph, the highest accolade that the principate was prepared to award to anyone outside the immediate royal family. He had reached the pinnacle of his success, but his luck would turn sour very soon.


The great Caratacos was laid low, but not humbled. He and his family lived on as free people in comparative opulence at Claudius’ expense, but confined to the City of Rome. Of their ultimate fate history is silent, and the line of the first man to be able to truly lay claim to the title of King of the Britons vanished beneath the tides of history.




03:05:06. Arthur and Caratacos: A Conflation?

For more than a thousand years King Arthur has been the subject of myth, legend and speculation, a figure lying at the very heart of the Matter of Britain. The legends centre around a man usually thought to have been active during the sub-Roman period, that strange and little-understood century or so between the withdrawal of Roman Imperial authority and the establishment of the earliest Saxon realms. Two questions must be asked, however: did the cycle of legends begin with this man? Did a broadly similar cycle of heroic tales exist before his coming, and, if so, were these earlier tales subsumed within the fabric of his own saga, enriching it, colouring it, influencing it, and adding even greater spiritual and mythic depth? For some two centuries past scholars have, with varying degrees of success, sought to discover the “real” King Arthur, the man behind the legend, and the results have covered the scale of probabilities from the persuasive to the preposterous. No contemporary record of the achievements and life of this fascinating, messianic figure now exist but a rough outline of his career seems to be broadly accepted.


His personal name is not known. Names such as Ambrosius, Ambrose, Arteries, Emrys and Riothamus have been postulated, although these may well have been epithets or even titles, and at times he is confused or conflated with other figures such as Ambrosius Aurelianus or even Merlin the Magician. Indeed, in some renderings of the tales, Merlin can look suspiciously like an “old” Arthur, a renascent Arthur returning from the otherworld in different guise to fulfill a destiny that is never really clarified. For the purposes of this essay, and without prejudice, “Arthur” seems to be the appropriate term for our man. Arthur, then, was born sometime during the second quarter of the fifth century, the result of a union that was possibly incestuous, probably adulterous and certainly irregular. Whatever the nature or legality of the liaison, his parents were certainly of the highest social rank. His origins were in the western highlands of Britain, possibly in Cornwall but more probably in Wales. He rose to fame in the aftermath of turmoil arising from the reign of Vortigern, a ruler who had strong connections with militaristic foreigners, who eventually succumbed to the armed incursions of the latter, and to whom Arthur was quite possibly related. Our hero, perhaps working within the structures of what remained of the old Romano-British civitates, mustered a highly mobile force of British fighting men to combat the invaders. In a series of spectacular engagements, culminating in the battle of Camlann, he finally turned the tide, pushing the invaders back (but not necessarily out). Following this, a period of peace and prosperity reigned in a truly British realm headed by Arthur, although in the early tales it is never entirely clear whether his role was that of war-leader or king or both.


At some stage in his career he married a noblewoman whose name may have been something like Guendollyn, Gweniffer or perhaps Wander, but to whom, for the sake of convenience, we may refer to as Guenivere. He also had a lieutenant by the name of Medraut, Modred or Mordred, who may or may not have been his kinsman. In time, Arthur was forced to wage war in a remote area, a campaign lasting for some long time and for the duration of which he installed Mordred as his regent. During his absence, Guenivere betrayed him by forming a liaison with Mordred, who was thus encouraged to usurp Arthur’s authority and claim the throne for himself (The valiant Sir Lancelot does not enter this equation: he was a much later medieval accretion). On his return, Arthur was forced to fight a bitter and fratricidal battle with his rival, and although Arthur’s forces prevailed on the field he himself was mortally wounded. He was spirited away from the battlefield, never to return and never to be seen again. No-one saw him die and he became a messianic figure whose return at the head of a conquering army of heroes was looked for centuries thereafter. One version of the legend would have it that he was put into a magical sleep in a cave, to awake and ride forth in victory when Britain was in direst need.


So much for Arthur, the greatest and most influential but by no means the only hero of British folklore. Four centuries before the floruit of the “real” Arthur, Caratacos fought another invader with similar energy, skill and determination. Thanks largely to Tacitus, we have not only more or less contemporary reference to a “real” Caratacos, but also a considerable array of factual information that enables us to reconstruct with some accuracy the general course of his life from AD 43 to AD 51.


It is usually assumed that Caratacos was one of several sons of the great Cattuvellaunian king Cunobelinos, but his true relationship with the old king is obscure. He may well have been a son of Cunobelinos and a full brother of Togodumnos and Adminios. Equally he may have been the son of Cunobelinos and a Trinovantian princess, the result of a marriage of diplomacy to cement ties with that people after their conquest in circa AD 10, or again he may have been adopted in the British tradition. Whatever his antecedents, his parents were unquestionably of the highest British aristocracy. There can be no doubt also that Cunobelinos had firm and long-standing treaty agreements with Rome, as the Roman title rex on his coinage and his apparently cordial diplomatic relationship with the Empire would seem to indicate. The succession after the death of Cunobelinos is moot, but it seems probable that both Togodumnos and Caratacos both assumed regnal authority with the former the senior partner.


The Claudian invasion began in AD 43, and the legions thrust rapidly through Kent and across the Medway to the vicinity of modern London. Leaving his brother Togodumnos and most of the Cattuvellaunian host to face the Romans at the crossings of the Thames, Caratacos departed, perhaps to raise more troops and to organise resistance further along the route to the royal seat at Camulodunum. Togodumnos died in the marshes of the Lea, leaving Caratacos as the sole king of a crumbling realm. The way was clear for the legions to push ahead to Camulodunum, but when Aulus Plautius and Claudius arrived Caratacos had vanished. He next appeared a few years later, having apparently made his way  to the Welsh mountains with his wife and family and retainers. Raising the local tribes of the Silures, Ordovices and Deceangli, he conducted a bitter guerilla campaign against the Romans. Working from bases in the Black Mountains and the Berwyns, he led bands of warriors against Roman bases in the Valley of the Severn and along the Welsh Marches. He was at last cornered by Ostorius Scapula somewhere in the mountains, was defeated decisively, and his wife and family taken captive although he personally managed to escape the debâcle. He made his way to the north and the territory of the Brigantes.


There he sought sanctuary with Cartimandua, the queen of that people and a good friend of Rome. Ignoring ancient laws of hospitality, she had Caratacos bound and handed over to Ostorius Scapula. Cartimandua’s subsequent career was stormy. She would later take a high-ranking young nobleman by the name of Vellocatos, the armour-bearer and right hand man of her husband Venutios, as her lover, at the same time capturing and humiliating members of the family of Venutios. This domestic spat precipitated a civil war that threatened to overflow into the Roman zone of Britannia to such an extent that the Romans were forced to send troops into Brigantia to rescue Cartimandua, leaving the kingdom to a by then thoroughly anti-Roman Venutios.


Meanwhile Caratacos and his family had been dragged to Rome in chains. There they were thrust before Claudius and his current wife Agrippina, and their doom seemed assured. Caratacos, however, spoke with pride, eloquence and courage, begging no mercy, and the Imperial couple were so impressed with his regal manner that they spared his life and that of his family. More, they were thereafter kept in a comfortable manner for the rest of their lives, but forbidden to leave Rome. Caratacos, then, vanished without trace in the great metropolis and there is no record of his final passing.


These are the barest bones of legend, but from these sketchy curricula vitarum a whole body of saga and romance, myth and folklore was able to evolve. The circumstances of Arthur and Caratacos were very different in many ways, but their tales are strangely congruent at several points. The elements are in different sequences, and the relationships between the principals are slightly altered, but there are at least nine common points:


            1.         A. Arthur’s birth is shrouded in mystery, but without doubt his parents were at least a king and/or a queen/princess.

                        B. Caratacos’ birth is shrouded in mystery, but without doubt his parents were at least a king and/or a queen/princess.


            2.         A. Arthur was closely connected, and probably related by blood, to an older paramount who had had close relations with a foreign power or powers who ultimately invaded and conquered the realm.

                        B. Caratacos was almost certainly the son of an older paramount who had had close relations with a foreign power or powers who ultimately invaded and conquered the realm.


            3.         A. Arthur’s homeland is a matter of debate, but it was almost certainly somewhere in the western highlands of Britain, most probably Wales and the legends consistently identify him with that area.

                        B. When Caratacos was leading the resistance against the Romans after the fall of Camulodunum, he worked out of bases in the Welsh mountains, leading tribes from that area and clearly identifying himself with that area.


            4.         A. Arthur led relatively small bands of highly mobile and skilled warriors, and fought in rapid succession a series of battles against the foreign invader.

                        B. Caratacos led relatively small bands of highly mobile and skilled warriors, and fought in rapid succession a series of battles against the foreign invader.


            5.         A. Arthur was betrayed by his queen, which betrayal ultimately led to his undoing at the hands of his enemies.

                        B. Caratacos was betrayed by a queen, which betrayal resulted in his undoing at the hands of his enemies.


            6.         A. The queen in Arthur’s life took a lover who had been a trusted lieutenant and a close companion of her husband.

                        B. The  queen in Caratacos’ life took a lover who had been a trusted lieutenant and a close companion of her husband.


            7.         A. The direct result of the adulterous relationship between Guenivere and her lover was civil war.

                        B. The direct result of the probably quite legitimate liaison between Cartimandua and her lover was civil war.


            8.         A. There were no witnesses to or record of the death of Arthur. He was taken away to a far and fabulous land, never to return, and his ultimate fate is unknown.

                        B. There were no witnesses to or record of the death of Caratacos. He was taken away to a far land, never to return, and his ultimate fate is unknown.


            9.         A. Arthur is said to have dwelt in a fortress/town known as Camelot, the etymology of which is unknown or subject to fierce academic debate.

                        B. Caratacos was lord of a fortress/town known as Camulodunon, which has a known etymology. The resemblance may well be fortuitous and no link between the two can be proven.


There can be no suggestion that Caratacos was some sort of “proto-Arthur”, or that the Arthurian cycle of legends was a reworking of the tales of Caratacos. A “true” Arthur was active in the later fifth century and he formed the core of the later tales, some of which may be based upon the actual achievements of the “true” Arthur but most of which were later accretions and subsumptions, which leads to the point of this essay.


Throughout the Roman period, the population of Britain was almost entirely ethnic British. Relatively small groups of foreigners were resident but their concentration was almost entirely urban. That the native population of Britain was, over a period of four centuries, heavily influenced by Roman culture cannot be doubted but at the same time they remained essentially Romanised British and there is compelling evidence that many of the pre-Roman social structures and traditions remained in place throughout the entire period and outlasted Imperial hegemony to re-emerge during the sub-Roman period. One of the strongest and most widespread characteristics of British culture is the tradition of the bard, and an obsession with the telling of tales, singing of songs, making of myths, and of enshrining memories of the heroic past in legend. That Caratacos was remembered and entered Romano-British folklore as a mighty hero cannot be doubted: he would re-emerge in his own right in later Welsh myth as the hero Caradawc of the Strong Arm, son of the chthonic deity Bran. It may be that his tale was forgotten in the land of his origin in the south east, the most thoroughly Romanised and most cosmopolitan area of Roman Britain but the western highlands were different. On the moors of Devon and Cornwall, in the remote valleys of Snowdonia and the Pennines, and in the Scottish lowlands the Roman presence was much less, and in many rural backwaters life would have continued from generation to generation almost unchanged. The old songs were still sung, the old tales were told over and over. The Romans did not interfere in such things as they had other matters to concern them. Provided the peasants paid their taxes, obeyed the law and kept the peace Rome would not interfere in their traditions.


Caratacos, then, was remembered in the western highlands at least and his tale grew in the telling until at last he became a westerner by adoption, and as Saxon pressure and cultural traditions began to exert themselves in the south and east there was even more reason for the figure of Caratacos to become exclusively western. At that time, however, a new charismatic figure was arising, a man about whom even more legends would be woven, and the popularity of Caratacos waned. But he was not forgotten and his tale was still told, and in the telling perhaps became confused with that of the latest hero of the age.


It is an attractive thought that perhaps the achievements of Caratacos became confused and conflated with those of Arthur, thus giving the Arthurian Cycle of legends even greater depth and spiritual force by including within its complex and multi-layered webs a series of strands that extend back to the very beginnings of British history and beyond. Perhaps, in the tales of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, we are unconsciously reaching back to and drawing inspiration from pre-Roman Britain, and hearing the last dim echoes of the battle cries of mighty Caratacos.




Bibliography, Britannia Capta Part 3, Chapter 5.



Birley, Anthony R.

            1981    “The Fasti of Roman Britain.” Oxford.

Black, E W.

            1987    “The Roman Villas of South-East England”. BAR (British Series) #171. Oxford.

Brown, Robin A.

            1986    “The Iron Age and Romano-British Settlement at Woodcock Hall, Saham Toney, Norfolk”. Britannia Vol. XVII.

Cornelius Tacitus, Publius.

            “The Annals”: refer Michael Grant 1973.

            “The Histories”: refer Kenneth Wellesley 1964.

Davies, Jeffrey L.

            1977    “Roman Arrowheads from Dinorben and the saggitarii of the Roman Army.” Britannia Vol. VIII.

Jackson, Kenneth

            1970    “Romano-British Place names in the Antonine Itinerary”. Appendix 2 in Rivet 1970.

Levick, Barbara.

            1990    “Claudius”. 2001 impression, Routledge.

Lewis, Charlton T & Charles Short.

            1879    A Latin Dictionary, 1989 impression. Oxford.

Middleton, Paul.

            1979    “Army Supply in Roman Gaul: An Hypothesis for Roman Britain” in Burnham & Johnson 1979.

Nicols, John.

            1978    “Vespasian and the Partes Flavianae”. Historia Heft 28, Franz Steiner Verlag GmbH, Wiesbaden.

Potter, T W.

            1981    “The Roman Occupation of the Central Fenland”. Britannia Vol. XII.

Salway, Peter.

            1981    “Roman Britain”. Oxford University Press.

Webster, Graham.

            1978    “Boudica”. Book Club Associates.

Webster, G & D Dudley.

            1965    “The Roman Conquest of Britain”. B T Batsford.






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