British History,Monarchs of Great Britain,King Arthur

Interesting Events in Early British History

Caratacus, the First British Hero - AD 51

An historical person with some legendary accretions, Caratacus (also spelled Caractacus) was the king of the Catuvellauni at the time of the Roman invasion under their commander, Aulus Plautius. Caratacus emerges from history as one of the few early Britons with a distinct personality, thanks in large part to the accounts of Tacitus and Cassius Dio. He and his brother, Togodumnus, were said to be sons of the British king, Cunobelinus, and, after the king's death, became the leaders of the anti-Roman campaign that managed to resist the invaders for a period of nearly nine years.*

After some early defeats in the east, Caratacus moved west into more rugged territories that would be easier to defend. His numerically inferior forces survived an indecisive engagement with the Romans in the land of the Silures (modern-day Glamorgan in Wales) and so Caratacus moved north, to the land of the Ordovices (central Gwynedd, southern Clwyd, northern Powys) to find the ideal location for a battle which he intended to be decisive.

Caratacus' final defeat came at the hands of the Roman governor, Ostorious Scapula, in 51 AD. Although his forces were defeated, Caratacus was not killed in the battle and managed to escape to the land of the Brigantes in northern Britain, where he hoped to find safety and a base for future resistance to the Romans. Unfortunately for him, Cartimandua, the Queen of the Brigantes, was bound by a client-ruler relationship with the Romans, so she handed Caratacus over to them.

He was sent to Rome along with other captives, where he came to Claudius' attention for his courtesy and bearing and so was pardoned. He and his family were permitted to live out their lives in peace in Italy, but the date of his death is unknown.

The account of these events is taken from Tacitus' "Annals," Book XII (translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb):

The army then marched against the Silures, a naturally fierce people and now full of confidence in the might of Caratacus, who by many an indecisive and many a successful battle had raised himself far above all the other generals of the Britons. Inferior in military strength, but deriving an advantage from the deceptiveness of the country, he at once shifted the war by a stratagem into the territory of the Ordovices, where, joined by all who dreaded peace with us, he resolved on a final struggle. He selected a position for the engagement in which advance and retreat alike would be difficult for our men and comparatively easy for his own, and then on some lofty hills, wherever their sides could be approached by a gentle slope, he piled up stones to serve as a rampart. A river too of varying depth was in his front, and his armed bands were drawn up before his defences.

Then too the chieftains of the several tribes went from rank to rank, encouraging and confirming the spirit of their men by making light of their fears, kindling their hopes, and by every other warlike incitement. As for Caratacus, he flew hither and thither, protesting that that day and that battle would be the beginning of the recovery of their freedom, or of everlasting bondage. He appealed, by name, to their forefathers who had driven back the dictator Caesar, by whose valour they were free from the Roman axe and tribute, and still preserved inviolate the persons of their wives and of their children. While he was thus speaking, the host shouted applause; every warrior bound himself by his national oath not to shrink from weapons or wounds.

Such enthusiasm confounded the Roman general. The river too in his face, the rampart they had added to it, the frowning hilltops, the stern resistance and masses of fighting men everywhere apparent, daunted him. But his soldiers insisted on battle, exclaiming that valour could overcome all things; and the prefects and tribunes, with similar language, stimulated the ardour of the troops. Ostorius having ascertained by a survey the inaccessible and the assailable points of the position, led on his furious men, and crossed the river without difficulty. When he reached the barrier, as long as it was a fight with missiles, the wounds and the slaughter fell chiefly on our soldiers; but when he had formed the military testudo, and the rude, ill-compacted fence of stones was torn down, and it was an equal hand-to-hand engagement, the barbarians retired to the heights. Yet even there, both light and heavy-armed soldiers rushed to the attack; the first harassed the foe with missiles, while the latter closed with them, and the opposing ranks of the Britons were broken, destitute as they were of the defence of breast-plates or helmets. When they faced the auxiliaries, they were felled by the swords and javelins of our legionaries; if they wheeled round, they were again met by the sabres and spears of the auxiliaries. It was a glorious victory; the wife and daughter of Caratacus were captured, and his brothers too were admitted to surrender.

There is seldom safety for the unfortunate, and Caratacus, seeking the protection of Cartimandua, queen of the Brigantes, was put in chains and delivered up to the conquerors, nine years after the beginning of the war in Britain. His fame had spread thence, and travelled to the neighbouring islands and provinces, and was actually celebrated in Italy. All were eager to see the great man, who for so many years had defied our power. Even at Rome the name of Caratacus was no obscure one; and the emperor, while he exalted his own glory, enhanced the renown of the vanquished. The people were summoned as to a grand spectacle; the praetorian cohorts were drawn up under arms in the plain in front of their camp; then came a procession of the royal vassals, and the ornaments and neck-chains and the spoils which the king had won in wars with other tribes, were displayed. Next were to be seen his brothers, his wife and daughter; last of all, Caratacus himself. All the rest stooped in their fear to abject supplication; not so the king, who neither by humble look nor speech sought compassion.

When he was set before the emperor's tribunal, he spoke as follows: "Had my moderation in prosperity been equal to my noble birth and fortune, I should have entered this city as your friend rather than as your captive; and you would not have disdained to receive, under a treaty of peace, a king descended from illustrious ancestors and ruling many nations. My present lot is as glorious to you as it is degrading to myself. I had men and horses, arms and wealth. What wonder if I parted with them reluctantly? If you Romans choose to lord it over the world, does it follow that the world is to accept slavery? Were I to have been at once delivered up as a prisoner, neither my fall nor your triumph would have become famous. My punishment would be followed by oblivion, whereas, if you save my life, I shall be an everlasting memorial of your clemency."

Upon this the emperor granted pardon to Caratacus, to his wife, and to his brothers. Released from their bonds, they did homage also to Agrippina who sat near, conspicuous on another throne, in the same language of praise and gratitude.

Tacitus, in his account, gives us all the other details but fails to name the location of Caratacus' final battle. "One particular problem that has prompted much debate centres on locating the so-called last stand of Caratacus - who had strategically chosen to move the scene of his activities from the territory of the Silures to that of the Ordovices. Folk memory or antiquarianism has given the name Caer Caradog (Caratacus' fort) to three hillforts, one dominating the Church Stretton gap, another south of Clun and the third in Clwyd. Although the second is relatively close to known Roman marching camps around Leintwardine, none have produced and evidence of investment. Moreover, all lack the nearby river required by the Tacitean narrative. . ."A more likely possibility is offered by the massive limestone spur of Llanymynech which dominates the western edge of the north Shropshire plain. Evidence of a Roman campaign base has now emerged at the western foot of the massif close to a newly discovered Julio-Claudian fort at Llansantffraid to make Llanymynech a strong candidate for identification as Caratacus' chosen position." **

Excavations done at the above-mentioned locales have failed to produce any conclusive archaeological fruit. So, it would seem that any location that one chooses as one's favourite candidate for Caratacus' "last stand," so long as it meets Tacitus' topographical qualifications and is found in northeastern Wales or western Shropshire, is as valid a place as any.

Some investigators have come to the conclusion that Caratacus is the historic original for King Arthur, while others insist that he and Arviragus, another early British figure in the anti-Roman resistance, are one and the same.


* Cottrell, Leonard, "The Roman Invasion of Britain," Barnes & Noble, New York, 1992, p.91
** Jones, Barri and David Mattingly, "An Atlas of Roman Britain," Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 1990. p. 66-7

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