BBC History Magazine - - Contents - Miles Rus­sell is a se­nior lec­turer in pre­his­toric and Ro­man ar­chae­ol­ogy at Bournemouth Uni­ver­sity. You can hear him talk at BBC His­tory Mag­a­zine’s His­tory Week­ends in York and Winch­ester this au­tumn – see his­to­ry­week­end.com


In the AD 40s, the Bri­tish king Carat­a­cus led a huge re­volt against Rome's oc­cu­py­ing army. Miles Rus­sell tells the story of a war­rior who over­came mas­sive odds to rock Bri­tan­nia to its very core

As dawn broke, the Ro­man army could be seen mass­ing by the river bank: a wellordered and reg­i­mented mass of le­gionar­ies, sun­light re­flect­ing from hel­mets and body ar­mour. At a given sig­nal, the front rank moved for­ward, wad­ing down into the wa­ter, seem­ingly im­per­vi­ous to the bar­rage of spears and sling stones. As they emerged on the other bank, the pro­jec­tiles be­gan to take their toll, many fall­ing back onto their com­rades, con­cussed and eye­less.

With a deaf­en­ing roar, a wave of spear­wield­ing Bri­tons ca­reered downs­lope be­fore the le­gionar­ies had time to re­group. The first Ro­mans were slaugh­tered, but more fol­lowed on be­hind. Even­tu­ally, lock­ing shields to­gether and ad­vanc­ing with swords drawn, they were able to press for­ward into the angry mass of the na­tive war­rior elite. The wild, chaotic en­ergy of the Bri­tons be­gan to fal­ter be­fore the calm ef­fi­ciency of the Ro­man killing ma­chine. The year was AD 51 and the first bat­tle for Bri­tain was en­ter­ing its fi­nal bloody stage.

It was eight years since the Ro­man le­gions had es­tab­lished a foothold in south­ern Bri­tain. Most of the na­tive tribes had sub­mit­ted quickly, only too happy to ally them­selves to the Mediter­ranean su­per­power. Some, how­ever, had ac­tively re­sisted the in­vaders, sens­ing they had noth­ing to gain through sur­ren­der. Many of those who had taken up arms had died on the bat­tle­field, but oth­ers fought on, en­gag­ing in the tac­tics of guer­rilla war such as am­bush, tar­geted as­sas­si­na­tion and the burn­ing of crops.

The leader of the in­sur­gency, and tar­get number one for the fledg­ling Ro­man pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment, was not the fa­mous Boudicca (see box right), then an en­thu­si­as­tic sup­porter of the Ro­man cause, but Carat­a­cus, a man who is to­day of­ten for­got­ten.

Carat­a­cus, who spread re­bel­lion from the Thames es­tu­ary to the moun­tains of Snow­do­nia, is not as cel­e­brated as other Bri­tish lead­ers, which is per­haps sur­pris­ing given that his story is one of re­silience and heroic re­sis­tance against the odds.

Iron Age mafia don

We know very lit­tle of Carat­a­cus the man. None of the his­to­ri­ans, writ­ers or cul­tural com­men­ta­tors of the pe­riod pro­vide a de­tailed de­scrip­tion. We do know that he was de­scended from Cuno­beli­nus, a leader de­scribed by the Ro­mans as ‘Great King of the Bri­tons’. Cuno­beli­nus was a monarch who, in the years be­fore the Ro­man in­va­sion, con­trolled vast swathes of ter­ri­tory from his two cap­i­tals at Ca­mu­lo­dunum (Colch­ester) and Veru­lamium (St Al­bans).

Later im­mor­talised by Shake­speare as Cym­be­line, Cuno­belin­nus was the Iron Age equiv­a­lent of a Mafia don: dan­ger­ous, po­lit­i­cally strong and in full con­trol of all key fi­nan­cial trans­ac­tions. He was, judg­ing by the im­ages that ap­peared on his coins, an ar­dent sup­porter of Rome – a client king propped up by the em­peror.

The pe­riod of sta­bil­ity un­der the pro­tec­tion of Rome came to an end around AD 40 when Cuno­beli­nus died. He left at least three heirs – Am­mi­nus, Togidub­nus (some­times wrongly spelt To­go­dum­nus) and Carat­a­cus – and a suc­ces­sion cri­sis. Am­mi­nus, who had ap­par­ently con­trolled Kent, fled to Rome, leav­ing Togidub­nus and Carat­a­cus in con­flict. Togidub­nus did not mint coins, but those man­u­fac­tured by Carat­a­cus dis­played solid Mediter­ranean im­ages, such as Her­cules, Pe­ga­sus and a Ro­man ea­gle, all of which show that the king was some­how ‘un­der the in­flu­ence’ of Rome. By AD 43 Carat­a­cus was be­com­ing the most suc­cess­ful king in Bri­tain, but his swift rise to power was un­set­tling his Ro­man pay­mas­ters.

South-east­ern Bri­tain was a valu­able trad­ing as­set for the em­peror and an im­por­tant buf­fer zone, pro­tect­ing the north­ern shore of the Ro­man em­pire. Any de­gree of po­lit­i­cal un­cer­tainty here threat­ened both the peace and the econ­omy, and it was in the in­ter­ests of Rome to re­solve any cri­sis as swiftly as pos­si­ble. Ul­ti­mately, it ap­pears it was po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity that per­suaded the em­peror Claudius of the need for regime change in Bri­tain and the de­ploy­ment of Ro­man san­dals on the ground.

In AD 43, Claudius’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive, Au­lus Plau­tius, led an ex­pe­di­tion to Bri­tain to re­solve the suc­ces­sion cri­sis that fol­lowed the death of Cuno­beli­nus. Plau­tius, we are told by Ro­man writer Dio Cas­sius, pre­vailed over both Carat­a­cus and Togidub­nus, urg­ing both to com­ply with the wishes of the em­peror. Un­for­tu­nately the ne­go­ti­a­tions un­rav­elled.

Dio Cas­sius’s ac­count is gar­bled but it would ap­pear that Claudius sup­ported the cause of Togidub­nus – mak­ing him a ‘Great King’ – and rel­e­gated Carat­a­cus to a mi­nor role, alien­at­ing the Bri­ton and his followers.

Carat­a­cus had be­come a ‘most wanted’ fugi­tive against whom Rome de­ployed all avail­able re­sources

There were two river­side bat­tles re­sult­ing in sig­nif­i­cant loss of life, and a cross­ing of the Thames end­ing with Togidub­nus’s army, then help­ing the Ro­mans, be­ing am­bushed and de­stroyed. Dio Cas­sius noted that those Bri­tons so far un­in­volved in the con­flict now “stood to­gether” at Togidub­nus’s side against his brother Carat­a­cus (be­liev­ing that the lat­ter needed to be brought to heel). What may have be­gun as a mis­sion to re­solve a po­lit­i­cal cri­sis had de­gen­er­ated into civil war. Alarmed by the state of af­fairs, Plau­tius sent word for re­in­force­ments.

Ar­riv­ing in Bri­tain at the head of the sec­ond wave, Claudius led the ex­pe­di­tionary force to the na­tive cen­tre of Ca­mu­lo­dunum, where he re­ceived the sur­ren­der of 11 Bri­tish kings. Pra­su­ta­gus of the Iceni, to­gether with his wife Boudicca, were al­most cer­tainly among the heads of state who then sub­mit­ted to the em­peror. Although Claudius quickly re­turned to Rome in tri­umph, it soon be­came clear that the con­flict was by no means over. Carat­a­cus was still at large and caus­ing trou­ble.

Best man for the job

In AD 47, Carat­a­cus re-emerged in south-east Wales, stir­ring up the Sil­ures tribe and co-or­di­nat­ing their fight against the ad­vanc­ing Ro­man army. How he ob­tained power here we do not know, the Ro­man his­to­rian Tac­i­tus not­ing only that his “suc­cesses, par­tial or com­plete, had raised him to a pin­na­cle above the other Bri­tish lead­ers”. Per­haps he was sim­ply the best man for the job, the Sil­ures re­al­is­ing that he was a sea­soned war­rior with ex­ten­sive com­bat ex­pe­ri­ence fight­ing against Rome. Per­haps he held some greater power over the clans, de­rived from his blood her­itage or from the sup­port pro­vided by the na­tive re­li­gious elite.

What­ever the case, Carat­a­cus soon proved his worth and the le­gions found them­selves fight­ing a bit­ter strug­gle in a dif­fi­cult and in­creas­ingly moun­tain­ous ter­rain. Guer­rilla war was some­thing that Ro­man troops were nei­ther trained nor equipped to deal with and, as sup­plies and morale dwin­dled, the sit­u­a­tion started to look bleak.

The reap­pear­ance of Carat­a­cus livened things up for the new gover­nor of Bri­tain, Publius Os­to­rius Sca­pula, whose job it now was to cap­ture the Bri­tish king dead or alive. Like Sad­dam Hus­sein or Osama bin Laden, Carat­a­cus had be­come a ‘most wanted’ fugi­tive against whom all avail­able re­sources were de­ployed in or­der to en­sure iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and cap­ture.

Per­haps fear­ing that his where­abouts would soon be re­vealed, or pos­si­bly in the hope of open­ing-up a sec­ond front, Carat­a­cus now shifted the the­atre of war to the Or­dovices in north Wales. Here, so Tac­i­tus says, he

aban­doned his pol­icy of guer­rilla war and “re­solved on a fi­nal strug­gle”. We don’t know why the king re­jected his suc­cess­ful cam­paign of at­tri­tion. Per­haps con­trol over the tribes was be­gin­ning to weaken, in­di­vid­ual clan lead­ers tir­ing of the tac­tics of ha­rass­ment. A sin­gle bat­tle, strik­ing di­rectly at the le­gions, would cer­tainly have strength­ened the po­si­tion of the king, con­vinc­ing doubters that his lead­er­ship was sound. Per­haps he also gam­bled that a heroic stand would ei­ther re­solve the con­flict, or, if it went badly, per­suade his al­lies to re­sume the ‘ hit-and-run’ strat­egy of be­fore.

On the face of it, the de­ci­sion to stand and fight played straight into the hands of his enemy, whose train­ing and re­solve made pitched bat­tles an ex­tremely one-sided af­fair. The fact that it was Carat­a­cus who chose the po­si­tion for the fight may indi­cate that he had made plans for a swift es­cape if the tide of bat­tle turned against him. That the Ro­man his­to­rian Tac­i­tus didn’t record a body count fol­low­ing the strug­gle may sug­gest that the Bri­tons made a tac­ti­cal re­treat without sig­nif­i­cant loss of life. We don’t know where the bat­tle was fought, for Tac­i­tus is lack­ing in ge­o­graph­i­cal de­tail, not­ing only that Carat­a­cus “se­lected a po­si­tion for the en­gage­ment in which ad­vance and re­treat alike would be dif­fi­cult for our men and com­par­a­tively easy for his own”. Hav­ing con­structed a bar­rier of stone, the Bri­tons watched the le­gions of Sca­pula ad­vance.

Tac­i­tus tells us that, be­fore the bat­tle, Carat­a­cus “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”. In re­al­ity, he can’t have known what the Bri­tish king said, but one line cer­tainly rings true, Carat­a­cus ap­peal­ing to the an­ces­tors “who had driven back the dic­ta­tor Cae­sar and by whose valour they were free from the Ro­man axe”. Words and blind hero­ism were not enough, how­ever. Hav­ing sur­veyed the ter­rain, Sca­pula led his troops across the river un­der heavy fire. De­ploy­ing in good or­der, the Ro­mans cut their way up­s­lope, forc­ing the Bri­tons to flee.

Carat­a­cus es­caped but his wife, daugh­ter and brothers (all un­named in the of­fi­cial Ro­man ac­count) were cap­tured. Think­ing quickly, the king made his way to the Bri­g­antes, a nom­i­nally pro-Ro­man tribe rul­ing ter­ri­tory in north­ern Eng­land. It may be that he hoped to ap­peal to an anti-Ro­man fac­tion here, but in­stead he fell into the hands of Queen Car­ti­man­dua. Re­al­is­ing that where the fugi­tive went the Ro­man army was soon to fol­low, she ar­rested Carat­a­cus and handed him over to Rome. It was late in AD 51 and, af­ter eight years on the run, he was in the cus­tody of his bit­ter­est foe.

Vic­tory is milked

Tac­i­tus re­lates the ar­rival of Carat­a­cus in Rome, and Claudius’s at­tempts to milk the sit­u­a­tion for all it was worth. With the pop­u­la­tion gath­ered, pris­on­ers of war were marched into the city un­der guard with cart­loads of “or­na­ments and neck-rings and prizes won”. Carat­a­cus, so Tac­i­tus says, did not pro­vide “a down­cast look nor a word re­quested pity”. Ar­riv­ing be­fore the em­peror at the tri­bunal, the Bri­ton looked Claudius in the eye. “Had my lin­eage and my rank been matched by my mod­er­a­tion in suc­cess,” he said: “I should have en­tered this city rather as a friend than as a cap­tive. I had horses and men, arms and riches: what won­der then if I re­gret their loss? If you wish to rule the world, does it fol­low that ev­ery­one wel­comes servi­tude?” At this, we are told, Claudius par­doned the Bri­ton, no doubt a care­fully chore­ographed ma­noeu­vre that con­trasted with the ac­tions of the em­peror’s pre­de­ces­sors, who usu­ally had their en­e­mies ex­e­cuted.

Carat­a­cus’s speech may have been writ­ten for him, although given that he was, in his early reign, es­sen­tially a pro-Ro­man client (who may in his youth have even lived in Rome as a hostage), he could no doubt un­der­stand Latin, and knew ex­actly how to speak to an em­peror. Much of his ad­dress, how­ever, chimes with what we know about Tac­i­tus’s own be­liefs and at­ti­tude, so it could eas­ily be the Ro­man au­thor’s words in the mouth of the cap­tive king.

Carat­a­cus’s com­ment that, had he been “dragged be­fore you af­ter sur­ren­der­ing without a blow, there would have been lit­tle heard ei­ther of my fall or of your tri­umph”, does seem plau­si­ble. Was this a sly dig at Togidub­nus who had whole­heart­edly gone over to the Ro­man cause? The re­la­tion­ship of the brothers and their re­spec­tive at­ti­tudes to Ro­man im­pe­ri­al­ism may go some way to ex­plain Tac­i­tus’s later caus­tic state­ment that the loy­alty of King Togidub­nus was in ac­cor­dance with Rome’s pol­icy of “mak­ing even kings their agents in en­slav­ing peo­ple”.

What ul­ti­mately hap­pened to Carat­a­cus and his fam­ily, we do not know, but we may pic­ture him end­ing his days in quiet, if rather op­u­lent, ob­scu­rity; a free man to the last.

Tac­i­tus tells us that the cap­tive Carat­a­cus did not re­quest Claudius’s pity and looked the em­peror straight in the eye

A bust of Em­peror Claudius. It was his at­tempts to sub­due south­ern Br­ri­tain that triggeered Carat­a­cuss’s re­bel­lion

This coin, minted in AD 40– 43, shows Carat­a­cus wear­ing a lion skin like Her­cules, and, on the re­verse side, a Ro­man ea­gle

A re­lief by the 18th- cen­tury sculp­tor John Deare de­picts Julius Cae­sar’s in­va­sion of Bri­tain. Em­peror Claudius’s at­tempts to pacify the is­land a cen­tury later met with an in­sur­gency that raged from the Thames to the moun­tains of Snow­do­nia

Carat­a­cus ad­dresses Claudius in Rome in an en­grav­ing of a 1792 paint­ing. The Bri­ton’s de­fi­ant speech won the re­spect of his Ro­man foes

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