If Calgacus might be thought of as the earliest known anti-imperialist Scotland has produced, Wales has some claim on an earlier native leader of resistance to the Roman occupation of Britain, Caratacus. He’s a figure well worth excavating, as an historical character and as a focus of myth-making in the centuries since his time.
Almost everything we know about him comes from two Roman historians, the acerbic Tacitus, writing about 70 years later, and Dio Cassius, writing much later, about 180 years after the event. According to Dio, Caratacus was the son of Cunobelinus, leader of the Catuvellauni, a group – ‘tribe’ is the traditional term – of Britons who occupied modern-day Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and surrounding areas. The Catuvellauni seem to have been an expansionist people, clashing with and dominating the Trinovantes to the east and the Atrebates to the west. It was an appeal to Rome to intervene made by the ousted leader of the Atrebates, Verica, that provided the emperor Claudius with the pretext to invade Britain in 43 AD.
Caratacus and his brother Togodumnus (known only from Dio) were the dominant leaders who offered armed resistance to the Roman invaders under Aulus Plautius. Caratacus, like his father, issued his own coinage. Coins show Hercules on the obverse, with an eagle holding a serpent in its talons on the reverse: a measure of the confidence Caratacus felt in his own position and the powerful image he was eager to project.
The brothers were defeated by the Roman invasion force, Dio says, in two battles on the Medway and the Thames. Togodumnus died soon after, but Caratacus survived, determined to continue his opposition to the Romans. By the time we meet him again, in Book 12 of Tacitus’s Annals, he’s assumed the lead in the British opposition. Tacitus suggests that in the meantime he’d caused the Romans considerable trouble, winning victories and avoiding defeat. Although different ‘tribes’ often failed to work together, especially in opposing the Roman invasions, it seems that it was possible to unite many of them under single leadership. Caratacus has now moved to what is now Wales, where the Silures and Ordovices provided a stiff challenge to the legions. The Silures, who lived in South Wales, were, Tacitus says, a fierce people, emboldened by the presence of Caratacus. The Roman governor by this time (51 AD) was Ostorius Scapula, who closed in on Caratacus somewhere in the territory of the Ordovices, in north Wales. Tacitus describes the highland position Caratacus chose, well-defended by a river (the Severn?) as his stronghold, and the methods he used to rally the British fighters:
Caratacus dashed about in all directions, telling his men that in the battle to come that day they would either begin to regain their freedom or be doomed to everlasting slavery. He recited the names of their ancestors, who had thrown out the tyrant Julius Caesar [in 54 and 55 BC]. Their bravery had kept them free from military oppression and reparations, and their wives and children safe from physical threat. The crowd responded to these and similar words with acclaim. Each soldier swore a solemn oath not to yield in the face of weapons or wounds. [My translation]
The words of Caratacus are similar to those Tacitus puts in the mouth of Calgacus before the decisive battle of Mons Graupius in northern Scotland. The appeal to liberty in the face of oppression of a dominant and aggressive power was an obvious enough argument to use, but it also held a strong attraction to Tacitus, whose view of the hegemony of Rome was distinctly ambivalent. Such a quasi-romantic sentiment, though, is tempered by Tacitus’s acute sense of realpolitik: bravery and the recollection of ancestors’ achievements are no match for the professionalism and brute force of a disciplined army.
The description of the battle’s location isn’t detailed enough to allow modern historians to place it with any confidence. Caer Caradoc near Church Stretton in Shropshire bears the Welsh form of Caratacus’s name and has on its summit a pre-Roman fort, but other locations in the Marches have their different advocates. The late Barri Jones maintained the site of the battle was Llanymynech, Powys.
Whatever its location, the result of the battle was never in doubt. At first the Britons worried the enemy with their missiles, but once the Roman soldiers had formed a testudo or ‘tortoise’ with their shields they were able to protect themselves and overcome the Britons, who lacked the advantage of defensive armour. It was, Tacitus tells, a ‘clara victoria’ – a famous win. Caratacus’s wife and daughter and sons were all captured.
Caratacus himself escaped and sought sanctuary with Cartimandua, queen of the Brigantes, in modern Yorkshire. But she betrayed him, handing him over to the Romans, ‘nine years after the war in Britain began’. By now Caratacus had apparently become something of a celebrity throughout the western empire and even at Rome itself: ‘everyone was anxious to set eyes on the person who had held out against the power of Roman for so long’. The emperor Claudius organised a victory procession, complete with booty and the family of Caratacus in chains. The other prisoners, says Tacitus, appeared cowed and submissive, but not Caratacus. He stood his ground and spoke directly to the emperor:
If my success had matched in any way my high birth and fortune I should have entered this city as your friend, not your prisoner. You would have counted it an honour to welcome such a well-born ruler of many peoples. As it is, you take pleasure in my situation. To me, though, it brings nothing but shame. I was rich in horses and men, arms and wealth. Is it any wonder if I was unwilling to lose them? If you Romans choose to dominate the peoples of the world, does it follow that they will all accept their slavery? If I’d been captured straight away, neither of us would have gained a name for ourselves. If you punish me now I shall soon be forgotten. But if you spare me I shall make your clemency proverbial for all time to come. [My translation]
Caratacus is a cunning speaker, playing on the vanity of Claudius and his desire to be remembered as a virtuous emperor. He begins with two well-worn arguments, about the nobility of the native ruler deprived of his status and resources, and about the reaction of subject peoples to the power of Rome. The third argument is more sophisticated, indeed sophistic. It worked. Claudius spared his life and those of his family, and they were released from their chains.
Dio preserves one more story about Caratacus – an anecdote that would have appealed to Tacitus, perhaps. After his release, having seen the grandeur and wealth of the city of Rome, he is said to have commented, ‘So how can you, having amassed all these resources, envy our miserable hovels?’
Things did not go so well for the victor, Ostorius Scapula. Tacitus, in his best ironic style, cuts swiftly back from the triumph in Rome to the military situation in Britain. The Silures, far from being disheartened by the defeat of Caratacus, rose again against their Roman aggressors, and successfully attacked their forces. They adopted guerrilla tactics, harrying their enemy in minor skirmishes in woods and marshes. They took inspiration from the chilling words of the Roman commander, that the name of the Silures should be cleansed from the record of history. Ostorius, ‘exhausted by the burden of his duties’, died in service and had to be replaced by a new governor, Didius Gallus, who did little more than hold the line in the face of continuing resistance. Caratacus may have been captured but his legacy of unending opposition to Roman domination clearly lived on.
Several recent writers have drawn a comparison between Britain under Roman occupation and Afghanistan under US and European control. The comparisons are far from close, but it’s true that Rome was forced to deploy disproportionate armed force to quell the less pliant of the Britons, especially those in Wales and Scotland, and it never succeeded, through three and a half centuries, in pacifying the whole island: in the highland areas containment was the only possible policy.
The memory of Caratacus doesn’t seem to have survived the Roman period, with one exception. Interestingly, that exception was in Wales, his final retreat. A genealogy in the Welsh Harleian MS 3859 (British Library), which dates to around 1100, includes the genealogical sequence ‘Caratauc map Cinbelin map Teuhant’. This seems to preserve the historic ‘Caratacus, son of Cunobelinus, son of Tasciovanus’. The name Tasciovanus doesn’t appear in the literary record, but is reflected in coinage, including some remarkable gold ‘hidden faces’ staters excavated in central southern England. The swirling abstract ‘Celtic’ motifs of Tasciovanus’s coins are in sharp contrast to the designs on those of his grandson. For all his antagonism to the Roman army it’s clear that, in his propaganda at least, Caratacus had adopted in full the iconography and the style of his enemy.
Caradog is a common name in Welsh medieval literature – Caradog ap Bran appears in Branwen ferch Llŷr, the second branch of the Mabinogi – but incidence of the name fails to carry any direct connection with the Roman-age leader. Perhaps if Caratacus had featured in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, whose shaky foundation myths of British origins were so influential, he would have emerged more quickly into historic and literary tradition.
At the end of the eighteenth century Iolo Morganwg – note the Welsh connection again, this time connected with contemporary efforts to link Wales with its ancient, Brythonic past – claimed that Caradog ap Bran was identical with Caratacus, and that after his release from custody in Rome he and Bran his father returned to Britain and introduced Christianity there.
Caratacus makes his come-back into national memories when texts, and especially English translations, of Tacitus begin to circulate. Not that historic accuracy is of any concern to the writers who first mention him. John Fletcher‘s play Bonduca (c1613) features a character called ‘Caratach’, strangely identified as Bondica’s brother in law and the Bonduca’s (Boudicca’s) military commander against the Romans. The play is roughly contemporary with Shakespeare’s late play, Cymbeline, which bears the name (but nothing more) of Caratacus’s father Cunobelinus.
In 1759 William Mason published a turgid, Druid-steeped poem called Caractacus: a dramatic poem written on the model of an ancient Greek tragedy (Caractacus, it seems, was now the standard form of the name). It was performed in Covent Garden in 1776 and formed the basis of a libretto for a French opera in 1788. The poem concerns the betrayal of Caratacus to Rome by the Brigantes, and towards the end, as his hero is led away by to captivity by the Roman general Aulus Didius, Mason gives him the (approximate) words Tacitus puts in Caratacus’s mouth when addressing Claudius:
Soldier, I had arms,
Had neighing steeds to whirl my iron cars,
Had wealth, dominion. Dost thou wonder, Roman,
I fought to save them? What if Caesar aims
To lord it universal o’er the world,
Shall the world tamely crouch at Caesar’s footstool?
From the mid-18th century onwards, perhaps stimulated by Mason’s work, Caractacus as British hero became the subject of many paintings, by artists such as Henry Fuseli and Francis Hayman, and prints, the latter used to illustrate the increasing number of books on early British history. Two scenes predominate: Caractacus in chains before Claudius, and Cartimandua betraying him to Ostorius Scapula. A stock image emerges: a tall middle-aged man of impressive physique, with ample moustache but beardless, and thick, uncombed hair swept back.
William Blake was aware of Caratacus (and the stock image) and drew him as one of his ‘visionary heads‘ apparently summoned up at the request or suggestion of his friend John Varley in about 1819: a fearsome face complete with long, twirling warlike moustache (it bears a quite startling resemblance to the appearance of the famous archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler).
Later in the nineteenth century ‘ancient Britons’, preferably of the heroic type, entered the common currency of writers and artists keen to identify ancient antecedents for the new heroes of ‘Great Britain’. In 1842 the leading painter G.F. Watts was one of those artists who submitted cartoons in a competition to decorate walls in the Palace of Westminster. His subject, illustrating the most dramatic scene of Tacitus’s account, was Caractacus led in triumph through the streets of Rome. Only fragments survive of the cartoons (Watts won the competition but never carried out the commission), but the design was widely copied. A writer in the Illustrated London News in 1843 described it thus:
‘… the proud old man, firm as a riven rock, and in his barbaric pride, as grim and unconquerable as a mastiff, strides through the crowded streets with more the air of a victor than of vanquished.’
The same heroic image reappeared in London in 1859, when J.H. Foley, an Irish sculptor, unveiled his Caractacus at the Mansion House, but this is a much less submissive leader. It shows the moment of Caratacus enthusing his soldiers with the speech Tacitus gives him before his final battle.
A late Victorian example of Caratacus in the artistic imagination is Edward Elgar‘s cantata Caractacus, first performed in Leeds in 1898. It locates Caratacus’s final battle on Elgar’s beloved Malvern Mills and culminates in Caractacus’s appearance before Claudius, and the emperor’s mercy – perhaps a model for the essential beneficence of British imperial rule?
Peter Lord speculates that there are comparatively few representations of Caratacus in Welsh art of the 18th and 19th century because English or ‘British’ artists had appropriated him for their own purposes. He doesn’t appear among the definitive Welsh heroes given sculptures in Cardiff City Hall in 1916, though strangely ‘Boadicea’ (Buddug) does, despite having even fewer Welsh qualifications than Caratacus. Nevertheless, he was by no means ignored in Wales.
There was a London Welsh ‘Caradogion Society’ as early as 1790 (Iolo Morganwg seems to have attended its meetings). It met in the Bull’s Head tavern, where a portrait of Caratacus addressing the Roman emperor hung on the wall. The Society was a gathering devoted to political debating. The name and image of Caratacus indicate that its leanings were radical and influenced by the ideas of the French Revolution, and so suspect was it to the authorities that it was the subject of the equivalent of a police raid.
Virginia Hoselitz, in her book Imagining Roman Britain: Victorian responses to a Roman past (2007), observes that Caratacus was a common subject in Welsh antiquarian journals like Archaeologia Cambrensis, founded in 1846. ‘Hwfa Môn’ (Rowland Williams) wrote a poem called ‘Caradog yn Rhufain’, though R. Williams Parry’s verdict on his work (‘Hwfa Môn oedd y creadur tebycaf i fardd a fagwyd erioed yng Nghymru. Ac yn fardd ar ben hynny na ellir byth ei gael yn euog o ysgrifennu yr un llinell o farddoniaeth’) doesn’t encourage one to read it with pleasure.
One reason for the interest show by people in Wales in Caratacus’s was that some of them really believed he was Welsh. A correspondent in Y Galwdgarwr in 1859 reports seeing an illustration in The illustrated London News of J.H. Foley’s sculpture, and concludes,
Ond methasom beidio gwenu wrth weled cais y London News at wneyd Caradog, neu Caractacus, fel y geilw estroniaid ef, yn Champion of ENGLISH Liberty. Os bydd rhyw ddyn mawr yn perthyn i’r Cymry, y mae’r Saeson am ei wneyb yn Sais yn ebrwydd.
But I couldn’t help but smile at seeing the London News make Caradog, or Caractacus, as foreigners call him, the Champion of ENGLISH Liberty. If the Welsh possess any hero of their own, then the Englishman is sure to make him English straight away.
One could follow the memory of Caratacus well into the 20th century. He seems to have acted not only as part of the British foundation myth, but also as an ‘bad conscience’ to Victorian and Edwardians aware of the links between the Romans and the British in their respective empires. In the 21st century his memory has faded. Perhaps we have less use for heroes, or at least for heroic failures – though admiration for resistance to oppression and invasion is unlikely to disappear completely.