Sunday, 22 March 2015

Caractacus and his Brave Stand against the Romans in Britain, 51AD

The British have always been a tough race eager to stand up for their rights. So when the Romans arrive with their legendary Roman army they find out the hard way that the British tribes are hard to conquer.

This was why the legendary dictator Julius Caesar was full of admiration for them. When Caesar came to England and tried to land on the shores he found the English warriors were fierce and came straight at his soldiers on the shores. Caesar wrote ‘The Romans were faced with serious problems. These dangers frightened our soldiers who were not used to battles of this kind, with the results that they do not show the same speed and enthusiasm as they usually did in battles on dry land’.

One hundred years later little has changed. Rome is still trying to subdue those living within the British Isles. Emperor Claudius decides to enhance his status by crushing these rebellious barbarians so he invades with an enormous 40,000 strong army. Once again fierce resistance is put up by the British tribes but eventually they succumb due to tactical and technical inferiority plus the intense tribal rivalry that exists between them.

One person however holds out and fights a long running campaign of resistance. No, not the famous Queen Boudicca (who comes later in history), for it is a man known as Caractacus, King of the Catuvellauni tribe in southern England. Using guerrilla warfare he is a constant thorn in the Roman’s side. For seven years he puts up brave resistance until the moment comes when he decides to make a brave stand at Caer Caradoc (probably in Wales) in AD51.

Caractacus is no fool and choses his position of defence carefully. He knows a great deal about Roman military thinking from seven years on the run and deliberately fights from a position that is very strong. This area of rocky terrain forces the Romans to cross a river, fight uphill and then overcome the walls of defence that have been constructed to halt their advance. Not only that but Caractacus manages to put his diplomatic skills to good use by combining the Siluren tribe with the Ordovican tribe to leave the Romans with a much tougher foe to deal with.  

On the day of the battle Caractacus urges his men on protesting that this very day and this battle will either be the beginning of the recovery of their freedom or of everlasting bondage. He then appeals by name to their distant ancestors who drove back the mighty Julius Caesar and urges them to follow their example. It is a rousing speech and strengthens the will of his men.  

From down below at the bottom of the valley the Roman general, Publius Ostorius Scapula is likewise concerned by such eagerness and fierce spirit.  However his soldiers insist on battle as their spirits are strong and confident. Ostorius complies. He studies the river he has to cross and finds an accessible point to cross. He then leads his brave men across the river without difficulty. When his men reach the defences his soldiers come under a hail of missiles and casualties rapidly mount. Ostorius is undetered and tells his force to huddle close together so as to protect one another with their sturdy shields in an army formation known as a testudo. It is a smart move as this highly effective Roman army tactic minimises casualties for his men. 

Meantime his disciplined soldiers tear into the fence of stones until they are able to finally engage in hand to hand combat. Using their superior group tactics the Roman soldiers then manage to sweep aside the British tribes who are forced to retreat into the hills where they mount one last final stand. Yet even here, both light and heavy-armed Roman soldiers rush to finish them off. The former harasses the foe with their long javelins, while the latter closes with them and in so doing breaks the remnants of the resistance. The simple fact is that the British tribesmen are much easier to defeat than the better-armed Romans due to their lack of defensive breast plates or helmets. They also have little ability to counter the Roman javelins or the spears of the auxiliaries.

The remaining tribal fighters flee with Caractacus among them. Any hope of escape is lost when he is betrayed by the leader of the Brigantes tribe, Queen Cartimandua who decides to hand him over to the Romans. As a consequence Caractacus, his wife, daughter and brothers all surrender and are sent to Rome where there is intense interest in the man who has so bravely stood up against the all conquering might of Rome for so many long years.

Once there their Roman conqueror, Emperor Claudius holds a major triumph in honour of this achievement to boost his prestige and reputation. Caractacus and all the other defeated men are made to walk past him. It is utter humiliation but no one dares say anything as the emperor is well known for being very fond of gladiatorial combat and public executions. Ancient historians note his insecurities in detail. Apparently ‘his knees were weak and gave way under him and his head shook. He stammered and his speech was confused. He slobbered and his nose ran when he was excited’. One record even went so far as to say that ‘Claudius' voice belonged to no land animal, and that his hands were weak as well’ Much of this was due to fear rather than deformity as it was said that when ‘calm and seated he was a tall, well-built figure of dignitas’.

Whilst the others filed past meekly, Caractacus had other ideas. When he came before the emperor rather than bow low and walk past as all have before him he stands still and speaks before him. ‘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’ rejoins Caractacus.

This is an extremely brave thing to say before a mighty Emperor who holds his life in his palm. Many have been killed for much less embarrassment. It says much about Caractacus’ proud bearing and stubborn character that he would say this. Even more remarkably Emperor Claudius agrees and lets him live as a free man in Rome.

Later when Caractacus travels across the city he is supposed to have been so impressed by the sheer wealth and splendour of the city of Rome that he says how could they "who have got such possessions and so many of them, covet our poor tents?"
If you liked that story then remember there are new stories on this site every week that can be found at my Secret History Stories homepage and also you will find it worth reading about
Brave Queen Boudicca and Her Stand against the Romans in AD61