Caratacus: The Roman Enemy Who Survived Defeat

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When is it a good idea to really know who your friend’s friends are? If your name is Caratacus, you might consider it a good thing.

Caratacus was the king of the Catuvellauni, a tribe of Britons who inhabited a good bit of the country at the time that the Romans were conquering their way north, following Julius Caesar’s landings and Claudius’s forays. Caratacus and his brother Togodumnus didn’t exactly like the Romans telling them or their people what to do and led the resistance against the occupation for almost 10 years.

Time after time, Caratacus was able to rally his people, standing up to the Romans in the only way they could: with lighting-quick strikes and deceptive troop movements. The Catuvellauni and their neighboring Britons didn’t really have the manpower or the weapons that the Romans had, so they made do with what they did have: courage, a willingness to defend their homeland with their last ounces of strength and blood, and guile. The more the Romans prevailed, the more the Catuvellauni disappeared into the mists and the mountains, until they ended up close to Wales and Powys.

Things finally came to a head in 51, when Caratacus had had enough of ducking and dodging and was determined to fight. He mustered what troops and courage he could and met the Romans head-on, at the Battle of Caer Caradock. As was the case for so many of Rome’s enemies at this period of time, the result was a Roman victory. In fact, it was a veritable horse-whipping, for the army and for the morale of the Britons fighting the occupation elsewhere in their homeland. Caratacus, however, avoided his own personal horse-whipping by melting away into the highlands again, there to hide and gather his forces and courage for another day.

The highlands that he managed to slip into was the land ruled by the Brigantes, yet another of the many tribes of northern Britain. Determined to raise fresh troops, he appealed to Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes, for protection and aid. She very well could have delivered him exactly what he sought: The Brigantes were not yet totally involved in defending their homeland at this time, but this was partly because she had forged a client relationship with Rome. In effect, she had been bought by Claudius. Under the guise of protection, Cartimandua extended a welcome to Caratacus and then had him shackled and delivered to Claudius himself.

One would think that, at this point, our story would be over for poor Caratacus. The enemies of Rome did not suffer softly or lightly. And yet, Caratacus had done himself a favor by making a name for himself and killing so many Romans over the years. Claudius was quite impressed with the Catuvellauni commander, having heard his name spoken and denounced and whispered for many a year. Claudius was so impressed with Caratacus’s defiant spirit and his military brilliance that he spared his life. In fact, he released him into the wilds-of Italy, where he lived out the rest of his life. He was unable to return to his native land, since that was the terms of the commandment that Claudius had uttered in sparing his life. But he wasn’t executed in some horrible way, as many of Claudius’s foes were.