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Caratacus Against Rome, Part 1
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
November 2014

For centuries, the island known to the Romans as Albion provided tin to the Mediterranean world, a metal vital for manufacturing bronze. Rome also became a major customer, and in turn sold huge quantities of wine to the island's eager consumers. Julius Caesar became even more interested during his Gallic campaigns, when fierce tribal warriors from Britain came to the continent to fight against the Romans alongside the local tribes of Gaul. Roman practice was clear: a potential threat must be crushed and could never be ignored. And Britain's vibrant commerce assured enough loot to enrich Caesar even further.

Two failed attempts by Caesar to conquer the island, in 55 and 54 B.C., delayed Roman conquest for almost a century. During that time commercial contact grew, and Romans saw opportunities to enrich themselves from Britain's tin mines and from the Britons' insatiable thirst for wine. The Roman conquest of Britain, and the fierce resistance of the Catuvellauni led by the legendary Caratacus, is the theme of most scenarios in our Rome at War: Queen of the Celts game. Though Boudicca draws the most attention as the famed warrior-queen, Caratacus was one of the best "barbarian" military leaders faced by Rome.

Rome's excuse for invasion came when the three sons of Cunobelin, king of the Catuvellauni, fell out over their people's future. Adminius hoped to make his father's realm a Roman client state and thereby become enriched himself. His brothers Caratacus and Togodumnus distrusted the Romans and believed that any foothold they gained on the island would quickly be used to exert domination over all of its tribes.

Adminius fled to Rome, where he managed to gain the ear of the insane emperor Gaius Caligula (though it's likely he had already been plotting with the Romans). Caligula gathered a fleet and an army, and when they mutinied over missing pay he made the troops march along the beach collecting seashells. He had a lighthouse erected in honor of this triumph, and then went back to Rome where he was assassinated two years later.

The new emperor, Claudius, inherited the fleet prepared for the crossing as well as the still-scheming Adminius. Caratacus and Togodumnus demanded that he return Adminius and other exiles who had fled to Roman territory. Already seeking a military triumph to seal his accession, Caludius now had an excuse for war barbarians did not make demands of Rome.

In 43 A.D. he named Aulus Plautius, military governor of Pannonia, to lead the invasion. Plautius brought the IX Hispania Legion with him from the Danube frontier, and drew three others from the Rhine garrisons: II Augusta, XIV Gemina and XX Valera. He also had a large number of auxiliary troops light infantry and cavalry mostly from the continental tribes. In all his army numbered between 40,000 and 50,000. It's possible he also had the use of VIII Augusta Legion in Gaul as a strategic reserve, but this is not clear. The Roman Navy's northern squadron, the Classis Britannica, provided transport and support.

The Catuvellauni were expected to resist, but the Romans figured they would get at least some support from tribes like the Atrebates and Trinovantes who the Catuvellauni had defeated in recent years as they expanded their kingdom. Rome had not conducted a campaign of conquest in decades, and the slave traders exulted at the profits to come. Knowing the folly of launching an invasion without planning for its aftermath, Plautius also gathered exiled British chieftains and organized them in order to have ready-made puppet governments for the conquered tribes.

Caratacus and Togodumnus learned of the preparations from their contacts in Gaul and mustered their tribe's warriors to repel the landing while calling in their client tribes' forces as well. In Gaul, however, the legions once again mutinied and refused to sail. Britannia, they believed, was a magical island inhabited by strange and fearsome beings. The former slave Narcissus, Claudius' private secretary and close personal friend, gave a rousing speech that somehow convinced the soldiers to board the ships. But word of their refusal had reached the island, and the Catuvellauni had disbanded their army Celtic armies did not have the logistical support of Rome's complex military bureaucracy, and warriors came with what food their personal slaves could carry. When it was exhausted after a few days, they had to go home or starve. Celtic armies therefore usually only gathered when action was imminent.

And action was definitely imminent. Plautius brought his army ashore in eastern Kent in three waves, seizing the port of Richborough as his base. Though well inland today, in those days it sat on the Wantsum Channel (long ago filled by silt) that protected it from the storms that had twice devastated Caesar's expeditions. The Catuvellauni skirmished with the Romans but lacked the strength for a major battle, and Caratacus mustered his army again behind the barrier of the river Medway. With the bridges destroyed the position seemed secure, but the Romans found locals to show them a ford some ways south of the Celtic positions while several cohorts of Batavii auxiliaries swam the river to attack the northern flank.

A chariot attack against the Batavii only restored the situation partially. As Germans, the Batavii did not share the Celts' mystical attitude towards horses and did something no Celtic enemy would have dreamt they loosed both spears and arrows on the horses rather than the charioteers, shocking the Celts and breaking their charge.

Plautius got his XIV Legion across the river in the center during the confusion, but still Caratacus held his ground. British morale apparently still held firm and the fighting continued until darkness fell. When combat resumed with dawn, the Celts still showed considerable spirit in one of the very few battles against Roman armies to continue into a second day. But a surprise attack by XX Legion led by the Roman legate Gnaeus Hosidius Geta turned the tide when his near-capture caused his men to rush the Celts in an effort to rescue him. With the Catuvellauni southern flank crumbling thanks to Geta's assault, Caratacus finally ordered a retreat and his army moved in good order back from the Medway and across the Thames.

Plautius had a hard-fought victory, but the brothers had shown outstanding leadership themselves. However, the other tribes began to fall away from the alliance as old resentments flared. The Celts probably expected to be able to hold the line of the Thames, but the Romans crossed quickly behind them thanks to the skills of the Batavii and the ships of the Classis Britannica. The loss of the chariot force what was not shot up by the Batavii would have been difficult to evacuate across the river limited Celtic mobility and made open ground dangerous.

Caratacus made his stand in marshy ground but was overcome by Roman numbers and mobility. At some point during this struggle his brother Togodumnus either was killed in the fighting or died of wounds suffered at the Medway and morale took a serious blow. The Celtic army broke up, with even Caratacus unable to organize an orderly retreat.

With two major victories and the Celtic army crumbling, Plautius apparently had very clear orders about what to do next. He held his army somewhere around the Thames and sent word to Rome that the fall of Camulodonum (modern Colchester), the enemy capital, was near. The Romans paused for about six weeks, awaiting the arrival of Claudius himself for the triumphal entry. The emperor brought reinforcements including, according to Dio Cassius, elephants.

"Major combat operations" were at an end in Britain. As in other conflicts, however, the real fighting was just beginning.

Can your leadership see the Celts to victory?
Find out in
Rome at War: Queen of the Celts!

Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.