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Celtic Twilight
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
March 2015

"The speedy and successful conquest of any large area of heavily populated territory ... ultimately depends upon the early restoration of firm government. The planning of this aspect of war is one which sometimes tends to be neglected."
John Peddie, Conquest: The Roman Invasion of Britain

Rome would not be the last imperial power to mistake the fall of an enemy capital for the collapse of resistance. Emperor Claudius and his elephant led Aulus Plautius' Roman army into the Catuvellauni capital of Camulodonum (modern Colchester) in the fall of 43 AD, marking the end of organized resistance by the Catuvellauni and their handful of Briton allies.

Led by the brothers Caratacus and Togodumnus, the Catuvellauni had fought very hard, but failed to stop the Roman advance. When the Romans paused for six weeks to allow the emperor to arrive and lead the march into the enemy capital, the remnants of their army fell back. Just how far they retreated is subject to some conjecture; did the Celts contest Claudius' crossing of the Thames and capture of the capital, or was this a stage-managed event to allow the empire's pampered leader to put on the trappings of a soldier and pretend to know something of war?


Caratacus (Caradog to the Welsh) meets Claudius.

 

William Sariego, designer of our Rome at War: Queen of the Celts, chose the "battle" interpretation, and it does make for a fine game scenario. However large the actual battle might have been, Togodumnus was killed during the fighting. Caratacus and most of the army escaped. Claudius returned to Rome after 16 days of playing at war, celebrated a triumph for his victory, and graciously allowed the Senate to award him the civic crown.

In Britain, the four Roman legions now spread out to occupy the productive agricultural regions. The Atrebates and Iceni, powerful neighbors of the Catuvellauni who had suffered repeated defeats at their hands, quickly became client kingdoms likely the result of arrangements that pre-dated the invasion. The Romans also placed exiled rulers back on their thrones, like Verica of the Regni these exiles had helped spark the Roman invasion, and now reaped their rewards.

Caratacus began a fierce guerrilla campaign, but could not stop the Romans from pushing forward to a line roughly from modern Gloucester to the River Humber. All of the important market regions lay behind this line, and Claudius may have intended to make it the Roman frontier. The Catuvellauni had not been beloved as conquerors, and after they were crushed few of their neighbors wished to join Caratacus most welcomed the sight of Roman wrath falling on their hated enemy. He had to move his base of operations to the west, in modern Gloucester, and his raiding parties filtered through the new Roman border to attack their outposts.

It appears that the local ruler, Boduoccus of the Dobunni, fled into Roman territory when Caratacus set up operations in his realm. Though initially part of the anti-Roman coalition, the Dobunni had abandoned their loyalty as soon as the scope of the Roman invasion became apparent and were one of the first tribes to submit. Caratacus was not one to suffer such betrayals easily, but while the king and his court sought refuge among the invaders many of the tribesmen rallied to the Catuvellauni war chief. Caratacus also gained new unambiguous allies, with the Silures of southern Wales in particular becoming fanatical supporters.


Vespasian in later years, as Emperor of Rome.

 

Plautius sent his best general, Flavius Vespasian (the future emperor) after the Celtic army in 45 AD. Vespasian subjugated the Durotriges and others village by village, as the tribe held on to its hill-forts with suicidal intensity particularly at the Dobunni oppidum (fortified town) known to later inhabitants as Maiden Castle but would not meet the Romans in the open. While the Romans sought battle the Celtic leader was planning his own counter-stroke. In the fall of 47 AD, Aulus Plautius returned to Rome for an ovation (usually reserved for members of the Imperial family). When his wife converted to Christianity he lost his career and, when Nero took the throne, his life.

Caratacus was waiting for the changeover. Typically, a new Roman governor brought many of his own subordinates with him, meaning large-scale changes in both civil and military affairs. The new governor, Publius Ostorius Scapula, attempted to seal the border but found signs of pending revolt among several of the supposed Roman allies. He ordered them disarmed, and what may have been a coordinated revolt set up by Caratacus began. The Celts pressed the Romans hard with a series of guerrilla attacks, but ultimately the Iceni were crushed and placed under the rule of a client-king named Prasutagus, setting the stage for Boudicca's revolt some years later.

Scapula reacted by invading modern Wales, to bring Caratacus to heel and smash Silures and other tribes like the Ordovices who supported the Celtic leader. Slowly the Romans occupied Wales, moving their frontier line ever forward. At last Caratacus decided they were spread as thinly as Scapula was going to allow, and in 51 AD he turned to give battle at a strong position usually identified as a hill fort just west of Caersws in modern northwest Wales.


This hill fort at Cefn Carnedd may have been the site of Caratacus' last stand. (Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales)

 

Scapula launched a frontal assault, and the crazed Silures met it head-on along an earthen embankment. The Romans suffered heavy casualties but formed their testudo formation of locked shields to fend off Celtic sling stones while a group of legionaries dug through the fortification with their bare hands. The Celtic army then began to break up, and a band of fanatic warriors staged a last stand on the fort's central hilltop to allow both their leader and the huge numbers of women and children following the army to escape. The Romans fell on the camp followers, slaughtering many and seizing thousands as slaves, including Caratacus' wife and daughter.

This disaster seems to have taken the will out of the great British chieftain, who instead of falling back with the Silures went north in response to an offer of aid from the Brigantes. Some of the western clans had risen alongside the Iceni a few years earlier, but had been put down by the tribe's scheming warrior-queen, Cartimandua, with the help of Roman soldiers. Just why Caratacus thought she would aid his resistance is not clear, unless he thought he could overthrow her with the aid of anti-Roman elements in her tribe.

Whatever his reasoning, move failed miserably as Cartimandua promptly threw him into chains and gave him to the Romans. Caratacus went to Rome a prisoner to be marched through the streets, but rather than having to endure the ritual strangling he was pardoned by Claudius. The emperor sent him into exile, reunited with his family.

Meanwhile, Cartimandua's husband, Venutius, considered the betrayal of Caratacus a dishonorable act. Open warfare broke out between the royal couple. Cartimandua retaliated by sleeping with her husband's shield-bearer; a deep insult among the Celts. Venutius defeated his wife's faction, and the Romans rushed northwards to save the queen. Though they restored her to the throne, Venutius now took over leadership of the anti-Roman struggle and remained at large for two more decades. Roman discipline began to break down under the strain, especially among the auxiliary troops, and the stress claimed Scapula himself, who died of a heart attack less than a year after dispatching Caratacus to Rome. Not until 74 AD were the Silures and other tribes brought completely under Roman rule.

Rome at War: Queen of the Celts covers all of these battles, plus the earlier battles of Caratacus against the Romans and of Boudicca's rebellion.

Click here to order Queen of the Celts now!

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.