"Caratacus said, that battle would be the beginning
of the recovery of their freedom" - Tacitus
"The royal babes a tawny wolf shall drain: Then Romulus his grandsire's throne shall gain, Of martial tow'rs the founder shall become, The people Romans call, the city Rome. To them no bounds of empire I assign, nor term of years to their immortal line. Ev'n haughty Juno, who, with endless broils, Earth, seas, and heav'n, and Jove himself turmoils; At length aton'd, her friendly pow'r shall join, to cherish and advance the Trojan line. The subject world shall Rome's dominion own, and, prostrate, shall adore the nation of the gown. An age is ripening in revolving fate when Troy shall overturn the Grecian state, and sweet revenge her conqu'ring sons shall call, to crush the people that conspir'd her fall. Then Caesar from the Julian stock shall rise, Whose empire Ocean, and whose fame the skies alone shall bound; whom, fraught with eastern spoils, our heav'n, the just reward of human toils, securely shall repay with rites divine; and incense shall ascend before his sacred shrine." - Virgil, Aeneid.
From 29BC, Virgil undertook his decade-long task of composing the Aeneid, the national epic of Rome, to the glory of Augustus, Rome and the empire. In the passage above, taken from Book 1, the command from Jupiter himself was given that Rome should enjoy imperium sine fine an empire without bounds. Jupiter Optimus Maximus 'Best and Greatest' had been the protector of Rome from the dawn of the Republic. He ruled Roman thought in a manner more absolute than Greek Zeus, Gallic Teutates or Irish Dagda 'Good', and now, in the peace of Augustus, commanded the Empire to the ends of the world and the limits of human thought. Rome would enjoy the riches of the east, and her empire would be bound only by Ocean herself, the limit defined by Britain.
Imperium was the motivation for the conquest of Britain by Claudius in AD43, his triumphal arch in Rome declaring him to be "the first to subject the barbarian peoples beyond Ocean to the power of the Roman State" (Todd, 1997, 63). The invasion was organised under the command of Aulus Plautius and recorded by Cassius Dio in his Roman History. A century of Roman imperial rule over Gaul and the emulation of empire established across the south of Britain by Catuvellaunian rule had prepared both the Romans and the Britons for life within the Empire.
The invasion took the Catuvellaunian territories at once, and Dio reports that Plautius "defeated Caratacus, and then Togodumnus, the sons of Cunobelinus, who was now dead [and] they fled [to the west]....The British did not surrender [so] Claudius left Rome...and joined the army near the Thames. He took over the comand, crossed the river, defeated the barbarians who assembled against him in battle, and took Camulodunum, the royal stronghold of Cunobelinus" (Morris, 2005, 55, 58).
The taking of Camulodunum and the former territories of Cunobelinos was accompanied by a coming to terms by surrounding British tuatha, with Cartimandua of the Brigantes, the Cantiaci in the south, the Iceni immediately to the north, and the Dobunni and Coritani bordering former Catuvellaunian territories realising the Roman presence to be best accomodated than resisted. The southern reaches of Britain were defined into civitas along their former Celtic frontiers, the Catuvellauni centred on Verulamium, the Trinovantes on Camulodunum, and with the Cantii, Atrebates and Regni, Belgae, Durotriges and Dumnonii each under control (Todd, 1997, 63).
While the south with its rich agriculture and mineral deposits was established as the provincia of Rome under the efforts of Plautinus and his successor Ostorius who consolidated the territory with forts (Todd, 1997, 77), Caratacus son of Cunobelinos had established himself in the west. He was the 'guiding spirit of British resistance in the west' (Todd, 1997, 77), behind an incusion in AD47 across the Severn and a supporter of Brigantian resistance. "Ostorius found himself confronted by disturbance. The enemy had burst into the territories of our allies with all the more fury, as they imagined that a new general would not march against them with winter beginning and with an army of which he knew nothing. Ostorius, well aware that first events are those which produce alarm or confidence, by a rapid movement of his light cohorts, cut down all who opposed him, pursued those who fled" (Tacitus, Annals, 12.31).
Ostorius was determined to take the west under his control, but to secure the province from rebellion he consolidated "with encampments the whole country [within Roman influence] to the Avon and Severn" (Tacitus, Annals 12.31). This occupation brought the allied kingdom of the Iceni out into revolt in AD48. "The defeat of the Iceni quieted those who were hesitating between war and peace [and] that this might be the more promptly effected, a colony of a strong body of veterans was established at Camulodunum on the conquered lands, as a defence against the rebels, and as a means of imbuing the allies with respect for our laws." (Tacitus, Annals 12.31) Thus the provincial colonia Victricensis above Camulodunum was established.
The pursuit of the Celtic rebels brought the Romans deep into the west. "Ostorius had advanced within a little distance of the sea, facing the island Hibernia, when feuds broke out among the Brigantes and compelled the general's return, for it was his fixed purpose not to undertake any fresh enterprise till he had consolidated his previous successes. The Brigantes indeed, when a few who were beginning hostilities had been slain and the rest pardoned, settled down quietly" (Tacitus, Annals, 12.32).
Caractacus continued his leadership in Silurian and Ordovician actions against Roman advance in the years to AD51, "on the Silures neither terror nor mercy had the least effect; they persisted in war and could be quelled only by legions encamped in their country" (Tacitus, Annals, 12.32). The west was "full of confidence in the might of Caractacus, who by many an indecisive and many a successful battle had raised himself far above all the other generals of the Britons. Inferior in military strength, but deriving an advantage from the deceptiveness of the country, he at once shifted the war by a stratagem into the territory of the Ordovices, where, joined by all who dreaded peace with us, he resolved on a final struggle", appealing "that day and that battle would be the beginning of the recovery of their freedom, or of everlasting bondage" (Tacitus, Annals, 12.33,34).
The location of this battle, at Abertanat (Todd, 1997, 79) was to block entrance from the Sabrina (Severn River) to the west, and was as best selected to favour the British defenders. "He selected a position for the engagement [and] he piled up stones to serve as a rampart....As long as it was a fight with missiles, the wounds and the slaughter fell chiefly on our [Roman] soldiers; but when...the rude, ill-compacted fence of stones was torn down...the opposing ranks of the Britons were broken [and] the wife and daughter of Caractacus were captured, and his brothers too were admitted to surrender....Caractacus, seeking the protection of Cartismandua, queen of the Brigantes, was put in chains and delivered up to the conquerors, nine years after the beginning of the war in Britain. His fame had spread thence, and travelled to the neighbouring islands and provinces, and was actually celebrated in Italy" (Tacitus, Annals, 12.33-36).
The defeat and capture of Caratacus marked for the British the end of a century of leadership under the Catevellaunan nobles, and its completion was marked in a powerful speech made in Rome by the British leader.
Before Claudius, "he spoke as follows: '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.' Upon this the emperor granted pardon to Caractacus, to his wife, and to his brothers" (Tacitus, Annals, 12.37).
Resistance in the west
The military victory against Caratacus was not the end of British resistance against Roman conquest in the west, or indeed within the new Province. The Silures offerred battle "scouring the country far and wide" (Tacitus, Annals, 12.40)and the Brigantes formed an anti-Roman faction under Venutius, husband of Cartimandua who "had long been loyal to Rome [but] assumed a hostile attitude...Cartismandua by cunning stratagems captured the brothers and kinsfolk of Venutius. This enraged the enemy [and] the flower of their youth, picked out for war, invaded her kingdom [and the unrest put down when] some cohorts were sent to her aid" (Tacitus, Annals, 12.40).
Throughout the period the island of Môn "had a powerful population and was a refuge for fugitives" Tacitus, Annals, 14.29) and the consul Suetonius Paulinus, sent by the new Roman emporer, Nero, sent his forces against the island. The battle at Môn in AD61 reveals also the presence there of a druid centre, showing that in the century since the druids of Gaul had exerted their influence directly in Celtic society, in Britain their role had remained intact.
"On the shore stood the opposing army with its dense array of armed warriors, while between the ranks dashed women, in black attire like the Furies, with hair dishevelled, waving brands. All around, the Druids, lifting up their hands to heaven, and pouring forth dreadful imprecations, scared our soldiers by the unfamiliar sight, so that, as if their limbs were paralysed, they stood motionless, and exposed to wounds. Then urged by their general's appeals and mutual encouragements not to quail before a troop of frenzied women, they bore the standards onwards, smote down all resistance, and wrapped the foe in the flames of his own brands. A force was next set over the conquered, and their groves, devoted to inhuman superstitions, were destroyed." (Tacitus, Annals, 14.30).
With the removal of the military guidance of Caratacus and the destruction of the druid centre on Môn, the British Celts in the west were faced, as Caratacus had warned, "with everlasting bondage" (Tacitus, Annals, 12.34). But as if in response to the druids' 'dreadful imprecations', at this very time the centre of the Roman command in Britain at Camulodunum was about to face devastation, as Roman imperium in Britian was challenged to its core.