King of the Catuvellauni (40-43)
Leader of British resistance against the Romans (43-50)
Caratacus being the Latin rendering of the Brythonic 'Caratac' or 'Ceretic' from was derived the later Welsh variants of 'Caradoc', 'Caradog' and 'Ceredig'
King of the Catuvellauni
Caratacus was one of the sons of Cunobelinus, king of the Catuvellauni, who together with his older brother Togodumnus exercised some kind of joint kingship over the territories of the Catuvellauni in the years immediately after their father's enfeeblement or possibly death in around 40 AD. Specifically Caratacus seems to have driven out his brother Adminius from his position as ruler of the Cantiaci (most likely due to the latter's pro-Roman sentiments) and then co-operated with Togodumnus in attacking the lands of the neighbouring tribe of the Atrebates and forcing their king Verica to flee across the channel to Gaul.
Verica eventually found his way to Rome where he naturally appealed to the emperor Claudius for assistance in regaining his throne. This provided the Roman Empire with the immediate pretext for the invasion of 43 AD. Both Caratacus and Togodumnus were at the forefront of the British resistance to the Claudian invasion, particulary at the battle of the Medway. The Romans, of course, won that battle and Togodumnus was killed, leaving Caratacus as the sole leader of the British resistance.
Resistance to Rome
After the defeat at the Medway Caratacus drops out of the historical record for a few years, but the later statement by Tacitus that he "by many an indecisive and many a successful battle had raised himself far above all the other generals of the British." would suggest that he was not inactive and successfully defeated the Romans in a number of engagements.
If it is correct, as Dio Cassius states, that the Roman army, now under the direct command of the emperor Claudius himself, fought a number of battles after the battle of the Medway on its way to the capture of the Catuvellaunian capital of Camulodunum (modern Colchester, then it is very likely that Caratacus also led this final, but ultimately futile, attempt to prevent the final conquest of the kingdom of the Catuvellauni.
Where Caratacus went after the fall of Camulodunum is not entirely clear. It seems probable that he fell back into the territory of the Silures who controlled much of what is now south-east Wales and led a campaign of guerilla warfare against Roman positions in the west. When, in the year 47 AD, Ostorius Scapula took over as governor of the newly minted Roman provice of Britannia, he took advantage of the change in administration to launch a counter-attack deep into Roman-held territory in the west.
This caused the Romans much consternation but eventually Scapula managed to restore order and sweep Caratacus and his Silurian allies back across the boundary of the river Severn. The Legio XX Valeria Victrix was relocated from Camulodunum in the year 49 to establish a new legionary fortress at Glevum (modern Gloucester) from which Scapula launched and offensive against the Silures. Caratacus simply moved the base of his operations north, into the lands of the Ordovices. Scapula was forced to move the Legio XIV Germina to Viroconium (that is Wroxeter). Now with two legions to direct against Caratacus, Scapula was able to severely restrict the former's field of operations and force him to battle.
The Final battle
Sometime in the year 50 and somewhere in the upper reaches of the Severn Valley
in what is now mid-Wales
(the exact location is not known), Caratacus selected an elevated position with a river running in front, separating him from the advancing Roman
army and where he piled up stone to form crude ramparts along the hillsides in front of which he could arrange his troops.
Although the Romans took casualties as they advanced towards rhe British position, the troops crossed the river, formed themselves into the traditional testudo, tore down the loose stone barriers and closed on the enemy. The lack of any defensive armour worn by the British tribesmen told against them in close combat with the disciplined Roman forces; once the Roman killing machine got going the outcome was somewhat inevitable. "It was a glorious victory" as Tacitus puts it; the Romans captured Caratacus' wife and daughter as well as some further brothers, but Caratacus himself escaped.
Caratacus fled north into the kingdom of the Brigantes, no doubt hoping to continue his struggle. Unfortunately for him, he was betrayed captured by Cartimandua, the reigning queen of the Brigantes who was pro-Roman in outlook, placed in chains and delivered to the Romans.
A Prisoner of Rome
By then Caratacus had been fighting the Romans for almost nine years and this dogged resistance had earned him a certain notoriety throughout the Roman world. As Tacitus puts it, "All were eager to see the great man, who for so many years had defied our power." so he was transported, together with his family, across to Rome where a grand procession was arranged. Accorfing to Tacitus;
The people were summoned as to a grand spectacle; the praetorian cohorts were drawn up under arms in the plain in front of their camp; then came a procession of the royal vassals, and the ornaments and neck-chains and the spoils which the king had won in wars with other tribes, were displayed. Next were to be seen his brothers, his wife and daughter; last of all, Caratacus himself. All the rest stooped in their fear to abject supplication; not so the king, who neither by humble look nor speech sought compassion.
Tacitus also gave Caratacus a small speech to orate which ends with the words; "My punishment would be followed by oblivion, whereas, if you save my life, I shall be an everlasting memorial of your clemency." Which is the sort of thing that a Roman would consider a conquered barbarian ought to have said rather than what he did say.
In any event Caratacus was not condemned to death by strangulation, as was the usual fate of those who defied the authority of Rome. He was given his freedom by the emperor Claudius and lived out the rest of his life in Rome in complete obscurity. Dio Cassius however says that Caratacus: "wandered about the city after his liberation; and after beholding its splendour and its magnitude he exclaimed: "And can you, then, who have got such possessions and so many of them, covet our poor hovels?"" Which is the sort of thing a conquered barabarian might well have said
Of course, not a great deal is known of Caratacus other than through Roman eyes but he must have been an individual of great personal authority and magnetism. Despite losing his kingdom to Rome he was still able to win acceptance from other tribal kingdoms of Britain as unquestioned leader in preference to their own rulers. And of course he even managed to impress the Senate and Emperor of Rome sufficiently to save both his own life and that of his family.
There is the recurring myth that he returned to Britain a few years later after having converted to Christianity whilst he was in Rome and was responsible for the first introduction of that religion into the island. But it is very unlikely that there is any truth in that particular tale.
Conquest-The Roman Invasion of Britain by John Peddie (Sutton 1998)
Roman Britain by Peter Salway (OUP 1991)
and the works of Publius Cornelius Tacitus and Dio Cassius