Roman Britain under attack

Despite the brutal suppression of British revolts against Roman rule, the empire's writers sought to portray rebels such as Boudica in a surprisingly positive light. Here, Charlotte Higgins seeks to explain this curious turn of events

Caractacus, king of the British tribe of Trinovantes, and the son of Cunobelinus. (Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images) 

This article was first published in the August 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

In AD 43, Aulus Plautius, general under the emperor Claudius, prepared to invade Britain. But, according to the second to third-century Roman historian, Cassius Dio, things nearly went badly wrong before they had even left the coast of Gaul. The troops virtually mutinied, refusing to venture “outside the known world”, Dio wrote. Finally, Claudius’s powerful henchman Narcissus, a freedman, harangued them. Coming from a civilian and a former slave, this was too much for the troops, who were shamed into action. The Romans made short work of south-east Britain. Two of the main leaders of the British, the brothers Togodumnus and Caratacus, were defeated in separate battles.
Togodumnus perished; Caratacus went on the run. Meantime, Aulus Plautius summoned the emperor who arrived with, says Cassius Dio, a contingent of war elephants, to take the great British stronghold of Camulodunum, the site of modern Colchester. A triumphal arch in Rome records that Claudius received the surrender of 11 British kings.
And yet the subjection of Britain was far from as clean and decisive as Claudius’s boast in Rome would have us believe. Although some of the peoples of Britain were friendly to the Romans and did not resist their advance, the slog of conquering and peacekeeping went on. It was not until nearly 40 years later that the Romans, under the governor Agricola, could claim to have defeated the whole island – in a great battle in north-east Scotland. But even then it was a hollow victory, since the Romans withdrew quickly and the Highlands of Scotland were never fully conquered. In fact, Britain has been called “Rome’s Afghanistan” by classical historian Mary Beard. Conquest was patchy, the terrain difficult, and the Britons, with their guerrilla tactics and frustrating habit of melting into marshes, forests and mountains, hit the Roman legions, who were virtually unbeatable in pitched battle, at their weak spot.
So what became of Caratacus, the British military leader and son of the great king Cunobelinus (later transformed by Shakespeare into his Cymbeline)?
Thanks to the first to second-century AD Roman historian Tacitus, the main source on the invasion of Britain and the 40 years or so following, we next hear of him seven years later, leading the Britons in south and then north Wales. Here, no doubt, the hilly, inaccessible territory helped him and his men as they slipped from wood to cave to mountain. But Caratacus was finally brought to ground by the relentless Roman war machine, and defeated in battle at a hillfort, somewhere in the territory of the Ordovices tribe in north Wales. Caratacus himself escaped from the melee and sought protection in northern England with the Brigantes tribe – but their queen, Cartimandua, handed him over to the Romans. As Tacitus has it, in the years that had elapsed since Claudius claimed Britain at Camulodunum, Caratacus had become a famous name in Italy. And so the capture of this elusive guerrilla leader, “whose name was not without a certain glory”, offered the opportunity for a spectacular public relations exercise in Rome. “There was huge curiosity to see the man who for so many years had spurned our power,” wrote Tacitus.
And so Claudius laid on a show, carefully stage-managed to make the capture reflect as gloriously as possible on himself. A parade was organised, with Caratacus’s splendid gold torcs and war booty carried aloft, and his companions, wife and children forced to follow. Finally came Caratacus himself who, according to Tacitus, was the only prisoner of war who walked with his head held high. Approaching the tribunal on which Claudius sat, he boldly addressed the emperor on equal terms, saying that under different circumstances he might have been welcomed to Rome as a friend, rather than dragged there as a captive. He added: “I had horses, men, arms, riches: is it any wonder that I should lose them unwillingly? If you wish to rule the world, does it follow that everybody else should accept slavery? If I had been dragged before you having surrendered immediately, nobody would have heard of either my defeat or your victory: if you punish me everybody will forget this moment. But if you save me, I shall be an everlasting memorial to your mercy.”

Besting the emperor

Claudius was convinced by this shrewd appeal to his reputation, and pardoned the Briton and his family. Nothing is heard of them again. Tacitus’s description of these events is remarkable: the historian has the Briton employing the quintessentially Roman skill of rhetoric and using it to best the emperor himself. Not for the first or last time, a Roman writer was using the figure of a defeated enemy – one who is shown to possess true Roman virtues – in order to launch a bitter critique of the imperial project.
Caratacus is one of a trio of figures from the British resistance given surprising prominence by Tacitus – the others being Boudica and the now less well-known Caledonian general Calgacus, to whom we shall return. What is intriguing about them is the extent to which – alongside their qualities as savage, frightening and barbaric figures – they are also given voices and certain virtues by the historian. In turn, it is these noble qualities that have enabled the figures to be regarded in later British history and culture as early native heroes; indeed, they are the first named characters in British history who have more than just a name attached to them, and anything approaching a ‘story’. In fact, it is only through characterisation by Tacitus and, later, Cassius Dio, that we know them at all. There is no direct archaeological evidence that they existed, beyond a few coins that have been found bearing the legend CARA, which may or may not refer to Caratacus.
Boudica is the most famous of the three, not least because of Thomas Thornycroft’s magnificent sculpture of her in her war chariot, pounding along Westminster Bridge towards the houses of parliament in London. Under the rule of her husband, Prasutagus, the Iceni had been a Roman ally. But when Prasutagus died, leaving his kingdom and property equally divided between Claudius’s successor – the emperor Nero – and his own daughters, things went badly wrong.
The Roman military, according to Tacitus, seized Iceni property, flogged the queen and raped her daughters. The flagrant abuses and grotesque humiliations were too much. With the brunt of the Roman forces far away, tackling a Druid stronghold on Anglesey, Boudica and the Iceni seized their chance. They rampaged through the south-east, and took on Camulodunum, where the behaviour of the Roman colonists – driving Britons from their land, treating them like slaves – had sparked outrage. Those who could, took refuge in the temple of the deified Claudius, which itself had become a hated symbol of foreign rule.
The Romans appealed to the newly established town of Londinium for help, but the procurator (or chief financial officer) sent only 200 ill-equipped troops. The town was otherwise undefended. The temple held out for two days before the town was captured and burnt, the inhabitants massacred. Finally, the 9th Legion arrived, but the rebels defeated it, slaughtering its entire infantry and forcing its commander, Petilius Cerealis, and the cavalry to ignominious flight. The procurator, too, fled to Gaul from his base in London.
Finally, the Roman general Suetonius Paulinus marched back to the south-east from Anglesey and, despite the appeals of the inhabitants, decided to sacrifice London for the sake of the province as a whole. Everyone from the city who could not follow in his baggage train – the old, the sick, children – were left to be slaughtered. Verulamium, the Roman town beside modern St Albans, met the same fate. In London, a layer of burnt material in the archaeological remains marks what is thought to be the sacking of the young city by Boudica.
Finally, Suetonius Paulinus engaged the rebels on a battlefield of his own choosing, somewhere near London. As with Caratacus, Tacitus puts into Boudica’s mouth an extraordinary speech, delivered to her troops before the battle, though there is virtually no chance that Tacitus was drawing on knowledge of what, if anything, Boudica said to her troops. Nor would she, it hardly needs saying, have used Latin. She is not, she says, speaking as the scion of a great royal house, but as an ordinary woman avenging her lost freedom and her violated daughters. They had already destroyed a legion, and they could do it again – or die trying.
Suetonius Paulinus’s own speech is not obviously given any stronger a claim to the reader’s sympathy than the Briton’s, except perhaps by way of an appeal to the military discipline of his army as against Boudica’s rabble, more women in the ranks than men.
Whose side are we supposed to be on at this moment? Ultimately, for certain, the Romans’. But in the thick of the moment – as Boudica cries revenge for her raped girls and death or glory for her troops – it is hard to tell. At any rate, Suetonius Paulinus’s victory was total. Fleeing Britons were trapped by their wagons, which ringed the battlefield. Women were not spared. Eighty thousand Britons (or so wrote Tacitus) were slaughtered. Boudica took poison and killed herself.
Perhaps the most revealing of the three encounters between British resistance leaders and Roman troops is the least well known today: that between the Caledonian leader Calgacus and the Roman governor of Britain, Agricola. For Tacitus, this encounter was close to the bone: Agricola was his father-in-law and the historian thus had direct access to first-hand accounts of the governor’s career. And his project throughout his biography (known today as ‘the Agricola’) was to lionise his illustrious connection. But he also had a broader project: a critique of the times in which he was then living, following the reign of the repressive emperor Domitian, and a lament for a more glorious age of Roman history, when its great men were unblemished by the vices of luxury and greed.
According to Tacitus, after several seasons of difficult campaigns in Scotland, the Romans reached Mons Graupius (in AD 83 or 84). Here, says Tacitus, over 30,000 men rallied to fight them. In Tacitus’ account, Calgacus gives a great speech to his troops before the battle – one of the historian’s most moving acts of rhetorical ventriloquism: “Today will be the birth of liberty for Britain,” he declares. “We will fight well because we are free. Here in the remote north, far away from the grasp of tyranny, have been born the best of men. The Romans are [‘raptores orbis’] the pillagers of the world. Neither east nor west has sated them. To theft, murder and raping they give the false name of power. They make a desert, and call it peace.”
The speech is both a bitter critique of the moral vacuum at the heart of the imperial project, and an expression of a deep anxiety about its potential for collapse. But perhaps the idea of such disasters could be safely entertained precisely because they did not come about. The battle was a rout. The Caledonians scattered to the forests, where they were pursued by the relentless Romans. Bodies and limbs lay on the blood-soaked earth. The day after the battle, an unsettling silence hung in the air: the hills were deserted; torched buildings smoked in the distance.
What Tacitus does by vocalising the enemy so powerfully is to give Agricola a worthy enemy. Britain, by virtue of its distance from the corruption and decadence of Rome, provides his father-in-law a kind of stage set on which he can be a true Roman in the old style. But in the end, the important thing is that despite these enemies having powerful voices and a gift for Roman-style rhetoric, they are the losers. In the end, the Roman war machine conquers all.

Major players



“If you save me, I shall be an everlasting memorial to your mercy” – To Claudius in Rome, AD 50

Caratacus was the son of King Cunobelinus, a potentate in what is now south-east England. He is associated by Roman historians with aggressive expansionism in Britain that threatened to unsettle the status quo in northern Gaul and thus prompted the Roman invasion of AD 43. Defeated in battle by the invading forces, he eluded capture and fled to Wales and, at length, to the territory of the Brigantes in what is now Yorkshire. There, the queen of the Brigantes, Cartimandua, handed him over to the Romans. Caratacus was transported to Rome in AD 50, where, according to Tacitus, he had become a famous name. Paraded through the streets with the other captives, he confronted the emperor, Claudius, who spared his life.


“We have destroyed a roman legion. We will do so again” – Before her last stand near London, AD 60 or 61

Boudica was the wife of King Prasutagus, ruler of the Iceni, in what is now East Anglia, a tribe friendly to Rome. On Prasutagus’s death he made the emperor Nero co-heir to his kingdom with his daughters, but imperial officials maltreated his family. Boudica fomented an uprising in AD 60/61 while the governor, Suetonius Paulinus, was occupied in the west. Her forces took and burned Camulodunum (Colchester), Verulamium (St Albans) and Londinium (London), massacring the inhabitants. The returning Suetonius Paulinus, however, routed her troops in pitched battle somewhere near London. Defeated, Boudica took poison.


“To theft, murder and raping they give the false name of power” , “We will fight well because we are free” – At the battle of Mons Graupius, AD 83 or 84

 Calgacus was a leader of the Caledonians, who were defeated by Julius Agricola in a great battle in AD 83 or 84. He figures in Tacitus’s biography of Agricola, purely in order to deliver one of the historian’s greatest set-piece speeches. Nothing else is known of him. However, as the first named character in Scottish history, Calgacus features in the great frieze that runs around the entrance hall of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Created by William Hole in the 1890s, this mural operates as a parade of great Scottish figures such as David Livingstone, James Watt, Robert Burns, Adam Smith, David Hume and Mary, Queen of Scots.

The rebels’ stomping ground

The landmarks in the Britons’ fight for freedom and what you can see of their exploits today…
The “superb” museum believed to sit on the site of a Boudican massacre
Boudica, Caratacus and Calgacus are shadowy figures aside from their existence in Tacitus’s writing, and it is often difficult to pinpoint precise locations for the events the historian describes. However, Tacitus recounts Boudica’s sack of Camulodunum in vivid detail – and, as a result, the temple to the deified Claudius in which the Romans were slaughtered is generally believed to be what is now Colchester Castle, built by the Normans on Roman foundations. The castle serves as Colchester’s museum and has a superb collection of Roman artefacts. Colchester was Britannia’s first provincial capital, and in AD 49 a colony of veteran soldiers from the 20th Legion was established there.
Pecuniary clues to Caratacus’s power base
Like Boudica, Caratacus is strongly associated with Colchester. His father, Cunobelinus, was a potentate of the south-east of Britain, minting coins there and in Verulamium, modern St Albans. You can see examples of Cunobelinus’s coins in Colchester Castle Museum. You’ll also find pre-Roman coins minted by Tasciovanus, probably Cunobelinus’s father, at Verulamium Museum, St Albans.
Is Boudica stationed at King’s Cross? Probably not
A long tradition puts the site of Boudica’s final battle with Suetonius Paulinus at King’s Cross, formerly known as Battle Bridge. There is alas no evidence for this theory, nor for the enjoyable notion that Boudica is buried beneath platform eight in King’s Cross station.
On the trail of the Iceni
Boudica’s homeland is hard to pin down – though we know that the Iceni heartlands were in East Anglia. Archaeology at the Roman town identified as Venta Icenorum – at Caistor St Edmund just outside Norwich – has not yet yielded any sign of an Iron Age British predecessor. Nonetheless, it is an interesting and evocative site to visit. Nearby Norwich Castle Museum has a fine collection of Iceni and Roman artefacts, including magnificent gold torcs and other Iron Age artefacts from Snettisham.
Looking for Mons Graupius 
The location of the battlefield of Mons Graupius has never been satisfactorily identified, though there are reasonable grounds for suggesting that it may have been Mount Bennachie, north-west of Aberdeen. It’s not far from here that a large Roman marching camp was discovered in the 1970s.
Charlotte Higgins is chief arts writer of The Guardian. She is the author of Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain, published by Jonathan Cape