Who were the rebels of Roman Britain?
Guy de la Bédoyère explores five stories of men and women who rebelled against Roman rule in Britain
Britannia strikes back. Meet five figures who tried to kick the Romans out…
Caratacus of the powerful Catuvellauni tribe had the time of his life giving the invading Roman army a monumental run-around.
In AD 43 when the emperor Claudius’ troops landed in Britain, Caratacus was one of the surviving sons of the deceased king Cunobelinus. Caratacus and his brother Togodumnus led the British resistance from the tribal heartlands directly north of the Thames, and fought against the Romans in battle – probably on the Medway in Kent – which they lost. Soon after, Togodumnus was dead, and Caratacus was left on his own.
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But Caratacus refused to kowtow to the enemy. He spurned the idea of becoming a ‘client king’ and ruling his tribe for the Romans. Instead, he took the war west and headed for the Silures tribe in what is now south Wales.
Caratacus managed the remarkable feat for a British tribal leader of organising other tribes under his leadership. He pulled back further into the impenetrable hills and valleys of western Britain and secured a stronghold on high ground. However, in AD 50, the Romans arrived for battle and overwhelmed the Britons with their firepower. Caratacus fled north for sanctuary with Queen Cartimandua of the Brigantes, but she handed him over to the enemy. Caratacus was pardoned by Claudius and pensioned off in ignominious retirement in Rome.
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Boudica of the Iceni has always been the most famous rebel of Roman Britain. Her husband was Prasutagus, a tribal ruler who agreed to become a client king of the Romans and thus hold onto his kingdom. But when he died in AD 60, Roman officials moved in to steal his estate, flogging Boudica and raping the couple’s daughters. Seeking vengeance, Boudica went to war, rounding up her tribe and the aggrieved neighbouring Trinovantes. Catching the Roman army and the governor Suetonius Paulinus by surprise (he was in Mona, now Anglesey, wiping out the druids who had organised the local resistance to the Roman conquest), Boudica burst out of East Anglia. She destroyed three Roman towns (Colchester, London and St Albans) before Paulinus eventually caught up and defeated her.
The trouble is that we only have two Roman accounts of Boudica, and they were both written long after the events. Neither Tacitus nor Dio had ever seen her. They wrote her up as the complete opposite of the effete and decadent emperor Nero, and were not even certain how she died (either ‘sickness’ or ‘suicide’).
The sad truth is that Boudica – no matter how she is depicted today – had nothing to offer the Britons except disorder and starvation. No wonder, then, that lowland Britain never rose again.
When the Romans invaded in AD 43, rulers of several British tribes decided that their long-term interests would be better served with Roman backing. Among these was Cartimandua, ruling queen of the Brigantes tribe in northern England, and her husband and consort, Venutius.
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In AD 51, Cartimandua, who had come to power around the time of the Roman invasion, handed Caratacus, leader of the Catuvellauni tribe – who had fled to her for refuge – to Emperor Claudius. Venutius seems to have been onside, at least until this point, but then the couple split.
Bumped up by Roman subsidies, Cartimandua became increasingly self- important and Venutius and his supporters took exception to this. But the real insult came when the Brigantian queen began an affair with her armourer, Vellocatus. Cartimandua’s regime went into meltdown, while Venutius rounded up ever more support from the Brigantes, who began to turn against their overmighty queen.
Venutius was now a rebel by default, and in AD 69 the Roman governor Bolanus had to extract Cartimandua from the tribe before she was killed; his forces fought Venutius several times before they got her to safety. But Venutius had only a short time to enjoy his success. In AD 71, a new governor called Cerealis arrived, and within a few years Brigantian territory had been absorbed into the Roman province. And Venutius? He disappeared without trace, as did Cartimandua.
Carausius rose from total obscurity through the ranks of the Roman army to be given command of the Roman fleet in Britain in the AD 280s. He was charged with clearing the waters of seaborne raiders from northern Europe who plagued the coasts of Britain and Gaul. Carausius was an extraordinarily complex man. In AD 286 or 287 he declared himself emperor in Britain, riding a crest of popularity for his success. But the legitimate emperors, Diocletian and Maximian, believed Carausius had simply waited for the raiders to attack the settlements, before then helping himself to their loot. They were simply astounded by Carausius’ audacity, and even more stunned when he claimed to be their imperial colleague, issuing a coin with a portrait of all three and the legend ‘Carausius and his Brothers’.
But Carausius went a step further. He issued Carausius declared himself emperor in the late third century AD and even minted his own coins. In reality, he was a naval general, with no claim to rule the best-quality silver coins for generations, which – in Roman terms – were synonymous with legitimacy. And he even had the chutzpah to claim that he was in the process of restoring the ‘Golden Age of Augustan Rome’ (albeit in Britain), quoting from Virgil to prove it.
It couldn’t last, and it didn’t. In AD 293 he was murdered in a coup and replaced by his finance minister, Allectus, who was then killed by an imperial army sent over the Channel.
By the time Pelagius was born in Britain or Ireland in the late AD 300s, the Roman empire was ruled by orthodox Christian emperors. The prevailing dogma, most enthusiastically promoted by Saint Paul and Saint Augustine, was that only the ‘elect’ would find a place in heaven. It did not matter how good or religious you were.
Pelagius was a Christian theologian, but he was infuriated by the injustice that one could do nothing to improve one’s chances of going to heaven. As a Briton he was more in tune with the pagan tradition of being able to intercede with the gods to influence one’s destiny.
The central part of Pelagius’ teaching was the gift of free will: that one could choose to do good and earn a place in heaven, or not. He started teaching this. Augustine was apoplectic with rage, resorting to hurling bile at Pelagius and denouncing him as a wrecker.
Pelagius would not be thwarted, and he set out from Britain to spread his views across the late Roman empire. But the forces of orthodoxy were having none of it. By AD 418 he had been excommunicated and denounced as a heretic. He disappeared after that, but Pelagianism proved resilient and clung on for decades.
Guy de la Bédoyére is a historian, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is Gladius: Living, Fighting and Dying in the Roman Army (Little, Brown, 2020)
This content first appeared in the January 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed
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