Rough Diplomacy

A Celtic Queen and Caractacus British leaders

Britain was a thorn in the side for Rome, requiring a disproportionate number of troops and proving a huge struggle to properly subdue.

Author Mary Beard, compares the wars in Britian as Rome’s Afghanistan. However, it wasn’t fully conquered until only about  40 years after the initial invasion, when Agricola won the Battle of Mons Graupius in northern Scotland; and even then the Highlands were let go almost at once.

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Caractacus, the Iron Age British leader who fought against the Romans in AD 43 and, despite being assiduously pursued by the Roman war machine, managed to slip away from their grasp, head west, and hold out for seven years in his lair in the Welsh mountains, orchestrating resistance.


When finally the Romans caught up with him – defeating him in battle at a north-Wales hillfort – he managed to slip away again, and sought refuge with the northern English Brigantes tribe.

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Which was a bad idea: Queen Cartimandua, a Roman ally, handed him over to the Romans.

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Publius Ostorius Scapula (died 52) was a Roman statesman and general who governed Britain from 47 until his death, and was responsible for the defeat and capture of Caratacus.

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Sculpture of Ostorius Scapula at the Roman Baths complex in the English city of Bath; Somerset; England

Ostorius so mistrustful of all the Britons, even those who had surrendered and for  whatever reason decided to disarm those subject tribes that he felt he could not fully trust, including the Iceni.

He established Roman law forbade subject populations to keep weapons other than those used for hunting game, but that was contrary to Celtic law and custom. The Iceni rebelled, and Ostorius defeated them. Antedios may have been killed in the rebellion. If not, it seems likely that Ostorius removed him immediately afterward and installed Prasutagus as client-king in his place. Boudica was now queen of the Iceni.

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Colchester’s Roman Wall is the oldest and longest surviving town wall in Britain.

Two years later, in 49, Ostorius confiscated land in and around Camulodunum to set up a colonia. This was a town for retired Legionaries, in which each veteran was granted a homestead. The town gave the veterans a secure retirement and concentrated an experienced reserve force in the new province, on which Rome could call in case of emergency. In theory, it was supposed to provide a model of Roman civilization to which the natives might aspire.

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Unfortunately,  Camulodunum caused more problems than it solved. As it grew over the next decade, more and more Britons were driven off their land, some enslaved by the veterans, others executed and their heads exhibited on stakes.

Now, the Iceni submitted, while the former king of the Catuvellauni fought Rome, and his people suffered the consequences. Ostorius finally defeated Caractacus in 51 and captured him in 52. That same year, Ostorius died. Rome replaced him with Didius Gallus, who provoked no internal rebellions, though the unconquered western tribes continued to fight.

During this period , Caractacus timed a series of raids to coincide with the change of governors.

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Claudius, with Caractacus taken alive,  – carefully stage-managed to make the capture reflect as gloriously as possible on himself. As the historian Tacitus has it in his Annals, Caractacus had become a famous name in Italy – and when the Romans heard of his capture, there was a belief, entirely false of course, that Roman troubles in Britain had ended.

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At any rate, “There was huge curiosity to see the man who for so many years had spurned our power,” as Tacitus put it. So a parade was organised, with Caractacus and his wife and children forced to process through the city. Caractacus dared address the emperor and, according again to Tacitus, made an extraordinary speech, pointing out that under different circumstances he might have been welcomed to Rome as a friend, rather than dragged there as a captive.

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Model of the Temple of the divine Claudius, erected in Colchester after the conquest of Britain.

He then pointed out to Claudius that no one would have thought his capture a great achievement if he had surrendered immediately. And he added (I paraphrase, but only slightly): “Everyone will forget this, now, if you kill me. What would be much more memorable would be if you spared me. Then I will be an everlasting memorial to your clemency.” It was a startlingly modern-sounding appeal to PR, and it worked: Claudius pardoned the Briton and his family – who lived out (we have no reason not to believe) the rest of his life in Rome.


Tacitus records his encounter with Claudius not, in fact, to demonstrate his humanity, but to show how a barbarian from the furthest reaches of the known world could get his own way, using that most Roman of skills, rhetoric. The episode lives on as not an everlasting memorial to Claudius’s clemency, but to Caractacus’s cunning. Which goes to show that sometimes it is shrewder for great empires to take their worst enemies dead, rather than alive.

sources , Britanica ,,the Annals and the Histories by Tacitus

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