Pictures from Roman Life and Story - Alfred J. Church

Caractacus Before Claudius



The The scenes which I have been lately presenting to my readers have been scenes of tragedy. The Greek drama itself, which found its favourite subjects in the story of families doomed by fate to an inevitable ruin, never pictured anything more full of terror and gloom than the House of the Julian Caesars. It will be a relief to turn, at least for once, to a less gloomy topic.

Caractacus was the King of the Silures, a tribe of Western Britain, inhabiting the region now known as Monmouthshire and South Wales. It was his hard fate to see the revival of the schemes of conquest which, for nearly a century, Rome had been content to lay aside. Julius had conceived the idea of adding Britain to the Empire, but had found, after the attempt, that Gaul gave his troops employment enough. The action of Augustus was to contract rather than enlarge the Empire, and Tiberius imitated him with scrupulous care. Caligula's campaign against Britain was only a burlesque, but it showed which way Roman thought was setting. Claudius, his successor, undertook a regular conquest of the island, and commanded in person the army first sent over. Britain was now the last witness for freedom in Western Europe, and it fell to the lot of Caractacus, who had a certain predominance among the British chiefs, to be her champion in the unequal struggle.

The south and east of the island had been subjugated in the course of nine campaigns, and Caractacus was driven to fight for his own home. The locality of the last conflict is uncertain, but the historian describes the position as having been chosen with consummate skill. The British camp was on a hill-side; the approaches to it were steep in the extreme, except in one place, and here a stone rampart had been built. In front was a scarcely fordable stream. Attack was difficult, and retreat dangerous. The King himself could be seen everywhere encouraging his countrymen to repel the invader, and he was received with the greatest enthusiasm by the army. The Roman general was fairly terrified by the strength of the position and the numbers of the enemy, and would have postponed the battle. The soldiers insisted on fighting at once, and they were right. The discipline and arms of civilization triumphed over barbarian valour. The Romans suffered much while they were mounting the ascent under a shower of missiles. When they came to close quarters, their victory was won. The Britons had neither helmets nor breast-plates, and it is probable that some, at least, of their weapons were of bronze.

The wife, the daughter, and the brothers of Caractacus were taken prisoners, and though the king himself escaped, it was only to be betrayed by the friend with whom he had taken refuge, Cartismandua, Queen of the Brigantes. He was handed over to the Roman general, and by him sent in chains to Rome.

The man who had for nine years continued to make head against the forces of the Empire was no common person, and public curiosity was greatly excited about him. The Emperor had not forgotten that his one military achievement had been a victory in Britain, and he wished to take this opportunity of reviving his fame as a soldier, which indeed it was never quite safe for an Emperor to allow to be forgotten. A great spectacle was prepared in the Field of Mars, and all Rome thronged out to witness it. The Praetorian troops, fully accoutred, were drawn up in front of their camp. Claudius sat on what may be called a platform, but was really a mound of earth. Not far from him sat the Empress, Agrippina the Younger. The standards of the Praetorians were grouped about them both. Men were not wanting there who were shocked at the spectacle of a woman thus arrogating to herself, as it seemed, the command over Roman troops. But then Agrippina thought herself entitled to at least an equal share in a power which her ancestors had won. The spoils of war passed in a brilliant procession before the Imperial seats. Then came the family of Caractacus, and last of all, the captive king himself. While his companions in misfortune descended to prayers for mercy, he preserved a dignified bearing. Claudius bade him speak if he had anything to say for himself. What follows is the substance of what he said, or, at least, of what the historian puts in his mouth. "If my prudence had been equal to the glories of my position and my greatness, you would be treating me to-day, not as a prisoner, but as an ally. I had horses and men, I had wealth and arms with which to defend it. It is no wonder that I was unwilling to lose them. It does not follow that, because you Romans desire to dominate all mankind, all mankind should bow their necks to your yoke. As for myself, you can kill me, if you will. Then this day will be forgotten. Save my life, and your clemency will be remembered for ever."

Such clemency was almost unknown to a Roman conqueror. Jugurtha had been left to die of hunger in his prison; Vercingetorix, the last of the Gauls, had been put to death by the very man who describes so sympathetically his valour and his skill. Claudius was of a different temper, and, perhaps, the times had altered since that for the better. Anyhow the British king and his family were spared. Policy, however, did not allow them to return to their native country, and they spent the remainder of their days in Italy. The daughter is said to have married a Roman gentleman.

One saying is recorded of the captive, when, after his audience before the Emperor, he was taken to see the sights of Rome. "And you," he said, "who had this magnificent city of your own, envied us our poor huts!" With this remark the British chief vanishes into obscurity.