Historical Heroes: Caractacus

Caractacus, the great resistance fighter was a man to admire.
Caratacus before the Emperor Claudius
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Caractacus was one of early Britain’s great heroes. Defiant against the Romans, he led a rebellion which ultimately ended in defeat. He was captured and sent to Rome. David Boyle writes about his historical hero, the subject of his recent novels.

Two mildly unusual things about the hero of my Caractacus books: one is that he was a real historical figure. The other is that I wrote them as if they were an autobiography – in an I, Claudius, I, Caractacus kind of way. This means I have had to get inside the head of someone about whom we know almost nothing.

Equally, though, if Robert Graves could pull off the trick with Claudius – a great contemporary – then it might just be possible. The solution – if there is one – was to make some assumptions.

The first of these was that Caractacus was how formal history remembers him – a hero who held back the Roman invaders for nine exhausting years. In that respect, though he failed in the end to prevent occupation by the Romans, he may have been one of the most successful military leaders these islands have ever produced. Not surprising, in that case, that he is among the first Britons whose name we know.

Apart from mythic types like Brutus or Lud, the very first was probably Cassivelaunus, probably Caractacus’s great-grandfather.

Apart from that, we know very little about his life for definite – but enough to be getting on with. We know that he was handed over to his enemies by Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes, that he was pardoned under some conditions by the Emperor Claudius and held for some years in exile in Rome. That much was confirmed by the Roman sources, for some reason the gold standard for historical proof.

My main assumption beyond that was that, as legend suggests, Joseph of Arimathea and some early Christians came to Britain and to safety in Glastonbury between four and six years before the Claudian invasion. Most of the story follows on from that.

As the Canadian George Jowett suggests in his strange 1968 book The Drama of the Lost Disciples, there are actually many other sources which suggest the same thing that – far from the Romans arriving, as they said they did, to bring civilisation to a barbaric island, Caractacus was a Christian king fighting a pagan attempt to take Britain by force and to destroy the old Druidic culture here.

Of course, I have had to invent people and events. I should explain that Caractacus’s queen, Sarah, and his friends Divisiac and Verkingor were entirely invented by me. So were his enemy Julius Scapula, his tutor Fidelma and his lover, Penwartha. Otherwise, most of the people in all three books actually existed, in history or in legend.

I am particularly grateful to Gary Biltcliffe and Caroline Hoare – to whom the third is dedicated – for their generous sharing of their work on Caractacus and his final home in Llantwit Major. I am sure they would not agree with everything in these books, but their own books, The Spine of Albion and The Power of Centre, have been enormously influential for me.

This is what Gary told me: “Over the years, the Vatican has released first century documents from their exclusive archives to American universities for study and I discovered that one indicated that St Paul had regular meetings at the Palatium Britannicum where Caractacus and his family were held.”

He also pointed me towards R. W. Morgan’s 1860 book St Paul in Britain, on which I have built the idea of Paul’s mission to the islands we now call the UK. Nobody knows for certain exactly what the relationship was between Caractacus and Arviragus or Togidubnus (both names shortened by me in my campaign for de-Latinisation), but both clearly existed, and they were just as clearly related.

Most of the incidents invented by me – the murder of his sister Imogen and the first encounter between Caractacus and Cartimandua – I included to explain things I knew would happen later.

The names of some of Caractacus’s battles I borrowed from the eighth century list of battles by King Arthur, because there are clearly parallels between the two leaders, and between Camelot and Camelod (shortened from Camelodunum) – and I feel sure that something of Caractacus has filtered through into the Arthurian legend. Also, in Crown of Thorns (Vol 2), I borrowed a little from the legend of Vortigern and Merlin, because they were both happening in the same place.

The final volume (Roman Briton) includes events that happened while Caractacus was in Rome, including the Great Fire and the executions of Peter and Paul – though clearly, I do not know how he was really involved (the idea that Paul gave himself up to save Caractacus’s niece Claudia is my own, I’m afraid).

One other leap in the dark I have made is by describing these peoples of Britain as nations, not as the Romans had it, as tribes. As such, it may be that the vision of Britain I have here may also represent the future as much as the dim and distant past.

The rest of the story follows on from those facts. Caractacus – or Caradoc, to give him his Celtic name – came from a nation that was rapidly Christianising and which he believed was considerably more civilised than the Roman invaders: that is the central idea.

The Roman sources might make you believe that Britain had no written records, which would be odd given that Caradoc and his colleagues spoke not just Brythonic – the Celtic language of these islands – but also Latin and Greek, so we have to assume that their written records were systematically destroyed, along with most of our evidence about the druidic life, teaching and college system.

We know, for example, that the druids had access to Greek thinking. They knew that the world was round and the circumference of it. They knew how to build straight roads and put that knowledge into practice. Unless you think that Romans built the Fosseway within weeks of their arrival, of course.

So, although I am sure some classical scholars might call me credulous – especially in the way I have used so many legends and myths about the British Isles to help paint a picture of what pre-Roman Britain was like to live in – the constant mixture of enlightenment and magic that must have formed a backdrop to life in those days. But the idea that Britain managed to sustain itself with two harvests a year came from a very respectable academic archaeologist.

The real problem has been stripping back, not just the Roman interpretations, but also their language, their Latinisation of names, places, and small nations.

Rehearsing a list is even more of a reminder how much classical scholars cloud our view of our own history. These are all Romanised names – we know that Caractacus was originally Caradoc, but recovering the rest demands an informed but imaginative approach to linguistics. I went for Arvir rather than Arviragus, king of Siluria, and Togod rather than Togidubnus, Caradoc’s brother. But who knows?

For the third volume, which was published some weeks ago (Roman Briton), I know that I was on slightly stronger historical ground, because this covers time we know that Caractacus/Caradoc spent in exile in Rome. We know that this coincided with the deaths there of saints Peter and Paul, and it must also have coincided with the great fire of Rome and the first great Christian persecution. Since most of the stories about the man suggest that he was a Christian, this must have involved him.

There is one legend from that period I have drawn from – the idea of a British ‘palace’ (Palatium Britannicum), where both Peter and Paul stayed while they were in Rome.

There comes a point when legends get repeated enough when they seem to be true, and the idea of a Christian and British king amidst the corruption and blood of Rome is compelling enough in itself.

There you have the basic parameters of the historical character at the heart of my books. Caractacus/Caradoc inherited the high kingship suddenly and unexpectedly during his first pitched battle against the invaders, and at a young age too, finding himself pulled in opposite directions by his attempts to lead a Christian life – he met not just Joseph of Arimathea but also Paul and the Virgin Mary – and his skills as a fighter and his determination to fling the invaders into the sea.

As a passionate man, he is also torn between his love for his wife and for other lovers, notably the druidic soldier who accompanies him northwards after his final defeat (yes, even the Roman sources confirm that women druids fought alongside the men).

We have to assume she was killed when Suetonius Paulinus attacked Anglesey in 60 AD.

This is a man who straddled the genuinely dark ages of the first century AD and the modern world. It isn’t easy to get inside his head.

It is a pity that, apart from mystics like William Blake – who believed he chatted to him and painted him – we have no descriptions of what he looked like. Nor can we be sure where he is buried, though Gary and Caroline believe they have pinpointed a spot outside Llantwit Major.

I hope that whoever reads these three autobiographical books about Caractacus will be able, as a result, to think afresh about the origins of the land we live in and – if it was not quite the dark and forbiddingly barbaric place that Caesar painted for us – we might begin to imagine what it was like to live here.

David Boyle is an acclaimed historian, journalist and author. He has written on subjects as diverse as Richard the Lionheart, Christopher Columbus and Alan Turing, as well as his Caractacus series of historical novels, the latest of which is Roman Briton.