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Caractacus: The Indomitable Celt.	 Source: Public Domain

Caractacus: The Powerful Celtic King Who Defied Rome

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Caractacus: The Powerful Celtic King Who Defied Rome 

Caractacus was a king and tribal leader of the ancient Britons during the Iron Age and ruler of the Catuvellaunui, a powerful British tribe.  He was the son of a Celtic king named Cunobeline and ruled Briton from 43-50 AD. Caractacus is associated with the expansion of his tribe’s territory with his apparent success being a catalyst for the Roman invasion of Britain. When the Romans launched their invasion in the summer of 43 AD they attempted to absorb it into the Roman empire. While other tribes in Britain, such as the Dobunni, submitted to the Romans, Caractacus fought fiercely for the independence of his people. 

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Formidable Native Resistance Against Roman Forces 

Once the Emperor Claudius launched an invasion of Britain, it was a massive undertaking and intervention which would ultimately lead to more than 350 years of Roman control.  Four legions supported by auxiliary troops made up an invasion force of more than 40,000 men.  Despite what must have seemed like overwhelming Roman strength, there was strong native resistance.  The land that is now Britain wasn't fully conquered until nearly 40 years after the initial invasion and even then, Rome never fully succeeded in conquering and subduing all of the peoples.  There was always a need for a significant military presence to control the threat from unconquered tribes and the vast majority of the populace would remain relatively untouched by Roman civilization.  However, Caractacus and his people were not so fortunate. 


Caractacus, King of the Britons (Public Domain) 

Despite a valiant attempt at opposing the Romans, Caractacus was defeated by the Romans at the Battle of Medway.  Despite being pursued by the empire; he managed to slip away and hold out for seven years in the Welsh mountains where he carried on a type of guerrilla warfare against them.   Caractacus was finally defeated at The Battle of Caer Caradoc in Wales to Roman governor, Ostorious Scapula in 51 AD.  As he was not killed in battle, he fled northward and took refuge with a tribe known as the Brigantes.  Unknown to Caracatcus, their Queen Cartimandua was allied with the Romans and willingly handed him over to them in chains as a war prize (the Brigantes later revolted against Cartimandua).  For the Britons, the defeat and capture of Caractacus marked the end of a century of leadership under the Catevellaunan nobles.  With the capture of Caractacus, much of southern Britain from the Humber to the Severn was pacified and garrisoned throughout the 50s. 


Caractactus offered up to the Romans by Cartimandua. (Public Domain 

Caractacus' Legacy: From Barbarian Chief to Folk Hero 

The Annals,  by Roman historian Tactius lays out what happened next.  He writes that a parade was organized and the Briton warrior, his wife and children were displayed in the center of Rome to be put to death.  

“There was curiosity to see the man who for so many years had spurned our power” writes Tacitus. 

Caractacus had become something of a famous name in Rome and word quickly spread that their troubles in what is now Britain were over, which was not to be the case.  At the last minute, the Emperor Claudius decided to allow Caractacus to make a plea for his life.  The Roman historian Cassius Dio records that when brought before the senate he was told to give one reason why he shouldn’t be executed. Caractacus responded: 

Had my moderation in prosperity been equal to my noble birth and fortune, I should have entered this city as your friend rather than as your captive; and you would not have disdained to receive, under a treaty of peace, a king descended from illustrious ancestors and ruling many nations. My present lot is as glorious to you as it is degrading to myself. I had men and horses, arms and wealth. What wonder if I parted with them reluctantly? If you Romans choose to lord it over the world, does it follow that the world is to accept slavery? Were I to have been at once delivered up as a prisoner, neither my fall nor your triumph would have become famous. My punishment would be followed by oblivion, whereas, if you save my life, I shall be an everlasting memorial of your clemency.” 


‘Caractacus at the Tribunal of Claudius at Rome’. Engraving by Andrew Birrell of a painting by Henry Fuseli (Public Domian) 

It is not known whether the speech was as eloquent as Tacitus portrays it in his writing.  Another question that arises from the confrontation is what language Caractacus gave his speech in and whether he knew how to speak Latin.  Regardless, the senate was so moved by his passionate words that Emperor Claudius spared him his life, and Caractacus spent the remainder of his time in Rome, presumably as a free man.  

There is no account of what happened to him afterwards and no record of him ever returning to his homeland.  According to Cassius Dio in Roman History, after his pardon he remarked how such a beautiful city should be in control of his poor land

"Caractacus, a barbarian chieftain who was captured and brought to Rome and later pardoned by Claudius, wandered about the city after his liberation; and after beholding its splendor and its magnitude he exclaimed: 'And can you, then, who have got such possessions and so many of them, covet our poor tents?              “         

Classical writers like Cassius Dio and Tacitus have left us with a lasting impression of Caractacus. He was described as brave, obsessively opposed to Rome and boldly articulate in the face of his own death. Caractacus is seen by many as a folk hero and his enduring legacy is that he was one of the most celebrated freedom fighters of his age.  

Top image: Caractacus: The Indomitable Celt.   Source: Public Domain 


Unknown. 2011. The History Man: King Caractacus on the Medway. Available at: 

Caratacus. Caratacus. Available at: 

Unknown. 2015. Building Blocks of Early British History . Available at: 

"The Celts." The Roman Conquest of Britain Available at: 

Higgins, C. 2012. Caractacus: Britain's Osama Bin Laden? Available at: 

Tacitus. I, Claudius Project: Tacitus, Annales XII.37 ." I, Claudius Project: Tacitus, Annales XII.37. Available at:,claudius/Tacitus/TacAnnXII-37.html. 

Howell, R. 2011. Ray Howell: Story of Tribal Leader Caractacus Who Became a Hero. 

Johnson, B. The Romans in England. Roman England, the Roman in Britain 43 Available at: 



There’s a brief scene in the ‘70’s British mini-series ‘I Claudius’ of Caractacus’s speech to the Roman Senate. It was an interesting side-track to the main tale.

Arjessa's picture

Interesting to read article about Caratacus, but I should like to point out that not ALL the Dobunni Tribe aquiesced to Rome,  This is often quoted mistakenly, as is here.  The Tribe was split, and only the Northern half of the Dobunni gave way to Roman control.  The Southern Dobunni fought hard, continuing to rebel right up to the arrival of Ostorious Scapula.  Their Hill-fort at Worlebury (Weston Super Mare) was most likely destroyed by Vespasian’s Legion II as a result of their rebellion.


So where is he buried ? anyone find him ? Hope man that character just blend in with, So Many other, ordinary graves.

Justbod's picture

One of my favourite characters from my favourite time period – thank you for the article and for giving him more attention!


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Frequently Asked Questions

Caractacus, also known as Caratacus or Caradog, was a tribal leader and king of the Britons during the Iron Age. He is notable for his resistance against the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 AD

Caratacus ruled the Catuvellauni tribe, a powerful Celtic tribe in ancient Britain during the Iron Age. This tribe was located in the southeastern part of what is now England. 

Cartimandua, the queen of the Brigantes tribe in ancient Britain, betrayed Caratacus by handing him over to the Romans. Despite initially granting him refuge, she later decided to surrender him as a war prize to the Romans, who subsequently took him captive. This act marked a significant turning

Bryan Hill's picture


Bryan graduated with a Bachelor of Art in History from Suffolk University and has a background in museum volunteering and as well as working with children’s groups at the Museum of Science and the National Park Service.  He has traveled... Read More

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