Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Caractacus: Britain's Osama bin Laden?


The second of May marks the first anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden. I've been away for five months, writing a book about Roman Britain, and, while the orchestrator of 9/11 hasn't exactly been at the front of my thoughts, he did come to mind because of something that Mary Beard said in a book review in the Sunday Times the other week. The book in question was Sam Moorhouse and David Studdard's excellent The Romans Who Shaped Britain, and Beard's memorable aper├žu was: "Britain was Rome's Afghanistan".

Like any such neat phrase, of course it's too neat. And yet, as soon as I read it, I could see what she meant: Britain was a thorn in the side for Rome, requiring a disproportionate number of troops and proving a huge struggle to properly subdue. It wasn't fully conquered until nearly 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. But I couldn't help too being reminded of 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. Which was a bad idea: Queen Cartimandua, a Roman ally, handed him over to the Romans.

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