Ancient Warfare:
Dr. G. Hughes

' Battle followed battle... Some were accidental... others planned with calculated bravery. The motives were hatred or plunder.'
-Tacitus, Annals of Imperial Rome, Sect. XII. 37 (on the warfare in Wales, 51-57 AD)

CELTIC INTER-TRIBAL WARFARE IN THE BRITISH ISLES 50 BC ~ 71 AD

The image of the combat-hardened Celtic warrior, thirsty for battle and the spoils of war, is an enduring one. Whilst the battles of the Roman Invasions are well known, there were also numerous civil wars among the Britons which scarred the tribal societies they came from. Whether it was the proud and vengeful Trinovantes, the powerful and warlike Catuvellauni or the brooding, riven, Brigantes, the British tribal wars have much to offer the gamer who wants to try something a little different.

By the last half of the first century BC, Britain was essentially an iron age country, except in the more remote or mountainous areas, where bronze age culture could still be found. The tribes of the British Isles inhabited a patchwork of vulnerable kingdoms, controlled by rival peoples and bound together by fragile alliances. Whilst there were vast differences in cultural development throughout the British Isles in this period, the most advanced political and technological region was southern England. From 30 BC onward, this area was racked by a sustained period of vicious inter-tribal warfare and expansion. In the south-west, lay the territories of the Durotriges in east Devon, Dorset and western Hampshire and, in west Devon and Cornwall, the lands of the Dumnonii. In this region, the Durotriges appear to have been the most warlike tribe, enforcing their influence with a number of highly impressive hill-forts, including Hod Hill and Maiden Castle. In the south-east, the warlike Trinovantes, holding lands from Essex to east Hertfordshire, were consistently pressured by the ambitious and aggressive Catuvellauni. The Trinovantes were considered to be one of the strongest tribes in Britain and yet the rise of the Catuvellauni eclipsed even them. From their stronghold of Wheathampstead, they subdued the weak Kentish tribe, the Cantiaci, and proved themselves to be the dominant force in the region.

During the winter of 55-54 BC, a savage inter-tribal war erupted when Cassivellaunus, the war-mad chieftain of the Catuvellauni, killed the Trinovantian chieftain in battle and forced his son, Mandubracius, to seek the protection of Rome. Soon afterwards, Cassivellaunus was elected war-leader of all those south-eastern tribes who opposed Caesar. This included the subdued Trinovantes whom, it appears, accepted his position and simply bided their time for revenge. When the time duly came, the Trinovantes defected from Cassivellaunus' cause, asking, in return, for the reinstatement of Mandubracius as king and Caesar's protection. Following Cassivellaunus' subsequent defeat, as part of their submission terms the Catuvellauni were forbidden by Rome from attacking the Trinovantian territories. Despite this, the war continued under the next Catuvellauni chieftain, the equally bellicose Tasciovanus, from his new capital of Verulamium (St. Albans).

By 10 AD, the tribes of Britain were asserting their territorial authority on the point of a sword. As allegiances swayed, so Rome also conveniently forgot its previous treaty with Mandubracius as the Trinovantes' power began to slip away. Cynically, it had secured a better alliance with Tincommius of the Atrebates. This tribe made an effective balance to the threat of the latest Catuvellauni Chieftain, Cunobelin (also known as Cunobelinus). Luckily for Rome, when Tincommius was himself exiled during another Atrebatic civil war, his brother, Epillus, continued the alliance. During Cunobelin's reign, the Catuvellauni became the most powerful tribe in south-east England; defeating any who opposed them. They even subjugated the Trinovantes and supplanted their old tribal town of Camulodunum (Colchester), making it the new Catuvellauni capital. This they had renamed after the Celtic god of War, Camulos , who was the votive deity of the Catuvellauni royal house. From this capital, they extended their 'empire' throughout Kent and beyond the Thames, eroding the northern borders of Epillus' Atrebates. Only two tribes remained unmolested; the Regni - who held parts of Sussex and the Weald, with their strong hill-forts in the South Downs; and the Iceni - in Norfolk and Suffolk, who appear to have been left largely to their own devices. The Iceni were possibly ruled at this time by Antedios but, following their rebellion in 47 AD they evidently became a client kingdom of Rome under their newly installed king Prasutagus. When he died in 60 AD, Rome attempted annexation. The result was the last, and most famous, bloody British revolt, led by Prasutagus' wife, Queen Boudicca.

By 37 AD, Cunobelin had consolidated his gains and, perhaps wary of arousing the military interest of Rome, a brief lull in Catuvellauni conquest began. The old chieftain now devolved powers to three of his sons, Adminius, Togodumnus and Caractacus. Adminius, with his base in Verulamium, was favourable towards Rome. This was in complete contrast to his brothers, who were virulently anti-Roman. In 39 AD, Togodumnus and Caractacus persuaded their father to exile Adminius for his pro-Roman stance and drive him from Verulamium. Adminius then fled to Rome for help, leading to the farcical invasion of Emperor Gaius 'Calligula', which never even made it across the channel. From this point, a distinctly hostile attitude to Rome flourished in Britain and another period of Catuvellauni warfare erupted. On Cunobelin's death in 40 AD, the two brothers assumed complete control over the tribal lands and felt secure enough to expand the Catuvellauni empire at their ease. Their warbands struck northwards up the Thames valley and deep into the Cotswolds, the territory of the Dobunni - the allied kinsmen of the Atrebates.

Being a client king of Rome, the Atrebatic chieftain, Verica, was a choice target for the Catuvellauni. Following Gaius's demise and Claudius' ascension in 41 AD, Caractacus and Togodumnus presumed that Rome would lack the resolve to help the king they were treaty-bound to support. Accordingly, they attacked and took the remaining Atrebatic heartland's of west Sussex. They deposed Verica and sent him, like Adminius, scuttling away on the road to Rome. According to Tactitus, Dio Cassius and Suetonius, Caractacus seemed to be the main exponent of this new imperialism from his stronghold of the newly captured Atrebatic capital of Calleva (Silchester). Yet, ironically, it was Verica's expulsion that directly brought Roman intervention in 43 AD and saw the influence of the Catuvellauni broken. As the Roman legions clinically sliced through Celtic resistance, British tribal casualties were high. Togodumnus was killed during the first phase of the holding operations at the Battle of Medway. The defeated Caractacus retreated westwards, gathering his forces through Calleva and leading them into the mountainous strongholds of Wales. In the meantime, small Celtic warbands in south-eastern England still held out against the Roman invasion. The writer Dio stated that Aulus Plautius, the first Governor, became worried at the threat to the Roman line of supply from these persistent, but ultimately doomed, attacks. As it transpired, in the subsequent vacuum left following the departure of Caractacus, eleven British tribal leaders surrendered. Although it is unclear whether some of these were already of client status, it officially brought the region to heel. Around this time, Verica's power base was undermined when the Romans gave control of southern England to their emissary-king from the region, Cogidumnus. From 43-70 AD or so, Cogidumnus supported the Roman administration from his capital at Novio Magnus (Chichester). He may even have served on Vespasian's staff with the Legion II 'Augusta' in the south-west, helping to subjugate the Durotriges. At any rate, near the end of his life, Cogidumnus was given the high title of 'Legatus Augusti in Britannia' - an honorific rank which may have been equal to Governor in status.

In Wales, the four tribes that jealously guarded their territory were the Demetae, of the south-west, the Deceangli in the north-west corner, the powerful Silures of the south-west and the influential northern Ordovices, who held the holy Isle of Mona (Angelsey). This was the druidic capital of Celtic Britain and, upon Caractacus' arrival in Wales, it is likely that their recommendations secured his election as war-leader of the Welsh tribes. For the next eight years, the confederation led by Caractacus (also 'Caradawc' or Caradog) was the main resistance in the west. The last gasp of defiance came in 51 AD, on a hastily fortified plateau somewhere in north-west Wales, in Ordovices territory. The exact battle-site is unknown but there are two candidates, both along the upper Severn; Cefncarnedd and Dolforwyn Castle. In this last battle against the Governor Ostorius Scapula, Caractacus drew as many tribal contingents as he could muster into his Celtic British confederate army. It definitely comprised of the Silures, Ordovices and Deceangli, it possibly contained warbands from the Demetae and probably consisted of warrior groups from his own south-eastern survivors and rebels from Brigantia. The blood-bath that followed was a typical Roman military dissection, but Caractacus still escaped their clutches. Whilst defeat drove him further northwards, it was not in an attempt to seek refuge but to persuade the Brigantes to continue the war. This led to his incidental involvement in one of the most bitter inter-tribal conflicts of the period - the Brigantian civil war.

Of all of the above possibilities for campaign scenarios, the war between Venutius and Cartimandua is perhaps the best. In an attempt to rekindle the British tribal resistance, Caractacus believed that the great northern tribes of the Brigantes would join with him in defying the Roman advance. In this, he was to be proved tragically incorrect. Unlike other Celtic tribes, they were ruled by a shrewd and calculating Queen - Cartimandua, whose husband, King Venutius had little, if any, influence over her. Cartimandua (her name is believed to mean 'sleek filly' in Celtic) had absolute power and was backed by the might of Rome. However, the tribes she ruled, and especially her husband's tribe on the northern borders - the Carvetii - were aggressively resistant to Roman interference. Despite this, through guile and deceit, she tricked Caractacus into thinking that the Brigantes would aid him and, instead, handed him over to Rome. For many in the region this was unforgivable. It was a compounded outrage when she betrayed Venutius by committing adultery with his shield-bearer, Vellocatus. Cartimandua's action was a calculated insult, heavy with humiliating implications for Venutius; it dishonoured him publicly and slighted his respected military rank. It is likely that Vellocatus was either Venutius' charioteer or war-groom and his status would have been akin to the king's personal bodyguard. Interestingly, whilst the meaning of Venutius in Celtic is unclear, it is suggested that Vellocatus means either 'better at war' or 'warrior of the good fight'.

With Caractacus disposed of, Venutius became the most important anti-Roman Celtic war-leader in Britain. As a guarantee that no hostile action would be taken against her, Cartimandua captured Venutius' brother and kinsmen and, instead, angered him further. In reply, Venutius led his royal Carvetii warband towards her capital (possibly Isurium Brigantium [Aldborough] or Eboracum [York]) in an attempt to rescue his kin and oust his erstwhile queen. Wary of Venutius' popular support, the Roman Governor, Didius Gallus, sent troops to assist Cartimandua's cause. This force of auxiliaries failed to destroy Venutius' warband in a pitched battle near Huddersfield and his troops regrouped. In quick response, the IX Legion under Caesius Nasica was sent to settle the Brigantian civil war once and for all; at a second battle (possible at Catterick) the IX Legion routed Venutius' assembled rebel army and effectively stopped the revolt in its tracks. Venutius however, escaped and continued to lead the opposition to his wife. His warbands constantly raided and hammered at the instability in the Brigantian tribal coalition. It is interesting to note however that, in 60 AD, Cartimandua still had enough influence to halt Boudicca's rebellion spreading to the tribes she controlled. Even Venutius appears not to have been drawn into this revolt, presumably as he was conserving his faction's resources for the campaigns against his wife. A war-torn nine years later, in 69 AD, Venutius finally seized his chance of winning the war when the Roman garrison in Britain was redeployed to deal with the civil war in Rome. Using this opportunity, he struck at Cartimandua's weakened state and, this time, he finally released her grip on Brigantia and forced her into exile. Sadly for Venutius, however, a mere two years later, he himself was also deposed by a further Brigantian uprising. It is believed that the huge earthworks at Stanwix, in Yorkshire, are the only visible remains of where this unlucky Celtic war-chieftain made his last stand.

Potential skirmishes and campaigns for gamers in this period are plentiful. The above historical examples could furnish many ideas and, of course, the ambiguity of the era lends itself well to creating many hypothetical scenarios. With the many excellent figures currently on release, particularly those sculpted by Steve Saleh for Renegade, the temptation to field rival warbands and re-fight long lost battles may be too much...

Sources and suggested further reading:

There are many published works on the British tribes, mostly from the archaeological perspective. Whilst some of the following concentrate on the social rather than military context, they are all excellent works on the subject and well worth examining if you are of a mind to create your own historical warband!

  • Birley, A. - People of Roman Britain (Batsford, 1979)
  • Branigan,K. - Catuvellauni (Sutton, 1990)
  • Cunliffe, B. - Iron Age Communities in Britain (Routledge, 1991),
  • Cunliffe, B. - Ancient Celts (Oxford University Press, 1997)
  • Detsicas, A. - Cantiaci (Sutton, 1983)
  • Dunnett, R. - Trinovantes (Duckworth, 1975)
  • Hartley, B. & Fitts, L. - Brigantes (Sutton, 1991)
  • Higham, N. & Jones, B. - Carvetii (Sutton, 1991)
  • Ritchie, W.F. & R.N.G. - Celtic Warriors (Shire Archaeology, 1990)
  • Wacher, J. - Roman Britain (Dent, 1980)
  • Webster, G. - Cornovii (Duckworth, 1975)
  • Webster & D. Dudley, - Roman Conquest of Britain, (Pan, 1973)
  • Koch, J.T. & Carey, J. (eds), - Celtic Heroic Age: Literary Sources for
  • Ancient Celtic Europe and Early Ireland and Wales (Malden, Mass. 1995)
  • Caesar - Commentaries on the Gallic War (De Bello Gallico), Trans. A & P Wiseman (London, 1980)
  • Tacitus - On Britain and Germany, Trans. H. Mattingley, (Penguin, 1964)
  • Tacitus - Annals of Imperial Rome, Trans. M. Grant (Guild, 1990)

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