The Silures

Battle leader of the Silurians against the Romans.

 

Carodwg, Carodoc in latin Caractacus is the name of a prince who became a key figure in the resistance when the Romans invaded in AD43. The Claudian invasion of Britain, the intervention which led to more than 350 years of Roman control, was a massive undertaking. Under the command of the general Aulus Plautius, four legions supported by auxiliary troops made up an invasion force of more than 40,000 men. One of the legions, the 2nd Augustan, which would eventually be based in Caerleon, was led by Titus Flavius Vespasianus.

 

A quarter of a century later, he would seize the throne as the Emperor Vespasian. Despite what must have seemed overwhelming Roman strength, there was strong native resistance. Classical writers like Cassius Dio and Cornelius Tacitus leave little doubt that the resistance was, in large part, orchestrated by Caratacus.

There was a series of skirmishes in the lower Thames Valley with a major battle on the Medway, this resistance was led by Caratacus and probably his brother Togodumnus. Caratacus, however, was determined to carry on fighting and he moved West in an effort to attract new support.

 

For a time, he established himself among the by-this-time divided Dubonni, possibly setting up camp on what is today’s Minchinhampton Common in Gloucestershire. He brought his supporters into South-East Wales and the territory of the Silures. Tacitus tells us that the Silures were warlike and powerful and they seem to have been more than happy to accept Caratacus as a war leader and take up arms against the Romans.

 

No doubt Caratacus was pleased to have gained such support but in doing so, he caused a re-direction of Roman troops. The whole force of the Roman military machine turned against Wales. Recognising the need to bolster the resistance, Caratacus moved North in an attempt to link his force with the also warlike Ordovices of North Wales. The Romans were determined to prevent him from doing so. With Roman troops moving to cut off his advance, Caratacus decided, in the words of Tacitus, “to stake his fate on a battle”. Locating the battle site has exercised the minds of archaeologists for years and we still cannot be sure where it took place. What is clear is that Caratacus chose his position carefully, taking high ground overlooking a river.

 

Steep slopes in many places made attack difficult and where these were lacking, stone ramparts were thrown up. As the Romans advanced, we are told that “the British chieftains went around their men, encouraging them to be unafraid”. Caratacus himself moved among his defenders explaining that this battle “would either win back their freedom or enslave them for ever”. Initially, the Romans hesitated, but they were rallied by their commander Ostorius Scapula, the governor who had succeeded Aulus Plautius. They attacked and reached the makeshift ramparts which the defenders had erected. There, in a hail of missiles, they were forced to retreat. The Roman army, however, had a huge advantage in its ability to adjust tactics on the battlefield.

 

Using their shield wall tatic, effectively, human tanks lumbered up the hill against Caratacus and his troops, the ploy was successful. Managing to reach the high ground, the disciplined Roman forces defeated the defenders. Although Caratacus himself escaped, among the captives were close family members including his wife and daughter.

 

Even after such a huge set back, Caratacus still tried to rally support and carry on the resistance. He fled to the North of England and the sprawling Brigantian tribal confederation. By this time, however, the Brigantes were divided and he chose the wrong faction. The Brigantian queen Cartimandua turned him over to the Romans. Taken with his family and supporters as captives to Rome, their fate seemed sealed. After the inevitable “triumphal procession” in the Roman capital the almost inevitable outcome was death. The garrotting of the Gaulish leader Vercingetorix provided an obvious parallel.

 

In the event, things worked out rather differently – Caratacus made a speech in front of the Emperor himself, it must have been quite a speech. Tacitus provides us with a flavour, writing that the British leader said: “I had horses, men, arms, wealth.“Are you surprised I am sorry to lose them? If you want to rule the world, does it follow that everyone else welcomes enslavement? If I had surrendered without a blow before being brought before you, neither my downfall nor your triumph would have become famous.”

It is always prudent to be cautious in taking accounts of “set piece” Roman oratory too literally. Nevertheless, whatever he said made a considerable impression. A pardon followed and Caratacus lived out the remainder of his life in Rome. So does the story of Caratacus provide us with a hero of Welsh history?

There can be no doubt about his obdurate resistance to Rome and he was clearly an impressive and persuasive speaker. On the other hand, he only spent a short period in what is today Wales and left behind a war zone in the tribal territories of Wales.


For the Silures, the loss of their Catuvellaunian war leader seems to have had little impact. If anything, they became even more hostile after the defeat of Caratacus. They were also, at least for a time, remarkably successful.

 

Tacitus has given us a graphic account of the ensuing Silurian War. He explained that “the Silures were exceptionally stubborn” as “battle followed battle”. Many attacks were “lightning strikes” in the woods and bogs as the Silures honed their skills at guerrilla warfare. Some engagements were major ones. As Roman forces were attempting to build forts in their territory, for example, the Silures attacked, killing the praefectus castrorum, or senior centurion, eight other centurions and an unspecified but clearly significant number of legionary troops, Before long, a foraging party also came under attack and they were only rescued by the intervention of the cavalry.

 

Two auxiliary units were lured into a trap; the prisoners taken were distributed to neighbouring tribes in an effort to cement alliances.As this guerrilla war dragged on, the governor Ostorius Scapula, the conqueror of Caratacus, died. Tacitus was clear that his death was the result of exhaustion from “his anxious responsibilities” in the war. The Silures were pleased. Tacitus tells us that “the enemy (the Silures) exulted that so great a general, if not defeated in battle, had at least been eliminated by warfare”.

 

For the Romans, things went from bad to worse. A new governor was appointed but before he could arrive, the then senior military commander in Britain, Manlius Valens, attempted to defeat the Silures himself. A legion, probably the 20th, struck into Silurian territory. The Silures defeated the legion.

 

After this remarkably startling reverse, the new governor, Aulus Gallus, decided that he could only adopt a containment strategy against the Silures who were busy plundering “far and wide”. Tacitus was clearly incensed that the governor was content with acting “on the defensive” against the marauding Silure tribesmen of South-East Wales.

Despite such remarkable military successes, eventually, and many would say inevitably, the Roman military assault resumed and finally, after a quarter-of-a-century of guerrilla warfare, were offered a truce and Caerwent fort was opened to them, Venta Silurum or Caer Venta market place of the Silures. the Romans wrote the opposite to the truth, but why would a Silurian army fighting a hit and run, or and fighing two open battles that the Silures won (1 Christ church), suddenly surrender to a foe that hated the torrain , and they had the measure of ?

Given the intensity of the fighting in both North and South, it is not surprising that in AD78 there were no fewer than 30,000 Roman troops in or on the borders of Wales if they were beaten why have the largest troops in Britain? There 4/5 of the Romans in this area.
After a fragile truce with the Silures, Frontinus ordered construction of the legionary fortress of Isca, modern Caerleon, which became the headquarters of the Second Augustan legion. Slowly new relationships between both parties developed. Civitas administration, a form of devolved government, was eventually established in the Silurian region with the civitas capital at Venta Silurum, today’s Caerwent, that was after 200 years of so called defeated Silurians ?

 

That development did not occur, however, until the Hadrianic period nearly half-a-century later. By the reign of Hadrian, who held power between 117 and 138, the passage of time had reduced the tensions which must have been high after the long Silurian War because the Welsh tribes were as aggressive in the north and all that could fight among the tribes went north those who did not want to fight for the Romans went to join the northern tribes, and we do not mean the Scots they never came to Britain until the 5th century who were an Irish tribe fron Ulster that did not come until 4 centuries later, so the Romans fought against the Welsh tribes on both sides of the Wall.

 

Moreover, the Romans had other things on their minds, with large numbers of troops diverted to build a rather large wall in the North of Prydein! There is no evidence that civitas administration ever came to the Ordovices, presumably because the tribal infrastructure had been so damaged by the ruthless campaign of Agricola. For the Silures civitas administration seems to have worked well, affairs were managed by an ordo or tribal senate sitting in the curia chamber of Caerwent’s basilica.

 

Third century inscriptions from the town confirm both the ordo and the survival of the tribal identity. Other finds like a remarkable stone head associated with an altar from a fourth century context, suggest that native tradition remained strong all through the Romano-British period. While such evidence indicates survival of native culture, our most telling clue probably comes from an even later era. As Roman control and influence waned in the late fourth and very early fifth century, the growing political vacuum was filled by the emergence of small regional kingdoms.

 

The kingdom in at least part of the Silurian region may have grown up directly from the civitas itself to make famous of another King in the 6 century Silurian ‘Arthwyr’ the Bear Exalted. It certainly took its name from the civitas capital which by this time was being described in the vernacular, Old Welsh, as what it was assumed that it had once been – Caer Venta, the fortress of Venta, or Caerwent. Mutation led to the new kingdom being styled Gwent.

 

There are interesting early medieval references to kings of Gwent, one of which describes the grant of land in Caerwent to a monk named Tatheus or Tathan. The land was to be used to establish a monastery to provide evangelica hortamenta, evangelical exhortation, to the region. This is instructive because it indicates that the population was already Christian. It is also important in terms of assessing the legacy of Caratacus, the land grant confirms that the decayed civitas capital retained a measure of architectural grandeur as it is described as the good, fertile, lofty, noble city of Caerwent.

 

Similarly, it tells us important details about the kingdom. Particularly important in this respect is that the grant was made by rex utriusque Guentonie, the king of Gwent. The grant tells us something else as well. It names the king, giving us the earliest record we have of the name of a king of Gwent. The king was Caradoc ap Ynyr, usually called Caradog Freichfas! The name continues to appear in the record of early medieval Wales.

 

The man traditionally seen as the last king of Gwent, who attacked and burned a hunting lodge built by Harold Godwinson in 1065, for example, shared it. He was Caradog ap Gruffudd. As we have seen, Caradog is the Welsh form of Caratacus and these early medieval records bring us back to the basic question, Caratacus was articulate, brave and obviously obsessively opposed to Rome. His stay in Wales was a short one.

 

Nevertheless, in many ways the war leader at the beginning of the Silurian War came to personify the resistance which followed. Despite ultimate defeat, both for Caratacus and subsequently the tribes of Wales, the stubborn resistance mounted was remarkable. That resistance seems to have retained its symbolic significance as well. Early medieval documents give us a glimpse of the early kingdoms, confirming that the name of the Catuvellaunian prince was not only remembered.

 

It was seen as a name worthy of a king.

 

 

Witten by Dr Ray Howells, an article in the Western mail newspaper, 2011.
Edited by Rhisiart Morgan.

 

More ----->

© 2020

Ancient Cwmbran Society 

 

 

  • Facebook Classic
  • Flickr Classic
  • Twitter Classic
  • YouTube Classic