One of the reasons that the British tribes consistently lost set-piece battles was the discipline and equipment of the Roman army.
Their equipment was superior to most enemies.
The Roman Army was incredibly well-organised and well-drilled. Individual soldiers had to be incredibly fit and strong, and willing to follow orders without questioning them.
There was no standardisation of equipment or weapons.
The British tribes were not well disciplined and rarely fought to a plan.
Head of Caratacus on coin
Caratacus (also known as Caratācos, Caratawc and Caradog) was a first-century British chieftain of the Catuvellauni tribe, who led the British resistance to the Roman conquest. He was the son of the King Catuvellaunian of the Cunobelinus tribe and the protégé of his uncle Epaticcus, who raided westwards into the territory of the Atrebates. After Epaticcus died in AD 35, the Atrebates regained some of their territory but Caratacus completed the conquest. The Atrebates king Verica fled to Rome and appealed to Emperor Caligula for help. This appeal was ignored at first but Verica tried again with Caligula’s successor, Claudius. At the same time Adminius, the third son of Cunobelinus, was so bitter at not being included in what he saw as a fair share out of his father's lands that he also appealed to the Roman emperor for help against his brothers. Claudius was persuaded that an invasion of Britain was overdue and, eager to divert attention at home from a difficult political situation, he launched his invasion of Britain in the summer of AD 43.
King Cunobelinus had died before the invasion and was succeeded by Caratacus’ brother Togodumnus, who led the initial defence of the country against Aulus Plautius's four legions totalling 40,000 men. They primarily using guerrilla tactics but fought two set piece battles on the rivers Medway and Thames, where they were defeated. Togodumnus was killed and the Catuvellauni's territories were conquered. Caratacus, unable to receive support from tribes still resentful of their once powerful neighbour, took refuge with the Silures tribe who were based around Glamorgan in Wales. Other native leaders capitulated and allied themselves with Rome.
As a prelude to his campaign against Caratacus, Plautius' successor Publius Ostorius Scapula moved the XX Valeria Legion from its recently built fortress at Camulodunum to a establish a new one at Glevum (Gloucester) to guard the lower Severn. The II Augusta Legion was then used to strike across the Severn deep into the Silurian heartlands. The Roman writer Tacitus describes this phase “The army then marched against the Silures, a naturally fierce people and now full of confidence in the might of Caratacus, who by many an indecisive and many a successful battle had raised himself far above all the other generals of the Britons. Inferior in military strength, but deriving an advantage from the deceptiveness of the country, he at once shifted the war by a stratagem into the territory of the Ordovices, where, joined by all who dreaded peace with us, he resolved on a final struggle.”
Scapula reacted by building another fortress at Viroconium and placing the XIV Gemina Legion there as a second base of operations. The wooded and hilly terrain in Wales had up to now helped Caratacus' forces with its guerilla tactics to seriously hamper the Romans advance. The establishment of the Viroconium base however, enabled Scapula to trap the British forces in a two-pronged attack, using the II Augusta Legion from the south and the XIV Gemina Legion from the north. In AD 51, eight years after the invasion, Scapula finally managed to make Caratacus fight a set-piece battle.
Caratacus and his family were then living in the Caer Caradoc hillfort, about 2½ miles NE of Knighton (SO310758), with a forward observation post established at another hillfort named Caer Caradoc, about 1½ miles north-east of Church Stretton (SO477953). Upon receiving the signal from the forward post that the XIV Gemina and XX Valeria legions were setting out from their base at Viroconium, Caratacus and his main force headed along an ancient ridgeway linking the two forts in order to reinforce his scouts and to prepare for the Roman arrival. Caratacus was forced to turn back before he had reached the other hillfort when it was overrun by Roman auxiliary forces. Caratacus and his force crossed the River Onny near Horderly (SO409867), the River Kemp at Kempton (SO358831) and finally the River Clun at Purslow (SO360804). He then arranged his forces along Purslow Wood (SO361792) and on Clunbury Hill (SO371797) and prepared to meet his enemies across the River Clun, his command post situated on the top of Black Hill (SO326790). It is possible that Caratacus hoped to entice the Roman force through the easy defile leading to Twitchen in order to trap the legions between his personal command on the Purslow Wood ridge and a secondary force commanded by one of his most trusted generals on Clunbury Hill. The plan failed when the Roman army was instead directed upon the small defile leading through Purslow Wood to Cwm (SO347802).
The Roman Tacitus recorded the battle “He selected a position for the engagement in which advance and retreat alike would be difficult for our men and comparatively easy for his own, and then on some lofty hills, wherever their sides could be approached by a gentle slope, he piled up stones to serve as a rampart. A river too of varying depth was in his front, and his armed bands were drawn up before his defences.
Then too the chieftains of the several tribes went from rank to rank, encouraging and confirming the spirit of their men by making light of their fears, kindling their hopes, and by every other warlike incitement. As for Caratacus, he flew hither and thither, protesting that that day and that battle would be the beginning of the recovery of their freedom, or of everlasting bondage. He appealed, by name, to their forefathers who had driven back the dictator Caesar, by whose valour they were free from the Roman axe and tribute, and still preserved inviolate the persons of their wives and of their children. While he was thus speaking, the host shouted applause; every warrior bound himself by his national oath not to shrink from weapons or wounds.
Such enthusiasm confounded the Roman general. The river too in his face, the rampart they had added to it, the frowning hilltops, the stern resistance and masses of fighting men everywhere apparent, daunted him. But his soldiers insisted on battle, exclaiming that valour could overcome all things; and the prefects and tribunes, with similar language, stimulated the ardour of the troops. Ostorius having ascertained by a survey the inaccessible and the assailable points of the position, led on his furious men, and crossed the river without difficulty. When he reached the barrier, as long as it was a fight with missiles, the wounds and the slaughter fell chiefly on our soldiers; but when he had formed the military testudo, and the rude, ill-compacted fence of stones was torn down, and it was an equal hand-to-hand engagement, the barbarians retired to the heights. Yet even there, both light and heavy-armed soldiers rushed to the attack; the first harassed the foe with missiles, while the latter closed with them, and the opposing ranks of the Britons were broken, destitute as they were of the defence of breast-plates or helmets. When they faced the auxiliaries, they were felled by the swords and javelins of our legionaries; if they wheeled round, they were again met by the sabres and spears of the auxiliaries. It was a glorious victory; the wife and daughter of Caratacus were captured, and his brothers too were admitted to surrender.
Route of Caratacus up to Battle
Site of Battle
There is seldom safety for the unfortunate and Caratacus, seeking the protection of Cartimandua queen of the Brigantes, was put in chains and delivered up to the conquerors, nine years after the beginning of the war in Britain. His fame had spread thence, and travelled to the neighbouring islands and provinces, and was actually celebrated in Italy. All were eager to see the great man, who for so many years had defied our power. Even at Rome the name of Caratacus was no obscure one; and the emperor, while he exalted his own glory, enhanced the renown of the vanquished. The people were summoned as to a grand spectacle; the praetorian cohorts were drawn up under arms in the plain in front of their camp; then came a procession of the royal vassals, and the ornaments and neck-chains and the spoils which the king had won in wars with other tribes, were displayed. Next were to be seen his brothers, his wife and daughter and then Caratacus himself. His body was mostly naked and painted with figures of beasts; he wore a chain of iron about his neck, and another about his middle; the hair on his head hanging down in curled locks covered his back and shoulders.
Caradoc (Caratacus) in Rome by G F Watts
Caradoc neither by his looks nor language pleaded for mercy, and when he came before the Emperor's seat he spoke as follows ‘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.’ Upon this the emperor granted pardon to Caratacus, to his wife, and to his brothers.”
Caratacus at the Tribunal of Claudius in Rome by Fuseli, engraved by Andrew Birrell
Although he was pardoned, they had to remain in Rome. Caratacus was so impressed by the city of Rome that he said "And can you, then, who have got such possessions and so many of them, covet our poor tents?" At that time Christianity was preached in the imperial city and many of his family became Christians. After seven years, they were permitted to return to Britain. It is not recorded whether Caradoc was converted to Christianity but his son Cyllin and his daughter Eigen are both ranked among the British saints. Eigen married a British chieftain and one of her sisters is believed to have become the wife of Pudens, a Roman senator.