The Brigantian Revolt (52 – 57 AD)

During the governorship of Aulus Didius Gallus (52 – 57 AD) Cartimandua tired of her husband Venutius, divorced him and married his armour-bearer, Vellocatus. This move made Venutius the foremost leader of the resistance against Roman occupation. At first, he sought only to depose his former wife, but eventually, he turned his sights towards her Roman defenders. Venutius’ rebellion was eventually quashed by Caesius Nasica.

Cartimandua Breaks with her Consort, Venutius (52 – 57 AD)

In the Annals Tacitus mentions that the divorce of Cartimandua and Venutius the subsequent war which was waged during the governorship of Gallus (52 – 57 AD).

After the capture of Caractacus, Venutius of the Brigantes, as I have already mentioned, was pre-eminent in military skill; he had long been loyal to Rome and had been defended by our arms while he was united in marriage to the queen Cartimandua. Subsequently a quarrel broke out between them, followed instantly by war, and he then assumed a hostile attitude also towards us.

Cornelius Tacitus – The Annals, Book 12, Chapter 40

Tacitus gives us more details in his earlier work, Historiae.

[Venutius’] strongest motive was a private quarrel with Queen Cartimandua, a member of a powerful family, who ruled the Brigantes. Her authority had lately increased, since she had betrayed King Caratacus into the hands of the Romans, and was thus considered to have provided Claudius Caesar with material for his triumph. Thus she had grown rich, and with prosperity came demoralization. She threw over Venutius, who was her husband, and gave her hand and kingdom to his armour bearer, Vellocatus. This crime soon proved the ruin of her house. The people supported her husband: she defended her lover with passionate ferocity. Venutius therefore summoned assistance and, aided by the simultaneous revolt of the Brigantes, brought Cartimandua into dire straits.

Gaius Cornelius Tacitus’ The Histories, Book 3, 45

We think it was somewhere between 51 and 57 AD that Cartimandua and Venutius were divorced.

Who was Venutius?

Venutius was the consort of of Cartimandua and thought to have been a ruler of a tribe to the north
of Brigantia. After the capture of Caratacus, Venutius was the most outstanding of the Britons for his military skill and became the defacto leader of the resistance after his capture. After his rejection by Cartimandua, Venutius, probably retired to his former kingdom.

Brigantian reaction to Cartimandua’s affair

Cartimandua had been richly rewarded for her capture of Caratacus, this combined with her new close relationship with Rome, encouraged her to make a ill advised decision to divorce her husband and marry one of her husbands retainers, Vellocatus. Cartimandua decision to make Vellocatus her co-ruler, rather than treating the affair as a casual fling outraged and alienated many of her subjects, who were sympathetic to her estranged husband Venutius. While some have suggested that Vellocatus’ noble birth may have lessened the blow of Cartimandua’s actions, the reality is that her people were deeply offended and angered by her recklessness.

Cartimandua takes hostages

Cartimandua showed cunning by taking Venutius’ brother and other relatives hostage. This strategic move placed Venutius in a challenging position. Nonetheless, he led a carefully chosen group of soldiers to invade Brigantia.

At first, however, they simply fought against each other, and Cartismandua by cunning stratagems captured the brothers and kinsfolk of Venutius. This enraged the enemy, who were stung with shame at the prospect of falling under the dominion of a woman. The flower of their youth, picked out for war, invaded her kingdom.

Cornelius Tacitus – The Annals, Book 12, Chapter 40

It appeared that Venutius was hesitant to engage in a full-blown war and so attempted to free the hostages with a select group of young warriors, rather than a full scale invasion, in order to antagonise Cartimandua’s Roman allies.

How did the Romans Respond to Cartimandua’s call for aid?

Cartimandua had foreseen Venutius’ actions and had asked Gallus for his help in guarding her prisoners.

The possibility of a war erupting on the northern frontier while the western frontier was already under constant threat must have been a source of great concern for Didius Gallus. Despite probably perceiving Cartimandua as an unpredictable woman who could create significant issues for them, it was in the best interest of Rome to support Cartimandua’s reign for as long as feasible.

We again have slightly different descriptions of events from Tacitus, in the Histories and the Annals.

[Cartimandua] petitioned for troops from Rome. Our auxiliaries, both horse and foot, then fought several engagements with varying success, but eventually rescued the queen. Thus the kingdom was left in the hands of Venutius and the war in ours.

Gaius Cornelius Tacitus’ The Histories, Book 3, 45

This we had foreseen; some cohorts were sent to her aid and a sharp contest followed, which was at first doubtful but had a satisfactory termination. The legion under the command of Caesius Nasica fought with a similar result. For Didius, burdened with years and covered with honours, was content with acting through his officers and merely holding back the enemy. These transactions, though occurring under two propraetors, and occupying several years, I have closely connected, lest, if related separately, they might be less easily remembered

Cornelius Tacitus – The Annals, Book 12, Chapter 40

The above extract seems to describe two distinct phases: the primary objective of maintaining Cartimandua’s position on the throne and the secondary aim of thwarting Venutius’ attempt to seize the hostages.

Tacitus clearly states that Venutius aimed his hostility towards Rome – “etiam adversus nos hostilia induerat”. This implies that a battle ensued between the hostile Britons and Legio IX, with the outcome initially uncertain before the Romans ultimately emerged victorious. This resembles the prior engagement with the auxiliary cohorts.

A number of auxiliary cohorts were dispatched to prevent the hostage-taking. Although there was a fierce battle, it proved inconclusive until a legion under the command of Caesius Nasica, likely Legio IX, was called upon to intervene. After the legion’s involvement, the threat was eventually eliminated. Notably, the headquarters fortress for Legio IX was still stationed at Longthorpe, close to Peterborough.

The immediate consequence of these events would have been swift modifications to the old Plautian frontier, which was established along the Trent River. Additionally, troops had to be relocated to positions closer to the stronghold of the Brigantian queen.

Where was Cartimandua’s Stronghold?

Surprisingly, there are very few hill-forts in Brigantia that follow the Wessex-north Wales patterns. It remains possible that the queen’s royal palace was located in a settlement that was not fortified with massive earthworks. While one might expect the site of the cantonal capital, Isurium Brigantum (Aldborough), to be an obvious choice, there is little evidence of any pre-Roman occupation there. The Romanised town, which is situated in the fertile Vale of York, occupies a commanding position. Given this, it is difficult to believe that the area was not extensively cultivated during the late Iron Age. Some scholars have recognized the significance of the fertile Ouse Valley or it may have been near York, based on the pre-Roman name of the city, while other suggest Barwick-in-Elmet, is a 15-acre hill-fort at the east end of the Aire Gap.

Rigodunum, a place-name listed by Ptolemy as a polis of the Brigantes, could serve as a valuable clue. Its meaning, ‘royal fort,’ suggests that it may have been a significant centre of power for the Brigantes. Rigodunum has been associated with the Roman fort located at Castle Shaw, situated on the major cross-route from Manchester to York through the Pennines. The next fort at Slack Roman Fort, ten miles to the north-east, has been linked with Cambodunum mentioned as a station on this route in the Antonine Itinerary.

The Frontier Changes Made by Gallus

After successfully resolving the pressing issue of rescuing Cartimandua and repelling Venutius’ forces to the north, despite the sting of humiliation and Rome’s unwelcome intervention, Gallus realized that urgent measures were needed to address the northern frontier of the province.

The IX Hispana, the closest legion, was located at Longthorpe, which was about 120 miles away and would require at least four days of intense marching to reach. Legion XX, situated at Wroxeter, was even more distant, roughly 150 miles away. Tacitus briefly mentions that Gallus he pushed forward with a few forts.

Soon after, Didius Gallus consolidated the conquests of his predecessors, and advanced a very few positions into parts more remote, to gain the credit of having enlarged the sphere of government. 

Gaius Cornelius Tacitus – The Agricola, Chapter 14

To contain the situation on the northern borders of the Roman province the Ninth Hispanic Legion was redeployed into campaign/vexillation fortresses on the western borders of the Coritani tribe at Osmanthorpe Roman Vexillation Fort in Nottinghamshire and Newton On Trent Roman Fort in Lincolnshire; one of these vexillations appears to have been relocated further north to Rossington Bridge in South Yorkshire, perhaps as better information on the extent of the Brigantian unrest was obtained.

At the same time Legio XIV Gemina was redeployed into campaign fortresses just within the north-eastern borders of the Cornovii tribe at Wall (Letocetum) and Kinvaston Fort, both sited along the Watling Street in South Staffordshire.

Map of Frontier Changes Made by Gallus

It appears likely that the fort at Derby (Derventio) / Littlechester in Derbyshire, along with the fortlets at Broxtowe Roman Fort in Nottinghamshire and Marton Roman Fort in Lincolnshire, were established at this time to facilitate communications between these frontier units. The establishment of another auxiliary fort on the Fosse Way at East Stoke in Nottinghamshire, close to the Osmanthorpe fortress , may indicate that it was the garrison here which was removed to the Rossington Bridge Vexilation Fort, with the site on the Fosse Way being established to maintain the communication link between the two legionary groups.

Forts may have been built along a trackway that would later become Ermine Street. From Lincoln (Lindum) these would have been Owmby, Hibaldstow to Old Winteringham. North Ferriby was a typical Iron Age settlement and served as the customary endpoint for a pre-Roman crossing of the Humber. However, the existence of a potential fort at Old Winteringham, which was situated across from the subsequent Roman fort and town of Brough-on-Humber (Petuaria), implies that the crossing was relocated to the western side of Reads Island during the Roman era.

The Roman interest in the lead/silver mines at Pentrich (Lutudarum) in the Lower Pennines of Derbyshire is demonstrated by the establishment at this time of a small military station overlooking the mine-workings here.

Death of Claudius 54 AD

In 54 AD, Emperor Claudius met a sudden and suspicious death, coinciding with the Brigantes rebellion. His stepson, Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, known as Nero, ascended to the throne. According to Suetonius, Nero once contemplated abandoning Britain due to the significant resources required to maintain the province, which could be better utilized in expanding the Roman Empire elsewhere.

Claudius’ death not only resulted in the loss of his friends and advisors, but also tarnished his reputation as he was both deified and ridiculed by the Romans. Nevertheless, Claudius had a formidable military record, and the Romans, being a proud people, attached great importance to public image. Nero’s withdrawal from Britain could have been seen as a betrayal of Claudius and his accomplishments, which may have influenced Nero’s decision to remain involved in the British situation.

Quintus Veranius Govenor 57 to 58AD

Quintus Veranius, was appointed governor by Nero. He was a rising star in the Roman Empire, having achieved success in campaigns in Lycia and Pamphylia on the eastern front. He was expected to invade Wales and expand northeast into the territory of the Brigantes. However, before he could execute his plans, Veranius passed away unexpectedly while in office. On his deathbed, Veranius claimed that he could have conquered the entire province within two years, the usual term of office for a governor.

Didius was followed by Veranius, who died within the year.

The Agricola, Chapter 14

He was sent to Britain in the winter of 57AD and was possibly responsible for the establishment of the fortress at Wroxeter (Viroconium Cornoviorum) in the centre of the recently-conquered tribal territories of the Cornovii. This new legionary base was to house the Legio Quattuordecimae Gemina – The Fourteenth ‘Twinned’ Legion, who were again reunited after having been deployed in various divisions throughout the Midlands, perhaps at Mancetter (Manduessedum) and Metchley Roman Fort , certainly at Leighton Vexillation Fort beside the Wrekin Hillfort. While the Fourteenth secured Veranius’ rear, Veranius campaigned in south Wales against the fearsome and war-like Silures tribe of Glamorgan, using the Legio Vicesimae Valeria Victrix (The Twentieth Legion, Valiant and Victorious) from Gloucester (Glevum). He unfortunately died after his first campaign, but succeeded in quelling the truculent tribe.

“… Veranius, after having ravaged the Silures in some trifling raids, was prevented by death from extending the war. While he lived, he had a great name for manly independence, though, in his will’s final words, he betrayed a flatterer’s weakness; for, after heaping adulation on Nero, he added that he should have conquered the province for him, had he lived for the next two years.”

Cornelius Tacitus – The Annals, Book 14, Chapter 24

C. Suetonius Paullinus succeeded Veranius AD 58

C. Suetonius Paullinus, who succeeded Veranius as governor, was also renowned for his military prowess. He had gained recognition for being the first Roman general to lead a crossing of the Atlas mountains in Mauretania, which had honed his skills in mountain warfare. It was likely this expertise that had earned him the responsibility of leading expeditions into Wales and the Pennines.

By 60 AD, Paullinus had successfully subdued Wales and was preparing to cross the waters to Angelsey, the last refuge of the rebels. The island was strategically chosen by the Britons as it was surrounded by water, leaving them with no option for retreat other than towards the sea. Moreover, the island was known to be a stronghold of the Druids, a powerful group in Britain, and was fiercely defended by praying Druids, formidable warriors, and ferocious women. The assault on Angelsey was brutal and savage, with the defenders fighting desperately for their lives.

Amidst the intense battles on Angelsey, Paullinus was unaware that a grave threat was looming behind him. The worst from the British forces was yet to come, but he was preoccupied with the arduous task of capturing the island and defeating its resolute defenders.

Roman Sites to visit in South East England