Gateway to the Classics: Stories from English History, Book I by Alfred J. Church
Stories from English History, Book I by  Alfred J. Church

King Caractacus

C.  Well, there is not much difference, after all, between your grandfather's story and what Julius wrote. I asked my teacher to let me read it all, for I had heard only parts of it before. He offered to lend me the book, but I was afraid to borrow it, lest it should come to some harm. He said that there was not another copy in all Britain, and that he should have to send to Lugdunum in Gaul for it. Perhaps Julius makes one think that he did more in Britain than was really the case; but on the whole his story agrees wonderfully well with your grandfather's. But now tell me what you yourself remember.

G.  So I will. We were threatened by the Romans several times before they actually came. Once the Roman Emperor came as near as the opposite shore of Gaul. Our king Cunobelin had banished his son, and the worthless fellow went to the Emperor and pretended to give up the kingdom to him—of course it was never his to give.

"The Emperor—he was more than half a madman I have been told—marched his legions down to the sea, drew them up in order of battle, and then set them to picking up shells. "Spoils of the ocean" he called them, and had them solemnly sent to Rome and laid up in the chief temple. Three years afterwards they came in earnest. The Emperor—not the one I spoke of, he had been murdered—himself came with them, though I doubt whether he had much to do with the fighting. However, he or his general took King Cunobelin's town.

"That did not finish the war; there was fighting for several years in the south and west of the country. The last to hold out was the brave King Caractacus. He too was conquered in the end. The fact is, we Britons are not a match for these Romans. Man for man, we are as brave, and certainly taller and stronger. But then they have far better arms, and they are better disciplined.

"There was a great battle somewhere in the west. Our people had a very strong position. They were posted on a hill, with a thick wood on either side and a river in front. And there were three or four times as many of them as of the Romans. I have heard that the Roman general himself was afraid to attack; but the soldiers went on, almost, I may say, in spite of him, and stormed the place. Our people, you see, had no breast-plates, and their wicker shields were not of much use against a heavy Roman sword. And then their own swords and spears were mostly of bronze. You, my boy, are used to see everything made of iron, but it was not so at the time that I am speaking of, thirty or forty years ago. Iron weapons cost so much that only the chiefs had them. The common people used bronze; and bronze, I need not tell you, is no match for iron. Well, as I said, the King's camp was taken, and his wife and children with it. His brothers gave themselves up. As for the King himself, he managed to escape.

C.  And what became of him?

G.  He took refuge with a neighbour, Queen of the Brigantes. She put him in prison, and gave him up to the Romans.

C.  What a wicked woman!

G.  Yes, indeed; but what can you expect of a creature who sent away her husband, one of the best soldiers that ever was in Britain, and married the driver of her own chariot?

C.  And what did the Romans do with him?

G.  They behaved better to him than is their custom. He was taken to Rome and brought before the Emperor. I saw one of the soldiers who was on guard that day, and he told me the whole story. The Emperor sat on one seat, with the flags of the Roman legions round him, and his wife on another, just as if she were his equal. We Britons, you know, would as willingly have a queen as a king, but the Romans don't hold with us in that; they don't take such account of women; but this was one who thought herself equal to any man, and her husband was, by all accounts, a very poor creature.

Well, as I said, the King was brought, and told to answer for himself, he and his brothers and all his family. The rest threw themselves on the ground and begged for their lives. But he would not stoop to do such a thing. What he said was something like this: "If I had chosen to submit to you, I might have been your friend and not your prisoner to‑day; but I preferred to be my own master. I thought that I was strong enough to be so; you have shown me that I was wrong, and you have the glory of it. And now, you can do what you will with me. If you kill me, there is nothing more to be said; if you pardon me, your generosity will never be forgotten." Pardoned he was; but they never let him come back to his own country. They were afraid, I suppose, that he would make trouble.

C.  And you took no part in this war?

G.  No; we had nothing to do with it. You see, when King Cunobelin's town was taken, my master, whose country was not far off—it lies to the north, as you know—thought it best to make terms with the new-comers. I and three other chiefs were sent as ambassadors to the Roman generals with presents and hostages. The Romans always asked for hostages, and a good plan it is for what they want. Ah! they have a clever way of managing the people they have to do with. But it is a terrible thing for those who have to give them. My own son—my second boy—was one of them. He was taken away to Italy, and died, I heard, of a fever, about a year afterwards. They put a tribute upon us. However, it was not very heavy, and, anyhow, we had peace and quiet as long as we paid it. As for the King, my master, he was fairly charmed with the strangers. He went to Rome, and when he came back, nothing would satisfy him but he must have everything in Roman fashion. Ah! if he could only have foreseen what was to come! Happily for him, the trouble, as you will hear, came after his days.

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