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The Reception of Caratacus in Britain

The Reception of Caratacus in Britain

In the study of the ancient world, what we mean by 'Reception' is how historical figures and events are viewed and used by later people. As will be seen below, the past can be used in many different ways to reflect upon the present, and people often use past figures as ways of bolstering their own identities.

Below is a collection of instances of the use of the figure of Caratacus. Have a look through and see how this figure has been used and to what ends, often to justify or give false precedent to actions in the then present such as British Imperialism.

    • Caratacus has become a prominent figure in British art, music and literature through the writing of Tacitus and Cassius Dio.
    • The British reception of Caratacus (and there has been little interest in him outside Britain) had always been bound up with the expansion of the British Empire, and in particular the British conquest of India. This can be seen as inaugurated by the battle of Plassey in 1757, which proved pivotal in terms of British control of both Bengal and India more widely.
    • Two years later, the Yorkshire churchman William Mason published his play Caratacus, which he intended ‘to fight the cause of liberty and Britain’; it was to become the single most influential work in the history of the reception of this ancient British warrior. The drama, like almost all Caratacus narratives subsequently, stages a conflation of Tacitus’ description of the indomitable Briton captured during the reign of Claudius (Annals 12.33–7), who delivered a courageous speech at Rome, with the same historian’s account of the last stand of the druids of Mona (Anglesey) against Suetonius Paulinus (Annals 14.29–30); some details are added from Cassius Dio’s Roman History 60–1. Mason fused this content with features from Greek tragedy, imitating the plot of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, and including a singing, dancing, involved, and interactive tragic chorus.
    • Throughout the Victorian period, Caratacus poems, paintings, statues, and a few musical performances, usually with druidical overtones, sporadically appeared in both England and Wales, often in public, civic locations.
    • William Blake drew Caratacus in 1819 as part of his Visionary Heads series of drawings.
    • D. Browne’s sculpture group ‘Caratacus before Claudius Caesar’ was displayed in Westminster Hall in 1844, with the rousing caption, adapted from Tacitus, ‘Though you may wish to rule all, it does not follow that all will submit to slavery!’ An imposing statue by Irishman Constantine Panormo, ‘The Liberation of Caratacus’, was said to be ‘expressive’ and one of the most viewed of the artworks in the British section of the gallery at the Great Exhibition of 1851.
    • James Henry Foley’s monumental figure of Caratacus, funded by the City of London’s joint fund for art, was put on his pedestal in the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly in 1859.
    • In the context of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, Edward Elgar’s Caratacus premiered at the Leeds festival. The libretto was by Elgar’s Malvern friend and neighbour Harry Arbuthnot Acworth, a passionate advocate of the ‘civilizing’ benefits brought to the Indians by the Raj, and retired President of Bombay. The piece, ideologically, is a transparent apologia for British global imperialism, but the location in the Malvern Hills places Caratacus’ heroism in the liminal space between English and Welsh identities.
    • The plot features Caratacus (King of the Trinobantes and Leader of the Confederated Britons) being driven by the Romans from his home in central southern England to the Welsh frontier. He pitches camp on the Herefordshire Beacons in the Malvern Hills. Caratacus’ daughter Eigen is engaged to Orbin, a priest-minstrel invented by Acworth and Elgar. Orbin and a ‘Druid Maiden’ warn Caratacus against facing the Romans in open battle, but the Arch-Druid deceives Caratacus into advancing. The treacherous druids curse Orbin, who leaves to join the British fighting in eastern England. Caratacus’ men are routed, and Eigen and her maidens witness them return. Caratacus, Eigen, and Orbin are betrayed to the Romans. But the last scene, in Rome, sees Caratacus, Orbin, and Eigen being released and granted an honorific residence in Rome because Claudius is so impressed by Caratacus’ courage. The three Britons sing in thanks to Claudius, ‘Grace from the Roman! Peace and rest are ours, / Freedom is lost, but rest and peace remain; / Britain, farewell!’
    • Ideologically, the courage, even if primitive, of the early Britons is fused with the global ‘civilization’ of the Roman imperial administration in a perfect expression of the national self-image being fostered across the United Kingdom.
    • The Caratacus of Elgar and Acworth, with its druids from around the Anglo-Welsh border, and its exploration of the relationship of a brave little country to a mighty imperial conqueror capable of clemency, swiftly attracted interest in Wales. At the 1902 Gwent Chair Eisteddfod in Rhymney, the test piece in the ‘marching song’ category in the Brass Band competition, won jointly by the Great Western and Cory Workman’s bands, was a march from Caratacus.
    • The stage play in Welsh by Beriah Gwynfe Evans, performed at a school in Abergele in 1904, inaugurated the Edwardian tradition of theatrical performances starring Caratacus. Evans saw Caratacus as fundamentally Welsh, rather than an incoming East Briton who took on leadership of the Silures, and required not only him but all the other Britons and even Romans to speak Welsh. This procedure, drawing on a long history (covered elsewhere in this volume) of conflating the Welsh with the ancient Britons, decisively identified the Caratacus of ancient historians as the birth-right of Welsh people in Wales.
    • Two years after the success of the Abergele school play, the Elgar/Acworth cantata itself arrived triumphantly at the centre of Welsh people’s celebration of their national self-definition. In 1906, Caratacus provided the two highlights of the Royal National Eisteddfod, held as often at Caernarfon.
    • The triumph of the Caratacus story at the 1906 Eisteddfod in both spoken drama and sung cantata inspired a decade of amateur performances in schools and town halls across Wales. In addition to those by Joseph Parry, Elgar/Acworth, and Evans, a fourth, more light-hearted work, combining speech and song with attractive dance sequences and comic interludes, had certainly become available by 1910. It seems swiftly to have become the most frequent choice for performance. its published version is entitled A Juvenile Operetta for Boys and Girls and Infants. The music was by George G. Lewis and Herbert Longhurst, and the libretto by H.E. Turner.
    • Perhaps prompted by a much-lauded rendition of the Elgar/Acworth cantata at the London National Eisteddfod of 1909, or by the prominent position given to the story of Caratacus, as the opening episode of the ambitious National Pageant of Wales staged in Cardiff ’s Sophia Gardens in the summer of the same year, the floodgates of Caratacus performances were flung wide open in 1910. The first documented staging of the Lewis/Longhurst/Turner operetta took place at the Judge’s Hall, Trealaw in March 1910: it was sung by the Juvenile Choir of Salem, Llwynypia. It was soon followed by a performance of the same work by the Pisgah Juvenile Choral Society at Bryndu School: ‘All the little ones were tastefully dressed, and did their singing in a manner that showed a thorough training.’ The proceeds were in aid of the Pisgah Baptist Church.
    • Once war was declared against the German Empire in 1914, the Caratacus performances in Wales became transparently connected with recruitment, morale and fundraising for the war effort.
    • The Trecastle section of a Brecon newspaper proudly reported in January 1915 the local youth private John Evans of 3rd Battalion Welsh Regiment had been seen marching at Cardiff. The journalist reports “private Evans looked well in his uniform and appeared fit to meet any number of Germans. Here the recruiting committee appointed lately for Traianmawr parish are doing excellent work. On Friday evening last a most successful concert was held at the old National School, Trecastle, in aid of the local band of Hope and Belgian relief fund. The room was crowded to its upmost capacity and everyone thoroughly enjoyed entertainment” the program’s climax consisted inevitably of a play called Caratacus followed by the singing of all four-Belgium, French, Russian and British-national anthems (the Brecon County Times News Gazette and general advertiser 21 January 1915 page 4).
    • In summer 1915 Caratacus turns up specifically in the context of fundraising for the war effort. The Pentrepoeth girls’ school Morriston had spent 10 months “engaged in knitting comforts-scarves, socks, helmets et cetera for the soldiers and sailors”. They staged a special set of performances to carry on the work. The programme consisted of tableaux representing “Shakespeare’s birthday” and “Empire Day” supplemented by “ballad of the ranks” and a “pageant of famous women”. The main item on the programme was a play entitled Caratacus in Rome.
    • The children’s choir of Gwaun Cae Gurwen performed a work entitled Caratacus early 1916. There were 2 performances of a cantata Caratacus by Hermon juvenile choir in December 1917. But after conscription was imposed in 1916 and the war staggered to its gloomy conclusion the full extent of the slaughter began to sink national consciousness.
    • Predictably as the full horrors of the war on the Western Front became apparent to the people of Wales, the phrase Caratacus waned. None is recorded in 1918 and just one in 1919 of the operetta is recorded in Barry port by the Zion choir in the parish hall in May. An awareness that the Caratacus tale had less relevance to everyday life in post-war Wales seems to have been bypassed by the Brecon show poet Clifford King.
    • The story of Edwardian Welsh Caratacus performances has a tragic ending. The ancient Briton’s legend was actively used as propaganda in the recruitment drive in Wales amongst the poorest, Welsh-speaking populations of the north and west of Wales. Their identity as men of ‘gallant little Wales’, was explicitly used to foment identification with the suffering people of another ‘gallant little’ nation, Belgium to drive enlistment into the Welsh regiments of the British Expeditionary Force during the Great War.

    Ultimately, recruitment with Caratacus plays led to the deaths of many thousands of Welshman on the Western Front during the conflict.

    • Caratacus briefly appears as a minor character in the Robert Graves novel, Claudius the God. In the television adaptation of Graves's novels, he is portrayed in a brief appearance by Peter Bowles.