Brigantia – The Ancient Sources

Brigantia – The Ancient Sources

This page attempts to record and understand the writings of ancient historians with regards to Brigantia.


Most of what we know of Brigantia is preserved in the surviving works of Tacitus. The period covered, is from the Roman landing in A.D. 43 to the final conquest of Brigantia by Agricola in A.D. 78. The general trend of events during that period is reasonably clear, but in detail many questions are left unanswered, partly due to the brief nature of the records, and partly by the loss of relevant books both of the Histories and of the Annals, Of the fourteen books of the Histories only the first four and a part of the fifth have come down to us, covering A.D. 69 and part of 70 but failing to reach the crucial governor-ship of Cerialis. From the Annals the narrative for the earlier years of Claudius, down to A.D. 47, is missing; so too is that for the important concluding years of Nero’s reign, A.D. 66-68, when the situation in Brigantia was coming to a head. We are left with three pertinent references in the Annals, one in the Histories, and one in the Agricola.

The first of these (Ann. xii, 32) relates to the advance of the Roman governor, Ostorius Scapula, into Flintshire in A.D. 47—48.

“And now Ostorius had advanced to within a little distance of the sea, facing the island of Hibernia, when dissension broke out among the Brigantes and compelled the general’s return; for it was his fixed purpose only to undertake new enterprises when he had secured the old. The Brigantes indeed, after a few who were beginning hostilities had been slain and the rest pardoned, settled down quietly; but on the Silures [of southeastern Wales] neither terror nor mercy had the least effect….”

This revolt by the Brigantes, has been linked with an attempt to prevent the Roman conquest of Anglesey, although no direct reference to this survives. This passage also has brought up the suggestion that Venutius was involved and that he was by this time helping Caratacus. However, Tacitus does not mention Venutius, yet in a later passage indicates that Venutius may have spent time fighting with the Roman’s, so this assumption must be regarded as highly uncertain.

The main question left by this passage is – Where was the revolt? Most historian have been led to conclude that the Brigantian revolt of AD 47 must have been in the south west of Brigantia, since it threatened the Roman advance in Flintshire this is a reasonable assumption to make and the presence of marching camps within Brigantian territory close to Manchester, together with the early annexation of Chester would tend to agree with this theory, however, the exact location of the rebellion has yet to be conjected.

Wheeler refers to the precise wording – “In these words the phrase apud Brigantes discordlae may best be taken to imply that some previous compact with the advancing Romans was now broken by an early manifestation of the domestic discord that was to split the tribe openly into a pro-Roman and an anti-Roman party. On general grounds alone, no leader of Ostorius’ capacity is likely to have advanced into Wales without some arrangement designed, however optimistically, to safeguard his flank and rear. As for the intransigent Silures on his left front, they were in fact at this time under the active command of Caratacus, son of Cunobelin.”

The next incident relates to the final battle and flight of the famous leader Caratacus in A.D. 51:

“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 traveled to the neighboring islands and provinces, and was actually celebrated in Italy.” (Ann, xii, 36.)

Shortly afterwards Ostorius governor if Britain died. He was succeeded, probably in A.D. 52, by Aulus Didius, whose first act was to disperse the Silures. Tacitus then (Ann. xii, 40) refers again to the Brigantes, unfortunately, compressing into a single paragraph the events of several years, extending apparently to the end of the governorship of Aulus Didius in A.D. 58. We shall split the paragraph into it’s individual sentences in order to better understand it:

“After the capture of Caratacus, 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 protected by our arms while he was united in marriage to the queen Cartimandua.

This sections seems to confirm the assumption that Cartimandua and Venutius were already married by the time of the invasion of AD43, and that up until AD 51-2 peaceful relations had been enjoyed between Rome and Brigantia. Cartimandua is marked out as queen whilst Venutius is called simply “Venutius of the Brigantes”, this would seem to infer that Cartimandua was the recognized ruler and Venutius was married to her – effectively a prince regent perhaps.

Venutius is marked out as being pre-eminent in military skill and had been protected by Roman arms whilst united with Cartimandua. The reference seems to hark back to an earlier reference which is perhaps in one of Tacitus’ lost books which would tend to indicate a need to mention Venutius prior to AD47. From this we can infer that Venutius took a part in some campaign prior to AD47 in which he fought on the same side as the Roman’s with sufficient success as to be worthy of mention.

Eric Burley suggested that we should infer that during the period 43-47AD Roman troops may have operated all over Brigantian soil however this may not be correct, since most operations between 43 and 47 appear to have been to the south of Brigantia.

“Subsequently a quarrel broke out between them, followed instantly by war, and he then assumed a hostile attitude towards us. At first, however, they simply fought against each other,”

No particular reason is given for the quarrel in this reference, although it appears to be illuminated in Tacitus’ Histories, which will be dealt with later. The key point to note here is that at some point after AD52 all out war broke out between Venutius and Cartimandua.

“and Cartimandua by cunning stratagems captured the brothers and kinsfolk of Venutius.”

This would indicate that Venutius’ Brother’s and other kinsfolk were “tricked” into being captured by Cartimandua, one possible interpretation is that they themselves had yet to take sides in the conflict.

“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.”

This would seem to indicate that with the opening of hostilities, Venutius had left Brigantia, or as has been suggested, the tribal boundaries reverted back to the time prior to the marriage of Venutius and Cartimandua, with Venutius re-grouping away from Brigantia “major” into his “clan” kingdom to build his forces. It is at this period that the enormous fortress of Stanwick was founded and it was conjected by Wheeler that Stanwick was Venutius’ capital, however, the abundance of early Roman artifacts at Stanwick has somewhat obscured the picture. It is possible that Stanwick was not Venutius’ original focal point, which may have been further north. At any rate, this is the action which causes Venutius to invade Brigantia, an act bound to bring the Roman’s into the conflict, in their role of protecting their client queen:

“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 end.

This is the first reference to a battle between Cartimandua and Venutius, in which some cohorts were dispatched

“A legion under the command of Caesius Nasica fought with a similar result.”

Another conflict, this time with legionary involvement, which would suggest a larger force mustered by Venutius, this had similar results. The involvement of a legion would suggest the use of legionary sized marching camps for campaigns greater than twenty miles inside Brigantia.

“For Didius, burdened with years and covered with honours, was content with acting through his officers and merely holding back the enemy.”

It was been suggested that Tacitus did not like Didius Gallus, since he definitely underplays Gallus’ achievements, which were not insignificant. during his four year tenure, Gallus subdued the Silures as well as supporting Cartimandua. Webster suggested that Gallus moved the Roman border north as a result of the Brigantian interventions, attributing Templeborough and Brough on Noe to Gallus, amongst others.

These events, though occurring under two governors and occupying several years, I have closely connected lest, if related separately, they might be less easily remembered. I now return to the chronological sequence.

This has always been assumed to be Gallus and Ostorius, which seems reasonable given the overall view of the text, however, it still leaves the exact chronology confused. The best interpretation is that between 51 and 57AD Cartimandua captured some close family members of Venutius, which caused him to invade Brigantia. Amongst the subsequent battles, Cartimandua had twice to call for Roman aid. The first time a few hundred Romans were able to win the situation, though the exact outcome is not clear, certainly Venutius was not defeated outright and it is possible that Cartimandua was conceding territory. The second occurrence must have been a large battle, with an entire legion only narrowly winning the day, again the outcome is unclear. The precise locations of these battles is not mentioned.

For the next two governorships we have no reference to the Brigantes, although it may be that any events were over shadowed by the Iceni revolt. It is odd that the Brigantes did not get involved with this affair, or the further battles in Wales, which culminated in the final destruction of Anglesey. By this time one must assume that Brigantia was a split kingdom, one part ruled by Venutius, the other by Cartimandua. It may be that Roman intervention had enabled a truce to be agreed.

And so we are carried on to the climactic events of the Year of the Four Emperors, A.D. 69. When Rome was distracted by Civil war following the death of Nero. Of the competitors for empire in that year, Vespasian was supported in Britain by the Second Legion which he had led with success in the early days of the invasion. ‘This, Tacitus tells us, ‘secured the island for him, but only after some resistance on the part of the other legions, in which there were many centurions and soldiers who owed their promotions to Vitellius, and so hesitated to change from an emperor of whom they-had already had some experience.’ Tacitus continues {Hist. iii, 45):

“Inspired by these differences between the Roman forces and by the many rumours of civil was that reached them, the britons plucked up courage under the leadership of Venutius, who, in addition to his own natural spirit and hatred of the Roman name, was fired by his personal resentment towards queen Cartimandua. She was ruler over the Brigantes, having the influence that belongs to high birth, and she had later strengthened her power when she was credited with having captured king Caratacus by treachery and so furnished an adornment for the triumph of Claudius Caesar. From this came her wealth and the wanton spirit which success breeds. She grew to despise her husband Venutius, and took as her consort his squire Vellocatus, whom she admitted to share the throne with her. Her house was at once shaken by this scandalous act. Her husband was favoured by the sentiments of all the citizens; the adulterer was supported by the queens passion for him and by her savage spirit. So Venutius, calling in aid from outside and at the same time assisted by a revolt of the Brigantes themselves, put Cartimandua into an extremely dangerous position. Then she asked the Romans for protection, and some of our auxiliary troops, cavalry and infantry, after meeting with indifferent success in a number of engagements, finally succeeded in snatching the queen from danger. The throne was left to Venutius, the war to us.” Tacitus (Histories iii, 45).

The above text, written about a time when Nero had fallen and Rome endured several emperors in one year – AD69 clearly illustrates the date when Venutius finally became king of all Brigantia. From this point, the names of Venutius and Cartimandua are not recorded again. The text, along with other passages in the Histories and The Agricola for the same period indicate that a significant portion of Britain was in revolt, and the armies, equally at loggerheads. Perhaps Venutius decided the time was right to finally oust Cartimandua, or perhaps by marrying Vellocatus she broke an agreement which had kept the peace to that date. At any rate, Tacitus tells us that during the year of the four Emperors Venutius had one final battle with Cartimandua, the Romans send in auxiliaries manage to rescue her but she is forced into exile.

“But when Vespasian, in the course of his general triumph, recovered Britain, there came a succession of great generals and splendid armies, and the hopes of our enemies dwindled. Petillius Cerialis at once struck terror into their hearts by, attacking the state of the Brigantes which is said to be the most populous in the whole province. After a series of battles, some not un-costly, Petillius had operated, if not actually triumphed, over the major part of their territory.”

Thus the Roman army finally remove Venutius from Brigantia, we assume. This reference, from The Agricola (17) shows the offensive was led by Petillius Cerialis, who had commanded the unhappy Ninth Legion at the time of Boudicca’s revolt and now governed the province from A.D. 71 to 74. On his arrival, he deposited a fresh Legion of mariners in Lincoln, and moved the ninth legion towards Brigantia.

Whether Venutius lived to lead his motley forces in the final struggle is no longer recorded, but its severity suggests his inspiring presence. The exact date of the culminating battle is equally unknown; it must, however, have been before the end of the governorship of Cerialis in A.D. 74. By A.D. 80 Agricola was campaigning in Scotland.

It is interesting that the Brigantes are not truely defeated by Petillius, the Romans “operated” over the major part of Brigantia. Agricola is credited with consolidating the Roman position during his second year of campaigns by creating a complex of forts in the north west, and seems to have had little resistance during his push to Scotland.


1. Where was the revolt of 47 AD?

2. Where was the first conflict with Roman involvement after Venutius and Cartimandua broke apart?

3. Where was the second, which needed a legion?

4. What did the border between Cartimandua and Venutius look like after the governorship of  Gallus?

5. Where was the third, which finally saw Cartimandua ousted from Brigantia.

6. What did the Brigantes border with Rome AD69 look like?

7. How did the invasion of Brigantia by Cerialis in AD71 progress?

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