Cartimandua (fl. 43–69 CE)

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Cartimandua (fl. 43–69 ce)

Queen of the Brigantes in central Britain and a Roman ally. Name variations: Cartamandia; Cartumandia. Pronunciation: Car-ti-man-DOO-ah. Dates of birth and death unknown; married Venutius (divorced); married Vellocatus.

Ruled Brigantes probably from 43 ce; handed over the British chieftain Caratacus to the Romans (51); divorced her husband Venutius and married Vellocatus; overthrown by Venutius and sought refuge with the Romans (69).

Knowledge of Queen Cartimandua has come down to us from the Roman historian Tacitus, complete with his male and imperialist prejudices. He relates her role in native British affairs from 51 to 69 ce in three separate accounts. The first, in the Annals (12. 36), he briefly mentions that in 51 she handed over to the Romans the defeated British chieftain Caratacus, who had sought refuge with the Brigantes. The second account a few chapters later (12. 40) tells us that Cartimandua's husband, Venutius, had long been a Roman ally because of his marriage to her. A divorce between the two soon led to civil war among the Brigantes. When Cartimandua detained his brother and other relatives, Venutius sent a band of picked troops into her territory and the Romans were forced to intervene. Tacitus notes that Venutius' followers did not want to be ruled by a woman (12. 40. 3).

Tacitus' third account is found in his Histories, which describes the struggle for succession in the Roman empire after the death of Nero in 68. His portrait here of Cartimandua becomes less than flattering. Tacitus informs us that when Venutius took advantage of the civil war in Rome to stage a revolt, he was motivated not only by hatred for the Romans, but by a desire for revenge against Cartimandua. Tacitus writes that her betrayal of Caratacus (which, he adds here, was done by a trick) had "adorned the triumphal parade of Claudius Caesar" (an event that he reports in some detail in the Annals) and that resources and wealth—from her association with Rome, it is implied—had corrupted her. He mentions that she was already powerful in social standing and that she now sought to extend her rule. Divorcing Venutius, she married his armorbearer Vellocatus and shared the throne with him. According to Tacitus, this was a moral crime that shook her rule. Venutius found backing among the Brigantes while Vellocatus had only Cartimandua's lust and savagery to support him. As in the Annals, Tacitus mentions an invasion by Venutius' forces and a Roman intervention. The Romans were able to save Cartimandua but not her kingdom: rule passed to Venutius.

Tacitus' account has cast the actions of this Celtic queen from a Roman mold. It is highly likely that Cartimandua's divorce and remarriage were political, as well as personal, decisions. In Latin, the term for Vellocatus, armor-bearer (armigerum [Histories 3. 45]), has connotations of slavery. For a Roman wife to reject her husband and marry a slave or a free, poor man would have indeed been, to the Roman upper crust, a moral crime. But this does not necessarily mean that Vellocatus occupied such a low status among the Brigantes; the social position of such a person in Brigantine society is unclear. Tacitus' references to the lust and savagery of the queen is in keeping with the way he (and other Roman historians) depict women in general. Indeed, women whom he does not describe with these characteristics receive scant attention in his works.

As to the desire of the Brigantes not to be ruled by a woman, this may well reflect Tacitus' feelings about the conduct of powerful women in the imperial family more than it reflects a reality of Celtic Britain. It was, after all, a woman, Boudica , who led the famous revolt against the Romans (Annals 14. 31, 35, 37). Tacitus has Boudica say: "It is customary for we Britons to fight under the leadership of women" (12. 35. 1). In his monograph on the Roman general Agricola, he says that the Britons made no distinction between men and women in military command (Agricola 16). Finally, Tacitus has the British chieftain Calgacus brag that the Brigantes burned a Roman colony and stormed a Roman camp under the leadership of an unnamed woman between 71 and 83 ce.

Cartumandia tuke Caratacus, the King of Scottis, with tressoun in hir awain place, and delyuerit him to Ostorius, the Roman legat.

—The Buik of the Croniclis of Scotland

Aside from Tacitus, little is certain about Cartimandua. She seems to have ruled the Brigantes from at least 43 ce. We know that the Brigantes were the most important buffer for the Romans between the British lowlands and unconquered highlands of modern Scotland. Cartimandua's territory appears to have stretched from coast to coast and to have included areas of what is now northern England such as Manchester, Leeds, and Newcastle-upon-Tyne and a part of Yorkshire.

Cartimandua lived on in British literature for centuries. In the medieval Welsh collection of poetry known as the Triads, she is worked into Arthurian legend and is equated with one Aregwedd Foeddawg who is generally considered a deceitful Roman collaborator. In the Buik of the Croniclis of Scotland composed in 1535 for the instruction of the future King James, she is "this wickit woman" who sells Caratacus to the Romans. Her motivation is to rule Brigantia in peace. When her husband Venutius revolts, she throws him and his family into prison. After he is freed, Venutius seeks revenge and burns Cartimandua to death. The Croniclis refers to Tacitus as a source. Finally, in 1759 William Mason published his successful tragedy Caratacus, which featured Cartimandua's sons.


Boece, Hector. The Buik of the Croniclis of Scotland: Rerum Britannicarum Medii Aevi Scriptores. Edited by William B. Turnball. Vol. 1, no. 6. London: Longman, Brown, 1858.

Bromwich, Rachel, ed. Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1978.

Tacitus. Annals 12. 36, 40; Histories 3. 45

suggested reading:

Casson, T.E. "Cartimandua, in History, Legend and Romance," in Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmoreland Antiquitarian and Archaeological Society. Vol. 44, 1945, pp. 68–80.

Richmond, I.A. "Queen Cartimandua," in Journal of Roman Studies. Vol. 44, 1954, pp. 127–60.

Webster, Graham. Rome Against Caratacus: The Roman Campaigns in Britain AD 48–58. Totowa, NJ: Barnes and Noble, 1981.

Alexander Ingle , Department of Classical Studies, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts