Despite our Ordnance Survey map, and though a wooden signpost pointed the way, we could discern no clear path to Caer Caradoc. The day glowered and threatened rain; the path we found, muddy and steep, had likely been forged by sheep. As we trekked slowly upward, one of our number commented (more than once), “it makes you realize how fit they must have been.” She was referring to the Iron Age denizens of Caer Caradoc. I made a mental note, in our defense, that the average age of those denizens was likely less than half our own.
Caer Caradoc, an Iron Age hillfort, is at the center of the greatest concentration of hillforts in southern Shropshire, England. The fort (caer in Welsh) is named for Caractacus, a British tribal leader who made his last stand against the invading Romans in 50 AD. Tacitus tells the tale, albeit from the Roman point of view:
The [Roman] army then marched against the Silures, a naturally fierce people and now full of confidence in the might of Caractacus, who . . . had raised himself far above all the other generals of the Britons. Inferior in military strength, but deriving an advantage from the deceptiveness of the country . . . he resolved on a final struggle.
The fighting was fierce, but the Romans, under their general, Ostorius, prevailed: “It was a glorious victory; the wife and daughter of Caractacus were captured, and his brothers too were admitted to surrender.” Though Caractacus fled, the Romans found and captured him, too. “[P]ut in chains and delivered up to the conquerors,” Caractacus remained unrepentant:
“Had my moderation in prosperity been equal to my noble birth and fortune, I should have entered this city as your friend rather than as your captive . . . . I had men and horses, arms and wealth. What wonder if I parted with them reluctantly? If you Romans choose to lord it over the world, does it follow that the world is to accept slavery? . . . . if you save my life, I shall be an everlasting memorial of your clemency.”
Though the emperor granted clemency, all did not fare well for the Romans:
. . . soon afterwards [Ostorius] met with reverses; either because, when Caractacus was out of the way, our discipline was relaxed . . . or because the enemy, out of compassion for so great a king, was more ardent in his thirst for vengeance.
We arrived at the summit not the least ardent, but definitely thirsty and ready for lunch. As we ate, we took in the vast view, in which, so it seemed to me, past and present were entwined.
In his book, The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell wanted “to understand something of the simultaneous and reciprocal process by which life feeds materials to literature while literature returns the favor by conferring forms upon life.” My musing on the hillfort and modern memory is decidedly smaller in scope, but Fussell’s book informed my curiosity about the ancient earthworks on which we sat and looked out.
While certainly guided by what archeologists and historians discover and transmit, isn’t translating the past into the present necessarily an act of the imagination? That those who survived infancy typically died before they were thirty-five or forty is the fact. Our friend’s act of imagination, though, is what connected the Iron Age experience of climbing Caer Caradoc to our own.
As is true for everyone, poets and writers write from their own times and places, and connections to the past change over time. In A. E. Housman’s On Wenlock Edge, published in 1896, the poem’s speaker muses on present and ancient storms on the Wrekin, site of an Iron Age hillfort:
Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.
There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.
The speaker, conjuring a Roman in the ancient city “Uricon,” collapses time to make a timeless point.
Siegfried Sassoon fought in the Great War and lived through World War Two. During the second war, he wrote On Scratchbury Camp. Reminiscent of Wisława Szymborska’s great poem, Reality Demands, Sassoon, rather than finding a grand continuum in the human condition, locates ironic disconnects.
The poem’s speaker hears “a fighter squadron’s drone” cut through lark song and muses that the hillfort’s “turfed and cowslip’d rampart seems/more hill than history, ageless and oblivion-blurred.”
I walk the fosse, once manned by bronze and flint head spear . . .
Cloud shadows, drifting slow like heedless daylight dreams,
dwell and dissolve; uncircumstanced they pause and pass.
I watch them go. My horse, contented, crops the grass.
More recently, Owen Sheers, in Y Gaer (The Hillfort), summons the past, “[i]ts only defences now, a ring of gorse,” solely in service of present sorrow.
The land is three-sixty about you here,
an answer to any question, stitched with river silver,
so I think I understand why the man who lost his son
comes here only in bad weather . . .
The narrator in Alice Munro’s story, Wenlock Edge, knows the Housman poem by heart. Her present concerns have little to do with the poem (though her relationship with it will change). As she reads it aloud, under disturbing circumstances, she tosses history aside with a verbal shrug: “Where was Uricon? Who knows?”
Time changes what we understand about the past and how we use it. Though archeologists and historians can save us (if we let them) from continuing to believe the world is flat, perhaps nothing can be certain beyond that our imagination lets us understand.
The place of Caractacus’s last stand against the Romans isn’t known: there is more than one hilltop fort named Caer Caradoc. As with the contention over which river can claim to be the source of the Danube, contenders for each eponymous fort lay claim to the site of that ancient fight.
As Alice Munro’s narrator in Wenlock Edge might say, “Where was Caer Caradoc? Who knows?”
Caer Caradoc and environs, July, 2012:
A Spotify listening list can be found at The Hillfort and Modern Memory.
Edward Elgar wrote a cantata based on the story of Caractacus. While not considered among his greatest works, it is a precursor to one that was: The Dream of Gerontius.
Watchmen, alert! from Elgar’s Caractacus:
Prelude from The Dream of Gerontius:
Vaughan Williams set six poems from Housman’s A Shropshire Lad to music. The setting of On Wenlock Edge, as sung by Peter Pears, can be found here.
Credits: The image of Caractacus at the Tribunal of Claudius at Rome can be found here, and that of the ironwork firedog here. The quotations from Tacitus can be found here. The quotation from Fussell can be found on page 1 of the preface to The Great War and Modern Memory. On Wenlock Edge can be found here. On Scratchbury Camp can be found here (though the date of the poem given there appears to be incorrect). Y Gaer (The Hillfort) can be found here, and its companion poem, The Hillfort (Y Gaer) can be found here. The quotation from Alice Munro’s short story, Wenlock Edge, can be found here.