Cartimandua and Family

Tacitus (Annals 12,36) described how in AD 52, Cartimandua, queen of the Brigantes, handed the fugitive British resistance leader Caratacus over to the Romans in chains.  Later (12,40) “Venutius ... had long been loyal to Rome and had been defended by our arms while he was united in marriage to the queen Cartimandua.  Subsequently a quarrel broke out between them, followed instantly by war, and he then assumed a hostile attitude also towards us.  At first, however, they simply fought against each other, and Cartimandua by cunning stratagems captured the brothers and kinsfolk of Venutius.”

Expanding on this story, Tacitus (Histories 3,45) wrote: “Venutius, besides being naturally high spirited, and hating the name of Rome, was fired by his private animosity against queen CartimanduaCartimandua ruled the Brigantes in virtue of her illustrious birth; and she strengthened her throne, when, by the treacherous capture of king Caratacus, she was regarded as having given its chief distinction to the triumph of Claudius Csar.  Then followed wealth and the self-indulgence of prosperity.  Spurning her husband Venutius, she made Vellocatus, his armour-bearer, the partner of her bed and throne.  By this enormity the power of her house was at once shaken to its base. On the side of the husband were the affections of the people, on that of the adulterer, the lust and savage temper of the queen.  Accordingly Venutius collected some auxiliaries, and, aided at the same time by a revolt of the Brigantes, brought Cartimandua into the utmost peril.  She asked for some Roman troops, and our auxiliary infantry and cavalry, after fighting with various success, contrived to rescue the queen from her peril. Venutius retained the kingdom, and we had the war on our hands.”

The name Cartimandua is widely described as Celtic for something like ‘sleek pony’.  Like so many “Celtic” etymologies, this does not stand up to examination.  Cart- can be seen in a hundred or so ancient inscriptions, mostly in names that are strictly Latin (such as Cartilius) or that contain the Punic word qart ‘city’, such as in Carthage and Καρθιλιτανιοςvolisios cartivel on coins of the Corieltauvi, possibly refers to *Cartivellaunus, while carto#val was seen on an a stone altar found at Binchester.  So the argument that Carti- came from Celtic speech really relies on projecting back nearly a thousand years from Irish cartad ‘cleansing, scouring, expelling’ and its cognates such as Cornish karth.  Even greater scepticism should apply to the supposed *mandus ‘pony’ (Delamarre 2003:214).

A better etymology may come from Graeco-Latin χαρτης/charta ‘papyrus’, which developed to mean anything written on paper, including a map.  Hence, of course, the modern word chart.  And Latin mando ‘to commit to someone’s charge’ (literally ‘give into hand’) obviously led to the modern word mandate.  So, providing one accepts that Tacitus could use the “late Latin” sense of ‘map’, he would have understood the name Cartimandua to mean something like ‘guardian of the map’. This is interesting because (as Rob Entwistle pointed out in November 2016) Roman roads around the presumptive base of a Brigantian ruler at Stanwick, near Scotch Corner, look as if they were laid out by Roman surveyors using Pythagorean angles to act as the boundary of a client kingdom beyond the direct control of Rome early in the conquest of Britain.  Furthermore, Stanwick is embraced by three Roman forts, which look as if they were intended to protect rather than to intimidate.  This may chime with another remark by Tacitus (Agricola, 20) that a “ring of garrisoned forts” was placed around tribes that had given up their independence, so that their neighbours would not bother them.

Tacitus is often accused of being more a historical novelist than a true historian.  He did not hesitate to put words into the mouths of individuals such as Calgacus, using just his own imagination.  He seems also to have made up personal names to fit his characters, just as later writers such as Shakespeare and Dickens routinely did.  So Venutius can be translated, with only a little flippancy, as ‘Prince Charming’ or ‘lover boy’, based on similarity to the goddess Venus and to venustus ‘comely, charming’, but maybe ‘twister’ would be better, based on the ancient word for (grape)vine, which gave rises to words for wine in many languages.  And vello ‘to pluck, to pull away’ plus catus ‘cunning’ could make the adulterous Vellocatus mean ‘cunning plucker’, with a snide implication that he was a promiscuous tomcat, because of the other meaning of catus.

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