At court, Cymbeline asks the Roman ambassador Lucius what Emperor Augustus wants. Lucius reminds the Cymbeline that Cassibelan (Cymbeline’s uncle and a former king) promised Rome a yearly tribute of £3000 to maintain peace, but Cymbeline hasn’t paid it. The Queen tells Lucius that he’ll get used to not receiving the money, since they won’t pay it anymore. Echoing his mother, Cloten says they won’t see another ruler as worthy as Julius Caesar for a long time, and that Britain is a world into itself—as such, Britons “will nothing pay/ For wearing our own noses.”
The tensions that have been bubbling over the relationship between Rome and Britain reach a boiling point here. £3000 is no insubstantial sum—and Augustus is bound to feel anger from Cymbeline’s refusal to pay. It’s noteworthy, too, how comfortable the Queen and Cloten feel in speaking on behalf of Cymbeline—their attempts to grab power aren’t so well concealed when they speak for the King himself.
The Queen directly appeals to her husband: during Julius Caesar’s invasions, the Romans had to use force to win Britain. But now Britons have an opportunity to win their freedom again. She reminds Cymbeline of his noble ancestors, and talks about the British landscape—an island guarded by sea—as well-fortified. Caesar’s ships crashed against the coastal rocks, and Cassibelan almost defeated Caesar, except that he had a stroke of ill luck. Cloten interrupts that the British troops are stronger now than they were during the invasion, and Cymbeline asks his stepson to let the Queen finish, but Cloten, energized, continues on. He says that others may merely complain about Roman rule, but he is ready and able to fight. Cloten thinks Julius Caesar was overly ambitious in subduing the Britons, which goes against their warlike nature. The attendant lords agree that the Britons are bellicose.
The Queen once again puts her powers of persuasion to use, as she attempted to do in convincing Cornelius to hand over the poison. She makes strong points about Britain’s very geography as a concrete sign of the island nation’s independence. By reminding Cymbeline of his ancestors, she brings to the fore the ever-present question which guides Cymbeline’s actions—concerns over the legacy he will leave as King. Cloten’s constant interjections reveal his passion for independence—it’s in keeping with his character, as Cloten is always looking for a fight (even if, in the act of fighting itself, he can be cowardly).
With the lords, Cloten, and the Queen rallying behind the cause of independence, Cymbeline feels emboldened. Citing the first British King Mumultius and the freedom of Britain before Julius Caesar came to the island, the King tells Lucius that he will not pay the tribute.
Yet again, Cymbeline takes an action that will be hard to reconcile later on. The Queen’s reference to Cymbeline’s ancestors seems to have taken hold with the King, who calls on Mumultius’ memory as an inspiration for this move.
Lucius regrets that he will have to break the news of Cymbeline’s refusal to the Emperor, and that he must declare Britain an enemy state. He explains that “war and confusion” will result from Cymbeline’s decision. Nevertheless, Lucius thanks Cymbeline for his hospitality. Likewise, Cymbeline fondly remembers his childhood under Caesar’s guidance. He was raised in Caesar’s court, and received a knighthood and honors from him. But, even though Caesar honored Cymbeline in his youth, Cymbeline now feels dishonored over the matter of the tribute. He must seek freedom for his country from the Romans, just as the rebelling Pannonians and Dalmatians are doing.
Lucius highlights that the consequences of Cymbeline’s action will be dire, if not absolutely deadly. However, Lucius remains somewhat friendly to Cymbeline, saying he regrets the breach in international relations. This in turn highlights the complex interdependence between Rome and Britain, which is bolstered by Cymbeline’s fond memories of Caesar’s court. However, the mention of the Pannonians and Dalmatians’ revolt puts Britain’s quest for independence in a wider global context—it’s a push for national freedom among other similar movements.
Cloten tells Lucius that Cymbeline still welcomes him at court, and asks him to spend a few more days of leisure there before the tensions rise further and war becomes inevitable. Lucius agrees.
This is one of the rare moments in which Cloten shows hospitality—he can’t act nobly unless he gets what he wants. His friendly invitation to Lucius further demonstrates the close ties between Rome and Britain.