Posthumus encounters a British lord who ran away from the battle. He doesn’t blame the lord for retreating: when the man ran away, it seemed like the British would lose the battle, and that the only way they could win was through divine intervention. Posthumus explains that the Romans captured Cymbeline, isolating the King and decimating the British troops.
Posthumus’ encounter with the lord running away confirms that the result of the battle was so unexpected as to be guided by the hand of the gods. Further, that the British nobleman lacked courage and ran away serves as further proof that nobility and noble behavior do not always align.
Posthumus marvels at the old man and the two young men he worked with to free the King. The older man had a white beard, and Posthumus guesses that he was noble and brave. He comments that the younger men were attractive—so attractive, in fact, that if people wanted to make a mask to represent virtue, they should use the young men’s faces as models.
Belarius has come a long way from being fearful of battle to having a hand in the Britons’ success. Posthumus’ comments on Guiderius and Arviragus echo Belarius’ assessment of the brothers—there’s simply something about them which bespeaks their nobility.
The trio had encouraged the British soldiers, and when nobody else was taking charge, these three displayed the courage of three thousand fighters. Because of their example, the British soldiers either gained courage or were ashamed by their cowardice and the tides turned, allowing Britain to defeat the Romans. The Romans, who once acted bravely like eagles, looked more like frightened chickens.
Posthumus’ retelling of the battle exposes cracks in the mighty Roman Empire, previewing its historical end. Having grown to cover vast amounts of territory and experiencing internal fracturing and invasions from northern tribes like the Vandals, the Roman Empire fell in 476 CE. Posthumus adds insult to injury by comparing the Romans to chickens (a lowly bird) rather than their noble symbol, the eagle.
The lord is amazed at this strange twist of fate. Posthumus insists that the lord is only amazed because he just heard about the battle, instead of experiencing it firsthand by fighting bravely. Posthumus teases the lord, reciting a poem about the day’s events. The lord senses that Posthumus is unhappy with him. He asks if Posthumus is angry, but Posthumus sarcastically insists that he’s not. Sardonically, Posthumus assures the lord that he’ll only be friends with soldiers who run away. The lord takes the hint, insisting that Posthumus is angry and leaving thereafter.
Pothumus’ sarcastic conversation with the lord highlights how passionately he feels about the need for bravery and courage—noble traits which inspired others to think highly of Posthumus before his exile, in spite of his low birth.
Posthumus can’t believe that the lord who is retreating is noble. He thinks aloud about the nature of nobility: during the battle, lots of soldiers ran away, giving up their honor to save their lives. But it was an impossible situation: the soldiers who faced the battle head-on were killed, too. Posthumus was actively seeking death to end his remorseful suffering for Imogen’s murder, but even though he was surrounded by death, Posthumus survived. He is amazed how death lurks in apparently innocent places—in drinks, in soft beds, and in kind words—and isn’t confined to battlefields.
Posthumus’ softening on his stance about the lord who ran away reflects the play’s theme of forgiveness and reconciliation. Departing from binary thinking, Posthumus begins to recognize the complexity of battle and empathize further with soldiers who are fearful of death. His introspective conclusions about death—and his marveling at its inevitability—echo Imogen’s description of her husband as a melancholic, thoughtful man.
Since the British have won, Posthumus decides to change out of his British disguise back into his Roman uniform. He won’t fight, but instead will surrender to even the lowliest British soldier who should tap him on the soldier. Posthumus reasons that the Britons will punish the surviving Romans because the Romans killed so many of their soldiers in battle. So, Posthumus will go back to his Roman attire to seek out the prize of death. He’s fought on both sides, but doesn’t feel so loyal to one or the other—he now only feels loyal to Imogen, and wants nothing but to die, atoning for ordering her death.
Still resolved to meet the death he thinks he deserves for ordering Imogen’s murder, Posthumus changes his uniform to the losing side’s. His connection to both sides in the battle—made concrete in his two uniforms—mirrors the interdependence of Rome and Britain. However, Posthumus puts politics aside in favor of love: he wants to be true only to Imogen, not to country, and he believes the ultimate act of loyalty is his death.
As Posthumus muses on the battle, British captains and soldiers enter. The first captain praises the gods that the Roman commander, Lucius, was taken captive. He repeats the rumor that the old man and his sons who protected the alleyway were angels. The second captain reminds him that there was a fourth man who joined these three—dressed in peasant’s clothes. But the first lord says that none of them can be found.
The news of Lucius’ capture makes complete the battle’s reversal of expectations. The ambassador once had the upper hand, and he now finds himself captive. That the captain describes Belarius and the brothers’ impactful fighting as nothing short of miraculous demonstrates how the ancient Britons relied on the divine to explain events of both good and ill fortune.
The first captain notices Posthumus, and asks him for his identity. Posthumus answers that he is a Roman, abandoned by his fellow soldiers. The second captain orders the soldiers to seize Posthumus, calling him a dog. He swears that not even the Roman bodies should be sent back to testify to the scavenging birds who picked at them. The second captain interprets Posthumus’ remarks as bragging about his valor in battle, and he orders that Posthumus be brought before King Cymbeline.
The British captains display aggression in their insults hurled at Posthumus. They swear total revenge on the Romans—not even letting one Roman back home alive. The extreme portrait they paint shows the cruelty of war, and also Rome’s worst nightmare—the destruction of its troops at the hands of a rogue state.
Cymbeline, Belarius, Guiderius, Arviragus, Pisanio, soldiers and attendants enter with Roman captives. The British captains present Posthumus to Cymbeline. The King passes Posthumus off to a jailer, and the whole group leaves.
As the scene began with a wordless encounter, so too does it end without dialogue, making Cymbeline’s delivery of Posthumus to the jailer all the less personal. Forgiveness between the King and his son-in-law seems a far way off.