Cunobelin Celtic British King

One thing that comes out in myths is that at the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation. The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light—Joseph Campbell


Cunobeline Celtic British King

Cunobelin was considered the greatest of all the Celtic British kings. The Romans referred to him as Britannorum Rex, the King of the Britons. He is also known as Cunobeline and Cunobelinus. He is the radiant character in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the King of Britain written in 1136 AD. It is not clear where Cunobelin came from, but his rise to power was rapid and dramatic. He gained his throne in the early years of 1st century AD as a young man in his twenties or early thirties.

Dying Gladiator

Statue of Celtic Warrior

Cunobelin Rise to Power

Cunobelin claimed he was the son of Tasciovanus, the Catuvellauni ruler whose center of power was at Verulamium (present-day St. Albans). Upon his father’s death, Cunobelin gained power over the Catuvellauni. He then moved against the Trinovantes and extended his kingdom to the east. His father may have had an alliance between the two powerful tribes, possibly by dynastic marriage. It is also possible that he seized the throne in a palace revolt. He expanded his territory to the west and southward into Kent.

Marble Head of Augustus Caesar

Marble Head of Augustus Caesar

His rise to power occurred at the same time that Emperor Augustus had significant resistance in Germania that took higher precedence. In 9 AD, three Roman legions led General by Publius Quinctilius Varus were crushed by the German prince, Arminius—a disaster of unparallel magnitude. Augustus and his advisers were too preoccupied with the events to pay much attention to political upheavals in Britain. Cunobelin must have known he could act without any serious threat of Roman reprisals. An astute statesman, he gave assurance to Rome that the balance of power was not seriously affected. Roman traders were still welcome in Camulodunum and elsewhere north of the Thames.

Roman Soldiers in Formation

Roman Soldiers in Formation

Balancing Pro and Anti-Roman Factions

Geoffrey of Monmouth writes Cymbeline (i.e. Cunobelin) was a warlike man and insisted on the full rigor of the law. He was reared in the household of Emperor Augustus Caesar. The King was so friendly with the Romans that he might well have kept back their tribute-money but he paid it of his own free will.

Celtic Child in Roma Ara Pacis Procession Nord Particolare

Celtic child in frieze of Ara Pacis Augustae

Cunobelin had to maintain a balance between two bitterly opposing factions for, and those against, Rome. In view of the expulsion of the pro-Roman rulers Tincommius and Dubnovellaunos around 8 AD, Cunobelin had to be careful throughout most of his rein not to show undue bias towards Rome. There were strong anti-Roman elements by Druids in the royal household. During his lifetime, Cunobelin successfully satisfied his own people, as well as persuade Rome of his loyalty and keep the power of the Druids in check.

Bronze Coins of Cunobelin

Bronze Coins of Cunobelin

Camulodunum Oldest Recorded City

Cunobelin moved his capital to Camulodunum. It was considered the oldest recorded town in Britain, as it was mentioned by Pliny the Elder who died in 79 AD. The Celtic settlement was huge compared to hill forts to the west or north. Cunobelin minted his coins at this town to exploit trading with the Continent. The grave goods found in this area illustrate the impact of Rome on Camulodunum’s nobles in early 1st Century. Items found included chain-mail armor, Roman bronze vessels, furniture, Italian wine amphorae and a medallion encasing a silver coin of Augustus, minted about 17 BC.

Greek Amphorae to Store Wine

Greek Amphorae to Store Wine

The nobles sustained their power and their lifestyles on the back of hard-working peasantry. Power was maintained by warriors whose loyalty had to be constantly rewarded. To maintain luxurious lifestyles, the Celtic rulers raided inland Britain for slaves. Neck chains used to restrain slaves have been found around Colchester and are on display at the museum in Colchester. Strabo notes that some British leaders procured the friendship of Augustus by sending embassies and paying court to him.

Roman Wall Colchester

Roman Wall at Colchester

Cunobolin’s Expansion into Kent

Cunobelin expanded his influence into Kent, which became a fiefdom ruled under his son, Adminius. Durovernum (modern day Canterbury). Like Verulaminum and Camulodunum, the town functioned as a center for the elite, a gateway for Roman luxury goods and a base for traders from the empire.

Durovernum Mosaic_Roman_Museum_146

Durovernum Roman Mosaic at British Museum

Players Triggering Roman Invasion

Cunobelin had several sons of whom three, Togodumnus, Caractacus, and Adminius, played significant roles that triggered the Roman invasion in 43 AD. In Cunobelin’s final years, he had trouble over the succession. His sons shared administrative duties for various parts of his king. In Cunobelin’s declining years, it is likely Rome became uneasy with the political uncertainties. It became increasing clear that the valuable commercial asset in Britain needed to be secured either by renewing treaties with the new rulers or by military force.

Celtic Horned Helmet

Celtic Horned Helmet Found at River Thames

Coinage minted by Adminius suggests that he ruled the Northeast part of Kent on behalf of his father a short time before his death. Adminius held pro-Roman sympathies whereas his brothers were anti-Roman. Emperor Caligula may have secretly collaborated with Adminius to set up a major seaborne operation to invade Britain. This could have been the reason that Cunobelin expelled Adminius from Britain in 40 AD. Suetonius records the banished prince with a group of his followers fled to a Roman encampment where Caligula was reviewing the troops in Germania. Caligula retained the Britons as hostages and dispatched a message to Rome proclaiming he had conquered the whole of Britain.

Young Roman on Horseback

Statue of Caligula on Horseback

Subsequently, Roman troops appeared ready to invade Britain, but it is not clear what stopped the expedition. Possibly the troops rebelled and refused to embark the warships. Infamous for bizarre behavior, Caligula paraded the troops in battle array on the shore and commanded them to collect sea shells. Though the Roman invasion was abandoned, Caligula erected a great lighthouse at Boulogne. It stood as a memoir of this event until it was torn down in 1544 AD.

Ancient Roman Ship Frieze

Roman Ship Image on Frieze

The precise date of the death of Cunobelin is not certain, but it must be within a year of 40 AD. This is when Caractacus conquered territories south of the Thames while Togodumnus inherited the kingdom. The flight of Adminius may be connected with these events.

Caractacus overthrew Verica, King of the Atrebates who also sought protection from the Romans. Verica appeared before Emperor Claudius claiming he had been driven out of Britain by an uprising. He called upon the Emperor to fulfill his obligation to reinstate him as ruler under their treaty.

South_Britain_WEB_SIZED_COL[1]
Caractacus demanded that Claudius release Adminius and Verica to him, which was the final trigger that incited Claudius to invade Britain in 43 AD.

Richborough Roman Fort Ruin

Richborough Roman Fort Wall Site of Invasion

Overview of Celtic Kings in Southeast Britain

Below is an overview of Roman events and Celtic kings in Southeast Britain between Julius Caesar’s invasions in 54-55 BC and Claudius’ invasion in 43 AD.

Date Roman Events Southern Dynasty Northern Dynasty
50 BC Caesar’s Invasion Mandubracius, Cassivellaunus
40 BC Murder of Caesar Commius
30 BC Octavian & Mark Antony Civil War
20 BC Augustus Stabilization Tincomarus Addedomaros, Tasciovanus
10 BC Eppillus Cunobelin, Dubnovellaunos
1 AD
AD 10 Tiberius comes to power Vodenos
AD 20 Epatticus
AD 30 Caligula comes to power Verica Adminius
AD40 Claudius comes to power Caractacus, Togodumnus

To be Continued:

The next posts will focus on the southern dynasties as reflected in the above table.

References:

Geoffrey of Monmouth, “The History of the Kings of Britain.” Translated with an Introduction by Lewis Thorpe; First Published in 1966; Republished by Penguin Books, London England

David Miles, “The Tribes of Britain”, published in 2006 by Phoenix, an imprint of Orion Books, LTD, London.

Graham Webster, “Boudica: The British Revolt Against Rome AD 60, Reprinted 2004 by Routledge, London.

Graham Webster, “The Roman Invasion of Britain.” Reprinted in 1999 by Routledge, New York.

Joseph Campbell, “The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers.” Anchor Books, a Division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, New York, 1988.

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