Cities and Thrones and Powers
Stand in Time’s eye,
Almost as long as flowers,
Which daily die,
But, as new buds put forth
To glad new men,
Out of the spent and unconsidered Earth,
The Cities rise again
British Kings Atrebates
Julius Caesar described the tribes in southeast Britain as being similar to Gaul (modern day France). He mentioned that some of the tribal names in Britain were identical as those in Gaul, but does not specify these. Much of the population was divided into named units in the order of tens of thousands of people which were called civitates, usually translated as ‘tribes’ or ‘states’.
It is striking that most of the tribes that Caesar mentioned in his accounts vanished by the time of Claudius’ invasion in 43 AD. Archaeological finds, particularly coins minted by the British kings, suggest great instability and volatility in the ever-expanding dynastic states. Coin evidence is no substitute for detailed political accounts. Nevertheless, it provides us with the earliest names of the players in the political struggles. Coins also provide a crude indicator of tribal territories, alliances and the political geography of southern Britain. The power struggles between pro- and anti-Roman factions play a crucial role in triggering the Roman invasion in 43 AD.
The previous two posts on APOLLO’S RAVEN describe the political struggles of the northern Catuvellauni dynasty that overtook the Trinovantes. To the South was the powerful Atrebates who shared their name with a tribe in Gaul. King Commius fled to Britain after Caesar’s conquest in Gaul to establish this powerful dynasty.
Below is a tabular summary of British kings who minted coins in the southern and northern dynasties.
British Kings in Southeast Britain
|Date||Rome||Southern Dynasty||Northern Dynasty|
|50 BC||Civil War, Murder of Caesar;|
|30 BC||Octavian and Mark Antony Civil War||Addedomaros|
Commius of the Atrebates
Alliance with Caesar
Julius Caesar considered Commius one of his strongest Celtic allies and made him King of the Atrebates in Gaul. In 55 AD, Caesar sent Commius as a diplomatic emissary to Britain to win their loyalty to Rome. The tribes Caesar had in mind were those who had fled from Gaul during his military campaign. The moment Commius disembarked on the shores of Kent and announced his mission, he was taken prisoner. Later that summer, he was handed back to Caesar in his first expedition to Britain. Commius then went with Caesar on his second expedition to Britain and helped with the peace negotiations.
Resistance with Vercingetorix
In spite of winning Caesar’s favor, Commius allied with Vercingetorix and was appointed one of the chief officers in a united Gallic resistance against Caesar in 52 BC. After Caesar’s great victory over Vercingetorix at Alesia, Commius escaped the battle with the aid of the Germans.
Caesar sent a special team to execute Commius, but he managed to escape with a severe head wound. He avoided yet another encounter with Roman executioners at a party. After that, he sailed to Britain with a band of his followers. Again, he eluded Romans ship that were pursuing him.
Atrebates Southern Dynasty
Commius landed on the British Sussex coast and established himself as King of the Atrebates. He established his capital at Calleva (Silchester). There may have already been an Atrebates tribe in Britain that accepted Commius as their king. Commius coinage was widespread, suggesting his authority spread over a large area north of the Thames, Hampshire and Sussex.
Tincomarus, son and heir of Commius, ascended to power around 20 BC. Emperor Augustus scored a great diplomatic triumph winning over the son of the man who hated the Romans. Tincomarus issued coins that more closely resembled the Roman types.
Based on the imagery used on his coins, Tincomarus may have been brought up as an obses (diplomatic hostage) in Rome during the early years of Augustus’ reign. It is conceivable that he gained experience in the Roman army before his return to Britain in 20 BC. He most likely established trading and diplomatic links with Augustus as evidenced by Roman pottery and other imports that have been dug up at Calleva.
Augustus maintained diplomatic links in Britain to ensure the southeast stayed in the hands of friendly tribes. To the north, the Catuvellauni were ambitious and aggressive (their name means ‘Men Good in Battle’). To keep them in their place, Rome cultivated their southern rivals, the Atrebates. As far as the Romans were concerned, the rest of Britain and Ireland beyond the trading gateway were remote and thus irrelevant.
Some time before 7 AD, Tincomarus was driven out of his kingdom for unknown reasons and fled to Rome as a refugee. His expulsion may have resulted from a family dispute with his brother, Eppillus. Tincomarus appeared before Augustus as a suppliant king. Augustus recognized Eppillus as REX (king) rather than depose and reinstate Tincomarus. Augustus may have planned to use his ally’s ejection as an excuse to invade Britain but other, more pressing foreign policy matters took precedence.
Epillus and Eppaticus
Epillus’ rein over the Atrebates was short-lived. Eppaticus, the brother of Cunobelin, most likely expelled Eppillus with the support of the anti-Roman Druids. Eppaticus managed to establish himself over the Atrebates at the time Rome was preoccupied with its own troubles about 10 AD.
Verica, the grandson of Commius, regained the throne from Eppaticus who was subsequently killed.
Post-Augustus Policies and Trade
Upon his death in 14 AD, Augustus instructed his successor, Tiberius, not to expand the Empire. Tiberius accepted this policy, since he was weary of many years of frustration and denigration.
By then, Cunobelin most likely signed a formal treaty with Rome. This is implied by the Greek historian Strabo who states in 14 AD, “With important export duties, Rome receives greater profit than any army could produce.” Strabo listed British exports as grain, cattle, gold, silver, iron, hides, slaves and hunting dogs. The general philosophy was these treaties with client kings made Rome’s position in Britain so secure that there was no longer any need for Rome to invade.
During the campaigns on the Rhine under Germanicus in AD 16, some troop ships were blown across the North Sea and wrecked on the British coast. These were returned, clearly indicating a friendly gesture from one of the tribes, perhaps under a treaty obligation.
To be Continued
The next posts will provide an overview of the final political upheavals that triggered Rome’s Invasion of Britain.
- John Peddie, Conquest: The Roman Invasion of Britain; St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1997.
- John Manley, AD43 The Roman Invasion of Britain; A Reassessment; Tempus Publishing, Inc., Charleston, SC, 2002.
- David Miles, The Tribes of Britain; Phoenix, an imprint of Orion Books, LTD, London, 2006
- Graham Webster, Boudica: The British Revolt Against Rome AD 60; Routledge, London, 2004
- Graham Webster, Rome Against Caratacus; The Roman Campaigns in Britain AD 48-58; Routledge, London, 2003
- Graham Webster, The Roman Invasion of Britain; Routledge, New York, 1999.