British Kings Atrebates

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
Rudyard Kipling

British Kings Atrebates

Introduction

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’.

Silberring von Trichtingen. A 28/61. Dm 29,4 cm. Laténezeit

Celtic Torc hung around neck

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.

Celtic Tribal Territories in Southern Britain

Celtic Tribal Territories in Ancient Britain

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;
40 BC Commius
30 BC Octavian and Mark Antony Civil War Addedomaros
20 BC Augustus Tasciovanus
10 BC Tincomarus Dubnovellaunos
1 AD
AD 10 Epatticus Cunobelin
Vodenos
AD 20 Tiberius Eppillus
AD 30 Verica Adminius
AD40 Caligula Caratacus
AD50 Claudius

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.

Celtic Chariot

Celtic War Chariot Used in Fights Against Caesar

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.

Statue of Vercingetorix

Statue of Vercingetorix

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.

Ancient Roman Ship Frieze

Roman Ship Image on Frieze

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

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.

Celtic Child in Roma Ara Pacis Procession Nord Particolare

Celtic child in frieze of Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace)

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.

Caesar Augustus Marble Head

Caesar Augustus Marble Head

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.

Celtic Battersea Shield

Celtic Battersea Shield

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.

Tiberius Caesar Augustus

Tiberius Caesar Augustus

To be Continued

The next posts will provide an overview of the final political upheavals that triggered Rome’s Invasion of Britain.

References

  1. John Peddie, Conquest: The Roman Invasion of Britain; St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1997.
  2. John Manley, AD43 The Roman Invasion of Britain; A Reassessment; Tempus Publishing, Inc., Charleston, SC, 2002.
  3. David Miles, The Tribes of Britain; Phoenix, an imprint of Orion Books, LTD, London, 2006
  4. Graham Webster, Boudica: The British Revolt Against Rome AD 60; Routledge, London, 2004
  5. Graham Webster, Rome Against Caratacus; The Roman Campaigns in Britain AD 48-58; Routledge, London, 2003
  6. Graham Webster, The Roman Invasion of Britain; Routledge, New York, 1999.

Celtic British Kings

In our sleep and in our dreams we pass through the whole thought of earlier humanity. The dream carries us back into earlier stages of human culture and affords us a means of understanding it better
—Friedrich Neitzsche

Celtic British Kings

Even before Caesar’s invasions of Britain, there is evidence that ambitious aristocrats manifested their power over kingdoms in southeast, lowland Britain. Julius Caesar wrote Britain was a land similar to Gaul where parts of the population were divided into named units of tens of thousands of people. Caesar called these civitates, translated as ‘tribes’, though ‘states’ would have been a more appropriate description.

Britain_WEB_SIZED_INK[1]
The societies were dominated by military and religious elite. The nobles considered themselves as part of wider Aristocracies that defined the larger ‘ethnic’ groups for their own ends. Rank and religion were more important in governing life. The inhabitants served empire-building rulers and royal dynasties that carved out fiefs.

Celtic Shield British Museum

Celtic Shield La Tène Style

Caesar’s most formidable foe in his invasions was Cassivellaunus. Caesar described him as a warlord and ‘robber-barron’ with no named people attached to him. His territory north of the Thames later coincides with the powerful tribe that became known as the Catuvellauni. It is interesting to note that most of the ‘named’ tribes Caesar mentioned in the 50s BC vanished a century later. This suggests instability and volatility of dynasties that played a crucial role in triggering the Roman invasion by Claudius in 43 AD. The actions of some of these British rulers suggest their primary interests were personal power rather than the collective interest of their people.

Celtic Horned Helmet

Celtic Horned Helmet Found at River Thames Date 150-50BC


British and Gallic Connection

Britain was intimately interconnected to northern Gaul (modern day France) well before Caesar’s time. Caesar writes that ‘within living memory’, Diviciacus, ruler of the Belgic Suessiones, exerted power on both sides of the English Channel. This suggests the importance of the dynastic links and the personal nature of power in Britain. Caesar further reports that identical tribal names were found in both Gaul and Britain, although he does not identify them.

Gold Coin of Suessiones

Gallo-Belgic Gold Coin

Later in southeast Britain, the Atrebates shared a common name with Belgic people in Gaul. One of Caesar’s Gallic allies who turned enemy was the Atrebatic prince, Commius, who fled to Britain after the Gallic war.

Celtic Battersea Shield

Celtic Battersea Shield

Archaeological findings from burial sites provide further evidence that a wealthy and privileged aristocracy arose prior to Caesar’s invasions. Cremation burial became fashionable in parts of southern Britain. Luxury objects found in some of the tombs were more about feasting and drinking, and less about war. The burial rites and grave-goods were Gallic imports or imitations. The richest graves are found near settlements such as Camulodunum (Colchester) that became more urbanized.

Gold Coin Veneti 1st Century Apollo's Chariot

Gold Coin Veneti 1st Century Apollo’s Chariot

Lowland Britain was integrated into a wider political, economic, and cultural zone which spanned the Channel and reached toward the Rhone Valley and the Alps. Some graves also contain war-jars and drinking vessels from Roman Italy, even before Caesar, a new symbol of power in southern Britain.

Celtic Shield

Celtic Shield


Rome’s Impact on Dynasties

Caesar’s first two expeditions (55 – 54 BC) failed to bring the Britons under the direct rule of Rome that the Gauls were subjected. However, the southern territories in Britain were exposed to a major foreign power across the Channel that some British rulers used to help them in their internal political squabbles. British nobles found alliance with the Romans more appealing and in line with their personal interests.

Roman Dining Area at Fishbourne Palace (Celtic King)

Dining Chamber Fishbourne Palace (Built by pro-Roman Celtic King)

Rome’s first emperor, Augustus,  established administrative systems in Gaul. A network of roads and river transport stimulated trade between the Channel coast and the Mediterranean. Roman-manufactured goods, ceramics, glass, wine and oil now flowed through the Roman arteries of Gaul. Widespread trade was aided by a common currency, language and bureaucracy which were unhindered by the old patchwork of Celtic tribal rivalries. The Thames estuary was the new gateway into Britain and the tribes who controlled the entrance dominated access to Continental luxuries.

Augustus Statue
Augustus most likely maintained diplomatic links with Britain to ensure the southeast stayed in the hands of friendly tribes. To the north were the ambitious and aggressive Catuvellauni (the name means ‘Men Good in Battle’). To keep them in their place, Rome cultivated their southern neighbors and rivals, the Atrebates. Commius’ sons (as they describe themselves on their coins) seem to have befriended Rome while mired in sibling rival. Tincomarus, the ‘Big Fish’ was ousted by Epillus in AD 7 and Epillus in turn by Verica in AD 15. Augustus was indifferent to their domestic squabbles, as long as the Atrebates stayed loyal to Rome and the balance of power was not disturbed. To the Romans, the rest of Britain and Ireland beyond the trading gateway was remote and irrelevant.

Roman Wall Calleva

Roman Wall Calleva (Silchester)

At the time of Claudius’ invasion in 43AD, there was not a united national resistance, although some tribes fought fiercely. It is clear that many regimes in Britain either welcomed the Romans openly or at least quickly came to terms.  There was a striking difference between the rapid incorporation of lowland Britain into the Roman Empire and the far slower conquest of the highland regions.

CupidDolphin_Mosaic_Fishbourne Palace

Cupid Dolphin Mosaic Floor at Fishbourne Palace Built by Pro-Roman Celtic King

It took the Romans a generation to conquer what would be considered Wales and northern England while the future Scotland and Ireland were never incorporated at all. Hadrian’s Wall built in 122 AD was an admission of failure.

Hadrian Wall in Northern England

Hadrian Wall in Northern England

Celtic Kings Southeast Britain

Coin evidence is no substitute for detailed political accounts; nevertheless. it provides us with the earliest names of the players in the 1st century British power struggle. As a form of propaganda, the coins do not always tell the literal truth, but they provide a hint of tribal territories, alliances and the political geography of southern Britain in the decades before the Roman invasion in 43 BC.

Celtic Gold Stater Minted by Tasciovanus, Catuvellauni

Celtic Gold Stater Minted by Tasciovanus, Catuvellauni

The Catuvellauni to the north of the Thames, and the Atrebates, to the south, became the dominant tribes at the time Augustus brought stability to Gaul beginning in 30 BC. Below is a map that provides the location of major Celtic tribes in Southeast Britain at the time of Rome’s Invasion of Britain in 43 AD:

  • Atrebates, Belgae, Cantiaci, and Regni (South of Thames)
  • Trinovantes and Catuvellauni (North of Thames).

 

Map Ancient Britain 1st Center

Map  of Ancient Britain 1st Century AD

The primary capitals of these Celtic tribal territories were Durovernum (Canterbury; Cantiaci), Camulodunum (Colchester; Catuvellauni & Trinovantes), Verulamion (St. Albans; Catuvellauni), Calleva (Silchester, Atrebates), and Noviomagus (Chichester; Regni)

After Caesar’s invasions, the most powerful British rulers began minting their own coins inscribed with their names. The pro-Romans rulers were permitted to inscribe the Roman title ‘Rex,’ meaning ‘king’ on the coins. Epillus, for example, issued coins with the inscription ‘rex calle[vae] – King of Calleva. Verica emblazoned a vine leaf on his, surely a reflection of his identification with the Mediterranean culture. Below is a list of rulers who were either recorded in Roman accounts or minted coins between Caesar’s and Claudius’ invasions.

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

 

To be continued

The next series of posts will describe the political struggles of pro- and anti-Roman rulers between Caesar’s expeditions in 55 – 54 BC and Claudius’ invasion in 43 AD.

References

David Miles, The Tribes of Britain,  Phoenix, Imprint of Orion Books, Ltd., London, UK, 2006.

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

Simon James, The Atlantic Celts: Ancient People or Modern Invention; The University of Wisconsin Press, 1999.

Friedrich Neitzsche, Human, All Too Human,  vol. I, p. 13; cited by Jung, Psychology and Religion, par. 89, n. 17.