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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Celtic Spirit Warrior

British Tribal Dynasties


Once having transversed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials.
–Joseph Campbell

 

Julius Caesar’s Impact British Tribal Dynasties

The most important impact of Caesar on the British scene was to divide the southeastern British tribal dynasties into pro- and anti-Roman factions. After Caesar’s expeditions in Britain, lucrative Roman trade was extended to Celtic British kings who were Roman allies. The kings of Kent without exception had been hostile and only made peace overtures after they were thoroughly beaten. The tribes on the north bank of the Thames and in Kent were forced to pay an annual tribute which sustained their festering hatred of Rome.

Julius Caesar Statue

Statue of Julius Caesar

 

Those that benefited, primarily the Trinovantes and the people of Verulamion and Braughing areas and their allies, were rewarded with political alliances and access to trade with Rome. As far as Rome was concerned, southeast Britain was conquered. The next stage was to allow the effects of trade and cultural contacts to prepare the way for full Roman occupation with all of the apparatus of government and law.

But any immediate plans were put aside by the serious rising of almost all tribes in Gaul (modern day France) united under one commander, Vercingetorix (whose name means ‘victor in 100 battles’). The whole of Gaul had to be conquered a second time. Of the six million people living in Gaul before Caesar arrived in 58 BC, one million were killed and one million were sold as slaves when he left in 50 BC. Caesar himself wrote in his Commentaries on the War in Gaul that peace had been brought to the whole of Gaul. This was the peace of a graveyard.

Statue of Vercingetorix

Statue of Vercingetorix

During the subsequent civil wars in the empire, Britain was forgotten except by Roman merchants using trading posts. As soon as Julius Caesar’s nephew, Augustus, established himself as the princeps in 27 BC, he realized there was unfinished business that needed attention. There was an indication that he was thinking about invading Britain in the autumn of that year, when he was in southern Gaul reorganizing the province. But any serious plans for an expedition the following year were swept aside by trouble in Spain. He was by nature cautious, preferring compromise as a solution.

Augustus of Prima Porta

Statue of Emperor Augustus Caesar

Trying to balance the needs of a large sprawling empire, he decided not to launch a campaign against Britain when there were other more pressing military operations elsewhere. Thus, he maintained Roman influence over the British rulers by diplomatic means. As long as Rome had strong allies along coastline Britain who controlled the main points of entry from Gaul, he did not feel there was a need for further action. Nonetheless, he kept a wary eye on Britain since changes in British tribal dynasties could upset the balance of power. He did not want coastal areas, important for trade and potential landing points, to fall into hostile hands. Augustus was reluctant to interfere with British politics, but there were times when this became necessary.

Ara Pacis: Processional frieze showing members of the Imperial household

Ara Pacis: Processional frieze showing members of the Imperial household

 

Polarization of the British tribal dynasties remained and a fascinating pattern of shifting inter-tribal relationships can be dimly perceived through the study of coinage that was minted by the Britons themselves. Coin evidence is no substitute for political detailed political accounts. Nevertheless, it provides us with the earliest names of the players in the 1st century British power struggle. They provide a crude indicator of tribal territories, alliances and the political geography of southeast Britain in the decades before the Roman invasion of AD 43. The following is a discussion of the political struggles of British tribal dynasties north of the Thames and Kent.

Map Ancient Britain 1st Center

Map Ancient Southeast Britain

Addedomaros

The first identifiable king to mint coins was Addedomaros. He became the ruler of the Trinovantes in approximately 25 BC and was probably the successor to Mandubracius—an ally of Caesar on his second expedition. At the time of his death, Mandubracius may not have had any heirs. Possibly Addedomaros succeeded to the throne after a brief struggle between the remaining Trinovantian noble houses. Addedomaros  moved his center of government from the eastern headwaters of the river Lea to a new site on the east coast which he named ‘the fort of the war god Camulos,’ known as Camulodunum (Colchester).  The reason for this move is that he may have felt increasingly under pressure from the growing strength of the Catuvellauni whose tribal base was situated only a few miles from the river Lea. Establishing a new capital offered the benefit of shortening the lines of communication with the continent.

Trinovantes Coin Minted at Camulodunon

Trinovantes Coin Minted at Camulodunon

Addedomaros either warred with or was a client to the Catuvellaunian ruler, Tasciovanus. For a brief period from 15-10 BC, Tasciovanus issued coins from Camulodunum (minted mark CAMV[lodunum]. The circumstances of his brief reign over the Trinovantes and his sudden move back to his old tribal capital is not clear. His power over the Trinovantes may have been due to conquest or dynastic marriage.

Gold coin of_Addedomarus 35BCE_1BCE

Gold coin of Addedomarus 35BCE – 1BCE

Tasciovanus

Several small tribes came under the rule of Tasciovanus, whose center of power was at Verulamium (St. Albans). He ruled under the title of ricomus, the Celtic equivalent of the Latin rex, interpreted as ‘king. Several coin issued by Tasciovanus indicate he had a long reign. At the peak of his career, his coins spread south of the Thames to the Northwest. This young and energetic Catuvellaunian ruler could have overran the Trinovantes and surrounding tribes in his lust for power.

Celtic Gold Stater Minted by Tasciovanus, Catuvellauni

Celtic Gold Stater Minted by Tasciovanus, Catuvellauni

Another possibility is that he created an alliance with the Trinovantes by the means of a dynastic marriage. His mother may have been the daughter of Mandubracius and he went to war or formed an alliance with the Trinovantes on that pretext. Whatever the circumstances, he was able to bring together two powerful kingdoms for a short time and pass it on to Cunobeline, who claimed to be his son.

Remains Verulamium Wall

Remains Ancient Verulamium Wall

Dubnovellaunus

On the death of Tasciovanus, or towards the end of his reign, the throne of the Trinovantes was taken over by Dubnovellaunus. His coins were found in two quite separate areas, that of the Trinovantes and Northeast Kent, with very little overlap. The coins from Camulodunum closely follow the style of Addedomaros, which suggests Dubnovellaunus was his direct successor. The series of coins based in Canterbury, however, appears similar to Tasciovanus.

Based on limited Roman records, Dubnovellaunus was probably acting under Roman advice and economic pressure. Augustus, a skilled statesman, built up alliances with political forces in Britain which had pro-Roman leanings. Of these, the Trinovantes and their allies were the most important, as the control of East Kent by a Roman ally was paramount. By 15 BC certain British rulers made offerings in Rome, implying formal treaties were ratified with the empire. An inscription in Ankara, Turkey known as Monumentum Ancyranum said two British Kings, Dubnovellaunus and Tincommius, appeared as supplicants in Rome presumably after they had fled the kingdoms. The accepted date of this monument is AD 7, which means that their flight from Britain must be dated before this.

Monumentum Ancyranum; Temple of Augustus in Ankara, Turkey

Monumentum Ancyranum; Temple of Augustus in Ankara, Turkey

In conclusion, the records suggest a flurry of diplomatic activity by Augustus in 17 BC which can be linked with the sudden rise of Dubnovellaunus and the spread of Roman control over the Thames Estuary. This was reversed in  AD 1 when Cunobeline seized power and the Catuvellauni took control of the region.

To be continued

The next posts will provide an overview of the rise of Cunobeline and the political struggles in Southern Britain.

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.

Graham Webster, The Roman Invasion of Britain, Graham Webster, Reprinted 1999 by Routledge, New York, NY.

John Peddie, Conquest: The Roman Invasion of Britain, St. Martin’s Press, New York, NY 10010.

Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Bollingen Series XVII, 3rd Edition; New World Library, Novato, CA 

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.

Caesar’s Invasions of Britain: Celtic Perspective

“Of the inhabitants, those of Cantium (Kent), an entirely maritime district, are far the most advanced, and the type of civilization here prevalent differs little from that of Gaul. With most of the more inland tribes, the cultivation of corn disappears and a pastoral form of life succeeds, flesh and milk forming the principal diet, and skins of animals the dress. On the other hand, the Britons all agree in dying their bodies with woad, a substance that yields a bluish pigment, and in battle greatly increases the wildness of their look. Their hair is worn extremely long, and with the exception of the head and upper lip the entire body is shaved.” (Julius Caesar’s account of Britain)

Caesar’s Invasions of Britain: Celtic Perspective

Introduction

In researching Celtic history, I ran across an interesting book entitled, “History of the Kings of Britain,” that was written in Latin by Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1136 AD. This book traces the history of Britons through a sweep of nineteen hundred years stretching from the mythical Brutus, great-grandson of the Trojan Aeneas, to the last British King, Cadwallader. Geoffrey claims he translated his stories from ‘a certain very ancient book written in the British language’ that was given him by Walter the Archdeacon. Though his work has been sharply criticized for its historical inaccuracies, there are bits of truth that cannot be completely discounted.

Celtic Tribes in Britain

Celtic Tribes in Britain

Of particular interest is Geoffrey’s account of Caesar’s invasions of Britain and his battles with Cassivellaunus that is told from his patriotic British viewpoint. What rings true in his story is the fragility of the British rulers’ egos and their lust for power, a weakness that eventually plays into the hands of Claudius who invaded Britain in 43 AD. Previous posts which have summarized Caesar’s Invasions of Britain from his accounts are located in the archives under the categories: Julius Caesar and Roman Invasion of Britain

Below is a summary of Geoffrey’s version. One has to wonder if there are some truths from this version that put some of Caesar’s accounts into question.

Geoffrey’s Account of Caesar’s Invasions of Britain

Julius Caesar was fascinated with Britain as he had been told the Britons were founded by Brutus, a descendant of Aeneas who fled from the ruined city of Troy to Italy. Although the Romans descended from the same ancient Trojan stock as the Britons, he underestimated them believing it would be a simple matter of forcing them to pay tribute and to swear their perpetual obedience to Rome. Thus, Caesar dispatched a message to the British King Cassivellaunus with demands that he pay tribute.

Reading the message, Cassivellaunus became indignant and sent Caesar a written message refusing to accept the terms of slavery. He further says, “It is friendship which you should have asked of us, not slavery. For our part we are more used to making allies than to enduring the yoke of bondage…we shall fight for our liberty and for our kingdom.”

The moment Caesar read this letter he prepared his fleet to set sail to Britain.

Ancient Roman Ship Frieze

Roman Ship Image on Frieze

King Cassivellaunus—along with his brother Nennius, his nephew Androgeus (Duke of Trivovantum) and other nobles—marched down to meet Caesar after he landed and set-up his camp near the British Dover Cliffs. A fierce hand-to-hand battle ensued. In single combat, Caesar cut his sword into Nennius’ shield that he could not wrench out. Nennius, taking Caesar’s sword, raged up and down the battlefield killing everyone he met. The Britons pressed forward as a united front cutting the Roman forces into pieces. That night, Caesar reformed his ranks, boarded his ships and sailed back to Gaul in defeat.

Overview White Cliffs Britain

Dover Cliffs Kent Britain

Nennius succumbed to his wounds fifteen days after the battle and died. Cassivellaunus buried him with Caesar’s sword called Yellow Death, for no man who was struck by it escaped alive.

Celtic Sword

Celtic Sword and Scabbard

Two years later, Caesar prepared to cross the sea a second time to avenge Cassivellaunus for the humiliating defeat he had suffered at his hands. As soon as the King heard of this, he garrisoned villages everywhere and planted stakes shod with iron and lead below the water-line in the bed of the River Thames, up which Caesar would have to sail to attack Trivovantum.

Celtic Roundhouses on Hill Fort

Ancient Celtic Village on Hill Top

Cassivellaunus and every man of military age waited for Caesar to cruise up the Thames where his ships were ripped apart by the stakes. As a result, thousands of Romans drowned, but several survivors clambered with Caesar onto dry land. The King ordered his warriors to charge the remaining Romans. The Britons, outnumbering the Romans three to one, were victorious over their weakened enemy. Again, Caesar escaped to his remaining undamaged ships and sailed back to Gaul.

Celtic Horned Helmet

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

Elated from his overwhelming victory, Cassivellaunus invited all his noblemen to a glorious feast where cows, sheep, fowl, and wild beasts in the hundreds were sacrificed as offerings to the gods. At the sporting events that night, the King’s nephew was beheaded by the nephew of Duke Androgeus in a dispute. Enraged, Cassivellaunus demanded that the Duke present his nephew in court for sentence. Androgeus refused.

Celtic Round House

Celtic Round House for Assembly

Enraged by the Duke’s refusal, Cassivellaunus ravaged his lands. In desperation, Androgeus dispatched a message to Caesar with a plea to help him restore his position. Only after the Duke sent his son, together with thirty young nobles as hostages, did Caesar depart for Britain a third time.

Ancient Roman Ship Replica

Model of Ancient Roman Ship

This time, Cassivellaunus was sacking Trinovantum when Caesar landed. Upon hearing the news of Caesar’s return, the King abandoned his siege and rushed to meet his Roman adversary. When the two sides met, they hurled deadly weapons at each other and exchanged mortal blows with their swords. In an unexpected move, Androgeus and his forces attacked the rear of the King’s battle line, forcing his warriors to give ground from the assaults on both sides.

Roman Legion

Roman Soldiers in Legion

The King took flight from the battlefield and retreated to a hill top. Caesar besieged the hill, but he still could not defeat the King. Even now, when driven off the battle-field, Cassivellaunus and his battered forces continued resisting a man whom the whole world could not withstand. Caesar resorted to cutting off all means for the King’s retreat and to starving them.

Maiden Castle Hill-Fort

Ramparts and Ditches Maiden Castle Hill-Fort

After two days without food, Cassivellaunus sent a message asking Androgeus to make peace for him with Caesar. When the envoys delivered the message to Androgeus, he said, “The leader who is as fierce as a lion in peace-time but as gentle as a lamb in time of war is not really worth much.” Nonetheless, he was moved by the King’s pleas and went to Caesar to plead mercy for the King. He told Caesar, “All that I promised you is this, that I would help you humble Cassivellaunus and conquer Britain. He is beaten, and, with my help, Britain is in your hands. Yet I cannot allow you to kill him while I myself remain alive.”

Celtic Carnyx War Horn

Celtic Carnyx Serpent War Horn

Ultimately, Caesar made peace with Cassivellaunus who, in turn, promised yearly tribute to Rome. The tale ends well as Caesar and Cassivellaunus become great friends and give each other gifts. Androgeus travels to Rome as a guest of Caesar.

Concluding Remarks

Certainly the above tale of Caesar’s Invasions of Britain differs from the Roman General’s account, but there are some similarities. Caesar wrote that, after Cassivellaunus brought down the King of the Trinovantes, his son Mandubracius fled to Gaul. He asked for Caesar’s help in regaining the Trinovantes kingdom. On Caesar’s second invasion of Britain in 54 BC, Cassivellaunus fiercely resisted the Romans, but he eventually surrendered after they devastated his territories and other rival kings sought peace with his enemy.

Celtic Greaves

Celtic Greaves

Though Caesar was proclaimed a hero by the Roman Senate for his accomplishments in Britain, it can be argued his expeditions were not successful as he did not complete the conquest. The scenario of British rulers fleeing to Rome and asking for help to regain their sovereignty from rival rulers repeats time and time again up to the final conquest by Emperor Claudius in 43 AD. At that time, the King of the Atrebates, Verica, asked for help from Claudius in regaining his territory from Caratacus, a chieftain from the Catuvellauni tribe.

Richborough Roman Fort Ruins

Richborough Roman Fort, Site of Roman Invasion Under Claudius

To be continued

The next posts will provide an overview of rival dynastic kings that came to power in Britain between the time period of Caesar’s invasion of Britain in 54 BC up to Claudius’ conquest in 43 AD.

References:

Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, translated with an introduction by Lewis Thorpe; Penguin Books, New York; first published 1966.

Julius Caesar, The Conquest of Gaul, translated by Rev. F. P. Long and introduction by Cheryl Walker; Barnes  & Noble, Inc.,  New York; 2005.

Roman Empire Influence on Britain

Roman Empire Influence on Britain

Britain’s New Reality with Rome

In less than five years since Julius Caesar first entered Gaul in 58 BC, western Europe was transformed. Gaul (modern day France) was under Roman control after he finished his conquest in the winter of 51-50 BC. Civil war in Rome slowed the progress of converting Gaul into a province and there were occasional local uprisings to be brought under control. But by 27 BC, the situation was sufficiently stable for a national census to be instituted. In 12 BC the process of incorporation was marked by the dedication of an altar to Rome and Emperor Augustus at Lugdunum (Lyon, France) in the presence of representatives from sixty tribes of Gaul.

Roman Amphitheater from Lugdunum Gaul (Modern Day Lyon, France)

Roman Amphitheater from Lugdunum Gaul (Modern Day Lyon, France)

The integration of Gaul into the political and economic sphere of Rome had a significant effect on Britain, particularly the southeastern region. One of the major changes was the trade routes between continental Europe and Britain. The networks that had linked the north coast of Armorica with the port of Hengistbury Head in southern Britain came to an abrupt end and were replaced by new routes between northern Gaul and the Thames estuary. One plausible explanation for the shift in the trading axis was Caesar’s devastating attack on the rebel Armoricans in 56 BC totally disrupted the traditional networks. His negotiated treaties with the Trinovantes may have offered them a trading monopoly, or at least preferential treatment. He established Pro-Roman dynasties in the two most powerful tribes (Catuvellauni and Trinovantes).

Peoples of Southern Britain According to Ptolemy's Map

Peoples of Southern Britain According to Ptolemy’s Map

At the time Strabo was writing, late in the first century BC, there were four major routes in operation for ships wishing to cross to Britain, starting from the mouths of the four great rivers—the Rhine, the Seine, the Loire, and the Gironde. Those setting out from the Rhine usually sailed down the coast to Gesoriacum (Boulogne) before making the crossing.

Roman Lighthouse Dover

Ancient Roman Lighthouse on Dover Cliffs

 

Strabo lists the principal exports of Britain as ‘grain, cattle, gold, silver and iron…also hides and slaves and dogs that are by nature suited to the purpose of the chase’. In return the Britons received ‘ivory chains and necklaces and amber gems and glass vessels and other pretty wares of that sort’. Thus, Britain provided raw materials and manpower in return for manufactured luxuries.

Celtic Brooch

Celtic Brooch

Slave Trade

The major effect in trading with Rome was to satisfy their demand for slaves. In British society there was little need for slaves, but the Roman world was an avid consumer and by the mid-first century BC, slaves were in short supply. Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul more than met the need, some writers saying he enslaved a third of the Gaulish population. But once Gaul was transformed from a war zone to a province, the supply of slaves rapidly diminished and other sources had to be found.

Celtic Shield British Museum

Celtic Shield La Tène Style

Britain met the demands of Rome’s need for slaves. The less developed parts of the west and north provided profitable hunting grounds. The demand of the southeastern elites for marketable slaves likely encouraged their warfare and raiding on the peripheral regions. Tribes living around the periphery were willing to export people, presumably captives taken in local disputes for the slave grade. Thus, conflict became profitable. How extensive slave-trading was we can only guess.

Celtic Village of Roundhouses

Replication of Ancient Celtic Village of Roundhouses in Wales

There have been archaeological finds of gain-chains, or sets of slave neck-irons. Slave trade appeared to be centered in the Catuvellauni kingdom. The exotic British slaves commanded a premium price in the slave market. Strabo described the British slaves as taller than the Celts in Gauls and not so yellow-haired, although their bodies are of lower build. He goes on to say that he himself in Rome ‘saw mere lads towering as much as half a foot above the tallest people in the city, although they were bandy-legged (bow legged) and presented no fair lines anywhere else in their figure’.

Roman and Celtic Shields Used in Ancient Britain

Roman and Celtic Shields Used in Ancient Britain

Acculturation of British Rulers

Not only were Britons enslaved, hostages were taken from the families of the British elite. Many of the subsequent British rulers after Caesar’s invasion spent their youth in Rome, growing up in aristocratic circles and conceivably gaining experience in the Roman army before returning to Britain to assume leadership roles.

Celtic Child in Roma Ara Pacis Procession Nord Particolare

Celtic Child with Roman Noblemen on Frieze of Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace)

Minted coins proclaimed the identities of indigenous rulers loyal to Rome. The practice of establishing client-kings outside the boundaries of direct control of Rome was a standard device of their diplomacy. During this period, evidence suggested shifts in political powers of rulers in the most powerful tribal kingdoms as manifested where the minted coins were found. There was adoption of specific Roman rituals, use of orthogonal street systems in settlements, use of rectangular building, and construction of large dyke systems to mark out areas of territory.

Celtic Gold Stater Catuvellauni Tasciovanus

Celtic Gold Stater Catuvellauni Tasciovanus

Mobility of people between Britain and the Roman world increased over time. There was a tacit acceptance, at least by some of the major tribes of the southeast, that Britain was subservient to Rome. In an ode written about 15 BC the poet Horace would list the Britons among those who ‘admired’ or ‘heard’ the Emperor Augustus and a little later Strabo noted that ‘certain of the British dynasts have obtained the friendship of Caesar Augustus by embassies and courtesies and have set up offering to the Capitol.’ Acts of this kind helped to maintain the pretense that Britain had been conquered.

Augustus of Prima Porta

Statue of Emperor Augustus Caesar

In Britain, support for Rome was a powerful diplomatic weapon in the constant power struggles that engaged the British elite. It probably became custom and practice for rulers in southeast Britain to consult formally with Rome about who should succeed the ruler of a client-kingdom. For some, Rome provided a safe haven when they were forced to flee. About 10 AD two British leaders, Tincomarus and Dubnovellaunus from the southern kingdoms, were obviously on the losing side in a British political dispute, as they were put under the emperor’s protection in Rome. This event was considered significant enough to be recorded on an imperial monument in Ankara.

Ancient Ruins of Verulamium Wall near St. Albans

Ancient Ruins of Verulamium near St. Albans Tribal Center of the Catuvellauni Tribe

The ousting of pro-Roman leaders provided Rome with the opportunity to invade Britain. In 39 AD, Adminius, a son of the powerful king Cunobelin, deserted to the Romans with a small force. The Roman historians recorded the surrender of Adminius to Caligula as a farce. The Emperor told his troops to pick-up seashells as spoils of war to give to the Senate. The more likely scenario is Adminius persuaded Caligula that Britain was vulnerable to attack and that an invasion would construe a great victory for him. The troops probably refused to follow Caligula into the channel to invade Britain. Nonetheless, the planning and movement of troops benefited Claudius in 43 AD when Rome finally invaded Britain.

Young Roman on Horseback

Statue of Caligula on Horseback

 

To be Continued

The next posts will provide an overview of the powerful tribes and rulers in Britain between Caesar’s invasion in 54-55 BC to the time of Claudius’ invasion in 43 AD.

References:

Barry Cunliffe, Britain Begins; Oxford University Press, 2013.

Graham Webster, The Roman Invasion of Britain, Reprinted 1999 by Routledge (Imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group), NY.

John Manley, AD 43 The Roman Invasion of Britain: A Reassessment; Tempus Publishing, Inc., Charleston, SC.

Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 2005.

 

Julius Caesar Impact on Ancient Britain

Of the inhabitants, those of Cantium (Kent), an entirely maritime district, are far the most advanced, and the type of civilization here prevalent differs little from that of Gaul—Julius Caesar

Introduction

In 1st Century, Celtic maritime networks were revitalized in the northern Atlantic region as a result of Roman commercial activities in southern Gaul (modern day France). Celtic social ties on both sides of the British channel were strengthened and new alliances were formed.

When Julius Caesar marched into free Gaul in 58 BC, these maritime networks were disrupted as he conquered Gaul and put the region under Roman control. His forays into Britain in 55-54 BC introduced the Britons to the reality of Roman power and the consequences of sending their warriors to aid fellow Celts in Gaul.

Roman Eagle Standard

Roman Eagle Standard

Caesar wrote, ‘no one goes there [Britain] except traders, and even they are acquainted only with the sea-coasts and the areas that are opposite of Gaul.’ Prior to his first excursion in 55 BC, Caesar summoned ‘traders from these parts’ for information of Britain, but they told him nothing of value. This would seem surprising given the extensive trade between Gaul and Britain. A likely explanation is these traders chose to be highly selective with the intelligence they shared. The Gallic traders warned the Britons of Caesar’s intention to land on their island. As a result, several of the British tribes send envoys offering hostages and allegiance to Caesar while he was in Gaul.

Side-by-side Comparison of Celtic and Roman Chariots

Celtic Chariot Comparison to Roman Chariot


Commius, King of the Atrebates

Caesar pursued the offers made by British envoys by sending Commius—a chief of the Atrebates in Gaul and confidant of the Romans—to persuade the Britons not to resist the Romans when they landed in 55 BC. However, Commius was immediately imprisoned by the Britons. He was later handed back as part of of Caesar’s peace settlement with the Celtic leaders on his first expedition. During Caesar’s second expedition to Britain in 54 BC, Commius negotiated the surrender of the British leader Cassivellaunus (see below). Commius remained loyal to Caesar through the Gaulish revolts of 54 BC, and Rome rewarded him by allowing the Atrebates tribe to remain independent and to be exempt from tax.

Diplomatic Gift to a Chieftain ruling in Southern Britain, possibly Commius of the Atrebates.

Diplomatic Gift to a Chieftain ruling in Southern Britain, possibly Commius of the Atrebates.

Although Commius was at first an ally of Rome, he switched sides to join the revolt in Gaul led by Vercingetorix in 52 BC. He later escaped to Britain to join his people who had already settled there. He established a powerful kingdom based at Calleva (modern day Silchester). By about 30 BC, Commius had established himself as king of the Atrebates in Britain and was issuing coins.

Statue of Vercingetorix

Statue of Vercingetorix

Lessons Learned Caesar’s First Expedition

Caesar’s first expedition to Britannia had limited success. The main lesson learned was the ocean and its massive tides and racing currents was a more formidable opponent than the Britons. Natural forces wreaked havoc on the Roman logistics and destroyed several ships. Even though the native Britons were fierce fighters, they were totally unused to facing the disciplined Roman army. The various tribes were politically fragmented and made Roman diplomacy to divide them an effective weapon.

Overview White Cliffs Britain

Dover Cliffs Near Julius Caesar’s Landing in Ancient Britain


Mandubracius, King of the Trinovantes

To take advantage of the fragmentation between the tribal kings, Caesar negotiated a deal with Mandubracius, the son of the king of the Trinovantes. He had fled to Gaul to put himself under Caesar’s protection after his father had been killed in a conflict with his neighbor—Cassivellaunus, the king of the Catuvellauni. According to Caesar, the Catuvellauni were in a continual state of war with the other tribes in the area.

Celtic Horned Helmet

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

Caesar’s campaign in early July 54 BC was on a more massive scale. Five legions and 2,000 cavalry –some 27,000 men—were transported in over 800 vessels. The landing was unopposed. Mandubracius proved to be invaluable as a source of intelligence about the complexities of local politics and the principal centers of power in eastern Britain. He helped Caesar navigate through the terrain he would fight on. Armed with this information, Caesar made a rapid, though heavily opposed advance through Kent that let him to the Thames, which he crossed, probably near London.

Roman Cavalryman in Ancient Britain

Roman Cavalryman in Ancient Britain

Mandubracius was a political pawn that played to good effect for Caesar. The Trinovantes, whom Caesar describes as the strongest tribe in southeast Britain, sent a deputation to discuss terms for their surrender. In this agreement, Mandubracius was reinstated as the tribal king who Caesar promised to protect his sovereignty. In exchange, the Trinovantes surrendered to Caesar, sending forty hostages as an assurance of their good behavior and providing grain for the Roman army. The concession by the Trinovantes was the major turning point and other tribes quickly followed. In all likelihood the basic deal had already been negotiated during the winter, when Mandubracius was under Caesar’s protection in Gaul. Knowing that he could rely on the Trinovantes to come over to Rome would have emboldened Caesar to make his rapid advance into hostile territory across the Thames, dangerously far from his supply base.

Roman Wagon

Roman War Wagon Used in Ancient Britain


Cassivellaunus, King of the Catuvellauni

But the danger still existed for Caesar despite his settlement with the Trinovantes. His army made for Cassivellaunus’ oppidium (fortified town) of Verulamium in the vicinity of St. Albans. It was protected by forests and marshes, and a great number of men. Cassivellaunus sought the aid of four tribal kings in Kent to attack the Roman base and supply lines. The attack ultimately failed and there was little Cassivellaunus could do but negotiate for peace.

As it was late in the summer season, Caesar was eager to negotiate terms so he could return to Gaul. It was agreed the Catuvellanuni would pay an annual tribute to Rome and hand over hostages. Further, Cassivellaunus agreed to leave the Trinovantes in peace. With his primary aims achieved, Caesar returned to Gaul with a great many prisoners.

Ancient Ruins of Verulamium Wall near St. Albans

Ancient Ruins of Verulamium Wall near St. Albans

Julius Caesar Impact on Ancient Britain 

Roman Domination

Whether these two brief excursions into Britain could be judged a Roman success is debatable since we do not know what Caesar’s true aspirations were for this isle. It is likely he had grossly underestimated the perils of the Channel crossing and the ferocity of the British resistance. He embarked on these expeditions with considerable risk and was lucky to escape with his reputation unscathed. What he did show, even if it was at a price, was the ocean could be mastered and that the distant island was accessible. He also claimed that the first step was taken to bring Britain under Roman domination. As far as Rome was concerned, southeast Britain had been conquered and treaty relationships had been established with the most powerful tribes. Britons were now paying an annual tribute to the Roman state. Others would have to complete the conquest.

Roman and Celtic Shields Used in Ancient Britain

Roman and Celtic Shields Used in Ancient Britain

Tribal Patronage to Rome

The Britons form the southeast gained not only first-hand experience of Roman military might, but, more importantly, they learned how the Romans had politically divided the tribes. Before the Roman invasion, the Celtic tribes were engaged in local conflicts and struck-up up allegiances for mutual benefit. Now these tribal rulers had a far more powerful force enter the arena. To gain patronage from the Roman world could offer them real advantages.

Celtic Gold Torc

Celtic Gold Torc Worn by Celtic Leaders

The most important effect of Caesar on the British scene was to divide the southeastern tribes into pro- and anti-Roman groups. Those who had suffered defeat, i.e. the tribes on the north bank of the Thames and in Kent were forced to pay an annual tribute which sustained a festering hatred of Rome. Those who benefited, the Trinovantes and the Catuvellauni, were rewarded with political alliances and access to trade.

Peoples of Southern Britain According to Ptolemy's Map

Peoples of Southern Britain According to Ptolemy’s Map

Lucrative trading monopolies were negotiated, and the hostages—usually young men from elite families—could be educated in Roman ways. Those who remained abroad maintained filial links with their tribe, while those who chose to return would bring with them new knowledge and a network of contacts that could benefit all. The desire to travel and to explore the world was deeply embedded in the psyche of the Britons. Patronage to the Roman cities was expanded.

Celtic Child in Roma Ara Pacis Procession Nord Particolare

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


To be continued

The tribes that Caesar encountered in his first incursion that are mentioned above became powerful tribal kingdoms, in part, due to favorable treaties negotiated with Rome and favorable trading treaties. The subsequent rulers of these powerful kingdoms will be discussed in upcoming posts.

References:

Barry Cunliffe, Britain Begins; Oxford University Press, 2013.

Graham Webster, The Roman Invasion of Britain, Reprinted 1999 by Routledge (Imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group), NY.

Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 2005.

 

Ancient Britain History: Trading and Regionalism

Once having traversed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials…The hero is covertly aided by the advice, amulets, and secret agents of the supernatural helper whom he met before his entrance into the region.—Joseph Campbell 

Introduction

To understand the historical context that led to Rome’s decision to invade and conquer Britain in 43 AD, one needs to look back as far as 600 BC to understand the development of Ancient Britain and its connections to Continental Europe. Similar to the Modern World, the Ancient World had a global economy that allowed various regions to share their technology, philosophies, and religion. Major events in Continental Europe also impacted Britain.

Stonehenge, also known as Apollo's Temple since classical antiquity.

Stonehenge, also known as Apollo’s Temple since classical antiquity.

Ancient British history must be pieced together with accounts from classical writers (Greek and Roman) and archaeological finds. Unfortunately, many classical accounts did not survive in their entirety and the significance of archaeological finds are sometimes subjective.

The next series of posts on APOLLO’S RAVEN will provide a backdrop on how the events in Continental Europe impacted Ancient Britain.

 

Ancient Britain History

Descent into Regionalism (600 – 400 BC)

In the two centuries between 600- 400 BC, regional cultures that formed across the face of Britain framed the next thousand years of development. Britain could be divided into three broad settlement zones: 1) eastern zone characterized by open villages and enclosed homesteads, 2) western zone of strongly-defended homesteads, and 3) central hill-fort dominated zone.

Celtic Village of Roundhouses

Ancient Celtic Village of Roundhouses

The eastern zone stretching from the Thames to southern Scotland has an array of landscapes. Each area had its own settlement patterns and economic systems. In the southern midland river valleys, often unenclosed farmsteads and villages prevailed. The North had a more broken landscape of upland, small enclosed farmlands.

Cliffside Dover Cliffs Britain

Coastal White CliffsBritain

The landscape in the western zone extending from Cornwall to the Northern Isles was more varied. The settlements were more characteristic of homesteads for single or extended family, often enclosed with earthworks or walls offering some defense. In the latter part of the Iron Age, these smaller homesteads gave rise to a multiple of defended homesteads to establish more strength.

Celtic Roundhouse of Chieftain (Interior)

Ancient Celtic Roundhouse of Chieftain (Interior), Wales

The hill-fort dominated zone stretched from the south coast to North Wales. It is here where hill-forts proliferated in landscapes. These hill-forts were characterized by a rampart and ditches of defensive proportions and were accessed usually through two gates on opposing sides. There were evidence of large settlements on these hill-forts with streets, houses, storage facilities, and domestic activities suggestive of permanent occupation. These hill-forts reflected a larger community, comprising a group of lineages that brought together a society with a common pursuit.

Maiden Castle Hill-Fort, England.

Maiden Castle Hill-fort, Dorset, England.

Various body decoration and hairstyles were important identities for all of the above societies.

Trading Connection Massilia

The founding of the Greek Colony of Massilia (modern day Marseilles) on the Mediterranean coast in about 600 BC was a significant moment in Western Europe. Even before this Greek city was established, Greek and Etruscan traders had been visiting Britain for several decades, building friendly relations with the natives of the coastal zone and the more inland regions. The sixth century saw the development of formal trading that stretched from eastern France to Southern Germany, where the local Hallstatt chieftains were able to acquire Mediterranean luxury goods to display and to consume in feasts and in elaborate burial rites.

Calanques Limestone Cove

Calanques Limestone Cove Near Marseilles (Ancient Massilia)

In the 5th Century BC, the Islands began receiving notice by the Mediterranean world based on claims from Herodotus that he heard rumors of tin-rich islands in the Atlantic. Herodotus wrote that in “the extreme tracts of Europe towards the west there were islands called Cassiterides (Tin Islands) where the metal was resourced.” Most likely, his information came from traders at Massalia who were secretive about where the tin was mined. Most likely, the Tin Islands referred to Cornwall which had significant ore deposits.

Linnea Tanner at Château d'If Marseille

Château d’If Prison Overlooking Bay into Marseille


Tin and Pytheas

The importance of tin in the ancient world cannot be over-stressed. As an essential component in bronze, it was constantly in demand. Its rarity within Europe meant that knowledge of where to obtain this commodity was highly valued and protected.

Pytheas, entrepreneur and scientist, set out from Massalia about 320 BC to explore the northwestern extremities of Europe. He was probably the first to observe tin trade between Cornwall and the ports of Atlantic Gaul. Only fragments of the accounts of his remarkable travels survive. However, he probably travelled through Gaul (modern day France) and crossed to the western end of the Channel to Belerion, an ancient name given to Cornwall or Kernow, which has been translated as “Shining Land” or “Seat of Storms.”

Dover Cliffs United Kingdom

Dover Cliffs England

He observed first-hand the processes of tin extraction and exchange. His description may have been used by 1st Century writer, Diodorus Siculus, who describes the inhabitants as follows:

The inhabitants of Britain living on the promontory called Belerion are especially friends to strangers and have adopted a civilized way of life because of their interactions with traders and other peoples. It is they who work the tin, treating the layers. This layer, being like rock, contains earthy seams and in them the workers quarry the ore, which they melt down to clean of its impurities. Then they work the tin into pieces the size of knuckle-bones and convey it to an island which lies off Britain, call Ictis.

Cornwall Coastal Region

Cornwall Coast Porthcurno Beach

After Cornwall, Pytheas sailed northwards through the Irish Sea, stopping at the Isle of Man. He may have also made an open-sea voyage to Iceland and returned along the east coast of Britain. The description of the tin trade implies a regular and well-ordered process was used in the trading with established rules. A place of assembly was designated as a free zone where all were given a guarantee of safe conduct. The traders would have timed their visits based on sailing conditions. On offshore islands, natives would be ready to trade ingots for Mediterranean goods.

Collapse White Cliffs Wall Britain

Coastal White Cliffs Near Dover

Localized Warfare

From the third century BC, archaeological findings indicate localized warfare became more aggressive, particularly in the hill-fort zone of central southern Britain. This could have been due to tensions caused by a growing population and the desire of chieftains to acquire and hold onto productive land at a time when fertility may have begun to fail in some regions. Disputes could flare into hostile and bloody confrontations.

Celtic Shield British Museum

Celtic Shield La Tène Style

During this time, fortresses were strengthened for defense. Ditches were re-dug and ramparts rebuilt, now with a continuous slope from the bottom of the ditch to the top of the rampart. Several of these hill-forts were rebuilt as a result of a devastating fire.

Maiden Castle Hill-Fort

Ramparts and Ditches Maiden Castle Hill-Fort

At Danebury, in Hampshire, a fire seemed to have damaged large areas of the interior in the last 4th Century. The hill-fort was then as strongly re-defended in the third century, but another fire in the 1st Century destroyed the gate, after which the site was abandoned. Though the fires may have not been result of enemy action, the large number of sling-stones found at this site suggests inhabitants were ready to defend their position. Further evidence of warfare is based on archaeological finds of human skeletons scarred with marks of violence.

Celtic Greaves

Celtic Greaves

Beginning in the first century, there was an increase of horse bones found at some of these hill-forts suggesting the build-up of war chariots and the training of horses to power them. After the destruction of the hill-fort at Danebury, the hill-fort at Bury Hill was brought back into use with a new set of defenses comprising a ditch with an inner and outer rampart. The most significant find from this site was horses accounted for more than a quarter of the animal bones. There were exceptional quantities of horse gear and chariot fittings. It seems that the building of war chariots and training of teams of horses to power them reflect a more excitable and aggressive stance among the elite.

Footpath Around Bury Hill-Fort

Footpath Circling Bury Hill-Fort; Photograph by Chris Talbot

By the time Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 55 – 54 BC, the localized political rivalries were very much in evidence and the war strategy of using chariots that at first confounded his Roman army. He took advantage of the localized political rivalries by pitting British tribal rulers against each other so they would not unite as a formidable force against the Roman legions (previously discussed in the last two posts.

Celtic Horned Helmet

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


To be Continued

The next post will detail how the changing political climate in Continental Europe impacted Britain.

References

Barry Cunliffe, Britain Begins; Oxford University Press, 2013.

Graham Webster, The Roman Invasion of Britain, Reprinted 1999 by Routledge (Imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group), NY.

Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 2005.

Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces; New world Library, Novato, CA; 2008.