02:03. Commios.

What follows is very much a ‘work in progress’. I began writing what I thought might become a narrative history of Roman Britain in the late 1980s, and quickly realised that such a thing is not possible. The very best that could be done would be to build up a speculative history; which is to say a narrative that, to the best of my knowledge, could be the way things did actually occur. This, then, is neither fiction nor non-fiction, but intermediate between the two, in the same way that the sources are neither history nor prehistory but what can be termed proto-history. I left things to gather dust from about 2000 to 2011, but I have since taken matters up again and I have been pottering on. I have made additions and alterations, and I have straightened out the footnotes and bibliographies. If you are really interested, leave a message in the comment box below and I will email you an updated version of the text that you require.


Stephen Symons.

Britannia Capta Part 2.


Chapter 02.03.




02:03:01. Socius.


Mention has already been made of one Commios, King of the Gaulish Atrebates, a man who served Caesar well during his two expeditions to Britannia. This Commios is a key figure in the events that shaped the polities of southern Britain during the century between the invasions, and it is necessary to take a closer look at such an influential person. What do we know of him? It is as well to recapitulate upon the early stages of his career and then to continue his tale.


Caesar knew him well, thought highly of him, and mentioned him frequently in his writings, sufficiently frequently, in fact, to allow a fairly clear biographical snapshot of Commios from the years 55 to 50 BCE. So often does Caesar mention this man that he is the clearest non-Roman personality to emerge from the Commentaries: one would suspect that Caesar felt very strongly for him indeed.


Commios was born about 80 BCE into the tribe of north west Gaul known as the Atrebates. Obviously a young nobleman, Caesar had made him king of that tribe after their conquest [1]. Their lands lay on the north bank of the Somme, their tribal centre the town that is now known as Arras. The how and why of his rank are never explained, and Commios emerges on record from the very first as a fully fledged king. He was, moreover, one whom Caesar viewed as “a man of whose courage, judgement and loyalty he had a high opinion” [Caesar DBG: 5:1]. He was also known and held in respect in Britain, due to the fact that there were Atrebatean septs on both sides of the Channel. Just how accurate was Caesar’s view of Commios’ personal qualities is open to debate, as is the extent of the latter’s authority amongst the British Atrebates.


The means by which Commios had come into the kingship is unknown. It may have been through perfectly normal internal means and he may have been chief of the Atrebates by constitutional right, assuming the title of rex at the behest of Caesar. He may also have been foisted upon his people by Caesar, perhaps by virtue of the leadership of a pro-Roman faction. Doubtless he had some sort of legitimate claim to the chieftainship even in the latter case, and doubtless many of his people supported his elevation, as they would show later when times had changed. Equally, many would also have opposed it. Furthermore, his status as a Roman puppet would not necessarily have enhanced his popularity rating amongst his Hampshire kinfolk. The true status of Roman regal appointments is unknown.


Whatever his standing in the polls, he was a Caesar loyalist and commanded some sort of authority in Britain as well as Gaul. He was the obvious choice for a mediator in any dealings between  Rome and the anti-Verulamian or pro-Roman elements in Britain. Caesar trusted him to the extent that, when British chieftains arrived in Gaul in 55 BCE to offer submission, Commios was sent back with them as Caesar’s envoy. Caesar was, quite naturally, eager to foment as much discord in Britain as possible, implementing the first half of the divide et impera policy. In line with the current Roman logic of Empire, his target was not so much territorial gains as such as the domination of people. And this could be done all the more easily if the various groups were at each other’s throats, which is to say that he needed to undermine the power of the Verulami and to have the other tribes fawning, obedient servants at Rome’s feet. The former were rapidly extending their power over much of southern  Britain. The Atrebates of Hampshire would have noted this progress with some alarm and would have realised that they were next on the list, even if actual clashes had not already occurred. They would have no reason to love Cassivellaunos, and every reason to welcome overtures from a powerful friend. Commios was the ideal choice to head a high-level pro-Roman delegation back to Britain.


Commios’ brief was “to visit as many tribes as possible, to urge them to entrust themselves to the protection of Rome and to announce his (Caesar’s) impending arrival” [Caesar DBG: 5:1]. In other words, Commios was to form a strong pro-Roman network that would halt or forestall any coalition of anti-Roman tribes who might collude to counter the coming invasion. Quite naturally, Caesar wanted the cheapest possible expedition, in which the legions would land, encamp, advance unhindered and take over the country with as little loss and as much glory – to Caesar – as possible. This is not quite as far-fetched as it may seem, as a considerable British pro-Roman sentiment was already manifest in the form of the supplicant chieftains and needed only the right diplomatic handling. There were many attendant problems, for example those who had fled Gaul simply to get away from Caesar, but these were not necessarily insurmountable by dint of a bit of diplomacy.  Many had established themselves in the south, fleeing from Roman depredations and would have no cause to welcome him in Britain. Quite the opposite. On the other hand, Commios certainly was on good terms with others, in particular his Atrebatean cousins, and his persuasion might bring them around to Caesar’s cause. It is possible that a nice juicy carrot, perhaps an Atrebatean client kingdom shored up by the legions across southern Britain, was waved under Commios’ nose. Dutifully, he and the other chieftains set sail and disappeared into the mists of Britain.


His mission met with little success. When Caesar at last arrived off the coast of Kent he was forced to fight a costly battle on Walmer beach against the very men who shortly before had offered him submission. After the battle the defeated chieftains sent Caesar’s favourite, Commios, to the general to intercede on their behalf but Commios himself would have needed a smooth talking advocate to explain his failures. He pleaded the excuse that he had been taken prisoner whilst discharging his embassy and proclaiming the joys of slavery under the Romans. If that had been so, one is forced to concede that the British tribesmen had a valid point, and wonder at their restraint in simply binding him and imprisoning him rather than forcing him to divine the future by examining his own entrails. The chieftains who had submitted to Caesar had likewise been forced by their own people to recant, so they said, and lead their warriors into battle. Again, if true, this offers an intriguing insight into Brythonic politics. Interestingly, Caesar accepted this tale and the chieftains received no more than a stern ticking off.


The truth of the matter may well be simply that Commios got lost and landed too far to the east, where he fell into the hands of people who were not in the least interested in submitting to Rome without a fight.


Whether or not Caesar truly believed this tale is moot, but no doubt he had little choice in the matter. The chieftains were contrite, or seemed to be, the tribesmen had received a very stern lesson and the people were submissive. To try to exact some bloody retribution on those who, by virtue of their earlier submission, were now technically rebels, would have been officious to say the least. Moreover, Caesar was in no position to push his luck too far. He probably thought that the most prudent course was to put the best possible face on things and to play the benign, forgiving autocrat. For the time being clementia rather than atrocitas was the best policy.


Commios seems to have wormed his way back into Caesar’s good graces very quickly. He threw his small contingent of about thirty horsemen onto the Roman side when hostilities flared anew a few days later, himself probably riding at their head. These men played a key role in the engagement and Caesar was grateful as he had virtually no cavalry at this point. Just who these thirty men were is unclear, but they were probably some sort of royal bodyguard who had followed their leader from Gaul [2] with Caesar’s troops. Their presence, and the material assistance that they rendered to the Roman cause would have surely dispelled any misgivings that Caesar might have momentarily held about their master.


The first Roman expedition to Britain came to its inconclusive end and Commios returned to Gaul with his liege. When, in due time, the second expedition set sail, Commios was with them. No doubt he was near to Caesar during the campaign, advising, liaising with the natives, and assisting his commander to the full extent of his considerable ability. Indeed, when at last Cassivellaunos, apparently at bay, bowed to the pressure of Roman arms, it was Commios who acted as go-between and negotiated terms between the two combatants. As the winter of 54 – 53 BCE drew in, the legions departed from Britain once more and again Commios returned with them to Gaul.


Caesar was grateful for the signal services that his vassal had rendered. In reward, the Atrebates of Gaul were granted exemption from all taxes and were given back a notional independence. More, Commios was granted the overlordship of the neighbouring maritime tribe of the Morini. The territory of the latter lay around the area of modern Calais and they had submitted to Sabinus some two years earlier. Commios was now a wealthy and powerful man, and his loyalty to Rome was beyond question. He raised a regiment of auxiliary cavalry amongst his own people and entered service with the legions, and the Romans found his unit of great value. The year after the second expedition to Britain, in the summer of 53 BCE, the Treviri of the Moselle valley rose in revolt and to forestall an alliance between them and their neighbours the Menapii, Caesar, Fabius and Marcus Crassus descended upon the latter formidable people and crushed them. Commios and his regiment were stationed amongst the Menapii to ensure that matters stayed as Caesar had ordered.


In the winter of 53 BCE Caesar considered that all was sufficiently under control in Gaul for him to depart for Italy to hold his assizes. The legions were put into winter quarters and everything seemed peaceful. Commios was a trusted servant of Rome and the land was quiet.


Then something went badly amiss.




02:03:02 Inimicus.


            Labienus and Commios could not abide each other and enmity had been smouldering between them for years. Why this animosity should have sprung up is a mystery. Perhaps there was some rivalry for Caesar’s favour, perhaps Labienus sensed that Commios was not all that he seemed. Labienus may have felt that Commios’ loyalty to Rome and to Caesar was no more than expedient, which would have aroused Commios’ dislike whether he was guilty or innocent. He would have certainly returned the hostility. This was possibly the case, and the frustration of Labienus at seeing something that Caesar could not, at seeing a potential enemy cozening his leader and that leader unable to recognise the viper in his bosom, would have been unbearable. Perhaps the rivalry had roots that we can no longer know.


            The true loyalties of Titus Labienus are a matter of some interest. He had served Caesar as his right hand man during the whole of the Gallic campaign and was to serve under him, in total, for nine years during which he enormously enhanced his dignitas and amassed considerable wealth. He was trusted implicitly by Caesar, as is demonstrated by the fact that in 50 BCE the proconsul appointed him to take charge of Gallia Togata, Italian Gaul [Caesar DBG: 8:52]. But who was he anyway? And why was he in Gaul at all? His origins were in the Picenum, and his nomen of Labienus betrays Etruscan antecedents. He seems to have hailed from the town of Cingulum, which would have put him firmly within the ambit of the Pompeii and therefore the likelihood this his family were clients of the family of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus is very good. Very little is known of his career before he is recorded as Caesar’s lieutenant in the Gallic Wars, but it must have been fairly extensive for him to have reached such a senior post. He would have had considerable military experience, which, in large part, may well have been gained in the armies of Pompeius Magnus in the East [Syme 1938: p120]. His association with, and loyalty to, Pompeius was therefore in place from the beginning. Was he indeed Pompeius’s man all along? Certainly he had shown signal support for Pompeius in the past, as, for example, the law that he passed during his tribunate of 66 BCE giving Pompeius the right on his return from the East to wear triumphal dress at the games and the toga praetexta and a gold crown in the Theatre [Seagar 1979:p67]


            Why was Labienus in Gaul in the first place? It must be remembered that at the beginning of his Gaulish campaigns, Caesar’s experience as a commander of armies was recent of date and of brief duration [Syme 1938: p121]. He needed, and speedily acquired, senior and very experienced men ranging from career centurions to equestrians such as Labienus. If Labienus was, indeed, an old Pompeian partisan his function in Gaul may not merely have been to lend to the proconsul the benefit of his long military experience but, in a sense, to keep watch upon him in the interests of the Pompeians and act as a check [Ibid: p121].


            Did Commios discover some hint of Labienus’ inherent duplicity and tax him with it? Was Labienus’ reaction a pre-emptive strike? Whatever the cause of the animosity, it was clearly there, and Labienus took steps to destroy the cosy relationship between Commios and Caesar. He uncovered (or said he uncovered) a conspiracy of revolt amongst the Gauls, a conspiracy in which Commios, Caesar’s henchman and friend, appeared to be (or was made to appear) deeply involved. Labienus decided that Commios was a traitor, and that treachery in return was fair enough against such as dastard.


            Was Commios a traitor, a sworn man who turned upon his liege? He had served Caesar well enough, although some of his actions might have seemed ambiguous. He may have tried to deceive Caesar in Britain, but he had not openly turned against him and had served him loyally thereafter. He had fought valiantly in Caesar’s cause in Britain. Is hedging one’s bets treason? Was Commios framed? Was it all an elaborate stratagem by one rival to destroy another? That Labienus suffered from jealousy is amply illustrated by his later career when,  jealous of Caesar, he joined Pompeius’s faction and took the latter’s part in the Civil War. Innocent or guilty, Commios was the target of Labienus’ machinations.


            In the winter of 53-52 Labienus decided to murder Commios, and the careful and underhand scheme that he devised hints that he was driven more by malice than righteous wrath. A trap was laid, with the bait a summons to a meeting on some pretext or another. Labienus did not call his victim to the camp, as the king was well aware of the former’s ill-will and may have become suspicious at such an invitation. Instead the meeting was called at a point some distance from the camp, and Commios agreed to come. In due time and on Labienus’ orders, Gaius Volusenus and some hand picked senior veterans rode to the agreed spot.


Commios arrived with an escort of his own. The meeting began amicably enough and in due time Volusenus clasped Commios’ hand, the pre-arranged signal at which Labienus’ centurions were supposed to run the chieftain through. But the plot that relied on speed and accuracy went amiss. For some reason, the first man to strike failed to kill the Gaul outright, giving him instead a nasty head wound. The swords of Commios’ bodyguard were out in a flash and the two groups clashed briefly, but neither was in any mood for a fight. Seeing the blood and the terrible head wound, the Romans thought their task done and wanted no more than to get back to their camp. The Gauls, realising a trap, thought that more legionaries might be coming up through the trees and wanted no more than to get themselves and their leader out of danger. Both parties fled in opposite directions.


The head wound, as such things so often are, was nowhere near as bad as it had appeared. Commios probably looked as if he had been half decapitated, but head wounds are horribly bloody and he may have suffered no more than a nasty cut. The injury to his pride was much more severe. His outrage at his betrayal was extreme, the Roman treachery a mortal blow to his loyalty to Caesar.


Labienus had his way, or some of it. Commios was not dead, to be sure, and news of his survival would not have been long in coming to the Roman camp, but he was certainly no longer  a rival for Caesar’s affections. Rome had lost a valuable ally for ever and Commios now turned openly against his former friends. Why? Was it simply that his true sentiments were now public and undeniable? Or had he actually been betrayed, the victim of a despicable plot by a jealous Labienus? Did he now show his true colours, or was he indeed turned in righteous anger against friends who had spurned and deceived him? The truth of the matter may lie somewhere nearer the middle, and it is probable that Commios’ real loyalties, like those of Labienus, lay with his own self-interest. Labienus and Commios were two of a kind, which may have been the real cause of their mutual antagonism.


Certainly Commios vowed vengeance on Rome, and the opportunity to take it was not long in coming, for in 52 BCE virtually the whole of Gaul north of Gallia Narbonensis rose against the invader, uniting under the banner of the charismatic Vercingetorix. Contingents of warriors were demanded from the tribes and the call was heeded: a quarter of a million fighting men gathered in the country of the Aedui. Dutifully, the people of Commios rose in revolt and the new patriot led 4000 Atrebates and 5000 Morini to the service of the warrior king. More, he persuaded his neighbours, the powerful and warlike Bellovaci, amongst whom he seems to have held much influence possibly through family connections, to contribute two thousand men to the cause and to reverse their decision to stand aloof from the revolt. For this show of loyalty and enthusiasm, for his known cunning as a strategist, and, perhaps, in recognition of his experience of Romans and Roman warfare, Commios was made one of the four generals who commanded the huge combined army.


            “Full of enthusiasm and confidence” [Caesar DBG: 7:5], and under the joint command of Commios and his three colleagues, this vast army started out for the stronghold of Alesia where Vercingetorix lay beleaguered by Caesar’s legions. The valiant but unsuccessful attempt to break that fateful siege, the desperate battles of the Roman leaguer, and the gallant surrender of Vercingetorix are matters of history and legend, names of heroism that ring down the centuries. But we are not here concerned with Alesia, crucial to European history as that episode was, nor with the countless thousands who were slain or taken by the Romans. We are concerned with those few who managed to survive and make their way back to their homes. One of these was the durable and resilient Commios of the Atrebates, and not only did he manage to reach his home, he remained defiant and uncowed.


            Despite the disaster at Alesia, the flame of independence had not yet been extinguished. The rebellion was by no means over, but the Gauls decided to change tactics. It was obvious that they were unable to defeat the entire army of occupation if it came to a confrontation between the massed forces of both sides. On the other hand, if they rose in revolt at many places simultaneously, they might be able to keep the Roman forces divided for long enough to pick them off piecemeal. Commios made contact with his old friend Correos of the Bellovaci, and a plan was worked out whereby the two peoples joined in alliance. But the conspirators were betrayed. The Remi, loyal to Rome, sent a deputation to Caesar informing him of this new turn of events.


            This information was not laid out of a spirit of unalloyed loyalty to Rome. The word had leaked out that Commios and Correos planned to attack the Suessiones, a once-powerful tribe who were now tributary to the Remi, and the latter were simply looking after their own vassals. Together with contingents from the Ambiani, Aulerci, Caleti and Veliocasses, the two leaders had mustered a formidable army and were preparing to attack pro-Roman tribes (such as the Suessiones and Remi) to forestall them from giving assistance to Rome. This was potentially a much more dangerous situation even than the revolt of Vercingetorix and Caesar hastened to counter it. The threat was the more dire in that Caesar was aware that it could well work. He was worried, even frightened. He acted swiftly, sending Gaius Fabius with two legions to reinforce the territory of the Suessiones and himself led another two against the Bellovaci.


Arriving in the latter’s territory, Caesar found the combined forces of the Bellovaci and their allies camped in a strong position and ready for trouble. Commios, however, was not with them. A few days before Caesar’s arrival he had departed to seek support from some of the German tribes who dwelt not far off and who could field enormous numbers of men.


Not wishing to risk immediate engagement with an overwhelmingly superior force, Caesar began building a strongly fortified camp of his own opposite that of the Bellovaci, hoping that the Gauls would think that he felt insecure and thus inviting them to attack him. They did not fall for the ruse, and the Romans sent out foraging parties which the Gauls ambushed and massacred. Various minor engagements flared up with mixed results, and the situation became a standoff with neither side able to gain the upper hand. Commios eventually arrived on the scene with a contingent of five hundred German cavalry, a very worthwhile addition to the allied forces that raised their morale without doing anything very much to alter the strategic balance. The see-saw actions continued.


The word came to the Gaulish camp that Gaius Trebonius was on his way at the head of several legions. Realising that they were in no way able to withstand the combined forces of both Caesar and Trebonius, activity was intensified in the Gaulish camp, and the Bellovaci decided to pull out and occupy a very strong position about fifteen kilometres distant. This they did under the noses of the enemy, managing in the process to make the Romans look inept, much to Caesar’s chagrin. More ambushes were laid for Roman foragers and many men lost in the process [3], but if it was the Gaulish plan to wear down their opponents by sheer attrition, their luck was on the wane.


Correos and a picked force of six thousand infantry with a thousand cavalry moved quietly out of their strong position to ambush the Romans at a spot where corn and hay were plentiful and foraging parties were sure to gather, a spot that has been identified as being at Nointel on the river Breche [Collis 1984b: p28]. It was a large clearing, about two square kilometres in area, surrounded on three sides by dense forest and on the fourth by a river, and an ideal spot for a surprise attack. It was sure to work, and it looks strangely familiar, being almost identical to the stratagem that threatened to destroy VII Legio on the first expedition to Britain. Quite possibly Commios masterminded it, but unfortunately Caesar heard of the plan.


The result was that the trappers themselves were trapped and annihilated. Correos refused to surrender and was at last shot down, dying atop a pile of slain enemies. The surviving Bellovaci leaders held a hurried conference and decided unanimously to throw themselves on Caesar’s mercy. They began blaming the dead Correos for their defeat, claiming that he had bullied them into revolting against Rome, and may well have been decrying Commios as the architect of a strategy that had led them to their ruin. It was a very tense moment for Commios, who had not been with Correos on the plain, and the likelihood of his being seized by the Bellovaci and handed over to his arch-enemy as a placatory gift seemed imminent. He did not hesitate or waste precious time on futile recriminations. Seizing the moment, he gathered his German cavalry together and headed for the Rhine at full speed.




02:03:03. Fugitivus.


            Commios kept his head down that winter, sharing German hospitality and making plans for the future. As spring approached, he began to send out feelers to various old friends and key chieftains to gauge the possibility of a renewal of the rebellion.


            But Gaul was subdued. The resounding defeat of the fierce Bellovaci had had a salutary effect and throughout the summer of 51 BCE the legions marched up and down Gaul wiping out pockets of resistance. The Eburones under Ambiorix were virtually wiped out, their country devastated, and the survivors fled to Britain never to return. Dumnarcos and the Andes were delivered a crushing defeat in the valley of the Loire: the stubborn Carnutes finally submitted and the tribes of Armorica surrendered to Gaius Fabius. Drappes of the Senones and Lucterius of the Cadurci, two die-hard resistance fighters who headed a motley collection of fugitives from all over Gaul, were defeated at Uxellodunum and the defenders were treated with ruthless savagery. The Atrebates were subdued and compliant. Commios travelled back and forth across Gallia Belgica, trying to raise men and foment revolt but to no avail. The tribes were beaten and in no mood to continue resistance. Alienated even from his own people, Commios was reduced from the status of king to that of brigand, ambushing Roman supply convoys and harrying the invaders with his little band of horsemen.


Marcus Antonius, commanding a legion stationed in the west of Gallia Belgica, determined to run this renegade to ground and have done with him once and for all. Commios had been reduced from a major threat to a mere nuisance, but he had to be taken and punished. The dignity of Rome and the honour of the legions would not allow any other course. He could not simply be ignored for even in his straitened circumstances he still had the potential to stir up more serious trouble. Antonius summoned the doughty Gaius Volusenus, his cavalry commander, and despatched him to hunt down Commios and take him alive. Volusenus, who detested Commios, was only too happy to oblige.


The hunt began and it was not too long before Volusenus made contact with his quarry [4], laying ambushes for the brigands in his turn and inflicting casualties. No doubt he sustained some of his own, as Commios’ force, although minuscule compared to the huge armies of the great rebellion, was nevertheless dangerous enough to command the attention of a considerable Roman force and the fighting qualities of the German cavalry were formidable. Despite their valour and skill, however, Commios’ riders succumbed to casualties. Men were slain and taken prisoner although he himself continually managed to elude capture. But he was not to escape forever.


Finally there was a particularly fierce engagement during which Volusenus and a few men made a concerted effort to reach Commios by pursuing him in a body. Commios and his bodyguard galloped off, drawing the Romans away from his main force. Volusenus and him men gave chase and pressed the king hard. Suddenly, calling to his friends to help him avenge his head wound inflicted in such a cowardly manner, Commios wheeled about. Alone, lance couched, he charged Volusenus. His friends followed suit at once and the Romans turned tail with the Germans in furious pursuit. Spurring his mount mercilessly, Commios drew up to Volusenus and speared him through the thigh. The Roman called out in pain and fear; his own men promptly reined in and returned to the aid of their commander. In the brief but bloody encounter that followed many of Commios’ men were killed or taken captive. Commios himself escaped in the confusion.


The fight seemed to go out of the veteran campaigner. Perhaps he believed that in so wounding Volusenus he had avenged the insult of his own wounded head. Perhaps he believed that Volusenus was dead, as well he might, for the wound was very grave indeed and a person can bleed to death in seconds from a thigh wound if the femoral artery is pierced. The Romans certainly thought him lost and they carried him back to camp as if he was dying. But it was not to be. Volusenus had some life left in him and he recovered to serve Caesar for a while longer, loyally remaining with him during the Civil Wars of 49-44 BCE.


More likely, and more pragmatically, was the reality that Commios no longer commanded sufficient men to form a viable fighting force. His losses had been heavy and new recruits scarce, and the tribes of Gallia Belgica were in no mood for more destruction. He decided to cease active opposition to Rome.


Commios contrived to send word to Marcus Antonius, offering hostages and undertaking to forego further resistance. He would do as Rome directed and live where he was told. The only concession that he asked was that he never be required to come into the presence of a Roman again as he had sworn an oath to this effect, and, further, he feared for his life. Antonius conceded that this fear was fully justified and, surprisingly, granted his petition and accepted the hostages. Commios, to all intents and appearances, settled down to a quiet and honourable retirement.


It was not to be. Despatches were sent to Caesar, who was then wintering at Narbo (Narbonne) after supervising the final submission of Aquitania. Doubtless Antonius made full report on the episode of the pursuit and defeat of Commios and the subsequent accommodations. Caesar was not pleased: Commios meant a great deal to him – the fact that he is mentioned so frequently in Caesar’s writings is proof of that – and doubtless the great man felt considerable rancour against a protege turned rebel. The extent of Caesar’s involvement in any plot to assassinate and/or alienate Commios is conjectural, but if indeed that plot was a conspiracy by jealous men to besmirch the name of a rival, he may not have been aware of it, and it is probable that he was not involved. The very positioning of the anecdote of Commios’ final violent contact with Rome within the Commentaries makes it look suspiciously like an afterthought, a later addition after new information had come to light. Quite probably Caesar accepted the word of Labienus at face value. The latter was, after all, a Roman officer and a gentleman of impeccable record and unblemished service while Commios was a devious, shifty foreigner. Caesar’s anger, then, would have been all the greater.


Caesar’s trust in Labienus was misplaced, as would ultimately be revealed openly. By entrusting him with the most senior position under his command, “Caesar had honoured him (to the extent of) putting him in command of all the legions north of the Alps whenever the proconsul was in Italy” [Dio: xl:4:4], surely a token of the highest regard and the deepest trust. However, “having acquired wealth and fame, he began to conduct himself more haughtily than his rank warranted and Caesar, seeing that he put himself on the same level as his superior, ceased to be so fond of him” [Ibid: xl:4:4]. Clearly a rift had begun to appear and Labienus considered Caesar’s increasing coolness of affection as an affront to his (Labienus’) dignitas. But despite this Caesar continued to trust his lieutenant. When, in 50 BCE, Caesar placed Labienus in charge of Gallia Togata the better to position him for election to the consulate, Caesar “frequently heard that Labienus was being tampered with by his enemies (ie, the Pompeians), but he believed nothing in regard to Labienus”[Caesar DBG: 8:52].


There are none so blind as those who will not see. The reports to Caesar were true, but the reasons for Labienus’ actions are several and enigmatic. Perhaps he truly “could not endure the change (of heart in Caesar), and was at the same time afraid of coming to some harm, (so) he changed his allegiance” [Dio:xl:4:4]. Envy of Caesar, a noble, a patrician and a statesman as well as a general, and an overweening sense of his own merits and importance [Syme 1938: p115] were all part of the same picture. The hypothesis that Labienus was in fact a Pompeian client would go a long way towards explaining what ostensibly would have been the act of a renegade [Ibid: p125] in his open declaration of allegiance to Pompeius in 49 BCE. Many of his actions during his association with Caesar are dubious in the extreme, and he emerges as a slightly unsavoury character driven as much by self-interest and an over-inflated sense of self-importance as by any external loyalty. But in social origin, career and loyalty, Labienus clearly belongs with the Pompeian military men such as Lucius Afranius the Picene [Ibid: p124] and his ultimate political choice was as much the result of fides to his patronus as of any pragmatic desire to back a winning horse.


Unfortunately he backed the wrong horse. On the 17th of January, 44 BCE, along with thousands of his comrades, Titus Labienus fell beneath the gladii of Caesar’s victorious legions at the battle of Munda.


Meanwhile, Antonius’ humane and civilised treatment of a beaten man was overruled. Caesar wanted Commios. The Gaul was a rebel, and rebels had to be punished in what was euphemistically called “the ancient Roman tradition”, which is to say: crucifixion. Caesar wanted Commios in his hands so that the dastardly turncoat could be appropriately punished. He sent orders back to Antonius demanding that Commios be taken into custody and brought to trial.


Somehow Commios got wind of his impending arrest. Perhaps he had some form of second sight, or that keen sense of impending danger that the hunted so often seem to acquire after long practice, for his ability to keep one step ahead of his enemies for such a long time is so fortuitous as to be uncanny. But more probably he had a well-organised network of sympathisers working within the camp of the invader, friends who would no longer draw their swords in his cause, perhaps, but yet would not see him a prisoner of Rome. Certainly he had something more than mere luck. He realised that there would be no rest for him in Gaul, for the hunt was up and the Romans were relentless. Sooner or later they would find him, or one of his own deliver him up for reward. Germany likewise held little appeal, which left him with one recourse. He gathered together such people as remained with him and headed for Britain, where he had authority and kindred.


The Atrebates, such few of whom remained free and faithful to their Lord, embarked from the coast of Gaul [Julius Frontinus: Strategemata: ii:13], but they were not out of danger. Roman warships, alerted to Commios’ plans and seeking the renegade before he was beyond capture, spotted the fugitive ships and gave chase [5]. Commios’ flotilla was well ahead and within easy reach of the British coast and the Romans falling further and further behind when the pilot made a dreadful mistake. The tide was low, and the boats suddenly stuck on a hidden sand bar. With his usual swift cunning, Commios ordered the sails to remain spread to create the illusion that they were still heading for land as swiftly as ever. The Romans were deceived, turned about and gave up the chase.


It was now 50 BCE, and Commios and his entourage landed somewhere on the south of Britain, probably in one of the inlets on the Hampshire coast such as Bosham harbour or Southampton Water. He and his folk joined the British Atrebates and the many other refugees from the holocaust of the Roman conquest of Gaul, and, despite his ultimate defeat, Commios was greeted as a hero of the resistance. He was very wealthy [6] and successfully claimed the chieftainship of the Atrebates of Britain, founding a kingdom that at its height extended across northern Hampshire, southern Berkshire, Wiltshire and Sussex, and had treaty arrangements with Kent. He seems to have held some sort of authority in the valley of the Colne in the territory of the Trinovantes [Webster 1978: p45], and coins bearing his name were emblazoned with the motif of the triple-tailed horse, indicative of his firm commitment to ancient Belgic tradition and his rejection of all things Roman.


When at last he died he left at least two sons, Tincomaros and Eppilos, to carry on a dynasty that would continue into the Roman occupation of Britain in the person of his descendant Cogidubnus. In that time Rome and the House of Commios at last reconciled and became firm friends.






Commios: Notes to the Text.

[1] References in Caesar would indicate that the continental Atrebates were a numerically weak tribe. Whether this was by nature or due to some unrecorded slaughter of horrific proportions is not known. The fact remains that when numbers are quoted, the Atrebates have a small showing. For example, in the muster list for the levies that marched to the relief of Alesia during the revolt of Vercingetorix, the Aedui and Arverni are required to field 35,000 fighting men each, the Sequani, Senones, Bituriges, Santoni, Ruteni and Carnutes 12,000 each, the Bellovaci and Lemovices 10,000 each. The Atrebates come well down the list with a levy of 4,000. (Caesar, De Bello Gallico, vii:5).


[2] Caesar (DBG v:1) quite clearly states that Commios “had brought across – about thirty horsemen”.


[3] Caesar carefully plays down his losses, dismissing them as “a few servants and pack animals”. His casualties were much higher than he wanted to admit, but to say so would have been to acknowledge that the Gauls were getting the better of him.


[4] The following anecdote is drawn from the “Commentario De Bello Gallico” of Aulus Hirtius, an epilogue rounding off the narrative of the campaign and usually appended to the main work. Why Caesar did not finish his book is not known, but he may have lacked the time. It was probably written in one burst after the campaigns of 51, in the winter of 51-50 BCE, and Caesar, having much else to attend to, never actually got around to finishing it himself. Hirtius wrote the commentario just after Caesar’s death on March 14 44 BCE, possibly as a valedictory. He was a long-time friend and comrade-in-arms of Caesar, accompanying him on campaign and possibly acting as his secretary. With Pansa, he was consul for 43 BCE, but was killed in battle with the forces of Marcus Antonius at Mutena in April of that year.


[5] Frontinus says that Caesar was in pursuit. It is doubtful, but by no means impossible, that Caesar was personally present on one of the ships, but if he had been it is likely that he would have pursued Commios anyway and discovered the ruse, altering the course of history. Most probably the reference is metonymical.


[6] Morris 1982: p34. A last, and very large, quantity of coins of Gallic mint arrived in Britain at exactly the same time as Commios. The coincidence seems too much for mere chance.

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