02:05. The Empire of Cunobelinos.

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 02:05.

The Empire of Cunobelinus. 

2:05:01. The Hound of Belinos.

The death of Tasciovanos in about 6 CE heralded in a new era for the Cattuvellauni. He was succeeded by Andoco, a son or perhaps a brother, who held onto the lands of his predecessor and may even have won some territory to the west. His position, and indeed that of Tasciovanos, is in some doubt. Coins bearing his name were minted in Verulamion, but other names appear on the coin list: Sego, Rues, Dias. Were these sub-kings, or perhaps senior magistrates, or the leading nobles of an oligarchy, if indeed these are not different terms for the same thing? Differences in coin types may suggest no more than that individual nobles were called upon to provide coinages from their own resources, struck to a legal standard, but who, in return for their forced generosity, retained the right to mark their coin with their own individual types [Nash 1981: p10]. The  term “king” in this context must be read with some caution, as the office was not then what it was to become later, and what constitutional right these men had to rule, or arrogated to themselves, is unknown. Nothing is known of the concept of kingship in the British late pre-Roman iron age, but certainly it was not the feudal institution that would evolve under the Saxons and Normans. 

Indeed the term “king” may be a poor choice of description, for it is a transliteration of the latin rex, and that a rendition of the Celtic rix or rig. What the British meant by rix is now undiscoverable. The inherent nature of the king’s sovereignty seems to have coincided with the Roman conception of kingship [Sands 1908: p70] to the extent that it was modified by Continental notions and by the process of client kinship, but to what extent is unknown. Certainly, the sacerdotal elements of the kingship were vastly more important then than now, and primogeniture (a feudal development) does not seem to have been a concept, although without doubt eligibility for regal authority was a privilege that was jealously guarded by a small elite. Our “king” may well have been the leading aristocrat of his time and the most successful war-leader who, by virtue of his personal prowess and charisma, commanded the largest and most politically significant following of clients and retainers. It is with this caveat in mind that we should think of Celtic “kingship”. 

Whether or not Andoco was indeed a king in his own right, and not merely a co-ruler with Tasciovanos, or one of a number of ruling magistrates, he did not reign for long and then only in conjunction with another of the sons of Tasciovanos. He passed the torch of ambition along relatively soon and with it, without doubt, the dreams of hegemony that had been the driving force of Cassivellaunos and may well have been passed down in the family like an heirloom. Honour, as much as power or wealth, was the spur. An abiding sense of resentment at the shattering of that dream by Caesar’s intervention was no doubt held within the family, or at least amongst those who identified with the old tradition. Some vision of destiny filled one who would shortly sit alone upon the throne of the Lovers of Belinos. Andoco, Rues, Sego, Dias et al ultimately would step back – or be pushed aside – into obscurity. 

His name was Cunobelinos, or Cunobelinus, or Cunobelin. The name means “Hound of Belinos” [1], and sadly this, the mightiest of the ancient kings of Britain, is known almost exclusively to modern readers through the distortion of the title character of Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline”. He it was who realised the dreams of his father and – perhaps – grandfather and forged the largest, wealthiest and most sophisticated native state of Britain from the disparate polities of the South. During his long reign of almost forty years he guided his people swiftly and surely in a programme of expansion and domination that saw his influence extended from  the Wash to the Bristol Channel, from Huntingdonshire to Sussex.


His true attitude to Rome remains unclear. Surely he had inherited to the full the old animosities of his line, but he does not appear to have let such emotive issues cloud his judgement. The inference to be drawn from Strabo [Strabo: iv:5] when he speaks of British acquiescence to heavy customs duties and the expense of imposing a garrison to levy tribute would imply that the former financial obligations of Cassivellaunos had lapsed by this time, probably because the polity of Cassivellaunos no longer existed as such and/or whatever arrangements there may have been previously were seen as a personal matter between Caesar and Cassivellaunos.. Cunobelinos was heir to no such obligations. If, indeed, Rome felt that there was some continuity of obligation, it probably suited both  sides to forget this rather ignominious and servile arrangement. Cunobelinos would have found it vexing to his dignity to pay it and for Rome it was a handy political lever with which pressure could be applied, if the need arose, at any time in the future.


Tribute, then, was no longer paid as such, but it is possible that it continued under another name or in another form and the question is an intriguing one. It has been suggested [Salway 1981: p58] that the key to the negotiations may lay in Strabo’s list of British exports: gold, silver, slaves, hunting dogs, grain, hides, cattle and iron. The first four were the prizes that Rome sought in war and were of paramount importance to the imperial economy either as status items or as grist to the mills of the administration. The second four were the essential raw materials of the army. If this was indeed the case, Britain was still paying a de facto tribute in support of the military, as if she had been a de jure province. It may  be that a tribute was no longer levied, but it may be that in its stead an export quota may have been agreed upon, possibly at a fixed (and, to Rome, advantageous) price. If the forgoing is correct, it would suggest a subtle but fundamental shift was taking place in the relationship between Rome and Cattuvellaunia. Tribute began with the formation of a conquered state into a province. Tribute was essentially a feature of provincial administration and was not to be associated with the condition of the client kingdom [Sands 1908: p129], indicating that the kingdom was outside the province and therefore outside magisterial jurisdiction.


On top of this again were the portoria, the customs and excise duties that were far easier to administer than tribute, and which the authorities could be sure of collecting. Certainly such duties would have handsomely recompensed the aerarium for any losses incurred from tribute defaults, and may even have been consciously imposed with this in mind. A deal had obviously been struck at some point. The picture of Cunobelinos that emerges is one of a shrewd and realistic autocrat, of a politician capable both of seeing and seizing the opportune moment, and of a wily diplomat. But high-level diplomacy was a few years away yet. Cunobelinos was not at first sole ruler. He shared authority with Andoco at least, who continued to wield power for another four or five years.


Like his father Tasciovanos, Cunobelinos cast covetous eyes on Trinovantia. This realm had been ruled by Dubnovellaunos Trinovantios, the heir of Addedomaros, for some five years or so, and extended to both sides of the Thames estuary covering most of Essex, parts of Suffolk and Cambridgeshire and perhaps parts of coastal Kent. It was wealthy, having direct sea-route connections with the flourishing trade from the Rhine, the Somme and Seine. That Dubnovellaunos had managed to retain control over his territories would imply a strong fighting spirit amongst his people, and would further imply dynastic connections and possibly alliances between the Trinovantes, Cantii and Atrebates. All three territories were pro-Roman to some extent, and all their rulers bore the Roman title of rex, hinting at a community of policy in both internal and foreign affairs. The Cattuvellauni, while not specifically anti-Roman perhaps, were nevertheless hegemonistic and presented a threat to the security of their three neighbours. The Atrebates at least were engaged in a more or less continual state of conflict with them. This conflict may not have been very intense, but it had been smouldering for decades, a constant drain on the fighting strength and resources of both sides and a constantly waving fan for the flame of animosity. And, in 5 CE, there could well have been men and women still living who recalled the depredations of Cassivellaunos and the incursions of Caesar. The possibility of an anti-Cattuvellaunian alliance, held together by mutual fear and at the command of an absentee landlord in Rome, ringing the common enemy on three sides, is too strong to ignore.


Cunobelinos’ military choices were obvious. Of the three states that confronted him, Trinovantia was the logical first step towards empire for several reasons. First, it was closest to Cattuvellaunian territory. Second, it had extensive sea trade facilities. Third, it contained some of the richest and most productive farmland in Britain. Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, it was Cattuvellaunia’s ancient heritage. It had twice before been back briefly in Cattuvellaunian hands, once under their Verulamian predecessor Cassivellaunos and again under Tasciovanos. This last rests on the untestable assumption that the Cattuvellauni identified to some extent with their Verulamian cultural antecedents, but it may well be that the view was held that a third time would pay for all and, after a century and a half of foreign control, the Cattuvellauni could wrest back their ancestral realm.


It was a gamble, of course. The Romans could well intervene. But Augustus was much older now, and he had mellowed, becoming more cautious in his declining years. Perhaps Cunobelinos thought that he could excuse himself by tactful representation to the ageing Princeps after the event. But he needed room of his own and Trinovantia offered the most enticing space for so many reasons. He decided to act.


The Cattuvellauni advanced into Trinovantia. The seat of Dubnovellaunos Trinovantios, the fortified settlement with its main residential area and the nucleus of its religious life at what is now known as Gosbecks’ Farm [Frere 1967: p46], fell to Cunobelinos. Dubnovellaunos was defeated but not taken and managed to flee to sanctuary at the court of Augustus. The Trinovantes never regained their independence, their capital fell in 5-6 CE [2], and the dynasty of Mandubracios vanished from history. The aristocracy went into eclipse as Cattuvellaunian magistrates once again ruled the northern estuary of the Thames. Cunobelinos was Lord of Trinovantia.




2:06:02. Rex Brittanorum

            In about 10 CE Andoco died or at the least laid down his magistracy and rule passed to the young prince, who became High King of the Cattuvellauni and Trinovantes both. At about this time too the relationship between the Cattuvellauni and the western tribe of the Bodunni changed. The northern portion at least of that people was apparently subjected to some kind of overlordship to Cunobelinos. Perhaps they became the British equivalent of a client state, or at least were forced to accept the High Kingship of Cunobelinos, becoming tributary to the Cattuvellauni [Cunliffe 1978: p80].


            The subjugation of the Trinovantes was complete, and Cunobelinos shifted the centre of government from the old oppidum on the River Ver to his new royal seat on the River Colne. Although the king no doubt braced himself for trouble, Augustus did not move against him. It was within his power, and perhaps even a treaty obligation, but Rome only granted requests for aid when her own interests were involved [Sands 1908: p11]. Certainly Dubnovellaunos would have petitioned him, but Augustus chose to withhold his legions. Perhaps the words of Flavius Josephus, reporting on events on the other side of the Empire, are apposite:


“To one of (the Jews’) many appeals for assistance – appeals always made in vain – the reply was always given that the Senate would look into their complaints when it had leisure from its own private affairs” [Josephus: Antiquities xiii:259]


And Caesar was having trouble aplenty to occupy his mind. Problems on the Rhine held his attention, and perhaps this gave him pause. To have moved troops from Germany to assist some tinpot British kinglet would have seriously weakened his northern garrisons. No doubt he gave some sort of soothing assurance to Dubnovellaunos: “We shall do something in good time.”


But that something was never to come. Fate intervened in the form of the clades variana, the disaster of Varus, one of the most costly and, arguably, the most asinine of all defeats in the entire history of Rome. It must certainly rank as one of the most significant military actions in the history of Europe.


In 9 CE Quinctilius Varus led an army group of three legions, the XVIIth, XVIIIth and XIXth, back from campaigning in Germany to winter quarters in Gaul. As the legions slowly struggled through the dense Barenau Forest somewhere in the region of modern Osnabruck, they were set upon and utterly destroyed by a German army under Arminius, the charismatic and brilliant young chieftain of the Cherusci. Anywhere between fifteen and thirty thousand men simply vanished from the face of the earth, the news being brought to Rome only because a handful of women and children in the baggage train had managed to hide themselves in the undergrowth and eventually managed to find their way back to the Rhine. Rome was traumatised, Augustus almost paralysed. It is reported [Suetonius: 12 Caesars: Augustus 23] that Augustus could be heard from time to time, in the middle of the night, shouting “Varus! Give me back my legions!” Varus was not so much a military man as an excellent administrator, an expert in sorting out financial problems and pacifying unruly subjects. Augustus had selected the wrong man for a very critical task, and the whole episode had turned horribly sour. Quite rightly, he blamed himself.


The Roman military advance into Germany  was checked forever. Henceforth, there would be little expansion beyond the borders as they existed in Augustus’ day. Claudius would add Britain, and Trajan Dacia, and there would be shifting borders in the east for centuries to come. But the great days of expansion had come to a shuddering halt as the clades variana marked a turning point in Roman political thought. Hitherto, Roman expansion had been seen as a matter of course, something checked only through temporary expediency. The Romans had a very clear perception of their national destiny. Ultimately, Rome would rule the world from the endless ice of the north to the burning sands of the south, from the unending mountains of the east to the limitless ocean of the west. Romanitas was destined to be the controlling ideology of the habitable world, and Roma herself would be queen over all the peoples. The defeat of Varus put an end to that assumption. It was not immediate of course, and full realisation was generations away. But from  that moment Augustus began to understand that there might just be a limit to Roman expansion. The beginnings of the modern concept of the frontier had begun to germinate.


Without expansion there can be no growth. Without growth a society begins to turn in upon itself, to seal itself up within a fortress in which it must ultimately suffocate. Without growth there can only be stagnation and, at the last, death. When Augustus put the brakes on expansion beyond existing limits, he laid the first bricks of the wall that would one day surround the empire, making it like an egg, hard on the outside and yet soft within, beginning a process that could only lead to the decline and eventual fall of the new Empire. The full flowering of the power, wealth and glory of Rome was yet to come. It was more than a century away, and the glorious age of foreign conquest was not yet run its course, as the British would soon learn. But the days of relentless and continuous Empire building were done. The rot that would eventually destroy the Empire was gnawing away at its vitals even before it was fully fledged.


The blow to Roman self-confidence was deep and abiding. No aid came to Trinovantia. Augustus would not commit troops to foreign adventures as he had, after all, just lost a tenth of his army. Cunobelinos held his conquests. He was now High King of south east Britain, from the middle Thames to the Ouse, from Suffolk to Sussex and with authority at least into Gloucestershire and perhaps as far as the Severn. He was, at the opening of his reign, truly Rex Brittanorum, as Suetonius described him, and the most powerful single individual in Britain.


Mindful, perhaps, of the stern Augustan reaction to the occupation of Trinovantia by Tasciovanos, the king of the Cattuvellauni did not gloat or thumb his nose at Rome. He appears to have kept a neutral foreign policy. Holding an independent line, he did not become exactly pro-Roman, but on the other hand he did nothing to antagonise his powerful neighbours either. He seems to have been content with conquering British tribes and with carving out a little Empire of his own, outside of the Roman sphere. To annoy Rome would have been counterproductive as the Empire was the source of the coveted manufactured goods that his new coastline made accessible, and was a bottomless market for his own exports. Indeed, he seems to have taken steps to mollify Rome. If Strabo’s account of certain British potentates who set up offerings in the Capitol refers [Strabo: iv:5:3], amongst others, to Cunobelinos, then the latter surely made an effort to ensure that Rome was reassured of his friendly intentions. The reference can hardly be to Tincomaros or Dubnovellaunos, as exiles would hardly have put up such offerings in the Capitol, and these two had not “gained the friendship of Augustus through embassies and paying court to him” at that time. Such a statement can only refer to the ratification of some sort of agreement probably at formal treaty level. The striking of such a foedus took place on the Capitol and was attended by such formalities as the slaughter of a sow in the forum and the pronouncement of an ancient formula by the fetiales (Sands 1908: 71). The custom seems to have fallen into disuse during the later Republic, but was revived by Claudius (Suetonius: Claudius 25), who may in turn have been following the precedent of Augustus.


Cunobelinos seems to have been recognised as the leading paramount of Britain thanks to his diplomatic efforts. He may have been recognised as rex socius or at least amicus, although this status was constantly evolving and is virtually impossible to define. A king was styled socius by Rome even when no formal treaty existed [Sands 1908: p11], although in earlier days amicitia implied no more than friendly relations whereas societas would have suggested a more formal understanding such as a treaty arrangement. However, the frequency with which the terms amicitia and societas were interchanged as, for example, by Caesar in reference to the Aedui [Caesar: DBG 1:35, 43, 45], would indicate that even by that time it mattered little whether a native monarch was called a friend or an ally [Sands 1908: p26]. It amounted to the same thing. That Cunobelinos received some formal recognition cannot be in doubt, although its extent and full obligations must remain obscure, as indeed must his motivations. The suggestion that Cunobelinos was pursuing a middle path, hedging his bets by making overtures of friendship without actually making full submission and thus turning his realm into a de facto province of Rome, is entirely intuitive but seems to be consonant with his actions.


Trading arrangements were a leading part of whatever deal was struck by the mission to Rome, and without doubt it was very much in the Empire’s favour. Strabo [Strabo: iv:5] was of the opinion that supplicants had virtually made the whole island Roman property, which was a gross exaggeration, but Roman vanity and general ignorance of Britain must be taken into account. The British, it seems, readily submitted to heavy duties on both exports and imports, such as would bring in more revenue than tribute exacted directly by a garrison of occupation. Indeed, any effective garrison of Imperial troops would cost more than present revenue would cover. Further, the general opinion among policy makers was that there was everything to gain in levying the lucrative customs duties, and nothing to be gained by conquering and occupying the islands. The British were not considered powerful enough to cross over to the Continent and attack Roman interests. No threat was perceived.


Cunobelinos fostered trade with Rome, giving house room to Roman merchants. Trading posts were set up at various points, as, for example, at Skeleton Green near Braughing. Here the uniquely Roman utensils known as mortaria, heavy bowls used for pulverising and mixing food have been found [Hartley 1981: p196], and they are clearly of an early type that was obsolescent by the time of the Claudian occupation [Partridge 1981: p356]. The art of food preparation is very conservative and the tastes and smells of home are some of the greatest pleasures of those residing in a foreign and quite alien land. Too much should not be read into this fact, as the amount of Romanised trade-goods found at Braughing leaves little doubt about the affection for Roman goods of Cunobelinos [Ibid: p356] and his people, and may be no more than the evidence for a rapidly increasing Romanization, but the presence of such tools could also indicate the presence of a small community of Roman or Romanised people preparing food in their own traditional manner [Ibid: p356]. The existence of one such community begs the existence of others at strategic points throughout Cattuvellaunia, especially at Camulodunon. Present evidence would put the founding of these trading posts at between 5 and 15 CE [Ibid: p356], a time neatly coincident with Cunobelinos’ new arrangements with Rome.


Up to this time, trade between Britain and Rome, although flourishing, seems to have been largely indirect, relying on predominantly Gaulish middlemen after the traditional manner. Both the evidence of the moratoria and clades variana would suggest that after the latter there began a period of direct trade contact between the two principals. The debâcle imposed by Arminius would have thrown Germania and the northern provinces into a turmoil, wiping out some markets, contracting others. As has been suggested [Haselgrove 1984: 11:iii], it seems reasonable to suppose that Roman entrepreneurial interest in Britain redoubled after the disaster as local merchants quickly sought alternative and safe markets as close as possible to the old.


Britain was largely virgin soil in respect of intensive, direct marketing. As noted above, most trade in the past had been through Gaulish middlemen, and it is probable that many of the richer items that graced the residences of the British elites were in fact diplomatic gifts. Whatever the nature of these earlier contacts, exchanges after 9 CE were on a larger scale and, presumably, on a commercial basis. Trade continued as usual despite the brouhaha in Germania, keeping the Roman merchants and the British aristocrats of Cattuvellaunia happy.




2:05:03. Greater Cattuvellaunia.

            The settlement on the River Colne was rebuilt larger than before and was heavily fortified. Vast and powerful rectilinear dykes were thrown up, defending an inner fortification, now known as the Sheepen Dyke, that itself was the bastion of what appears to have been Cunobelinos’ seat, a nucleated settlement complex that was considerably removed from the older Trinovantian royal enclosure at what is now Gosbeck’s Farm. The complex system of dykes and ditches indicates both Cunobelinos’ fear of attack and his need to legitimate his rule by conspicuous consumption of resources, in this case, manpower. The number of work hours required to construct the dykes with no more equipment than picks, shovels and baskets would have been staggering, and a fitting monument to his vast wealth and immense power to command. It was the most sophisticated system of its kind in Britain at that time. While the complex was primarily defensive, there may be more than a hint of the Ozymandias syndrome: “Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair”. In the light of subsequent history, the analogy is tragically poignant.


            Sadly, he built it to withstand the sort of assault that could be expected from rival British forces, and as a defence against chariot-borne troops it was superb. As fate would have it, it was never called upon to withstand British assailants. The only full-scale assault on those ramparts was by a force who did not use chariots in warfare and who possessed a level of military engineering far surpassing anything that Cunobelinos could command. As has been pointed out [Frere 1967: p47], he committed the common error of preparing for the last war rather than the next. But the legions of Aulus Plautius were still three decades away.


Whatever its former occupants may have called it, the Cattuvellauni probably called their new centre “Camulodunon” [Jackson 1970: p71], “the fortress of the war-god Camulos”, the Latin rendering of which was the well-attested “Camulodunum”, and by this name the settlement would be known for another half a millennium. “Camulos” means “heaven” or “sky” in the masculine gender in old Celtic, and was the name of a very popular god. The old Irish deity Cumhaill, father of the famous Fionn Mac Cumhaill (pronounced Fin Mac Cool), is the same divinity and the same word [Squire 1905: p204]. A shadowy figure, Camulos was a very ancient primal deity who was later identified with both Mars [Ibid: p51] and Juppitar, but was not really equivalent to either, and the conflation was superficial. He was a major god of the Cattuvellauni, and as the eponymous patron of Camulodunon he was certainly warlike It may be that by the time of Cunobelinos his martial aspects may have become ascendant over his sky-father identification; he was certainly worshipped as a god of war under certain conditions. The name later degenerated into “Coel” [Ibid: p323], who, in early medieval legend, was Duke of Caer Coelvin (a fanciful name for Colchester). The last, faint echoes of the worship of mighty Camulos may be heard in the ballad of Old King Cole, he who was “a merry old soul”.


Camulos had been kind to Cunobelinos and his people. With his aid a new kingdom and a mighty heritage had been hewn out, and it was perhaps only fitting that their principal centre should be named in his honour.


In time the new settlement covered over 2000 hectares [Collis 1984b: p226] with an impressive triple dyke defending the western approaches. It was not a town in any sense of the word, either ancient or modern, and must not be thought of as such. Rather, it was a densely populated and strongly fortified area with clumps of dwellings together with market gardens, holding paddocks, stockyards, industrial complexes and at least one major religious centre. Trade and manufacturing, naturally, was concentrated on the banks of the Colne, but the main residential settlement developed in its own way.


The nucleus of the settlement was on Sheepen Hill [Dunnet 1975: p20], which was defended by three widely spaced earthen ramparts, each of which was pierced by massive wooden gateways and topped by palisades. Whether these earthworks were built by Cunobelinos, or whether he improved and expanded an existing complex is a moot question, but the huge linear dykes provided an impenetrable defence against any British rivals. The outermost defences were the Berechurch dykes to the east and the mighty Grimes dyke to the west, a fortification that ran from the Colne to beyond the Roman River for a distance of six and a half kilometres in beautifully straight lines across the countryside, kinking only to avoid the sacred complex at Gosbeck’s Farm.


This latter seems to have been the nucleus of the former Trinovantian settlement. Situated on a small promontory of the gravel plateau that overlooks the Roman River, the site had been occupied since at least the middle Iron Age and had been of considerable religious significance for centuries. It had been sacred to the Trinovantes and Cunobelinos went to great pains to ensure that it was properly defended, going to the considerable trouble of integrating it into his overall defensive system. It was obviously of primary importance to the king, and perhaps crucial to his spiritual authority over the conquered people. Perhaps his control over this sacred spot in some way imbued him with a divinely endowed legitimacy: he had “conquered’ the gods of the Trinovantes and had become their new champion, the “defender of the faith”.


Cunobelinos set up residence on Sheepen Hill, some three kilometres, more or less, north east of the Gosbeck’s settlement, where the land rises above the marshes of the valley of the Colne and commands an ancient ford [Dunnet 1975: p23]. This 60 – 70 hectare [Collis 1984b: p226] area was never densely populated or “built up” in the modern or Roman sense of the word, but it seems to have been the location of the compound of the king, the royal family, and the retainers of the royal household. Despite its exalted status, the area was little different in appearance from any other group of huts. They were mostly simple, round or sub-rectangular structures ranging from 3 to 7 metres in diameter, with walls of wattle and daub, sunken floors of beaten earth [Ibid: p24], and presumably topped with roofs of thatch. The difference between these huts and those of the peasantry lay in their contents, remains of which have been revealed in nearby rubbish pits. Continental glassware and fine arretine pottery abound, articles far too good for the common herd. Certainly the humble nature of the buildings is no corollary of the wealth of the inhabitants. Their living quarters may have been simple, even squalid, but their possessions were frequently expensive and, on occasion, magnificent [Ibid: p22]. The residents of Sheepen Hill were few in number but they were clearly well off by the standards of the day. But where was the “palace” of Cunobelinos? Surely his residence would stand out.


There are two possibilities. The remains of a large timber building with sleeper beam foundations, roughly 40 metres by 10 metres, has been found just outside the Sheepen dyke [Dunnet 1975: p26]. This very large structure could be the remains of a royal residence. Equally, it could have been a cattle yard. There is simply no way of knowing. Another, and more intriguing possibility is a large hut that, unlike the others around it, was totally destroyed by fire at about the time of Plautius’ invasion. At least six neatly cut rubbish pits surrounded it, all yielding unusually high quantities of fragments of expensive imported items, suggesting it to be the home of an important and wealthy personage [Ibid: p26]. Perhaps the home of Caratacos, son of Cunobelinos and his father’s heir, was fired by Claudius’ troops as an example to others, or even by Claudius himself as a token of complete conquest: we shall never know.


Meanwhile, Cunobelinos made further moves to extend his power. His next forays penetrated the south west and the lands of the Commii, and south into Cantium. His warriors moved against the Commii as soon as Trinovantia was subdued, absorbing smaller peoples as they went. No doubt some of the Nervii gave able assistance to Cunobelinos, but not all. On the Middlesex shore of the upper Thames four large coin hoards of Nervii mintage have been found [Morris 1982: p36], the most numerous in all Belgic Britain. This area had for long been sparsely populated and the inference could be that elements of the Nervii, opposed to those who supported Cunobelinos, set up their own little enclave in a relatively remote area. If so, it was not to last. The presence of the hoards seems to indicate that they were buried hastily by those who had to flee in a hurry and were never able to recover their valuables. Later coins of Cunobelinos are found in this area, which could be a clue as to why the owners were unable to reclaim their treasures and who was responsible for their impoverishment.


The territory of the Cantii, to some extent at least dominated by the Verulami during the days of Cassivellaunos, was not a united realm and appears to have been ruled by a number of princes whom Cunobelinos was able to pick off one at a time. Such a one, perhaps, was the tenuously attested Vodenos (a single silver coin bearing this name has been found on this site and dated to the first decade of the first century), a petty king who ruled from the oppidum at what is now known as Canterbury, from perhaps 1 CE. Another and apparently independent community flourished at Rochester at about the same time. These little kingdoms were slowly swallowed by Cunobelinos.


The Cattuvellauni maintained pressure on several fronts: on the Iceni to the north east, the Coritani to the north, the Atrebates to the south west, the Cantii to the south. But the advance must not be thought of as some sort of blitzkrieg, or even as a massed and purposeful military campaign in the Roman tradition, for the Celts lacked the logistical and military infrastructure to support such methods. These were warriors, not soldiers. No doubt there were pitched battles on a large scale, and the spectacular besiegement of fortified positions, but in the main it was an ad hoc series of small pushes and skirmishes here, there and everywhere, a process of absorption in a manner all its own. Cunobelinos would not have dared to push too far or too fast. Rome was just over the Channel and even Augustus might have dug his heels in if provoked too much. His successor, Tiberius, who came to the purple in 14 CE, followed Augustus’ foreign policy with a dour and methodical consistency, but Tiberius was also a very experienced and very successful general. He, too, might have been goaded to action if he thought that an overly ambitious British chief was likely to become a threat to Roman security.


But Cunobelinos was prepared to go to considerable lengths to mollify the new Caesar, as is illustrated by the events of 16 CE. In that year the very popular Germanicus, Tiberius’ heir apparent, heavily defeated the German chief Arminius and Rome had her requital for the clades variana. It was high summer, and Germanicus sent some of his men marching overland back towards Gallia Belgica and winter quarters. The balance, led by himself, took ship down the Ems and headed back by sea. A sudden and devastating storm blew up and swept the fleet out into the Mare Germanicum, whence men, beasts and ships were scattered up and down the coast with appalling loss of life. Some men were cast away on the shores of Britain, where they were cared for and sent home in due course [Tacitus: Annals ii:24]. If indeed it was Cunobelinos who ordered this humane and civilised treatment of distressed men, and there is no particular reason to assume it was anyone else, he had managed to engineer a first class public relations exercise. Tiberius would have been impressed by the enlightened behaviour of a barbarian and all the more sympathetic to his cause.


Cunobelinos pushed slowly, carefully, but also allowed the occasional rapid thrust. In about 25 CE his brother or kinsman Eppaticos pushed westwards and took the Atrebatean stronghold of Kaleoua. Verica’s people surrendered, and Verica, if he was in residence at the time, would have been forced to flee south to Selsey. Eppaticos began minting coins as king under the overlordship of Cunobelinos, the High King. No doubt Verica exercised his presumed privileges as socius and amicus of the Empire by calling for assistance, but Tiberius remained unmoved. Why? Did he perceive Verica as a long term loser, a once useful but now broken tool? Did Cunobelinos seem a potentially more useful puppet, a more serviceable cat’s-paw in the event of trouble in the future? Both were styled rex, which should have created considerable problems of choice, but clearly Tiberius saw no conflict. Client potentates desired the title of “ally of Rome” as a support against their neighbours, even though Rome rarely vouchsafed them active support, and practically the client’s relationship to Rome was simply one of friendship [Sands 1908: p11].


Whatever Verica may or may not have thought due to him in return for years of loyalty, Rome clearly was not sentimental in such matters. Quite probably Cunobelinos made counter-representations and the serious inroads into the realm of the Commii were made out to be no more than another native squabble of purely local interest, which it was. It may be that Verica was now perceived to have fulfilled his purposes, while the star of Cunobelinos was rising. A possible treaty arrangement made under Augustus may have been growing into a more favourable understanding again and he was thus ever more able to take advantage of Roman perceptions of kingship.


In general, client kings were not allowed to make war or peace without the consent of the Senate, but this constraint was far from rigid as, for example, kings were generally allowed to subdue revolts in their own territories and put down rebel chieftains [Sands 1908:p91]. The question to ask may be to what extent did Cunobelinos depict his forward policies as the suppression of insurgents? Further, a client king who was attacked by a neighbour could defend himself for the time being, but had to confine himself strictly to the defensive until the pleasure of Rome was known [ibid p93]. Again a question: could Cunobelinos show that he had been attacked first and was therefore the aggrieved party? A third facility that the kings enjoyed was the right to extend their conquests in certain directions if Rome did not herself feel concerned to prevent them, a liberty enjoyed, obviously, only by those kings who were not surrounded on all sides by friends of Rome [Ibid p93]. A client king, therefore, was able to expand de facto Roman territory without any cost to Rome. The polities of Britain were minuscule compared even to the civitates of Gaul, and it may be that the Roman administration thought of a unified polity in southern Britain as of no particular consequence. It was, after all, much easier to deal with (and, if necessary, deal to) one king than a dozen bickering petty dynasts. Should the need arise, unified, centralised states fall more swiftly to armed intervention than disparate, decentralised ones.


Cunobelinos, after all, was now an ally in good standing. He had showed his good faith by paying high customs duties, making sacrifices in Rome, and returning shipwrecked sailors to the bosom of the Empire. His advance into the realm of Verica was an accomplished fact of no impact whatsoever to Roman interests, and could not now be reversed either cheaply or easily. De facto recognition of the status quo was the most expedient solution to a question that, even if asked, would hardly have commanded Caesar’s attention for more than a few minutes. Tiberius refused to intervene and Verica, no doubt, remained, fuming, at Selsey.




2:05.04: The Power and the Glory.

            The Cattuvellauni prospered exceedingly. Coins of Cunobelinos display on the reverse beautifully crafted ears of corn, a motif that may well derive from the wreath of the older “Apollo-pattern” design inherited from a long line of preceding Gallo-Belgic and British gold coins [Allen 1975: p1]. Nonetheless, it is a motif that is highly symbolic of the produce of the rich fields of Essex worked by the subject Trinovantes and a major key to Cunobelinos’ wealth. Southern Britain was able to sustain a large population based upon the efficient production of cereals [Monk 1981: p205]. The lavish imports, after all, had to be balanced by a thriving export trade, and grain was a primary product in the list supplied by the geographer Strabo. Grain, cattle, gold, silver, iron, hides, slaves, and “dogs bred specifically for hunting” [Strabo: iv:5] were the main export commodities. Technical innovations such as the potters’ wheel, introduced from the Continent, and the prosperity of conquest, increased consumer demand. Copper coins, small change suitable for minor purchases, began to appear in far larger numbers alongside the earlier gold and silver mintages, indicating an accelerating change away from barter towards true commerce, with all the social innovation that this would imply. Without doubt the bulk of the wealth remained in the hands of the king, his family and his favourites, but there must have been a trickle down effect upon the population in general, and Cattuvellaunia as a whole prospered.


            The combination of corn and coinage conspired to introduce a subtle but ineluctable change in both commerce and the agricultural produce that was its mainstay. Trade had existed, even flourished, for generations across the Channel, but that trade had been largely restricted to manufactured, added-value items such as pottery, metal wares and fabrics from the Continent to Britain, while raw materials such as hides, furs, slaves and metal flowed the other way. Food also was imported into Britain, but strictly as delicatessen lines such as the tasty Iberian fish sauce known as garum (or garon), and large quantities of wine also found its way to the tables of the rich. The large and diverse range of amphorae from Skeleton Green [Peacock 1981: p202] suggests a much richer range of imports than Strabo’s list would suggest [Black 1987: p5].


            Farming in Britain had hitherto been almost entirely at a subsistence level. People grew enough for their own immediate needs plus the tributary demands of their overlords. But the corn tribute that had been paid to Rome altered the balance. People were now used to growing more than had been their wont to make up the difference between their own needs and the exigencies of the levy. They had begun to get used to the notion of a crop surplus, and they had long been used to surrendering considerable portions of their produce to their masters. Such an obligation was as ancient as organised, hierarchical society, and some surplus beyond personal needs was a part of life. But now it became more ordered, more structured, and perhaps more specific quantities were being demanded to supply a quota. With the dropping of the corn levy under Cunobelinos the surplus was still there, as was the Continental market which still had to be serviced. Grain began to be sold more and more, and the equation grain + market = money very quickly took root. The grain motif on Cattuvellaunian coinage may betoken an understanding of this attractive notion. For the first time there was a market for a saleable surplus of produce, and the grain tribute that was shipped to the Continent was the precursor for the grain trade that followed it. For the first time Britain had access to vast numbers of people who did not produce food. For the first time fortunes could be made from arable farming.


            The Lords of the Cattuvellauni were quick to capitalise upon this situation. Corn Cunobelinos produced in abundance, cattle were grazed in the Thames Valley and the Chilterns, the vast forests of the interior provided pelts and hides. This is, and was, no mineral wealth to speak of in the lowland area, but silver could be procured by way of internal trade from Derbyshire and Somerset, gold and copper from Wales, tin from Cornwall and iron from almost everywhere but particularly from such rich deposits as those on the Weald. All these strategic minerals could have been, and apparently were, obtained directly or through trade with the Dobunni, Durotriges and Coritani.


Like the Cattuvellauni and the Atrebates, the Dobunni had been expanding their sphere of influence at the expense of lesser and weaker neighbours, at least to the south. What was happening in the West Country at this time is almost purely conjectural, but there was certainly a lot of movement and activity. There is evidence [Alcock 1972: p161] for the reoccupation of at least one hill-fort. Cadbury Castle, eight miles from Ilchester and abandoned half a century before, was rebuilt in 15 – 20 CE and people began to live there again. They were not the original occupants [ibid: p162] but another people of apparently Durotrigan stock. This hill-fort, on the border of Durotrigan and Dobunnic territory, had its defences rebuilt very strongly indeed: the triple ditch was cut deeper than ever before and the outer wall faced with stone [Ibid: p162], the gatehouse being rebuilt with massive blocks of stone and the guardroom refitted. The gate itself was asymmetrical, one part large enough to accommodate chariots and carts, the other suitable only for pedestrians and led animals [Ibid: p162], showing a cunning defensive construction. It was more than just a fortress, however, it was a fortified town with a sizeable population and a shrine with evidence of both military and agricultural worship in the middle of the settlement [Ibid: p164]. Who the new tenants were is unknown, but they were clearly obsessed with their safety. There was obviously a strong possibility of attack, and the most likely direction of an attack at that time seems to have been from the north. The Cattuvellauni were by no means the only ones with territorial ambitions.


There had been conflict with the Atrebates – Commios seems to have made incursions into the area around 30 BCE – but relations with the Cattuvellauni seemed to have become relatively cordial. No doubt there had been conflict between the Dobunni and Cassivellaunos, and probably with Tasciovanos as well, but Cunobelinos seems to have avoided intensifying animosities. The situation may have been more in the nature of an armed truce rather than peace, but they certainly appear to have kept away from the Cattuvellaunian sphere of influence. The Dobunni expanded away from Cunobelinos’ realm, moving south west into Somerset as far as the Mendips with their valuable deposits of argentiferous lead, and as far north as Worcestershire. They pushed deep into Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire, founding the big hill-fort at Bagendon in about 15 CE. Their chieftains seem to have been relatively uninfluenced by Rome and retained the ancient motifs of the triple-tailed horse and the ear of corn on their coinage, eschewing the vine leaf of the more Romanised Atrebates.


There seem to have been at least two paramount chieftains or magistrates ruling the Dobunni at any given time, indicating a decentralised polity with autonomous and perhaps even competitive northern and southern groups. From their coinage, which seems to have begun to be inscribed with Roman characters from about 20 CE onwards, some names have become known. Anted, which may be expanded to Antethios, and Easu come first, then Catti and Comux, and lastly Corio and Bodvoc. This last may perhaps be expanded to Boduocus, which appears to mean “victorious one” or simply “victor”, and may be a masculine version of Boudica, itself a fairly common given name. Commercial relations with the Cattuvellauni seem to have existed at least by 15 CE, as the plentiful remains of both Cattuvellaunian pottery and imported material attest. Without doubt the valuable mineral wealth of the west flowed in the opposite direction towards Camulodunon, which was rapidly gaining a monopoly on Continental trade.


The key to power was twofold: recognition of royal authority by a greater power (i.e. Rome), and monopoly of trade, but the emergent polities of the south east were inherently unstable, dependent as they were upon the authority and charisma of powerful individuals. Since the kings were for the most part descended from or were themselves those who had seized the title for themselves without any hereditary justification, they were increasingly prepared to look to a foreign power for confirmation of their kingship [Sands 1908: p64]. Recognition as rex by Rome was, in the first decades of the Christian era, increasingly important to the aspiring dynasts. To gain from a power as great as Rome a formal address by his royal title was valuable to the king, not only as a moral support against the aggressions of his neighbours, but also as a guarantee of his proper succession and dignity in the eyes his people [Ibid: p64] under conditions in which there was no guarantee of the continuance of power within the increasingly centralised elite group after the death or deposition of the individual potentate. It was through formal recognition by Rome and through the monopoly of trade in prestige goods and the accumulation of wealth that such elite groups could hope to extend the retention of power beyond their own lifetimes and assure dynastic succession. Only when this monopoly of trade was sustained over a comparatively long period, and the emergent elite were successful in legitimising their position and power, did these developments come to represent a permanent transformation of the social structure [Haselgrove 1984: II:introduction] and a permanent entrenchment of the hierarchy.


But trade is impossible without goods and products to sell. Just as important as the monopoly on trade was the development and control of areas of primary production, and ensuring that these contributed to the desired central distribution point. This was achieved by development of a hinterland, by increasing or rationalising production of primary products beyond the earlier rough and ready redistributive system to a more planned regime of levies, and, of course, by raiding where legitimate production proved inadequate. It is virtually certain that this ever-tightening grip on trade movements assured increasingly entrenched Cattuvellaunian hegemony over the entire south east.


Camulodunon was developing as the primary point of a dendritic system of trade exploitation of its hinterland [Collis 1984: p21], in which tertiary areas supplied raw materials to secondary centres, which in turn fed the primary centre, the only point that had contact with foreign trade. The exclusivity of this trade was maintained by two means. Firstly, Cunobelinos’ increasingly powerful military structures, which ensured that all external trade channelled through the king’s hands, enabled him and selected favourites to amass enormous wealth. Secondly, the pattern of incoming trade was increasingly altered in his favour. Augustus’ decision to undertake the conquest of Germany, tempestuous though it was in execution, nevertheless resulted in an enormous concentration of troops along the Rhine. The re-creation of a huge market in the north, after a recession of some decades, may have had the effect of shifting much of the traffic in trade goods from the western Gaulish route through the Carcasonne Gap to the eastern and northern Rhône-Saône-Moselle route [Ibid: p167 and diagram 50]. This led firstly to a concentration of goods along the Rhineland via a Rhine-Gessoriacum-Camulodunon axis, and may help to explain the comparatively swift decline in the older southern and south western British ports at Hengistbury Head, Poole and Mount Batten, and the Armorican port of Alet. Coupled with this may be the suggestion of an arrangement between Augustus and Cunobelinos in which the latter may have supplied an export quota to Rome in lieu of tribute. It may be apposite to note again that of the commodities quoted by Strabo as being British exports, half of them – grain, cattle, hides and iron – were the basic raw materials of the Roman army, and two more – gold and silver – were always needed to support the enormous cost of maintaining the military establishment of the northern limes. Augustus may well have ordered that all cross-channel trade be routed through Camulodunon the better to meet the demands of this arrangement. Whether or not this was the case, Camulodunon seems, by 20 CE, to have held a virtual monopoly on cross-channel trade, and this passed almost exclusively between the Rhine and the Colne via Gessoriacum.


Perhaps the most important export business of the time was traffic in slaves. These were a natural by-product of, and sometimes the primary reason for, the endless intertribal wars with the neighbouring Atrebates, Coritani and Iceni. Slaves were a very lucrative commodity and Rome had an insatiable appetite for them. The peace that Augustus had imposed on the Empire had dried up the old sources of supply in the East, and thus slaves from beyond the frontiers were in constant demand. They were a far surer source of revenue than increased agricultural production, or even access to the mineral wealth of the west.


Such goods as slaves, corn and hides were the primary export commodities, and in their turn they paid for the many import items: wine, silver tableware, fine furniture and pottery from Italy and Gaul, items of ivory, glass and exotic jewellery. No doubt there were other more perishable items such as rich fabrics, fine leather goods, and delicatessen lines of comestibles that leave little trace in the archaeological record. The kingdom of the south east waxed wealthy and powerful.




2:05.05: The Fabric Unravels.

The political situation in southern Britain on the eve of the Claudian invasion was not what it had been a century before. The British had learned much from the Continent and the influx of Roman goods and Roman ideas over more than three generations had irreversibly altered the outlook of the most powerful of the peoples of the south. In the east the disparate tribal groupings of Caesar’s day had evolved into centralised administrations of considerable complexity run by powerful dynasts. Roman political notions had forever changed the ancient tribal structures. Cattuvellaunia was expanding steadily, mainly at the expense of her old rivals the Atrebates, but without doubt others were assailed. The Trinovantes were a subject people, the Coritani and Iceni were pressed, and the Cantii were vassals of Camulodunon. Cordial relations existed with the Dobunni, or at least that portion of them ruled by Boduocos, but what long-term plan Cunobelinos had for them is not too hard to guess.


The “empire” of Cunobelinos was the largest native state in the south, and the richest in Britain, on a par with the native states of Central Gaul and requiring a fairly extensive bureaucracy for its administration. Insufficient time, however, had elapsed for it to have evolved into true statehood, on, say, the Roman model [Haselgrove 1984: II:iii].It should not be envisaged as a coherent, unified polity. Rather, the king’s hegemony was something in the nature of that of a High King or paramount chief. His domain was an agglomeration of previously independent territories, some ruled by his relatives, bound together by a complex network of alliances and the mutual obligations of client-patron ties, backed up by coercive force [Ibid: II:iii]. Such relationships were necessarily personal ones between chief and retainer, client and patron and could alter at any time with the enticements of competing patrons or the death of the superordinate.


By the late 30’s of the first century, Cunobelinos was ageing. The wily and pragmatic old warrior had maintained cordial relations with the Empire throughout his long reign, not because he was necessarily a Romanophile but because his options were very limited: deal with the devil or go to him. Such anti-Roman sentiment as he may have harboured had long since mellowed into an understanding. He could not fight Rome and arrangements had been made to accommodate to his powerful and imperious neighbour. But with approaching old age, and the increasing probability of death, tensions were mounting. The passing of the charismatic Cunobelinos, the man who had forged the kingdom, could well herald its disintegration. The princes, the various sons of Cunobelinos, were at the forefront of the jockeying for position that began as soon as the life of the king seemed near its end.


The question was once again one of legitimation. Could the realm be held together, and who would do the holding? Who would carry the torch of hegemony into the new era?


There is a scattering of coins bearing the legends AMM, AMMI, and AMMINVS and struck after the manner of Kent [Webster 1978: p51]. This is a common Celtic diacritic that has a number of variants such as Aminn, Ammini, Ammoni and even Ami [Allen 1976: p98] but Adminios, or Adminius, the version used by Suetonius, is the version most widely used by historians. It is conjectured that Adminios ruled in strategically important northern and eastern Kent on his father’s behalf, but the scarcity of his coinage would suggest that his reign was brief [Allen 1976: p99]. Strategically important, that is, to both Rome and Cattuvellaunia. This area contained some of the best harbourages in the south east, most notably the position later known as Rutupiae and even later as Richborough. The site had long been explored by Roman agents and no doubt figured largely in contingency plans if an armed expedition became necessary. Rutupiae, with its sheltered position and direct access to both the Rhine and the Seine via Portus Itius, was the natural first choice for a stores base and haven for the fleet. It was the logical choice for the establishment of a beachhead by any force intent upon the annexation of Cattuvellaunia. It was vital to Roman interests to keep Rutupiae and its hinterland within pro-Roman hands.


Cut off from the south west by the dense forests of the Weald, eastern Kent was geographically a “natural” part of the region of the Thames Estuary, rather than of south central Britain. The rulers of a polity centred north of the Thames no doubt considered it a “natural” part of their territory also. Its ready access to the continent, however, placed it in a position to compete commercially with Cattuvellaunia. Domination of the Kentish peninsula by Cunobelinos, therefore, was essential to the maintenance of his trading monopoly. The imposition of a liege-vassal relationship on the eastern Cantii, and the appointment of Adminios as satrap, would have ensured that trade was safely channelled to the Thames and the Colne. It is almost certain that Cunobelinos was aware of Rome’s interest in the area, and its safeguarding was possibly some part of his agreement with Rome. Perhaps an undertaking to keep the Kentish coasts in safe hands was part of the price he paid for non-intervention. Certainly the anti-Roman Caratacos and Togodumnos, the two most powerful sons of Cunobelinos, realised its strategic importance and were distrustful of their brother’s stewardship. Something flared up within the family. The other princes descended upon Adminios and demanded a reckoning.


The nature of the argument is unknown, but Cunobelinos’ legitimacy was not above question, and various peripheral areas would have become restive at his death. The cohesion of any militarily dominated state is never so weak as at the death of the conqueror, as constitutional succession is never clear cut and there is always a brief period of uncertainty before the emergence of a new strong man. The coming death of the King heralded a period of confusion during which his sons and relatives rearranged the pecking order. The matter of the succession was almost certainly the primary cause of acrimony, but matters of foreign policy and the brothers’ differing attitudes to Rome surely had a bearing on events. Perhaps Adminios was openly trying to curry Roman favour and to become the officially designated Rex Britannorum [Allen 1976: p100].


Cunobelinos was in his declining years, and power was naturally devolving more and more on his vigorous sons. It is likely that the King, seeing his coming demise, began to split Cattuvellaunia into several parts, each under the rule of one of his sons, and some disagreed with this policy. Caratacos and Togodumnos, if not openly anti-Roman, seemed at the very least to favour taking a line independent of Rome, whereas Adminios seems to have been pro-Roman. There was very obviously a severe difference of opinion. It may be taken as read that the matter was not suffused with brotherly affection and he may also have incurred the disfavour, if not even the wrath, of Cunobelinos himself. Caratacos and Togodumnos combined were more than a match for Adminios and were perhaps strong enough to disregard their father’s instructions. The upshot was that Adminios lost the argument and in 39 or 40 CE, along with a few companions [Suetonius: 12 Caesars: Caligula 44], sought asylum with Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus, son of the great Germanicus and the man known to history by his childhood nickname of Caligula – little boot – who was at the time at Mogontiacum (Mainz) preparing to campaign against the Germans. Adminios made submission and begged for assistance.


Caligula was delighted at the turn of events. Even though all that he had received was the submission of a fugitive prince and a few followers, he nonetheless wrote a most extravagant dispatch back to Rome that, if read by those who did not know the real situation, made it seem as if the Augustus had suddenly subdued the whole of Britain. Couriers were sent hastening to Rome at top speed, with orders to keep driving their chariot right into the City, despite that the ordinances specifically prohibited the use of wheeled vehicles within the City during daylight, and straight to the Forum. The letter was to be delivered to the Temple of Mars and handed over to the Consuls in the presence of the entire Senate [Suetonius: 12 Caesars: Caligula 44].


Gaius was easily persuaded to help Adminios out with an invasion of Britain. The Augustus concluded his rather ineffectual German campaign and ordered the troops to head for the Channel coast, and what ensued was perhaps the most bizarre event in Gaius’ brief but extraordinary principate. Once at Gessoriacum the Emperor ordered the legions into battle order and had the siege-engines brought up as if the Channel itself was a fortification that he intended to storm. Boarding a trireme, he sailed out from shore a little way and shortly returned. He then mounted a daïs, gave the signal for battle and had the trumpets sounded [Dio: lix:25:1 – 3]. The by now thoroughly mystified troops were then ordered to collect sea shells in their helmets and tunic laps, whereupon the Emperor solemnly proclaimed that the shells were their spoils of war, plunder from the sea, due to the Capitol and the Palace [Suetonius: 12 Caesars: Caligula 46]. He ordered the building of a great pharos, a lighthouse, at Gessoriacum, and promised the troops the bounty of four gold pieces each, bidding them to “Go rich, go happy”. Having had his trireme hauled ashore and despatched to Rome overland, he finally departed, planning an elaborate formal triumph.


Gaius returned to Rome to continue his erratic and increasingly bloody rule until there coalesced a conspiracy of senior men, people worried not simply about their positions and privileges but about their lives and the lives of their families. Just after midday [Suetonius: 12 Caesars: Caligula 58] on January 24, 41 CE, Caligula left the theatre to have lunch. Minutes later the corridor through which he walked was sealed and he was cut down by assassins led by Cassius Chaerea and Gaius Sabinus. He was 29.


The sequel to this event was one of the most dramatic episodes of the early Empire and a definitive point in Roman history. Gaius’ uncle Claudius, a middle-aged, scholarly man with a speech impediment and no experience whatsoever of rule, was in the palace at the time of the murder. He was generally held to be a bit simple, a sort of idiot savant. Even his own mother, the formidable Livia Drusilla, when speaking of someone stupid, was known to remark “He is a bigger fool even than my own son Claudius!” Hearing the news of his nephew’s messy demise, he not unreasonably mistook the killing for the start of a general massacre of the Imperial family and, terrified, hid in a cupboard. He was found by a Praetorian guardsman, who quickly took him to the guardroom where he was thrust into a litter and carried to the Praetorian barracks.


After two days of confusion [Suetonius: 12 Caesars: Claudius:3], Tiberius Claudius Nero Drusus Germanicus was hailed as Emperor by the Praetorian Guard. The Praetorians had clearly shown that their allegiance lay not so much with the Senate and People of Rome, but with the Imperial family [Ibid: Claudius 10] and their own vested interests. Never again would the issue be one of Republic or Empire. Forever after, the death of an Emperor would simply raise the question: who is next?


The sea shell invasion remains a complete mystery. A solemn, if baffling, religious rite? A laterally-thought-out way of avoiding a mutiny [Salway 1981: p69]? A joke in an obscure sense of humour? The bizarre and incomprehensible act of a madman? Something completely beyond modern ken? We shall never know, as the only record of the event is the testimony of ancient authors, and Gaius was far from popular. There can be no doubt that he was brutal and quite unfit to hold supreme power, but by the same token there can be little doubt that he suffered the effects of a “bad press” that exaggerated his shortcomings and minimised or ignored his nobler achievements. Whatever the sea shell incident was, there can be no doubt that the British leaders mulled over this peculiar charade and pondered its significance.


Shortly after the expulsion of Adminios, Cunobelinos died and his realm passed to the young princes, Togodumnos and Caratacos. The years of diplomacy and accommodation passed. The old King was barely cold in his grave when the armies of his sons began to move. These two were young, hot-headed and not of a temper to move slowly and carefully. They wanted the rule of Cattuvellaunia extended right across Britain. Togodumnos seems to have been the elder and he was certainly the senior, as he took the rule of the Essex/ Middlesex/ Hertfordshire heartland with his seat at the national centre of Camulodunon and assumed the authority of Cunobelinos. Caratacos may well have been a half brother, perhaps the son of a Trinovantian princess of the house of Mandubracios, as subsequent events reveal that he commanded strong support from the Trinovantes but perhaps less from the Cattuvellauni. Certainly he took Kent, a territory with strong Trinovantian connections, and such lands south of the Thames as were subject to his older brother. Verica of the Atrebates had a claim to the lands of Kent through his own brother or uncle Eppilos, and it may be that he made some advance to try to recover something of his own during  the uncertainty and confusion that normally follows the death of a powerful monarch. Caratacos was neither confused nor uncertain. He seems to have made Kaleoua his seat, and, working from there, moved swiftly and effectively against both the Atrebates and the Dobunni.


Verica was hard pressed. He retreated towards the Selsey peninsula, the heartland of the Commii, where a vast system of dykes protected the densely populated, fertile and strategically important area around the peninsula itself and the harbours of Bosham and Fishbourne. Like the great earthworks of Camulodunum, they were designed to thwart chariot attacks, for which reason they protected the open grazing land to the north, clayey gravels suitable for pasturage, and stopped short of the thickly wooded areas of the valleys [Cunliffe 1971: p17]. The rapidly shrinking domain of the Commii was becoming a pro-Roman island in an anti-Roman sea: to the north the Cattuvellauni were pressing down, to the west the Durotriges and the Wiltshire Atrebates who had refused to follow the policies of Tincomaros were rabidly anti-Roman. Vectis was intransigent and the hillforts of the Weald and the North Downs were rapidly being put into defence, probably at the instigation of the sons of Cunobelinos. Everywhere there seemed to be a general arming, and haste to refurbish defensive works. Someone was expecting a massive attack and was putting the house in order.


Although Verica made an attempt to re-take Kent, he was repulsed, and was soon deprived of everything. The Atrebates were assailed and the old king was forced to flee to the Continent and Rome. The Dobunni were attacked and the Cattuvellauni went on to the Bristol Channel. Many hillforts were stormed and burnt, and the fate of their occupants is not to be dwelt upon. The western part of Hampshire, including the Isle of Wight, was the rump of the old Atrebatean territory of Commios and it seems to have retained its political independence, but that area too was under pressure from Caratacos. The fiercely independent Durotriges also resisted and the fragmented nature of their society was perhaps ultimately their best defence: with no central authority, they would have had to have been reduced piecemeal, hillfort by hillfort, as Rome was to discover before too long.


Caratacos  was by no means invincible, nor did he have everything his own way, but nevertheless the realm expanded rapidly, the Cattuvellauni winning territory after territory, while disaffected British noblemen began increasingly to clutter up the Court of the new Augustus.


Togodumnos himself was by no means idle. He began a forward policy against the Iceni with considerable success. Shortly before 43 CE, he overran the western outposts of the Gogs, forcing the defenders north through the Newmarket Gap between the forest and the fens [Webster & Dudley 1965: p47]. The Cattuvellauni also moved against the prosperous, numerous, but still largely enigmatic Coritani, probably pushing the realm up as far as the Wash and the commercially and agriculturally desirable Valley of the Nene. Quantities of their coins found in the area would indicate that the influence of Togodumnos, if not his father before him, extended along the Nene Valley: whether as a result of military domination or of normal commercial exchange is difficult to interpret.


Neither Adminios nor Verica had fled alone. Without doubt both would have taken followers with them and probably a substantial lobby had been set up in Rome, amounting almost to a government in exile, by those following the footsteps of Tincomaros and Dubnovellaunos. They were welcomed, entertained, and a sympathetic ear lent to their grievances. They were listened to and the many pros and cons of their cases were weighed. But was Rome prepared to do anything about it? Despite that the time was ripe, despite that the refugees  were heard with sympathy, despite that they were fostered and encouraged, they would have been no more than political insurance against possible future need. Britain was but one matter on the Imperial agenda, and far from the most important. The pressures that argued for or against an invasion of Britain  bore equally upon the Roman government, and there was no compelling reason that made the decision to invade in the long run inevitable [Richmond 1955: p20].


What turned the balance? With Verica’s arrival with demands that treaty obligations be honoured forthwith, Claudius had a perfectly valid and legal casus belli. But there was much more to it than that. The decision to launch an incredibly expensive invasion of Britain was  the result of a very complex equation, and there were many factors involved.





Chapter 6:. Notes to the text.

[1] The element cuno is the same as the old Irish cu (or chu), as in Cu Chulainn. Cf also the Greek kuon and the latin canis.


[2] It could not have been any later. the Res Gestae Divis Augusti states that Dubnovellaunos fled to the Emperor, and the latest copy of inscription is definitely attested to no later than 7 CE.


  • Tamsen  On 19/06/2014 at 18:11

    Amazing work! I’m doing some research on Boudica and the events surrounding her life. This was a big help, thanks 😀

    • poddimok  On 19/06/2014 at 18:36

      Have a look also at chapter 4:01 The War in the West, 4:02 The War of the Iceni, and 4:03 The Road of Fire.
      Cheers, Stephen.

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