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Celtic Kingdoms of the British Isles

Celts of Britain

 

Atrebates (Britons)

FeatureIt was the Romans who coined the name 'Gaul' to describe the Celtic tribes of what is now France and Belgium, quite possibly based on an original form of the word 'Celt' itself (see feature link). When it came to the Celts of Britain, the name of the islands itself was used: Prydein (Latinised as Prettania or Britannia). Its collective people were Britons, although not all of them were Celts, let alone the same 'type' of Celts. Successive waves of immigration had left a vague mix of Bell Beaker folk, Urnfield proto-Celts, Hallstatt and La Tène waves, and Belgae, the latest arrivals. By the first century BC these latter people dominated the south and east of the isles.

MapThe Atrebates tribe occupied the modern counties of Berkshire and Hampshire, along with areas of West Sussex, western Surrey, and north-east Wiltshire. They were centred on a site which was close to modern Silchester. To the south-west of them were the Belgae, a tribe which they seem to have subjugated or which was part of the same people as them, while the Dobunni bordered them to the west, the Catuvellauni lay to the north, the Trinovantes to the far north-east, and the Cantii to the east (see the map of Europe's tribes around the first centuries BC and AD to view these locations in relation to all other Celts).

Closely related to the north-western Gaulish tribe of Atrebates, they were at their most powerful in the first and second centuries BC. The name Atrebates means 'settlers' or 'inhabitants' and, given that Belgic elements seem to have settled the region and intermixed with earlier Celtic populations, perhaps both are equally valid. However, read on...

In fact the Atrebates name (pronounced at-tray-bart-ees) is a rather odd one overall. The singular form should be 'Atrebus' which, in late Gaulish and late Latin would be 'Atrebo'. Its first part, 'ad', means 'to'. 'Trebo' is a house, extended in this case. In reality, this is a verb extended to be a noun, which makes it exceedingly odd. While this could indeed be taken to mean 'settlers' or 'inhabitants' this is not quite right. A more accurate interpretation should be the '(people who are) in houses', in other words, the 'homesteaders'.

Due to their location in Britain, the Atrebates were one of the more successful and civilised Celtic tribes. They traded with the tribes in Europe right up until the Romans conquered Gaul, and saw the conquest as an opportunity to increase their regular trade in fine cloth, hunting dogs, and military items. The process worked both ways, enabling them to absorb new ideas, and giving them advantages in culture and technology which some of their neighbours did not possess.

Their capital was Calleva Atrebatum (the 'place in the woods of the Atrebates', now near Silchester in Hampshire), showing that the area was heavily wooded at the time. A secondary, and earlier, capital could be claimed at Noviomagus, which belonged to a division of the tribe known as the Regninses. These people were thinly scattered to the north and south of the vast Weald (forest) which divided Sussex from Surrey, and seem to have escaped true conquest by, or even much influence from, the Atrebates. Another tribal centre was at Cunetio (Mildenhall in Wiltshire), probably a pagus.

Ancient Britons

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from Geography, Ptolemy, from The Oxford History of England: Roman Britain, Peter Salway, from The La Tene Celtic Belgae Tribes in England: Y-Chromosome Haplogroup R-U152 - Hypothesis C, David K Faux, from Atlas of British History, G S P Freeman-Grenville (Rex Collins, London, 1979), and from External Links: The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars and Proto-Celtic Word List (PDF).)

c.100 - 80 BC ?

The date at which the Belgic Atrebates arrive in Britain is unknown, but it may not be too long before the arrival of Commius, perhaps no more than a generation or two. They possibly migrate into the country from the south coast (most likely via Selsey in West Sussex, precisely the same point at which the later South Saxons also land).

Map of Britain AD 10
By the end of the first century BC and the start of the first century AD, British politics often came to the attention of Rome, and the borders of the tribal states of the south-east were pretty well known (click or tap on map to view full sized)

They found an early tribal capital at Noviomagus (modern Chichester in West Sussex). Over time they would migrate north-westwards, integrating with earlier Celtic populations in the region and founding a new settlement at Calleva, although this remains relatively minor until the late first century BC. However, coin distribution contradicts this picture, suggesting that the Atrebates arrive via the Thames, settling in the Upper Thames Valley and migrating southwards.

c.56 - 54 BC

Commius is a member of the Gaulish Atrebates. Around 56 BC he becomes an aide to Julius Caesar, and helps the Romans during both expeditions to Britain, perhaps with a retinue which is formed from the British Atrebates. In 54 BC he persuades Cassivellaunus, ruler of the Catuvellauni, to surrender to the Romans.

51 BC

Commius flees the Atrebates of mainland Europe. Frontinus writes: 'Commius, the Atrebatian, when defeated by the deified Julius, fled from Gaul to Britain, and happened to reach the Channel at a time when the wind was fair, but the tide was out. Although the vessels were stranded on the flats, he nevertheless ordered the sails to be spread. Caesar, who was following from a distance, seeing the sails swelling with the full breeze, and imagining Commius to be escaping from his hands and to be proceeding on a prosperous voyage, abandoned the pursuit.'

Atrebates coin
Shown here are both sides of a coin which was issued by the Atrebates between 50-20 BC, either under the authority of Commius or his son, Commius 'the Younger'

Commius brings with him just his own retainers, survivors of a heavy defeat in Gaul. The size and strength of the Atrebates tribe he joins in Britain is unknown. They certainly occupy their own territory in this period, and govern the Belgae and Regninses (and possibly even the Dobunni), who may all be constituent parts of the same tribe, but how much significance they hold is unclear. They may not even be formed into a single tribal kingdom until Commius becomes their king.

51 - 35 BC

Commius 'the Gaul'

Left the Gaulish Atrebates to found a dynasty in Britain.

c.50s - 30s BC

Unearthed by archaeologists in 2011 is what appears to be the first Iron Age planned town in Britain. The layer is found beneath the Roman remains of Calleva Atrebatum, the principle town of the Atrebates. It shows evidence of having been built on a grid. The inhabitants also import wine and olive oil.

This remarkably urbanised way of living seems almost certainly to be a product of the arrival and settlement of Commius and his followers, as they would have seen similar towns prior to their exodus, and would certainly want to bring with them the levels of sophistication to which they are used.

c.35 - 20 BC

Commius 'the Younger'

Son.

c.30 BC

The very first Atrebatean coins are tentatively dated to this period. The name 'COMMIUS' appears on the obverse while a triple-tailed horse is shown on the reverse. Commius rules the tribe from Calleva.

Tincomaros coin
Shown here are both sides of a gold stater issued during the reign of Tincomaros, with an abstract, triple-tailed horse on the right, and the remains of the rider above and a wheel below (a chariot wheel?)

c.30 - 20 BC

Tincomaros / Tincommius

Son. Ruled jointly. Later sole ruler.

c.30 - 20 BC

Eppillus

Brother. Ruled jointly. Succeeded his brother as sole ruler.

It is possible that, during the period of joint rule which lasts between five and ten years, Tincommius governs the southern half of the territory from the secondary capital of Noviomagus, which is within the territory of the Regninses. His brother, Eppillus, remains with their father to command the northern territory around Calleva, during which time the oppidum at Calleva develops into the main centre of Atrebatean power. When Tincommius becomes sole king, he apparently prefers to remain at Noviomagus while Eppillus governs the north from Calleva, issuing his own coins there.

20 BC - c.AD 7

Tincomaros / Tincommius

Gained sole kingship following the death of his father.

c.5 BC

Formal diplomatic ties are initiated between Tincommius and Rome when a treaty is agreed. Coinage issued at this time shows a more Romanised style, carrying almost exactly the same alloy content as contemporary Roman coins. This suggests that the metal comes from Rome, perhaps along with a moneylender.

Atrebatean nobles, angered by the pro-Roman stance of Tincommius in direct opposition to the policy of his father and grandfather, possibly found or liberate the westernmost Atrebateans as the tribe of the Dobunni. However, coinage produced by the Dobunni would suggest that they have already made a claim for independence around 30 BC.

Roman baths at Noviomagus
The Roman baths at Noviomagus in Regninses territory were uncovered by archaeologists in the 1970s and were later exposed more permanently to be incorporated into a permanent underground exhibition

c.AD 7

Tincommius is overthrow in a coup which is launched by his ambitious younger brother, Eppillus. He travels to Rome to plead before Emperor Augustus for reinstatement. This request is refused as Augustus is in no position to mount a military campaign in Britain at this time. Not only is Tincommius exiled from Britain, but Eppillus is officially recognised as king by Rome.

c.7 - c.15

Eppillus

Brother. Ruler of the Belgae & Regninses. Deposed by Verica.

c.15

Eppillus is in turn overthrown by his younger brother after the latter builds up a following of nobles who have become disaffected by Eppillus' grab for power. He flees to the land of the Cantii, probably passing through Regninses territory along the way. Once in Cantii territory he overthrows the ruler and takes command.

c.15 - c.25

Verica / Bericus / Berikos

Brother. Recognised by Rome. Deposed.

c.25

The Catuvellauni expand their interests into the territory of the Atrebates. Verica is forced out of Calleva as a Catuvellauni prince takes the Atrebatean throne. However, it seems that Verica continues to fight his rival for some time, gradually being forced further south by his stronger opponent.

c.25 - c.35

Epaticcus

Brother of Cunobelinus of the Catuvellauni. Forced out Verica.

c.25 - 41

Verica / Bericus / Berikos

Continued to oppose the Catuvellauni invaders. Fled to Rome.

c.35 - 41

Around AD 35 Epaticcus dies, not necessarily due to warfare, and Verica makes some progress toward retaking his lost lands. It is probably he who is referenced by Dio as Berikos, which suggests that he is finally defeated by Caratacus of the Catuvellauni around AD 41 and subsequently flees to Rome. Arriving there around a year later, he gives the new Emperor Claudius the pretext for the Roman conquest of Britain.

Sequential Maps of Roman Britain AD 43-425
The Roman invasion of Britain began late in the season, using three divisions which swiftly conquered the south-east before more slowly penetrating the west and north to bring all of England and Wales under their control, as shown in this series of sequential maps (click or tap on map to view full sized)

c.41 - 43

Caratacus / Caradog

Ruler of the Cantii & Catuvellauni.

43

FeatureWhile soon-to-be Roman Governor Aulus Plautius and Emperor Claudius are overseeing the conquest of the south-east of Britain, the Roman second invasion wing lands at a point along the south coast, probably close to the pro-Roman section of the Atrebates, who welcome them as an antidote to Catuvellauni domination. Part of the territory of the Atrebates is reorganised into the Roman client kingdom of the Regninses (see feature link) under the rule of Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus, who may be Verica's son.

Shortly after the Roman conquest, the construction of a wooden town begins, with the wood in plentiful supply from the surrounding area. The town is named Calleva Atrebatum (modern Silchester) and is designated a civitas, or tribal capital. Its initial construction is irregular, with a regular street grid only being laid out towards the middle of the century.

c.65?

Direct rule under the Romans follows the death of Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus, client ruler of the Regninses, and perhaps the Atrebates too. The tribal territory is later organised into the civitates (administrative districts within a Roman province) of the Atrebates, Regninses, and possibly the Belgae.

Calleva Atrebatum
An artist's reconstruction of Calleva Atrebatum showing the forum and basilica, along with the cattle market (at the front) and houses and shops

Between this point and about AD 85, the town of Calleva Atrebatum gains one of the first oval amphitheatres in Britain, built to the north-east, outside the defences. Towards the end of the century, two Romano-Celtic temples are built inside the eastern gate, facing east. The first of them is the largest known temple in all of Britain, covering four hundred and ninety-five square metres. The walls are almost a metre thick, suggesting a half-timbered construction.

2nd century

By the end of the century, the early wooden forum and basilica at the heart of Calleva Atrebatum have been rebuilt in stone. Some buildings which had been erected during the earliest phase of building, prior to a street plan being laid down, continue to exist and be developed.

3rd century

By the start of the third century, Calleva Atrebatum has gained defensive stone walls which are over 6.3 metres high. The town also contains an impressive forum, basilica, three temples, and a baths complex. and about 180 stone buildings. Large areas are still using wooden constructions, especially nearer the walls. Late in the century the town is razed by a catastrophic fire, probably triggered by a stray spark in the wooden suburbs. The town is subsequently rebuilt and continues to flourish.

Fishbourne villa
Fishbourne villa was one of the most extensive and richly-decorated establishments in the whole of Britain, surely a palace fit for a (client) king of the Regninses?

4th century

Towards the end of the century, the large temple by the eastern gate falls into disuse. The second, smaller temple alongside it falls into disuse about the same time, probably due to the rise of Christianity and a British Church organisation in Britain. The city contains an early Christian church which is excavated in 1890 and 1961 and which in this period may be the seat of a bishop. A gold ring uncovered by archaeologists in the town bears the inscription 'Senicianus, live in God'.

5th century

By the fifth century the Atrebates have probably regained some level of independent power following the expulsion of Roman administration from Britain and the gradual diminution of any subsequent British central administration. The heartland of their former territory re-emerges in the form of the postulated territory of Caer Celemion. The former Regninses now have an identity as the people of Rhegin, while the Belgae are focussed around Caer Gwinntguic.

 
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