It would appear that, about 50 BC, Commius, erstwhile king of the Belgic Atrebates tribe, migrated to Britain (see Caesar’s Expeditions). Shortly after this, the first coins to bear the name of a British ruler appear in the south-east. They are inscribed COMMIOS (or rather they would be if the whole name was ever contained by the coin*), and it is generally accepted that this is the self same Commius, who had succeeded in establishing himself as king of the British Atrebates (see British Tribes). Indeed, it is possible that Commius forged the alliance of various Belgic groups, who had previously settled south of the middle Thames, indigenous British groups living in the vicinity, and people who were now arriving as refugees from the Roman conquest of Gaul, and the new confederation took the name of his erstwhile Belgic kingdom.*
Inscribed coins from other tribes soon followed. From the numismatic record, and fragments of literary evidence, a possible scenario for the events leading to the Roman invasion of AD 43 can be pieced together. It is necessary to stress the word ‘possible’. The coins are, obviously, not dated like modern ones, nor do they bear the name of the tribe who issued them. Instead there is the evidence of coin typology and distribution, the occasional indication that a particular ruler is the son (or claims to be the son) of another, and the occasional indication of where a coin was struck. Inscriptions are usually, to a greater or lesser extent, abbreviated. A further complication is that, at some times, a tribal federation may have had joint rulers. For instance, Julius Caesar mentions (The Gallic War V, 22) that, in 54 BC, Cantium (the territory of the Cantiaci, i.e. Kent) was ruled by four kings – presumably, each ruled a separate group in its own designated territory, but Caesar doesn't elucidate. The looseness of all this evidence means that many stories (pseudo-historical reconstructions) can fit into it. At any rate, north of the Thames, perhaps round about 40 BC, Addedomaros appears to be leader in the territory of both the Catuvellauni and the Trinovantes.
Julius Caesar had been assassinated in 44 BC. In his will, he had adopted Octavian, the son of his niece, as his own son and heir. Cassius Dio reports that:
In emulation of his father he [Octavian] had set out to lead an expedition into Britain also, and had already advanced into Gaul after the winter in which Antony (for the second time) and Lucius Libo became consuls [i.e. in 34 BC], when some of the newly-conquered people and Dalmatians along with them rose in revolt.Roman History XLIX, 38
The conquest of Britain was, for the time being, put on hold. Since 49 BC, Rome had been embroiled in a series of power struggles (which would result in the demise of the Republic and the birth of the Empire). In 34 BC Octavian was, uneasily, sharing power with Mark Antony – Octavian in the West, Antony in the East. By the time Octavian turned his attention to Britain again, in 27 BC, Antony was dead, and Octavian was master of the Roman world. He was now, in effect, the first Roman emperor, and he had just been bestowed the name/title Augustus. Once more, he:
… set out to make an expedition into Britain,
but on coming to the provinces of Gaul lingered there. For the Britons seemed likely to make terms with him, and the affairs of the Gauls were still unsettled, as the civil wars had begun immediately after their subjugation. He took a census of the inhabitants and regulated their life and government. From Gaul he proceeded into Spain, and established order there also.Cassius Dio Roman History LIII, 22
And again, in 26BC:
Augustus was planning an expedition into Britain, since the people there would not come to terms,
but he was detained by the revolt of the Salassi and by the hostility of the Cantabri and Astures. The former dwell at the foot of the Alps, as I have stated, whereas both the other tribes occupy the strongest part of the Pyrenees on the side of Spain, together with the plain which lies below.Cassius Dio Roman History LIII, 25
Perhaps about 25 BC, Tasciovanus appears as king in Catuvellaunian territory and, for a short time at least, in Trinovantian territory (i.e. Essex). There are coins, broadly contemporary with those of Tasciovanus, inscribed with the name Dubnovellaunus, that were evidently issued in Essex. Not only that, Dubnovellaunus also issued coins in Kent. Now, it may be that there were two kings, both called Dubnovellaunus, one ruling the Trinovantes, the other the Cantiaci, or perhaps there was just one Dubnovellaunus who, somehow, managed to rule in both Essex and Kent. Whichever, it is Tasciovanus who is dynastically significant.
Round-about the time Tasciovanus’ rule began north of the Thames, rule of the Atrebates passed to Tincomarus, a son of Commius. Some time later (say, c.10 BC), however, Tincomarus’ brother, Eppillus, was ruling in the northern part – issuing coins on which he clearly proclaims himself to be king at Calleva (Silchester, Hampshire). Eppillus also took control of Kent – his coins replacing those of Vosenos, who appears to have had a short reign after Dubnovellaunus.*
Now, in the, so called, Res Gestae, Augustus, himself, lists foreign kings who “took refuge with me as suppliants”. Two British kings are included, one of whom is Dumnobellaunus. This king, who had evidently been driven from his kingdom, is generally taken to be the Dubnovellaunus who ruled Kent and, possibly, Essex.* Tincomarus, too, seems to have been driven from his kingdom – it being generally accepted that he is the second British king featured in the Res Gestae.*
Around AD 10, Cunobelin, who claimed to be the son of Tasciovanus, began to rule the Catuvellauni and the Trinovantes, with his capital at Camulodunum.* He promptly extended his power south of the Thames, taking Kent from Eppillus. Perhaps Eppillus was killed at that time, since Verica, who, like Tincomarus and Eppillus, claimed to be a son of Commius, appears as king of the Atrebates.
In AD 14, Augustus died and was succeeded by Tiberius. Tacitus comments:
… there was a long forgetfulness of Britain … The deified Augustus called this ‘policy’; Tiberius called it ‘precedent’.Agricola 13
Elsewhere (Annals II, 23–24) Tacitus reports that, in AD 16, some Roman troops, whose ships, having entered the North Sea at the River Ems following a German campaign, had been blown off course and shipwrecked on the British coast, “were sent back by the petty kings”.
Strabo (c.63 BC–c.AD 24), the Greek historian and geographer, was probably in Rome when he wrote:
… although they could have held even Britain, the Romans scorned to do so, because they saw that there was nothing at all to fear from the Britons (for they are not strong enough to cross over and attack us), and that no corresponding advantage was to be gained by taking and holding their country. For it seems that at present more revenue is derived from the duty on their commerce than the tribute could bring in, if we deduct the expense involved in the maintenance of an army for the purpose of guarding the island and collecting the tribute; and the unprofitableness of an occupation would be still greater in the case of the other islands about Britain.Geography II, 5.8
The date of Strabo’s “at present” is not certain – an allusion in his Geography suggests it was completed in, or just after, AD 23, though the timescale of its production is the subject of debate. Anyway, Strabo further comments:
Most of the island [Britain] is flat and overgrown with forests, although many of its districts are hilly. It bears grain, cattle, gold, silver, and iron. These things, accordingly, are exported from the island, as also hides, and slaves, and dogs that are by nature suited to the purposes of the chase; the Celti [Gauls], however, use both these and the native dogs for the purposes of war too. The men of Britain are taller than the Celti, and not so yellow-haired, although their bodies are of looser build. The following is an indication of their size: I myself, in Rome, saw mere lads towering as much as half a foot above the tallest people in the city, although they were bandy-legged and presented no fair lines anywhere else in their figure.… At present, however, some of the chieftains there [in Britain], after procuring the friendship of Caesar Augustus by sending embassies and by paying court to him, have not only dedicated offerings in the Capitol, but have also managed to make the whole of the island virtually Roman property. Further, they submit so easily to heavy duties, both on the exports from there to Celtica [Gaul] and on the imports from Celtica (these latter are ivory chains and necklaces, and amber-gems and glass vessels and other petty wares of that sort), that there is no need of garrisoning the island; for one legion, at the least, and some cavalry would be required in order to carry off tribute from them, and the expense of the army would offset the tribute-money; in fact, the duties must necessarily be lessened if tribute is imposed, and, at the same time, dangers be encountered, if force is applied.Geography IV, 5.2–5.3
Round-about AD 35, Epaticcus, evidently Cunobelin’s brother, took control of the northern part of the Atrebates’ territory, and Cunobelin would appear to have installed one of his sons, Amminus, in Kent.*
When Tiberius died, in AD 37, Gaius – who is better known by his nickname, Caligula, and who the surviving sources portray as a madman – came to power.* In September AD 39 Caligula suddenly decided to undertake an expedition to Germany.
… he did not openly announce his expedition beforehand, but went first to one of the suburbs and then suddenly set out on the journey, taking with him many actors, many gladiators, horses, women, and all the other trappings of luxury.Suetonius, on the other hand, says that Caligula was advised, by oracles at Mevania (now Bevagna, Umbria), to recruit more Batavians for his bodyguard:Roman History LIX, 21
… and was seized with the idea of an expedition to Germany. So without delay he assembled legions and auxiliaries from all quarters, holding levies everywhere with the utmost strictness, and collecting provisions of every kind on an unheard of scale. Then he began his march and made it now so hurriedly and rapidly, that the praetorian cohorts were forced, contrary to all precedent, to lay their standards on the pack-animals and thus to follow him; again he was so lazy and luxurious that he was carried in a litter by eight bearers, requiring the inhabitants of the towns through which he passed to sweep the roads for him and sprinkle them to lay the dust.Lives of the Twelve Caesars ‘Gaius Caligula’ 43
According to Cassius Dio:
When he reached his destination, he did no harm to any of the enemy – in fact, as soon as he had proceeded a short distance beyond the Rhine, he returned, and then set out as if to conduct a campaign against Britain, but turned back from the ocean’s edge …Roman History LIX, 21
All that he accomplished was to receive the surrender of Adminius [Amminus, presumably], son of Cynobellinus [i.e. Cunobelin] king of the Britons, who had been banished by his father and had deserted to the Romans with a small force; yet as if the entire island had submitted to him, he sent a grandiloquent letter to Rome, commanding the couriers who carried it to ride in their post-chaise all the way to the Forum and the Senate, and not to deliver it to anyone except the consuls, in the temple of Mars the Avenger, before a full meeting of the senate.Lives of the Twelve Caesars ‘Gaius Caligula’ 44
… when he reached the ocean, as if he were going to conduct a campaign in Britain, and had drawn up all the soldiers on the beach, he embarked on a trireme, and then, after putting out a little from the land, sailed back again. Next he took his seat on a lofty platform and gave the soldiers the signal as if for battle, bidding the trumpeters urge them on; then of a sudden he ordered them to gather up the shells. Having secured these spoils (for he needed booty, of course, for his triumphal procession), he became greatly elated, as if he had enslaved the very ocean; and he gave his soldiers many presents. The shells he took back to Rome for the purpose of exhibiting the booty to the people there as well.Cassius Dio (Xiphilinus) Roman History LIX, 25
… he drew up a line of battle on the shore of the Ocean, arranging his ballistas and other artillery; and when no one knew or could imagine what he was going to do, he suddenly bade them gather shells and fill their helmets and the folds of their gowns, calling them “spoils from the Ocean, due to the Capitol and Palatine.” As a monument of his victory he erected a lofty tower, from which lights were to shine at night to guide the course of ships, as from the Pharos [the lighthouse at Alexandria]. Then, promising the soldiers a gratuity of a hundred denarii each, as if he had shown unprecedented liberality, he said, “Go your way happy; go your way rich.”The ‘seashell incident’ is presented as yet another manifestation of Caligula’s insanity, which perhaps it was, but historians have tried to rationalise his actions – maybe the troops refused to undertake a voyage into the unknown, so Caligula had them gather seashells as a humiliating punishment*; maybe there was never any intention of invading Britain, it was a training exercise and the seashells were thrown to simulate missile attacks*; and so on.Suetonius Lives of the Twelve Caesars ‘Gaius Caligula’ 46
On 24th January AD 41, Caligula was murdered by the Praetorian Guard (the emperor’s household troops). They declared his uncle, Claudius, emperor.
… throughout almost the whole course of his childhood and youth he suffered so severely from various obstinate disorders that the vigour of both his mind and his body was dulled, and even when he reached the proper age he was not thought capable of any public or private business.…
His mother Antonia often called him “a monster of a man, not finished but merely begun by Dame Nature”; and if she accused anyone of dullness, she used to say that he was “a bigger fool than her son Claudius.” His grandmother Augusta always treated him with the utmost contempt, very rarely speaking to him; and when she admonished him, she did so in short, harsh letters, or through messengers. When his sister Livilla heard that he would one day be emperor, she openly and loudly prayed that the Roman people might be spared so cruel and undeserved a fortune.It seems, however, that Claudius had exaggerated his disabilities as a method of self preservation:Suetonius Lives of the Twelve Caesars ‘The Deified Claudius’ 2–3
… [Caligula] would have killed Claudius, had he not felt contempt for him, inasmuch as the latter, partly by his nature and partly by deliberate intent, gave the impression of great stupidity.…Cassius Dio Roman History LIX, 23
… [Claudius] obtained the imperial power without having been previously tested at all in any position of authority, except for the fact that he had been consul. He was in his fiftieth year.* In mental ability he was by no means inferior, as his faculties had been in constant training (in fact, he had actually written some historical treatises); but he was sickly in body, so that his head and hands shook slightly. Because of this his voice was also faltering, and he did not himself read all the measures that he introduced before the senate, but would give them to the quaestor to read, though at first, at least, he was generally present. Whatever he did read himself, he usually delivered sitting down.… From a child he had been reared a constant prey to illness and great terror, and for that reason had feigned a stupidity greater than was really the case (a fact that he himself admitted in the senate) …Cassius Dio Roman History LX, 2
Back in Britain, sometime between AD 40 and 43, Cunobelin died. His sons, Caratacus and Togodumnus succeeded him. Coins inscribed CARA, presumably issues of the same Caratacus, seem to supersede those of, Caratacus’ uncle, Epaticcus in the northern part of the Atrebates’ territory (there are no coins attributable to Togodumnus). Perhaps it was the territorial ambitions of Cunobelin’s sons which finally precipitated the Roman invasion of Britain. Cassius Dio mentions that, in AD 43, when the invasion took place, the Catuvellauni were ruling over, at least, a part of the Dobunni (to the west of the Catuvellaunian homeland),* and it may well have been the brothers’ expansion further into Atrebatic country that caused Verica to flee to Rome in search of assistance. A significant military success was just the thing Claudius needed to consolidate his position, so Verica found an attentive audience:
… desiring the glory of a legitimate triumph, he [Claudius] chose Britain as the best place for gaining it, a land that had been attempted by no one since the Deified Julius and was just at that time in a state of rebellion because of the [Roman] refusal to return certain deserters.Suetonius Lives of the Twelve Caesars ‘The Deified Claudius’ 17
Aulus Plautius, a senator of great renown, made a campaign against Britain; for a certain Bericus [thought to be Verica], who had been driven out of the island as a result of an uprising, had persuaded Claudius to send a force thither. Thus it came about that Plautius undertook this campaign; but he had difficulty in inducing his army to advance beyond Gaul. For the soldiers were indignant at the thought of carrying on a campaign outside the limits of the known world …Cassius Dio Roman History LX, 19