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Tribal conflicts and the end of Roman Britain


Stuart Laycock approaches relations between Rome and the British tribes from a framework of experience in modern day Bosnia and Iraq.

The book commences with a survey of tribes based on Ptolemy. The 150 year gap between Caesar and him means that there is relatively little overlap (even though Caesar did not focus on tribal identities) should remind us that tribal identities and boundaries were subject to flux over a relatively long period. Coinage was issued by some tribes in the Southeast essentially south of a line between the Severn and the Humber.


Kent plus some of East Sussex. Pottery types in parts of East Sussex have more in common with Kent than with Atrebatic territories. The Cantiaci probably had a strong relationship with northern Gaul and even, at times, shared leadership. In the first century BC Kent was an area of dispute between the Atrebatic tribes and the expanding Catuvellauni. Competition may have helped mould a distinct identity for West Kent. Ptolemy suggests that Cantiaci territory stretched north of the Thames to include London.


Like the Cantiaci, in the latter half of the first century BC, The Catuvellauni and the Trinovantes adopted cremation for some of their dead. In Ptolemy’s analysis, the Catuvellauni occupy one of the largest tribal areas with a capital at Verulamium (St Albans) but covering Herts, Beds, Bucks, Oxon, Cambs and Northants.

Critically, the Catuvellauni are not mentioned by Caesar but a leader called Cassivellaunus (essentially ‘Cadwallon’) is. Meanwhile, Caesar describes the Trinovantes as ‘almost’ the most powerful tribe, based in Essex but suffering under the impact of Cassivellaunus. The conderation process is obscure with the archaeology of the two groups being virtually indistinguishable. Under Cunobelin Camuludonum (Colchester) became joint capital.


These three entities (Atrebates, Belgae, Regni) all seemed to be linked and Cunliffe sees them as a single unity in pottery terms whilst they issue the same coinage. There is nothing here discussing the potential linguistic separateness of the group. The Regni occupied West Sussex, whilst the Belgae had their capital at Winchester but also seem to have had another centre, Aquae Calidae (presumably Bath which should have been in western Dobunnic territory). The Atrebates were based in Calleva (Silchester), East Berkshire and the area around Marlborough. They may have stretched to the Thames but were under pressure from southward expansion of the Catuvellauni. They built an oppidum at Calleva in the second half of the first century BC.

Portable Antiquities Scheme from London, England – The Winchester Hoard

Covered Dorset and part of Somerset. The Durotriges had an identity istinctly different to their Atrebatic neighbours with greater cross-Channel influence. By 100 BC they had clear links with Armorica, through which they lined to Mediterranean networks. In the first century BC they were importing Dressel I amphorae and figs. Hengistbury Head and (later) Poole harbour were trade termini. There were possibly two sub-groups based around Dorchester and Illchester.

But economic glory was short-lived. In the second half of the first century BC cross-Channel trade was significantly downgraded alongside downgrades in the metals used in coins.


Based in the area from Worcester to the Upper Thames. In the early period there is a strong suggestion of Atrebatic influence and until about 35 BC Atrebatic coinage was in circulation. Later there appears to have been increasing influence from the Catuvellauni. Coins suggests that the region may have become divided since some say CORIO whilst others say BODVOC. This may also reflect two centres: Bagendon near Cirencester and Camerton near Bath.

Dobunnic coins in the British Museum

The Cornovii never issued coinage and we are reliant on Ptolemy. They coveredan area around Chester, Viroconium (Wroxeter) and the Wrekin. There was lead and salt extraction in Cheshire but this is one of the tribal groupings we know least about.


The Dumnonii seem to have had even more in common with Armorica than the Durotriges. The Cornish may have been a component sub-tribe closer still to Armorica with some shared characteristics such as ‘fogous’. There is a possibility of invasion by the Veneti in the first century BC. Dominated by small hamlets rather than towns there is little sign of the adoption of Roman culture and customs.


Whilst not the focus of this book, the Silures, Ordovices and Demetae are mentioned alongside early Roman campaigns against the Deceangli.


Covered Norfolk and some of Suffolk, centred on Venta (Caister). There is evidence of conflict in the pre-Roman period between the Iceni and Trinovantes. Under Cunobelin there was a marked advance towards Iceni territory by the Catuvellauni – Trinovantes confederation.

Prasutagus became a Client King to the Romans – Norwich Castle Museum

Centred around Lincoln and Leicester but also including parts of Warwickshire, the Corieltavi make very few appearances in Roman historical services. There may have been two sub-areas focused on Kirmington and Old Sleaford. Coins suggest a pattern of joint leadership.


Notable for its ‘Arras Culture’ burials (although Arras is actually cognate with the Atrebates name) in carts. The burial type is restricted to eastern Yorkshire and the tribe has an identical name to one in Gaul. Laycock suggests that there must have been a rather larger immigration. Malton was the liveliest town in Roman times but the official capital was still Brough On Humber. There is evidence of contact with the Corieltavi.


Tacitus claims that the Brigantes were the most populous tribe and they certainly occupied the largest tribal area covering much of Northern England from the peak District to the Tyne-Solway line. Interestingly, the adoption of Roman culture seems to have divided either side of the Pennines with the western side not adopting.

Unsurprisingly, with such an extent and natural barriers, there seem to have been lots of sub-groups:

  • Carvetti (around Carlisle)
  • Settantii (Fylde)
  • Gabrantovices (eastern Yorkshire)
  • Tectoverdi (around Hadrian’s Wall)
  • Lopocanes (around Hadrian’s Wall)
  • Possibly the Latenses around Leeds

Corieltavian coin hoards may indicate Brigantian raids. Settlements seem to be mainly huts with the exception of the oppidum at Stanwick, occupied from around 40 AD or later.


These are numerous and, in many cases, we only have Ptolemy’s word for them. But we should keep in mind that the previous decade had seen Agricola’s drive into Scotland as far as Mons Graupius. Critical from the perspective of this book are those tribes between Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall: some northern Brigantes, Novantae, Damnonii / Dumnonii, Selgovae and Votadini.


First contact between the British and Rome may have been in British interventions across the Channel. According to Caesar Britons fought in all the Gallic Wars against him. It is less clear in what capacity. It may well be that Gaulish coins found in Britain were payments for British mercenaries. Furthermore, Caesar indicates that Diviiacus, King of the Suessiones may have had some political authority in parts of Britain.

Matters changed when in 55 BC Caesar crushed resistance in Armorica which inevitably set his sites on Britain. Commius seems to have attempted to persuade tribal leaders to ally themselves with Rome. But no tribe seems to have seriously committed. However, it did become clear that there was a new, powerful political ally in the game.

Caesar also says that Cassivellaunus had killed the Trinovantian king and driven his son, Mandubracius into exile. The Trinovantes initially allied themselves with Cassivellaunus but then switched to Rome. Laycock suggests that a significant element was pro-Rome from the start. Mandubracius returned with Caesar’s forces. The Cenimagni / Iceni now abandoned Cassivellaunus as well. Unretrieved hoards in Kent may relate to Caesar’s invasion of the area. At the end of 54 BC Caesar left Britain and never returned. Commius for some reason found himself fighting on Vercingetorix’s side in Gaul and then in support of the Bellovaci revolt. He was forced by Rome to make peace and fled to Britain. It is not clear whether the Atrebatic name in Britain dates from this time or was already in use.

After Caesar’s visit it seems that the Catuvellauni gained strength under Tasciovanus and Cunobelin, evidenced by coinage issue. Around 30 BC Tasciovanus was issuing coinage from Verulamium and (to a lesser extent) from Camulodunum. The sequences involved in unification of the two tribes remain controversial. A limited number of coins appeared south of the Thames where Kent seems to have slipped from Atrebatic influence to become part of the Catuvellaunian sphere. [Not mentioned but what about Oldbury Hill?]

Further east, Bodvoc of the Dobunni was issuing coins stylistically based on Tasciovanus’ designs. This would tie in with Cassius Dio’s contention that the Catuvellauni had political control of at least part of the ‘Dobunni’ (presumably, ‘Bodunni’). There is also evidence of continued expansion into Iceni territory with Cunobelin’s coins reaching further into than Tasciovanus’ did.

Rome only became a serious influence when two tribal leaders sought help from Augustus. It is unclear why Tincomarus of the Atrebates and Dubnovellaunus (of either the Cantii or the Trinovantes) sought help – perhaps for some internal dispute or fear of Catuvellauni expansion. The latter is countered by the fact the Catuvellauni seem to have had strong connections with Rome by this point although Atrebatic coins also show Roman influence.

In the Atrebatic territories the picture becomes more confused by the issuing of coins by Epaticcus in the northern area of the region about 35 BC. He styled himself as ‘son of Tasciovanus’ although it is not clear if this is metaphorical or literal. But it does suggest that Atrebatic territories were under pressure from north of the Thames. Although it’s confusing there is something going on as Adminius son of Cunobelin seems to have tried to separate Catuvellaunian Kent from the main bloc of Catuvellauni territory.

Cunobelin died around 40 and was succeeded by Caratacus and Togodumnum. Across Berkshire and Northern Hampshire Epaticcus’ coins were replaced by those marked CARA. This is also the time that Berikos (Verica in Latin; Beruk in Ango-Saxon – as in ‘Berkshire’), probably the last pre-Roman Atrebatic king, was forced out of his territory by the Catuvellauni-Trinovantian confederation.

It is hard to say how far Cassius Dio’s account of the invasion 170 years after the event should be trusted. Having defeated Caractacus and Togodumnum, Plautinus accepted the surrender of the Bodunni under Catuvellaunian control. There is then a mess of German units wading across waters and the geographical locations are difficult to identify if not fabricated. The whole story is in conflict with both logic and archaeological evidence.


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