The Atrebates were a Belgic tribe of the Iron Age and the Roman period, originally dwelling in the Artois region. An offshoot of the Belgic tribe probably entered Britain before 54 BC, successively ruled by kings Commius, Tincommius, Eppillus and Verica. After 43 AD, only parts of the area were controlled by king Claudius Cogidubnus, after which they fell under Roman power. They occupied a region stretching between the Thames, the Test, and West Sussex.
The Commius Connection
“… then [after the Dobunni are] the Atrebati and their town Caleva 19*00 54°15 …”
The geographer Claudius Ptolemaeus writing in the late-2nd Century placed this tribe between the Dobunni to the west and the Cantiaci to the east. We may also infer from his writings that the Belgae lay to the south-west, the Regnenses to the south-east and the Catuvellauni to the north. There is much coinage evidence (vide infra) which suggests that the Atrebates territories encompassed the modern counties of Hampshire and Berkshire, including parts of west Sussex, west Surrey and north-east Wiltshire.
The Civitas Atrebatum The Principal Tribal Centre
Calleva, The cantonal capital of the Atrebates is the only Πολις attributed to the tribe by Ptolemy. During the reign of Tincommius c.15 BC , the oppidum at Calleva developed in size and importance to become the main centre of the Atrebates tribe, overtaking in status the original tribal centre at Selsey on the Hampshire coast. Aside from the names of the neighbouring tribes (see above) Ptolemy did not record any further geographical information on the Atrebates, mainly because the tribe did not possess any coastal territories during Romano-British times.
Other Notable Atrebatum Settlements
Cvnetio (Mildenhall, Wiltshire)
Posting station on the road between Silchester and Mildenhall.
Probable Roman settlement on the Pilgrims Way south-east of Silchester.
Spinis (Speen?, near Lambourne, Berkshire)
Itinerary road station located west of Thatcham.
The large quantity of fourth century finds points to there having been a Roman establishment of some nature.
Type ‘Qb’ Gold Stater of the Atrebates Found near Wantage by J. Botas in 2006
Rural temples are known at Weycock Hill (Berkshire), Frilford (Oxfordshire) possibly marking the borders with both the Dobunni and the Catuvellauni. The Romano-British building at the Wheatsheaf, halfway between Calleva and Venta Belgarum (Winchester), may have been a temple on the borders between the Atrebates and the Belgae.
The Atrebatean Territories
Distribution of Atrebatean Coinage
Atrebatean Coinage Distribution appears to show a migration of the Atrebatic people from their original homelands in the upper Thames valley to the south coast of Britain. The British ‘Q’ Coins were issued c.60 BC , and were followed by coins of Commius after 50BC. His successors, Tincommius (c.35 BC ), Eppillus (c.10 BC ) and Verica (c.10AD), have few coins appear in the old Atrebates homelands and are noticeably clustered on the south coast around Chichester. After he was ousted from Chichester, Eppillus also issued coin for a while in Cantium.
Adapted by from original maps in Barry Culiffe’s Iron Age Communities in Britain (Fig.7:1, sourced from D.F. Allen, 1961a & 1962), and other maps in Graham Webster’s The Roman Invasion of Britain.
The Continental Atrebates
The Atrebates tribe of Belgica Province were bordered to the north, south and west by the sea-faring nations the Menapii, the Ambiani and the Morini respectively, and on all other sides by other friendly Belgic states. Their tribal capital was Nemetacum [Atrebatum], now known as Arras, on the Scarpe River in the Artois region of northern France.
The Atrebates of Southern England
These people inhabited the country centred on the modern counties of Berkshire and Oxfordshire. Originally from Belgium, their continental predecessors had in 56BC? joined forces with their neighbours the Nervii to field 15,000 tribesmen in opposition to Julius Caesar. The gaulish counterparts of this tribe provided frequent subject matter for Caesar’s Gallic Wars, often mentioned in association with his native guide and personal friend Commius (a.k.a. ‘Commius the Gaul’ or ‘Commius the Atrebatean’), who was the Gallic noble entrusted by Caesar to rule the tribe following its initial pacification.
During the expeditions of 55 and 54 BC, Commius was to take a central role as Caesar’s embassador to the British tribes who opposed the Roman general. Commius was later to turn against his former friend and led the Atrebates in an unsuccessful attempt to relieve Vercingatorix during the Siege of Alesia in 53. Now the enemy of Caesar, Commius fled the continent in 51 BC, and made with his retinue to Britain, where his descendants were destined to rule part of the island until the coming of Rome in 43AD.
Frontinus tells us how Commius affected his escape from Caesar by a clever ruse:
‘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.’ (Frontinus Strategematon II.xiii.11)
Unsuprisingly these details were omitted from Caesar’s account of Commius’ escape.
We know from the above reference that the Atrebates tribe of southern Britain were directly linked to the Atrebates of Belgic Gaul, but what remains unknown is whether or not the Atrebates already had a significant presence on the island before the arrival of Commius and his retinue.
Other Passages from Caesar’s Gallic Wars
Julius Caesar De Bello Gallico: ii.4 ; ii.16 ; ii.23 ; iv.21 ; v.46 ; vii.75 ; viii.7 ; viii.47
King ‘Tim’ of the Britons
There is a passage in the Res Gestae of the emperor Augustus which mentions the names of two reges Britannorum, or ‘Kings of the Britons’.
‘The following kings sought refuge with me as suppliants: … of the Britons; Dumnovellaunos¹ and Tim[…]² …’ (Augustus Res Gestae vi.32)
- Inscribed coinage recovered from the south-east of Britain, shows that there were two kings of this name: in Cantium, and in Essex.
- Both the Greek and Latin inscriptions are here defective; the name may be restored as Ti[ncom]m[ius], the Atrebatean monarch known to us through his coinage (vide infra).
Atrebatean Tribal Kings
Commius the Gaul
A noble of the Gaulish Atrebates tribe from Brittany? He became an aide of Julius Caesar, possibly sometime during 56AD, and accompanied the Roman general during both of his expeditions to Britain, where in 54BC he was instrumental in persuading the British king Cassivellaunus to come to terms. In 51BC, however, he joined forces with other Gaulish leaders in an attempt to relieve Vercingetorix during the siege of Alesia. His Atrebatean regiment along with all the other Gaulish relief forces were soundly repulsed by Caesar. The following year, realising that there would be no escape from Caesar’s retribution, he came to terms with his legate, Marcus Antonius, and offered some of his own family as hostages. Still not satisfied that he could trust Antony, he later fled to Britain and vowed never to set eyes on a Roman again. He founded a dynasty among the existing Atrebatean settlers, possibly first at Noviomagus, then later moving to Calleva. Around 30BC there appeared the very first inscribed British coins, the name COMMIOS appearing on the obverse, with a triple-tailed horse featured on the reverse.
Commius the Younger
Recent numismatic evidence suggests that the staters inscribed COM COMMIOS were also among the first to be issued. This suggests that Commius the Gaul, former friend of Julius Caesar, was succeeded by a son also named Commius who produced these coins. Commius the Younger, succeeded his father Commius the Gaul in c.35BC and ruled from Calleva until c.20BC, when he was succeeded by his own sons, first Tincommius, then Eppillus and finally Verica. Coinage evidence points to a period of joint rule with his eldest son Tincommius, perhaps from c.25BC.
The eldest son of Commius the Younger, with whom it would appear he jointly ruled for a number of years until his fathers death c.20BC. It is possible that during the period of joint rule, Tincommius governed the southern half of the Atrebatean realm, operating from the oppidum of Noviomagus, and upon his succession he preferred to stay at the southerly sea port. This left his brother Eppillus to govern the northern territory from Calleva, and was to be the undoing of the lazy Tincommius, for it is from this time that the oppidum at Calleva developed into the main centre of Atrebatean power, under the rule of Eppilus. Around 5BC, it would appear that diplomatic initiatives were instated between Tincommius and the emperor which concluded with a formal treaty.
His gold staters issued around this time, inscribed in a recessed panel on the obverse with the letters TINC, and bearing a very romanised version of the Atrebatean triple-tailed horse on the reverse along with the inscription ¢¬¢C¢¬¢F, or ‘Son of Commius’; this suggests that he had acquired the services of a Roman moneyer.
Recent metallurgical research has shown that the issue of silver units associated with the ‘Tinc’ staters, themselves inscribed TINCOMM, have almost exactly the same alloy content as contemporary Roman denarii, leading us to conclude that the bullion for this issue almost certainly came from Rome. These evident pro-Roman sympathies, in direct opposition to those of his father, possibly caused a breakaway faction of Atrebatean nobles to found the tribe of the Dobunni at this time. Before 7AD he fell victim to a coup hatched by his younger brother Eppillus and was removed from the throne, whereupon he travelled to Rome to plead his case for reinstatement before Augustus (vide supra). He was refused however, because Augustus was in no position to mount a military campaign in Britain at this time, and to keep a friendly face at Calleva, Eppillus was recognised by Rome as king
A son of Commius the Younger. His elder brother Tincommius succeeded to the Atrebatean throne following a period of joint rule after their father’s death c.20BC. Tincommius continued to rule the kingdom from Noviomagus on the south coast, and left his brother Eppillus to govern the northern tribal lands from Calleva, from which place he issued coins inscribed EPPILL. Subjection to the rule of his brother seems not to have been acceptable to Eppillus however, probably because of his siblings openly pro-Roman tendencies, for c.7AD he conspired to remove Tincommius from the Atrebatean throne, forcing him to flee to Rome to petition the emperor. Augustus did not want to trouble himself with the situation, however, and recognised Eppillus as king of the Atrebates, allowing him to issue silver coinage bearing both his name, EPP on the obverse, and his title REX CALL, the ‘King of Calleva’, on the reverse. His reign over the Atrebatean heartlands was quite short, for c.15AD he was supplanted by his younger brother Verica who possibly raised support among the Atrebatean nobles at his brothers unconstitutional accession. He escaped to Kent, where in turn, he supplanted either Dubnovellaunus or Vosenios as king. (vide Eppillus of Cantium).
Verica / Berikos
The youngest son of Commius the Younger. After his brother Eppillus supplanted their elder brother Tincommius from the Atrebatean thone c.5AD, Verica built up a following of Atrebatean nobles opposed to the rule of Eppillus, and with their help seized the throne from Eppillus for himself c.15AD, issuing coinage inscribed VI¢¬¢RI and CO F. Like both of his brothers before him, he was recognised by the Roman emperor – by this time, possibly Tiberius – and therefore styled himself ‘Rex’ on his coins. He ruled over the Atrebates for many years from the tribal capital of Calleva before being forced out by the military expansionism of Epaticcus the brother of Cunobelin c.25AD. It would seem that Verica continued to war with this rival king for some time, being forced gradually further south by his stronger opponent. Around 35AD however, Epaticcus was either killed or died naturally, and Verica made some progress toward retrieving the lands lost to the Catuvellauni. Verica is probably to be equated with the noble ‘Berikos’, mentioned by Dio (LX,19), in a passage which suggests that he was beaten in battle by Caratacus, the nephew of his dead rival, but escaped capture and fled to the continent, eventually making his way to Rome where he appeared as a suppliant before Claudius c.42AD.