Cunobeline (or Cunobelin, from Latin Cunobelinus, derived from Common Brittonic *Cunobelinos "Strong as a Dog", "Strong Dog") was a king in pre-Roman Britain from about AD 9 until about AD 40. He is mentioned in passing by the classical historians Suetonius and Dio Cassius, and many coins bearing his inscription have been found. He controlled a substantial portion of south-eastern Britain, including the territories of the Catuvellauni and the Trinovantes, and is called "King of the Britons" (Britannorum rex) by Suetonius. He appears to have been recognized by Roman emperor Augustus as a client king, as testified by the use of the Latin title Rex on his coins. Cunobeline appears in British legend as Cynfelyn (Welsh), Kymbelinus (medieval Latin) or Cymbeline, as in the play by William Shakespeare.
From numismatic evidence, Cunobelinus appears to have taken power around AD 9 after the death of his father Tasciovanus, minting coins from both Camulodunum (Colchester, capital of the Trinovantes) and Verlamion (later the Roman town of Verulamium, now modern St Albans), capital of the Catuvellauni. Some of the Verulamium coins name him as the son of Tasciovanus, a previous king of the Catuvellauni. Some of Tasciovanus' coins bear the title rigonos, a derivative of the Brittonic root *rīgo- meaning "king". Unlike his father's, Cunobelinus' coins name no co-rulers. His earliest issues are, however, from Camulodunum, indicating that he took power there first, and some have a palm or laurel wreath design, a motif borrowed from the Romans indicating a military victory. It is possible that, following the Roman defeat in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, in Germania in AD 9, he was emboldened to act against the Trinovantes. The Trinovantes were a Roman ally whose independence was protected by a treaty they made with Julius Caesar in 54 BC, but problems in Germania severely discouraged Augustus's territorial ambitions and ability to defend allies in Britain.
Cunobelinus appears to have maintained quite good relations with the Roman Empire. He used the title Rex (Latin 'king') and classical motifs on his coins, and his reign saw an increase in trade with the continent. Archaeology shows an increase in luxury goods imported from the continent, including Italian wine and drinking vessels, olive oil, and fish sauces from Hispania, glassware, jewellery, and Gallo-Belgic tableware, which from their distribution appear to have entered Britain via the port of Camulodunum. He was probably one of the British kings who, according to Strabo, sent embassies to Augustus. Strabo reports Rome's lucrative trade with Britain: the island's exports included grain, gold, silver, iron, hides, slaves and hunting dogs.
Cunobelinus had three sons, Adminius, Togodumnus and Caratacus, and a brother, Epaticcus, known to history. Epaticcus expanded his influence into the territory of the Atrebates in the early 20s, taking the Atrebatan capital Calleva (Silchester) by about 25. He continued to expand his territory until his death in about 35, when Caratacus took over from him and the Atrebates recovered some of their territory.
Adminius, judging by his coins, had control of Kent by this time. Suetonius tells us that in about 40 he was banished from Britain by his father and sought refuge with the emperor Caligula. Caligula treated this as if the entire island had submitted to him and prepared an invasion of Britain. He abandoned it, however, in farcical circumstances by ordering his soldiers to attack the waves and gather seashells as the spoils of victory.
Cunobelinus died about 40, probably within a year of that date. Certainly he was dead by 43. The Lexden Tumulus on the outskirts of Colchester has been suggested as his tomb (although the earlier Trinovantian king Addedomarus is another candidate for its occupant). Caratacus completed the conquest of the Atrebates, and their king, Verica, fled to Rome, providing the new emperor, Claudius, with a pretext for the conquest of Britain. Caratacus and Togodumnus led the initial resistance to the invasion. Dio Cassius tells us that the "Bodunni", a tribe who were tributary to the Catuvellauni, changed sides and supported the Romans. This is probably a misspelling of the Dobunni of Gloucestershire, indicating that Cunobelinus's hegemony extended as far as the West Country.
Legend and literature
Cunobelinus's memory was preserved in British legend and beyond. In the early 9th century Historia Brittonum, Cunobeline appears as Bellinus son of Minocannus and is described as a British king in the time of Julius Caesar. The names of Cunobeline and his son Adminius probably became corrupt due to a series of scribal errors in the transmission of the name from Suetonius' Life of Caligula to Orosius's Historia adversus Paganos, the latter of which was a primary source for the author of the Historia Brittonum:
- Suetonius, Caligula, Ch.44 (early 2nd century): Adminio, Cynobellini Brittannorum regis filio.
- Orosius, Historia adversus Paganos, vii.5.5 (early 5th century): Minocynobellinum Britannorum regis filium.
- Historia Brittonum, §19 (early 9th century): Bellinus, filius Minocanni.
In the Welsh Triads and medieval literature such as Branwen ferch Llŷr, the Dream of Macsen Wledig, and Lludd and Llefelys, the Historia Brittonum's "Bellinus son of Minocannus" was transformed into Welsh as Beli Mawr ("Beli the Great") son of Mynogan (also spelled Manogan). Beli son of Mynogan/Managan also appears in several medieval Welsh genealogies.
A mid-10th century genealogy preserved in the medieval Welsh manuscript Harleian 3859 contains three generations which read "Caratauc map Cinbelin map Teuhant". This is the equivalent of "Caratacus, son of Cunobelinus, son of Tasciovanus", putting the three historical figures in the correct order, although the wrong historical context, the degree of linguistic change suggesting a long period of oral transmission. The remainder of the genealogy contains the names of a sequence of Roman emperors, and two Welsh mythological figures, Guidgen (Gwydion) and Lou (Lleu).
In Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae (composed around 1136) Cunobeline appears multiple times. Geoffrey borrowed the Historia Brittonum's Bellinus and styles him as the general of Cassibelanus (i.e., Cassivellaunus) in his wars against Caesar (in the Welsh translations of Geoffrey's Historia, the Brut y Brenhinedd, Bellinus becomes Beli, steward of Caswallawn). The next appearance in Geoffrey's Historia is as Heli (son of Cligueillus), the father of the three brothers Cassibellanus, Lud and Nennius, who reigned forty years (in the Welsh translations, Beli Mawr is substituted for Geoffrey's Heli). He then appears as Kymbelinus, son of Tenvantius, a powerful warrior who was raised in the courts of Augustus. He was very friendly with the Roman court: his country was equipped with Roman weapons, and all tributes to Rome were paid out of respect, not out of requirement. He had two sons, Guiderius and Arvirargus. Guiderius succeeded him, but died in the early stages of Claudius's invasion, leaving Arvirargus to carry on the fight.
Geoffrey's story was incorporated into Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles in 1577, where it was found by William Shakespeare and used as the basis of his romance, Cymbeline. Beyond the name there is virtually nothing in common between the figure of Cymbeline and the historical Cunobelinus. The king, under the influence of his wicked second wife, forbids his daughter Imogen to marry Posthumus Leonatus, a low-born but worthy man, preferring that she marry his boorish stepson Cloten, leading to mistaken identity, jealousy caused by false accusations of infidelity and a war with Rome provoked by the withholding of tribute, again at the instigation of the queen. In the end peace between Britain and Rome is re-established, Cymbeline is reunited with his two sons, Guiderius and Arviragus, who were abducted in childhood by Belarius, a wrongly-banished nobleman. Imogen is reconciled with Posthumus. Cloten and his mother, the evil queen, get their just deserts.
- Malcolm Todd (2004), "Cunobelinus [Cymbeline] (d. c. AD 40), king in southern Britain". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 28 December 2017.
- Encyclopædia Britannica – Cunobelinus
- Prósper, Blanca María, "The irreducible Gauls used to swear by Belenos. Or did they? Celtic religion, henbane and historical misapprehensions". In: Zeitschrift für Celtische Philologie 64, 2017, pp. 255-298 (p. 262).
- Delamarre, Xavier. Dictionnaire de la langue gauloise, 2nd ed. Editions Errance, 2003, p. 72; 132.
- John Creighton (2000), Coins and power in Late Iron Age Britain, Cambridge University Press; Philip de Jersey (1996), Celtic Coinage in Britain, Shire Archaeology
- de Bernardo Stempel, P. "Die Sprache altbritannischer Munzlegenden", Zeitschrift fur celtische Philologie 44 (1991), pp. 36-55
- This city is also called the capital of the Empire of Cunobelinus by Dio Cassius (Roman History 60.21.4).
- Graham Webster (1978), Boudica: the British Revolt Against Rome AD 60 p. 43
- Keith Branigan (1987), The Catuvellauni, Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd, pp. 10–11
- Strabo, Geography 4.5
- Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars: Caligula 44.2–47; Dio Cassius, Roman History 59.25
- Graham Webster, Boudica: The British Revolt Against Rome AD 60 (London: Routledge, 2003 ), p. 51.
- David Braund, Ruling Roman Britain: Kings, Queens, Governors and Emperors from Julius Caesar to Agricola (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 99.
- Crummy, Philip (1997) City of Victory; the story of Colchester – Britain's first Roman town. Published by Colchester Archaeological Trust (ISBN 1 897719 04 3)
- Dio Cassius, Roman History 60.20
- Miles Russell (2006), "Roman Britain's Lost Governor", Current Archaeology 204, pp. 630–635; Sallustius Lucullus at Roman=Britain.co.uk
- Bartrum, Pete. A Welsh classical dictionary: people in history and legend up to about A.D. 1000, National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, 1993, pp. 12-13; 560-561.
- Harleian Genealogies 16; The Heirs of Caratacus – Cunobelinus and his relatives in medieval Welsh genealogies
- Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae 4.11–12
- Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles: History of England Vol 3 Ch. 18
- William Shakespeare, Cymbeline
- Catuvellauni at Roman-Britain.co.uk
- Catuvellauni at Romans in Britain
- William Smith (ed, 1870), Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology [https://web.archive.org/web/20051219053627/http://www.ancientlibrary.com/smith-bio/0920.html Archived 19 December 2005 at the Wayback Machine Vol 1 p. 911]