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April 01, 2014

The "King of the Britons" Coin

Coin of Cunobelinus

Before the invasion of Britain in AD 43 by the Roman Emperor Claudius, we have very little information on the earlier rulers of Britain. Classical accounts speak of only a few British chieftains, so our main source of evidence as to who these rulers were comes from the coins minted by the British kings themselves. Therefore this month’s coin belongs to Cunobelinus, a tribal leader active in South-western England from around AD 30.

This British coin is quite similar to its Roman counterparts. It uses a depiction of a head on the obverse similar to that of the Roman Emperors on their coins, and on the reverse a centaur is depicted. The centaur is a Greek mythological creature, and not part, as far as we are aware, of the pre-Roman British mythology. The use of Greek and Roman imagery was fairly common in this period, but it represents a new design of British coins. Horses had been very prevalent on coins, inspired by Macedonian coinage, but designed in such a local, British way, that they look very different from the depictions of horses in the Greek and Roman worlds. The designs on this coin indicate increased awareness of Roman styles, representing a stronger connection to the Roman world. As a bronze coin, this coin is unlikely to have been used for trade with the Romans, who traded in silver for the most part, although it is possible the ideas expressed on the coins were communicated to the Romans through a different medium. Thus the imagery is more likely to have targeted Cunobelinus’ British subjects. Wine amphorae from Rome have been found in elite burials in this period, indicating there was increased contact and trade with the Romans, and that the British elite were starting to adopt Roman customs. A ruler who was also interested in Roman designs would thus be more favoured as a leader. Thus even before the Roman invasion, the British were already adopting Roman customs and art styles. It was not “forced upon them” by the invading Romans.

Nonetheless, despite the increased interest in Roman culture, the centaur is a strange image to use, seen rarely on other coins even in the Greek and Roman world. The legend on the reverse reads “TAS…ONI…” (TAS[CI]OVA[NIF]), a reference to Tasciovanus, Cunobelinus’ father. Thus perhaps the centaur is being directly associated with Cunobelinus’ father. In Greek and Roman mythology, the centaur is often representative of drunkenness and barbarianism, not an ideal fatherly representation, so perhaps the British saw the centaur in a different way. The British had great veneration for horses, often depicting horses on their coins, so they were clearly a symbol of significance. They were probably representative of power, as horses are strong animals, and they also communicated wealth, as to own a horse costs a lot of money. Therefore a centaur, as a hybrid of horse and man, in British eyes may have represented a man being combined with this powerful creature. In this way, perhaps Tasciovanus is being displayed as the centaur, as a man with the great power and wealth associated with a horse. In this way, Cunobelinus depicts his ancestry as great, which would have made him popular with his people.

Some scholars have seen the Roman head on the obverse as representing the Roman Emperor, and thus the coin is designed to praise the Roman leadership. However, with the legend of “Cunobelin…” nearby, it seems the head is actually representative of Cunobelinus himself. Why he chose to do this can be seen in the Roman biographer Suetonius’ account. He states that the Emperor Caligula received the surrender of Adminius, who Suetonius describes as “Cynobellini Britannorum regis filio”: “the son of the king of the Britons, Cunobelinus” (Suetonius Caligula 44.2). Suetonius’ description seems to indicate that Cunobelinus ruled all the people in Britain, when in reality it was made up of many different tribes, each controlled by their own king. Either Suetonius has got his facts wrong, or perhaps he is buying in to Cunobelinus’ propaganda. There is no British equivalent of an Emperor, a man in charge of a huge amount of lands and tribes, so perhaps Cunobelinus is taking the imagery of a Roman Emperor in order to give the impression that he is even more powerful than just an average tribal chieftain, making him appear the most powerful man in Britain. In fairness, this may not be too far from the truth, as some scholars believe that during his reign, Cunobelinus was acquiring new territory in the South of Britain, so he may have needed to prove he was worthy of this large portion of land. While Cunobelinus probably was nowhere near the sole ruler of Britain, his representation of himself as an Emperor could well have convinced some Romans, as seen in Suetonius’ account, that he was, or at least a major player in British politics. This would help immensely to encourage trade, as Roman traders may have been deceived into seeing Cunobelinus as the most powerful, and thus the richest man in Britain, and thus the best person to go to with their desirable wares.

david_swanThis month's coin is chosen by David Swan. David is currently an undergraduate student of Classical Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. His interests include numismatics, and prehistoric Britain.

(Coin image above reproduced courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group Inc., (Mail bid Sale 66, lot 46) (

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