Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cunobelinus

CUNOBELINUS (d. 43?), British king, was, as is shown by his coins, the son of King Tasciovanus, of whom history knows nothing, but who is sometimes supposed to have been the son or grandson of Cassivelaunus. The frequent occurrence of the names of Cunobelinus and Tasciovanus on the same coins suggest that the former at first ruled jointly with his father. Verulamium, the old stronghold of Cassivelaunus, seems to have been the capital of Tasciovanus, but Camalodunum, the modern Colchester, was the residence of Cunobelinus (Dio, lib. lx. sec. 21 in Mon. Hist. Brit. p. lv; compare the constant occurrence of the name of this town on his coins). This rather suggests that Cunobelinus conquered the Trinovantes, whom nothing but the protection of Cæsar had saved from the arms of Cassivelaunus, and one of whose princes, Dubnovellaunus, had sought, apparently in vain, the protection of Augustus, and another that of Gaius, with equal ill success. But his coinage shows that after Tasciovanus's death Cunobelinus also ruled in Verulamium; and possibly his influence may have extended over the Iceni of Norfolk as well (Tacitus, An. lib. xii. c. 37, speaks of his son ‘pluribus gentibus imperitantem’). Such territories made him the first British king of his age, and Suetonius (Vit. Cæs., Gaius, c. 44) actually calls him ‘rex Britannorum.’ He must have been prominent among the British kings who, after provoking Augustus by their power to project an invasion of Britain, avoided his attack by a timely submission, and became his close friends and dependents (Strabo, lib. iv. in M. H. B. p. vii). The coins of Cunobelinus far surpass those of previous British kings, both in excellence of workmanship and in the artistic character of their design. While the earlier types are but bad imitations of Gaulish reproductions of the Macedonian stater, these are in many cases excellent imitations of contemporary Roman pieces of money.

Cunobelinus was in his later years involved in troubles with his son Adminius, whom he expelled from Britain, and who by seeking assistance from Gaius (Suetonius, Gaius, c. 44) became the cause of the expedition that at last was sent in 43 under Aulus Plautius. But Cunobelinus died just before this invasion, leaving the kingdom to his faithful sons, Caractacus and Togodumnuus.

Cunobelinus is famous in literature as the original of Shakespeare's Cymbeline, but there is nothing but the name in common between the historical and the poetical king, for the plot of ‘Cymbeline’ is only very partially derived from the legendary history of Cunobelinus that Shakespeare found in Holinshed's ‘Chronicle’ (bk. iii. ch. xviii.), and that even has no claim to historic truth.

The etymology of Cunobelinus is traced by Professor Rhys (Celtic Britain, 286–7) in its first part, ‘cuno,’ to the Welsh word for dog (‘ci,’ then probably ‘cu,’ genitive ‘cuno(s)’), and in its second part to the god Belinus, equated in continental inscriptions with Apollo.

[Besides references in text, J. Evans's Coins of the Ancient Britons; the Catalogues and Plates of Coins in the Monumenta Historica Britannica; Birch's Dissertation on the Coins of Cunobelin, read before the Numismatic Society; Akerman's paper in Archæologia, vol. xxxiii.; Rhys's Celtic Britain; Mommsen's Römische Geschichte, v. 156–60.]

T. F. T.