Cassivellaunus

Name
Cassivellaunus
Other names
Sometimes spelled Cassivelaunus or Cassibelanus
Birth and death
1st Century BC - 1st Century BC
Occupation
Profession details
King of the Catuvellauni tribe
Related place
Author
Sarah Kirscher

Life in Elmbridge

Cassivellaunus is, to date, the first named British individual in history. Julius Caesar mentions Cassivellaunus in his Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, after encountering him during the Romans' second Invasion of Britain. Caesar met Cassivellanus on the banks of the Thames in 54 BC. The British forces were marshalled on one side, defended by a breastwork of stakes. They had also driven stakes into the bed of the river, in such a way that the ford repeatedly crossed their line. Caesar used his cavalry to break through the defences, followed by the infantry troops. In the face of this onslaught, Cassiviellaunus' troops fled.

It is alleged that these events may have taken place on the Thames at Cowey Sale, upstream from Walton Bridge, with Cassivellaunus and his men positioned on the Middlesex side (for example, see Camden's Britannia). This was one of only a few places where the river could be forded by foot. In 1750 some stakes were dredged up at Cowey Sale, believed to be the ones put up by Cassivellaunus. However, 9' by 4' spacing (the distance between the stakes) is an obvious bridge footing. The stakes were also discovered at a bend of the river, making them even more unlikely to be connected to Cassivellaunus, as rivers are always forded on the straight. The stakes at Walton were much more likely to have been the footings for a Saxon or Medieval bridge. In addition, there is considerable evidence that the River Thames took a different course in the 1st Century BC.

Life beyond Elmbridge

Cassivellanus was King of the Catuvellauni tribe. Their land was to the North of the Thames in Hertfordshire, and their capital was at Verulamium, (modern day St. Albans). Cassivellaunus had been constantly at war with the other British tribes for many years, expanding his kingdom. However, in spite (or perhaps because of) this he was placed in charge of the British resistance to Caesar's invasion. The Britons used guerrilla tactics, effectively exploiting their war chariots (Encyclopaedia Britannica). They were able to attack the Romans as they made camp, escaping when Caesar sent more troops to help. However, when Cassivellaunus attempted to repeat the victory of the previous year by attacking the Romans as they foraged for food, his troops came up against three legions and Caesar's entire cavalry. The resulting defeat opened up a crossing of the Thames. Caesar forded without difficulty and pursued Cassivellaunus northwards. Cassivellaunus' stronghold was taken by Caesar, and after a failed attack on the Roman base camp, he was forced to sue for peace. Caesar took hostages and an annual tribute was fixed. Cassivellaunus was also forced to promise that he would neither harass the Triovantes (a tribe that had become allies of Rome) nor harm their king, Mandubratius. In essence, Cassivellaunus became a 'client king' - a tactic the Romans often employed to subjugate their enemies.

In the years following Caesar's invasion the Catuvellauni expanded their territory to become the largest tribal kingdom in Southern England.

No images of Cassivellaunus exist.

Sources

  • Camden, W., Britannia (First Edition 1586)
  • Elmbridge Museum Website, 'Julius Cesar and Cowey Sale', www.elmbridgemuseum.org.uk
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica (Online Library Edition), 'Cassivellaunus'.
  • Hill and Ireland, Roman Briton, (Bristol Classical Press, 1998).
  • Gaius Julius Caesar, Commentaries on The Gallic War, translated by W.A. McDevitte and W.S Bohn (New York Harper and Brothers, 1869).
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