Saturday, 1 March 2014

British "Hostages" and "Supplicants" at Rome in the Age of Augustus

When, in 14 AD, the Emperor Augustus died, two bronze pillars were placed in front of his mausoleum, giving details of his political career, public benefactions and military accomplishments. Written in the first person, this Res Gestae Divi Augusti (Deeds of the Divine Augustus) declared that he had taken power in a Rome built of clay, and left a city built in marble.

The Emperor Augustus, who reigned from 27 BC to 14 AD. Photo: Till Niermann (licensed under GNU).

The Mausoleum of Augustus in Rome. Photo: Ryarwood (licensed under CCA).

The bronze pillars do not survive, but several marble copies of the inscription were made, including one which has survived from the Temple of Augustus at Roma at Ankyra (Ankara, Turkey).

Copy of the Res Gestae Divi Augusti from Ankara. Photo: Berolini, Weidmann & Mommsen (image is in the Public Domain).

It lists a number of foreign rulers to whom he had granted refuge as "supplicants" (supplices), including two British kings, one named Dubnovellaunus, whose coins are found in Kent; and another whose name is incomplete, but who has often been identified with Tincomarus, a son of Commius whose coins are found in Hampshire and West Sussex.

British coin of Tincomarus. Photo: PHGCOM (image is in the Public Domain).

These rulers had been defeated by British rivals, and had been granted refuge in Rome. Others who followed the same path at a later stage included Adminius, one of the sons of Cunobelinus (Shakespeare's "Cymbeline," and quite possibly the man who had displaced Dubnovellaunus), and Verica (possibly the brother of Tincomarus). Much like the Soviet defectors in Cold War Britain and America, they are likely to have provided both intelligence and propaganda value. Verica seems even to have provided the Emperor Claudius with a pretext for invasion.

There had almost certainly been Britons resident in Rome since the time of Julius Caesar. His accounts of his military expeditions to Britain in 55 BC and 54 BC state that he took "many hostages" (obsides). We don't know the names of any of these, but they are likely to have been aristocratic men and women with close links to the royal lineages of Britain. Although technically "hostages," held against tribute to be paid, there is no record of any such individuals being harmed as a result of their relatives' failure to pay.

Prominent "hostages" from other territories in Augustan Rome included Cleopatra Selene II, the daughter of Cleopatra & Mark Antony, and Juba II, the son of the deposed king of Mauretania. Augustus eventually gave Selene in marriage to Juba, and set him up as client king to rule his father's territory. Young enough to be impressed by the grandeur that was Rome, yet old enough to provide useful intelligence, and perhaps to teach others the languages and customs of their people, these "hostages" were conspicuously well-treated, fostered into the homes of senior Roman senators or even (as with Selene and Juba) into the imperial household itself.

Lygia, the fictional heroine of Henryk Sienkiewicz's Nobel Prize-winning novel, Quo Vadis, is just such a hostage, raised in the household of Aulus Plautius, the Roman conqueror of Britain.

Illustration of Lygia leaving the house of Plautius. Picture: Alfred Noyer Studio (image is in the Public Domain).

Three or four generations separate the hostages taken by Julius Caesar and the royal dynasties which held power in Britain immediately prior to the Claudian invasion of 43 AD. It is fascinating to speculate on the intercourse that might have taken place between Britain and Rome during the intervening period. Did Cunobelinus's father or grandfather return from Rome to claim his kingdom, bringing with him a taste for Roman wine? Might other sons and grandsons of Caesar's hostages have spent time at Cunobelinus's court as ambassadors or merchants, perhaps returning to Rome with Catuvellaunian or Trinovantian brides? How much information might have been gathered from these various obsides and supplices, and presented to Aulus Plautius before he embarked for Britain?

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.


  1. Fascinating! Thanks for sharing....

  2. I find the concept of all the 'aristocratic' hostages/ fugitives, or whatever we wish to term them in Ancient Rome, quite fascinating. What they actually thought of their new surroundings and situation would be wonderful to know.

  3. Thanks, Troutbirder & Nancy! This started out just as a passing blog-post, and then I started wondering just how many novels there might be to write here. I have to remind myself that it's not the next project: that's the story of a slave-girl in 2nd Century London (aristocrats can't have all the good stories).