above steyning crop

River and Hill


By Jim Hindle, Mar 27 2012 08:00AM

They almost seem to march across the map of ancient Britain – Brigantis, Belgae, Ordovices; some twenty seven tribes and up among them all the Iceni sitting proud in Eastern territories. But the maps are loose and territories go largely undefined, names plastered arbitarily like guest names at a table without places. Here of course in Sussex the Atrebates ruled the roost, or seemed to do so, even though the area this tribe defined was huge. At its height it’s likely that it took in Sussex, Surrey, East Hampshire, Berkshire and probably a portion of West Kent.

When it comes to our attention, it was ruled by Commius; once an ambassador for Rome who was imprisoned by the tribes here during Julius Caesar’s first abortive invasion but was subsequently freed. He later returned to Gaul where he became one of the leaders of a Gallic league against the Empire and was active enough to attract an attempted assassination, later escaping to Britain by the skin of his teeth by raising his sail while his boat was still on dry land to confuse and put off his pursuers.

In 51BC he was one of the leaders of a league formed between the Bellocavi, the Atrebates and others tribes but finally subjected to Caesar, promising to go anywhere and do anything prescribed as long as he never came in sight of another Roman. The links between the Atrebates here and their namesakes over the channel were apparently strong and it seems a few - though perhaps a politically important few - may have migrated here after Julius Caesar ‘dealt’ with Gaul after his two British expeditions.

On his death, the territory was split between his three sons; two of whom may have jointly ruled over an area every bit as large as their father’s, including that of the Cantii in what is now Kent. At some stage, the Atrebates became known as the Regni: ‘the proud ones’. Despite or even partly because of this moniker, one son actually went to Rome, perhaps to seek help against the aggressive Catuvellauni who had taken territory in Hampshire. He may well have offered the legions a harbour and base at Fishbourne during the Claudian invasion in 43AD.

Though it is said the Belgic tribes of the South East offered stiff resistance to Roman incursion during the first years of invasion, the Regni themselves apparently never took up arms and later blossomed under Roman rule. But some suggest Caburn offered the western and southernmost point of resistance in a line that stretched up towards East Anglia and the Iceni themselves. Commius’s life and that of the tribe he once led speaks volumes of the drama and the ironies the age embodified. Our society continues to be influenced by the changes the Romans brought in, even if we hold as well the memory of something more original and wild.

photo: James Luxton

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