Tuesday, 16 October 2007

War in Gaul: the cast (3)

3. Commios, king of the Atrebates, the Morines and the Menapians



Alas, poor Commios. He has been so utterly forgotten that I haven’t been able to find a single portrait of him, real or imaginary! No nation adopted him in the throes of Romanticism, even though he was a very clever strategist, and the king who held out longest of all against the Roman occupation.

Actually, in the case of Commios, it is not even clear what his name really is. He is one more victim of the near-incomprehensibility of Gallic today – for Commios, I’ve found “crow”, “equal”, and “he who strikes”… Quite apart from the meaning, what is Commios – his first name or his patronymic? The ending –ios could well indicate a genitive, which would make the nominative form “Comm”. There are coins of the British Atrebates inscribed “Comm Commios” – is that Comm, son of Comm, or is it lack of space that called for Commios, son of Commios to be a little bit compressed? Yay for dead languages, especially when they remain largely unwritten!

Comm or Commios (I think I’m settling for Comm Commios, just to keep things easy ;P) – one thing I know for certain is that he is the kind of character I like, because he changes his mind so often. Like Ambiorix and Vercingetorix, he hung around Caesar for a while; in his case, it lasted longer than for the other two. After the battle of the Sabis in 57 BC, where his people suffered severe losses, Comm seems to have stepped up to Caesar or in some other way made himself noticed, and Caesar appointed him king of the Atrebates; the Atrebates were henceforth also exempt from taxes. Comm saved the Roman general’s skin in Britain, and in return he got to rule the Morines, a neighbouring people of the Atrebates, as well. In 53 BC, Caesar pillaged the lands of the Menapians to put them under pressure not to shelter Ambiorix, and here too he put Comm in charge, whom he praises for his courage and cleverness.

However…

Also at this time, a fugitive Ambiorix is riding around Belgica, skirting Roman man-huntsmen and preaching rebellion to the Belgic leaders. And though Caesar remains tactfully silent on the subject, Aulus Hirtius reveals in his Book VIII of DBG that shortly after, Labienus has to send his right hand man Gaius Volusenus (“who hated Commius”) to undertake the Atrebate king’s assassination: Labienus has heard it rumoured that Commios has lapsed and is now conspiring against Rome. The attempt fails (though only just), and next time we hear of Commios, he is heading the army that must rescue Vercingetorix from Alesia.

Commios was one of the last leaders to take up arms against Rome, but he proved to be very tenacious once he had set his mind on rebellion. He never managed to mobilise a great army after Alesia, but what forces he had he used efficiently; Caesar notes that his troops are better organised than is usual in Gaul and that their attacks are well thought-out. But eventually the Atrebate king tires, too. He gets even with Volusenus, then offers peace to Mark Antony (yes, that Mark Antony) on the condition that he never has to face a Roman again.

One other thing I like about Commios is his resilience. When Caesar is done with Gaul, the land is little more than a graveyard. Commios has spent a lot of energy fighting, and he has lost. So what does he do? Instead of sulking in a corner, he crosses the Channel to Britain and starts a new dynasty there, eventually reigning over Berkshire, Hampshire, West Sussex, West Surrey and a part of Wiltshire. Archaeologists say that he introduced the practice of coinage there.

There is an attractive, but probably fictitious, anecdote about Commios’s sailing for Britain. Frontinus records that Caesar did not honour the agreement made by Mark Antony and decided to pursue Commios. When he arrived by the coast, the Atrebate king had already set sail, but the tide was low and his ship stranded on the flats. Commios had his wits about him and ordered the sails to be spread, and because the wind was fair, Caesar gave up the pursuit, thinking that the ship was afloat and had too much of a head start. Thus the traitor escaped…

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A coin minted by Commios in Britain – it has his trademark “E” with the funny slant.


In the case of Commios, Caesar is even less specific than he was about Vercingetorix; we have not even the vaguest indication about his age. For some reason I have always imagined him as fortyish, maybe because I assume that his down-to-earth approach to leadership (his siding with Caesar was of great benefit to the Atrebates; he seems to have been more concerned with his people’s welfare than with glory) is an indication of sedate maturity as opposed to Ambiorix’s and Vercingetorix’s fiery radicalism. My idea of Commios (and Vercingetorix, actually) changed very little between 2003 and today, and I actually find that it plays out really well with my new version of Ambiorix. Those two will be close during the most crucial phase of the story, so it is important to have some interesting interaction between them. They are sufficiently different to provide contrast, whereas, if Frontinus’s story is any indication, their minds certainly meet when it comes to shrewdness.

4 comments:

nout said...

Interesting stuff.
Comm is close to Crom, the fictitious Northland god (a sort of Odin substitute, I guess) Conan is prone to invoking. Completely non-sequitur, I know.
Here's a (completely uniformed) thought: could Comm & Commios be father and son on either side of the Roman allegiance? You mention that Commios could be son of Comm, and history being so vague on their subject... Perhaps one dies, causing the shift away from the Romans? Or the time for shrew allegiances had simply ended.

Anyway, fun to follow!

ampersand said...

I suppose we can never really be sure about Caesar's accuracy in DBG - when they did the whole "Grootste Belg" campaign, some historians suggested Caesar had entirely invented Ambiorix - but I do think he would have mentioned if the Commius who turned against him was a different man than the Commius who was his ally... I'm not sure which serves his purpose better: to show that his Gaulish allies remained loyal, or to say that they were entirely unreliable :/.

Conan is a Celtic name, of course :-). I'm not sure to what extent that might or might not have influenced his story...?

nout said...

Yeah,
I'm not enough of any kind of a scholar to determine REH's influences, so I dunno, but I believe he was quite a history buff (as that stands for someone in the Midwest during the 1930s).
The idea of having more than one Comm running around is a bad one, than, I suppose? -_^

ampersand said...

It isn't a bad idea per se! Only it suits me better that it's one Comm who changes his mind :D. A character like that is fun to work with. I also have another character who is going to make the opposite movement, from anti- to pro-Roman, and I like to have that kind of symmetry (don't ask *g*).