His earliest coins, dated before AD 7, were minted at Camulodunum (Colchester), capital of the Trinovantes, some of which portray a palm or laurel wreath, a Roman motif indicating a military victory. He began issuing coins from Verulamium (St Albans), capital of the Catuvellauni, c. AD 10, some of which name him as the son of the former Catuvellaunian king Tasciovanus. The distribution of his coinage indicates that his rule spread across modern Essex, Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire, Oxfordshire and north Berkshire, with influence over Sussex, Hampshire, Norfolk, north Kent and Gloucestershire. Cassius Dio seems to confirm that the Catuvellauni were Cunobelinus's tribe, and that the Dobunni of Gloucestershire were tributary to him.
He appears to have maintained good relations with the Roman Empire. He used the Latin title REX ("king") and classical motifs on his coins, and his reign saw an increase in trade with the continent. Archaeology shows an increase in luxury goods imported from the continent, including Italian wine and drinking vessels, olive oil and fish sauces from Hispania, glassware, jewellery and Gallo-Belgic tableware, which from their distribution appear to have entered Britain via the port of Camulodunum. He was probably one of the British kings that Strabo says sent embassies to Augustus. Strabo reports Rome's lucrative trade with Britain: the island's exports included grain, gold, silver, iron, hides, slaves and hunting dogs.
His brother Epaticcus gained territory in the south Thames region in the 30s at the expense of Verica of the Atrebates, gaining control of Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester). He was briefly succeeded by Cunobelinus's son Caratacus, who issued coins very similar to his uncle's. Another of his sons, Adminius (likely to be identified as the Amminus who briefly issued coins similar in design to those of Cunobelinus in Kent), was banished by his father c. 39-40. The fugitive prince and his entourage surrendered themselves to the Roman emperor Caligula, who celebrated as if the entire island had submitted to him.
Dio reports that a British king called "Bericus" (almost certainly Verica) was ousted from his kingdom, which prompted the emperor Claudius to launch his invasion of 43. By this stage Cunobelinus was dead, and the initial resistance was led by his sons Caratacus and Togodumnus.
Legends and literature
Cunobelinus's memory appears to have been preserved in medieval British tradition and beyond. A genealogy in the Welsh Harleian MS 3859 (ca. 1100) includes the generations "Caratauc map Cinbelin map Teuhant", corresponding, via established processes of language change, to "Caratacus, son of Cunobelinus, son of Tasciovanus", thus preserving the names of the three historical figures in correct relationship, although out of historical context.
He appears to be the basis of Kimbelinus, a pre-Roman king of Britain in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1136). Kimbelinus is the son of the previous king, Tenvantius, was brought up by the emperor Augustus, and willingly pays tribute to Rome, although he is powerful enough to refuse. After his death his sons Arviragus and Guiderius lead the resistance to Claudius's invasion. Although Geoffrey is notoriously historically unreliable, this account is chronologically accurate and not implausible. Augustus's foreign policy is known to have relied on exchanges of obsides - diplomatic hostages from the ruling families of allies - and John Creighton argues that Tincomarus, a British contemporary of Cunobelinus, was one such, based on the imagery used on his coins. Raphael Holinshed incorporated much of Geoffrey's Historia into his Chronicles (1577), including king "Cimbeline", about whom William Shakespeare wrote his late romance Cymbeline.
- Graham Webster, Boudica: The British Revolt against Rome AD 60, Book Club Associates, 1978, pp. 43; Keith Brannigan, The Catuvellauni, Alan Sutton Publishing, 1985, p. 8-9
- Cassius Dio, Roman History 60:20
- Branigan, The Catuvellauni, pp. 10-11
- Strabo, Geography 4.5
- Philip de Jersey, Celtic Coinage in Britain, Shire Archaeology, 1996, p. 30-32
- Suetonius, Caligula 44.2
- Cassius Dio, Roman History 60:19-20
- Harleian Genealogies 16; "The Heirs of Caratacus" - Caratacus and his relatives in medieval Welsh genealogies
- Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae 4.11
- John Creighton, Coins and power in Late Iron Age Britain, Cambridge University Press, 2000
- Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles: History of England 3.18
- William Shakespeare, Cymbeline