the first Roman emperor, Augustus Caesar, and the Colchester connection!

On the 16th January in 27 BC, Octavian was declared emperor – with the title of Augustus Caesar – and the Roman republic became the Roman empire. The month of Sextilis was renamed ‘August’ in his honour. Augustus (63 BC-AD 14) was the victor at the famous ancient Battle of Actium in 31 BC. The Mausoleum of Augustus is Augustus’ tomb and he built it in 28 BC on the Campus Martius in Rome: the mausoleum is currently undergoing restoration (an article about it was posted on The Telegraph web-site on the 16th January 2017, ie ‘Giant mausoleum in Rome that held the remains of the emperor Augustus to be restored after decades of neglect’, at www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/01/16/giant-mausoleum-rome-held-remains-emperor-augustus-restored/ ). The Res Gestae Divi Augusti is Augustus’ epitaph and it is on the front of the mausoleum. Augustus was even deified and there is a temple dedicated to him in Rome. According to the Res Gestae, Augustus prepared three invasions of Britain, all of which were cancelled but, remarkably, there is a connection between Augustus and Camulodunum, the Iron Age precursor of Colchester…

The Res Gestae claims that Dubnovellaunus, possibly Dubnovellaunus of the Trinovantes tribe in Essex, fled to Augustus in Rome in AD 7, along with Tincomarus, tribal leader of the Atrebates, to ask for help.* The Catuvellauni were disrupting tribal Britain. The tribe had colonised the territory of the Trinovantes and established Camulodunum here, and they were threatening the Atrebates. Some of the tribes of Britain were ‘client kingdoms’ to the Roman empire and presumably paid tribute money to, as well as conducting trade with, the Roman empire. But there is evidence of an earlier and more personal connection between Augustus himself and Camulodunum.

Colchester has produced a remarkable find relating to Augustus – a silver medallion showing the head of Augustus, which was excavated in the Lexden Tumulus. From this web-site: ‘… The Lexden tumulus is a Late Iron Age burial mound on land which is now off Fitzwalter Road in Lexden, and where the houses of St Clare Road were built in the 1920s. The burial mound was excavated in 1924 by workmen, under the supervision of local surgeon Philip Laver and his brother Edward Laver, and it produced remarkable archaeological finds including treasure… The burial within the mound has been dated to circa 15-10 BC and it is thought to have been the grave of a British king. The burial mound was created near a group of cremation burials which are dated to 25 years or so earlier. It was thought that the king in the burial mound was Addedomaros but Tasciovanus, father of the famous Cunobelin, is a more recent contender …’ – you can read more about the Lexden Tumulus on this web-site at https://www.thecolchesterarchaeologist.co.uk/buried-treasure-archaeological-importance-more-valuable-than-gold/ .

The medallion was probably made in about 17 BC, and the portrait seems to have been specially moulded from a coin, a denarius of Augustus. The head of Augustus is framed with silver and backed with a silver plate. Colchester has produced actual coins of Augustus. The excavations at Sheepen in Colchester, conducted in the 1930s, produced a number of early bronze aes (low-denomination Roman coins), including seven of Divus Augustus (the deified Augustus). Colchester Castle Museum holds over 30 coins of Augustus from Colchester, and the Trust excavated a coin of Augustus at our Balkerne Lane site (the new roadway) and a possible coin of Augustus at our Cups Hotel site in the High Street, both in the 1970s. We did excavate a coin of Augustus on our site in Head Street in 2000 (the site of the new Odeon cinema). But what is the story of the coin of Augustus medallion? It was so important that it was included among the burial goods of the very high-status burial of the Lexden Tumulus. It may have been a diplomatic gift from Rome, perhaps even from the emperor Augustus, and buried as a personal memento of the deceased…

Augustus also had important links with the Roman circus in Rome. He installed the pulvinar (the shrine and imperial box) and the Egyptian obelisk at the great Circus Maximus, and he instituted the Augustan games which included chariot races, as did the Ludi Victoriae Caesariae which seem to have become an annual festival during the reign of Augustus. (Our Roman circus model in the Roman circus visitor centre includes an obelisk like that in the Circus Maximus.) The festival of Augustalia in honour of Augustus was celebrated during his lifetime and after his death, on the 12th October and, later, on his birthday, the 23rd September. Augustalia included games or ludi (the Ludi Augustales or Augustan games) in the Circus Maximus. Colchester’s Roman circus was built in the early 2nd century AD and seems to have been in use for about 150 years, until towards the end of the 3rd century AD – so the Augustan games may have been presented here…

The Trust undertook an archaeological watching brief at the Lexden Tumulus in 2003-4 which produced negative results.

Read the Res Gestae in translation at http://pages.ucsd.edu/~dkjordan/arch/romans/DivineAugustus.html . You can read more about Augustus at www.ancient.eu/augustus/ and about his mausoleum at www.ancient.eu/article/657/mausoleum-of-augustus/ . The medallion is reported on in The Lexden Tumulus: a re-appraisal of an Iron Age burial from Colchester, Essex by Jennifer Foster (1986).

The images show the medallion from the Lexden Tumulus and the Tumulus itself. The medallion is held by Colchester Castle Museum. The images are both published in the Trust’s popular book City of Victory and both are copyright Colchester Museums.
The featured image is a coin of Augustus from our site at Head Street in Colchester in 2000.

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* from Wikipedia: ‘… By the 40s AD, the political situation within Britain was apparently in ferment. The Catuvellauni had displaced the Trinovantes as the most powerful kingdom in south-eastern Britain …’ and established Camulodunum here. The Catuvellauni ‘… were pressing their neighbours the Atrebates…’. Commius, a former leader of the Atrebates, had been a supporter of Julius Caesar and Caesar had installed him as the leader of the tribe. Augustus was the great-nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar…

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