02:02. The Invasion of Britain.

What follows is very much a ‘work in progress’. I began writing what I thought might become a narrative history of Roman Britain in the late 1980s, and quickly realised that such a thing is not possible. The very best that could be done would be to build up a speculative history; which is to say a narrative that, to the best of my knowledge, could be the way things did actually occur. This, then, is neither fiction nor non-fiction, but intermediate between the two, in the same way that the sources are neither history nor prehistory but what can be termed proto-history. I left things to gather dust from about 2000 to 2011, but I have since taken matters up again and I have been pottering on. I have made additions and alterations, and I have straightened out the footnotes and bibliographies. If you are really interested, leave a message in the comment box below and I will email you an updated version of the text that you require.


Stephen Symons.

Britannia Capta Part 2.


Chapter 02:02.

The Invasion of Britain



02:02:01. The Fleet Sets Sail.

            In the winter of 55 – 54 BCE, having seen his troops settled into their winter quarters in Gallia Belgica, Caesar departed for Italy. He ordered his marshals to begin the construction of a fleet of transports for the delivery of an invasion force to Britain the following spring and left very specific [Caesar: DBG: 5:2] instructions on the manner of their manufacture. To cope with the beaches of Britain the vessels were to have somewhat flatter bottoms than was usual for Mediterranean craft, but were to be wider in the beam to enable them to accommodate the large numbers of troops and horses that were anticipated. They were to be of a type that was suitable for both sailing and rowing,


“…..ships that were half-way between his own swift vessels and local cargo boats. This was so that they might combine as far as possible lightness of construction and the ability to withstand the waves, and also that they would not come to any harm when left high and dry” [Dio: xl:1].


Having given the appropriate orders, he then departed for Italy and Illyria, where routine business detained him for the winter.


            As spring and the campaign season approached, Caesar was back in Gallia Belgica with no less than eight legions and was delighted to find that work on the fleet had progressed with excellent results. A staggering six hundred transports of the type specified and twenty eight warships had been built and equipped, and would shortly be ready for sea. Caesar needed this huge number of transports, not simply for the troops but also for the much greater amount of baggage and equipment than had accompanied him on the first expedition. He was not going to arrive short of gear this time. He also planned to take with him a large contingent of cavalry, a force that needed a lot of room and a large amount of extra and specialist equipment. The cavalry was vital, for they were the answer to the formidable British chariots, which, as Caesar had observed, combined the staying power of infantry with the mobility of cavalry. He had put much thought into this problem and concluded that the only way to counter the menace was to combine his heavy infantry with a strong cavalry contingent and have the two groups working in close concert.


            Besides the means to mount an expedition, Caesar also needed, once again, an excuse. His first expedition had been extremely popular with the people, and he could now set out for Britain again, but he still needed to adhere to the canons. He still needed a legitimate excuse, a casus belli, and this was not hard to establish. There seemed to be some consensus in Britain that Caesar, having departed virtually empty handed after his first expedition, would not now bother to return [Dio: xl:1] as he had clearly achieved all that could be required. This, of course, was a vain hope and a completely incorrect reading of Caesar’s real motives. He really did want to conquer Britain and to found a permanent Roman establishment beyond Ocean. So much did he want it that, as Dio points out, “he would have certainly found another excuse if he had not had this one” [Ibid: xl:1]. “This one” was the matter of the hostages whom Caesar had ordered brought to him and who had never, in the end, been delivered. The hostages must be surrendered and the honour of Rome, not to mention the dignitas of Caesar, upheld. A satisfactory casus belli had been established.


Accordingly the vessels were ordered to assemble at Portus Itius while Caesar himself headed north and east to conduct a police action against the tribe of the Treviri. Having taken care of this problem, he returned to the coast to commence operations against Britain. Apart from sixty ships that had been driven by contrary winds back to their starting point, the fleet was fully equipped and ready for sea. A huge force of men had assembled: eight legions were encamped and four thousand auxiliary cavalry had been mustered from all parts of Gaul. The trusty Titus Labienus was left in command of the port with three legions and two thousand horse and an open commission to maintain the supply of corn and generally watch the shop.


One spring evening in 54 BCE, at about sunset, the fleet set sail with five legions and two thousand cavalry, a total of perhaps fifty thousand men.


The formations that sailed with Caesar are not known. He specifically mentions VII Legio in his commentary, and it would have been most unlikely that his favourite X Legio, which had already seen service in Britain, would have been left behind to kick their heels in Gaul. It is known that Quintus Tullius Cicero, brother of the famous Marcus Tullius Cicero, accompanied the expedition [Cicero: Ad Atticum: iv:15:10] and as he was commander of XIV Legio at the time it is reasonable to assume that that unit also took part in the invasion, but the identities of the other formations must forever remain a mystery. With the fleet sailed many private vessels [Caesar: DBG: 5:8], merchants eager to take advantage of an opportunity for commerce at very favourable rates of exchange with the natives and to buy at very competitive rates the loot that would be harvested. The majority, no doubt, were venilicii, traders in human flesh, the vultures who followed the legions seeking the living trade goods for which Rome had a voracious appetite. They are a timely reminder that warfare, whatever the age, ancient or modern, was and is primarily a commercial exercise, a means by which new fortunes can be made quickly and existing fortunes and established interests protected. Caesar needed these ghouls, for they were a primary source of the funds that paid and maintained his armies.


But Roman legionaries and merchants were not the only ones to sail west on that day. To forestall any possible uprising during his absence, Caesar had brought along a large number of aristocratic Gaulish hostages, amongst whom was to have been Dumnorix of the Aedui. This fiercely patriotic and anti-Roman chieftain had protested vigorously at being dragged over to Britain. In a particularly ugly incident which may well have been orchestrated by Caesar, Dumnorix and his attendants fled on horseback just as the fleet was making ready to embark, but pursuers overtook him and he was slain on Caesar’s orders. His death was to have far-reaching effects in Gaul and, consequently, on Caesar’s plans for Britain.


The fleet set sail, the mightiest naval armament ever to cross the English Channel. A light south-westerly breeze propelled the fleet on its way, a very short journey of about thirty Roman miles. By midnight the wind had died, and the fleet was carried along on the tide with the result that, come sunrise, they were driven far off course. The troops were able to see the coast of Britain receding behind them on the port side as they headed steadily into the Mare Germanicum, the North Sea. The tide turned and the soldiers took to the oars, turning the ships about and rowing with such a will that the lumbering transports were able to keep up with the escorting warships.


The armada reached land at about midday, arriving back at the same spot, more or less, as the first landing [Dio: xl:1]. But now the shores were deserted. The expected defence of the coast did not materialise. Prisoners, taken later, told the Romans that the British had fled, terrified by the sight of such a huge display of military power. The expeditionary force was very large, they explained, much larger than the first, and the ships had landed at so many places at the same time, so that they dared not launch an attack [Ibid: xl:1].


This does not ring quite true. More than eight hundred vessels would have been visible on the water at the same time, an absolutely mind-boggling panorama, and obviously daunting for anyone, but quite how far the minds of the British were boggled is  a matter of pure speculation. Celtic individual courage was legendary, and the sight of such an impressive display of military might may well have served only to harden the resolve of watching warriors. They were nowhere near as unsophisticated as Caesar would have his readers believe, and there may well have been other explanations for this curious pass. For instance, insufficient British forces may have been on hand to offer any effective resistance. Or a significant proportion of the Cantii may not have been as eager to repulse the invaders as the anti-Roman chieftains would have liked. Or the British High Command may have felt that they could cause greater damage to the legions in a land battle where they were able to use chariots and wood cover to the best advantage. Who can now say what internal squabbles were taking place, what political manoeuvring? Celtic inability to unite in a common cause was notorious, and the High Command may have been trying to combat a pro-Roman faction of possibly considerable extent as well as cajoling reluctant allies. There could well have been a substantial number of fence sitters who were hanging back, waiting to see which way the fortunes of war would swing. Numbers of the local chieftains had, after all, made submission to Caesar and there is no way of knowing how far these dignitaries were prepared to hold to their sworn word. Many, moreover, had had a first hand taste of Caesarian atrocitas, has seen their comrades slaughtered in droves, their families enslaved, their homes burned, their goods crops stolen or destroyed.


The true scenario is probably as follows. After Caesar had departed in the winter of 55 BCE, the British had taken stock of their situation and the events on the Continent. Caesar’s expedition had been costly and had achieved little that they could see. He had come, he had won a few battles at heavy cost and had sailed back home again with virtually nothing to show for it. As a pirate raid, which is quite probably how the British saw it, the expedition had been a total failure, but they acknowledged that Caesar would have gained some stature at home. That, therefore, was that, and they promptly went back to their own internal rivalries. When news and the implications of the military build up at Portus Itius reached British ears, they were thrown into confusion. Some, especially those who were oppressed by a more powerful neighbour, may have welcomed the thought of Roman intervention. Others, having sworn submission, would feel honour bound to stand by their word. Many, of course, would have wanted to repel the invader but all those who had stood up against the legions the previous autumn now had bitter and first-hand experience of the terrifying efficiency of the Roman army. Proud men as they were, they would have been realistic enough to realise their own comparative inadequacies in discipline, co-ordination and strategy, which could only be compensated for by presenting a unified front under the overall leadership of one outstanding warlord.


Such a decision could not be made overnight, and there would have been much acrimony and bitterness. A decision was reached in time of course, but by then Caesar was standing on the deck of his flagship and gazing at his prey. The British made common cause against their mutual foe, and a leader was found, but too late to meet the invader on the beach when he was most vulnerable. Alternative plans had to be made, and made swiftly. They were formulated by the one who was given overall leadership, the foremost warlord of the south east: Cassivellaunos of the Verulami.




02:02:02. Cassivellaunos.

            It is appropriate here to leave the legions to wade ashore and establish, unopposed, their camp, and to look briefly at other matters. Into the policies and actions of these tense times now appear two more dramatis personae, men who shall figure largely in the impending struggle: Cassivellaunos of the Verulami and Mandubracios of the Trinovantes. Both are shadowy figures, looming large but vague. Much has been conjectured of both of them, but almost nothing is known for certain of either.


            Cassivellaunos has been many times called the first named individual in British history. The name appears to mean “Lover of Belinos”, a Celtic war god, and may also be rendered “Cassibellaunos”, as ancient writers frequently exchanged “b” for “u” and “v” sounds. Thus, for example, there are cases of Octabio for Octavio, nabes for naves, and bice for vice [Adams 1994: p106]. “Trinovantes” is sometimes rendered “Trinobantes”, and the Atrebatean king “Verica” is undoubtedly the same as Dio’s [lx:19:11] “Berikos”. The later Welsh form of the name was Caswallon or Caswallawn, and as Caswallawn he appears in Welsh legend as the son of the god Beli and the goddess Don. His status is of primary importance in any appraisal of contemporary British politics, but he is nevertheless a complete mystery.


            Dio called him “the foremost of the island’s chieftains” [Dio: xl:2], while Caesar introduces him as the one “to whom the chief command and direction of the campaign had been entrusted by common consent” [Caesar: DBG: 5:2]. Neither description means very much. Dio’s words mean no more than that he was a leading warrior, probably a warlord, and Caesar’s words are always suspect. Like other conquerors before and after him, Caesar often exaggerates the prowess of his adversaries to enhance his own stature as their master in battle. That he neglects to extol the martial qualities of Cassivellaunos (unlike, for instance, Vercingetorix), describing him essentially as just another warrior chief, is perhaps significant.


            So who, and what, was Cassivellaunos? He was a chieftain of a territory “separated from the maritime tribes by a river called the Thames” [Caesar: DBG: 5:2] and had been “continually at war with the other tribes” [Ibid: 5:2]. Let us look at these statements one at a time.


            Firstly, he was chief of a tribe resident north of the lower Thames, id est probably in the Middlesex – Hertfordshire – Essex area. There is no literary or any other evidence whatsoever to link Cassivellaunos with the historically attested Cattuvellauni [Partridge 1981: p353]. The justification for any connection, however irresistible, is purely circumstantial firstly because his name is that of the tribe and secondly because Caesar places Cassivellaunos’ territory north of the Thames and west of the Trinovantes, exactly where the later canton of the Cattuvellauni is known to have lain. But allowing that, who, then, were the Cattuvellauni? Caesar does not mention them, which is strange indeed if they were the central force in a coalition formed to repel him. Indeed, they ought to have earned his irate mention many times.


The tribes who gave their names to the later civitates were not necessarily the tribes who dwelt in those lands in earlier times, nor is there any indication that the names of the civitates were the names of coherent political groupings. The Cantii, for example, were not a tribe so much as a grouping of clans and extended families who shared a common language and a more or less similar cultural heritage. Thus also the “Cattuvellauni”. The likelihood is that this group, like the others, was but one sub-group only of a larger and more general grouping, their name being given to the larger grouping later by the Romans as a matter of administrative convenience, probably because they were the pre-eminent clan. The Cattuvellauni were a small group who, by virtue of energetic leadership and military prowess, rose to form an elite group dominant over a larger society long after the departure of Caesar. They have no part in this narrative at present and their tale shall be told in due course.


The tribe to which Cassivellaunos belonged, the people that dominated Caesar’s region “beyond the Thames” was a clan or sept of our hypothetically-named Verulami. They had been resident in Britain for many generations, perhaps having become established through Continental links decades earlier. Cassivellaunos himself would have been the head of his clan, which was perhaps the paramount clan of the larger grouping of the Verulami. His name, perhaps, was not so much a name as such but more in the nature of a title, as in later years the chieftain of (for example) the Scottish clan MacDonald would often be referred to simply as “The MacDonald”. During the vicissitudes of the years they had maintained their cohesion, gaining ascendancy within their own tribe, and by the middle of the first century BCE were starting to expand and impose hegemony over neighbouring groups, thus being “continually at war”, as Caesar remarks. Under the leadership of their war-lord Cassivellaunos they had begun, with considerable success, to move eastwards until they had encountered and dominated various peoples including such tribes as the Bibroci, Ancalites and Cassi, whose territories lay along the Lea Valley to the east of the Verulamian homeland. If, as seems possible, the Cenimagni were part of the larger confederation known later as the Iceni, Cassivellaunos was also active to the north east in Cambridgeshire and perhaps as far as the fens. His latest targets were the Trinovantes, the major tribal grouping of the eastern horizon. Enter here the second named individual, Mandubracios.


Cassivellaunos, it would seem from Caesar, had defeated the Trinovantes decisively in battle some time before the legions arrived. As a result their high chief or paramount had been slain and the tribe forced to accept the overlordship of Cassivellaunos. The son of the paramount, a young man by the name of Mandubracios, survived but his status under the new regime is unknown. Whatever it was, he resented it and sought the return of what he quite obviously thought of as his birthright: the rule of Trinovantia. His real name is a matter of conjecture. Mandubracios sounds suspiciously like an epithet, which may mean “the black traitor” [Ellis 1990: p151]. He may have been called Androgeus, or perhaps Avarios, if Geoffrey of Monmouth has retained a true tradition. Whatever his name, he sought revenge, and ultimately colluded with Caesar. Sometime after the first Roman expedition he contacted Caesar, travelling to the Continent to do so, and placed himself under the great man’s protection. How he did this is open to question. Perhaps he fled openly, perhaps he arrived clandestinely. Perhaps he arranged for himself a place as hostage after the first expedition and sailed over to Gaul with the fleet. However he did it, the why is clear: in Caesar he saw the means to avenge himself on Cassivellaunos and to regain his heritage as the free and sovereign ruler of his people.


Caesar would not have refused houseroom to this renegade, the first recorded of a long line of similar disgruntled and disinherited young British princelings who sought the help of Rome against their own. Such men were very useful to the Empire, but were understandably unpopular amongst their defeated kinsmen. Such a nickname, if such it was, is not bestowed without some very good reason and is probably a fair indication of his subsequent popularity rating in certain circles back in Britain.


Cassivellaunos, then, was a dynast who had established control over his own people, a clan calling themselves, or known as, the Verulami. Such was his success that, despite the later ebb and flow of power and suzerainty, other kindred clans would be subsumed under the generic title of the dominant clan and would be described by the Romans as a gens or tribe. Warlike and hegemonistic, Cassivellaunos had led his warriors from their Hertfordshire homeland on wars of conquest over neighbouring peoples, establishing dominion to the east in Middlesex, to the north east in Cambridgeshire, and finally over the powerful Trinovantes of Essex and Suffolk. By the time of Caesar’s first expedition Cassivellaunos had succeeded in imposing his rule over most of the land north of the lower Thames.


His authority and generalship were at least respected by the peoples who dwelt south of the Thames in Kent, Surrey and parts of Sussex to the extent that they were willing to subordinate their independence of action to his overall command for the duration of the defence of Britain. The question of Verulamian political control south of the Thames is, and must remain, moot. There is no evidence of it, although logic would imply that Verulamian war bands would have crossed the river in times not long past and battle would have been done. But the southern peoples were prepared to make peace in the face of the common crisis and appoint him their Commander-in-Chief because of his pre-eminence as a warlord, and his ability to field large numbers of battle-hardened Verulamian and Trinovantian warriors, both mounted and on foot. To describe him as a “High King” is overly romantic and to exceed the evidence, but there can be no doubt that he exercised an analogous authority over a minor empire north of the Thames. For the sake of clarity, and for the purposes of this essay, then, Cassivellaunos of the Verulami shall be endowed with the title of High Chief.



02:02:03. The Defence of Cantium.

            The High Chief made all speed for Cantium, but more he could not do. Such high-level pacts are not agreed upon in minutes or even days. Much time was spent on discussion and protocol before his command could be finally ratified and an effective fighting force mustered. Meanwhile the Cantii, caught unawares, fled from the coast and hid themselves and their valuables in the forests of the interior, thus giving Caesar the excuse to boast that the natives had been too frightened to oppose the landing. The true reaction of the British was not so much fear as justifiable caution in the face of a situation that they were unable to confront with any real hope of success. By this time the Romans had landed unopposed and the earlier campsite was repaired, enlarged to accommodate the greater numbers and reoccupied. Caesar wasted no time. Scouts and foragers were sent out to gather information and supplies. Captives were dragged in and before long Caesar had discovered where the main body of the defenders was mustering.


            Tension began to rise. Bands of warriors attacked the foraging parties [Dio xl:2] and casualties began to mount. The battle lines were drawn again and Caesar did not hesitate. Ten infantry cohorts drawn from the five major formations – if a specific legion had been used, Caesar would probably have mentioned the fact – and three hundred horse under the command of the Tribune Quintus Atrius were left to guard the ships. At midnight the general set out with the main force towards the British positions some twelve miles away.


            Caesar’s tactic of making a night march across twelve miles of unknown countryside is typical of his daring and decisiveness. For all he knew he could have been walking into a British ambush, or perhaps he knew something that we do not, something told to him by the Cantii, that gave him confidence. By no means all his information had to be wrung from captives by means bloody and brutal. Gold has ever been a more potent argument in the long run than steel, and much besides would have been offered willingly and freely. Whatever his reasoning, we can be sure it was sound, for Caesar had many times used rapid forced marches on previous campaigns with conspicuous success, usually catching his enemies completely unawares. The tactic was to work smoothly once again.


            Dawn was breaking when Caesar came in sight of the British forces [1] who had deployed on the far side of a river, probably the Great Stour not far from the settlement that one day would be known as Durovernum Cantiacorum and later still as Canterbury. The British mounted forces, chariots and cavalry, had the advantage both of higher ground and the barrier of the river but they had been caught unaware by the speed of Caesar’s arrival. This was not the main force of the British resistance but was made up of local men gathered together in haste to try and hold the line until the arrival of the High Chief and his warriors. The resulting action shows that no great mind was directing the British forces. The Roman cavalry crossed the river and outflanked the British, diverting them long enough for the heavy infantry to cross and attack in close order. The fighting was fierce. There was considerable loss on both sides and the battle hung in the balance until Roman reserves, who had been quietly making their way through the woods, fell upon the British rear. These reserves may well have included British auxiliaries under the command of Mandubracios. If so, their appearance would have been a body blow to the morale of their countrymen.


            The British were forced to withdraw into the woods. Here the earlier massive earthwork defences of Bigbury Hill, the largest hill-fort south of the lower Thames, had been put in repair. Heavy wooden barricades had been laid across the approaches, apparently in preparation for a siege. Despite that skirmish parties harried the advancing infantry, VII Legio reached the fortifications ready to swarm in. The hill-fort was not such an easy target as they had first thought, however, and the stronghold was stoutly defended, managing to hold out for two days. But the end was inevitable. Shields locked over their heads in an armoured roof, the famous testudo battle formation, the sappers of VII Legio piled earth and faggots against the ramparts and drove the defenders out with little loss to either side. The defenders themselves seem to have been able to get word to Mandubracios, asking him to intercede for them. Perhaps he did, or, in an access of remorse (or hedging his bets with an eye to future tribal relations), he managed to confuse matters sufficiently to enable most of the defenders to escape.


The storming of Bigbury Fort would have been a grave blow to the morale of the Verulami and their Cantian allies, and no doubt there was much initial confusion, although casualties were mercifully light. This was the first occasion of the storming of a British hill-fort by the Romans, and it was accomplished with almost contemptuous ease. These huge man-made hills, so stupendous in conception and impressive in sight, so effective against their own style of warfare, proved to be no refuge at all against the soldier-engineers of the legions. Throughout the campaign, and that of Claudius a century later, the Romans were to prove time after tragic time that the massive earthworks were no obstacle whatsoever to the legions. Bigbury was taken in two days, for the Romans had had a great deal of experience in Gaul in the demolition of such strong points and knew their construction well. Thereafter not one hill-fort, not even Maiden Castle, the stupendous fortress of Mai of the Durotriges and the mightiest hill-fort in Britain, was to withstand Roman assault for more than a day or two.


The impulse to pursue the fleeing British must have been strong, but Caesar wisely called for restraint. He did not know the lie of the land beyond and he had no knowledge of how, or where, or even if the British were regrouping. His men had had no proper sleep for two nights and were in no shape to withstand a massed British counter-attack. He had won the first round, and, the weather being stormy with heavy rain he wanted to devote what remained of the day to building a camp. He would have had every reason to congratulate himself. Everything was going according to plan.


The following morning Roman infantry and cavalry in three columns set out in pursuit of the British, and the deployment of the two forces together shows that Caesar now had the measure of the chariots. Before long they were in sight of fugitives, whether retreating warriors of the British army or simply local peasants in flight is not specified and the Romans may not have noticed (or cared about) the difference, but were halted by disastrous news. Riders from the base camp at the beach brought word from Quintus Atrius that the storm the previous night had wrought havoc on the anchored fleet. The situation cannot but conjure up an immediate image of Caesar slapping his forehead in rage and frustration, and crying out “Not again!”


The columns immediately turned about and headed back to the beach, where Atrius’ news was confirmed. Once again the anchored ships had dragged their moorings and smashed into one another or had been driven clean up onto the beach. Forty were wrecked beyond repair, the rest damaged to some greater or lesser degree that only enormous labour could make good. However, repairs had to be made and there was not a moment to waste. Craftsmen were drafted from the ranks, word was sent to Labienus at Gessoriacum to start building ships as fast as possible, and the labour began. It was decided that, despite the mammoth effort required, all the ships would be hauled ashore and enclosed together with the camp in a single vast fortification. Monumental as this task would seem, it was completed in ten days: forty-something thousand organised, well-equipped and experienced men, working day and night without pause, can achieve prodigies of effort when the need arises.


Meanwhile, Caesar was bitter. The secret of his military successes had always been speed and the ability to outmarch his opponents, arriving hours or even days before he was expected. The decisive actions of the past days, when the celeritas Caesariana had proved the undoing of the British at the crossings of the Stour, was a classic example of its kind. But the storm had forced Caesar to remain on the coast and gave his enemies just what he had hoped to deny them: time to organise. There is no doubt that he realised this and he must have been mightily angry with the elements, but if there was any fault to find it would have had to have been laid at Labienus’ door. Through haste or neglect or some other reason, he had failed to discover Richborough harbour. That oversight had cost Caesar dearly.


            Once the fortifications were complete, the ships were hauled within, the same guard arranged as before and Caesar once again headed inland with the main force. Arriving at the point where the first clash had taken place, the Romans found themselves confronted with an even more formidable force than before under the direct command of Cassivellaunos. This was the first meeting between the two principals and Cassivellaunos had mustered a strong force from many tribes to stand against Rome. And although almost nothing is known for certain about this outstanding man, one thing is surely beyond doubt: he was a brilliant military commander and a worthy opponent of Caesar.



02:02:04. The Legions Move North.

            The second Roman advance was not to be as easy as the first. Cassivellaunos certainly had different tactics in mind for Caesar, and the change was both effective and immediately apparent. There was no formal, large-scale confrontation in the close battle order at which the legions excelled. Instead, troops of British cavalry and chariots would tear into the Roman columns, harrying and skirmishing, only to vanish into the woods seconds later before a proper counter-attack could be mounted. Despite the rigid discipline, some units attempted to pursue the British into the woods, and here the Roman casualties rose alarmingly. The heavily armoured and laden legionaries were no match for the lightly clad and fast moving tribesmen in the labyrinth of the trees.


            At last the Romans reached their camp, but still the British gave them no rest. Holding back for a while to lull the enemy into a false sense of security, the British waited until the soldiers were off guard and busily working on the fortifications and then attacked again, overrunning the outer pickets and cutting down the work parties. Caesar rushed two of his crack units, the first cohorts of two legions, up to the battle. In close order, shoulder to shoulder, the legionaries moved in, but the British were not out for a formal set-piece battle on Roman terms. They charged the centre of the line and burst straight through, throwing the Roman ranks into confusion and making a clean getaway with little loss. These hit and run tactics unnerved the Romans badly and they must have sustained considerable casualties. During this action, Caesar records [Caesar: DBG: 5:2], the military tribune Quintus Labienus Durus, one of his most senior men, was killed.


            This engagement – it was not so much a battle as a very fast moving series of skirmishes – took place right in front of the Roman camp, and highlighted the disadvantages of the heavily armed and armoured legions. Slowed down by the weight of their armour and accoutrements, and restricted to fighting in formation for the protection of their standards, the Romans could not cope with their lightly-clad, agile tormentors who slipped in, slashed like fury and slipped out again. Cassivellaunos had shrewdly put his finger on one of the few Roman tactical weaknesses and was playing his hand for all it was worth.


            Nor was it only the infantry who were at a disadvantage. The cavalry was also having problems with the chariots, as Caesar complains. The chariots would deliberately give ground, inviting the Gallic cavalry to give chase and then leap from their vehicles to fight on foot, blunting the charges and throwing the horsemen back. Furthermore, the British did not fight in close order. They kept very open formations with plenty of mobile reserves, units spelling each other as they got tired, wearing the Romans down. In his account of the action [Caesar: DBG: 5:2] Caesar waxes almost peevish at this point, as if the British were somehow cheating, and he gives little detail. It was obviously a bad day for him and his men, and the long-term prospects were looking ominous.


            The Roman strategy was that of a steamroller moving ponderously, irresistibly forwards, crushing all in its path and plenty of open space was needed for the formations to operate at maximum efficiency. Legionary tactics were based on solid, impenetrable formations of superbly disciplines heavy infantry backed by more lightly armed auxiliaries, with cavalry on the wings to harry and pursue. Overall strategy depended upon a sophisticated support network of camps, roads and supply depots. This form of warfare, irresistible and organised with a chilling efficiency, was devastating to unco-ordinated masses of tribesmen attacking in human waves, but Caesar’s expeditionary force would not be able to cope with a drawn-out campaign of attrition, of skirmishes and guerilla raids. Not there, not then. They were too far from reinforcements, supply lines were too tenuous, to attempt anything less than a swift and crushing victory.


            The British were starting to put up an effective resistance. Cassivellaunos had got the measure of the Roman army very quickly indeed and was demonstrating with alarming effect just what a competitive fighting force the British, given the right conditions, could be.


Caesar would have been worried that evening, and not just with the new turn of tactics, although this was troublesome enough. His supply lines may have been tenuous, but communication with the Continent was continuing, and letters and despatches moved back and forth without hindrance: Cicero at Rome was receiving regular correspondence from both his brother Quintus and from Caesar while the invasion was in progress [Cicero: Ad Atticum: iv:18:5]. Caesar in turn was receiving mail from his allies and informants, and by this time he may already have learned of the deaths of his daughter and only child Julia and of her son. Besides the personal grief at her loss, the bond with her husband Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, the colleague of Caesar and Crassus in the first Triumvirate, was now broken and the ramifications of this fact would have weighed heavily on him. A dynastic alliance between these two arch-rivals that had culminated in the mingled blood of a mutual descendant might have been the one thing that could have prevented the ruinous civil war that was shortly to come. Many important matters would have occupied that brilliant mind on that evening in Canterbury, matters so important, indeed, that their resolutions would alter the very tides of history.


When morning came, the British warriors could be seen on the distant hills and the troops would have braced themselves for more of the same. But the tactics had altered once again: there was still some skirmishing and harrying, but it lacked the vigour of the previous day. Something had changed, something political.


At Caesar’s orders Gaius Trebonius, together with three legions and all the cavalry, headed out of camp on a foraging expedition. At midday the onslaught came: the British, in a mass attack, charged Trebonius’ column from all sides. Such was the force of the assault that the British drove their way right up to the standards of the legions. The Romans reeled, reformed, and launched a heavy counter-attack that pushed the tribesmen back. The cavalry, seeing the British start to waver, pressed into the attackers, breaking them up, preventing them from rallying and denying them the use of their chariots. The legions had their chance at last: a pitched battle on ground of their own liking, and they seized the opportunity with both hands. This was the stuff that they liked, and the tactics at which they excelled. The British were slaughtered in droves, fleeing in all directions, leaving vast numbers of dead on the field. The tribes dispersed and were never again able to regroup their full strength.


What went wrong? What politicking and bickering had been going on during the night? It may have been something as simple as over-confidence after the successes of the previous day, but the sudden reversal of tactics flew in the face of all reason, all military logic. The strategy that was reversed was that of Cassivellaunos, and one can only suspect that he suffered a blow to his authority. The tribesmen must have known that they were no match for the legions in a formal battle. They would have heard tale after endless tale of just such tragic episodes from their cousins in Gaul and had had a taste of them themselves. They must have been able to see the success of Cassivellaunos’ strategy of harry and skirmish, utilising to the full the Celtic advantages of speed and mobility and knowledge of the terrain. Were they indeed such slow learners?


Perhaps there was a strong traditionalist lobby that demanded a glorious and honourable battle despite the appalling odds against them. Perhaps many felt that these lash-out-and-duck-for-cover tactics were beneath their dignity as fighting men, too dishonourable and cowardly for heroes and warriors. Perhaps Cassivellaunos’ mandate was not as secure as may have been thought and he had decided to risk a make or break action on one throw of the dice. Perhaps he felt that collaborators and fence-sitters represented too great a hazard, and he needed to attempt a single, resounding victory to forestall some counteraction on their part. Perhaps the British genuinely believed that Caesar was on the back foot and could really be overwhelmed in one single, massive strike. Perhaps there was some other dynamic at work, something of which we are completely unaware. Whatever the reasons, the result is history. The allied tribesmen melted away and never again was Cassivellaunos able to face the invaders on the field in full array.


There was nothing now to block the Roman advance. Leaving the naval camp strongly fortified and manned, Caesar led his legions north towards the Thames and beyond. But the High Chief still had a card or two to play.



02:02:05. Beyond the Thames.

            Cassivellaunos and his warriors fled north, their chariots and mounted bands easily outdistancing the marching Romans who, moreover, had to spend time foraging for food. Realising that the legions were reliant to a very great extent to living off the land, Cassivellaunos, following tried and effective Gaulish tactics, seems to have ordered a scorched earth policy to follow him, denying the Romans as much provender as possible and thus slowing them down even more. But although the legions were impeded they were not halted and Cassivellaunos would have had little doubt about their ultimate objective. By that time captives and renegades would have given information and Caesar would have known who his enemy was and where he was heading. The legions continued their implacable advance.


            The High Chief continued to retreat north, abandoning his fickle allies, and in his mind he had probably reached a decision on his next move long before he reached the crossings of the Thames. He would make a stand behind the defence of the Great River. But where exactly? There were not too many choices.


            Fairly obviously, it would have to be at the point where Caesar would most likely chose to attempt a crossing, which is to say somewhere above the tide reach as it had to be fordable. Caesar’s line of march is not recorded, but there can be little doubt that he followed the easiest route which was the ancient road that ran from Canterbury through Rochester and on to London. One day Roman engineers would survey it, straighten it and pave it and it would eventually become known the Pilgrims’ Way. This was by far the easiest route from the south to the crossings of the Thames and would have brought him to the river somewhere in the region of Westminster. It was here that the Brythonic road crossed the Thames and headed more or less north west, and it was to here, maybe, that Caesar made his way. He records that the River Thames was “fordable at only one point, and even there with difficulty” [Caesar: DBG: 5:2]. An ancient local tradition would have it that he crossed at Cowey Stakes, an old ford on the river near the junction of the Wey, but, while there is nothing to gainsay it, Westminster, with its easy approach from the south and its road junction seems the more likely candidate. Here Cassivellaunos called a halt. He was well in advance of Caesar, which gave him time to rest his men, gather up stragglers, and build defences. It was here or nowhere: the invader would never again be so vulnerable.


            At the river crossing the Romans met their first serious opposition since the second battle of Bigbury. The further banks were studded with pointed stakes and a considerable force of British awaited them. According to information wrung from prisoners there were stakes concealed in the riverbed as well [Dio: xl:3]. Nothing daunted, the cavalry charged across, followed closely by the infantry. The engagement that ensued, a “vigorous attack” [Ibid: xl:3], was brief but bloody and once more the British fled in disarray.


Cassivellaunos seems to have been at something of a loss. He disbanded the greater part of such of his host as remained to him – those that had not simply disappeared into the gloomy forests – retaining 4000 chariots. The majority of his forces were tribal levies, courageous men no doubt, but poorly armed and with little experience in organised, large-scale warfare. After the defeats that they had suffered at the hands of Caesar they would have been thoroughly demoralised and of little practical use. It was better to let them go, but the chariots were another matter.


The charioteers and the men who fought from the decks of these machines were professional fighting men, trained since earliest boyhood to the arts of war. Chariots were expensive and as such the preserve of the wealthy, which is to say the aristocratic elite, whose young men formed the cream of Cassivellaunos’ forces, his personal bodyguard, his noble companions. But 4000 chariots, assuming that the figure is genuine and not simply another Caesarean exaggeration, would seem too vast a number for even the wealthiest and most powerful and may well have been more cavalry than chariotry. Although little attested in the literary sources, there can be no doubt that conventional cavalry played a paramount role in British warfare, and they appear to have been true cavalry rather than simply mounted infantry: they seem to have used spears and javelins rather than swords [Bowman & Thomas 1987: p136]. Most likely this force was a composite of the bodyguards of many allied or subject chieftains, and as such was an indicator that Cassivellaunos’ authority, although dented, was still formidable. They were his only  remaining effective fighting force and the nearest approximation to a British professional army.


There is no indication at this stage that Caesar really knew where he was going. That he was following the retreating Cassivellaunos is obvious, and he probably suspected that the British chief was heading towards his own stronghold, but he does not appear to have been aware of where that was. For the time being he was simply following a cart-track through some of the thickest woodland in southern Britain and hoping for inspiration. In the meantime he simply followed the chariots, destroying as much as possible and subjecting the countryside to atrocitas, perhaps in the hope of frightening the Verulami into submission, or at least into creating rifts between the pragmatic camp and the death-before-dishonour warriors of the High Chief. In the meantime he was suffering as much or more than his victims, and time was running out.


            On the other hand, there is no indication to suggest that Caesar was lost or simply following hunches and an available road. The Roman conception of space seems to have been based on lines rather than area as is the modern concept: the use of itineraries such as the Antonine Itinerary and the Peutinger table, and the imposition of a formal grid of roads on conquered territory would strongly suggest a means of making sense of space within the parameters of the Roman world view (Bertrand 1997). In his writings Caesar always emphasised routes, particularly rivers (Bertrand 1997), and seems to have had a very clear mental map of his surroundings. More, perhaps, than most of his contemporaries, he possessed a sense of relative position and orientation together with a photographic memory for topographical detail, a faculty that enabled his successfully to navigate his armies through the forbidding terrae incognitae of Germania and Britannia. In his mind he was clearly able, using the barest of information and no maps worthy of the name, to construct a mental ‘grid’ within which he could locate all the tribes and places of significance with which he had to deal (Bertrand 1997). Nevertheless he was still fallible and still reliant, to some extent at least, on luck.


His lucky break came when envoys from the tribe of the Trinovantes, whose former lands lay to the east in Suffolk and Essex, approached Caesar and offered submission. They requested protection and the return of their prince Mandubracios as ruler. Caesar was happy to oblige, the allegiance of this powerful and warlike people being most useful at that time as it would deprive Cassivellaunos of a considerable part of his fighting strength, and as chance would have it he happened to have the prince right there with him. He demanded forty hostages from the Trinovantes and grain for his troops, in return for which Mandubracios would be allowed to return to his people as king and Rome undertook to protect the Trinovantes from Cassivellaunos. The agreement was made quickly and amicably: the hostages and grain were delivered, the Trinovantes made submission, and Mandubracios became a rex socius, a client king subject to Rome. As an earnest of their good faith, Caesar demanded of his new clientela the whereabouts of the stronghold of Cassivellaunos.


Interestingly, the Trinovantes professed that they did not know where their former overlord’s residence was, a state of affairs that raises not simply the question of Cassivellaunos’ real status, but also the whole nature of Celtic chieftainship. Did he, indeed, have a seat as such? Did the tribe or confederation over which Cassivellaunos held sway have a geographical focus? Constitutional authority amongst the British was both fluid and acephalous by tradition, and was nothing at all like the Roman concept of constitutional authority. Further, it must be emphasised that power was personal to the leader and not necessarily related to any particular place [Millet 1990: p23], which would strongly qualify the meaning of the Roman word oppidum, the word most probably used by Caesar through interpreters to address his question. In this case it is most likely that Cassivellaunos’ “seat” and the centre of such administrative government as there was, existed wherever  Cassivellaunos happened to be at any given moment. He was the state and the state was he. There was, in short, a breakdown in communications.


When, therefore, Caesar asked what was, to him, a perfectly reasonable, simple and specific question, “Where is the capital of Cassivellaunos?”, the Trinovantes would have taken this to mean “Where is Cassivellaunos?”. To which they would, in all honesty, have replied that they did not have the slightest idea. Caesar’s reaction to such a reply is not possible to gauge. He was not one to suffer fools lightly and he was in a hurry, so there may well have been some acrimonious discussion at crossed purposes before matters became mutually intelligible. Nevertheless, the Trinovantes seem to have been treated diplomatically, and Mandubracios was restored to the bosom of his people.


This magnanimity was noted with interest by several other tribes whom Caesar lists as the Cenimagni, Segontiaci, Ancalites, Bibroci, and Cassi [Caesar: DBG: 5:2]. Quite who these otherwise unattested tribes were is uncertain, but they seem to have been smaller independent groups whose territories lay to the east and north, between Verulamia and Trinovantia, tribes who had been overrun by Cassivellaunos and subordinated to his people. The Cenimagni may be identified with the Iceni, or at least one of the groups that later formed the Icenian federation, which would give an impressive scope to Cassivellaunos’ hegemony. The others inhabited a large  block of territory that ran in a great arc to the east and north of the Lea [Partridge 1981: p353] and had been under Verulamian power for some time. Resenting their defeats at Cassivellaunos’ hands and seeing their overlord fleeing before an all-conquering invader, encouraged by the gracious and generous accommodation reached with the Trinovantes, and quite naturally willing to avert the pending devastation that they perceived to be inevitable result of resistance, these groups decided to throw in their lot with Rome as well. Embassies were despatched, tokens of surrender were offered and duly accepted, and the supplicants came under the aegis of Rome. Being locals, they knew the exact positions of Cassivellaunos’ strongholds, some of which would have once been their own, and that of Cassivellaunos himself. Like dutiful clientes they imparted this intelligence to their new patronus and quite probably offered guides to show Caesar the way.


Accordingly, the relentless advance was resumed with all speed and good heart now that a definite objective was in sight. The main stronghold of the Verulami lay at what is now the little country town of Wheathampstead on the River Lea. Cassivellaunos’ men could do little more than hamper the legions, but without doubt the ambushes and guerilla attack intensified now that Caesar was marching into the home territory of the Verulami. The chariots shadowed his advance, hiding in the forests, shepherding the countryfolk and their herds into the deep woods to deny Caesar supplies. More earth was scorched. Every now and again foraging parties of Romans would stray too far from the main force, and chariots would appear out of hidden pathways to cut them down. But the casualties inflicted did little to stem the advance. The legions pressed onwards towards the capital of Cassivellaunos, pillaging, enslaving and destroying as they went.


Which way did Caesar go? It is now impossible to say, but the following guess may not be too fanciful.


The legions headed along what would one day be Watling Street, the ancient road to the north west that was the major highway for the British chariots and cavalry that continually harried them. Eventually they reached a suitable ford on the River Ver, hard by the spot that would later become the Roman Town of Verulamium, where a branch track headed north east to eventually find its way to Camulodunon. Here began a formidable earthworks, now known as Beech Bottom Dyke, that ran along the valley from the fords of the Ver to those of the Lea twelve and a half kilometres away. This mighty rampart, thirty metres wide and nine metres deep with banks on each lip [Wheeler 1954: p141], had been built as a traffic barrier, a boundary of Verulamian territory raised where no natural obstacle existed [Ibid: p138] and part of the earthworks attendant upon the great stronghold a little further east. It formed a fine roadway, and in later times the Romans would straighten it and pave it and it would become part of a major east-west thoroughfare from Verulamium to Camulodunum.


            The valley was a lightly wooded place of gravels and open chalk land and probably  under intense cultivation and pasture. On either side were the thickly wooded hills. Beech Bottom Dyke travelled in a more or less straight line to the fords of the Lea, ending in a mighty earthworks now known as Devil’s Dyke, the main fortification that protected an enclosure of about 36 hectares [Wheeler 1954: p139]. The main stronghold, the largest in that part of the country and the “capital” of Cassivellaunos, was situated on a plateau in a commanding position over the fords of the Lea.


            The Romans crossed the Ver and headed up the dyke towards the oppidum, and were greatly impressed, for it was a place “of great natural beauty and strongly fortified” [Caesar: DBG: 5:2]. Alas, Caesar had not come simply to admire the view, although he was cultured enough to be appreciative of it. The British oppidum offered few obstacles to the Roman engineers, and the final result was never really in doubt. It was Bigbury Hill all over again.


            Two legions rushed the fortress from different sides, swiftly gaining ingress after a fierce but brief resistance. The British abandoned their positions, fleeing from a third point and leaving behind many cattle for the benefit of the legions and many of their people to be slain or taken. The High Chief himself, his family and the greater part of his people seem to have made good their escape, British oppida each obviously being equipped with an efficient “fire exit” as a last resort. The capital of the mighty Cassivellaunos went up in flames, nor does it seem to have had any substantial reoccupation ever again. A new centre would before too long come into existence on the high ground overlooking the fords of the River Ver and the ancient forests would be allowed to return once more to cover the scene of shame.


            But despite this latest debacle, Cassivellaunos was far from beaten. Without doubt he fell back on one or another of the several oppida that his people controlled nearby and sought new strategies. Indeed, events were moving far to the south, for even as the legions were bearing down on Wheathampstead, word was speeding to the Lords of the Cantii. They were enjoined to attack the naval camp at Walmer in the hope, no doubt, that such an assault in his rear would cause Caesar to return in haste to the coast, allowing the Verulami time to remuster and arrange new strategies. Despite widespread betrayal by subject peoples and defection by allies, the confederation of tribes was not wholly shattered. Chieftains of the Cantii dutifully heeded the call, roused their warriors once again, and attacked the naval camp while Caesar was still engaged at Wheathampstead. In this obedience to the orders of Cassivellaunos, even in his defeat, may be read a strong argument in support of the theory of his status as High Chief, or even High King [Ellis 1978: p134], rather than simply that of Commander-in-Chief. More, it indicates that Cassivellaunos was by no means crushed. He still had the power to communicate with distant subordinates and order military action from afar.


It was a desperate and valiant bid to regain lost authority and perhaps, in one last throw of the dice, to wrest victory from almost certain defeat. But the attack was in vain. When the Cantii appeared before the camp in battle array the cohorts on guard duty made a sortie and slaughtered the tribesmen with little loss to themselves. At least one leading Cantian, a nobleman by the name of Lugatorix, was captured and the survivors fled in disarray.


Caesar was master of south east Britain.



02:02:06. An Accommodation.

            Cicero, in the course of his correspondence with his brother Marcus, commander of XIV Legio, learned that Caesar returned quickly to the camp at Walmer on about August 6 [Frere 1987: p25] immediately after the capture of the oppidum of Cassivellaunos, presumably leaving the main body of the army encamped at Wheathampstead under the command of Trebonius. Why did Caesar make this sudden and apparently anxious dash to the naval camp? To be on hand when the attack came? If so, he was far too late. To make an inspection afterwards? Hardly. Or was the battle at the camp rather more serious than Caesar would have us believe? Possibly, but not to the extent that he would have to make a dash to the coast himself. He began to head back north again and then, it seems, he turned about after only a day or so and returned to Trebonius. Caesar omits what could well be a crucial episode from his own account, and the most probable explanation [Ibid: p25] is that he needed to get back to the coast to communicate with Gaul. Things were looking bad there. The harvests had been poor and the natives were restless. Rebellion was in the air. He needed to speak to the messengers and envoys personally, and to send his own despatches back himself. He returned to Wheathampstead a very thoughtful man, anxious to tie matters up neatly, and return to the Continent with all possible speed.


            On the British side, the disaster was complete and quite probably the valiant and resourceful Cassivellaunos was considering admitting defeat. His armed might was in tatters, his country devastated by fire and sword, his subjects were deserting him in droves. But Caesar also was in severe trouble. Clearly he had suffered much greater loss to his army than he was willing to concede. The mutterings of rebellion were growing louder and louder in Gaul, and he wanted to be on hand in case of trouble behind his back. The year was passing swiftly, and it was a long and difficult road back to the Continent. Winter was coming on and he was not going to try and sit out the miserable months of the year surrounded by resentful and rebellious tribespeople when he was in danger of being cut off in the rear. He had achieved his first purpose in coming to Britain: a propaganda exercise for the awe and admiration of the people of Rome, and another  demonstration of the power and reach of the Empire.


            A negotiated settlement was in the best interests of all concerned, and both men were ready to compromise. From which side the initiative came is now impossible to say for sure, but it is possible that it came from Caesar who, after all, had much greater need of speed. The two principals never met in the flesh, except, perhaps, on the battlefield, and the negotiations were entrusted to the ubiquitous Commios of the Atrebates. It was quite likely that he was sent by Caesar, under the guidance of allied Trinovantian and captive Verulamian nobles, to Cassivellaunos to arrange a deal. Caesar was in no position to make extortionate demands and he knew it. He was winning battles one after another, but he was far from confident of winning the campaign. The very fact that a creature of Rome was used as an intermediary suggests that Cassivellaunos was no supplicant, but that the two men were dealing on more or less equal terms, with a fair element of bluff on either side.


            Caesar was more than ready to do a deal and consequently demanded no more than the British were prepared to give: hostages, the promise of annual tribute to be paid to Rome, and an order banning Cassivellaunos from encroaching on Trinovantian territory. Mandubracios was restored to his rightful heritage, and his territory now included Essex and Middlesex, extending perhaps as far as Verulamion and Braughing. There are also indications that his authority extended into western Kent where the reguli, the petty kings of the Cantii, seem to have accepted the overlordship of Camulodunon [Black 1987: p7] All things being considered, these were very mild terms, no more than would have been demanded from some routine inter-tribal altercation. Cassivellaunos  accepted a considerably reduced territory, but retained his position and all other sovereign power. Caesar accepted a much reduced profit, but retained his prestige. The negotiations continued for some days, obviously, but not for too many. By late August the legions were heading back to the coast.


When the hostages had been delivered, Caesar headed back to the naval camp where the ships had been repaired as well as was possible and were ready for sea. The legions struck camp but the logistics of transporting so many people, troops and hostages, were complex and took more time. With them went many slaves, the first of the countless thousands of British who would be dragged to the Continent over the coming centuries to disappear into oblivion. Their sale would help defray the cost of the expedition. Bad weather delayed the transports that Labienus had built to replace those destroyed in the storm and Caesar had to send the army back in two waves. Eventually, however, all was done, the last soldier was on board and at about 2100 hours on September 26, 54 BCE, Gaius Julius Caesar departed from Britain never to return.


Did Caesar truly intend ultimate annexation? Perhaps, even probably. The fact that he imposed vectigal, quite specifically a tribute imposed upon a subject people, speaks of intended permanence. He had forced the most powerful polity in the south east to sue for peace and, perhaps even more important, several British tribes, of which the most significant were the Verulami and Trinovantes, had made formal submission to Rome, thus creating at least the basic framework of a new province. The extent to which a foedus or formal treaty arrangement had actually been laid out cannot be known, but the Trinovantes et al were now subjects of Rome. Caesar could have formed a province, given the money and some more time, but he was not to have the time. It is quite probable that up until the capture of the Wheathampstead oppidum he had intended to establish a permanent presence, but the news that he received from the Continent on his brief trip back to the naval camp convinced him otherwise. He was, he realised, overextended. His personal presence was needed in Gaul, and so were his legions. It is possible that Trebonius had been intended to be the first Governor of Britain, remaining in the Island to organise an administration, but he would have needed at lead two legions as a garrison. Those men were needed in Gaul, and to Gaul they went. Whatever future plans may have been in the back of Caesar’s mind are moot, for what followed is history and any possible designs on Britain were quietly laid to rest.


To some extent Dumnorix, the hostage chieftain of the Aedui who was murdered on Caesar’s orders just prior to the invasion, was responsible for Britain’s further century of freedom. His death was a spark that lit the fuse that, a few months later, would ignite the powder barrel of rebellion. His popularity was perhaps greater than Caesar had imagined, and his death became a cause celebre amongst patriotic Gauls. The name of Dumnorix became a rallying point, and Indutiomaros of the Treviri rose in revolt. Indutiomaros died in 53 BCE and the torch of independence was taken up by the mighty, tragic Vercingetorix of the Aedui. Three years of vicious warfare followed in which Gaul rose in general revolt: Caesar was hard pressed. In 51 BCE the forces of Vercingetorix were routed at Alesia and the great chieftain was dragged to Rome where he vanished in the darkness.


The events of the years following Caesar’s second return from Britain pushed any possibility of a renewed assault from the mind of Rome. The island was of peripheral importance, and its usefulness for the time being had receded. It presented no threat, and there were other vital matters to attend to. Significantly, when at last Caesar became master of Rome, his thought was bent on the east with its vast wealth, teeming populations, prolific productivity and limitless potential. Caesar went on to the east, to further wars, the arms of Cleopatra and, at last, to a meeting of the Senate in Rome one afternoon in mid-march of 44 BCE.


            What did Caesar’s expeditions achieve? For Rome, very little. Tribute? Yes, probably, as shall be seen below, and no doubt it was a useful sum, but how much and for how long are different questions again. Loyal allies? Hardly. If, as Caesar states, the object was to punish the British from giving military and logistical support to Gaulish rebels, then it was a success but one open to debate. An extended client base for Caesar? Certainly, but just how much practical use his new clientela were is moot. They augmented his dignitas, no doubt, but they represented nothing even approaching the usefulness and wealth of Pompey’s teeming (and civilised) clientela in the East.


The fabled mineral wealth of Britain failed to materialise as it lay far from the relatively narrow corridor of Caesar’s activities, and he obviously was misinformed on the matter of mineral resources. He says that tin was found “inland” [Caesar: DBG: 5:2], which is an odd way of referring to the Cornish stannaries that had been exploited for centuries by Carthaginians and Gauls, and he is also quite mistaken when he implies that copper was not mined in Britain [Handiford 1951: p267]. Certainly he was well astray in his assessments of British mineral wealth and the news spread, as Cicero, who remarks that “I hear there is no gold or silver in Britain” [Cicero: Ad Familiares: vii:7:1]. All this may imply that the expedition had proved to be something of a financial disaster. Wars were meant to be self-funding, if not profitable, and this one was not.


            Caesar’s virtues are beyond doubt, but the whole episode shows graphically an array of negative traits to his character. He was brutal and treacherous, as the events in Germany demonstrated. He was arrogant and ill-disposed to accept the advice of those whom he considered beneath him. His apparent contempt for local advice is shown in the near disaster to the fleet of the first expedition, a disaster that happened not once but twice! The laws and constitution of Rome were to be used when they suited him and flouted when they did not. A genius he was, a brilliant politician, general, orator and man of letters. A callous brute he was, cynical, self-seeking, arrogant, treacherous.


            Significantly, perhaps, there was no mention of a supplicatio for the second expedition. Certainly, however, he had demonstrated that Britain could be reached and that military annexation was feasible, and this notion was to be considered more or less seriously on several occasions over the next century. It was a direction that could be taken at any time, and any of several reasons – ambition, greed for the hypothetical mineral wealth, political grievance – could be employed to set the legions marching. Henceforth, by virtue of the submission of a number of British peoples and the subsequent payment of tribute, Britain would be regarded as a de facto province of Rome, albeit a rather troublesome and barbaric extramural backwater of little importance. It could be formally added to the Empire as and when time allowed. Britain would recede into the back of the Roman mind, but she was never to be forgotten. Full annexation was only deferred, never cancelled. Although Tacitus was of the opinion the Caesar “pointed (Britannia) out to those who came after him: he did not bequeath it to them” [Tacitus: Agricola 13], later generations of Romans clearly thought of it as a misplaced possession to be reclaimed when more pressing matters had abated.


            As fate was to decree, however, almost a hundred years were to pass before Roman legions once more took ship from the coast of Gaul to attempt the crossing of the Mare Britannicum in force.


  • Gerald  On 11/07/2017 at 07:00

    Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

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