02:01. A Towering Ambition.

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.

Adventus Caesaris.


Chapter 02.01.

A Towering Ambition.


02:01:01. The Conqueror of the North.

In the summer of 55 BCE Gaius Julius Caesar, Governor of Gaul, launched his legions against the Usipetes and Tencteri, two German tribes who lived on the Gaulish bank of the Rhine. These two tribes, having been pushed out of their native lands by the more powerful Suebi, sought to settle in Gaul in the region of the lower Moselle and indeed the Belgic tribes of that region appear to have welcomed them. Caesar met with a delegation of chiefs and notables from the two peoples. They told him that they were being pushed out of their old lands and wished only to settle in peace in Gaul. They asked Caesar to grant them new land. Caesar replied that there was no place for them in Gaul and ordered them back across the Rhine.


Shortly after the meeting there was a clash between Caesar’s Gaulish cavalry and some German horsemen  in the course of which the Gauls were completely routed. The reason for this engagement is not clear. It may have been simple lack of discipline on the part of high-spirited and poorly trained native auxiliaries. It may also have been a cynical ploy on the part of Caesar to establish an excuse for an attack on the Germans. The fact that 600 Germans had routed 5000 [Plutarch: Lives: Caesar 22] Gaulish auxiliaries, an ignominious defeat if ever there was one, would have brought shame on the Roman army and given some plausibility to what followed.


The next day, all the chieftains and elders of the tribes approached Caesar to apologise and to negotiate a truce. Caesar would have none of it. He now had a clear casus belli. He had the supplicant men seized and immediately launched a surprise attack on the now leaderless tribespeople somewhere near modern Coblenz. This was not a barbarian army on the march for conquest and loot. It was the migration of two entire peoples, complete with their women and children, their elderly and crippled, their goods and livestock. The result was not so much a battle as a massacre. Taken completely without warning, the Germans were thrown into utter confusion. Men, women and children were slaughtered in droves, thousands drowning in the Rhine in their terrified attempts to flee the remorseless swords of Caesar’s veterans. Caesar himself calmly reports that, of an estimated 430,000 people only a handful escaped.


Determined to break the Germans, to forestall any thoughts of an invasion of the new province of Gaul, and to give a lesson in ruthlessness and savagery that any rebellious peoples south of the great river would never forget, Caesar threw the famous bridge over the Rhine in ten days. The Sigambri, the immediate target of Caesar’s thrust, learned of the construction of the bridge quickly enough and hid their wives, children and goods in the deep forests where the Romans dared not venture. The legions crossed the river and spent the next eighteen days burning looting, destroying crops and, no doubt, killing and raping any who were unable to flee. Many were taken prisoner and sold into slavery to the venilicii, the slave traders who followed like vultures in the wake of the legions in the northern campaigns, for the sale of prisoners was a major source of funding for the army.


Oaths of submission were exacted from some tribes, others were forced into the hinterland. Caesar then marched back towards Gaul in triumph, where he learned that the Sigambri had mustered all war-worthy men of their own tribe and those of several others in one spot to do battle. But Caesar did not care for that. He “considered that he had done all that honour or interest required” [Caesar: DBG 4:19]. Burning his bridge behind him, he returned to the province.


That “interest” was very considerable indeed, and Caesar’s intentions were perhaps far more subtle and wide-ranging than many of his fellow citizens may have immediately realised (Cicero, naturally, got the point {Prov. Cons. 33}). Caesar states that the Germans believed that populi Romani imperium Rheni finire (DBG 4:16), that the Rhine marked the limit of Roman power. By crossing the river in overwhelming force and spreading carnage and destruction with apparent impunity he quite clearly demonstrated that he recognised no such limits, and, in extensio, there was no limit to the reach of Rome (Bertrand 1997). The fact of the great bridge was a further underscoring of this sentiment. Caesar could have used a pontoon bridge, or even a boat crossing. Instead he chose to construct a large and elaborate bridge that, under other circumstances, could well have become a permanent fixture. This was a clear demonstration of his power, heightened all the more by the casual ease with which he destroyed it after a working life of only eighteen days, and hammered home by widespread atrocitas.


The lesson in atrocitas was well learned. Caesar had once again proven his reputation as a fearsome and devastating opponent, but at a cost in credibility. Even in Rome many were aghast at his brutality and treachery. Marcus Porcius Cato, one of the most distinguished orators of that or any other age and a man who could see through Caesar as clearly as through a window, suggested that the general be handed over to the Germans for punishment. In this way, he said, “they would clear Rome of the guilt of breaking a truce, and would bring the curse which must follow such an action home to the man who was responsible for it” [Plutarch: Lives: Caesar 22]. Cato was no liberal. His call was a political ploy to discredit Caesar rather than a genuine cry of moral outrage. Needless to say, his call went unheeded, although there were many in high places who would have been more than happy to have Caesar torn apart by the Germans.


It had long been the official policy of Rome to wage wars of defence only, a concept firmly enshrined in the ancient fetial law. Theoretically, the Roman army fought only if Rome was attacked first, but in practice the Roman state was unremittingly aggressive. The religious fetial law has originally been intended to see to the defence of Rome itself, but over the course of years was expanded to include the defence of allies and friends, thus establishing the proud principle that Rome fought only “just” wars [Errington 1971: p4]. Later this policy was extended to include any threat, express or implied, to Roman interests anywhere.

This institutionalised hypocrisy drove ambitious generals in search of wealth and political power to devising sometimes quite ingenious ploys to force foreign peoples into corners from which they had no choice but to try to fight their way out. Victory in battle was a vital rung on the career path of the ambitious Roman nobleman, such victories being vital within the extremely competitive social and political systems of Rome [Millet 1990: p2]. Indeed, Roman commanders were known to deliberately incite attack, not only to create the scenario for an easy victory and thus enhancement of their own fama, but simply to give their troops “live fire” combat training. The goading to battle of an otherwise peaceful people who came to him as supplicants was no more than a cynical gambit by Caesar to give him a casus belli, a pretext to attack another people so that he could claim to be defending Gaul from invading barbarian hordes. The appalling breach of honourable behaviour in laying violent hands on emissaries who no doubt considered that, as ambassadors, their persons were inviolate was the second stage in this litany of immorality. Without their leaders, the people were in turmoil and unable to offer even token resistance to the legions. The final act was the surprise attack on helpless and unprepared people which resulted in a brutal and callous massacre.

Hypocrisy, cynicism, treachery, brutality. The point of this sadistic farce? An exercise in atrocitas, in naked terror. Caesar needed both to match the equally disgusting acts of Pompey in the east, and to drive home to the German tribes the knowledge that Rome could – and would – reach deep into their territory at any time she so desired. With impunity, and without fear or pity. He had shown that he was prepared to murder people by the tens of thousands if he thought fit. How many died as a result of Caesar’s Gallic Wars cannot be known, but four millions may not be too high a guess. Four million souls sacrificed on the altar of one man’s ambition.

All of Gaul was quiet. No hint of rebellion was heard throughout the province. The silence of death reigned beyond the Rhine, and it was only just August. There were still two more months left of the campaigning season.

What further glories could he gather in so short a time?

The pretext for the conquest of Gaul, of course, was the protection of the Roman homeland. The Romans, ever since the massacre of 15,000 of their fighting men, the greater bulk of their males of military age, at the battle of the River Allia and the ensuing destruction of the City by Brennus in 390 BCE, and then the annihilation of several legions by the Cimbri in the last two decades of the second century BCE, had developed an almost pathological fear of that huge grouping of peoples known collectively to the Mediterranean civilisations as Gauls, Galli, Keltoi – Celts. The metus Gallicus, terror of the Celts, was deep and abiding and had even led to that most unroman of rites (minime Romano sacro – Fabius Pictor’s phrase), human sacrifice, in attempts to secure divine protection against the savage head-hunters of the north whose very existence was a threat not only to Roman hegemony but to the very existence of the City of Rome itself (Twyman 1997). These formidable peoples “inspired in the Romans a belief — that persisted even to our own day (ie circa 40 BCE), that while all other peoples could easily be subjected by their valour, a war against the Gauls was a struggle for very existence and not just a matter of making a bid for glory” [Sallust: The Jurguthine War: 113:6]. Any pretext to destroy them was acceptable, and a good case could be made for the proposition that, in part at least, Roman expansion into northern and western Europe during the later Republic was in fact the result of a policy, conscious or unconscious, to commit cultural genocide on the Celtic peoples. In some sense, the destruction of Celtic Gaul and the massacre of countless Germans could be seen as an attempt to purge this national “celtophobia”.

The immediate reason for the invasion of Gaul lay in Caesar’s vaunting ambition and thirst for power. He was at this stage still united with Pompey and Crassus in the first Triumvirate and he realised that his political life was bound up with these two men. But in his heart he looked upon them as stepping stones rather than allies. He needed the proconsular imperium of the northern provinces to achieve military glory to match that of Pompey, a glory that was an absolute imperative for advancement within such a militaristic society as was Rome. He needed to gain a clientela of entire populations such as Pompey had gained in the east. He needed wealth to match that of Crassus, for political advancement was impossible without enormous wealth, and the financial benefits that could be reaped from a rich and productive territory such as Gaul were incalculable. Having these the other two, neither of whom possessed anything even approaching Caesar’s political brilliance, would become redundant.

Pompey was the most outstanding soldier of his time, having pushed Roman dominion across Asia Minor as far as the Caucasus and the Euphrates, following the footsteps of Alexander the Great. But he was politically inexperienced. His rise had been meteoric, but his strength and his abilities were entirely military. “The nature of his rise had deprived him of all experience of senatorial practice, and he lacked the web of connections, painstakingly spun, that would enable him to influence senatorial debates and manipulate popular assemblies — as a consular he could look forward to dignity but less power than most of his peers” [Seagar 1979: p27]. Pompey made the fatal mistake of forgetting, or not fully realising, that the City of Rome was the heart of the Empire and the fountainhead of constitutional power. Power could be gained overseas, but to hold it a man must court the powerful of Rome. Caesar never made this mistake, but Pompey did and his naivete would in the end be his downfall, falling ignominiously at the last to the daggers of assassins in Egypt.

Crassus was enormously wealthy, having made a vast fortune as a result of the land confiscations following Sulla’s proscriptions, but he was vain, and his vanity would be his downfall. Eventually his desires would lead him to try to emulate Pompey’s conquests and the dignitas that these had brought to him. Militarily competent, but no more than that, Crassus was intensely jealous of Pompey’s victories, and bitterly resentful of the latter for stealing a triumph that should have by rights been awarded to Crassus with the destruction of the slave revolt under Spartacus in 73 BCE. The result was that twenty years later, in 53 BCE, there would be twenty thousand Roman dead, Crassus himself following them into eternity while being dragged as a prisoner towards the east. The Parthian victory at Carrhae saw the loss of seven Roman eagles, and was the worst single defeat ever suffered by the Roman army.

Thus Caesar’s readiness to make war on the northern tribes [1] in attacks that were both completely unjustified and totally lacking in constitutional legality. These wars commanded the attention of the people of Rome, and sent slaves and wealth back to the City, wealth that the people would acknowledge as coming from Caesar. The campaigns were grist to Caesar’s propaganda mill, and his propaganda was spectacularly, incredibly successful.

Caesar’s propaganda had two thrusts. Firstly it played on the endemic celtophobia. The defeat on the river Allia was a permanent day of mourning in Rome, and the sack of the City immediately thereafter by Brennus and his Senones was a tragedy burned indelibly into the national consciousness. Moreover, in 55 BCE there were doubtless people still alive who could remember the dread days when the Cimbri and the Teutones had been heading for Rome to be turned back in the nick of time. As it happened, the Cimbri and Teutones were not, strictly speaking, Celts, and they had been heading for Iberia rather than Italy. Furthermore, they had been thrown back from Iberia by Iberian Celts, not Romans, and could never have been overcome by Marius had they not been first fatally weakened by the Celtiberians. But Marius was as much a propagandist as Caesar. Rome in the days of the republican warlords was an age of self-aggrandisement and propaganda.

The second thrust of Caesar’s propaganda was his tally of personal achievements. The Commentaries were so successful, their prose so unforced, straightforward and lucid that they are widely read even today. Most people today know of Julius Caesar, and something of his extraordinary conquests in Gaul. How many know, or have even heard, of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus and the far greater, far richer territories in the east that he gained for Rome, and which would remain in Roman hands for a millennium longer than Caesar’s territories? The Commentaries were an astonishingly efficient tool to help Caesar gain the goodwill of the people.

And the goodwill of the people was all-important. Caesar, as a champion of the populares, rested his powerbase firmly and squarely on the people of Rome and on his adoring veterans. Their support was the key to his imperial ambitions. Roman imperialism was quite unlike that of later ages. It was by no means the result of a conscious policy of expansion [Millet 1990: p3]. Indeed, it was in practice a very jerky, hit and miss business in which individuals annexed territories in an ad hoc manner that belies any suggestion of a coherent and sustained strategy of domination. The structures of provincial administration, modelled on a complex system of petty city states, further refutes any possibility of a grand plan. Rather, it stemmed from a deep and genuine conviction held by the Roman people that their destiny was to rule the world. The very dynamics of Roman society, with its highly competitive elite for whom the wealth that accrued from warfare became indispensable for the furtherance of their ambitions, decreed that the development of an Empire was a natural and inevitable socio-economic imperative. Once begun, the process was self-perpetuating and unstoppable.

There was not the slightest pretence of converting the heathen or of bringing the light of civilisation to the benighted savages. The purpose of foreign domination was firstly to suck the provinces dry of their goods and manpower, swelling the power, glory and wealth of a City and a people whose ruling elite was uniquely dependent upon territorial expansion [Millet 1990: p3]. The people and wealth of foreign lands were seen simply as raw material, fodder for the voracious and bottomless maw of Rome. Secondly, it was to spread Roman order over the entire world, to ensure that eventually all lands acknowledged the supremacy of Rome and bowed to her writ. Caesar’s masterstroke was, in short, to demonstrate that he was fulfilling the national vision, marching his legions upon the road of Roman destiny.

Few in Rome would have been unaware that Caesar’s achievements in Gaul had been motivated by anything but ambition and naked self-aggrandisement. Such sentiments were, of course, standard and expected practice and Caesar, that consummate politician, had the knack of turning acts of personal advancement into genuinely beneficial public policies. His accomplishments not only increased his own dignitas and power; they also substantially improved the quality of life for the citizens of Rome. All praise and all honour went to the man who could provide the wealth and spectacular feats that increased the glory of Rome.



02:01:02. Casus belli.

            Not far from the scene of Caesar’s latest massacres lay the Atlantic seaboard of Europe. From certain points on this coast could be discerned the shores of great island known to the Romans as Britannia, the land beyond Ocean, a mysterious, magical land that was virtually unknown to the peoples of the Mediterranean. Such marvellous lands are usually associated, in the minds of those who do not dwell there, with fabulous wealth, a prospect at which Caesar would have quietly have licked his lips. Money was an absolute necessity for any ambitious Roman, and the higher the ambition, the more money was needed. For pay for the troops. For the provision of spectacles and largetio for the people. For the construction of public monuments and civic works that would bear witness forever to the generosity and benevolence of the great man. Caesar, the most ambitious of an ambitious race, needed money in vast amounts.

Although mysterious, Britain was not a wholly unknown quantity. The islands had been known as the Cassiterides or the Tin Islands for many centuries before Caesar’s appearance on the Channel coast, on account of the flourishing tin trade that grew up around the stannaries of Cornwall from as early as 1400 BCE. Although at the very end of the Earth, the islands became increasingly well known to a small group of bold traders and adventurers, and there may have been indirect intercourse between Wessex and the Mediterranean when Mycenae was at its height, although such slight evidence as exists does not stand up to examination (Renfrew 1968 p277 – 285). An enigmatic symbol, an axe or knife seemingly, scratched into one of the monoliths of Stonehenge may be, as some have sought to make it, a sign that Mycenaeans helped to build the monument. Much more probably it is a graffito scratched into the stone by a visiting trader, one less than appropriately awed by the splendour of the ancient but long disused temple. It may have no more chronological significance than the signature of Byron on one of the marble temples of Poseidon at Sounion (Ibid p284). Certainly the case for direct intervention by Mycenae in south west Britain to the extent of cultural and technological innovation must be seen as at the lower end of the scale of probabilities.

Direct contact came eventually, of course. In the sixth century BCE a Carthaginian by the name of Himilcon voyaged up the Atlantic coast as far as Brittany and the Channel Islands. He seems to have at least sighted the coast of Cornwall, and left an account of his travels, the first known record of Britain in the world’s literature. After a four month journey along the Atlantic coast he reached the islands known as the Oestrymnides (the Channel Islands?), whose people traded with the inhabitants of two great islands, Albion and Ierne. [Kruta and Forman 1985: p15]

The Phocaen Greek Pytheas, sailing from the city of Massalia (later Massilia, now Marseilles) in the early fourth century BCE, almost certainly would have read Himilcon’s journal and perhaps was inspired by it to seek markets in the remote west. His route is unknown, but Carthage at this time controlled southern Spain and the straits of Gibralter, so he probably selected an alternative route via the Rhône, the Carcasonne Gap and the Garonne. He sailed into the Bay of Biscay and along the coasts of Armorica and Britanny, circumnavigating Britain and  recording the salient geographical features. He noted Cape Belerion (the Lizard), the Orkas Islands (the Orkneys) and a promontory situated opposite a great Continental river (the Rhine?) he recorded as Kantion (Kent) [Kruta and Forman 1985: p16]. Not only did he sail around Britain, but, unless he made use of Armorican pilots familiar with the waters, he must also have landed and made contact with the natives to the point of learning something of their speech, which he made an effort to transliterate into greek. More, in fact: he entered the Baltic, and at least sighted Iceland, which thereafter became known as Ultima Thule, and recorded the Chronian Sea, the ice-strewn ocean beyond Norway. His account of this epic voyage into the unknown was published in his work “On the Ocean”, now, sadly, lost, but in its time widely read. Although frequently quoted by later authors, he was usually sneered at and held out as an example of just how wrong someone can be. These later “authorities” refused to accept his findings, and it was many centuries before he was vindicated.

Pytheas was the first known observer to attempt to record something like a phonetic rendition of the name by which the inhabitants of the islands knew themselves: he writes of the “Pretannikai”. This word was adopted into Greek and, later, Roman usage, slowly changing to suit different pronunciations. Many of the classical authors, such as Strabo, refer to the Pretanic Islands, the Islands of the Pretannikai, or Pretani. From this word the Romans, chronically incapable of pronouncing anything other than latin with any accuracy, developed the word Bretani, and later Brittones. The British had long been so named and were shortly to emerge from their long prehistoric night into the first flickering light of recorded history.

Exactly when the notion of a British expedition occurred to Caesar is impossible to say, but it may have been in 57 BCE. In that year the Belgic coalition collapsed and the legions swept north and west towards the Atlantic. It may well be that even then the brilliant mind of Caesar perceived the possibility of an attack on the island and began to lay contingency plans.

But Caesar could not simply invade this foreign land. As governor of Gaul his mandate was clear, and to engage in foreign military adventures without the express approval of the Senate and People of Rome would have been too provocative even for one as powerful as he. He needed a pretext, an excuse for invasion, a casus belli. Ideally he needed someone to assist him, to invite him to Britain and provide a focus for his predatory attentions.

Into the equation now comes the enigmatic Commios. A chieftain of the Atrebates of the Somme area, he had been created king by Caesar, presumably after his little tribe had surrendered to the invader. Caesar obviously thought highly of this young man, and used him extensively both in high level diplomacy and on the battlefield. The Atrebates were a smallish tribe and, whilst no doubt hardy opponents, were of no great importance when matched against the great Gaulish nations like the Remi or Aedui. But they did have an interesting advantage over these more powerful folk: there were Atrebatean septs in both Gaul and Britain, and the chieftain of the Atrebates claimed lordship on both sides of the Channel. Commios was potentially a very useful tool. He could have been the key to a relatively bloodless Roman domination of Britain should that time ever arrive.

That time was now.

A pretext was needed to launch an attack on Britain, and it would not have been difficult for Caesar to find one. The British tribes had sent military assistance to their Gaulish cousins to help the resistance to the invader. The British had, therefore, offered armed aggression to the emissaries of Rome and such action had to be punished.

That British troops had assisted in the defence of Gaul is almost certain. South eastern Britain and northern Gaul were, at that time, one entity linguistically, culturally, socially, spiritually and politically. There were strong ties of tribal and blood affiliation, as is evidenced by the case of the recently defeated Galba, successor to the great Divitiacos of the Suessiones who, like Commios of the Gaulish Atrebates, claimed authority on both sides of the Channel and exercised considerable power in Britain. It would have been unthinkable for fighting men to refuse the call of their chieftains to the defence of their kindred realms, realms of which they may well have felt very much a part.

There may have been a fundamental difference in viewpoint between Roman (and later) observers  and the British in respect of the Channel. The Romans viewed this stretch of water as a liminal area, a boundary to be crossed with trepidation and only by the very boldest. To the British and the Gauls it may have been viewed as little more than another river, bigger, deeper, more difficult than any other but still nonetheless a river in the sense that it was a convenient medium for transport and communications. In the ancient world, water was seen as the only road for bulk transport and rivers and coastal waters were seen as connecting lifelines as often as boundaries. The peoples of the north west of Europe may well have seen the Channel as a connecting rather than a dividing feature, and as such a means of cultural and social cohesion. If this is so, the British and the Belgic Gauls may have enjoyed a far greater sense of kinship and affiliation than is otherwise thought to be the case. Socially, politically and economically, south east Britain and north west Gaul may have been seen by their inhabitants as one entity, as may also have been the case with south west Britain and Armorica.

Such support, of course, would have been given freely and gladly, but nonetheless the exercise was an expensive business. The noble and warlike British chieftains would not have accepted direct payment for their services as fighting men, naturally. Unlike Rome, Celtic society was not capitalistic. The social imperatives that drove Celtic society were based on a complex network of inextricably linked loyalties, of ties of blood, honour and mutual obligation, and the Celts were free in their employment of mercenaries in what was effectively an extension of their traditional system of maintaining armed retainers [Nash 1981:p14]. Nevertheless the giving of gifts was an integral part of that society, and a nobleman’s dignity and authority were in large part measured by his generosity and ability to distribute largesse to his friends and supporters.

The Gaulish chieftains needed a great deal of support from their British colleagues, and the distribution of largesse and the value of their gifts would have been proportionately high. Lavish presents would have been needed to clinch deals and ensure support. The haste with which such deals would have had to have been struck would perhaps have necessitated even more lavish gifts than might otherwise have been the case. It may not be entirely coincidence that large quantities of Gaulish coins datable to between 60 and 51 BCE, particularly those issued by the Ambiani of northern Gaul, have been found in southern Britain. The enticing suggestion has been made [Kent 1978: p2] that the greater bulk of these coins were struck between 57 and 55 BCE specifically for export to Britain in return for military assistance. Significantly, British finds of Gallo-Belgic coins minted after 51 BCE, the year of the defeat of Vercingetorix, drop away dramatically in weight and fineness. Roman exactions of precious metal would have drained much away to Caesar’s coffers, but much also disappeared across the Channel. British military support was forthcoming but it was not cheap.

Nor was British aid limited to fighting men. A most important contribution to the war effort was in the form of grain to feed the beleaguered peoples. Roman foraging to feed the huge numbers of men in the field would have made severe inroads into the supplies of virtually all comestibles, and the destruction of standing crops was a commonplace. The Gauls themselves would at times practice a scorched earth policy [Rivet 1969: p188] as they withdrew before the legions, and the continual warfare would have meant that agricultural production was seriously disrupted. Famine loomed large, and British grain could help fill the gap. Grain Britain produced in abundance, being one of its principal exports [Strabo: iv:5:2], and it seems almost certain that shipments were made to the Continent to assist the embattled Gauls.

That the British sent assistance to the Veniti is certain. This Armorican tribe had surrendered to Rome in about 57 BCE, but news of Caesar’s plans to invade Britain threw them into a panic [Strabo: iv:4:1]. If Britain became a province of the Empire, the lucrative cross-channel trade that had long been a preserve of that powerful maritime tribe would become a monopoly of Roman merchants. Their economy would be ruined and that of Britain thrown into disarray. Both partners wanted to maintain their traditional arrangements. Even the people of Massilia, long loyal to Rome, were in a state of consternation as the tin trade from Dumnonia via the Gaulish rivers to the Rhône was a major source of revenue for that city. Covert assistance was promised. In 56 BCE the Veniti, with British warriors beside them, arose in arms against Rome. The rebellion was crushed in the devastating battle of Morbihan Bay and Caesar had his casus belli.

The irony of the situation is that Caesar, if he indeed used the rebellion of the Veniti as his pretext to invade, attacked the wrong people. He would shortly land in Britain and direct his legions against the peoples of the south-east, the Cantii, Trinovantes and Verulami. Without doubt these peoples would have sent assistance to their relatives in northern Gaul at some stage. The Atrebates of Hampshire and Wiltshire would also have sent assistance by virtue of their cross-channel allegiances, which may have been something of an embarrassment for Commios later on. But in actual fact any British assistance to the non-Belgic Veniti could only have come from the Dumnonii, the pre-Belgic tribe of what are now Cornwall and Devon, and Durotriges of Dorset and Somerset. These three peoples had been busily trading for centuries and had strong cultural, commercial and family ties. Quite possibly there were political links between Armorica and Dumnonia as well, but few, if any, elsewhere. The Dumnonii seem to have had very little contact with the Belgic tribes of the south-east, whose cultural links were with their Continental cousins who dwelt in the north along the Somme, the Marne, the Moselle and the Rhine. These latter, collectively known as Belgae, were a different people from the more southerly grouping of peoples who were known as the Galli, and who occupied what is now central France from Britanny to Burgundy. So far as the Romans were concerned all were Celts, however, and such internal distinctions were lost on Caesar.

But the importance of Britain lay in more than such military support as may have been forthcoming. It was also haven for refugees from Caesar’s depredations in Gaul. Large numbers of Bellovaci, Nervii, Eburones and Atrebates, to name but a few, fled across the sea. Many influential people removed to the great island during the troubles, amongst them many members of the powerful and ubiquitous Druidic Order. Their homelands ravaged, their wealth plundered, their power and dignity stripped from them, they sought succour across the Channel. Gaul could never be considered truly and fully submissive while a nest of rebels and subversives was able to thumb its collective nose at Rome from across the safety of the Mare Britannicum.


02:01:03. A Prospect of Glory.

            While the nature and context of military involvement on the Continent are matters of academic debate and serve to give some idea of the events that led up to the invasion, they were irrelevant to Caesar’s long term strategy. Any such thoughts as he may have had on the subject were, ultimately, rationalisation. Britain represented a chance for more loot, more slaves, more glory, and an even greater clientela for Caesar. Above all it was a daring exploit, gaining military intelligence of unknown lands, that would dramatically enhance his fama and dignitas at home (Bertrand 1997). He managed to convince himself of the validity of the notion that the British had to be punished for attacking Rome, and one Briton was as good (or bad) as any other to him. It is doubtful that he even knew about, much less cared about, any such quibbles as the ethnic differences between the various tribal groups. He had his casus belli, and that was all that mattered.

Caesar was probably unaware of the enormous risks that he was running by launching an invasion across the sea so late in the year. Even he, however, did not seriously contemplate a full-scale invasion of conquest. He comments: “Even if there was not the time for a campaign that season he (Caesar always wrote of himself in the third person, probably to make his writings seem more objective) thought it would be to his great advantage merely to visit the island, and to make himself acquainted with the lie of the land, the harbours and landing places” [Caesar: DBG 5:1]. His visit, therefore, was never intended to be anything more than a reconnaissance in force. It was a testing of the waters, literally and metaphorically, and a propaganda piece for the benefit of his public. But it was urgent.

Caesar obviously felt a pressing need to head for Britain at that time, despite the lateness of the season and the many risks. The year was rapidly disappearing, and ancient armies were often totally dependent upon forage from the land through which they moved. A reverse or a delay in Britain would mean the possibility of a shortage of supplies and isolation from reinforcements, linked with his command structure only by the wayward waters of the Channel. Gaul was nowhere near as calm as the Commentaries would suggest: the troops were needed in the new territories. To take two whole legions across the Ocean at this stage was a game with very high stakes indeed.

The much-cited presence of British fighting men in the Gaulish armies that opposed his advance was no more than a convenient excuse, hastening and firming his decision to invade rather than initiating it. Palpably, Caesar wanted to keep his name before the public during the consulship of Pompey and Crassus in 55. Further, there was the danger of arraignment on charges brought by political enemies when he returned to Rome and civilian life. The invasion of Britain promised an excuse to prolong his command and thereby buy time for his amici and clientes to manoeuvre on his behalf, forestalling his enemies. Winter campaigning was always difficult and often impossible, especially when it involved crossing large tracts of water. His decision to mount his first expedition to Britain so late in the campaigning season, therefore, suggests that he felt very considerable urgency.

            The scheme was more than a military gamble. It was also a political risk with far-reaching consequences should he fail. The so-called conference of Luca in 57 BCE had ensured that his proconsular imperium in the Gauls would continue for at least another four years. He had a further three or perhaps four campaigning seasons in which to achieve his political objectives. Could he afford to fail in an attempt at Britain? Caesar’s reputation was based on a series of spectacular military successes, for which Rome was ready to accord him the highest of accolades, but the people had little tolerance for failure, especially if that failure was the result of an enterprise of doubtful legality.

The legality of the British expedition was at best debatable. The mandate of a provincial governor was clearly spelled out and military adventures outside of his area of responsibility were permitted only upon a specific departure sanctioned by the Senate. The declaration of war, which the expedition to Britain would have amounted to, was the prerogative of the Senate and People of Rome. To proceed with his plan would, technically, make him guilty of perduellio [2] or laesa maiestas – treason – in contravention of the Sullan lex de maiestate under which a promagisterial governor could not on his own initiative start a war, march his troops beyond his frontier or even leave his province [Scullard 1982: p83). Sulla’s law, enacted as one of a series of measures designed to limit the powers of promagistrates to their provinces and thus to curb any danger to the Senate that such men might pose, was intended to give Rome an assurance that potential autocrats with large armies were restrained from the very courses of actions that had enabled him to ascend to the highest power.

            Sadly for the Senate and for Rome, Sulla’s constitutional arrangements did not long survive him. They were rapidly demolished by his successors, but his lex de maiestate was still active in 55 – 54 BCE and could have been used to confound Caesar. In reality, however, Sulla’s acta were no real obstacle to ruthless men of overwhelming ambition and those to whom dignitas and auctoritas were to be pursued at any cost had long played fast and loose with this law. Caesar was by no means the first, and the case of Lucullus has parallels. Lucius Licinius Lucullus, proconsular of Asia and Cilicia, destroyed the forces of Mithridates of Pontus in a hard fought series of campaigns during 73 – 70 BCE, and pursued the defeated king to Armenia where the latter had taken refuge with his son-in-law Tigranes. Lucullus promptly invaded Armenia without the approval of the Senate, with the result that he was stripped of his provinces, which were awarded to Acilius Glabrio. In the end, Lucullus fared reasonably well: he secured a triumph and retired from public life to indulge the luxurious lifestyle that he desired and for which his famous gardens became a byword. There was no talk of treason then: his downfall was due in large part to the machinations of wealthy Equites who hated him for his lenient financial treatment of the Asian provincials, which had deprived the Equites of their huge and extortionate profits. And he was a staunch Optimate who quite clearly had no designs on usurping the auctoritas of the Senate.

Nevertheless, Caesar was making himself liable to penalties that could destroy his career. The sanctions were still available, if needed, and he was not yet powerful enough, or desperate enough, to attempt to impose his will on the Senate by force, and it is most unlikely that he then had the least desire to do so: he was not yet on the banks of the Rubicon. The invasion of Britain was, therefore, illegal and Caesar was risking much in attempting it. Enemies at Rome such as Cato were watching eagle-eyed for any mistake. The expedition could, perhaps, be excused in the same light as his German expedition shortly before, as an exercise similar to the modern concept of hot pursuit. All would be well if he succeeded. But if he failed, he could well be destroyed politically. Without doubt Caesar knew this.

But if Caesar was a political gambler, he was a shrewd judge of the odds, and he was a winner at the table. He was prepared to bet all on a throw of the dice. Aleae jacta erat. Orders were given for the expedition to be mounted. Two formations, VII Legio and X Legio, together with auxiliary cavalry, a total force of perhaps 10,000 men, were considered sufficient for the task and duly assembled at Portus Itius (Wissant). Word was sent out commandeering all available vessels, including the fleet built for the war against the Veniti the previous year, for the use of the army. In due course some eighty transports arrived at Portus Itius, together with an unspecified number of fighting ships to accompany them.

While the troops and vessels were mustering, the commander took care of a few preliminary details. He questioned many local traders closely on the geography and topography of Britain. Interestingly, he reports that he was unable to gather any information of much use to him from this source. Why this should be so is a mystery, as there were surely many amongst his new subjects who were as familiar with Britain as with their own lands and coasts. Could there have been a deliberate campaign of obfuscation? Did the Gaulish authorities and their British counterparts conspire to create an air of ignorance and hence mystery about what may have been perceived as the last refuge of freedom? If Caesar suspected anything like this he does not mention it, and the fact is instructive, as shall be seen below.

Meanwhile, one of Caesar’s officers, Gaius Volusenus, departed in a warship to reconnoitre the coasts. This very able and loyal officer was away for four days, during which he examined the coast of Kent as far as he could and as closely as he could – so he said – without actually landing. Interestingly, he seems to have surveyed the coast between Hythe and Sandwich and found little there but open beaches and towering cliffs. He seems to have made no exploration around the north coast of Kent and thus completely missed Richborough harbour which was to be of such signal importance during the Claudian invasion. He also missed Dover harbour, which would one day become one of the most important havens of the Classis Britannica, and the former Lympne harbour where what is now Romney Marsh was then the large and sheltered estuary of the Rother, Tillingham and Brede rivers (Cunliffe 1980: p284 & fig. 29). Perhaps he did not care to venture so close to the shore, being but a single warship. Perhaps the harbours were not as obvious as they would be one hundred years later. The coastline of Kent is remarkably fluid and much has changed over the years. It is not at all certain that Richborough harbour, so valuable to later generations of Romans, was useable at that time, but surely there must have been some harbourage at the mouth of the Stour even then. Whatever the reason, Volusenus missed the best haven in the south east and this oversight was to have a critical effect upon the success of forthcoming expeditions.

By this time, of course, Caesar’s intentions had reached the ears of the British tribes. The suppression of the Veniti would imply that Caesar’s plans for Britain had been formulated at least two years previously and had become common knowledge. The mustering of legions at Portus Itius would not have gone unnoticed by the British authorities, and Caesar’s exploits in Gaul were well known. The political environment of Britain closely paralleled that of Gaul: the situation was very fluid, tensions were running high between the various dynasts and those tribes who were on the back foot would have seriously have considered exchanging submission to Rome in return for military assistance. Preliminary dialogue was opened up, and it is possible that Caesar sent envoys over to Britain, demanding surrender. Tradition [3] would have it that some correspondence was entered into between Caesar and at least one leading chieftain of southern Britain. Representatives of a number of British tribes, foremost amongst them the Cantii, a loose confederation of peoples occupying what is now Kent and its environs, were sent over to offer formal submission. It may be that representation was made at Caesar’s request, or by the British on their own initiative. Unsolicited or otherwise, there seems little doubt that preliminary negotiations were made on the Continent between Caesar and a deputation of British notables with the result that submission, along with the obligatory hostages, was offered.

The attitude of the British chieftains quite probably touched Caesar, tickling his love of flattery and firming his sense of destiny. Their submission was regally accepted with a warning to abide by their decision. They were sent back to Britain together with Commios of the Atrebates, whom Caesar seems to have held in considerable regard, with instructions to contact as many of their subjects, kinsmen and allies as possible and urge them to submit to Rome.

The preliminary organisation all in order, Caesar set Publius Sulpicius Rufus in command of the harbour at Portus Itius with a strong garrison to back him up and despatched his marshals Quintus Titurius Sabinus and Lucius Arunculeio Cotta with the balance of the army to subdue certain maritime tribes who remained recalcitrant. Then Caesar, with Titus Labienus his second in command and most trusted henchman, waited upon time and tide.

The conditions were soon favourable, and Caesar gave the order to weigh anchor. But building a bridge across a river, even a massive bridge 500 yards long across the mightiest river of western Europe, is one thing. Crossing the open ocean is quite a different exercise. Something in the plans was bound to go awry, and it did. Eighteen transports were harboured at Ambleteuse some eight miles up the coast, having been prevented by contrary winds from joining the main force. The cavalry, being able to reach them more quickly than the foot soldiers, was ordered to Ambleteuse to embark with all speed on the outgoing tide and to join up with the main force as soon as they were able, but they were somewhat slow about things and set sail too late. The eighteen cavalry transports were carried back inshore by the tides, to the later chagrin of their commander. The main body, naturally, remained undeterred and blissfully unaware of this tactical hiccough.

At about midnight on the 24th of August 55 BCE, Gaius Julius Caesar and his fleet and two veteran legions set sail for Britain.


02:01:04. The Battle for Walmer Beach.

            At about 0900 hours on the morning of August 25, the first ships of the fleet reached British coastal waters. On the clifftops were ranged the warriors of the tribes of the Cantii, the numerous and prosperous peoples of the south east tip of Britain whose name even now lingers on in the names of both Kent and Canterbury. They were not a single, coherent political unit, being divided into at least four subtribes or paramount clans whose warriors now awaited the coming onslaught. With them were numerous allies, vassals and dependents, a disparate group who, at any other time could well have been at each others’ throats but for now were united in the face of a common foe. Diplomacy had failed, somehow. The chieftains who had waited on Caesar had been overruled, or too few had made submission. A certain block, perhaps, refrained from arms according to oaths of submission made, but sufficient remained antagonistic to Rome to attempt resistance to the forthcoming intruders.

            Cantian chieftains named as Cingetorix, Segonax, Taximagulos and Carvilios marshalled this composite and ill-assorted assembly. Amongst the warlords, perhaps, was numbered a young man by the name of Mandubracios, a prince of the tribe of the Trinovantes. An intriguing but shadowy character, he was pivotal to the events that would later unfold and to whom we shall later return. For the moment we shall leave him, an unwilling vassal, to play his unsung but no doubt courageous part in the forthcoming confrontation.

            The chieftains of the south had long known that the legions would one day arrive. The prospect had been in the wind for at least two years and may well have been expected much earlier. Indeed, it is probable that Caesar had in fact planned to attack Britain in the summer of 56 BCE, but problems subduing the maritime tribes, and the matter of the Usipetes and Tencteri would have delayed the expedition. British agents on the Continent and refugees from Caesar’s marauding would have kept up a constant flow of information. No doubt the British ranks contained many men of Continental birth, Atrebates and Veniti, Morini and Bellovaci, Osismi and Coriosolites, who would have brought bitter word of their defeat at Rome’s hands and the bloodshed and massacre that had ensued. Indeed any Veniti in the ranks would have felt especially bitter looking out at the approaching fleet from their vantage point on the cliffs above: many of the ships that were bringing Caesar’s troops over were their own vessels, captured only the year before after their disastrous defeat at Morbihan Bay at the hands of Decimus Junius Brutus.

            The point of Caesar’s arrival was a narrow beach overshadowed by cliffs from which spears and javelins could be hurled into the disembarking legions with disastrous effect. Not surprisingly, Caesar considered this to be an unsuitable place for a landing and rode at anchor until 1500 hours to allow the rest of the fleet time to catch up. Summoning his general staff he held a conference on his flagship, outlining Volusenus’ observations and giving them a little “pep talk” before the actual assault, reminding them of the need for speed and the immediate response to commands. Caesar had not, it seems, let the exact point of landing be known, for the very good reason that he did not know himself. Despite his very high regard for Volusenus, he obviously had not taken any notice of whatever that officer may have recommended and had decided to see for himself when he actually arrived. What he saw when he first lay off the British coast did not, understandably, fill him with confidence. He gave the order to weigh anchor and the fleet proceeded another twelve kilometres or so along the coast to Walmer Beach.

The British, cavalry, infantry and chariots, followed the ships. They knew the lie of the land only too well and it is likely that they had already guessed where the fleet intended to make a landing. But their local knowledge has now completely vanished and the exact spot of Caesar’s landing is not known [4]. As it usual with ancient authors, his geographical details are sketchy and often impossible to pin down with any degree of certainty, but the usual consensus of opinion for the first landing is somewhere between Walmer and Deal. Walmer Beach is as close a guess as we may ever be able to make, and only the unsubstantiated tradition cited by Geoffrey De Monmouth bears it out.

Many modern commentators have argued that Caesar was foolish to land on this stony and open beach, but two points have to be taken into consideration. Firstly, he had to land somewhere, time was running out, and to land at the base of the cliffs would have been patently absurd. Secondly, as noted above, the Channel coastline is very fluid and much has changed over the last two millennia. A map of ancient Cantium is quite different to one of modern Kent. Sandy beaches have been known to be completely denuded of sand during a single violent storm, a phenomenon all too familiar along the Channel coast. Walmer Beach may well have been a sweep of golden sand when Caesar first saw it and the Goodwin Sands may have been much higher, affording considerable protection from the east. Walmer Beach may well have been quite sheltered, and here the fleet prepared to disembark its deadly cargo.

All speed was needed, for the British were approaching rapidly in two contingents [Dio: xxxix:51]. The cavalry and chariots, with their greater speed, had long overtaken the men on foot and were already at the beach awaiting the confrontation. If the assault was to succeed at all, the legions would have to be on the beach before the even more numerous British infantry arrived on the scene. But there arose an immediate problem: the vessels were deep bellied transports bearing heavy loads, and even when their keels grated on the shelving seabed were still in fairly deep water. Caesar, in his haste to bring the British to battle and unfamiliar with the dangerous ocean tides, seems to have begun the assault at low tide, the least favourable time, when the ships would be even further from shore than absolutely necessary. The legionaries, perforce, were required to jump, fully armed and armoured, into water up to their waists or higher, perhaps as much as two hundred metres from shore, and advance upon a highly mobile and numerically superior enemy. The men had had no experience whatsoever of a true sea-borne invasion and were at a great disadvantage tactically. What was more, the British were running their chariots up and down, making a fearful din and presenting a thoroughly alarming spectacle in true Celtic tradition. They were shouting imprecations, jeering, taunting, belittling their opponents, boasting of their own prowess and keeping up a continual barrage of spears, javelins, arrows, slingshot and other unpleasant hardware.

Indeed, the Cantian battle array must have been impressive to say the least. The notion that the ancient British warrior was some sort of primitive savage, smeared with woad and wearing, if anything at all, some hairy beast-fell about his middle, does not bear scrutiny. It is but one more of the muddled images that gained currency during the 18th and 19th centuries and owes more to the romantic visions of antiquarian poets and mythmakers who based their images on Caesar’s crude descriptions of British natives, rather than any scientific source. It may also be based on a misreading of Latin texts. Caesar [DBG I:25] certainly states that the Gauls nudo corpore pugnare, but in this context may equally well mean that they fought unprotected by armour rather than literally stark naked (Bowman & Thomas 1987: p136). There is no doubt that Celtic society contained fraternities of warrior-mystics, such as the fabled Red Branch of Ulster, who fought in the belief that if they wore no iron, iron could not touch them. (The tragic and bloody error of this superstition, which must have been gruesomely apparent time after murderous time, does not appear to have shaken a firmly held belief that seems to have been current for centuries throughout much of northern Europe). Such men were akin to the historic Scandinavian berserker, who was reputed to tear off his clothes as the battle madness overtook him and fling himself naked into the fray. It may well be that some such men, frenzied and fearsome, confronted the horrified gaze of the legions.

But these were a tiny minority. For the most part the fighting men were fully clad, many gorgeously so. The conspicuous display of wealth in the form of dress finery is typical of many ancient societies, and none more so than the Celtic. The nobles and their aristocratic companions were clad in their very finest equipment, wearing beautifully crafted bronze helmets, and carrying large body-shields reinforced with bronze bosses and handsome longswords and spears. Celtic weaponry, defensive and offensive, was as sophisticated as that of Rome. Weapons technology could and did spread very rapidly through the ancient world, as evidenced by Central European figurative art of the 5th Century BCE. A telling example of that of the figure of an armoured warrior of La Tene A period from Grave 1 Glauberg bei Glauberg-Glauberg, a Rhineland site (Frey 1998 p11). Realistically depicted in considerable detail (he is a figure on a bronze wine jug), he wears body armour  of a type that appeared in the western Mediterranean only a few decades earlier. There was nothing crude about Celtic weaponry, and there is nothing new about the concept of the arms race.

The warriors wore trousers and cloaks of brightly coloured woolen material not unlike tweed, and dyed or woven into the chequerboard patterns, the remote ancestors of Scottish tartans, that were a favourite motif. Some may have worn body defences of bronze or iron such as breastplates and vambraces. Certainly some would have worn chain armour. Hauberks of chainmail were prestige items amongst the Celtic nobility, and they represented great wealth as their manufacture was extremely labour intensive and the work of highly skilled craftsmen. Indeed it was generally acknowledged that the Celts actually invented chainmail. The mail itself was highly sophisticated, being manufactured from rows of riveted links of round section wire interwoven with rows of solid rings punched from iron sheets and therefore of a squarish section, and with a standard link size of 7 – 7.5 mm [Foster 1986: p83]. Bronze links were incorporated into the structure as decoration [Ibid: p83]. The hauberk was equipped with buckles, studs and hinges of excellent workmanship and worn over a soft leather undershirt. The Celtic warrior chieftain was a truly magnificent and awe-inspiring creature.

No wonder, as Caesar comments with truly phlegmatic understatement, the troops “did not show the same alacrity and enthusiasm as they usually did in battles on dry land” [Caesar DBG 5:1]. The massacring of leaderless men and the driving of defenceless women and children from their homes to their deaths in a river was one thing. Attacking well-organised and alarming-looking warriors from a position of inferiority was something else.

Seeing the hesitation, Caesar ordered the warships, which were faster and more manoeuvrable than the transports, to head out to sea, turn and then, at top speed, head for the beach. From this position, close to, if not actually on, the shore, the crew could bombard the British with arrows, javelins and artillery fire, driving them back. This tactic was very successful, so far as it went. The British took alarm at the strange and disconcerting weapons and drew back from them, and no wonder: the Roman catapulta, a contraption rather like a huge crossbow, could fire bolts the size of javelins up to 500 metres. The troops in the transports still hung back and any advantage that Caesar had gained was in danger of being lost.

Then occurred one of those miracles of valour that has echoed down the centuries to inspire countless fighting men over the generations. It may be apocryphal, but lacking any evidence to the contrary Caesar’s word must be taken. He relates:

“But as the Romans still hesitated, chiefly on account of the depth of the water, the man who carried the eagle of X Legio, after praying to the gods that his action might bring good luck to the legion, cried in a loud voice: `Jump down, comrades, unless you want to surrender our eagle to the enemy. I, at any rate, intend to do my duty to my country and my general!’ With these words he leapt out of the ship and advanced towards the enemy with the eagle in his hands. At this the soldiers, exhorting each other not to submit to such disgrace, jumped with one accord from the ship and the men from the next ships, when they saw them, followed them and advanced against the enemy.” [Caesar DBG: 5:1].

Such a powerful example could not be gainsaid. The standards of the units of the Roman army, the aquilae of the legions and the signa of the lesser units, were held in reverential awe by the troops to a far greater degree even than the respect given to modern colours by contemporary regiments. In a manner difficult to appreciate in a secular age, the standards were much more than symbols of the units. They were, in a certain sense, the units themselves, the dwelling places of the genii of the century, cohort or legion. They were holy icons, the very personifications of individual units [Henig 1984: p90], the means whereby the power and goodwill of the gods was made visible [Ibid: p90] and their loss was a disaster and shame of the greatest magnitude. The men who bore and were responsible for these standards, the signiferes and aquiliferes, were more than mere colour sergeants as the words have sometimes been translated, and their importance to the unit was far greater than that of their mundane function of relaying commands. The workings of the military version of Roman religion are not well understood but it is most likely that these men were central to the observances in some priestly manner. Refusal to defend the standard and standard-bearer would be more than simple dereliction of duty: the legionaries would have been guilty of sacrilege if they had not followed the sacred standard to shore [Ibid: p90].

Fighting then began in earnest, both sides desperate. The British sought to hold their obvious advantages and destroy the Romans while the latter were still unsteady on their feet and in deep water. The Romans in their turn fought doggedly to make the shore and assemble into their invincible formations. The tide ran red at Walmer Beach, and the Romans were losing the superb co-ordination that was their main strength in battle. The troops could scarcely keep their feet in the swirling waters, let alone rally to their formations. Men tumbled from their different ships, following whatever standard was handiest, and confusion was growing. Small groups struggled to shore to be promptly surrounded by numerically superior groups of Britons and cut to pieces. The British cavalrymen, taking every advantage of their familiarity with the ground and of their excellent horsemanship, dashed back and forth, cutting off bands of stragglers.

The Roman attack was faltering, with no line of retreat. And if the British were startled by the Roman engines of warfare, they had their own brand of “secret weapon” with which to dismay the enemy. The legions were faced with a new and demoralising menace, one extensively used by past generations but now long since obsolete on the Continent in favour of cavalry. They had certainly heard of such things but had no experience of them: war chariots.

The British chariots were light two-wheeled and sometimes four wheeled fighting platforms of excellent design and superb craftsmanship. Constructed of wickerwork with metal fittings, the vehicle was fitted with a shaft to which horses were harnessed Despite popular myth, there is no evidence, archaeological or literary, for the belief that the British used hub knives on their chariots. Caesar goes to some pains to describe the vehicles: they were obviously important to him and he would surely have made some mention of the fact if indeed they were so equipped. His description indicates that they were used as the ancient equivalent of an armoured personnel carrier rather than as a battle tank. They were for the delivery of fighting men to a certain point, not weapons in their own right. Furthermore, the fragments of several examples of British war chariots have been exhumed and none so far have been so adorned. The common – and fallacious – conception that British chariots were armed with knives goes back a very long way, and appears to owe its origin to the first century historian Pomponius Mela: “The Britons engage in combat not only on horseback and on foot, but also with two-horse chariots —- with scythed axles” (De Chorographica, iii:6:52.) He was probably getting confused with Parthian chariots which were, indeed, so armed. The present misconception has been set in the public imagination thanks to the artistic flourishes of 19th century illustrators and the monumental statue of “Boadicea” in her lumbering battlewagon on the Thames embankment.

The British tribesmen were expert in the handling of these devastating machines and Caesar’s description is succinct and vivid:

“ In chariot fighting the Britons begin by driving all over the field, hurling javelins, and generally the terror inspired by the horses and the noise of the wheels are sufficient to throw their opponents ranks into disorder. Then, after making their way between the squadrons of their own cavalry, they jump down from the chariots and engage on foot. In the meantime their charioteers retire a short distance from the battle and place the chariots in such a position that their masters, if hard pressed by numbers, have an easy means of retreat to their own lines. Thus they combine the mobility of cavalry with the staying power of infantry: and by daily training and practice they attain such proficiency that even on a steep incline they are able to control the horses at full gallop, and to check and turn them in a moment. They can run along the pole, stand on the yoke, and get back into the chariot as quick as lightning” [Caesar DBG: 5:1].

Then Caesar had an inspiration. Troops were loaded into the ships’ pinnaces and rowed to whatever point at which those who had gained the shore were pinned down. A personal anecdote from this point has survived in brief references by the historians Valerius Maximus and Eutropius:

A certain Caesius Scaeva and four other men, being in one of the pinnaces, jumped onto a rock jutting out of the water and hurled their javelins at the enemy. The water flowed away, however, leaving them in reach of the British, who promptly rushed them. Scaeva’s mates immediately took to the boat again, but he stood his ground, killing several of his assailants and receiving a severe thigh wound and facial injuries in return. His shield being shattered, he swam back to his comrades. Presumably they brought him back to Caesar’s flagship, for he was shortly confronted by the general. Scaeva begged forgiveness for returning without his shield, a disgraceful act under normal circumstances, but Caesar praised him and promoted him to centurion. The rocks mentioned above may be a clue to the landing place. A group of rocks known as the Malms can still be seen at low water during the spring tides at Walmer Beach. No such rocks are to be found at any other suggested landing site [Ellis 1978: p94].

            Sadly for the historicity of an otherwise stirring tale, Valerius maximus seems to have conflated three incidents recorded by Plutarch in his Life of Caesar (Plutarch: Lives: Caesar 16). In this paragraph, Plutarch was describing Caesar’s extraordinary ability to command extreme loyalty and prodigies of valour from his men and cites several instances where this was manifest. In the first, a certain Arrius had his right hand, complete with sword, cut off while boarding an enemy vessel during an (unspecified) naval engagement off the coast of Massilia Undeterred, he battered his opponents with his shield, driving them back and taking possession of the ship. The second incident concerns on Caesius Scaeva, who fought under Caesar’s command at the battle of Dyrrhachium. With one eye shot out by an arrow, javelins through shoulder and thigh, and his shield studded with no less than 130 assorted darts and arrows (God knows how he managed to hold it up), he was nevertheless able to cut down two enemy soldiers who approached him and managed, with the help of his comrades, to make good his escape. The third anecdote gives neither names nor specific places but it is said to have happened in Britain and is worth quoting in full:

   Then there was the occasion in Britain when some of the leading centurions had got themselves into a marshy place with water all around and were being set upon by the enemy. An ordinary soldier, while Caesar himself was watching the fighting, rushed into the thick of it and, after showing the utmost daring and gallantry, drove the natives off and rescued the centurions. Finally, with great difficulty, he made his way back after all the rest, plunged into the muddy stream, and, without his shield, sometimes swimming and sometimes wading, just managed to get across. Caesar and those with him were full of admiration for the man and shouted out to him in joy as they came to meet him: but the soldier was thoroughly dejected and, with tears in his eyes, fell at Caesar’s feet, and asked to be forgiven for having let go his shield.” (Plutarch: Lives: Caesar 16).

            Unfortunately, Plutarch gives no details of time or place – the incident could have occurred during any one of numerous engagements during his two expeditions – depriving posterity of what would otherwise have become an illuminating personal detail of Caesar’s career and of his campaigns in Britain.

The tactic of the pinnaces and the newly fired zeal of the troops paid their dividend. The British infantry arrived to find that the invaders had already established their beachhead. Once the legions were ashore on firm ground they were more than a match for the massed but ill-disciplined British. Roman officers could marshal their men and move whole centuries about the field in response to trumpet calls, whereas the British commanders, once the fray had begun, had little or no control over their high-spirited, heroic warriors. The Romans held their beachhead, rallied and drove the British back. Lacking cavalry – the ships carrying the mounted regiments had not appeared – they were unable to pursue their fleeing enemy to any distance, and British casualties were relatively light [Dio: xxxix:51]. Thus the battle was at the best inconclusive and not the resounding massacre that would have been to Caesar’s taste.

Nevertheless, the British were in retreat. It was now about 1900 hours on the evening of August the 25th, 55 BCE. The first recorded use of landing craft at a large-scale contested seaborne assault in Western European history was an unequivocable success. For the first time ever, a Continental army of invasion had secured a beachhead on British soil.


02:01:05. A Reconnaissance in Force.

The British rallied and conferred. Reports from across the Channel would have made them painfully aware of the devastation that invariably followed a Roman victory over an intransigent opponent: massacre, pillage, enslavement and widespread destruction. The economic and material damage that two rampaging legions could cause in their own densely populated and wealthy countryside did not bear thinking about. Political damage control would have to be carried out, and quickly.

Later, presumably the next morning, a delegation of leading men approached Caesar and sued for peace, undertaking the normal procedures of submission by promising hostages and giving oaths of obedience. The ambassadors were senior men of the Morini [Dio xxxix:51], a tribe of divided loyalties, it seems. Although the Continental Morini had submitted to Caesar shortly before, they now appeared as allies of the British and comrades-in-arms of the defenders of Cantium. It seems to have been felt, with the strange illogic of diplomacy, that they were friends both of the Romans and British, however, and the best candidates for peace brokers. With them, somewhat shamefaced, came Commios of the Atrebates, whom Caesar had sent as ambassador to the British. It may well have been a rather awkward meeting for the Atrebatean king: Caesar was not one to show compassion to those who failed or betrayed him.

Commios explained that as soon as his embassy had become known, the British had seized him and held him prisoner, which might have been true. And then again, Commios might have been lying. Had he been waiting to see what the outcome of the battle might have been and then acted as the occasion dictated? Was the tale of arrest and imprisonment a pre-meditated alibi in case the battle went against the British? What actually passed between him and the British chiefs before the arrival of the Roman fleet? Did the British Atrebates, his insular subjects, repudiate him and reject his embassy? In the light of subsequent events, the most probable explanation is that Commios got lost on the passage over to Britain. He would have been aiming for his own kindred, the British Atrebates, and their stronghold on Selsey. Instead, misguided, perhaps by Cantian chieftains with second thoughts and who were anxious to get home, he landed in Cantian territory to the east of his own subjects and amongst people who had very strong ideas about people who submitted to Rome, and, more importantly, had no particular reason to love an Atrebate.

The question of Commios’ real motives must remain open.

The chieftains begged Caesar to pardon them for opposing him, saying that their people forced them to resist – a statement that implies a great deal about the powers and popular mandates of Celtic chieftains – and pleading the error of ignorance. Caesar upbraided them for going back on their word after having sent envoys to him on the Continent to sue for peace, but pardoned them anyway and demanded hostages. Some of these were handed over immediately, some would have to be fetched from a distance. Does this imply that Caesar named names and asked for specific hostages? Was he simply after people of high rank, the sons and daughters of chieftains and leading citizens as was usual, or did he perhaps name individuals? Just how good was his intelligence? His geographical and topological knowledge, quite obviously, was somewhat vague, but his political information could have been quite comprehensive.

All this would seem to indicate a very complex political climate then existing in southern Britain and the possibility of a substantial pro-Roman element. Very little can be known with certainty, but it seems likely that a considerable group would not have been averse to living in alliance with Rome. On the other hand, there would also have been a patriotic group. In the light of the military situation, these latter would have been forced to the negotiating table, but the talks seem to have been spun out for about four days. It is possible that they viewed the discussions as no more than another delaying tactic that would give them the time to better asses Roman strength, regroup their own, and send word beyond their territory from whence assistance might perhaps be expected. They would have been watching carefully to see how the situation might be turned to their advantage.

Peace, then, was concluded. The chieftains sent their men back to the fields – it was, after all, harvest time – and chieftains from further afield began to arrive to present their compliments to Caesar and to beg his favour for themselves and their people.

The troops set about building a camp near the beach during the discussions, and on the fourth day after the landing the eighteen transports carrying the cavalry finally appeared on the horizon. Disaster struck at the same time, and Caesar had his first object lesson in a subject that from time immemorial has enjoyed a high priority in British minds: the weather. A sudden and violent storm blew up and the cavalry transports were blown out to sea again, unable to make shore. Some were driven westwards towards an unknown fate. Others – the majority – were close enough to shore to cast anchor but the crashing waves came close to swamping them and they were forced to stand out to sea, returning eventually to the Continent. But worse was occurring on shore. The stormy seas and an unusually high tide combined to give the anchored fleet a ruinous pounding. The beached warships quickly became water-logged, the transports, riding at anchor, were torn from their moorings and crashed onto the rocks and each other. Many were broken into uselessness by the violence of the tempest and the sailors could only stand by and watch, powerless to do anything to halt the destruction.

The legions were thrown into consternation and morale plummeted. They were effectively marooned in a hostile land. Winter was closing in rapidly, they had few provisions and no equipment for a winter campaign. Without cavalry they were unable to foray for any distance, although horses would have been requisitioned, and perhaps were reliant to a large extent on supplies brought in by unwilling and truculent locals. They were surrounded by natives whose friendship was at best expedient and continuing only under fear, with their backs to the sea, no reinforcements to relieve them, no way out. It must be remembered that these soldiers, despite their discipline and courage, were nevertheless young men, mainly ignorant peasants, who had been brought up to believe that the world stopped at the edge of Europe and here they were stuck in a land in the middle of Ocean, a land known only through legend. They were in a very unpleasant position and, despite Caesar’s grandiosity and public confidence, privately he would have been a very worried man that night. Time was running out, autumn was closing in rapidly and the worsening weather would have sent chills down Roman spines, chills that were due only in part to the cold winds. That discipline was maintained is an enduring tribute both to the professionalism of the Roman Army, and to the charisma of Caesar.

In the Roman camp, the British chieftains smiled at each other, rubbed their hands and quietly disappeared into the stormy night. Caesar had no cavalry, no heavy equipment, no provisions, no reinforcements, and now he had no ships. The British had had ample opportunity to assess the size of the expeditionary force and its numerical weakness. They had simply to renew hostilities and drag the war on into the winter and that would be the end of Julius Caesar and his army. The destruction of two whole legions and Rome’s most distinguished general on some mysterious island beyond Ocean would mean that no-one was likely to invade Britain again in the foreseeable future. The British chiefs conferred, renewed pledges of allegiance, summoned their warriors from the fields and went back to sharpening their swords.

With the destruction of his fleet and the sudden disappearance of the chiefs, it did not need the mighty intellect of Caesar to work out what was going on in the minds of the locals, especially when the influx of hostages suddenly ceased. He set his men to work swiftly, preparing for the worst. When the storm finally blew out, foraging parties were sent out to harvest crops and steal supplies from the surrounding villages. Men were set to repairing those ships that could be salvaged, and cannibalising those that could not for spare parts. Obviously some vessels were unharmed, as naval equipment was ordered to be brought from Gaul, and the damage was nothing like as bad as it could have been. Miraculously, of nearly a hundred vessels, only twelve were beyond repair. The rest were made more or less seaworthy.

But trouble was brewing, and it did not take long to come to a head. Bitter experience had told the Cantian chieftains that Caesar could destroy them in open battle if he was allowed to meet them on his own terms and upon ground of his own choosing, Accordingly, a decision was made to concentrate on harassing tactics rather than risk the open battle that could have only one result. The British began to use guerilla tactics, attacking patrols and foraging parties, wearing the invaders down by attrition, the primary objective being to deprive them of supplies and thus to starve them out.

VII Legio was out foraging for supplies. Everything seemed reasonably peaceful and quiet, peasants were toiling in the fields, some even passing backwards and forwards to the camp on whatever business they might have had. Then the sentries at the gate reported a large cloud of dust rising from the direction in which VII Legio had gone. The situation was obvious: the British were attacking. A force of chariots and cavalry had assembled in the woods in an area that has been suggested as lying between Martin Hill and Ringwould [Ellis 1978: p104], from which they now fell upon the foraging legionaries.

Caesar was taken by surprise. He knew that trouble was coming, but he obviously had not foreseen exactly where and when. Nevertheless he acted swiftly. He set off in the direction of the VIIth with the cohorts already on guard duty, which is to say those already armed and ready for battle, ordering two off-duty cohorts to take their places and every other available man to arm and follow as soon as possible. All corn thereabouts had been harvested except for one spot some way away from the camp. The British had guessed, rightly, that the Romans would head for this one place and here they set upon them when the soldiers had put down their arms and were scattered about the fields. The attack was swift and unexpected. Cavalry and chariots descended upon the hapless legion and many were slain in the first onslaught. The rest managed to seize their weapons and make a stand, closely packed and pelted with missiles. The Romans, understandably, were thrown into confusion, and the fearsome chariots added to their terror.

Things were looking decidedly grim for VII Legio when Caesar and the reinforcements arrived in the nick of time. At his approach, the British fell back to regroup and the VIIth rallied somewhat, but Caesar considered the enemy too numerous and the tactical positions too disadvantageous to consider a counter-attack. Not so the British. They promptly attacked the relief column as well and for a while the fighting was furious. Tradition would have it that the leader of the British force was a certain Nennius. The tale is told [Monmouth: HRB iv:3] that Nennius actually fought his way into Caesar’s formation and the signa, the sacred totems of the legion, were in danger of capture. Nennius and Caesar met in face to face combat, in which Caesar’s sword became lodged in Nennius’ shield and was torn from his grasp, but the two were separated by the welter of battle before Nennius could finish off the Roman general. Nennius died two weeks later of his wounds inflicted by Caesar and he was buried with Caesar’s sword, which dramatically was named “Yellow Death” [7].

Caesar was too shrewd a general to try to pursue a hopeless cause. The best he could manage was a more or less orderly retreat back to the safety of the camp, leaving, no doubt, a lot of prisoners, weapons (including his own sword?), and equipment in British hands. More, such corn as had been harvested was now wrested back into the hands of its rightful owners. Caesar neglects to mention the fact, but there would have been heavy casualties. VII Legio was badly mauled.

The above account is drawn from De Bello Gallico. But how accurate is it? Under the pen of Caesar it appears as a major confrontation. Geoffrey of Monmouth transforms it into an incident of high drama complete with all the stock incidents of medieval battle anecdotes. Who is right? Certainly not Geoffrey, and Caesar must be read cum grano salis. Perhaps Cassius Dio placed the matter in a better perspective when, referring to the foraging expedition, he remarks:

“While not attacking the Romans openly, since their camp was strongly guarded, they did seize a number of men sent out as if into friendly territory to forage for provisions, and killed all but a few of them, the remainder being hastily rescued by Caesar” [Dio xxxix:52].

Caesar would have us believe that here was a major engagement, Geoffrey a battle of giants. Dio reduces it to little more than a scuffle between patrols that saw the Romans sent packing. Where does the truth lie? Caesar had an audience to impress, and Geoffrey sought to establish a myth for the benefit of his monarch. Dio had no such axe to grind and it may be that his account is closest to reality.

Several days of bad weather followed and both sides took advantage of the respite to strengthen their positions. The British sent messages far and wide, summoning such assistance as could be had, pointing out the fewness of the numbers of the invaders and the excellent prospects for loot. Moreover, there was the possibility of destroying a Roman army, which would ensure that they would be troubled no more by these intruders. A large force of both horse and foot was thus assembled very quickly. No doubt the Romans spent their time preparing for the battle that they knew was soon to come, and they needed it to be on their own terms. Quite possibly Caesar sent troops out to engage the British, with orders to retreat quickly, thus giving a show of weakness and timidity, a ploy he had used before. Caesar needed to engage battle before his camp, enabling him to deploy his men in formal array, thus giving them every advantage of their superior weaponry, discipline and tactics. The British took the bait.

At last the weather cleared and the British forces came into view. Caesar arranged his cohorts in battle formation outside the camp. He was reinforced by “about thirty horsemen whom Commios had brought across” [Caesar: DBG: 5:1] presumably from Gaul, his own personal guard brought over from the Continent to protect and be companions to their master. Doughty men all, of course, but thirty horseman seems a pitifully small number. To their eternal credit, however, they did not back away when battle called.

The opponents engaged, but the fighting did not last long after the first wild, Celtic charge. As in so many, many pitched battles of Celt versus Roman, the British were overmastered and took to flight, leaving many dead. The Romans pursued as best they could, killing more and setting fire to farms and homes and barns for miles around the  rich and thickly populated Canterbury countryside. But again, Caesar was denied an absolute victory: as at the Battle of Walmer Beach, he was without the cavalry support to mop up the fleeing tribesmen (Commios’ thirty horsemen would have been valuable but hardly decisive), and the British simply vanished back into the woods. The victory was conclusive enough, however, for the local chieftains.

Once more envoys came to Caesar to sue for peace. Although no doubt thoroughly exasperated with these shifty chieftains, Caesar was in no position to impose the crushing demands that he would have liked. Instead he could do little more than demand twice the number of hostages than had been required before and had to leave it at that. Moreover, winter was closing in and he did not dare to await the dilatory manner of their arrival, ordering them instead to be brought to him on the Continent. Thereupon he marched his depleted legions onto their battered transports and set sail for Gaul and winter quarters after a mere three weeks in Britain. Only two tribes ever actually sent hostages over to him, but presumably he indicated that he would be back next spring in much greater force otherwise no hostages at all would have been forthcoming.

What did Caesar achieve by this farce?

Militarily it was a non-event. Superficially he had lost a lot of men, equipment and ships and in return had gained some knowledge of the people and conditions of the Great Island. The whole expedition had been ill-conceived from the first, badly investigated and poorly planned. Military progress had lurched from one crisis to another. The fact that Volusenus had failed to find good harbourage and the fact that the ships carrying the cavalry had gone astray were the unavoidable hazards of war and weather, but otherwise the mistakes had been Caesar’s. He had not been able to act, only react. He had been able to do little more than destroy a lot of buildings and take home a few hostages. Most significantly, Caesar is shown as an arrogant man unwilling to listen to the counsel of his beaten subjects when questioned on their own condition. A conspiracy of silence to deny him information or mislead him is almost certain, but could not have been universal. There were many who welcomed Rome and were prepared to take her side, but Caesar would not listen to advice from men crafty in the ways of the northern seas and the islands that lay in them. How else to explain his appalling ignorance of the weather and the tides? His lack of knowledge of the strategic minerals – gold, silver and lead – in Britain? His inability even to find safe harbourage for his fleet?

His enemies in Rome would have been quick to point out the errors: invading a strange and logistically difficult country: the lateness of the campaign: the small number of troops: the lack of supplies and equipment. No doubt they also noted the gamble that had been taken and the narrowness of his escape: had the British been able to co-ordinate themselves a little better, if their leaders had commanded a little more discipline, the expedition would have been a disaster and the history of Europe could have taken a different course. But the critics were silenced and Caesar emerged stronger than ever. The gamble had paid off.

Politically he had achieved a great deal in terms of personal prestige. The renewal of his imperium in Gaul, with all the power that that implied, had been fully vindicated. Significantly, there was no mention of the illegality of Caesar acting outside his mandate. Further, he had learned a great deal from the experience. He had met chariots and knew how to combat them, he had a much better idea of the lie of the land, and knew of better landing places. He had seen for himself that the Belgic south was rich indeed and agriculturally productive. Productive enough to feed a large force, rich enough to justify annexation.

But perhaps most significant to the people of Rome was his feat in taking a large force over Ocean, the very edge of the world. Britain, after all, should not have been where it was. Some of the best scientific opinion of the time considered that Ocean was the edge of the mortal world beyond which the vast waters raged on and on into primeval chaos.

“The reported size of the island had appeared incredible and it had become a great matter of controversy among writers and scholars, many of whom asserted that the place did not exist at all and both its name and the reports about it were pure invention” [Plutarch: Lives: Caesar 23].

Britain was not simply a distant land, it was a magical, supernatural place, a bridge between the physical and spiritual worlds. Indeed, later writers seem to have considered the conquest of Ocean as equally or even more important than the conquest of the province itself. Rome was duly impressed with both Caesar’s establishment of a bridgehead across the Rhine and the invasion of Britain, feats pushed hard by his amici in Rome, who played up the remoteness of Britain, the hazards of the Channel, and the audacity of a commander who would dare such a military adventure [Ellis 1978: p110], “carrying the Roman Empire beyond the limits of the known world” [Plutarch: Lives: Caesar 23].

The pro-Caesar faction pressed for recognition, and the Senate duly decreed a supplicatio [Dio: xxxix:53], a public holiday of thanksgiving, of twenty days – more than had been ordained for the conquest of Gaul. It was a hefty boost for the dignitas of the conquering hero, but Caesar was not to rest content with his otherwise abortive expedition. He was not a man to do things by halves and, whatever the plebs might think, his military reputation had been seriously compromised. He knew it, as did many of the most important minds in Rome. He had to salvage his formidable prestige and soon. He spent much of that winter planning a full-scale invasion of Britain for the following spring, and all the signs are that he intended to do a permanent job the second time.


  • Len McCartney  On 28/06/2014 at 07:51

    I am not a student of Roman history. I’m simply barking up my family tree. In the process, I discovered our male lineage yDNA is R1b-M222. According the latest theories by Anatole A. Klyosov and Paul M. Conroy, this originated precisely in the time and place covered by the above “work in progress”, qualified of course by the possibility of an origination on the west Continent, like Armorica or environs. My forte is Social Anthropology not Genetics but I consider the latter the most likely. Being somewhat aware of the antiquity of the Tin Trade but not sufficiently knowledgeable led me to your posted work. I thank you for this and will stay alert for more.
    Len McCartney

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