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Caesar’s FirstInvasion of Britain

Bijan Omrani,June 2012

(A sample chapter from a work inprogress)


Caesar’s campaign was now in its fourth year. His successesin Gaul had given him the name of a great general. Yet, his invasion of Britainwould propel him into the sphere of legend.

The islands of Britain held aperennial mystique for the Romans and Greeks. For them, the centre ofcivilisation lay around the warmth of the Mediterranean. Britain was at thevery edge of the map, the boundary post of the known and unknown world. Poetsand writers, even after Caesar’s time, spoke of it in the same breath as Indiaor China. British warriors, painted in woad, were portrayed side-by-side withthe tribes of the Ganges and the barbarians of far Asia. The sight of Britonsin the slave markets of Rome never failed to call forth wonder. The merestyouths towered “as much as half a foot above the tallest people in the city,”reported one writer in the reign of Augustus, “although they were bandy-legged”and “of looser build”.

The land was rumoured to harbourgreat wealth. Geographers held it was a source of gold and silver, iron andpearls. The very names by which the British archipelago was first known – the Cassiteridesand Prettankia – are both thought to be cognate with Greek and Celtic words fortin. Although traders made frequent visits to the southernmost parts of theterritory, definite knowledge about it was in short supply. Exotic rumoursabounded in its place. Writers spoke of Celtic warriors driving chariots, asonce was the case centuries beforehand in Persia. The Britons, they thought,lived in conditions of primitive barbarism. One of the British islands, named“Ierne”, possessed the most savage inhabitants. According to the best accountsthe ancient scholars could find, they were “man-eaters as well as heavy eaters”and counted it honourable to have intercourse “not only with other women, butalso their mothers and sisters.”

The ancient scholars could noteven agree on Britain’s size, location and shape. Some held that it was thesouthernmost part of a new continent. Others doubted its very existence. In 330BC, a Greek explorer, Pytheas, claimed that he had made a journey by sea as faras northern Scotland and the coasts of Iceland. Other geographers, reading hisexperiences written up in the form of a guidebook, lambasted him for lying.Such places, they held, were beyond the pale of reality. These lands belongedto the world of legend.

Caesar presents a single reasonfor wanting to invade Britain. “In nearly all the Gallic campaigns,” he writes,“help had been supplied to our enemies from there.” The historian Suetoniuscynically differs. Caesar’s love of pearls, he claims, goaded him to attack.Yet, it is difficult to accept either of these as his motivation. Everythingsuggests the lure of Britain’s mystery and the desire to accomplish a greatproject were the real spurs to action. It was 55 BC. Caesar had just returnedfrom crossing the Rhine, one of Europe’s other most formidable boundaries.Although this in itself was a worthy achievement, he had been able to donothing lasting on the other side. He likely felt the urge to make up for thisdisappointment as soon as he could. When, after this, he marched back to northernGaul and the Pas-de-Calais, he was entering an area which was still hostile tohim and unsubdued. The Gallic tribe in the area, the Morini, had withstood anattempt from Caesar the previous summer to bring them to obedience. The mostimmediate priority should have been to make the area secure before moving on tosomething new. Besides this, it was now late in the summer, and the campaigningseason was drawing to a close. If Caesar were to cross the Channel, there wouldbe very little he could reasonably achieve in the short time available. Inspite of all this, he was still determined to make the attempt. He was seizedby the longing for grand success. Intoxicated thus, he began to lose a sense ofproportion. Any immediate practicalities, such as securing the land of theMorini, he now condemned as “trifles.”

Caesar admitted that he knewlittle about Britain. However, he turned this weakness round, and made it thevery reason for him to invade so late in the season. Even if, he argued, therewould be little time left for campaigning, it would still be a great benefit tomake an expedition and spy out the people, the territories, and the landingplaces. He summoned the Gallic merchants who were accustomed to making trips tothe island, and tried to find out the basics of the place. However, for everyquestion he asked he was met with blank looks. All claimed ignorance on everypoint: the size of Britain, its tribes, their strength, their laws and ways offighting, and even which harbours would be able to receive a number of largeships. It is little wonder they wished to say nothing. They must have fearedthat conquest by Caesar would lead to competition from Roman merchants. Besidesthis, the chaos of an invasion would have hindered their business. Caesar’s destructionof the Veneti the previous year had caused an exodus of Gauls to the southerncoast of Britain, and the merchants doubtless wanted to avoid this happeningagain.

Thwarted in his hopes ofdiscovering anything useful from the merchants, he had to fall back on his ownresources. He sent one of his most daring military tribunes, Gaius Volusenus,who later would be chosen by Caesar to carry out assassinations of Gallicopponents, to scout out the coast of Britain nearest to Gaul. Volusenus took a warshippropelled by oars and sail, and reconnoitred for five days. He is likely tohave explored the shoreline between Rye in the west and Deal in the east,noting the position of harbours, havens and landing places, the inlandtopography, the nature of the beaches and the depths of the water. However, hedid not attempt to land; his daring did not extend that far. He hit upon Doveras the best place to dock a large military fleet, but surprisingly he did notdiscover the option, a little further beyond Sandwich, of Richborough and theWantsum Channel. Whether he missed it through haste, incompetence or bad luckit is impossible to say.

This is not to mean they were outof luck. Whilst Volusenus was away, the merchants whom Caesar had questionedquickly passed on to the British the news that Caesar was planning an invasion.Others carried over reports that Caesar had ordered a flotilla of vessels toassemble at the PortusItius (modern-day Boulogne). The sight of Volusenus’ warship scouting round the coast would have served as the final confirmation ofthis worrying news. Quickly, a delegation arrived from a number of Britishtribes. Hoping to forestall an attack, they promised to hand over hostages andsubmit to the Roman Empire. This is just what Caesar wanted to hear. It allowedhim to think that he could voyage over to the island for a short time withoutthe encumbrance of a large force, and still achieve his desire. Hence, he wasready to trust their word. At the same time, several of the Morini clans cameto him with a similar message of submission and an offer of hostages. Withtheir surrender, he also need not worry too much about defending his rear orsupply lines. Caesar accepted all of these messages “generously,” in his words.Dismissing the British ambassadors, he sent back with them a Gallic noblemanCommius, in whom his trust was absolute, and whom he had made a king over theAtrebates, one of the tribes in Gaul. Commius was to do the rounds of theBritish tribes, encouraging them to seek the protection of Rome, and announcingthat Caesar himself would soon visit.

Caesar was as good as his word.Before long, he had amassed eighty transport ships at Boulogne. This was justenough to carry two legions, perhaps a little over 10,000 men. However, they hadto be packed in tightly. There would have been up to 150 fighting troops ineach ship, which were unlikely to have been much more than 20 meters in length.Heavy equipment had to be left behind, and rations were kept to an absoluteminimum. Caesar was going to rely on acquiring supplies from Britain itself.

He embarked his two favouritelegions, the 10th, which had been the most steadfast throughout histime in Gaul, and the 7th, which had recently won glory fighting theNervii. He had also collected a squadron of warships: fast, long manoeuvrablevessels perhaps with double ranks of oars, on whose decks catapults weremounted, protected by turrets. These ships he shared out amongst his seniorofficers, and filled with auxiliary troops: slingers from the Balearic Isles,and archers from Numidia and Crete. There was, however, a problem. He had nospace for his cavalry. 18 other transport vessels, which would have providedthem room, were held by contrary winds in the harbour of Ambleteuse six milesup the coast. Caesar was too impatient to wait for them. It was already the 25thof August, and the campaigning season was drawing to a close. A little aftermidnight, when the moon had set, the conditions were favourable for departure.The wind was fair and from the right quarter, and a gentle ebb tide would notprevent them from making speed to sea. He ordered the 300 cavalry to rush upthe coast to Ambleteuse, embark on the transport ships there, and follow him assoon as possible. He then gave the rest of the expedition the order to set sailat once.

As the armada sailed pastAmbleteuse, it became clear that the cavalry had not yet put to sea. A contrarywind might have been keeping them in port, or they might have been tardy toembark. Whatever reason detained them, Caesar was irked by their slowness.Nevertheless, such was his confidence that he decided not to wait. His fleetpressed on towards Dover, where he was planning to disembark, moor his shipssafely in the haven, and then press on inland unopposed. Yet, at around nineo’clock in the morning when the white cliffs finally came into full view, hereceived an unwelcome surprise. Ranged along the top of the rolling cliffs wereBritish warriors waiting in great numbers, looking out to sea and awaiting his arrival.Caesar saw in an instant that his plans were beginning to unravel. There was noway he could bring his large fleet safely into the harbour. The cliffs were sosteep and arranged in such a way that the Britons could easily shower rocks andmissiles on the Romans from a great height as they attempted to come ashore.

Caesar knew immediately that hewould now have to gain a foothold in some other place by force. For this, hiscavalry would be vital, but there was still no sign of them. He now began torepent of his haste. He ordered the fleet to draw back a little, and ride atanchor a couple of miles to sea between the Dover Estuary and South Foreland.There, he would wait for the cavalry transports to arrive. In the meantime, hehad to find some new strategy. He summoned the other senior officers to crossto his ship and passed on new orders. He explained that they would proceed toone of the other spots which Volusenus had identified, and described itslocation. What they were about to attempt had not been fully planned. They wereabout to attack a place they barely knew, and opponents they little understood.Dogged by this thought, Caesar warned his officers sternly. They would face adangerous, fast-changing situation, made more even more difficult by theelement of the sea. The tactics employed could change from moment to moment. Itwas imperative that they kept watch for his every command, and were able torespond to his orders at a instant’s notice.

He waited until four in theafternoon. There was still no sign of the cavalry. A suitable breeze and tidehad now arisen to take the flotilla to where Caesar now wished to land, and theday was drawing on. He could not afford to delay any longer. He gave a signal,the ships weighed anchor, and they began to follow Caesar northeast aroundSouth Foreland. For perhaps just over an hour they sailed in a line for aboutseven miles northeast, coming to a point where the Dover cliffs sank gentlydown to sea, and a long shingle beach lay in front of a low and flat expanse ofgreen fields. This was the coastline between Walmer and Deal. Caesar orderedthe troopships to run aground on the beach, and his men to jump down and maketheir way to shore.

This was no easy operation. TheBritons had kept watch of the flotilla’s every movement from on land, and assoon as they had seen where he was going, they first rushed their own cavalryand chariots – which they did indeed still use – to the shoreline at Deal,quickly followed by the other warriors on foot. There they stood, waiting forthe Romans to disembark. They were armed with swords and spears, slings andlong shields. Yet their appearance was more striking than their weaponry. Theywere daubed in blue war-paint and adorned with gold torques. Add to this theirlong hair flowing over their shoulders and untrimmed moustaches, they possessedfor the Romans an unnerving and even terrifying appearance. But just asformidable as the enemy was the disembarkation. Caesar’s haste and his lack ofpreparation were now beginning to tell more and more grievously. The transportships were of a large draft, and they could not run aground close in to thebeach. They were also relatively high-sided, which meant that the Romansoldiers would have to leap in disorder from a great height into the waves anddeep water, encumbered by their heavy equipment and fighting gear. The Britons,by contrast, were unencumbered, knew the shallows off the coast, and could hurlmissiles at the Romans in the water, or else ride their horses a little wayinto the water to attack them.

Caesar saw that his troops werefrightened, and wholly inexperienced to deal with such a situation.  To helpthem, he hit upon a new tactic. He ordered the warships to form up on the rightflank of the Britons, and to row towards them at speed, showering the enemyfrom their decks with the catapults and other weapons. The Britons were asfrightened by the unaccustomed sight of Roman warships and the motion of theiroars as by the shower of artillery from their decks. They drew back, allowingthe Romans a little space. At this point, the standard bearer of the 10thlegion took his chance. Whilst the other troops still hung back, he clamberedto the side of the boat, made a prayer that his action would bless the legion,and then shouted out to the other men: “Jump out, men, if you don’t want tobetray your standard to the enemy! At least I’m doing my duty to the republicand my general.” With this, he leapt from the boat into the water. The othersoldiers in his boat, who would not risk the disgrace of their standard beingcaptured, jumped in together at a rush, and along the line, as others saw thecharge, followed the example as one.

The fighting in the shallows wasbitter. In the chaos of the sea it was difficult for the Romans to keep rank –one of the secrets of their usual success. As they pushed forward towards thebeach, each soldier flocked as best they could to the nearest standard. It waseasy for the Britons, however, to outflank them in the disorder, attacking individualgroups as they got into difficulties in the water or tried to leap down fromthe boats. Hand-to-hand fights broke out in the midst of the waves. TheBritons, with the advantage of cavalry, pressed hard on the isolated groups,riding their horses into the sea. To retaliate, Caesar ordered thescout-vessels and warships to ride as close as possible to the beleaguereddetachments, and help them to beat back the British attack. With theirassistance, the Romans were able to force their way on to dry land. There, aswave after wave of men were able to reach the shore, they formed into theiraccustomed lines, and now facing the Britons on level terms, the Romans wereable to put them to flight. Yet, even in the moment of victory, Caesar’s hasteand lack of preparation still told on them. Without the support of Romancavalry, Caesar was unable to pursue the fleeing Britons, and turn a simplevictory into a crushing success.

It was now late into the evening.The soldiers, who by this time would no doubt have been exhausted, still hadmore to do. They left the transport ships at anchor, hauled the warships up onto the shore, and then set about digging to fortify a camp. Shortly afterwards,perhaps the next day, the local British tribes sent ambassadors to treat forpeace. They brought with them Commius, Caesar’s deputy who had been sentearlier to announce his coming. Caesar was surprised to find that he had beenarrested on his arrival in Britain and put in chains, but now, after the Romanvictory, released. Caesar complained about the behaviour of the Britons. He wasindignant that they had promised to submit before he set sail, but then opposedhis landing. He was also no less angry that they had treated his ambassadorCommius in such a way. In the face of Caesar’s vehemence, the Britishtemporized. They begged for Caesar’s apology. The leaders of the Kentish tribesin no way intended to imprison an ambassador or attack the forces of Caesar. Itwas the ordinary people who had got out of control.

Caesar agreed to pardon their“shamelessness” as he put it, but aside from forgiveness and demandinghostages, there was little else he could do. He was short of supplies, andwithout cavalry, his forces remained quite immobile. The Romans might be ableto defend themselves in their camp by the shoreline, but wide-scale campaigningor even reconnaissance – the excuse Caesar used to justify the expedition – wasout of the question until they arrived. Massacring the tribes for ill-treatmentof an ambassador, just as Caesar had done with the Veneti, would be animpossibility in the circumstances. For the time being, he needed to keep thepeace.

The cavalry made their appearanceon the fourth day after Caesar’s arrival. However, it was no more than anappearance. A number of British chiefs had now made their way into the Romancamp to pledge allegiance to Caesar. Whilst they were there, the cavalrytransports were sighted approaching the camp. They had been carried on a gentlebreeze, but just as they were coming into view the weather worsened suddenly. Astorm arose, probably blowing from the north east. Some of the ships were blownback towards Ambleteuse. Others were blown southwest down the coast. Theyattempted to hold themselves at anchor overnight, but in the conditions theybecame waterlogged, and were also forced to make for their port of departure.

Caesar later boasted that not oneof the cavalry ships had been lost. Yet this was to distract from hispredicament which was even worse than before. There was now no prospect of thecavalry arriving at all. Besides this, the weather also delivered a much worseblow to the Romans who were on land. It was now around the 30th, anda full moon behind the storm clouds worked with the gales to produce anextremely high tide. The warships which Caesar had hauled on to land werefilled with water. Even worse, the transports which he had left at anchor offthe coast were dashed together in the wind. Several were smashed to pieces.Others, losing cordage, anchors and rigging, became unusable.

Caesar protests in his accountthat the Romans were unacquainted with the connection between the moon and thetides. Yet, given that he had waged a naval campaign against the Veneti theprevious year, this is hardly credible. The disaster again points to Caesar’shaste to build a camp, rather than making sure that his supply lines andtransport were secure by securing his boats properly against the impendingtide. The fact that they landed at such a difficult location also pointed tocarelessness. Had Caesar given more time to intelligence gathering, he wouldhave found a little further up the coast at Richborough and the WantsumChannel, a perfect harbourage for a large fleet, safe from the ravages of anystorm. The results of his lack of forethought plunged his troops into despair.Their rations were now very low. They did not possess the necessary materialsfor repairing the ships, and they did not have any means of escaping fromBritain if this became necessary. By the same token, the British took couragefrom the Romans’ misfortune. They had seen not only that the cavalry would notcome, but also the comparative smallness of the Roman force, and also itsvulnerability. The British chiefs discretely withdrew from the Roman camp  afew at a time, and began to regroup their followers. They thought that nowwould be the perfect moment to deliver a crushing blow to Caesar. If they couldjust strike him hard enough at that point, they thought, then no-one would everagain dare to attack their land.

Caesar devoted his attention tothe main problems of survival and escape. His energy, speed, and sense ofpurpose now served the benefit of his soldiers as much as these qualities up tonow had caused them loss. Although the situation was fraught with tension, herallied his men and quickly immersed them in work. Some were formed intodetachments to forage ripe grain from the fields. Others began to cannibalisethe broken vessels for timber and bronze to repair other ships that might besaved. A fast boat was sent to the continent to order ship-making gear to bebrought over. The men carried out the work with zeal. Food was brought into thecamp every day. As for the boats, although 12 been lost, the troops by hardtoil were able to rescue the rest.

After a short spell, the anxietyamongst the Romans began to ease. They were buoyed by the presence of thirtyhorsemen who had been retainers to Commius on his original journey. These werenow amongst the Roman entourage. The nearby country appeared to be calm. TheBritons continued to work in the fields as if nothing had happened, and wouldeven peaceably visit the camp. The full number of hostages that the British hadpromised earlier still had not been brought in, but little regard was paid tothe problem. If anything was afoot, it was thought, it would not go so far asopen warfare.

Gradually, the Romans droppedtheir guard. The foraging parties ceased to scout ahead and check that areaswere free from danger and safe to reap. They were careless about keepingdetachments on watch whilst gathering the nearby corn, and they harvested withtheir weapons laid by. Day after day, the fields of corn around the camp weredepleted, and after a time, the crops remained uncut in just one districtsurrounded by woods, some way off from the coast. Here, one morning, theseventh legion was ordered to collect grain as normal. The day seemed quiet,until one of the sentries in the camp noticed considerable clouds of dustrising in the quarter where the seventh legion had gone. Immediately fearful,Caesar collected as many of the cohorts as he could muster, and marchedstraight there. Soon, he discovered his men caught in a classic guerrillaambush. The Britons had guessed that the Romans would come to reap at this lastremaining field of corn. For the most part encircled by woods, it made theperfect venue for a trap. The Britons lay hid overnight amongst the trees, andwhen the legionaries had laid aside their weapons and dispersed amongst thecrops, they swept down on the Romans unawares. The fabled chariots, which theRomans had scarcely encountered at the landing, were now brought fully intoaction. Caesar now had an opportunity of experiencing at first-hand thedevastation they could wreak amongst men who were disorderedand unprepared. Hisdescription suggests even a hint of admiration. First to be heard was the noiseof the wheels screeching and clattering over the ground. This was enough, itseems, to shock the Romans into confusion. Then, first appearing on the battlefield,they would rush in every direction, the warriors filling the air with spearsand missiles. They weaved around obstacles, dropped off the fighters exactlywhere they were needed on the battlefield, and then scooped them up the momentthey were hard-pressed or required elsewhere. 

Caesar had arrived in just thenick of time. Several of his men lay dead, and the rest had huddled together inturmoil, unable to form ranks and fight with discipline. The British werepressing on them hard and showering them with projectiles, and had he been anylater the ambush would have turned into a massacre. The enemy were surprised byhis arrival, and withdrew a little way. The men took heart, but Caesar knewthis was not the moment to make a stand. Holding back the British, Caesar madespace for the Seventh Legion to regroup, and in the end he led them safely backto the camp.

For a change, the weather gaverespite to the Romans. As soon as they returned, the heavens opened. Severaldays of persistent storms held them in camp and eliminated the prospect of anenemy attack. The muddy ground made the use of chariots for the time beingimpossible. Nevertheless, the British used the gap in the fighting to theirfull advantage. Messengers went from tribe to tribe proclaiming that now wastheir chance to drive away the invader. Perpetual freedom was there for thetaking, not to mention as much loot as they desired to plunder. Roused by thisprospect, a grand host of infantry and cavalrymen began to mass and, under thecover of the bad weather, make their way towards the vicinity of the camp.

Caesar was now in a thoroughlyunappealing situation. His supplies were again running low. There was noprospect that he could winter in Britain. The autumn equinox was fast drawingon with its worsening weather, and the Romans would need to return to thecontinent soon. However, like his earlier trip across the Rhine, aside from thedaring of having made the journey, there was little to show for his endeavour.Even the prospect of escape, with a new wave of British fighters bearing downon the camp, was in the balance. Despite this uncertainty, Caesar had to forcethe issue. If they stayed any longer, they might well be marooned and cut off.Action was the only possibility. As the rains subsided, the British hostassembled before the camp, and Caesar likewise drew up his legions in battleformation before its ramparts.

The circumstances around thebattle appear to have favoured the Romans. Theirs was now the defenders’advantage. They had time to get themselves in ordered ranks and preparethemselves for combat. Behind them was the sure redoubt of their camp if anyescape were necessary. It is also likely that the British chariots were stillout of action on account of the sodden ground. However, it appears to have beenCommius’ 30 horsemen who made all the difference in this final encounter. TheBritish attack was fast and disorganised, no match for the discipline of theRoman lines. Fighting not as guerrillas but on equal terms, the Romans couldnot be held back. Unable to withstand the ferocity of the Roman counter-attack,the Britons turned their back and fled. Their enthusiasm turned to panic anddespair. At this moment the 30 horsemen were pressed into service, chasingafter the retreating warriors and massacring as many as they could. Havingscented blood, the Roman infantry joined in with the chase. Exerting themselvesto the utmost, they overtook the mass of British warriors, slaughtering, andthen burning a swathe of small farmsteads and cottages within a radius ofseveral miles.

The shock of the defeat was toomuch for the British. The very same day, a delegation of chiefs presentedthemselves to Caesar and offered to surrender. He was delighted by the speed ofthe submission, so eager was he to return before the winter. Besides, with thisvictory, he would now have room for a face-saving exit. The negotiations werehurried. A spell of fair weather was at hand, and he did not wish to miss it.He accepted their capitulation, and called for double the number of hostages hehad originally commanded. He did not wish to wait for them either. They shouldbe sent, as soon as they had been rounded up, to Roman custody in Gaul. Theagreement was quickly despatched, and a little after midnight the very sameday, the entire expeditionary force was packed in to the diminished fleet, andsailed with the good weather back to the continent.

Even in his return, trouble stilldogged the Romans. All crossed the channel safely, as Caesar boasted, but twotransports were blown off course to land at a hostile spot on the coast amongstthe unpacifiedMorini tribesmen. 300 Romans were surrounded by 6,000 members ofthe Morini, and would have been obliterated had not a detachment of cavalryarrived in time to rescue them. Moreover, of the many British tribes which hadpromised to send hostages, only two fulfilled their pledge. Until they returnedto winter quarters in Belgic territory, the Romans had been facing anunprecedented danger for a scanty and uncertain benefit.

A dispassionate observer woulddecry Caesar’s campaign on many levels. Little had been achieved for an excessof risk and effort. His poor organisation and intelligence gathering, marred byhaste, led him frequently to the brink of disaster. The desire for an iconicachievement had overwhelmed the patience necessary for sure progress. Problems,such as the secure pacification of north-western Gaul had been ignored for thewhimsy of British conquest. Mission creep had distracted Caesar from what wasviable, and led him to chase after the fancies of obsession. Yet, this was notthe reaction in Rome. When his despatches were received and read in the Senate,the adulation was almost universal. An unprecedented twenty days of publicthanksgiving were voted to honour his achievement. Even Cicero, his mostintelligent critic, started to write an adulatory epic on the whole affair,beginning to generate the aura of legend. The immediate outcome of the campaignwas not of particular importance. What mattered was the mere fact Caesar hadreached Britain, and brought the mythical isles into the grasp of the possible.