by Ludwig Dyck
By the summer of 55 bc, 45-year-old Roman proconsul Gaius Julius Caesar was a veteran military campaigner. For the past three years, under his lead, the tramp of hobnailed sandals had resounded across the countryside of Gaul, the westernmost province of the Roman empire. Time and again, Caesar’s iron legions had subdued the warlike Celts and hurled back German intrusions across the Rhine. The victories, as intended, had won Caesar increasing renown in the political arena of Rome, and had also earned him the undying loyalty of his own hardbitten troops. As the current campaign season neared its end, Caesar considered Gaul sufficiently subjugated to allow him to cross the 30-mile-wide stretch of open water known as Oceanus Brittanicus for his next great adventure: the invasion of mysterious, fog-enshrouded Britannia. Caesar intended to punish the Briton tribes for aiding their Gallic kinsmen in the past and—not incidentally—to win himself even more martial glory.
With little time left before the onset of cold weather, Caesar decided to limit the new expedition to a reconnaissance force. Even this comparatively modest enterprise was fraught with danger, beginning with the fact that neither Caesar nor any of his subordinates knew anything about the island they were preparing to invade. The Britons, it was rumored, followed a strange pagan religion, known as druidism, whose rites included human sacrifice. They controlled vast riches of gold, silver, pearls and tin, raised large herds of cattle and traded cannily with their neighbors across the water. Beyond that, the Gauls could tell the Romans very little. As Caesar remembered in his Commentaries, “The Gauls knew next to nothing. No one as a rule goes to Brittania except traders, and these traders are themselves acquainted only with the sea coast and coastal regions opposite Gaul. So, though I made enquiries of all the traders I could find, I could get no information.”
The Maritime Tribes of Britannia
At the time, Britannia’s maritime tribes consisted of the people known as the Belgae. A Celtic culture with Germanic ancestry, the Belgae had migrated to the island from the European mainland towards the end of the second century bc. Like the Gauls, the maritime tribes were primarily an agricultural and cattle-rearing society. They brought with them town-sized settlements ruled by wealthy chiefs who patronized skilled metal smiths and potters. Caesar had fought the Belgaes’ continental brothers two years earlier in northeastern Gaul, and although he had forced them to submit, he had taken away a healthy respect for their courage—he called them “the bravest of the Gauls.”
In contrast, he knew nothing about the tribes north of the River Thames in the interior of Brittania. They were of older Celtic stock, their ancestors having arrived on the island sometime after 900 bc, long before the Belgae. According to Caesar, the northern tribes were more primitive, subsisting primarily on meat and milk.
Peculiar customs among the Britons included the sharing of wives between male family members and an unaccountable disdain for the meat of hare, fowl and goose, which instead were kept as pets. Such finely tuned dining distinctions struck the more practical-minded Romans as odd.
Gaius Volusenus Begins a Scouting Expedition
Wanting to find out more about his prospective enemies, Caesar dispatched one of his officers, Gaius Volusenus, on a scouting expedition. Volusenus explored the British coastline for suitable landing sites, but was too timid to go ashore himself. Meanwhile, at Portus Itius, Caesar reassembled the fleet he had used a year earlier in the naval battles against the maritime tribes of Aremorica. Portus Itius was in the territory of the Morini, a continental Belgae tribe. From there, the journey across the channel to Brittania was the shortest. Fortunately for Caesar, several Morini cantons, which earlier had defied Roman annexation, had had a change of heart and offered hostages as a sign of submission.
More good news came with the arrival of Briton tribal envoys. Having heard of Caesar’s aggressive intentions through friendly sea traders, they offered hostages as well. Caesar in turn made them promises of goodwill.
Completely Uncharted Waters
On the eve of their return to Britannia, Caesar asked Commius, one of the continental Belgae kings, to accompany the Briton envoys and spread the word of proferred Roman friendship. Commius, who owned his leadership of the Atrabetes tribe to Caesar’s largesse, supposedly enjoyed the Britons’ respect. He was instructed “to visit as many of the tribes as possible, to persuade them to place themselves under the protection of Rome, and to announce that Caesar himself would shortly be arriving.” Commius, however, was sailing into trouble, for the show of Briton goodwill soon would prove to be an illusion. Once ashore in Britannia, he and his 30-man advance troupe were thrown unceremoniously into fetters.
At midnight on August 25, 80 Roman transports carrying Caesar and his Seventh and Tenth legions, escorted by a flotilla of war ships, sailed off into darkness for the mysterious shores of Britannia. Nine hours later, the Roman fleet beheld the white cliffs of Dover towering far above the narrow shoreline below. Not one of the legionaries on board knew anything about the land they were about to invade. Indeed, some Roman scholars had speculated that the isle was simply a figment of the imagination. But the cliffs at Dover were real, as were the rows of seething Britons gathered atop the cliffs to welcome them—not with open arms but with volleys of stones and javelins.
“An Extremely Bad Place for a Landing”
Caesar, expecting a friendlier greeting, gathered his legates, tribunes, centurions and other major commanders for a consilium, or war council, on his ship. He listened carefully to their opinions and warned them of the inherent dangers of a naval operation. Scanning the high cliffs that frowned over the narrow beach at Dover, Caesar decided against a landing there. “It seemed to me,” he said later, “an extremely bad place for a landing.” Based on the sketchy information gathered by Volusenus, he hugged the coastline for another eight miles until the cliffs gave way to open shores at Deal. There, the Romans warily prepared to disembark.
The Britons, however, would not be avoided so easily. Their cavalry and charioteers, with infantry in their wake, shadowed Caesar’s fleet every step of the way. With the Britons milling about on the beach, the great Roman ships dropped their anchors. Centurions shouted orders, their aides, called optiones, gestured with their staffs, circular horns blared and legionaries leapt into the silty water.
Burdened by Heavy Arms and Rip Currents
Burdened by their heavy arms and pounded by waves and treacherous rip currents, the legionaries were barely able to keep themselves upright. Meanwhile, the Britons rained down javelins and stones. Exhausted, many wounded Romans drowned in waist-deep water, the blood of their limp bodies clouding the bay. Briton cavalrymen spurred their steeds through the water, throwing salty spray into the legionaries’ eyes. To the Romans, dazed by fear, surprise and exhaustion, the Britons appeared as horrifying apparitions, long wild hair and mustaches blowing in the breeze, bodies completely shaved and dyed a startling color of blue. Instinctively, the legionaries raised their shields to block the savage spear thrusts and swords swinging down at them. But the strain proved too much even for Caesar’s veteran campaigners. Unable to press forward, their characteristic resolve began to waver.
This article is from the April 2005 issue of Military Heritage Magazine. If you would like to read the rest of this and other articles, visit our order page to see which digital editions we have on offer.