‘On the 24th October letters came through from my brother Quintus and from Caesar, dated 25th September and sent from the nearest place on the coast of Britain. Britain is subdued, hostages have been handed over, no plunder, but a tribute of money imposed, and they are bringing the army back over from Britain.’ - Cicero, late October 54 BC.1

‘The divine Julius was the first of the Romans to cross to Britain with an army. He cowed the inhabitants by winning a battle and got control of the coast. Yet it is fair to say that he did no more than show the island to his descendants, but did not bequeath it to them.’ - Tacitus, c. AD 98.2

In 56 BC the pace of operations in Gaul had slackened, but now Caesar was determined to regain the momentum of his first two years there. During the winter months he seems finally to have decided that Britain was to be his next target, if he had not in fact already done so. He claimed that this was a necessary task because the tribes of that island had sent military aid to the Gauls fighting against him. There were certainly close trading links between the coastal tribes of northern Gaul and the peoples on the other side of the Channel. In the past there may also have been political connections, but in his account of the defeat of the Veneti and other coastal tribes Caesar makes no mention of large-scale participation by the Britons. However, it was common amongst the tribes of northern Europe for individual warriors to seek employment with the famous chieftains of other tribes, and it may well be that some Britons had fought against Caesar’s legions in this way. Ultimately, the suggestion that the British tribes were a military threat to Rome’s interests in Gaul was no more than a pretext and Britain attracted

Caesar’s attention for other reasons. There were rumours of rich natural resources, which offered the prospect of a lucrative war. Suetonius claims that Caesar’s personal fondness for pearls was an additional incentive, for he believed - falsely as it turned out - that particularly fine examples were to be found on the British coasts. More important than the possibility of riches was the glory that always came to the man who was the first to lead a Roman army into previously unexplored countries. With Britain there was an added glamour because it lay across the sea, on the edge of the vast ocean that was believed to encircle the habitable lands of the globe. No Greek or Roman knew much about Britain and its peoples, and in the absence of facts wild stories of strange creatures and weird customs flourished, resembling in many ways the tales of the New World in the age of European exploration. A success in Britain was bound to grab the attention of Romans of all classes.3


As usual Caesar spent the winter in Cisalpine Gaul, and he was still there when news reached him of a new migration. Two Germanic tribes, the Usipetes and the Tencteri, had left their homes east of the Rhine and crossed the river into Gaul. Caesar claims that 430,000 people were on the move, which on the same proportion as the Helvetii of one warrior to three women, children or other dependants, would give a total force of over 100,000 fighting men. As always we should be very cautious about accepting such a number as meaning anything more precise than that ‘a substantial body of’ people were on the move. Most probably, like the Helvetii, the tribes moved not in a single massive column, but in many parties spread over a wide area. Once again, the cause of the migration was warfare and raiding, but in this case the two tribes were fleeing from the regular depredations of their larger and more powerful neighbours, the Suebi. This broad group of related tribes seems to have formed a loose confederation and was consistently depicted by Caesar as more ferocious - and therefore more dangerous - even than the other Germanic peoples. He claims that the tribes maintained vast numbers of warriors, half of whom were available for war every year. German tribes took pride in the amount of land around their boundaries that they kept free from settlement as a sign of their martial power and as a deterrent to any raiders. The Commentaries repeat a rumour, which Caesar does not bother to confirm or deny, that on one side of their land no other people dared to live within 600 miles of the Suebi. Yet although unable to cope with the onslaught of their larger neighbours, the Usipetes and Tencteri remained warlike people, and were only briefly blocked by the Belgic Menapii, who held the river crossings against them. The Germans pretended to retire, marching eastwards for three days, but then sent their cavalry hastening back under cover of darkness to launch a surprise attack. The Menapii were fooled by the trick and dispersed, so that they were unable to mount any concerted resistance. Their boats were captured and used to ferry the migrants across the river. The two German tribes were able to subsist throughout the rest of the winter on the food they had seized from the Menapii, sheltering in the villages they had overrun.4

Caesar decided to rejoin the army earlier than usual. Before he arrived, the migrants had begun to move again, pushing south into the lands of the Eburones and Condrusi. The ensuing campaign very quickly became a source of controversy, with Caesar’s actions being publicly attacked in the Senate by Cato, who accused him of serious misconduct. Therefore, even more than usual, the account presented in the Commentaries was intended to defend his every move and show that he had behaved reasonably and honourably, as well as with his accustomed calm efficiency. Yet even his sternest critic would have conceded that the arrival of the two German tribes threatened Roman interests. In the last three years Caesar had spread Roman power throughout Gaul. The region was not as yet formally annexed as a province and the tribes continued to govern themselves, but virtually all openly or tacitly acknowledged Rome’s dominance. The Menapii were one of the few exceptions, and had yet to submit and give hostages to Caesar, but the Eburones and Condrusi had almost certainly done so in 57 BC. From the beginning the proconsul had emphasised his readiness to protect allied peoples from any enemy, making clear in each campaign both the advantages offered by alliance with Rome and the terrible punishment awaiting any who opposed its legions.

The migrants introduced a new and unstable element into the balance of power that had been created. There was no unoccupied land in Gaul for them to settle, and they had already demonstrated their willingness to use force against anyone who did not admit them. Individual tribes - or more probably chieftains within them - might choose to welcome the new arrivals, feeling that the numbers and reputation of these warriors would be a great asset to them as allies. Exactly the same motive had led some Gallic leaders to welcome Ariovistus, the Helvetii and Caesar himself. Such a course was now most attractive to those who had not done well since the area had been dominated by the Romans, and especially those recently defeated by the legions. There was the prospect of new rivalries and conflict within and between tribes, made worse by the possibility that the victors may eventually win through Germanic rather than Roman support. When Caesar had expelled Ariovistus from Gaul, he had publicly proclaimed his refusal to admit German tribes across the Rhine. As we have seen he clearly exaggerated the distinction between Gauls and Germans, and continually presented the latter as a potential threat to Rome. Yet if he exaggerated, he did not entirely invent either the differences between the peoples or the menace posed to Roman interests. The Romans had never welcomed the incursions of peoples into the regions around their frontiers.5

When Caesar reached his army in Gaul he received more information about the migrants. Presumably much of this, along with the earlier reports that had reached him south of the Alps, came from his legates left in command of the winter camps. These seem to have taken no direct action against the Germans. In part this was because campaigning was always difficult in the winter months, but more importantly legates were not expected to display too much initiative and it would have been inappropriate for them to have embarked on a major operation on their own. Caesar also received reports from allied tribes. A comment in a subsequent passage of the Commentaries suggests that it was his normal custom to stay in the houses of Gallic noblemen while he was travelling in Gaul. This was a useful way of showing how highly he valued their friendship, for hospitality played an important role in Gallic culture, but it also helped him to gauge their mood and views. As in Rome, many of the great affairs of a Roman magistrate were conducted at a very intimate level. Overall his various sources presented a worrying picture. Already some chieftains and tribes had approached the German migrants seeking alliance and making offers of land in return for their military aid. Caesar summoned the leaders of all the tribes to a council, where he arranged for them to supply the usual contingents of cavalry and grain supplies. He did not feel that it was useful to reveal that he knew some of the chieftains had been dealing with the Germans. If he could quickly defeat the two tribes, then such negotiations would not matter. The Roman army concentrated and marched north.6

When the column was within a few days march of the two German tribes, a deputation came from them. The envoys told of how they had been driven from their homes by the Suebi and asked Caesar to grant them land, or at least let them keep what they were able to seize by force. As usual, his account emphasised the barbarians’ pride, making them declare that they were fully ready to fight if he refused them, since they feared no one apart from the Suebi. The proconsul replied ‘as seemed appropriate’, but made it clear that he would not permit them to settle in Gaul. However, he offered to arrange for them to settle amongst the Ubii, another German tribe who lived on the east bank of the Rhine. They were also under pressure from the Suebi and had recently sent ambassadors to him requesting support. The envoys from the two tribes agreed to take this offer back to their people, and return to Caesar in three days’ time with a decision. In the meantime they asked him to halt his advance. Caesar refused, suspicious that this was merely a ploy to gain time, for he knew that the bulk of the German cavalry was away on a plundering and foraging raid.7

The Romans pressed on, until they were within 12 miles of the main tribal encampment. This had probably taken three days, since Caesar was met by the same deputation returning as arranged. Once again they asked him to stop and wait, but the legions continued to advance. Caesar did grant their plea to send orders forward to his cavalry screen telling them not to engage any Germans they met. If they were attacked then the auxiliary and allied horse were to do no more than defend themselves. In addition, the Germans wanted permission to send envoys to the Ubii so that they could themselves negotiate a settlement. Once again they requested that he grant them three days for this to occur. Caesar remained sceptical of their motives, feeling that this was simply another pretext to gain time for the raiding party to return. This was not unreasonable, for even if the Germans were sincerely hoping for a peaceful settlement it was obviously in their interest to negotiate from a position of greater strength. Equally, if they intended to fight they would want to have these troops, who had spearheaded the attack on the Menapii and doubtless included some of their best warriors. In addition, if the raiders returned with food and forage this would make it easier for the tribes to maintain themselves during days of either negotiating or military manoeuvring.

Caesar made one modest concession, saying that he would only advance 4 miles during the day, moving to a position where his camp would have a convenient water supply. In the meantime fighting had already broken out between the cavalry of the two sides. The Germans had some 800 horsemen still guarding their encampment. Caesar had 5,000 cavalry, although if these were performing their duties as a patrolling and screening force properly, then they would not all have been concentrated in one place. Even so, the Gallic auxiliaries probably had a significant numerical advantage, and were mounted on larger horses than their opponents, which makes it all the more notable that the Germans quickly gained an advantage. In Caesar’s account the Germans charged first, chasing away part of the Gallic cavalry, but were in turn met by their supports. Many of the Germans then dismounted to fight on foot - perhaps with the support of the picked infantrymen who regularly supported the horsemen of some Germanic tribes. The Gauls were routed and fled, spreading panic amongst a large part of the auxiliary and allied cavalry who galloped in terror back to the main force, which was probably several miles away. Caesar maintains that the Germans were the ones to break the truce with an unprovoked attack on his unsuspecting allies. Elsewhere he notes that the Germans did not ride with saddles and, despising horsemen like the Gauls who did so, were inclined to attack them on sight. The truth of what happened will never be known, and may have been unclear even at the time. Both the Gauls and the Germans were individualistic warriors who prized displays of conspicuous valour and skill. It was difficult for their leaders to impose any rigid discipline upon such men, and when large numbers of warriors from different tribes met, then there was always the potential for violence. Taunting could easily escalate into personal duels or massed fighting. Throughout the Gallic campaigns German warriors consistently defeated their Gallic counterparts, each success adding to their fierce reputation. In this case seventy-four of Caesar’s Gallic allies were killed, one of the very rare occasions where he gives a specific figure for his own casualties. Amongst them was an aristocrat from Aquitania called Piso, whose grandfather had been the king of his tribe and was recognised by the Senate as a ‘friend of the Roman people’. Piso turned back during the rout to rescue his brother, but as they escaped he was thrown from his horse, surrounded and cut down. His brother spurred back towards the enemy and was also killed.8

Caesar claims that the skirmish showed that the German tribes were acting treacherously, spinning out peace negotiations until they were strong enough to attack him. This may or may not have been true, but if it was, then provoking a fight at this stage was clearly not in their interest. Worried that rumours of the skirmish might be inflated into a major defeat and encourage unrest amongst the Gallic tribes, Caesar summoned his legates and quaestor and gave orders for an all-out attack on the following day. The next morning, as the legions prepared for battle, a large deputation arrived from the Germans. It included all of their main leaders and chieftains, who wanted to apologise for the fighting on the previous day and explain that they had not intended to break the truce in this way, but were still keen to negotiate. The Commentaries stress the ‘treachery and dissimulation’ of the German leaders, and in a rare moment of emotion say that ‘Caesar rejoiced’ because they had placed themselves into his hands. Forgetting his outrage at the detention of his own officers - and that was the key difference, for they had been Romans and his own men - he arrested the envoys. The legions marched out in three columns, which could readily be converted into the battle line of the triplex acies, and advanced the 8 miles to the German camp. The Usipetes and Tencteri were surprised and leaderless, so that what followed was more of a massacre than a battle:9

When their terror was made clear by the confusion and chaos, our soldiers, enraged by the treachery of the previous day, surged into the camp. There, those who were able to take up arms quickly fought for a while amongst the wagons and baggage: All the rest, a mob of women and children . . . started to run in all directions; Caesar sent his cavalry to hunt them down.

Hearing the clamour from their rear, and seeing their own people killed, the Germans threw down their arms, dropped their military standards, and fled from the camp; and when they reached the point where the Meuse and the Rhine join, they despaired of flight; many had already fallen, and the remainder jumped into the river, and drowned there, overcome by fear, fatigue or the current of the water.10

Caesar’s army suffered no fatal casualties and only a small number of wounded in the one-sided fighting. He gives no figure for the German losses, but these were probably considerable, with many being killed or taken to be sold as slaves. Even more escaped, but at the cost of losing their possessions in their abandoned wagons. If, as seems likely, the two tribes were not all in a single encampment but in a number of parties spread over a fairly wide area, then the other groups may have got away more lightly. The only organised group of fugitives was the raiding band of cavalry, which recrossed the Rhine and took refuge amongst the Sugambri tribe. After the destruction and dispersal of their peoples the tribal leaders were granted their freedom, but chose to stay in the Roman camp rather than face possible retribution from the Gauls whose lands they had plundered.11

The Romans celebrated the easy victory that had freed them from ‘the fear of such a great war’. The success reinforced the Roman dominance of Gaul created by Caesar’s earlier campaigns. If he wanted to mount a British expedition this year, then the speed of the campaign left this possibility open. In practical respects the victory was good for Rome, but when news of this episode reached the city it was not well received by a number of senators. It is unlikely that the first report came from Caesar himself, and more probable that it reached Rome in letters written by men on his staff, or - directly or indirectly - from merchants with the army Cato led the attack against Caesar, which focused not so much on the massacre itself, but on the belief that the proconsul had violated the truce by seizing ambassadors and attacking by surprise. The Romans set great store on their ‘good faith’ (fides), contrasting it with the - in their view - duplicity of other races. While their record was in fact scarcely unblemished, nevertheless they were aware that honouring treaties and other formal agreements had the practical advantage of helping future negotiations. At a more fundamental level, Rome’s special relationship with the gods, which was demonstrated by its remarkable success in war, relied upon virtue and honouring sacred obligations or oaths. In the Senate: ‘Cato urged them to surrender Caesar to those whom he had wronged, and not to turn upon themselves, or allow to fall upon their city, the pollution of his crime. “However,” said he, “let us also sacrifice to the gods, because they do not turn the punishment for the general’s folly and madness upon his soldiers, but spare the city.”’12

On a handful of occasions in the past the Romans had formally handed over one of their magistrates to a foreign enemy in expiation of an injustice. The most recent case had occurred in 137 BC after the consul Caius Hostilius Mancinus had let his army be surrounded by Celtiberians outside their town of Numantia. Mancinus had saved the lives of his soldiers by surrendering. His army was allowed to go free, but the Romans were to accept a peace that favoured the Numantines. Subsequently the Senate refused to ratify the treaty, and ordered that Mancinus, as its guarantor, be clapped in irons and left outside the walls of Numantia. (The Celtiberians did not see this as much consolation and ignored him. Mancinus returned to Rome and, since he was a Roman aristocrat, commissioned a statue of himself naked and in chains. This was displayed prominently in his house to remind visitors of the time he had been willing to sacrifice himself for the good of the Republic.) Cato did not have a good case for comparing Caesar to men like Mancinus. In the past men had only been handed over to an enemy when the Romans were seeking reasons for recent defeats or wished to avoid an inconvenient treaty. Caesar had won victory after victory, and as long as he continued to do so it was unthinkable that the Senate would actually agree to Cato’s demand, particularly while Pompey and Crassus were consuls. Yet there clearly was disquiet among the senators and it may well have been on this occasion that the Senate actually voted to send a commission to ‘investigate the state of the Gallic provinces’.13 As far as we know no such commission was ever actually sent. Cato’s criticism had clearly stung Caesar, for he chose to send a letter defending his actions to a friend who read it out at a meeting of the Senate, ‘and when it was read, with its abundant insults and denunciations of Cato, Cato rose to his feet and showed, not in anger or contentiousness, but as if from calculation and due preparation, that the accusations against him bore the marks of abuse and scoffing, and were childishness and vulgarity on Caesar’s part’.14 Cato was too good an actor not to be able to milk the situation to his advantage. Had Caesar been present then his oratory might well have been more persuasive, and at the very least he could have realised that he was losing the debate and changed tack. This was the weakness of his position in these years, for he could not take part in the meetings of the Senate or public gatherings at Rome. After his letter had been read out, Cato was able to plunge into a detailed attack of all of Caesar’s actions. For the moment he, and those who shared his hostility to Caesar, could do no more than this, but their continued sniping showed no sign of going away and was always in the background, even when the Republic was formally celebrating the proconsul’s achievements.15

News of the slaughter of the Tencteri and Usipetes would not have reached Rome for some time, so it is unlikely that these debates occurred until late in 55 BC. Immediately after his success, Caesar had decided to take his army across the Rhine in a display of force intended to deter any other German tribes from invading Gaul. The Ubii had already given him hostages and sought his protection from the Suebi, providing further justification for the expedition. The tribe now offered to supply him with boats to ferry the army over the river, but the proconsul felt that it was ‘too risky, and beneath his own dignity and that of the Roman people’ to employ such a method. Instead he set the legions to building a bridge, the design of which was described in loving detail in the Commentaries, for the Romans valued the engineering skills of their soldiers almost as much as their battlefield successes. In ten days the bridge was complete and strongly garrisoned forts set to protect both ends of it. The location of the bridge remains a mystery - as, in spite of Caesar’s description, do some details of its construction. However, somewhere between modern Coblenz and Andernach seems likely.16

Once across the river, the legions found no one to fight. The Sugambri had already fled with their possessions into the deep forests, urged on by the horsemen of the two migrant tribes who had sought refuge amongst them. In a similar way the Suebi evacuated their settlements and sent their families and herds into woodland where they could best hide from the invader. Their warriors were told to muster at a well-known place in the centre of their lands, where their army would confront the Romans. Caesar had no particular wish to penetrate deep into their territory or to seek battle. For eighteen days he ravaged the land, burning farms and villages and harvesting or destroying their crops. Then he withdrew to the western bank of the Rhine, breaking down the bridge behind him. He had shown the Germans of the region that the Roman army was both willing and able to reach and attack their lands whenever it chose to do so. The fate of the Usipetes and Tencteri, and before that the defeat of Ariovistus, provided dire warning to any tribe who tried to settle in Gaul. The leaders of the Ubii were assured that Caesar would return to aid them if the Suebi moved against them once more. For the moment, the frontier of Gaul was secure.17


It was now late in the summer, but Caesar was still determined to launch an attack on Britain. It could be little more than a raid, hastily prepared and with the expectation of returning to winter in Gaul. The fleet constructed to fight the Veneti, along with whatever ships had been captured in that campaign or could now be provided by his allies, were gathered on the coast in the territory of the Morini (modern Pas de Calais). Caesar himself marched with the legions from the Rhine to rendezvous with them, their arrival prompting the previously hostile Morini to decide that making peace with Rome was the prudent course for the moment. In addition to his oared warships the proconsul had just under 100 sailing ships to serve as transports. This was not an especially large total for the task in hand. Caesar decided to take the barest essentials when it came to baggage and very little food, since at that time of year he could expect to supply himself from the ripe crops in the fields. Two legions, the Seventh and Tenth, were squeezed into eighty transports. It seems likely that by this time these mustered no more than 4,000 men apiece, so that on average 100 would have been in each vessel. Some legionaries may instead have acted as rowers in the warships. A further eighteen transports were allocated to the cavalry, perhaps providing enough space for several hundred of these along with their mounts. His senior officers, plus their staffs and whatever possessions they considered to be essential, were transported in the cramped conditions of the war galleys. In comparison to the armies he had led in recent years, it was with this small force that Caesar set out to invade Britain. The bulk of the army remained in Gaul, sizeable columns being sent under its legates to subdue the Menapii, and those of the Morini who had not surrendered. An additional force acted as garrison to his embarkation port, which was most likely near the site of modern Boulogne - the land around what is now Calais does not yet seem to have been reclaimed from the sea. After all the preparations, the Roman fleet did not set sail until late August.18

The probable coastline of Britain and Gaul in 55 BC

During the weeks before setting out Caesar had tried to gather as much information about Britain and its inhabitants as possible, but had in fact discovered very little useful information. He interviewed traders who had travelled to the island, but they claimed to know little. Caesar was planning a landing in the south-eastern corner of Britain, while the principal trading ports at this time lay much further west, one of the most important being at Hengistbury Head. Therefore the merchants may genuinely have known little about his target, but it is more than likely that they were also reluctant to supply him with information at all. The trade to Britain seems to have been mainly in the hands of Gauls, with few Romans operating on these routes. Many of these men came from the coastal tribes of Gaul that had so recently been suppressed by Caesar. It would have been entirely reasonable for these men to resent Roman intervention in the island, fearing that this would open the market to Roman competitors. Having failed to learn anything very useful by this method, Caesar sent a warship on a reconnaissance voyage across the Channel. One of his officers, Caius Volusenus, was placed in charge of this. He returned after five days with a series of observations about the coastline, but since he had not risked a landing the detail contained within these must have been limited. The coastline of south-eastern England was very different at this period, with much of the lower lying land such as Romney Marshes still under the sea. Thanet was a genuine island, and the lagoons around the Wantsum Channel could have offered an extensive sheltered anchorage for the invaders. However, Volusenus does not seem to have discovered this. The news of the Roman intentions reached the British tribes and a number of leaders sent representatives to Caesar’s camp on the Gaulish coast. These offered to accept alliance with Rome and the usual demand for hostages as surety. The proconsul decided to send his own envoy back with the deputations, and chose Commius, a Gallic chieftain whom he had made King of the Atrebates, for this task. Commius was believed to have influence and connections amongst the British tribes. In fact, these proved of questionable value, for on arrival in Britain he was almost immediately imprisoned. No report came back to Caesar of his mission. In a real sense Caesar was sailing into the unknown when he set out for Britain, but he was impatient to be off and achieve something more tangible and spectacular - and perhaps less controversial - before the year was out. When the winds turned in his favour he led the warships and the legions out of harbour.19

There were problems from the beginning. The cavalry had not yet embarked, and by the time that they had hastened to another port and gone aboard the eighteen transports allocated to them the weather had changed. Although he had spent some time with warships in the eastern Mediterranean, Caesar consistently underestimated the power and unpredictability of the sea, and especially the English Channel. The cavalry transports were unable to follow. The main convoy had left before dawn and the leading elements reached Britain - probably somewhere near modern Dover - by late morning. Volusenus may well have located the natural haven at Dover, and it is quite possible that Caesar had chosen this for his landing. However, at this point the beach was overlooked by high cliffs, at the top of which crowds of British warriors were waiting. Caesar waited at anchor until late afternoon, when most of his straggling convoy of ships had concentrated. His senior officers were rowed across to his flagship for a meeting and told that the nature of the operation required them to respond especially quickly to his signals. Once all the ships had caught up, they were to move 7 miles along the coast to a good landing spot that seems to have been located by Volusenus on his earlier patrol. The Britons shadowed the Roman fleet as it moved, but only their cavalry and chariots were able to keep pace with the ships and contest the landing. Volusenus’ beach was probably near Deal or Walmer, and was wide and not dominated by high bluffs. Yet even so the Britons knew the ground and the tides and the Romans did not. Horsemen and chariots swooped in to attack the legionaries as they tried to disembark. The transport ships were not designed to land people or cargo directly onto a beach and ran aground while still in fairly deep water. The legionaries had to wade their way forward, encumbered by their bulky equipment. They were vulnerable to missiles, which they could not easily dodge or ward off with their shields, and arrived on the beach scattered in ones and twos and in little shape to mount an organised resistance. There is no evidence that the legionaries had been given any special training for this operation. Caesar comments that on this occasion his veteran troops failed to show their normal enthusiasm and aggression, but in the circumstances it was hard for the assault on the beach to generate any momentum.20

Caesar signalled to his warships, ordering their captains to head for the beach and run in as close as they could so that the crews on their decks could bombard the Britons with slings, bows and bolt-shooting artillery This helped to relieve the pressure on the assaulting infantry, but even so they were making little progress:

And then, when our soldiers were still hanging back, mainly because of the depth of the water, the eagle-bearer of the Tenth offered up a quick prayer and then yelled out, ‘Jump down, soldiers, unless you want to give up your eagle to the enemy; everyone will know that I at least did my duty to the Republic and my commander!’ After saying this in a loud voice he jumped off the ship and began carrying the eagle- standard towards the enemy. Then our ‘squaddies’ called out to each other not to allow so terrible a disgrace [as to lose the standard of their legion] and leapt down from the transport. When those on the nearby ships saw them, they followed and began to close with the enemy21

There was still heavy fighting, and the Romans’ line was ragged as the legionaries formed up with the first officer or standard-bearer they met, just as they had done when surprised at the Sambre. As a rough fighting line developed, Caesar watched from the deck of his flagship and sent forward parties of men in rowing boats and his light scouting vessels to reinforce any group that became cut off. Although the Britons resisted fiercely, by their nature cavalry and chariots were not suited to defending a position and in the end they gave way. Their mobility ensured that most of them escaped. It is interesting that Caesar did not name the heroic eagle-bearer (aquilifer), although he does have a tendency to celebrate the collective exploits of the Tenth rather than the deeds of individuals from the legion. Presumably the man was not of sufficiently high social class to warrant a mention by name. The army would have known who he was, and although he does not mention it, it would have been expected that as a Roman general Caesar would have rewarded the man with promotion, a decoration and wealth.22

Caesar was ashore, but his army had no cavalry, limiting its capacity not only to pursue a defeated enemy, but also to scout and gather intelligence from the surrounding countryside. The legions constructed a camp as usual, probably just behind the beach. In the normal way the oared vessels were dragged ashore, while the transports sat at anchor offshore. Fortunately the successful landing in the face of determined resistance was enough to overawe the closest tribes, whose leaders sent to Caesar and willingly began to give the hostages he demanded. Caesar probably also demanded grain supplies. Commius was released by his captors and returned to Caesar. He brought with him some thirty of his retainers along with some Britons, all of whom were mounted and provided Caesar with at least a small force of horsemen. As the Commentaries put it ‘by these things, peace was established’. However, there were some things beyond Caesar’s control. Four days later the cavalry transports set out again from Gaul and came within site of Caesar’s camp before a storm blew up and drove them away. The weather turned worse - as it often did and still does in the Channel at the end of summer - but the Romans had either not been warned as Caesar claims, or had not bothered to listen to the Gallic sailors who sailed these waters. The storm may also have been an especially bad one and the Roman fleet suffered terribly, with twelve ships dashed to pieces and most of the rest damaged to a greater or lesser extent. Lacking significant food supplies and for the moment cut off from the Continent, Caesar’s army was placed in a very difficult position. The Britons quickly realised its vulnerability and decided to renew the war. The chieftains quietly slipped out of the Roman camp. Knowing that the legions lacked food, they decided to cut off the grain supply. The Romans would be starved into submission, or made to fight them at a disadvantage. If this first expedition could be utterly destroyed, then it was not unreasonable to think that the invaders would never return.23

While some men worked to repair as many ships as possible, each day parties of legionaries went out to harvest the wheat in the fields around the camp. As each area was used up, the parties had to go further afield and it was fairly obvious where the Romans would go next. The Britons prepared an ambush, hiding their forces in woodland bordering on the fields. After several days, foragers from the Seventh were suddenly attacked by a large force, again consisting mainly of chariots and cavalry Chariots had long fallen out of use among the Gauls, but persisted in Britain and Ireland for several more centuries. They were expensive pieces of equipment, affordable only to the tribal aristocracy. The aristocratic warrior fought, while an unarmed charioteer controlled the team of two ponies. Social changes, along with increasing availability of large numbers of bigger cavalry mounts, probably explained the disappearance of chariots in Continental Europe. British chariots were fast and light, but they were not projectiles that rammed into the enemy - the remarkably persistent myth that scythes were fitted to their wheels is not based on a shred of reliable ancient evidence. Caesar gave a detailed description of chariot tactics, knowing that his audience would be fascinated by these exotic vehicles, so reminiscent of Homeric heroes:

This is how they fight from chariots - to start off with they drive all over the field and throw javelins, and so with the terrifying appearance of the horses and the roaring of the wheels they often shake the order of the enemy ranks; when they have charged forward between the troops of their own cavalry, they jump down from the chariot cars and fight on foot. In the meantime the chariot drivers withdraw gradually away from the fighting and wait in such a way that, if they [the warriors] are hard presssed by a host of foes, they may have an easy means of escape. Therefore in battle they combine the speed of cavalry and the steadiness of infantry, and by daily use and training they are so skilled that they are able to gallop their horses down the steepest of slopes and retain full control, to stop and to turn in an instant, to dash out along the yoke and then like lightning run back to the car.24

Chariots allowed an aristocratic warrior to look spectacular on the battlefield, were mobile missile platforms and let a warrior go forward to fight single combats on foot and then retire as necessary; They came from an older tradition of warfare, which celebrated the personal prowess and heroism of individual warriors. Yet, in combination with the British light cavalry and especially against an enemy entirely on foot, they were dangerous opponents. Some of the Roman foragers were cut down, the rest surrounded and exposed to the javelins thrown by opponents whom they could not easily catch. The outposts, stationed outside the Roman camp as part of the army’s normal routine, reported that there was a large cloud of dust visible in the direction where the foragers had gone. It was far larger than would normally have been thrown up simply by the legionaries’ feet. Caesar guessed what had happened and immediately led the outposts off to rescue his men. Before he left, he ordered two cohorts to relieve them in position outside the ramparts of the camp and the rest of the army to follow as soon as it was equipped and formed up. The expedition to Britain was small in scale compared with earlier campaigns, but even so it is striking that a proconsul commanding eight legions and many auxiliaries personally led a force of less than a thousand men into battle. The arrival of these cohorts was enough to check the Britons. Caesar formed up facing them for a while, but then led the foragers and his relief force back to the main camp. The Britons had won a small victory, and more importantly had prevented the Romans from gathering the grain. Encouraged by this success, they mustered their forces for an all-out attack on the Roman camp. Caesar formed up his legions, along with Commius’ tiny troop of cavalry, on the plain outside the rampart to meet them. In massed fighting the legions were at their best and the Britons were quickly routed, although very few were caught by the pursuers. Caesar’s men had to content themselves with torching the neighbouring farms and villages.25

The reverse was sufficient to persuade many British leaders once again to sue for peace. Caesar now demanded double the number of hostages, but said that the Britons must transport them to Gaul as he was no longer willing to delay his return there. Somehow all of the army was crammed into the surviving warships and the sixty-eight transports which had been restored to some sort of order. It was now near the September Equinox, but Caesar’s luck held and in a patch of fair weather he set sail just after midnight. All of the ships made it back, though two transports were driven off course and landed on the coastline of the Morini. Seeing a good opportunity for plunder, the local warriors began to attack them, more and more gathering as the news spread. When reports of this reached Caesar the entire cavalry of the army was sent to their relief, and brought them off without the beleaguered men having suffered a single fatality. Next day Labienus took the weary legionaries of the Seventh and Tenth legions in a swift punitive expedition against the tribe. Unlike 56 BC the summer had been dry and this reduced the extent and difficulty of the marshes of the region. The Morini soon surrendered. The Menapii had also been defeated by the legions sent against them before Caesar had left for Britain.26

In most practical respects the first expedition to Britain had been a failure and, indeed, had narrowly missed becoming a disaster. It had not even contributed a great deal to Caesar’s pool of intelligence concerning the tribes of the island, for he had been confined in a narrow stretch of country for the few weeks he had spent there. Some help came from the native chieftains who came as hostages or sought refuge in his camp, much as they had done at Gaul. It is unclear how many came across the Channel over the winter months, but at least one refugee prince does seem to have come to him, driven from his own tribe by his enemies. By 54 BC Caesar had a little more information, though scarcely enough to justify the effort required to gain it. Left until very late in the campaigning season, the preparations for the first raid were inadequate and the forces involved too small for the task. All of these were errors for which Caesar was responsible. In this sense the campaign was scarcely his greatest achievement, although as usual he showed his huge ability in getting himself and the army out of a series of difficult situations. Yet by the end of the year Caesar must have realised that, in propaganda terms, the British expedition was a fabulous success. Rome went wild when the news of this adventure arrived, thrilled at the idea that its legions had now crossed to that strange and mysterious isle. The Senate voted Caesar twenty days of public thanksgiving, five days more than he had been awarded at the end of 57 BC after three campaigns of genuine value. This formal recognition by the Republic of his achievements was the best possible answer to the attacks of Cato, which may possibly have been made at the same meeting. The year ended well, but Caesar was already resolved to return to Britain in the following summer. He remained curious about the place, and especially its rumoured wealth. The reaction back in Rome also made a second visit attractive - the scale of the celebrations may even have made it essential to live up to such acclaim.27


The second expedition was more thoroughly prepared. Before the winter was over Caesar set the craftsmen in his legions to ship building. They were issued with a standard design for a broad, low-sided transport ship equipped with both sails and oars. In the following months 600 of these vessels were constructed, making use of ropes, tackle and other equipment provided by the Spanish provinces, which from the start of 54 BC were controlled by Pompey. An additional twenty-eight war galleys were also put together. As usual Caesar spent the winter in Cisalpine Gaul performing his administrative and judicial duties. When he was about to leave to rejoin the army he was diverted by news of raids into Illyricum. He hastened to the spot, raised local levies and pressured the tribe responsible into making peace. Travelling north he toured the army in its winter camps, praising the officers and men for their energy in construction. He gave instructions for the entire fleet to concentrate at Portus Itius (almost certainly modern Boulogne), ready for the crossing to Britain. Before the campaign could get under way, he was diverted again, this time by an internal dispute amongst the Treveri as rival chieftains struggled for pre-eminence. Caesar took four legions in light marching order and 800 cavalry to back the claims of his favoured candidate for power. His rival offered to surrender and promptly supplied the requested 200 hostages, including his son and other close relatives. For the moment Caesar was content, and had no wish to delay the attack on Britain any longer. He returned to the coast and set about final preparations. Since he planned to take a much larger force with him this time, he was eager to make sure that Gaul remained peaceful in his absence. Chieftains from all the tribes assembled at his camp, bringing with them the 4,000 cavalrymen that he had requested for the coming year. In this way the legions were provided with adequate numbers of good cavalrymen to support them. These warriors, and particularly the aristocrats who led them, were also in effect additional hostages for the good behaviour of their peoples.

Amongst them was a contingent of Aedui led by Dumnorix, the younger brother of Diviciacus the druid. In 58 BC Caesar had had good reason to be suspicious of the ambitions of this man and had kept him under observation. Recently he had heard from another Gallic aristocrat that Dumnorix had claimed at a meeting of the Aeduan council that the proconsul was planning to make him king of the Aedui. Reluctant though they were to subject themselves to the rule of a monarch, most of the other chieftains were equally nervous of showing dissension regarding any of Caesar’s acts and did not bother to check whether or not there was any truth in the claim. Only half of the Gallic cavalry would accompany Caesar to Britain, but he had already decided that Dumnorix must certainly go, since he was a man ‘craving revolution’. The chieftain tried a whole range of excuses, pleading ill health, fear of sea travel and finally a religious taboo preventing him from leaving Gaul. Caesar remained unmoved, so Dumnorix sought safety in numbers and tried to persuade other Gallic chieftains to join him in his refusal to go to Britain. He claimed that the Romans planned to kill them all once they had taken them away from their tribes and crossed to the island. A number of the other chieftains informed on him to the proconsul. There was ample time for plotting and gossip in the camp, as unfavourable winds delayed departure for the best part of a month. In the end Dumnorix and his warriors slipped out of camp and fled on the very day when the weather broke and embarkation began. Caesar was taken by surprise, but immediately sent a large part of his cavalry in pursuit. He was determined not to leave until the chieftain had been dealt with, even though he was impatient to start. His men were ordered to bring him back alive if possible, but to kill him if he resisted. Dumnorix did not lack courage, and challenged his attackers by yelling out that he was a ‘free man from a free people’. Although none of his warriors stood with him, he chose to fight and was cut down. It was an openly brutal demonstration of Caesar’s power and the inability even of one of Gaul’s wealthiest aristocrats to stand against him. Diviciacus is not mentioned as taking an active part in events after 57 BC, and it is possible that he was no longer alive to plead for clemency. Yet in the end Dumnorix was simply inconvenient, and Caesar was impatient and so gave orders for the man’s death.28

The second invasion force was much larger. Caesar took five legions - including the Seventh and Tenth, although the identity of the others is unknown - and half of the auxiliary and allied cavalry. His other three legions, along with the remaining 2,000 cavalry, were left under the command of Labienus. They were to secure the ports, ensure that if necessary grain convoys could be despatched to the army in Britain, and also to keep an eye on the tribes. The Roman fleet left harbour at sunset, but once again Caesar and his officers underestimated the power of the Channel. The wind dropped and the tides carried them off course. It had been a considerable achievement to construct so many vessels in such a short time, but this did not mean that all could be crewed by experienced sailors. The design of the new transports, while well suited to carrying men, horses and equipment and getting them onto a beach, was not ideal for coping with adverse weather. However, the provision of oars proved highly advantageous, especially when combined with the legionaries’ willingness for heavy labour. Only by rowing did the Roman ships manage to make their designated landing beach. Caesar tells us that this was at the most suitable place, but its location is unclear. Some have speculated that he was now aware of the Wantsum Channel and used it, but this is not entirely convincing in the light of subsequent events. A more natural reading would suggest that it was at or fairly close to the beach chosen the year before. Wherever it was, the Britons had mustered to meet them but were daunted by the sight of hundreds of vessels coming towards them and retired. Most of the fleet was at the beach by noon. The Romans began landing, marking out and constructing a camp behind the beach as almost their first task. Patrols went out to find prisoners, who informed them of the withdrawal of the British army to a new position inland.29

Caesar decided on an immediate attack, and marched out under cover of darkness with forty cohorts and 1,700 cavalry. The remaining legionaries and horsemen were left at the camp under the command of Quintus Atrius. The Roman fleet lay mostly at anchor, Caesar confident that it would be safe lying off ‘a calm, open shore’. Caesar’s column made good progress, covering some 12 miles before dawn came and revealed the Britons waiting behind the line of a river - most probably the Stour near modern Canterbury. On wooded hills there was a walled enclosure - possibly the hillfort at Bigbury Wood - where the main tribal force waited. Small parties of cavalry, chariots and skirmishers periodically dashed forward from this shelter to hurl missiles at the Romans. Such tactics were doubtless effective enough in inter-tribal warfare, but posed few problems for veteran legions. Caesar attacked, his cavalry brushing aside the Britons and allowing the Seventh Legion to launch a direct assault on the hillfort. The legionaries formed the famous testudo or tortoise, overlapped shields held above their heads to create a roof able to stop all but the heaviest missiles. There was little need for the more complex engineering often employed by the Romans in sieges. A simple ramp was piled up against the wall and the enclosure stormed. There was only a short pursuit of the fleeing enemy. Caesar’s men were tired after the Channel crossing, night march and battle, and he still wanted them to construct a marching camp in the proper way. The army halted for the night.30

On the following morning Caesar sent out three independent columns to seek the enemy. It was normal on such occasions to burn and plunder during the advance until the local leaders came to seek peace. Caesar clearly believed that there was no prospect of the Britons re-forming as a single main army so soon after their defeat, and therefore it was better to cover more ground with a number of flying columns. He does not seem to have accompanied any of these troops, but remained in the marching camp and was there when a messenger came in from Quintus Atrius. The news was bad, for a storm had blown up during the previous night and struck the anchored fleet causing a great deal of damage. Caesar recalled the three columns and rode back to inspect the damage, discovering that forty ships were smashed beyond repair. The craftsmen were called out from the ranks of the legions and sent back to the camp to work on the remainder. A message was also sent to Labienus in Gaul ordering him to set his legionaries to the task of building more ships. After ten days of intense labour the bulk of the ships with Caesar were once again in serviceable condition. Other soldiers worked to construct a ditch and rampart running from the camp onto the beach itself. All of the repaired ships were dragged ashore and beached inside the protection of this fortification. The root of Caesar’s problem was that he had no harbour in which his ships could be sheltered and easily loaded and offloaded. The Wantsum Channel around the Isle of Thanet would probably have given him most of what he needed, but the damage suffered in this storm makes it very unlikely that he used it. Perhaps the Romans remained unaware of it, or lacked the knowledge to find and navigate its entrance. Throughout history the weather has always posed huge problems to seaborne invasions - in 1944 the British, Americans and Canadians took their own artificial ‘Mulberry’ harbours to Normandy, but still suffered great disruption to the build-up after D-Day because of the heavy storms from 19-23 June. Although it is hard to see what he could have done to solve this problem, there is something cavalier in the way Caesar had done nothing to alter his plans in 54 BC in spite of the carnage wrought on his fleet by the storm in the previous year. The new fortification would serve to defend the ships from enemy attack, but offered little protection against the elements. Many commentators have criticised this failure to learn from experience. Most of such criticism has been justified, but, unless he had simply sent the ships back to the ports of Gaul and hoped that they would be able to return when needed, the only safe alternative was not to have launched the second expedition at all. Caesar was determined to do this, for reasons that were essentially political and personal. On both British expeditions his luck nearly failed him, but in each case he managed to escape.31

The pause gave the Britons time to recover. Several tribes, who in normal circumstances were hostile to each other, combined to face the common danger and appointed a war-leader named Cassivellaunus. Caesar tells us that he came from a tribe north of the Thames, but nothing else is known of him and we cannot be certain which tribe this was. When Caesar rejoined the main force at the inland camp and resumed his advance, his patrols were continually harassed by parties of chariots and horsemen. In close combat, especially between large formed bodies of troops, Caesar’s legionaries and auxiliary cavalry consistently demonstrated their superiority, but in a number of skirmishes parties of his men were lured into ambushes and suffered badly. Cassivellaunus was encouraged and launched a big attack on the Romans when they halted at the end of the march to begin entrenching their camp. Caesar sent two cohorts up to reinforce his outposts, but it took more reinforcements to drive the Britons back. One of his tribunes was killed in the fighting. On the following day the British attacks were not pressed as hard, until Caesar sent one of his legates out with three legions on a foraging expedition. When most of the legionaries dispersed to set about their task, the British chariots and cavalry rushed in to exploit this weakness. However, the Romans quickly rallied, formed up and drove the enemy off. For a while the British tribes dispersed and resistance was light.32

Caesar decided to target Cassivellaunus’ own homeland and marched towards the Thames. It is not clear where he crossed - probably somewhere in what is now central London - but his men forded the river and brushed aside the warriors defending the far bank. The British commander decided not to risk another open battle and resolved instead to harass the enemy, relying mainly on his chariot force. Caesar claims that there were 4,000 of these, but this seems likely to be an inflated figure - for instance it would mean 8,000 ponies. Herds were driven from the fields along the Romans’ route of march and food supplies destroyed or hidden. The chariots were there to ambush the Roman foragers. Caesar’s men began to suffer a steady trickle of losses in these skirmishes, until he was forced to keep men close to the main column at all times. Fortunately, as he had so often done in Gaul, Caesar was able to make use of a local ally. With the army was Mandubracius, a prince of the Trinovantes - a people living north of the Thames in East Anglia - who had been driven into exile after Cassivellaunus had killed his father. This tribe surrendered, asking Caesar to restore Mandubracius to the throne, and willingly handed over both hostages and food. Their example was soon followed by five other small tribes, whose names are not otherwise known to history. The fragile alliance between the British tribes was crumbling under the pressure of long-standing animosities. From these new allies Caesar discovered the location of Cassivellaunus’ own stronghold, hidden amidst woods and marshes. Straightaway he marched the legions there and stormed the place, capturing considerable quantities of cattle. It was a major blow to the war-leader’s prestige. At around the same time Cassivellaunus had arranged for the tribes of Kent to mount an attack on Atrius and the cohorts guarding the ships, but this was repulsed with heavy losses.33

Following these twin blows Cassivellaunus decided to seek peace. It was now nearly the end of September and the proconsul was eager to resolve matters and get back to Gaul. Negotiations were facilitated by Commius, who had once again accompanied Caesar. The British war-leader promised hostages and an annual tribute, and pledged not to attack Mandubracius and the Trinovantes. Waiting only for the hostages to be delivered, Caesar began to embark his army. However, even with all the repaired vessels he doubted that there was enough capacity to carry both the soldiers and the large numbers of hostages and slaves they had taken. The proconsul decided to make two crossings. The first went smoothly, but it proved impossible for the empty ships to return from the Gaulish side of the Channel. Similarly, none of the vessels built or found by Labienus were able to get to the army in Britain. After waiting for several days, Caesar decided that it was too risky to stay where he was. It was already September and the weather was likely to get worse, raising the prospect that he might be stranded in Britain with only part of his army Cramming the troops into those vessels he had, they sailed overnight to reach Gaul by dawn. Caesar left Britain never to return. It would be almost a century before another Roman army would invade the island and turn it into a province.34

On both British expeditions Caesar avoided disaster, if only narrowly. It is normally assumed that the annual tribute promised by the British tribes was never paid or at least quickly lapsed. Trade between Britain and the Roman world steadily increased in the years after Caesar, shifting away from the old routes to the south-west and moving instead to the south-eastern corner that he had visited. The destruction of the Veneti probably contributed much to this shift, but it does also seem that more Roman merchants were able to reach Britain as the century progressed. Yet even the tribes who had submitted to Caesar could not in any meaningful way be described as now being part of Rome’s empire - despite the occasional claims of Roman propagandists. Cicero noted the quick realisation in Rome that campaigns in Britain were not going to yield the eagerly anticipated profits. There was no silver, nor any hope of ‘booty except for slaves; but I doubt we’ll find any scribes or musicians amongst them’ - in other words those likely to fetch a high price. Yet he remained excited by the whole business and wrote with enthusiasm about his brother’s account of the expedition, for Quintus Cicero was now serving as one of Caesar’s legates. Although influenced by this family involvement, his mood seems to have been fairly typical of many Romans. The expeditions to Britain brought Caesar huge and highly favourable public attention, excited by the novelty and tales of chariots and barbarians who painted their bodies blue with woad. The landings were undoubted propaganda successes, even if the actual results were negligible and the risks taken very high. Cato’s attacks on him in 55 BC had shown the difficulty of dealing with opponents when he could not confront them face to face in the Senate or Forum. Yet no one could doubt that Caesar was making the most of his opportunity to win glory and make himself fabulously rich in the process. Even if the profits of the British expeditions were a little disappointing, the cumulative result of five years of successful campaigning had raised him from a debtor on the brink of ruin to one of the Republic’s wealthiest men.35

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